Who Shat here?

I was busy working super-hard on the new project, when, Oh noes! Someone Shat on my blog!




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Still more Viking Dad!

I'm still pulling my brain-hair out these days getting ready for the super-secret project, but rest-assured, it'll be ready for launch in just a couple of days! So please, please please stay tuned.

But in the meantime, have the new Viking Dad!

This one may be my favorite one yet!




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Some minor repairs

Okay, some maintenance issues to bring up:

Since I changed the domain, I lost a few of my widgets. I figured they'd be fixed on their own in a few days, but I over-estimated the AI of teh intertoobs. I lost the links in my blogroll, and the twitter-feed was all wacky-shack.

I decided to just use the twitter-embedded code, and as for the blogroll, I had to cull that from memory. If you were on the blogroll of mine before the switch of domains, and I forgot to throw you on the new one, please drop me a line, and I'll gladly remedy the situation.

In the meantime, I'm putting the finishing touches on a super-not-so-secret project right now, so I'll be mostly incommunicado for the next few days. Trust me, friends. This is project is big. And it's going to be awesome. Stay tuned.

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Help me, Obi-Wan..

I'm going to give a shout-out and call for help:

Desiree, host of the world's only live, call-in skeptic radio show, Skeptically Speaking, needs all of our help. Right now, CJSR, the community-radio station that operates the show is having it's annual fund-raising event, and they can use all the donations they can get.

Des has a a big team, and they've been doing a phenomenal job at bringing in some impressive talent and guests, such as Adam Savage, Phil Plait, and Richard Saunders. The kicker is this: they're doing it all on their own dime. They do this because they care passionately about skepticism, but sometimes (and often) equipment breaks, and the whole station suffers.

Running a radio station is expensive, so help them out and send em a few bucks. It goes a long way.


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On occasion, I get the question:

"Since you're atheist or agnostic or whatever you call yourself..."

"I call myself Steve"

"...very funny, jerk. As I was saying..."

"Sorry"

"...*sigh*...As I was saying, do you no longer like/listen to music with a religious/spiritual focus?"

I think that most people that go down the godless road have encountered this question, at least internally. Some deal with in very creative and awesome ways, such as creating the Skeptic Mix Tape, spreading around those awesome They Might Be Giants songs, or being George Hrab. It can be a fun exercise (it's certainly fun in the same tongue-in-cheek spirit of the original question) to find songs about science, and non-belief. But for my money...

Music is music.

I've never been one who is big on lyrics, and it takes REALLY great lyrics for me to notice (might be why I dig Tom Waits so much). So the music itself has always managed to stay in it's position of primacy for my ears.

Religious music (or, at least semi-modern religious music) has been around since churches had both an audience, and huge organs/choirs, and so the motivations for creating a piece of ethereal music can really inspire a talented composer.

Religious music can be, in this regard, likened to prayer. There are two types of prayer, just as there are two types of religious music: 1) Please God, and 2) Thanks God. Try and think of some religious music that doesn't fit neatly into one of these categories....go ahead. I'll wait. Prayer and religious music either sets out to ask God for a thing, or to praise/thank God for a thing. That's pretty good motivation for making beautiful music if you're a believer with some musical chops.

The spiritualism-in-music trend continues, and I still love songs by Bob Marley, George Harrison, and 1960's gospel-rock.

I certainly enjoy those pro-science songs, but frankly, I have yet to hear a song about the Table of Elements that can compete with this:

The note she sings at 0:51 still makes my spine tingle.

Still, secular (non-scientific) songs can compete quite easily



Anyway, I've just been feeling awfully musical lately. Thanks for indulging me.

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Remember the other day when I posted about the Straight.com advocating homeopathic preparations to contain the H1N1 virus? Remember how I pointed out that the article was written by a practicing homeopath? I didn't want to point it out at the time of writing because I was a little unsure of the veracity of the claim, but it turns out that the author of the article, homeopath Sonya McLeod is indeed the daughter of the the paper's owner, Dan McLeod.

I so far see at least 2 conflicts-of-interest: 1) The financial conflict of having a homeopath advocate that everyone should protect their health with homeopathy and 2) The blatant nepotism of allowing the owner's daughter (who has no medical expertise) to dispense medical advice about a very serious health issue. An anonymous commenter on my previous post offered a great idea: we could issue a complaint to the British Columbia Press Council because of these breaches of journalist ethics. But hold off on that until you have read the rest of this post.

Well, we got their attention, because the Straight.com has responded. The response was written under their "Blog-Politics" heading, and was written by one 'Charlie Smith', whose other articles seem to be otherwise regular news/commentary. Charlie, it seems, is rather unhappy with the response received by the skeptic community. Charlie blames medical science for more deaths. Charlie wonders if skeptics would be so outraged if we knew how many people died on a hospital bed.

Charlie, is mad.


Let's deconstruct. I've got my baloney-detection-kit ready for this one.

The study also reported that 9,250 to 23,750 preventable deaths occurred.

You read that correctly: up to 23,750 preventable deaths took place in acute-care hospitals in Canada in a single year, according to the CMAJ study.

