Friday, December 18, 2009

Rudolph the Realistic Reindeer (may offend)

Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
Had a very shiny nose.
And, if you ever saw it,
You would even say it glows.

All of the other reindeer,
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Play in any reindeer games.

Then, one foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa came to say,
"Rudolph, with your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"

Then Rudolph, said, "Are you kidding me? Where the hell were you when all the other reindeer were laughing and calling me names? I don't remember Jolly Old St Nick telling the other reindeer to let me play in the reindeer games! Oh, but now I can be of some use to you. Now, you need me, and now you want my help? Fuck you! Lead that team of bigots and assholes? Go to Hell, Santa!"

Friday, August 14, 2009

Need more Pettrichor?

Well, you're going to have to settle for what's here.

But if you want to read more of my blogging, check out my education-themed blog at Maclean's OnCampus:

I will still be blogging here, especially when it's too spicy for the mainstream media, but I've promised Macleans a post a week over there. I hope you like it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fast talk: On Smelling

If I had to give up one of my five senses, it would be smell. I estimate that at least 95% of what I smell I would rather not.

I've heard that food doesn't taste as good if you've lost your sense of smell, but, frankly, that might be a relief. If food didn't taste as good, I would probably be a lot healthier. I once knew a guy who had a nasal condition that eliminated most of his sense of smell and he was as skinny as can be. I suppose smell is useful for detecting fires and things like that, but seriously, when was the last time you smelled your way out of danger? And there's always the smoke detector.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Strangest Conversation

Recently, I posted what I thought was a zippy little off-hand comment on someone's Facebook status which mentioned the need to have free university tuition. Then others started to respond and things kind of got out of hand. Here is a lightly parodied version:

Me: Free tuition would be bad for universities. People value what they pay for, so manageable tuitions, that don't unfairly burden graduates with debt, would be better than free tuitions.

Another person: How can you say that! People should not be kept out of university because they can't afford it! You obviously know nothing about education.

Me: Actually, as a university professor I know something about it, and I worry that free universities would lead to university standards slipping as they have done in high school -- because people would come to see universities as just another level of education to get through.

Someone else: You're obviously one of those free-market, right-wing elitist shitheads who think only the rich should go to university. Why not try selling your crap to someone who wants to go to university but can't afford it?

Me: No, you've missed my point. I think university should be much more affordable, just not free. There's surely a middle ground. Students could all afford $5 for the year, right? And for that matter, probably $100 or even $1000.

Still another person: With ridiculous ideas like these, you have no business being a university professor. Your arguments don't make any sense and are not backed up by sources. It's not appropriate for university professors to make these kinds of statements and you should really take some time to learn what good intellectual writing looks like since you clearly have no clue.

Me: What? This is a Facebook comment section! In a scholarly article, I would cite sources, but this is a casual conversation. As for my qualifications, if you are worried that I don't know what academic writing looks like feel free to check out my book which is held by libraries around the world.

Yet another: Ooh, he thinks just because he published a book, he must be right about everything! I could have published a book if tuitions weren't so high, but since you think high tuitions and massive debt are just great, you obviously don't care about people like me!

And so it went.

What struck me most about this strange conversation was that nobody seemed interested in reading what I had actually written or answering it on those terms. People continually assumed that if I were not in favour of free tuition I must be in favour of high tuitions and all that mean-spiritedness that presumably went along with that.

Now, maybe free tuitions are not such a bad thing. Many countries have free university tuition, and maybe they have found a way to keep standards high. I would be interested in knowing more about that. But not many people in the online conversation I've reconstructed above seemed willing or even able to see any of those complexities. It was either you are a fair-minded human being who beleives tuition should be free, or a selfish monster who believes students should suffer as much as possible.

I wonder if this is the way all political discussions are becoming: a series of binaries: pro-life or pro-choice, pacifist or war-monger, right or left, cultural relativist or racist. If so, our democracy is in for a rough ride.

And I should probably keep my thoughts off of Facebook.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

You, Me and Other People

American politicians love to criticize people who are nominated for things, and a recent Time magazine article mentioned that a current fight centres around US involvement in international treaties and laws. The worry is always about national sovereignty: "Why should our people be subject to rules and decisions made by people we didn't elect?" I heard similar objections when I was in England by people suspicious of the EU Parliament. A variation emerged in Canada when Stephen Harper said he was all about a "made in Canada" solution to global climate change.

