Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Buon giorno tutti

Started an Italian class on Monday. I can tell it's going to be challenging, and confusing, but fun, too. The onus is on conversation, which will create problems for me, since I'm the kind of person who wants to know why things are said the way they are. I'm never satisfied with "that the way it is". Of course, no one's preventing me delving into the language more deeply on my own. I found some interesting sites on the Internet, especially Oggi e Domani, which has the most extensive number of lessons (free of charge) with sound files for pronunciation, both from a woman's voice and a man's voice (in this case Venus, from Botticelli, and David, from Michelangelo).

When I say I'm learning Italian, people ask me why. For fun, I reply. They look at me as if I said I love to swim outside in winter. If I'd said because I wanted to travel to Italy (which is the major reason for people in my class), then that would be okay. Even commendable. But for fun?

It amazes me how, in Canada, and probably the States as well, learning a new language is regarded as something of a chore, or an imposition, or an obligation (to keep your job, for instance, if you work in the government).

I don't know if it's a function of our Canadian bilingualism policies. If something is imposed on you, you tend to resist it. On the other hand, before we had these policies, there were no more learning of French (or English) than there is now, if it's not because you have to do it. The attitude is "Why learn French (Spanich, Italian, German), if I'll never use it? Besides, English is spoken around the world."

What most unilingual people don't understand is that, in learning another language, you get an inkling of how people from another culture think, approach problems, interact, live. And believe me, it's different. French Canadian people live and think differently than English Canadian. So do the Walloon and Flemish of Belgium, or the Basque and Castillanos of Spain. I find it exciting to get a glimpse into another culture through their language.

Even within a language there are differences. When I was learning Spanish, I was going out with a guy from Venezuela, who had friends from Colombia, Peru, Argentina. Their use of the same words had different meanings, and in turn didn't match usage in Spain. I found this fascinating. For instance, in Spain, to "coger el autobus" means to catch a bus. In Latin America, it means to fuck a bus. Ooops. As I said, fascinating, even if rife with verbal shoals.

So I'm looking forward to learning more Italian. I'll be able to jabber out the language (eventually) when I go buy my San Pellegrino at Nicastro's, or order my prosciutto without everyone around me glaring. How's that for a reason to learn Italian?

For some Italian art, visit the Galleria degli Uffizi.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Counting down...

I'm getting nervous, now. I sent the invites, ordered --and received-- the books, settled on the venue, the time, etc. What if nobody comes?

On Sunday, 3 October, I'll have my first book launch. I decided to do it at the sailing club because it's a beautiful place, and I know a lot of people there, but I've been told it's not central enough and there's no bus service, such as there is downtown.

My friend Biff Mitchell, in his current blog entry, discourages aspiring writers from picking up the pen (literal or virtual). In his words: "Forget it, you twit." I can see where he's coming from.

I think it's Lawrence Block who said that most writers wanted to have been published. The effort, the work, the rejections, the heartache are all part and parcel of a writer's life, but if, on top of that, you think you'll make a buck... forget it, you twit. After expenses, I'll be making about 50 cents per book (and that's Canadian cents).

Why do it, then?

Arrogance, I suppose. I have stories to tell, and I want people to read them. It's as simple as that. And the only way I can share those stories with the greatest number of people possible is to try to get published which, nowadays, is as easily done as pushing up rope. Even if you do get published, there's no guarantee that you'll get read.

So, if you live in the Ottawa region, take pity on a poor writer and come buy my book on Sunday, 3 October, from 3-5pm at the Nepean Sailing Club.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Currently Reading...

Since my new Jack Meter novel will somehow include mythological figures, I thought I'd brush up on Jung, who was the master of the archetype, the collective unconscious, and the one who linked myths to our psyche.

It's amazing that nearly 60 years later, his writings still make sense. One sentence struck me, in particular, in reading about the structure of the psyche: "But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life's morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening become a lie."