Well, not exactly. The numbers 9250 to 23,750 were an extrapolation, not a confirmed body count. So yeah...a little dishonest, Charlie. Not as bad as having a homeopath advocate homeopathy instead of medical science, but still....a little dishonest. More to the point, science-based medicine knows of its flaws. That's why that report was launched in the first place: to look into the ways to improve healthcare in Canada. Have homeopaths ever done a look into the deaths caused by homeopathic-exclusive care?
Last week, the Georgia Straight published an article on homeopathy, which is an alternative approach commonly used in Germany, India, and other countries.
Argument ad populi: It's popular, so it MUST have something working! It's similar to the argument from authority, which the original author, Sonya McLeod loves to use on her clinic's website by saying, "Many famous people have used homeopathy successfully. They include: Mark Twain, Mahatama Gandhi, Paul McCartney, Cindy Crawford, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Tina Turner. The entire royal family uses homeopathy. Prince Charles especially is a very vocal advocate of homeopathy." Oy. Well, anything used by both Prince Charles AND Tina Turner MUST be great medicine!
We published a disclaimer at the bottom of the piece saying it didn't necessarily reflect the views of the paper.
This is true. There was a disclaimer at the bottom. But, when you're publishing medical advice, it goes far beyond the realm of a simple opinion piece! It was published in the headings: ""Lifestyle >> Health >> Health Features". Once you publish something in the health-section, the onus is on you to get the science right, otherwise you are offering health advice, in the section of your paper reserved for offering health advice! Imagine that! This was not an opinion piece, and a disclaimer does not get you off the hook.

In addition, while you assert that the disclaimer shows that the article does not neccessarily reflect the views of the paper, your unmitigated support for homeopathy and condemnation of even going to the hospital suggests otherwise.
For that, we’ve been pilloried by some readers and members of a local skeptics' group...
No, Charlie, you've been pilloried because of a) the conflict-of-interests, b) H1N1 is a very serious public health issue and your paper (or rather, the author's father's paper) is going to get people killed because of the advocacy of people not going to seek science-based medical treatment. Yet still, you continue in this vein...
...even though there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies have any dangerous side effects.
Two points on this: 1) Homeopathy is water. Smelly, funny tasting water (I know). It's a little hard to get a dangerous side effect when you have diluted the active ingredient into nothingness. But since you brought it up, when people use homeopathic remedies instead of science-based medicine, people die. The Homeopathic remedies themselves are rarely dangerous, but the article in question advocated homeopathic-exclusive treatment. That kills people.
As I read the comments from outraged readers, I asked myself: “Do these people ever raise their voices in protest against the frequency of medical errors, which actually kill people? Do they ask what the B.C. government or the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. are doing about this situation? Or do they just get in an uproar about alternative health treatments?”
Ah, the old "Tu Quoque" logical fallacy: another way of saying, "Well, YOU did it too!". Unless of course Charlie was accusing skeptics of apriori behavior. Sadly, it's ultimately a distraction, because THIS IS NOT THE ISSUE! I wish I didn't need to spell it out for Charlie so plainly.

Charlie: this is about non-qualified people offering bogus (yes, bogus) health advice in the health section of a news outlet, written with two egregious violations of journalistic independence. Don't try to make this about skeptics being mindless drones of the medical community when you know perfectly well what our argument is. An argument, which, I should point out, you still haven't responded to.
The medical community loves its peer-reviewed research, which is often underwritten by drug companies. But when Toronto physician Nancy Olivieri tried to publish some of her research that threatened the industry's profits, she was shut down.
This peer-reviewed research is more-often 'underwritten' by independent watchdog organizations and universities which receive public funding. There are laws in place that limit how much medical research an interested corporation can fund a medical study. The Nancy Olivieri case is still under review (by independent parties), and if true, it's indeed sad.

However, and I want to make this absolutely clear: No one is suggesting we all give the pharmaceutical industry a hot stone massage with a happy ending. Charlie, yours is a non-sequiter, AND a straw-man. Nicely done! Way to accuse us of something that no one mentioned, and is outside the scope of our accusations. Come to think of it, that's also special pleading on your part!

But since you mentioned profits, try $466 million euros in 2008 by Boiron, the homeopathic mega-company that Sonya McLeod pimped for in the original article. Still want to go down this road, Charlie?

The reality is that some people doubt the effectiveness of flu vaccines because the virus mutates so rapidly. Some wonder if their vaccine will have any efficacy against the particular flu virus that they might contract months down the road.
Of course there is doubt. That's what science does: it doubts itself. But we have ways of figuring out what doesn't work...in case Charlie hasn't figured it out yet, that way is science. Also, you can't get the flu from a flu vaccine because the shot you get is of a de-activated virus....it is physically impossible to get the flu. That's not suggesting there can't be a reaction, but the flu? No.
Some of these flu-vaccine skeptics might be inclined to consider homeopathy as an alternative.
Kind of jumping the gun, a little here? Talk about your a prioris! So, there is still no data supporting that the H1N1 vaccine is going to be harmful, and you're already advocating homeopathic treatment as opposed to the vaccine?
Judging from the CMAJ-published research, the biggest threat to human health isn't homeopathy; it's that trip to your local hospital.
Wow. You heard it, folks. The biggest threat to human health is not H1N1, HIV/AIDS, Malaria, or cancer...."it's that trip to your local hospital". I hope you remember that when you get in a car accident, need to have a baby, or a bone breaks while playing baseball.

