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To vote

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Today was one of three days of advance polling for the upcoming Canadian federal election, formally held at the beginning of May. My wife Air urged me to go, so we did.

She drove us down to our local high school gym and it was an easy in and out, slowed mostly by my glacial pace behind my cane. It was also a test to see if I might make it to my ENT specialist Monday, possibly (really, I wonder now?) to have my voice returned to me after weeks of laryngitis. And perhaps I might.

But for now, it was to vote. In our parliamentary system, an election can come almost any time. The advance polls fall somewhat arbitrarily too, this time on Easter weekend. (Don't forget the mail-in ballots as well, if you miss voting in person.) We pick one candidate, to represent us in our riding (i.e. electoral district), and also to represent his or her political party to us. It's very much how things work in Britain, and not at all how they work in the U.S.A.

The leader of the party who wins more ridings than any other becomes the Prime Minister, and effectively heads the country. That can get complicated if his or her party wins more, but not a majority.

It's the way we work it in Canada. Yet I've voted in every municipal, provincial, and federal election I could. My point is, sick as I am, I researched the issues, the candidates, the leaders, and the party platforms on what was important to me. I grabbed some shoes and shuffled to the car, walked into the gym, signed a form, and voted.

If I can drag myself out to vote—and that's not metaphorical, because I did have to fucking drag myself out of the car and up the stairs at times—then you can too. If you're a Canadian citizen, you have the duty, and plenty of chances.

So damn well do it.

Tsunami video

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In case you missed my brief mention a few weeks ago, and its original posting back in 2008, here is a video that three Vancouver Film School students made explaining tsunamis (like the recent one in Japan) in a couple of minutes:

It's based on my 2005 article on the topic.

Worse and better in Japan

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West Moat (Explored)  6,000 visits to this photo. Thank you.When I wrote about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami the day they happened, my post was optimistic, despite the obvious catastrophe. In many ways, things have turned out worse than they first seemed. Surely the situation in Indonesia and around the Indian Ocean was similarly awful at the end of 2004—and took many more lives—but we didn't have access to horrifying footage like this (watch the whole thing) to reinforce the point.

The argument I made, that Japan's position as a modern country with a robust infrastructure and vibrant economy, remains: unlike Haiti especially, Japan will bounce back quickly. Fewer people died or were injured than would have been in poorer and less-prepared nations from a magnitude-9.0 quake and massive sea wave. Those who are homeless and displaced will find safe places to live, and food, and comfort faster than in many parts of the world.

But the dead, officially more than 10,000 people now, are still dead. More than half that number again, over 17,000 people, are missing. Villages, towns, and cities are destroyed, some utterly annihilated.

Distracted from a disaster by a crisis

That enormity should remain our focus, but it is not. Because the cleanup and recovery in Northeast Japan is now an aftermath. And there is an ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Since it is right on the ocean near the earthquake zone, I remain amazed that it survived the original quake and tsunami as well as it did, but ever since then, it's been hard to figure out what's going on at the facility: initially the situation seemed under control, then not. There were explosions. Things were going well, then poorly, radiation up, then down, in the soil, in the water, in food. Workers evacuated, then returned.

It's unclear to me how much of what has happened at the plant is an inevitable cascading consequence of the initial disaster, and how much has been made worse by insufficient information, poor analysis, bad decision-making, and incompetence. It is clear that news coverage of the nuclear accident, especially here in North America, has been remarkably poor, stoking worries while ignoring facts, and even confusing such basic distinctions as those between radiation and radioactive substances; between different types of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma); or between dosages and exposure rates (which is like forgetting the difference between miles and miles per hour).

Here are a three quick resources that I've found helpful:

  1. XKCD's radiation dose chart and accompanying blog post gives you a sense of the scales of different exposures to radiation. It has some problems, but as a heavily simplified go-to guide, it will help you get your bearings.
  2. Well-known blogger Anil Dash's father-in-law is a health physicist specializing in human radiation exposure, so Anil's post on the topic, while brief, provides some additional sane background on which to base your thinking.
  3. The Christian Science Monitor (always a surprisingly good newspaper, despite how it was founded) has a good article on lessons from Fukushima about nuclear safety more generally.