So many of Jung's teachings have anchored themselves into our daily lives and most of us are not aware of it. How many people seek to understand their dreams? Or will say that they're intraverted, or extraverted?

A brilliant man, and one who's still easy to read and somehow accept, in the twenty-first century.

A blog you don't want to read

My good e-friend, humorist, and writer colleague, Biff Mitchell, has started a blog . As usual, in his own twisted way, he insists that we should go read someone else's blog. Perversely, I decided to add him to my list of blogs to read daily.

Might as well start writing, Biff.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Psychology 101

Remember your Psych classes? The part about Perception? They had the classic picture of the urn that could also be perceived as two profiles, or the truncated lines that didn't look the same length or didn't appear parallel.

Well, I found this great site, Akiyoshi's Illusion pages that goes a lot farther than an urn and two profiles.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Not for the faint of heart

An entry on The Zero Boss led me to this Cybil horror show. Maybe she should change her name to Sybil and check her personalities...

Fear of Pharming

As a loose follow-up to my post on fast food, Scientific American has just published an article on the introduction of disease-fighting drugs or vaccines into plants through genetic engineering: "Scientific American: Fear of Pharming. Controversy swirls at the crossroads of agriculture and medicine."

Problem is, pollen --whether it's been genetically engineered or not, it can't know it should stay put-- travels on the wind, and is almost impossible to control.

There's enough hormones and antibiotics in the meat we eat to desensitize us and unbalance our own hormonal systems. Pretty soon, vegetarians will be able to join the ranks of the meat-eaters. Ain't it grand?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Forgiveness vs. Permission

There's a motto that says it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission. I had an experience with it associated with copyright, and I'm still ambivalent about whether I should have waited to ask forgiveness instead of asking permission.

In my next Jack Meter novel, entitled Meter Made (coming out next year), I wanted to use a quote from the beginning sentences of the program The Outer Limits. So, like a good little author respectful of copyright, I contacted MGM to ask them permission to use 10 words out of the intro.

They were very nice, but insisted to know how I was going to use the quote. I sent them an excerpt. When they found it acceptable, they said they'd be happy for me to use the quote, for a fee. A mere $750. In US dollars.

That's $75 a word, or close to $100CDN.

I had known, from their website, that there would be a fee but in my naivete I thought it would be nominal, just to discourage the frivolous. But this smacks of extortion, and I'm left to wonder how much of that fee would go back to the author of these words.

Some colleagues, when I related the incident, told me I should have used the quote without permission and waited for the lawsuit, implying that I'm such small potatoes they would have never known. (True, but depressing). And if they sued, that would be awesome free publicity.

Others said I should have paraphrased, or used the quote in quotation marks --anyone can quote someone else, right?

Neither of these alternatives work for me. If the roles were reversed, and MGM wanted to use my material (yeah, right), I'd certainly want them to contact my publisher so they could milk it to the last, not necessarily money-wise, but publicity-wise.

It's also, to me, a question of courtesy. I wouldn't use my neighbour's garden hose without asking them, even if I knew they wouldn't notice, so why would I do that with the written word? The Canadian thing again, I guess.

Did I pay? No. Did I use the quote. No. I simply removed it. But by that kind of rapacity, MGM, and others like them, encourage infrigement of copyright and plagiarism. If I'd used the quote, it certainly wouldn't have hurt them; but to my eyes I would have nicked my own probity by committing an act (albeit small) of copyright piracy.

For more on asking permission to use copyrighted work, read this article at Writing World.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Go ahead, make my milkshake

Okay, if you're going to get revenge by exploding a small bomb in a McDonald's because you got a bad milkshake, you should at least do it after you've disabled the security cameras. Duh.

I know how those guys felt, though. The last time I ate at McDonald's, I got food poisoning from an ice cream cone (I know, it's not cream). Then I happened to read two incredible books that completely discouraged me from eating fast food. The first was Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by and Eric Schlosser, and the second My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki.

