Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Great Beef Soup Challenge Commences!

I was in the canned soup aisle of my local grocery store last night when I was hit by a sudden urge for canned beef soup. It was not one of those "I need beef soup now" urges, but one of those "you know what would be really good for lunch tomorrow? Beef Soup" urges. There was just one problem: choice.

Rather than risk getting "the bad" canned beef soup from the large selection, I decided that I would spread myself across the board: I bought one of each and will spend the next week eating beef soup for lunch.

I haven't eaten this way since I was an undergrad, so there is an off-chance that I will go insane by the end of next week. Now, this may sound strange, but that result will be a little comforting as it will help to explain those "crazy undergrad" years. Kind of like the discovery of the heavy amount of lead in ancient Rome's water pipes...

First up: Campbell's Healthy Request Vegetable Beef with Barley.

I decided to start with the "Healthy Request" selection because I guessed that "less sodium" and "healthy request" would also equal "no taste" and "leaves you strangely hungry." It turns out that I was right on both accounts. The soup has the thickness and texture of a good beef soup (chewy-but-not-tough meat and squishy vegetables), but none of the flavour. Aside from the faint taste of beef, I could have been eating any kind of soup at all. Very disappointing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I am really pissed-off by MDG Computers right now. I took in my less-than-one year old PC, as well as SheWhoMustBeObeyed's (SWMBO's) PC to get serviced last week. My unit required the mother-board to be replaced because of a faulty LAN card...that was alright because it was still under warranty. SWMBO's PC, it turned out, was having come problems because its version of Windows (XP SP2) was corrupt. Whatever, the PC is 5 years old so this sort of thing is expected. There was also a recommendation to upgrade the RAM to 1 GB (to which I agreed).

When it came time to pick-up the units, I "discovered" the following facts:

1) My antivirus software was no longer functioning, my start-up group of programs had been modified, and my version of windows required activation;

2) And, (this is the important complaint) SWMBO's harddrive was completely wiped because Windows had to be re-installed.

When I called to ask (re: yell until I was satisfied that the moron on the other end was just as angry with me as I was with him) about what was going on, I was given some lame-ass explanantion that:

"It is MDG policy to ask about whether or not a back-up should be made, at extra cost ($X), in the event that Windows requires re-installation."

Since no request was made, a back-up of the (SWMBO's) hard drive was not produced. Well, well, well. The big problem with that statement is that I was never offered a "back-up", and I was never told that this service would result in SWMBO's hard-drive being purged. Of course I would have wanted a backup if I was told that the hard-drive was going to be wiped! And, there was a big "silence" at the other end when I asked why my antivirus and startup settings were modified (re: broken).

Now, I have been pretty happy with my MDG computer and I am NOT recommending against buying one. I am proud of the fact that the computers are built and sold by techs and salespeople here in Canada. However, if you are going to get your computer serviced, stay as far away from the Etobicoke store as you can get. They may have gotten my $300, but they will never get me to return.

Monday, June 23, 2008

I am going to bet it was goose poo.

The National Post recently published a warning issued by the Toronto Police Department concerning a spate of dog-poisoning in High Park. I run through the park 3-4 times a week, and my money is on goose-poo being the culprit. At this time of year, there are so many geese wandering the park and the area around Grenadier Pond that the path is, in some places, covered with a slick green slime.

I feel really bad for the owners of the dogs, since it is impossible to watch your dog for every minute of the walk. It is especially impossible- and, I would argue cruel- to keep them from sniffing (and thereby licking) at the things that interest them. No I don't mean that dogs sniff by licking, instead, I am trying to say that if one is to prevent a dog from licking foreign objects/substances, one must prevent them from sniffing it since their tongue and nose will be equally close to the object of inquiry.

Here's to hoping that a pathologist or veterinarian figures out the vector for the poison. Once again, I am betting it is a massive bacterial infection caused by ingesting goose feces.

Update: According to this story the dogs have been poisoned in what appears to be a deliberate attack, against them and their owners. Personally, I don't buy the "person disgruntled against the off-leash areas" statement made by the police. However, I guess that I am not quite willing to accept that someone would be willing to do something so cruel and petty over such a tiny matter. Then again, one would have to be the sort who regards an issue like off-leash areas to be quite important to be willing to lay such a cruel and petty trap. Not to mention pathetic, tiny (morally and literally), and weak.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On the topic of beer.