It's about Japan, not about us

I'd also like to point out a few things for people here on North America's West Coast who are worried about radioisotopes carried here on the wind. Remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Those were open-air nuclear detonations in Japan, and didn't affect people here. There were dozens and dozens of atomic-bomb tests in Nevada (many also open-air), practically in our back yards, and while some radiation levels were elevated, the health consequences have been immeasurable. The Hanford Site in Washington isn't even 300 km from my house, and is the most contaminated nuclear waste site in North America.

CT scans, flying in aircraft, and even living at elevation in Colorado yield higher long-term radiation exposure than any of these other things, especially on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Oh, and no matter what, taking iodine is of no help whatsoever: the radioactive varieties coming from Fukushima have half-lives so short they decay away (in addition to being dispersed) before even getting this far. Want protection from danger? Get a flu shot next year.

I'm neither an advocate for nor an activist against nuclear power. My main concern has always been that we really don't know what to do with spent fuel and other radioactive waste from the process (just as with nuclear weapons production), and we never have. "Just bury it" seems a paltry approach when we're talking about substances that could be dangerous for tens of thousands of years. We're still doing a poor job of burying the waste of just 65 years of nuclear production.

But we have an industry here and now, and it has its consequences. Let's at least try to understand and handle those rationally, and help Japan work with them, because hysteria won't make it any easier.

And remember the quake and the tsunami, and the 27,000 dead or still missing.

Tsunami comes inRight after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami at the end of 2004, I wrote what turned into a long article about it, and about tsunamis more generally. People found the piece useful, so following today's devastating 8.9-magnitude quake and tsunamis in Japan, I thought I'd point it out again, particularly my general introduction and the Q&A section later on.

Today's situation is different, of course. Damaging tsunamis seem to have been largely restricted to the coastline of Japan itself; Hawaii and the rest of us around the Pacific Rim saw comparatively minimal effects (the wide-open coasts of southern Oregon and northern California seemed to get the worst of it), if any. And Japan has probably the world's most sophisticated earthquake and tsunami response system, as well as the most stringent seismic building codes. Many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people died in Japan today, and there will be vast costs in rebuilding—but in 2004 the death toll around the Indian Ocean was over 230,000. Last year's Haiti quake, of far lower magnitude, killed hundreds of thousands too.

As a measure of how much modernization has changed things, as recently as 1923 over 100,000 died in the Kanto quake, which was not nearly as strong, but also generated tsunamis. Remember that when people (as they inevitably will) start talking about the relatively low death toll from today's events as "a miracle": it was only a miracle comprising knowledge, understanding of history and plate tectonics, planning, engineering, construction, communications, discipline, and other sorts of hard human work.

The low cost in lives and injuries does not, however, diminish the pain and suffering encompassed in each of those lives. It does not make it easier to witness one's house or office destroyed. It does not clean debris from a formerly vibrant seashore, or put out a raging fire, or comfort an orphan.

It does tell us one thing. We have another reason, among many, to diminish poverty in the world. Because when a natural disaster strikes—indifferent, in itself, to the wealth of its victims—those who are poor are least prepared to face it, and more likely to find themselves under the rubble than figuring out what to do once it's cleared away.

New Starbucks logoI found today one of mixed messages. Over the course of a few minutes' watching the news on TV this morning, I saw this:

  • Today marks 100 years of International Women's Day, focusing on reducing inequality and oppression. Much has changed for the better in a century, but there remains a long way to go, especially outside the Western world. In Canada, there are several hundreds events underway.

  • But today is also Mardis Gras in New Orleans, where men toss cheap bead necklaces to encourage women to show their breasts.

  • And Starbucks Coffee celebrates its 40th anniversary today by unveiling what I think is a fairly spiffy new logo. Yet at the celebration event in Seattle, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was surrounded by a bunch of male executives dressed (like him) in suits, then a bunch of baristas (mostly female) in aprons.

Yes, some way to go.