Judging by Charlie's poor understanding of the CMAJ's research: statistically speaking, you're more likely to die or get disfigured of getting treated for an infection than if you stay at home and hope the infection goes away, and the hospital is far more likely to kill you.

Straight.com: You are now a danger to public health. You are complicit.

Readers: I think that now is a good time to issue complains to the BC Press Council.

**UPDATE, 11:24 pm EST** Well, it seems that TheStraight.com is not a member of the BC Press Council. Looks like they don't want to be accountable to journalistic ethics.

Thanks to Scott for letting me know about the Straight.com's response. Anxiolysis also has some information related to the post, and so does the Asshole Skeptic (who is actually quite nice!)

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More pimping for Vikings

W00t! The new Viking Dad is up. Show them some love, for they have teh funnies.

"Soft, pliable pitch" really cracks me up.



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What did I tell you? What did I tell you? Get political! Because if you don't, this kind of thing can happen! This is going to be a little rage-y folks, but please try and stay with me, because this is pretty urgent...

Conservative 'think' tank, The Fraser Institute, that bastion of IMF-friendly policy advocates, are having a conference in Vancouver about exploring the ways to not only de-regulate the Canadian CAM industry, but also to de-license the entire health profession!

"Canadians would be better served by having the licensing of health care practitioners replaced with voluntary certification, giving various competing organizations the opportunity to become certifying agencies."
Yeah. Because if there's one thing that health care needs, it's new ways to profit. For 20 years, corporate polluters were allowed to police themselves on a voluntary basis....how did that turn out?

Certification is similar to licensing in that an examination or other process is administered by an authority which attests a worker has achieved a certain level of skill, knowledge, and/or ability, and reserves a title for them to use. Unlike licensure, however, certification permits others to perform the same type of work a certified worker does.
Take a second to consider that. If the Fraser Institute had their way, your physio-therapist, pharmacist, or dentist would have the same standards of education/expertise as a self-educated homeopath, or practictioner of Ancient Chinese 'medicine'

This could be your next pharmacist: "Is your headache gone now? How about now? Now? Now? Now? Now? Now? Now? Now? Now? Now? Now?"

Esmail says the additional regulation is not needed and has simply led to the creation of yet another costly federal bureaucracy.

"The argument that government needs to extensively regulate natural health products and medicines is not supported by the data," he said.

"The Natural Health Products Directorate within Health Canada was launched in 2004 but has yet to offer any evidence showing how its regulations have improved safety or provided Canadians with access to safe, effective, and high quality natural health products."

Who is this "Esmail" person that said such a demonstrably ridiculous statement?

Well, he's the Director of Health System Performance Studies at The Fraser Institute. He completed his BA (Honours) in Economics at the University of Calgary, and received an MA in Economics from the University of British Columbia. He's Not a doctor. He's Not a health sciences expert. He has no medical/biological expertise whatsoever. He's an economist! Esmail is one of the chief architects of the conference, and to give you an idea of his cool, unbiased economist analysis, he'll also be speaking in Toronto at a conference called "Dollars and Sense: How health care cuts can help Ontario’s flatlining economy".

An economist, giving health-care advice, and people taking him seriously. What the hell is going on here? Excuse me: I'm a professional music teacher, so here's my thoughts on how you should build that above-ground swimming pool: put it nearest to the stage and piano....this will allow a most-musical enjoyment of your pool, and your swimming will only get better, because of magic!
His advice is this: stop with this costly "standards of care" thing, and just let the profit-based organizations police themselves. It's not like alternative medicine ever harmed anyone before! Also, if we cut health care, then the economy benefits! Makes perfect sense to me!

Priorities: yer doin dem wrong!

*sigh* But I guess that doesn't matter since we live in a country that has somehow made the equation that financial success=success in every other way.
The study recommended abolishing the Natural Health Products Directorate and allowing independent groups such as the Canadian Standards Association or Non-prescription Drug Manufacturers Association verify the safety and quality of natural health products.
So, the Fraser Institute is recommending that the best way to maintain public health is to allow a consortium of alternative healthcare practitioners to monitor and maintain standards of care? I wonder how they might deal with dissent and controversy? Does the Fraser Institute truly believe that the complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) industry is capable of the intellectual honesty and maturity to enforce the strictest of standards of care for the betterment of the public's health?

Sadly, I think they just don't give a damn.
...opinion polls show the vast majority of consumers are well aware that there are potential dangers associated with all types of medication: prescription, over-the-counter, and natural/herbal. The evidence also indicates that the regulatory measures implemented to date have decreased Canadians' access to natural health products and complementary and alternative therapies, while imposing substantial costs.
So, we should have a massive overhaul of deregulation, because CAM is popular? But you just said that there are health risks! The reason that these alternative treatments are harder to get is because they work no better than placebos! There's a word for charging an absurd amount of money for a placebo: it's "unethical".