I wanted to take a look at the Stella Artois site today to get an image of the brand logo ,or an image from their advertising, for a joke I wanted to make about the beer. To my surprise, I found a rather impressive assortment of flash-based movies and games. Then again, it is a web page for beer...

My beef with this whole "Courage 1366" campaign that they are promoting is that it is absurdly anachronistic. Medieval Europeans did not think that the world was flat: anyone who lives in a coastal city would have told you as much as they watched a boat disappear over the horizon. Another thing about the other games is the talk of "gods" and "spirits". Although I won't deny that Europeans were a superstitious lot, they were (at least back then) devotedly Christian. Although they would not have explained lightning as static charges, I doubt that the common farmer thought that Zeus was hurling bolts at him.

But, I digress. While out at dinner last night, I ordered a pint of Stella Artois with my dinner. When asked by a friend to describe the beer, I replied:

It's flavour is sort-of on the border of being French; but it also has an invasive German bitterness.

It's official: I should give up everything and become a comedian.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

We Are All Scottish Now.


"How the Scots Invented the Modern World."

Writing popular history is something like a tight-rope act: lean too-much in one direction and you will plummet to oblivion. In "How the Scots Invented the Modern World", Arthur Herman attempts such a perilous act.

Herman's central thesis is far from new: "western" institutions, culture, and practices have been fundamentally shaped by "Scottish" culture. In a narrative that alternates between argumentative storytelling and meandering anectodotes, "How the Scots" is a story of Scotland and, at the same time, the story of the long eighteenth century.

Although I may joke as much when among friends: the narrative of this book does not reduce all things to "Scottish origin," in the way the dad from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" reduces everything to Greek origin. Rather, the fundamental point is that the socio-politico-economic and moral conditions in Scotland that encouraged the period of intellectual, cultural and technological advancement now recognized as the "Scottish Enlightenment". In other words, a more apt name for the book could be "How SCOTLAND invented the modern world."

This notion of a "Scottish Enlightenment" has only recently gained attention in the historical community. Most historians of philosophy and STM had long recognized the influence of a "scottish school" in the late eighteenth century, but there had not been much work that focused exclusively on it. Herman's narrative is drawn from a diverse selection of older and recent literature that does just that.

Starting with a Braudelian examination of the geography of the Scotland, the story explains how a unique landscape produced recognizably "Scottish" social and economic conditions. Conditions which ultimately produced a highly literate and, for the main part, disciplined population. Basically: the Scotch are a product of Scotland. Duh.

Yet, the story is not so simple. As the first few chapters explain, the geographic factors that produce Scottish socio-economic conditions also condemn the Scotch to inferior status with regard to their southerly neighbours: the English. In fact, not only are the Scotch inferior to their southerly neighbours, they are pretty-much inferior to the whole of Europe.

This may lead one to ask: so, the "Scottish Enlightenment" occured because of pressure to overcome a northerly inferiority complex? As the author explains, the answer is "yes and no." Yes, inferior economic and political power encouraged innvoation and new ideas. At the same time: no, because the "Scottish Enlightenment" has a quintessentially "Scotch" character.

Herman explains that conditions in Scotland produced a unique a mindset (or perhaps the better term would be epistemic mode?) that encouraged the aforementioned "enlightenment." Without making reference to any "other" cultural mindsets, the Scots are made out to be a people who are uniquely capable of reconciling progressive idealism and cynical realism. To illustrate, the first Scottish figures whom the author turns to are the "founders" of the "Scottish School:" Francis Hutcheson and Lord Kames.

In an analysis of their respective philosophies about the nature of man and modern society, Herman attempts to show that both men, though quite divergent, demonstrate the essential "Scottishness" on which the rest of the story will rely. In a pseudo-biographical analysis, Hutcheson and Kames' teaching careers and social activities are traced, to demonstrate how subsequent "waves" of Scotch intellectuals can be traced back to them.

The rest of the book covers the philosophies espoused by the giants of the eighteenth century, with David Hume and Adam Smith being the main players. The narrative does not just talk about the intellectual achievements of the Scottish, but also illustrates the social achievements of the Scottish people in their homeland and throughout the world. Unforunately, Herman tends to rely on biographical stories to such an extent that the book seems to be as much a story of the Scottish people as it is a chronological who's-who-and-did-what in the eighteenth century. Ranging from the Scots fighting in the American Revolution (on both sides), to the opium runners in the Far East, it seems as though everything is in some way Scottish.