Darwin Day 2011

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EVOL-ution - by KrieBeLToday, February 12, 2011, is Darwin Day. It would have been Charles Darwin's 202nd birthday. (Of course, even if he'd been a tortoise, he wouldn't have lived that long—maybe if he'd been a koi fish.) Over the past couple of years, to commemorate his 200th, and the 150th anniversary of his most famous book, I wrote some posts. They were:

I mentioned earlier this month that the Egyptian Pyramids have never stood on the soil of a democratic state in all their 4500 years. The situation is broader than that: there has never been a true Arab democracy. Iraq is stumbling its way there, but remains under U.S. military occupation.

There are examples of Muslim (though not Arab) democracies in Turkey and Indonesia, but they are at best rough models for what could work in Egypt now that Hosni Mubarak has finally been forced out. Israel's hurly-burly coalition governments could be a model too, though I doubt most Egyptians see it that way.

The transition to democracy can be rough and winding. The United States and France had their violent revolutions in the 1700s, establishing states with voting rights for their citizens, but the Americans took a century and a Civil War to purge themselves of slavery, while the French lived through two different Napoleons. More recently, when the U.S.S.R. flew apart 20 years ago, some countries, like the Czech Republic and Estonia, became successful democracies quite quickly. Others, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, not so much. South Africa managed to avoid violent civil war, but perhaps only because of Nelson Mandela.

Is it easier if a country establishes a representative government relatively fresh, the way Canada did in 1867, or Japan and Germany did after utter defeat in World War II? Perhaps, but what's to say that the citizens of Egypt, which probably has garbage piles older than some successful democratic states elsewhere in the world, don't now have the motivation (and long experience with autocracy) to build a viable nation of their own?

Never mind what I've written here recently. These three pieces are far more fascinating, so read them first:

  • Neal Stephenson (via Kottke) reveals why we're still using rockets to send things into space, when more efficient ways could be developed. (Quick summary: blame Hitler.)

  • John Baez (also via Kottke) discusses four great and important catastrophes in the history of the Earth: the formation of the Moon by a collision with another planet 4.53 billion years ago; the Late Heavy Bombardment of the Earth's surface, probably because of gravitational interactions between Jupiter and Saturn between 4 and 3.8 billion years ago; the poisoning of our atmosphere by oxygen after plants evolved photosynthesis 2.5 billion years ago; and the "snowball Earth" global glaciation 850 million years ago.

  • Pioneering podcaster Doug Kaye visited Egypt as a tourist and just got back: somehow he and his wife just threaded the needle of having a completely uneventful Egyptian vacation and being embroiled in the current political turmoil. They witnessed quite a bit, without being in danger themselves. It's quite a story.

There has been lots of excellent heavy thinking at Eric MacDonald's (Canadian!) Choice in Dying blog, which he started in December, and which is not confined to his central goal of making it easier for people to die the way we want to. I particularly like his piece today, which makes a point I think often gets missed about the current New Atheism:

New Atheists [...] are really not sceptical about the existence of a god or gods. We have no question about it at all, and this, not because of unwarranted certainty, but because we have no idea what a god is, and we don't think that religious believers know either.

There are many mysteries in our universe, and always will be. Atheists like me, however, have no reason to think that religion or theology explain or solve any of those mysteries. MacDonald (who is apparently a former Anglican priest) again:

Of course, like real disciplines of knowledge they engage in rational discussions, but at the basis of those discussions lie propositions which are not based on any evidence.

They are based on scripture and revelation, but, in examining the origins of those—whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Shinto, or otherwise...

...We still go back and back, and when we get to the end of a chain of traditions, we find someone with a pen! A human being, just like you and me! So the church, just like the Muslim authorities, took some human writings, no matter how fenced round with sanctity, and then elevated these writings to a stature they simply do not and cannot possess.

Yet theology is founded upon them. Theologians are governed by them. So are whole societies! Not only that, but they can neither be added to nor subtracted from. These are the very words of God—whatever that is assumed to mean within the structure of various theologies.

Here's what's so puzzling to me, who has never been religious (as opposed, perhaps, to those who have "de-converted"): in the absence of evidence-based knowledge or understanding about something, it wouldn't be my choice to make up an answer instead, or to rely on an explanation someone else made up a few hundred or a few thousand years ago.

