Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Margaret Atwood & her robotic arm

Canadian literary giant, Margaret Atwood, author of best-sellers like The Handmaid's Tale and Cat's Eye, has invented a robotic arm.

The Longpen allows an author to write in his/her own hand remotely. The writer uses a stylus pen on a computer tablet and whatever is written is replicated exactly by a robotic arm holding an actual pen.

Lazy Atwood came up with the idea after a particularly punishing book tour left her wishing she could just fax in her appearances.

Critics of the invention are afraid that the Longpen will end book tours. Supporters of the invention point to wide ranging uses like allowing angry spouses to sign divorce documents out of province.

I really have nothing against the invention. I just can't get over the picture of Margaret Atwood manning a robotic arm.

Monday, February 27, 2006

On why Battlestar Galactica is good

About a month ago, I was at a party when Battlestar Galactica came up. Someone commented on how awful the current television series must be since the original movie was infamously bad. I responded with, "No! The series is really good! Really good! In fact, it's even better than Star Trek: The Next Generation!" My fervent outburst was greeted with silence. That's when I realized that I had just revealed what a nerd I am.

Like a nerd, I've stewed over my statement and the reasoning behind it. I can't go back in time to either retract my statement or expand on it until everyone's eyes glaze over, so my only recourse is to list my arguments in Xiao Pangzi.

  1. Absolute power does corrupt absolutely on Battlestar Galactica. On Star Trek: TNG, both crew and audience gave themselves over to Captain Picard happily. He was always so good and so intelligent that the only way he could do wrong was by force via the Borg. On Galactica, absolute power corrupts, especially those with the best intentions.
  2. There are no clear cut heroes and villains. Sure, the mechanical Cylons seem bent on wiping out mankind but as one character asks, is mankind really worth saving? And when humans dehumanize Cylon agents in order to torture and demean them, are they any better than the machines they assume superiority over?
  3. The possibility of death hangs over everyone. This is actually something that can make watching Battlestar Galactica a stressful experience. There is rarely a light moment that isn't quickly overtaken by the reality of the situation. Main characters are killed off suddenly and without fanfare.
  4. There are no easy answers. Hard decisions were the basis of the series pilot, which saw leaders repeatedly faced with sacrificing a few thousand civilians in order to save 40,000 others. Tough choices continue as the formerly pro-choice president bans abortions in order to help increase the colony population from the current 49,593.

The series is hardly perfect. I wish there were more character building episodes and at least one light hearted episode that didn't involve stressful action of some kind. But I believe Battlestar Galactica definitely reflects the uncertainty and paranoia of our times more accurately than the comforting escapsim of Star Trek: TNG.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Paper walls, office cubicles & other good ideas

The design world is thrilled with an innovation in building materials called the Soft Wall. Created by a Canadian architectural firm, Forsythe + MacAllen Design, the Soft Wall is a flexible, accordian-like, translucent paper structure. It is a real crowd pleaser for covering all the bases:
  • environmental - it's 100% recyclable and UV light resistant
  • sociological - affordable housing for emergencies and the homeless
  • superficial - it's pretty

Another supposed selling point is that the Soft Wall allows for flexibility, and by extension creativity, in defining public and private spaces. Says one of the architects behind the invention, "There's also an abstract sculptural quality to the system, which can transform a home environment into a place of work(...)"

The Soft Wall is great in theory but it's a pipe dream. It operates under the assumption that something cheap, portable and attractive is good enough for the plebs. Sure, the Soft Wall features sound-dampening properties and is relatively opaque but it still doesn't offer the privacy of a solid wall. But maybe victims of natural disasters, the poor and the homeless don't have a right to privacy.

In essence, the Soft Wall is just an environmentally friendly version of the office cubicle or even the trailer house. All place an emphasis on affordable, flexible solutions for herding the masses, with little respect for their privacy or personal breathing space. And I'm sure cubicle dwellers must groan at the architect's idea of making home and work spaces interchangeable.

Overly designed housing solutions that ignore the human element are all too reminiscent of early public housing projects like Regent Park in Toronto. What started in design as a "garden city" of affordable housing became a labyrinth of violence, drugs and poverty.

While it is hard to imagine the Soft Wall driving people to commit crime, I bet the inventors of the Soft Wall have never thought of their award winning invention covered in graffiti, barely muffling the cries of a displaced child, or blocking an overworked pencil-pusher's view of the window.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Life and death - for fun!

As an adult, I've attempted to play Dungeons & Dragons twice but each time, the enjoyment factor was foiled by farfetched situations ("What the hell is a Level 30 Red Dragon doing outside the pub? I quit!"). My pink D&D die set sits on my desk, gathering dust, right now.

But, screw my pink D&D die! I've found a new way to escape reality. I found the following report from CBC Radio's The Current (reproduced in part below):

"The people who spend time Live Action Role Playing -- or LARPing-- fantasize about much more elaborate worlds where characters can be heroic or murderous, angelic or evil. And this is serious business----people get quite swept up in their characters... living out parts of themselves that might otherwise be repressed in the real world.

But Larping takes place very much in the real world. Last fall our producer, Nicola Luksic immersed herself in one game called "Mortality." The event unfolded over the course of an entire weekend on a five acre patch of land just north-east of Toronto. The game's creators built up a mini-village for the gamers, complete with sleeping quarters and a tavern. The night began around a campfire in the middle of a dense forest.

The Live Action Role Playing game of Mortality continues this summer. If you're wanting a plot update, we've learned that the mythical town of Epticoira was sacked by raiders and the villagers fled for protection to a monastery of the Oberian Order."
It horrifies yet amuses me to imagine middle class Canadians running and screaming from 'raiders' before climbing into their SUVs at the end of the day, then debating whether to get McDonalds or KFC. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, a group of villagers are running and screaming, then running and screaming some more, all without the reassuring glow of a McDonalds or KFC in sight.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Equality in my stomach

Since last year, the Humane Society, along with other animal rights groups and horse enthusiasts have been working towards making the slaughter of horses for consumption illegal in the United States.