I suppose it was inevitable: Free-market libertarianism advocates little-to-no government oversight, and the CAM industry thrives when no one is looking over their shoulder making sure they're doing what they claim, or holding them accountable when they kill people. We see here the union of far-right wing extremest capitalist politics with the loony-left of CAM, where scientific standards of evidence, care, and objectivity are seen as culturally oppressive, biased, and subjective.

Can we please stop acting like being non-political is a virtue for a skeptic? The Fraser institute has REAL power over our governments, our culture, and or economy. This conference will have real, and immediate impact, and they will have wide-spread support from huge swaths of the right and left wings. We're some of the only ones with the evidence, let's use it!

Spread this story around! Write for your local papers/outlets! Vancouverites: this is going to be at your door, so stand firm and make sure that people know that de-regulating the CAM industry will kill people!

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**Update, when you're done reading, click here, because the offending paper has responded**

So, there's this online news site operating out of Vancouver, called "Straight.com". A few months back, in their 'Health' section, they published a credulous article advocating Homeopathic preparations (I refuse to call them 'remedies' or 'solutions') for what might ail' ya during the summer months. The article hurt so many parts of my brain, and most of the comments reflected the author's narcissism ("Aysha, my very mature and independent 5-year-old..."), ignorance ("For more chronic conditions, you may have to consult a classical homeopath."), appeals to authority ("Prince Charles is a very loyal and vocal advocate for homeopathy"), appeals to anecdote ("Half an hour after she was stung, I sent her back to school with a few doses of Apis in her pocket. Later that night, all traces of the bee sting were gone") and just plain awful writing ("If your child is running around the beach or park barefoot and steps on glass or a rusty nail that pierces the skin, think of Ledum").

Despite the ignorance of the article, there were some great skeptical comments written by some of my skeptical peeps (skeeps?). Sadly, the skeptic voice was in the minority...probably because anecdotal testimony is very compelling to hear. People can be very easily be convinced by an emotional story or special pleading ('you're a closed-minded materialist, and that's why you think homeopathy is bunk. Didn't you know that Quantum Physics means anything can happen for no reason?' is the general tone in many comments).

Well, the author of that article, one Sonya McLeod, is at it again. This time, she's extolling the virtues of homeopathy to combat the H1N1 virus.

You heard me: Placebo water-pills using magic and sorcery to vaccinate against one of the deadliest flu-strains to hit Canada in generations.

The article itself is almost too stupid to deconstruct. If you're familiar with this blog, you probably are very familiar with homeopathy anyway, so you don't need me to do what others have done better. As a quick example, she sites how in 1918, homeopathy saved thousands of lives (citing statistics from a Homeopathic journal three years later). Well, Orac knows how to deconstruct that kind of claim.



McLeod vociferously advocates that worst kind of CAM rhetoric. She's not saying that you should supplement your actual medicine with homeopathy, she's advocating that you use homeopathy largely instead of seeing your doctor, or getting vaccinated!

People could die because of this kind of talk.

I wonder why Straight.com would allow such a horrible lapse in what we would expect to be a source for professional journalism. An editor would have done an even cursory background into McLeod's background.

Well, since the editors and journalists over there are too afraid/lazy/apathetic to do their job, I did some digging for them.

As it says on the bottom of the article, McLeod is a practicing homeopath. This, by itself does not denote conflict-of-interest, as registered clinicians and physicians write all the time. But I wonder if her staunch advocacy for homeopathy comes in part from the fact that she owns/operates her own homeopathic 'clinic' in Vancouver, and sells homeopathic preparations, first aid kits, and yes, immunizations.

That 'basic' homeopathic first aid kit will set you back $120. No wonder McLeod insists that "Some homeopathic clinics also sell homeopathic first-aid kits, which I strongly believe no household should be without."

Horrible, horrible conflict of interest? Yeah. I think so. It doesn't take a skeptic to see where her motivations for homeopathic-exclusive treatment comes from.

Straight.com: I recommend you either a) disavow yourselves entirely from the damaging profiteering done by Sonya McLeod, or b) invite actual doctors to write several counter-articles warning that H1N1 is a VERY serious flu strain, and for people to get proper medical treatment/vaccinations that have been proven not in a single homeopathic court, but by multiple, independent sources.

Otherwise, if people start dying in the Greater Vancouver Area because they've opted to vaccinate their kids with silica diluted in water to the point that there is no silica left, you will also be to blame.


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New Domain!

In case you haven't noticed, I've purchased a new domain for the blog. Remember the days when a getting a domain would have cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $25-30/month? Yikes. Well, I paid $10.00 for the whole year. It's easy, cheap, and blogger automatically redirects for you.

That being said, please update your links, bookmarks, feed readers, skywriting staff, cave-painters, and any Banksy-like artist you may have in your employ. The new address is
http://www.somecanadianskeptic.com/. It's not 100% necessary to update/change, but just in case you wanted something to do this evening, you could do that.

Teh internetz: Ahm doin dem right!