Fast Food Nation is a journalistic account of how fast food is prepared, from the abattoirs and silos to the franchisees.'s Editorial Review's Lesley Reed says: "Schlosser's investigation reaches its frightening peak in the meatpacking plants as he reveals the almost complete lack of federal oversight of a seemingly lawless industry." People, as Schlosser says, "There's shit in the meat." Literally.

My Year of Meats is the fictional story, based on Ozeki's research as a journalist, of a documentary producer hired by the US Beef Industry to develop a TV series on Beef to encourage the Japanese to eat (and buy) more of it. As she travels across America in search of typical American Recipes (there's a disgusting recipe on cooking beef in Coca-Cola), she begins investigating the raising of beef, from administration of hormones, to huge cattle farms. What she finds is bad enough to turn anyone into a vegetarian.

Both books, especially taken together, are real eye-openers. I haven't had a Happy Meal in three years. I haven't missed it one bit.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Blogging for Books Winners

b4b.jpgThe winners for the third installment of Blogging for Books has been posted on The Zero Boss.

The three winners are well worth reading. You can also read the top seven entries Jay had selected and passed on to Mark Falanga, this month's judge and author of The Suburban You.

Congrats to all the winners!

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Currently Reading...

Okay, I admit it. I'm a moral prude. I'm also a voracious, eclectic reader, and there have been very few books that have made me morally cringe like Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by first time author Jeff Lindsay.

Despite his propensity for over-alliteration ("...very careful cold coiled creeping creackly cocked and ready..." "...swept, scrubbed, sprayed, cleaned as clean can be", Lindsay's writing flows well and the book is an easy read.

My problem with it is its premise. The main protagonist, the hero of the book, is a Miami cop who works for the police as a blood spatter analyst. He is also a serial killer. And, in his opinion, his kills are permissible, even laudatory, because he kills only bad people.

This is more than a vigilante attitude: Dexter needs to kill, and his need rises until he can't help himself. He takes great care in preparing to kill his selected victim, making sure that everything is ready. He kills with glee, and with self-righteousness. Then, once the deed is done, "I felt a lot better. I always did, after."

What troubles me about this book is that it makes murder acceptable as long as the person who gets it deserves it, and that there is pleasure to be derived in ridding the world of these people. It is a contravention of justice, by one who should uphold it.

Dexter is not an anti-hero, à la Thomas Covenant. He is the good guy, and one who justifies his psychosis with rationalization. Since this book is the beginning of a series, we know that Dexter will go on killing without retribution.

There is a frightening aspect to reading this book, and this is where my moral cringing rises its head: that readers would find amusing, fascinating, normal, the idea of a killer as the good guy.

Chill, you'll tell me. It's only a novel. Maybe, but the written word is powerful, and has a way to influence. It's sneaky that way. I'm not saying people will go out and kill others after reading the book.

All I'm saying is that it's easy --and maybe even natural-- to want bad people (the child killers, the abusers, the murderers) to be eliminated, but this "fighting fire with fire" lowers us to the same level as the bad guys.

That message doesn't come through.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Living life to the fullest

A friend of mine, Mimi Fortin, who lives in Edmonton and dreams of watching the Rockies from her backyard, sent me this:

"Today is International Very Good Looking Damn Smart Woman's Day, so please send this message to someone you think fits this description [...]

Motto to live by ...
"Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body... but rather to skid in sideways, champagne (or scotch) in one hand, strawberries in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming:

"WOO HOO - what a ride!"

Words to live by, indeed. Pass it on.

Weird, wacky, fun

I found this wonderful blog, the Beaver Dam French Club, that features the short writings of Ivy Dillinger, Oliver Cassidy, Victor Lembrey, Robert McEvily, Kid Nougat and Maven Quibble. Not all of it will be to everyone's taste, but the prose is quirky, young, sometimes mean, always surprising.


Thursday, September 16, 2004

A Blood Story (and not a bloody store)

Found this interesting PBS Website on the History of Blood. They start from 2500BC when the Egyptians would bleed patients to treat them, to today's concerns with AIDS. There's also a great primer on blood in the section Blood Basics.