Yes, I would prefer a good explanation, a truthful one with good evidence behind it. But I would prefer to say "I don't know"—to accept that we are ignorant about many things, and that chaos is out there—than to accept a poor answer without evidence, just to have some answer at all. At their core, at their foundations, religious and theological "explanations" are based on ideas somebody made up, usually with what would now be considered a very superficial, misguided, and simply incorrect understanding of how the world works.

No one knows (yet) what dark matter and dark energy are. No one knows (yet) how life started on Earth. No one knows (yet) why elementary particles are limited to having quantum spin only of certain values.

These are fundamental and important questions. Maybe we will know the answers someday. Researchers have ideas, but those ideas need to be tested against reality before we know if they're right. Not knowing is uncomfortable for me, but as I've written before, "there's no rule that reality has to be comfortable."


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Giza, near Cairo, EgyptLike most people, my first thought of Egypt is of the Pyramids. Despite the protests and escalating chaos in the country this week, my thoughts still turn to those massive monuments, even though I've never been there or seen them. Here's why.

Today, we're used to a new record for world's tallest building being set every few years. Recently, for example, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai surpassed both the CN Tower in Canada and the KVLY-TV mast in the U.S.A. as the tallest structure people have ever built. It's no surprise that when Khufu's Great Pyramid of Giza was finished around 2650 B.C., it was the tallest building of its time, at over 140 m (it has since shrunk a little from erosion). The thing is, it remained the world's tallest structure for more than 3800 years.

There it stood, taller and more massive than anything else people ever made, through the rise of the Xia Dynasty in China, the flourishing of Indus Valley peoples in present-day India and Pakistan, and the time of the Sumerians and Hammurabi closer by. In the time of King David, it was already 1500 years old. The Pueblo, Mississippian, and Maya cultures in the Americas, the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, the construction and decay of the Great Wall of China, the rise of Christianity and Islam, the Gupta Empire in India, China's political consolidation and naval expansion and then retreat, the reign of the Mongols, the spread of Polynesian culture in the Pacific—all came and went under the record-holding peak of the Great Pyramid.

In the early 1300s, the spire of Lincoln Cathedral in England apparently surpassed the height of the Great Pyramid, but the spire collapsed in a storm 250 years later and was never rebuilt. By then, there were other tall churches, which were eventually overtaken by the Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, various TV transmitter masts, and now the tower in Dubai.

These things are all ephemeral. Even the Great Pyramid itself will—like its patron Khufu, like Julius Caesar, like Muhammad, like Genghis Khan, like Montezuma and Cortez, like Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak—crumble to dust, eventually. Beneath the Pyramid's brow, Cairo has grown over thousands of years from a riverside oasis to a city of 20 million people, in a country of 80 million. In all that time, it has never even once witnessed a remotely democratic government.

Perhaps the time is coming. Many, like me, hope so. Whatever takes place, the Great Pyramid will still loom overhead, as it has always done.

More than five years ago, I posted a photo showing the huge change in the downtown Vancouver skyline between 1978 and 2003:

False Creek, Vancouver from the Granville Street Bridge, 1978 and 2003

Here's an even more startling one (via Greg)—Shanghai in 1990 and 2010:

Shangai, 1990 and 2010

As Vivian Lau reported on Twitter: "My grandma went back last year and was like 'WHERE THE F#%! AM I?'"

down the barrelAs far as I know, there have only ever been two assassinations of politicians in Canada: the shooting of federal Father of Confederation Thomas D'Arcy McGee in April 1868, and the strangulation of Québec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte after he was kidnapped during the October Crisis in 1970.

If you're American, that might help explain why we outside your country are so mystified (as well as saddened and horrified) by the bloodshed that has for so long accompanied political discourse in the United States—once again last week. Like the U.S., we have criminals with weapons here: gangsters who shoot up restaurants and busy streets in drug wars; ruthless home-grown terrorists who blow up airliners; men willing to kill their wives or girlfriends or daughters out of anger or spite or a twisted sense of honour; unhinged gunmen who walk into schools. We're not a peace-draped utopia in the Great White North.