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That post about I made the other day helped to generate a bit of a discussion, and I've had some constructive feedback. So please, allow me to clear up a few points.

You all know of my politics. I'm a left-leaning kinda person with an academic background in political economy (I'm hesitant to say 'liberal'). Michael Shermer mentioned in his talk at TAM that everyone who identifies themselves as a political person tends to view their politics as the right one, and that everyone else is politicized. I do my best to steer clear of this trap, and have yet to be accused of having my skeptical-writing informed by, or biased towards my left-leaning politics. Maybe people are too polite to speak up, but if I am indeed guilty, then please make your case. I'm not looking for a fight, I truly want to be proven wrong. Still, I do think that some members of our community are more prone than others of politically-charged skepticism...of using their skepticism to push their politics.

But...

Despite the perils of such behavior does that mean we should run the other way simply by virtue of an issue being political?

There is a difference between being apolitical and being anti-political.

By my view, here's the line of demarcation: When a political party/interest group behaves a certain way as to be antithetical to the interests of science/skepticism, the way in which a person reacts can make them a-, or anti- political.

For some examples: a) The Conservative Party has been hard at work silencing and avoiding the science that implicates the Alberta oil sands with regards to the anthropogenic nature of global warming, b) The NDP has been very vocal about its opposition to Nuclear power, and c) the Green Party has been offering support for the CAM industry. (Also, note that I did not include Harper's appointment of chiropractor/acupuncturist Gary Goodyear as minister in charge of Science and Technology....that was a strictly political appointment, and I doubt that it has very little to do with the conservative platform/ideology a priori ).

In these three examples, how should we, the rationalist/skeptic/critical thinker react?

If a person chooses to condemn the mentioned parties because of their anti-scientific practices, then they are still being a-political. After all, it was the politics and ideologies that made the particular stances for these parties' policies, not the science itself. Therefore, we can remain apolitical and still go after these parties for failing so hard. So long as we don't preferentially go after a given party, or frame the discussion as part of a larger political ideology, the skeptic may freely engage the party while still being apolitical.

On the other hand, if a person decided to avoid the situation altogether simply because politics and/or parties are involved, this makes the person anti-political. That's fine, people are allowed to be as anti-political as they wish (and it's understandable, given the nature of politics). But for my money, if we avoid the parties altogether, or limit our interactions with them to just our votes, then we abandon the science issues to the hands of ill-informed, politically-driven people that make the decisions for us. The stakes are simply far too great.

The stakes are also too great for me to not condemn my usual parties of choice (reluctant choices though they may be) when they exercise poor science/critical thinking in the favor of those that would abuse our environment, our science students, or our public health for political/ideological purposes. We absolutely MUST engage with parties/interest groups in Ottawa, Washington, London, etc... if we are to affect any pro-science agenda.

And that is the kind of politics that we should all be aware of.


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Tonight was the first time I could get outside with the telescope since the move to Niagara. The pictures were nothing too amazing or unusual, but whatever: I got to take pictures, and that's important.

Vega

Jupiter.

Feels good to be able to do this again.

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Allow me to do pimp a little for a moment.....


White Bread.


First off, why aren't you listening to Skeptically Speaking? If you had been, you would have known that you can hear interviews with Phil Plait, Richard Saunders and Daniel Loxton! Well, if you know those names, then you probably a) don't need me to link to their sites, and b) listen to the show already. Good for you.

You might want to listen in on Friday, because Des has Mythbuster Adam Savage on! In addition, it will also be live on Ustream!

Sweet.

Skeptically Speaking is done on community, non-profit radio. I've done that gig for two years and I can tell you from experience how hard-up for capital those stations are. Equipment breaks, phones are sketchy, and almost (if not all) of the work is done on a volunteer-basis. This, in turn can lead to volunteers having to cancel at the last minute (usually because they have to work), leaving those in the studio to do double duty.


Pictured: Double Doodie


The station that operates the show is CJSR, in Edmonton. They're having their annual fund-raising drive very soon. So if you like the show, and wish to support the world's only (known) live, call-in skeptic radio show, why not donate and show them some love. Remember, they do this for free, and running a radio station is NOT cheap!




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We be jammin'

Just felt like jamming. Also, I forgot how much my head weaves around like that when I play




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Fender Crashocaster

Hey guy who smarshed into my car:

My car was parked. It was out of the way. That's the great thing about being parked: not being in the middle of the road, it doesn't tend to be in the way of you, the driver.

Isn't transportation great?

I recently moved here. I moved here for work. I'm very happy with my new job. I'm happy that I moved here.

You, apparently don't like either me, or Pontiacs. You did this to my car while I was at work:

Note the X-Wing fighter in the rear-view mirror. Even the rebels couldn't stop this from happening....I guess my car is harder to hit than an exhaust port.

Driving: Yer doing it wrong.

Ya wang.

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Mind if I stand on that soapbox for a second? kthanks....I'z got summin to say...

Can skeptics be political?

Opinions are divided on this issue. Some view organized skepticism to be similar in spirit to science, which must remain non-political. Others view organized skepticism as an interest group, one which promotes science, science education, and science advocacy.