Of course, that is the point of the book. However, it is also its failing. Herman fails to establish anything particularly "Scottish" about most of the people (men) he mentions. Yes, in many cases a particular person demonstrated a worldview that appreciated both the ideal and realist perspectives. But, as the book progresses, there is little strength in his claim that all of the Scotts he mentions belong to the same School: for instance, how can Sir John A MacDonald (Canada's first PM) and Alexander Graham Bell (telephone) belong to the same "Scottish" school? Aside from being of Scotch descent, the men had very little else in common.

Herman casts his argumentative net too far, which results in too many holes, to be able to justify that being well-educated, pragmatic, and influential are necessarily Scottish traits. There is a wealth of information to be gleamed from this book, and it is also a very enjoyable read because of the smooth-flowing prose. However, by the end of the tale, I do not believe that the thesis will stick with most readers.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Objectivity and the Future of Knowing (anything) with Certainty.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference at U of T titled: “Reclaiming the World: The Future of Objectivity” (St. George Campus, The Bahen Centre for Information Studies, May 23-24 2008).

Now the first thing that I have to get off of my chest is the fact that it was run really poorly. Admittedly, my opinion may be negatively skewed, as I showed up on the Friday afternoon to find no record of my registration. I HAD registered about a week before-hand, but this did not seem to matter to the folks who were organizing it: they were content to have my money. My main peeve about the registration was that despite being a paying client, I was treated like some bozo who just “wandered in.” I was left wondering why I had even bothered paying. I had verified that it would not be a problem if I missed the morning lectures (as I had a conflicting appointment), but obviously this was not quite the case.

That said, I was very impressed by the speakers and discussion at the conference, and I found the variety of topics fascinating. Certain papers were particularly interesting: Karen Barad’s examination of “objectivity and the ontology and ethics of knowing” through the example of the brittle star (starfish); Mike Pettit’s history of the use of deception in early psychological studies; and Natasha Myers' discussion of embodiment in protein crystallography.

I really want to committ some of my notes to digital form, but I also do not want to write a fifteen-page blog post. In the future I will try to discuss those papers individually, so that they can get some attention on the web.

Speaking of getting attention on the web, the keynote address for the conference was also very interesting. Delivered by Bruno Latour, it was a rather convoluted lecture about using new virtual tools to encourage an epistemological shift in techniques of representation. Dissent and argument that stems from the implicit political nature of “matters of fact” and “matters of concern” can be overcome by new tools that enable a witness to enter into any stage of a controversy, as well as trace the facts and opinions therein.

Does that make any sense? I’ve read that paragraph a couple of times now, and I am really not too sure what I mean by it. Basically, Latour was making a case for a new methodology used in science studies, namely co-author and co-citation mapping. Of course, the applications that create these maps can be used for much more than co-citation: that is merely the extent of my experience.

The underlying message of the lecture really seemed to rely on a kind of pseudo-positivism. In order for the datascapes of a controversy to be as accessible (and accurate) as Latour says they CAN be, the digital archive has to catch-up and parrallel the natural world. In a lot of ways, I think that this can be possible: after all, surgeons can perform laproscopic operations through devices that are located in operating rooms in different parts of the world. It is merely another step to make the operating theatre just as remote, and at the same time just as intimate, because the witnesses COULD share the surgeon’s “perspective”: or, “representation.”

In other words, the problems and politics of objectivity can be overcome by relying on a “second-degree” objectivity that enables the tracing and representation of all matters of fact and matters of concern at any intermediary step.

Obviously, the lecture was incredibly interesting and (believe it or not) very useful. I believe that Latour is correct when praising the potential of the usefulness of the digital archive, but I disagree about accessibility that (he argues) it offers. On a personal note, I am quite interested in the study of objectivity in so far as it relates to standards and protocols. When I consider how procedures are written one of my main concerns is the amount of information that can be learned.