You can see the emptiness of the argument by extending it. If I demand to know why I, as a Canadian, should be subject to decisions made in Geneva or New York, I must also ask why I, as a Nova Scotian, should be subject to decisions made in Ottawa. For that matter, why should I, as a Cape Bretoner, be subject to the whims of government officials in Halifax? Damn it, why should I, a resident of Glace Bay, have to kow tow to the fat cats in Sydney? I live on Quarry Point, so why should I care what the gang over in The Hub thinks? In fact, why should I, as a free individual, have to listen to anyone at all?

The answers are obvious and they extend right back to international cooperation. Simply put, as the problems get bigger, the solutions require more people. I can handle some things on my own, but I don't have a place for all my garbage, so I rely on my local government to collect my trash. My municipality can't run its own education or health care systems, so those are done by the province. Each province can't have its own military; the Federal government looks after that. Canada alone cannot solve our climate problems or eliminate nuclear weapons or any number of the big problems of the world. That has to be done on an international scale.

At every level, some personal autonomy is lost, but the benefits are worth it. I don't get to choose the day the trash gets picked up, but I don't care as long as it gets picked up. I don't choose the local high school principal, and I don't want to. I'll let others do that. Ditto for defending that borders. We all enjoy benefits from citizenship even if it means other people are making decisions that affect us. Alaskans benefit from being citizens of the USA just as Yorkshiremen benefit from being citizens of the UK, even if it means taking direction from the Congress in Washington or the Parliament in London; Chiang Mai depends on Bangkok, and Brisbane relies on Canberra. Fill in your own localities here.

Why should we give control to those that we ourselves did not elect? Because sometimes that's the only way it works.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Fox Hole

I have just read yet another angry comment about comments on Fox News regarding the Canadian military.

Enough already.

For one thing, no one has yet explained to me why the original comment -- that Canada's military would take a year off after Afghanistan -- was not silly and not deserving of ridicule. For another, every time someone makes a stink about this, it insults the very military they think they are defending. To get up-in-arms about Fox News blather is to imply that our soldiers are going to be hurt by it in the first place, and that's ridiculous. It's like your mom coming on to the diamond to argue balls and strikes. Shut up, already. It's embarrassing.

The only sound response to the original comments about Canada being a ridiculous country that no one knew was even in the war is as follows: "Canadian men and women are putting their lives on the line every day to defend an oppressed people from extremist thugs. They are serious, disciplined, well-trained, and the ramblings of comedians on late-night talk shows couldn't bother them in the least. They have more important things to worry about."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Officials at Halifax transit have refused to allow atheist bus ads on the grounds that they are too "controversial." Controversial. That's a coward's word. It is Halifax transit's way of not dealing with the real issue. Either they are willing to defend free expression or they are not; if they are willing to deny paid, legal advertising that expresses the benign sentiment that "You can be good without God," they should be prepared to explain what's wrong with it. And if they do decide to arbitrarily stomp on free expression, they should not hide behind vague worries about "controversy." First of all, what's wrong with controversy? Isn't this a democracy where we seek to advance ourselves through debate and discussion? Aren't most important ideas controversial at some point? God save us from a world without controversy. Or is there a God? Apparently the Halifax transit authority knows for sure.

What is the effect of only allowing non-controversial opinions to be expressed in public venues? It is to allow free speech for those who hold the most conservative views and to exclude new and radical ideas. Avoiding "controversy" is the spineless administrator's excuse for supporting the status quo.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The ugly truth about tolerance

Recently, atheist groups have been putting ads in buses saying things like, "There's probably no God. Now, stop worrying and get on with your life." Probably no God? What kind of atheists are these?

The ad campaign began in London and is spreading, including to Canada, where religious groups are, to no one's surprise, displeased. Charles McVety, who runs the Canada Family Action Coalition (atheists don't have families?) was quoted recently in the Globe and Mail saying that while "On the surface I'm all for free speech...these are attack ads." He goes on to say that these ads are bigotted because they are "intolerant of someone else's belief system."

Now, setting aside for a moment the observation that everyone seems to be in favour of free speech except when people say anything that makes them upset, McVety has a troubling, and all too common of view of what constitutes intolerance. He seems to feel that tolerance is not merely a matter of allowing others to think and say what they feel, but rather it is accepting quietly anything that others say. To attack the beliefs of others, he says, is intolerant.

Well, that idea is stupid.

Tolerance is only tolerance. Tolerance is tolerating the fact that others may have views that are opposed to yours -- even diametrically opposed. To tolerate is to allow freedom to speak, to not physically harm those who oppose you, or to put them in jail, or deny them jobs for no good reason, and so on. It cannot be expanded to include a requirement that we must accept or agree not to oppose those we disagree with.