Please allow me to make my case.

Firstly, a point which tends to get lost in the kerfuffle is that politics is a loaded term. People generally use it to refer to everything from party politics, to government, to the way in which people use their influence in everyday life. Allow me to offer up a working definition of Politics.

Politics is the exercise of social power over other people's lives.

Unfortunately, we still haven't gotten anywhere with that term. It's more precise than it was before, but confusion is still likely to creep in. What kind of social power? How does one exercise the power? Who is the exercised, and who is the exerciser? Let me break this down to a few categories which people tend to get tripped up over: Party politics, Government politics, and Social politics.

Partisanship: It's my Party and I'll cry if I want to
For my part, I find that most people who are most vociferously opposed to skepticism getting political generally conflate 'politics' with 'partisan'. On an even close examination, the rage falls apart, because of course skeptics shouldn't get partisan! But consider the opposition to climate change science from those on the conservative side of the spectrum. By the same token, consider the free pass that liberals give to the CAM industry. Conspiracy-theory thinking is wide-spread all over the political spectrum: on the right, we see the birthers, on the left, we see the truthers. Can skeptics really afford to be non-partisan when, lets face it, some parties and political ideologies do indeed perform better or worse in skeptic-related issues. We fancy ourselves, at the very least, to be armchair experts in so many areas, yet some in our community pretend that politics (read: partisanship) is a kind of taint. I say to you now: We skeptics need to get partisan when the situation requires it.

If the Conservative Party of Canada tries to silence science that implicates the tar sands of Alberta, then go after the Conservative party on that issue. If the Green Party advocates public funds to be diverted to homeopathy and naturopathy, then go after the Green Party on that issue. Skeptics must not oppose or support any single party as a rule, but we must never shy away from engaging a political party when that party needs to be taken to task.

Government: ...At best, a necessary evil
There's more to politics than just the party. Indeed, politics arose from the need for government. As unclean as it makes me feel, people need a government. Anyone who tells you differently has obviously never seen a police officer, firefighter, or used indoor plumbing, roads or schools. Party Politics in Canada has its roots back in the years just after the American Revolution: when Loyalists flooded north and greatly increased the population of what is now Ontario, the power-balance between English-protestant Upper Canada (Ontario) and French-Catholic Lower Canada (Quebec) was challenged greatly, and the only way to forward a government agenda was for legislators to team up with like-minded individuals. On the right formed the Tories and the left gave birth to the Grits (later, the Liberals). Government and governance makes parties, not the other way around.

In Bill Clinton's parade of narcissism auto-biography, he would occasionally pepper the narrative with "Bill Clinton's Rules of Politics". One always stood out in my mind: "You can have good policy without good politics, and good politics without good policy, but you can't have good government without both." If we, as skeptics want to affect government policy, then we'd best figure out our politics. In the bastardized words of Ralph Nader: You'd better figure out politics because if you don't, politics will get YOU. While we skeptics act like politics is a taint on otherwise pure science/science education, the CAM industry has a massive army of lobbyists who have deregulated naturopathic remedies so much so that people die as a direct result of poisionous naturopathy. The British Chiropractic Association is ready with libel tourism to use the judicial branch to silence its critics, and the Australian anti-vaxxers are convincing not just alarming numbers of Australian citizens, but Australian legislators so much as to allow a multitude of loopholes protecting parents from not vaccinating their children, even if they result in a Whooping Cough epidemic. Still feel like we need to be non-political?

Our opponents correctly learned that politics is too important to be left to politicians. Maybe its time we learned that lesson too.

Remember in A Demon-Haunted World where Carl Sagan talked about how much our world is dependent on science and technology? He expertly framed that bit by asking what kind of legislators would we, as a civilian population, elect if we didn't understand science and technology? Well, I submit that it's great to keep ourselves educated and in the loop and we can continue to make inroads into more mainstream media, but it won't mean a pair of fetid dingo's kidneys if our legislators don't understand our message. There's much more to this game of skepticism than just science education.

How can we call ourselves science advocates if we're too afraid to actually advocate? Who are we advocating to? Organized skepticism can sometimes act like a colossal echo-chamber that isn't as colossal as we think it is. Politicians still treat science like a political issue, opting for balance, fairness and political expediency. We all know that there are some issues that are not balanced, and we need to keep pressure on our elected officials that a)there is no debate in the scientific community about evolution or the anthropomorphic nature of global warming, b) the placebo effect of homeopathy and acupuncture is very well documented, c) strict government controls on the CAM industry can save lives, d) religious and cultural exemptions from vaccinating children can (and has) killed children.

It's great that we're trying to gain a voice in mainstream media, and that outlet will indeed help us on the cultural front. But there is a legislative and judicial front that also needs equal attention. We're supposed to be the experts in matters of skepticism, so why to do we shy away from real action when our opponents are only too happy to influence policy in our absence?

Cultural/Social Politics: Since there are no angels around...
Anyone who has ever worked with another person, or gone to school, has dealt with the politics of the social. There will always be a person/people in our midst who try to remind us that they're in charge, more experienced, more capable, or simply better at the job. The term "office politics" has a very real, and visceral meaning to anyone who has been on the business end of that particular stick, and its not uncommon for people to quit their jobs as a result of social politics.