Whether it is a text-based manual, or an interactive tutorial, there are implicit goals and assumptions framing how a process is created. If all of the parties involved in a procedure, (broadly speaking) the producers and the users, can use the digital archive to demonstrate and interact on individual levels, then a standard (objective), becomes inaccessible. For instance: person A says it should be one way, and writes it as a textual process; person B says it should be another, and records the process in flash (.swf) format; while person C says the process should be articulated in a completely different manner, and draws a schematic. All three persons may be talking about how to logon to Windows, but they describe the (simple) process very differently.

There are a variety of tools available to map this controversy over starting Windows, but if I look at it this way (where every party can articulate a procedure differently, and present their version differently) I still fail to see how the digital archive can overcome the problem of whether or not there is a standard (objective) protocol that can be agreed upon.

I am going to wrap-up this post before it gets terribly long. However, I will probably revisit the topic in later posts.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

What the F!*K Was That?

Back in April, Team Awesome attended our inaugural showing of Evil Dead: The Musical. As expected, we had a great time. In fact, we had such a great time that we went again, a month later! We invited a group of our friends, and after the show the general consensus was “Hells Yes! It was Awesome! (We’re Awesome).”

The production does a great job of capturing the ‘camp’ feel of the classic horror movies. Lots of gore, ridiculous situations, and witty dialogue interposed by hilarious musical numbers delighted the entire audience.

At the same time, the script reveals a lot of reflexivity with regard to the genre and the movies on which it is based: upon hearing a strange voice urging her “Join Us!” coming from [offstage], one character asks “What was it my mom always told me to do if I hear a strange voice coming from outside a cabin? [pause] Oh yeah! Don’t wake the others and tell them, and go out alone to investigate!” Another character acknowledges that he is just a “bit-part demon”, and laments his fate: doomed to be killed by the hero.

The story itself is true to the Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 movies. In fact, since Evil Dead 2 retcons the story from the first movie by limiting the weekend getaway to Ash and Linda, it is more of a combination of the two. The first act covers the events of “The Evil Dead”, where Ash and his friends go to a cabin in the woods (also the title of the opening number), with disastrous results following their discovery of an ancient book bound by flesh.

The second act retells the events of Evil Dead 2, where the daughter of the cabin’s owner arrives with her friends to discover a mutilated (one-handed) Ash in the midst of chainsaw-ing his demon-possessed girlfriend: “This isn’t what it looks like!”

A great aspect of the script is the way that the famous one-liners from Army of Darkness are interpolated throughout the play. The audience, especially yours truly, delighted in hearing classics such as:

“Wait! It’s a trick: use the axe;”
And, “Good, Bad: I’m the guy with the gun;”
And, of course, “THIS is my BOOMSTICK!”

Those members of the audience who recognized the lines would join-in, delivering with a roar the famous quotes that made Bruce Campbell into a B-Movie icon. Given the ‘intimacy’ of the venue- the audience sits right up at the edge of the stage- I expect that the producers intended for this level of involvement.

Of course, the ‘intimacy’ of the theatre brings me to the last point: the splatter. I can’t describe the experience without bringing up the enormous amount of blood sprayed from the stage onto the audience. Before the second act commences, one of the theatre staff travels throughout the first couple of rows and distributes rain ponchos, explaining that things will get a little “wet” if you are sitting up-close. Important note: you can bring your drinks with you into the theatre, as the show is great to watch over a pint of beer (or two).

Naturally, Team Awesome did not fear getting covered by a little “blood.” The final fight scene, which follows the Time Warp-esque “Do the Necronomicon”, had so much splatter that Team Awesome was more than a little soaked:

All in all: fantastic time. I recommend being familiar with the movies, as you will better appreciate the one-liners and some of the humour. Most importantly: sit close, get soaked, and have a great time! Great show.

Note: the title of this entry refers to one of the musical numbers.
Missing In Action

I'm going to take a second to re-orient. I've been pretty busy for the last couple of months...and (obviously) have not been able to sit down and write a post.

A combination of a busy work schedule, and then lacking free-time on the weekends to write conspired to keep my number of new posts limited to one for all of April, and nil for May.

I have been pretty busy: finished a couple of books, saw a few movies, went to Evil Dead: The Musical (twice- hells yes!), attended a conference on objectivity, and painted my apartment.

I've made a promise to myself to try to put as much as I can to paper (or blog). Subsequent posts will be coming promptly.