A border with a real difference

And yet, the homicide rate in the U.S.A. is three times what we have in Canada. (We do get our cars stolen 22% more often than Americans do, however.) While 70% of murderers in the U.S. use firearms, only 30% in Canada kill with them—roughly the same number that use knives. Guns are harder to get here—both legally and illegally—and the types of weapons and ammunition a private citizen can own are also much more restricted. A mere 2.3% of Canadian homes have handguns in them; nearly ten times as many households own rifles and other hunting-style long guns. A little over 5% of the Canadian population has a valid firearms license, though many more owners remain unregistered.

It's reasonable to guess that there might be as many as 10 to 15 million firearms in Canada, mostly long guns. By contrast, authorities estimate more than 250 million guns in the U.S.A., with roughly 14 million purchased each year. That's something like twice the number of guns per capita (the U.S. population is about ten times Canada's), and more guns bought annually than exist at all north of the border.

Politicians in Canada—especially the Prime Minister, members of the federal Cabinet, and senior ministers in the provinces—certainly have security details. Some may need them more than others, but there's little sense that seeking high political office entails risking your life. None of Canada's 22 prime ministers since Confederation in 1867 has been assassinated, and it's hard to say if the one attempt on Jean Chrétien in 1995 (an intruder with a knife in the PM's official residence) really was one.

No revolution, and Mounties

Like the U.S.A., Canada was (and is) a country of the frontier, with our own Wild West and subjugation of native people, our own hurly-burly industrial-age expansionism, our own 20th-century shift to urban living in polyglot cities. But there was no Canadian Revolution or Civil War. For centuries, the rules and infrastructure of much of our vast country (especially that Wild West) were maintained by the Mounted Police and the Hudson's Bay Company. Our national slogan is not "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but "peace, order, and good government." We have no gun lobby with anything like the influence of the National Rifle Association.

We have not, in general, turned even the most heated political disagreements into a brawl, or a skirmish, or an internecine war. At rallies or campaign stops, bodyguards' eyes may skim nearby grassy knolls and rooftops, but there has almost never been anything of interest to see. No one in Canada can walk into a store and buy an extended-clip Glock semi-automatic pistol, then put it under his coat, take a cab to a rally, and shoot a Member of Parliament in the head—along with however many bystanders he can hit with his extra rounds.

Nor, does it seem, is anyone inclined to. Whatever the complex stew of influences that prompted alleged assassin Jared Loughner to follow those steps in Arizona last week—delusion and derangement; pervasive rhetoric of government and its agents as the enemy, perhaps even treasonous; easy availability of high-capacity, rapid-shooting handguns; much we don't yet know—the mix north of the border is different.

All but settled

I get little sense that America wants to change its mix, despite losing several important leaders over its history, despite both accidental and intentional gun-related deaths and injuries in the tens of thousands every year, and despite the counter-examples shown by Canada and similar successful western democracies with strict gun laws and generally less violent political rhetoric.

As cartoonist Tom Tomorrow put it, with a U.S. gun-control advocate (a masked penguin) talking to a U.S. gun-rights advocate (a guy in a suit): "The gun control debate is all but settled—and your side won. The occasional horrible civilian massacre is just the price the rest of us have to pay. Over and over again, apparently."

How do I feel about this whole WikiLeaks brouhaha? Well, first of all, it's not a wiki, is it? That aside, here's how I summed it up on Twitter:

While I'm ambivalent about some of what WikiLeaks is doing, the reaction by our supposedly democratic governments dismays me unequivocally.

A longer take with a similar conclusion is from Tim Bray, who says:

Thought leaders including Sarah Palin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Silvio Berlusconi, and Vladimir Putin tsk-tsk in unison; those closer to the mainstream who are joining the chorus should be very fucking nervous about the company they're keeping.

I think it's worth looking at WikiLeaks' (or at least Julian Assange's) stated motivations for releasing all this sensitive material: to be "only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction" by its target states.

The overreaction is happening, in sometimes nasty ways. Mission accomplished?

New rule for science journalism
Argh. Once again, the biggest science story of the week is a bit of a mess. NASA didn't help by teasing everyone with its advance press release/PR stunt about an "astrobiology discovery." The news was nothing of the sort. Rather, scientists have found some very weird life—on Earth.