Like it or not, organized skepticism is partly a cultural war. What's worse: we're losing. Big time. Our opponents have expertly learned how to exploit our higher values of freedom, fairness and equality to their advantage. Look at the Intelligent Design proponents: They have successfully painted us as dogmatic religious demagogues who don't allow debate! How on earth did this happen? How bad are we as a movement when the extreme religious right convinces the general public, even a little bit, that the side of empirical evidence is somehow unfair and biased? We're doing something mega-wrong here.

One thing we need to stop doing is acting like every major religion is just as kooky as Scientology or snake-worship. The conflation of atheism and skepticism works against skeptics, not atheists. Don't get me wrong, I am, for all intents and purposes, proudly and openly atheist, but the two camps must be kept separate when it comes to the major religions. When something like Catholicism becomes as embedded as it is, it has gained cultural traction that we can't compete with....so making fun of transubstantiation one day and then imploring people that skeptics aren't cynics might not be the best way to get people to listen to us when we talk about the placebo effect of homeopathy: a) most people don't care about homeopathy and b) once we start using skeptic channels to make atheist arguments, the religious people will already be opposed to what we say about anything.

I hate to say this: the truth is not enough. Cultural sensitivity would be a valuable weapon in our arsenal right now. Maybe we can not share people's respect for the symbol of the Eucharist but still impart that we respect the people themselves. It's easy to say that we all do this, but a quick read of the comments sections of a few well-known skeptic blogs might suggest that we haven't learned this lesson quite as much as we think. I'm guilty of this too.

It's an uphill battle, to be sure. The truth is a powerful gun when it's loaded with evidence. Lets not use that truth to shoot religious ideas in the junk when we know full-well that the religious people will be similarly smarting. The unfortunate reality of culture is that people identify with their beliefs....when you attack the belief, you attack the person. Even though acupuncture has nothing to do with Roman Catholicism, to the Catholic (and they outnumber us 20-to-1), they see the loudmouth, insensitive skeptic who just insulted one of their most cherished beliefs, so it doesn't matter what we say, whether it's about acupuncture or Arrested Development.

Cultural sensitivity is itself, politically advantageous to us. What's more, we needn't sacrifice our ideals for political expediency....after all....do you need to joke that the communion wafer is just a cracker? (of course, once the death threats start rolling in, then all bets are off!)

Before I step down from the Soapbox...
I say that skeptics not only can be political, but skeptics must be political. There is too much at stake, and we're losing. The only point I must object to skepticism getting political is when a skeptic blindly follows/opposes a political party/ideology as a general rule of thumb. Some parties are better than others on some issues, and some are worse. We must deal with these on issues as they come, not shy away from them entirely simply by virtue of their party / government-affiliation.

Support pro-science candidates in school boards. If there aren't any: run yourself! Write your MP, MPP, MLA, MA, Congressman/woman, Senator, Governor, Premier. You can even write the Prime Minister. Are you a part of a local political group? Inject your skepticism in there! Use your political/labour/business/academic/volunteer connections to support science and skepticism! There are great ways to get ideas, but please: get inspired, get involved, get active, and indeed...

GET POLITICAL


Thanks for reading this long, pretentious, and preachy post. I've got this political science education and I'm sick of hearing that skeptics shouldn't be political. People generally assume that there is something inherently corrupt/corrupting about politics, so hopefully I cleared up some things, without losing some of my awesome skeptical friends/allies.


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The other day, I made a post about my first day as a professional music teacher. The first comment/question posed by one of my astroskepic-friends got me thinking a great deal about the topic of learning music, not from the perspective of a musician or from a teacher, but from a skeptic's perspective (who also happens to be a music teacher). So to the question: "Is it ever too late for someone to learn music?", I answer "no....unless you suffered an accident in shop class as a teenager, it's never too late to learn music".

Perhaps a better way to ask the same question would be "Is there an ideal age at which a person can learn to play an instrument?" The short answer is 'no'. The long answer follows:

Conventional wisdom teaches us that learning an instrument is best done at an early age, partly because music is just like a language and children have a natural knack for learning languages over adults.

This is semi-accurate.

Music does indeed follow similar rules to those of a language. Modern music notation stretches back to the 7th century, and the ancient Greeks, Arabs, Indians and Chinese had their own notation (or written language) for music even earlier. If I may be metaphorical here, music has its own set of rules for grammar, syntax and punctuation. The rules tend to change from culture-to-culture (i.e. the diatonic scale has seven notes, whereas its Chinese equivalent, the Huang Zhong scale, uses five notes, while some Arab and Indian scales use 22 and 24 notes, respectively), just as dialogues dialects may change. There is indeed a "language" of music....though the languages themselves change, music is understood partly in language-like terms.