There are only three horse slaughterhouses in the US and the majority of the horse meat is exported to Europe and Asia.

While attempts to bring about an outright ban on slaughtering horses for meat have failed, animal activists succeeded in getting Congress to cut funding for salaries and expenses of horse meat inspectors. I'm guessing the strategy goes along the lines of 'if they must eat, make them regret it later'.

As a previous blog can attest to, I am very open minded about my meat. Hence, I have never understood how North Americans can a draw a line between which animal is consumable and which ones are not.

I could use the usual arguments that what we consider normal (ie eating beef) is considered inedible in other cultures (ie Hindu), or that our dependence on a limited meat source will literally be the death of us if disease were to claim every chicken, pig or cow. But how about this argument: unusual meats are delicious!

What I've eaten:
  • snail (very good)
  • duck (greasy but deeeelish)
  • partridge (deliciously delicate)
  • rabbit (gamey)
  • boar (very good)
  • moose (kind of tough)
  • snake (too many bones)
  • shark (fish is better)
  • ostrich (very lean)
  • frog legs (really does taste like chicken)
  • octopus (relatively tasteless)
What I would like to eat:
  • human (or Hufu)
  • beaver
  • horse
  • seal
  • kangaroo
  • lizard
  • goat
  • lions
  • tigers
  • and bears
  • whatever else is not endangered

But back to the matter of eating horses. I understand that horse lovers find it distasteful to consume horses because of the special affinity they have with these animals. For the same reason, I will probably never eat monkeys, dogs, or cats. However, it is presumptuous and culturally ignorant to dictate what people can and cannot eat.

Animal activists have complained that the horse slaughterhouses are inhumane in their treatment of the animals, using grisly and inefficient means of execution. To me, the logical solution isn't to stop the slaughter of horses but to create a more humane system. Dr. Temple Grandin created a livestock handling system widely in use in the US and around the world that is sensitive to animal psychology and thereby less stressful to the animal.

Thankfully, in Canada, there is no move to make the consumption of horses illegal or difficult. Long live 'quack and track'!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Google me, google you

Many years ago, before Google started acting like Microsoft, I did a search of my name in quotations on a whim. I didn't really expect anything to turn up so imagine my delight when Google returned numerous hits. The majority of the results were articles I had written for the campus newspaper, but a few were glimpses into the life of a person with the exact same name as me. This person will hereforth be referred to as Mein Doppleganger (MD for short).

I read everything I found about Mein Doppleganger. An online newsletter announced her departure from an AIDS organization and expressed how much she would be missed. A University of Toronto tutorial list told me that she enrolled in Teacher's College shortly afterwards. Then, an online class list told me that she was now a Grade 6 teacher.

I felt like I knew MD so well that I gave updates of her life to her acquaintances. During a stint in the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, with my name prominently displayed at my booth, a genial old couple asked if by chance I was the girl they knew once upon a time in Nova Scotia. Without missing a beat, I answered, "No, I'm not her, but I know exactly who you are talking about. She left her job at the AIDS organization, went to Teacher's College at U of T and now she's a Grade 6 teacher. Isn't that great?" The couple looked more than a little disturbed and then confused when I explained that Google had brought MD to my attention. They said, "Oh, really?" then fled.

Googling oneself isn't all scary. A blog entry I wrote back in November extoling the virtues of art and, in particular, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, was found by an artist in the exhibition. She wrote:
"My twin sister was googling my name and came across your blog about "I Love Art". She forwarded it to me and it made my Monday. Your blog reminded me why I create art in the first place, not to please curators but to express myself. Thanks for your comments."

See? Not scary at all.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Relax or die

After a month of stress and sleep deprivation, my immune system decided to take a vacation and now, I'm sick. I've managed to force myself to go to work, prompting my coworker to Windex her desk, the computer and the air around her, but I find it hard to do anything else.

Perhaps I should 1) listen to my body and 2) take it easy.

1) Speaking of listening to your body, that reminds me of the pregnant woman who recently gave birth on the Wellesley Station subway platform. She and her family were on their way to St. Michael's Hospital to give birth when she went into labour. A good samaritan who stopped to help accused other passengers and TTC staff of acting like zombies. This raises questions:
  • If this woman could not even afford the $50 taxi fare to get to St. Michael's, how can she possibly afford another child?
  • Does this confirm what I always suspected about the TTC advertisements that claim TTC employees are "heroes" and "caring": a feeble PR campaign easily overtaken by reality?
  • What does it take to shake Torontonians from their apathy? Perhaps if the pregnant woman had strapped a bomb to her body while screaming in pain, TTC communters would have taken a personal interest in her troubles?
2) Speaking of taking it easy reminds me of my friend Kathryn. Kathryn used to look forward to the annual blood drive at Sheridan College because she equated it with a trip to the spa. For Kathryn, it was a rare pleasure to be forced to relax in a horizontal position then receive free apple juice and cookies. Sadly, I completely understand.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Bye Bye Lindsey Lohan

According to the gossip pages, Lindsey Lohan has lost her diary and is now worried that their juicy pages will be published for public consumption in the near future. As I stood in the crowded subway, reading this annoying waste of newsprint, an idea came to me:

-Courtesy of Wikipedia
"Ostracism was a procedure under 5th Century Athenian democracy where a prominent citizen could be expelled from the city for ten years. Not considered a penalty, the expulsion could be pre-emptive (to remove someone thought to be a threat to the state or who just seemed too powerful). But the command that it made was a neutral one: We think it's best if you go away for a while."