The real story is fascinating, if you're into biology. Bacteria that appear to be able to substitute arsenic in place of phosphorus in the very structure of their DNA (and other bioactive molecules)—that's extremely cool. It shows how innovative natural selection can be, because as PZ Myers points out, the reason arsenic is usually lethal to living things is precisely because it's chemically so similar to phosphorus (and nitrogen). Usually, however, it screws up biochemical processes that it gets mixed into. These newly-discovered bacteria from salty, alkaline Mono Lake in California have managed to co-opt arsenic instead of being killed by it.

UPDATE December 7, 2010: Actually, maybe they haven't done so after all, and this whole ruckus has been a complete waste of time. Here, read some more.

But the publicity and news coverage remind me of the hoopla over Ida and Ardi, the fossil primate discoveries touted last year. Again, cool science, but woefully misrepresented to the public in its importance and meaning. The connection between the GFAJ-1 bacteria from Mono Lake and potential extraterrestrial life (which, I remind you, no one has yet found any evidence of) is so tenuous it's almost nonexistent: these critters tell us that it's possible for life to use a slightly different chemistry.

But we're not talking about life based on silicon instead of carbon. This is a less fundamental difference. The bacteria in question still use DNA. In the wild, in Mono Lake, they still use phosphorus, and indeed they're healthiest when they do. But in the lab, they can be coaxed into using arsenic instead, rather than simply dying in messy heaps like the rest of us earth beings would. Those are the basics.

I guess it makes sense, in a way, for NASA to hype up the story. A press release titled "Biologists discover life can use slightly different chemistry" wouldn't bring out CNN, but hype also has its risks:

Arsenic-based life

The problem is that hype can lull us into a cry-wolf syndrome. If people hear about an amazing set of "missing links!!!" (but oh, they aren't) and "signs of extraterrestrial life!!!" (but oh, they're terrestrial), are we going to take it seriously when scientists say, for instance, "Hey, global climate change looks like it's going to be a big problem"?

Many policy makers in the U.S. and elsewhere are already too ignorant about important scientific issues today, even about such essential ideas as how petroleum forms, the reality of evolution, or the usefulness of paying for basic research. Bait-and-switch tactics with scientific announcements surely don't help.

The young killers

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Lest we forgetIt occurs to me on this Remembrance Day that in all the wars ever fought, in all the thousands of generations where people have been killing each other and destroying things for some sort of political or ideological or territorial aim, the vast majority of soldiers have been younger than I am now.

I'm 41. Those who have battled and suffered and died, for causes good and bad and irrelevant—whether in a Roman legion, a phalanx of Aztecs, a Chinese Imperial Navy flotilla, a German army unit trying to gain inches on a muddy trench-cut battlefield, a revenge raid in the highlands of New Guinea, or a Canadian strike force in the Afghan mountains—have usually been young men, often boys young enough to be my children. And they have faced an enemy with that same face. Youths, sent to kill each other.

The context of how I face the prospect of my own death is quite different. Cancer is slower and less surprising than a bullet, a spear, a roadside bomb, or the hooves of an enemy horse. But those youngsters who have set out to war have always shared a knowledge: There's a good chance I won't make it.

Many of them did. Many didn't, and never got to see age 41. I'm glad I have.

Happy Halloween

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Now witness the firepower of this fully ARMED and OPERATIONAL battle station... I mean, jack-o-lantern!

Awesome Death Star pumpkin

Not my photo or my pumpkin: originally © 2006 by Fantasy Pumpkins (see their website, via Wired).

Sex columnist, speaker, and podcaster Dan Savage has been on a tear recently with his It Gets Better campaign. Here's the gist: after recent high-profile media coverage of yet more suicides by gay teenagers bullied at school, Savage encouraged older gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people—as well as those who support them—to post videos about how much better their lives became as they grew up. In other words, he wanted to emphasize that the despair of being young and bullied for having a different sexual orientation need not last forever.

As someone who was raised and schooled as a Catholic, Savage heaps particular scorn on churches and other religious organizations (especially in the U.S.A.) for their promotion of bigotry towards homosexuals like him, both within their congregations and in the more general political and social sphere. He minces no words:

...many of your children—having listened to Mom and Dad talk about how gay marriage is a threat to family and how gay sex makes their magic sky friend Jesus cry—feel justified in physically abusing the LGBT children they encounter in their schools.