Worthwhile spending a little time there.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Art of Living

Matthew Cheney has an interesting blog entry on John Gardner, on the anniversary of Garner's death.

The first time I read Gardner's The Art of Fiction, my reaction was "You've got to be kidding". I had just begun to write, and Gardner's book was so daunting and relentless it could have completely discouraged me from trying my hand at writing. There's a haughtiness to his ideas that spurns mediocrity (but without it, how would we know what is good?)

On second read, after I'd read other books on writing like Jack Hodgkins's A Passion for Narrative, I could extract from it the essence of the message: you have no right, as a writer, not to be as good as you should be. That means work at it, you schmuck.

Three years ago, I was lucky to happen onto one of Gardner's short story collections, The Art of Living and Other Stories, with wonderful woodcuts my Mary Azarian, in a used bookstore. The stories are strange and beautiful, and fill you with awe. Here's one of my favorite starter lines, in his story Redemption:

"One day in April--a clear, blue day when there were crocuses in bloom--Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother."

The image of a beautiful Spring day (yellow and blue, so bright and cheerful) makes the accident seem even more horrific. Twenty-two words, and he's set the tone for the entire story. Elegant, efficient, fascinating.

Even though John Gardner's Art of Fiction can be ruthless, I recommend it to any writer, even if only as a foray into the extreme, in the same way you might visit a contemporary museum when your favorite art is medieval painting. Regardless of whether you come out of it convinced or shaking your head with perplexity, you'll have been exposed to something that makes you stop and think. Gardner cannot but elicit a reaction from his reader. Isn't that the sign of success?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Currently Reading...

The Bookman's Promise is the third book in the Cliff Janeway series of an ex-cop turned antiquarian book dealer. As usual, Dunning's prose is elegant and rich in details about book collecting --not all old books are valuable books-- and in this one, about Sir Richard Francis Burton, a 19th Century Renaissance man and famous explorer.

For anyone who loves books --reading them, buying them, owning them-- Dunning's books are fascinating. He manages to mix suspense and a compelling story with the supposedly dreary world of the book seller, without either aspect clashing. (For those who would like a second opinion, you can read a review here)

Chili and bear...uh, beer

My friend Robyn Williams, who lives in Boise, Idaho, had to cut short her family camping trip last weekend. Here's why:

"We came home early from our camping trip this wkend because a bear ate all our food early Saturday AM (3# burger, 1# bacon, 8 eggs, 1# butter, a package of hotdogs, all the cheese, half-dozen candy bars, a large container of chili, a gallon of milk, a 12-pack of beer and a 12-pack of pepsi). Then came back two hours later for the bottle of ketchup he'd left behind. It was hysterical--there were the most precise tooth holes in the beer/pop cans, 2 exactly on opposite sides of the cans. Big old fart (4' at the shoulder) knew exactly what he was doing."

No wonder he didn't go for the humans. Who could resist chili and beer? The question is, did he have the milk aftewards to settle his heartburn, or first, as a preventative measure?

Monday, September 13, 2004

Beautiful Earth

We are back from our holiday in the North Channel. Five glorious days of water, wind, and sun.
First day, we couldn't go out in our 27' sailboat: 25 knots, gusting to 40 (that's over 80km/hr or 50 miles/hr), with over 2 meter waves. Bit much for our little craft. The next day, and all the others after, were compensation. The sky was steel-blue clear, with only a few clouds for variety. Ten to fifteen knots, half a meter to a meter waves. Perfect.

Then, a solitary anchorage, surrounded by pink granite and white pine. The water of Lake Huron is so limpid that we could see our anchor sitting on the bottom, 15 feet down.

Of all the places in the world I've visited, from Europe to South America, the Benjamin Islands is truly the most beautiful place I've ever seen. The contrasts of pink, smooth granite --sensual and calming at the same time--, blue-green water, and sky are stunning. The environment is pristine, despite the thousands of visitors every year, as if it the landscape itself prevents you from littering.