Why not? Why shouldn't we accept the views of everyone? Two reasons. First, it can't be done. To suggest any meaningful point of view is to implicitly deny the truth of opposing views. What McVety really wants is not a world in which nobody denies anybody else's views, but a world where no one denies his views and he can go on denying theirs. He wants to be able to say that Christ is Lord without caring that he is opposing the beliefs of Jews, Muslims, atheists and other non-Christians. This, I suspect, is true of all those who say "I believe in freedom of speech but..."; after the but comes "not when it offends my beliefs." Indeed, the CFAC buys ads and issues press releases like this one saying that gay marriage must be overturned because it normalizes homosexuality. And they have the nerve to preach about tolerance?

The other reason we must be free to tolerate but oppose one another is that serious issues come up in the voyage of life and they must be dealt with. Only through real debate, with all the confusion, anger, and hurt feelings that can come with it, can we chart our course with confidence.

But shouldn't religion be off limits? Isn't criticizing someone's religion like criticizing their race? No and no. Religion must be in bounds because it is a set of views about the world and views about the world are not intrinsic to their holders. They can be -- and have been -- changed and reexamined or, as is often the case with history's religions, abandoned altogether. You cannot argue against a person's whiteness or their arab background -- these are biological and historical facts. But you can argue that Christianity contributed to the oppression of women or that Islam must be reclaimed by its moderates, or that there is no God, and so on. These are real issues, and they are serious, and we cannot let religious people attack the freedoms and beliefs of others while claiming they should be immune from such attacks themselves.

That's not tolerance. It's tyranny.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Fast Talk: It came from the Movie Title!

Wal-Mart, I learn, will not sell the Kevin Smith film Zack and Miri Make a Porno unless the word "Porno" is taken out of the title.

Seriously? I wonder if the retail giant will go through its back titles to edit them, too. Dial M for Murder might get redacted to Dial M. What's next, The Unstigmatized Mental Illness of King George? Look for the final installment of the Star Wars trilogy as The Justifiable Concerns of the Sith.

Here are some more titles to look for coming soon to DVD at Walmart:

The Bright Knight
Dog Millionaire

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fast Talk: Receipts

I was at a local big-box store today and purchased a set of headphones. One single item. I made my purchase, and was handed a receipt that measures over 11 inches in length -- longer than an ordinary piece of paper. The receipt includes the following information: the store name, the contract ID number (we have a contract?), the store's address and phone number, the date and time, the store name again, the item I purchased, the cost of the item, an invitation to tell them how they are doing online, a promise that if I fill out the online survey I could win a gift card, a series of codes for when I go online and do the survey, an indication of where I can find the contest rules (not printed on the receipt thankfully), a notice indicating I can order items online and pick them up at the store if I want to, the price of my item again, the tax amount, the total, four digits from my Visa number (plus 12 Xs), the GST registration number, something called the ACI/ISO#, and a final note that (wait for it) I bought just one thing.

Now, I'm glad to have some this -- the total and a reminder of which credit card I put it on, but do I really need all this information and does it really have to take up so much paper? This store must dole out the equivalent of thousands of sheets of paper a day at this rate. But what really bugs me is that half of the damn thing is marketing and advertising. I know stores must advertise, but can I not be shielded from the marketers even immediately after I've made a purchase? It's like the waiter at a restaurant bringing you another menu at the end of the meal in case you want to take something out or order ahead before your next meal. I'm not hungry! I just ate! Leave me alone!

Next time I'm tearing off the part I need and giving them the rest back. See how they like having a lot of useless paper on their desks.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Some wisdom for my walls

As regular readers of this space may recall, I am not a religious man, but I do believe that all long-standing religions have some wisdom to offer us. How could it be otherwise when the best minds of the various civilizations have given themselves up to contemplating the world through the lenses of their various traditions?

But it was recently pointed out to me that my own home shows little of this attitude. I have some Buddhist pictures and related items around, and many books about various religions (and about atheism), but not much to suggest the view that I have outlined above.

Rising to this challenge I resolved (and promised) to select quotations from representatives of the great spiritual traditions of the world to adorn my study's walls. The stairway in my house already has quotations from some ancient pagans (like Aristotle), so I will take paganism as covered. Of course, I cannot have a quotation from every religion, but here is what I have for five, and I'm pretty pleased with them. In all cases I have tried to select either from religious texts themselves or believers (I had to rule out Einstein, here, because I am convinced that he was, in the main, an atheist).

"The ground's generosity takes in our compost and grows beauty! Try to be more like the ground." (Rumi)

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." (Paul)

"The question put by a wise man is half the answer." (Shlomo ben Yehudah)

"Weigh a man's merits and weigh his faults. Then judge him according to the greater." (Tirukkural)

"If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete." (Jack Kornfield)