And he doesn't go easy on more liberal Christians either:

I'm sick of tolerant, accepting Christians whispering to me that "we're not all like [anti-gay fundamentalists]." If you want to change the growing perception that "good Christian" means "anti-gay"—a perception that is leading many people to stop identifying themselves as Christian because they don't want to be lumped in with the haters—stop whispering to me and start screaming at them.

Dan articulates very well what I find frustrating (and doubtless gay people find infuriating) about the way our society talks about and deals with sexual orientation. Somehow it is still acceptable to be bigoted against LGBT people, when other bigotries (about race, class, gender) no longer are—and even to feel offended when other people call you out for it.

That acceptance has real consequences:

You don't have to explicitly "encourage [your] children to mock, hurt, or intimidate" queer kids. Your encouragement—along with your hatred and fear—is implicit. It's here, it's clear, and we're seeing the fruits of it: dead children.

Yes, LGBT issues being mainstream is a pretty new thing. For instance, despite Vancouver's progressive and liberal bent, when I was a teenager in the '80s, homosexuality was still pretty taboo. None of my high-school classmates was out, though several of them are gay. I doubt any of us imagined that same-sex marriage would be legal in Canada before our 20-year class reunion.

But social change should be rapid. Once we as a society realize that something is wrong, we shouldn't delay in correcting it. Mollifying bigots and bullies is not an excuse to slow down, especially if kids die when we do.

San Jose mine to scale, from via j-walkblog.comLast Rescuers by Rescate Mineros on Flickr
Photo: Hugo Infante/Government of Chile, October 14, 2010

I'm no cynic. Yesterday, as each of 33 trapped miners emerged from the Fenix rescue capsule, out of the dusty ground in the mountains of Chile, then hugged his wife or girlfriend or child or brother or other relative, I cried. Sometimes I wept openly in front of the TV, or in the car as I listened to the radio. These were men who could easily have been dead for months, but who are still alive, and healthy, and now back with the rest of us.

But so many people, from miners and rescuers and their families, to politicians and media correspondents, called it a miracle, and that bothered me. This rescue was no miracle. It was a remarkable, difficult, challenging, and happy human achievement. I posted on Twitter and Facebook that calling the rescue a miracle belittles the amazing human work done by the rescuers, the teams of engineers and others who planned and executed it, and the miners themselves.

There was a lot of praying and thanking God from the miners, their relatives, the politicians, workers and others onsite at the San José Mine. Which is fine—they are entitled to believe what they want, and to draw comfort and inspiration however they can—but no god dug that amazing rescue shaft.

Sadly, now representatives of different churches are trying to claim that their particular prayers were the ones that helped save the miners. Yet, or course, none are vying for their version of God to take the blame for the initial disaster in the mine two and half months ago—or for the deaths of dozens of other miners in Chile this year for whom there were no miracles. (UPDATE: For further context, in China, there were over 2600 mine deaths last year, and more than 1250 so far this year.)

Miracle does have a secular meaning, but from the President of Chile on down, in this context people seemed to be using its most direct definition: "godly intervention." Yet a real miracle would be if the miners had just been magically teleported to the surface when the collapse began, or if it hadn't happened in the first place. But people had to dig the rescue shaft, and that is the wonderful achievement.

I looked out my front windows yesterday and realized that what the rescue did was pull each man on a thin strand through a drill hole 2000 feet deep, like bringing them up from the very heart of one of the North Shore mountains to the top, on a wire:

First big snows on the Lions

Here's a visualization to scale of the distance (via J-Walk), which you can also see along the right edge of this blog entry.

Doing that took skill, talent, knowledge, ingenuity, determination, science, and meticulous planning. It was tremendous good luck (and at least some credit in mine safety design—however flawed—plus training and discipline) that the miners all survived the initial collapse back in August, and the 17 days before anyone was able to contact them. But from then on, the rescue effort was pure hard work.

However inspiring it is to some that people around the world were thinking of and praying for the miners while they remained trapped in their tiny, hot, humid rock chamber for months on end, it was not the abstract thoughts and prayers that pulled them out. It was the thinking and planning, drawing and building, drilling and feeding, testing and re-testing—it was the doing that brought them to the surface yesterday.