At night, an infinity of stars, the Milky Way walking over our heads. Shooting stars. Water lapping against the boat, loons calling.

We were well prepared, but our trip confirmed to us that knowledge of navigation and how to read a nautical chart is a must. The North Channel is full of rocks, reefs, and shallow bottoms, and you have to know where you're going. A GPS isn't enough. If you want to see more pictures of our trip, just go here.

Our charterer, CYC, was extremely professional. Their boats are clean, well-appointed, and in excellent --and near-perfect, for the new boats-- condition. We didn't miss even a corkscrew or a pencil. Pam and Ken and their staff go the extra mile to make your trip enjoyable and worry-free. They are located in Gore Bay, Ontario, on the North side of Manitoulin Island.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

For those who happen to read my blog, I am off for a week of sailing the North Channel. No, people, it's not in England, it's in Lake Huron. Anyone who's familiar with the Group of Seven painters will have an idea of what it looks like. Hopefully, we'll have good weather and I'll come back with great pictures, and it won't look like this (Lismer, Gale in September)

'Til 13 September.

Terror in Beslan

The Zero Boss has posted this extremely moving account of the experience of being taken hostage for three days in Beslan, Russia. Well worth the read.

I find it incomprehensible that people could do that kind of thing. There has been, throughout wars, massacres of children and women, but this kind of torture defies humanity and transforms people into a form lower than animals.

Even though there were deaths and a lot of injured (CBC indicates 200 dead and 600 injured), I am certain that the hostages saw it as a deliverance.

My question is, how did these people get to become monsters? Is it utter desperation, conditioning, brainwashing, or religious fervor?

Or, by trying to find a reason, are we trying to avoid the fact that there are plain bad people in this world?

Sticklers unite?

Currently reading Lynn Truss's book about punctuation. I must confess that punctuation is my weakness as a writer (that, and prepositions) probably because my mother tongue is French. Punctuation is done differently in another language, although the marks are the same.

It's eminently readable and makes you realize there's more to punctuation than meets the eye.

The book reminds me of one of the first articles I read about Artificial Intelligence, where it said that the biggest roadblock to AI would be context, or semantics. The article went on to give a very basic example, with the following sentence:

They are cooking apples

Without context, the above sentence could mean two different things: someone is cooking apples; or, these apples are for cooking.

I believe that this stumbling block is slowly being eroded, but there's still a lot of work to be done.

Electronic Time Capsule

Ever wonder what happened in the world on a specific date? How much did a loaf of bread, a car, or a house cost? What were the hot new toys?

I found this cool site, dMarie Time Capsule, that does it well. You can also tailor the results to what you want the output to look like, and it gives a printable view. Just plain fun.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Reflections on standards

Yesterday, I was replacing my plastic shower curtain with a new one (and none too soon, I might add). As usual, I bought a real cheap one at the $2-store, since fungus grows as easily on an expensive one as a cheap one.

As I was inserting the hooks on the shower rod into the holes, it came to me: every shower curtain I'd ever bought had the same number of holes, the same width and length. Who decided that?

It turns out that there is a patent schedule for "movable closures which include means to drain, deflect, or repel shower spray water" filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Then the chicken or egg thing came to me: was there a patent on the size of bathtubs first, then one for shower curtains next, or vice-versa?

Worth pondering.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

A vision of Canada

I came across this website, An American's Guide to Canada which, although tongue-in-cheek in some places, is pretty accurate. I particularly like the page How to tell you're in Canada. The site hasn't been updated in a while, unfortunately, but most of it still applies.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Found: Habitable Planets?

Scientists from California and Texas have identified two planets outside our solar system 30-40 light years away. They are two or three times the size of Earth but with similar mass, which might mean that scientists might be able to find others near them at the right distance from their sun, making them possibly habitable.