I celebrate that.

The Brawny Towel of religions

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Brawny Paper Towels, 2002The latest episodes of my two favourite podcasts reinforce why I like them so much.

First, Planet Money #219 asks, would you rather live on $70,000 USD a year today (a middle-class living), or $70,000 USD a year in 1900 (when it would have made you stupefyingly rich)? My answer is easy: since I have both diabetes and cancer, I'll take now, since no matter how much money I had, in 1900 I'd be dead. Your answer might not be so obvious, though if you like air conditioning and the easy ability to travel and communicate, you'll probably make a similar choice.

My reason for liking episode #75 of Reasonable Doubts comes down to one quote: "Hinduism is like the Brawny Towel of religions—it can really soak up and absorb just about anything." (The episode is actually about Buddhism.)

The Pre-Beatles, 1958Saturday would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday (his son Sean turned 35 the same day). Lennon was shot dead in New York City a couple of months after his 40th birthday in 1980. As a lifelong Beatles fan, a musician who played a lot of his songs over the past couple of decades, and someone facing my own mortality—and despite all my health problems over the past few days—I've been listening to some of my favourite songs from the band.

As I mentioned recently, that set included Revolver, as well as Rubber Soul, and the album (not EP) version of Magical Mystery Tour. What John Lennon songs do those discs include?

  • "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"
  • "The Word"
  • "Girl"
  • "In My Life"
  • "Wait"
  • "Run for Your Life"
  • "I'm Only Sleeping"
  • "She Said She Said"
  • "And Your Bird Can Sing"
  • "Doctor Robert"
  • "Tomorrow Never Knows"
  • "I Am the Walrus"
  • "Strawberry Fields Forever"
  • "Baby You're a Rich Man"
  • "All You Need is Love"

Of that incredible batch of songs, I think only "Run for Your Life" is a weak one (weak for the Beatles, anyway), and "Doctor Robert" is merely rather good. The rest are in varying parts genius, groundbreaking, soporific, anthemic, bizarre, sexy, psychedelic, touching, classic, and inspiring. Surprisingly, in my particular list there are no flat-out rockers like "Twist and Shout" or "Revolution." My favourite? Probably still "Strawberry Fields Forever," followed by "She Said She Said" and "I Am the Walrus." (Hmm, the druggy ones.)

However, in the full listen through, I rediscovered a Beatles favourite of mine that I hadn't heard in years, and didn't realize how much I missed: Paul McCartney's "Got to Get You Into My Life." In it, the Fab Four manage to out-Motown the horns-and-tambourine trademarks of Motown itself, with a song that Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or the Supremes could easily have made a #1 hit. But for the Beatles it was only an album track (until a 1976 re-release that took it to Billboard #7).

Now, I'm not a famous or influential musician, but despite my perhaps bleak prospects, I've already lived longer (at 41) than many such entertainers (like Lennon) who accomplished quite a lot: Buddy Holly, Hendrix, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Mozart, Mama Cass, John Coltrane, the Notorious B.I.G., Marc Bolan of T-Rex, Charlie Parker, Kirsty MacColl, Duane Allman, Jaco Pastorius, Sid Vicious, Jim Croce, Randy Rhoads, Keith Moon, Tim and Jeff Buckley, Michael Hutchence, Janis Joplin, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Tommy Bolin, Tammi Terrell, Robert Johnson, Nick Drake, Bon Scott of AC/DC, Selena, John Bonham, Kurt Cobain, Charlie Christian, Karen Carpenter, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, Tupac Shakur, Sam Cooke, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Honestly, I think I've lived a better life than many of them did. John Lennon, for all his success, rarely seemed genuinely happy, except perhaps near the end. I've been lucky to grow up my whole life in Vancouver, with good friends and family. I've never really worried about whether I'd have enough to eat, or a place to live, or interesting things to do. Yes, having metastatic cancer sucks big time, for all of us here. It's made the past few years hard, and things would be far, far better without it. I wish I could live longer than I probably will. But I have a wonderful wife and great relationships with my daughters.

Would John Lennon have envied my life? Likely not, but maybe. Maybe.