Music is also highly mathematical. The mathematical system to build a scale was the same used by Pythagoras was the same used by the ancient Chinese, and has not changed: sound frequencies and harmonies all obey the same physical laws today in Canada as they did in ancient Greece. The way a piano player builds a chord is not just because it simply sounds good: The reason they sound good is because the frequencies of the sound waves match up in a particular way as to cause no dissonance to our ears. This is not a socially-constructed truism about music: a poorly-tuned guitar really does hurt our ears! Competing sound waves crash into the micro-hairs in our ears faster than our brain can compensate, and the resultant sound makes our eardrums rattle, our spines tighten, and our faces clench up in a very real pain (the reason people do this when Nickleback plays has another explanation). Any producer that uses an auto-tuner understands this: The sound is off-tune, the producer injects some science into the recording, and the sound that comes out the other end has sound waves that work in both audible and mathematical harmony. The math works, and so the music works...not the other way around.

I don't wish to sound reductionist here, because there is of course, a tremendous artistic/cultural aspect to music. Even though the musical grammar and math rules haven't changed much, tastes certainly have: Today, we teach the diatonic scale, but 400 years ago we taught the pentatonic scale. You know the pentatonic scale, it's this one:


You also know the diatonic scale. It's this one:



Over historical time, geographical distances and cultural boundaries, the foundations of what we learn when we learn music changes quite a bit. You may think that a difference of just 2 notes in a scale is no big deal, but try to play the 4th chord of Let it Be when that 4th chord doesn't even exist!

Music is part language, part math, and part art.

Language is all language.

The reason that children are so adept at learning languages is because we have evolved as a species to do so....it is a trait that is selected-for. A child needs to learn to communicate with his group at an early age if they're going to learn what berries not to eat, where the fish are, or who the tribe elder is.

Pictured: The Tribe Elder.

The older a person gets, the less need they have to learn a new language. So, our brain, perfectly content with forming the language pathways for 15 years, tends to drop off that skill. Adults have difficulty learning a new language not just because they're old and curmudgeonly (see the photo above), but because their brains are actually abandoning that particular ability.

Music, however, is not selected for: It is an epiphenomenon that just sort of happened because we were good at figuring out other things. If music were selected for from the time that the first languages were developing, it's highly likely that every person would play some instrument, and we would all have 12 fingers by now. Music does not depend on a single part of the brain's functioning in its favor, but it needs a wide array of tools from the brain, nervous and musculature system:

Language,
Math,
Abstract thinking,
Memory,
Pattern-recognition,
Fine-muscle-control,
Fine-motor-control,
Rhythm,
Creativity,
Improvisation,

And a whole-host of other tools needed from your body (not just your brain).

I've been teaching music for over a decade now (though this particular job is new), and speaking from anecdote (if I may be allowed), adults generally are better students than children. Adults are better at pattern recognition, they have better fine-motor/muscle control, and they're generally more patient with their failures than children are. These are learned behaviors/skills, so it's only natural that someone with more tree-rings would be a little more adept at learning the piano than a sapling.

However, there are somethings that know-no age limits. Rhythm and creativity come to mind. Just as a person's age would give them an advantage when it comes to pattern-recognition, it also works to their disadvantage if they have no sense of rhythm. I also teach drums, and my youngest student (6 years old) figured out how to keep a beat better than a 16-year old I taught a few years back. The 16 year old had never understood that it's important to have a sense of rhythm, so he never tired (and never had someone correct him), and he stayed in his lazy behavior until I beat it out of him (get it? 'cause he's a drummer. I'm very clever, you see). The inherent advantages of being an adult music student are just as likely to be a disadvantage.

There is an another point that I have yet to address. Learning music at an early age would indeed give you a jump-start. So by the time you're in your 20's, you'll be super-awesome at it. That's the only definite advantage, but as you can surmise: there's no reason that a 10-year old will learn music faster than a 30-year old.

So if you're over the age of 20, and think that it's too late to learn how to play the guitar, you're wrong. You've got just as good a chance at learning how to play Smoke on the Water as your 9-year old niece.

However, if you're 35 and you want to learn a 2nd language, take comfort that you've got a snowball's chance in hell at succeeding.

How does that taste? Get used to it.

Enjoy.

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9/11 x2

I remember exactly what I was doing 8 years ago at the very moment that I write this. So do you. But I also know of a Sept 11 story that I bet you're not too familiar with.

Like the one of 8 years ago, it is incredibly sad.

Like the one of 8 years ago, it is incredibly important that we all know what happened that day, because it's been happening over and over again all over the world.

Please take the time to watch this.





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Healthcare Humour

If you read this blog with any sort of regularity, you probably have trouble tying your shoes. You may also know that I've tackled the Canadian/US healthcare *ahem*...debate before. Once in a while though, some funny comedians and actors get a hold of a video camera and present the insane departure from discourse for what it really is: a theatre of the absurd, barely able to make the slightest bit of sense.




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A 29-year old ghost hunter in Toronto fell to her death this morning while on a 'ghost-hunt'. Police say she and her partner had been drinking. I'm not going to make any jokes about this or anything (beyond the pun in the title of this entry), because these things are sad to hear no matter what. I'm not going to blame this woman's fixation on the paranormal for her death, as it seems to be as much about the drink as it was about her 'exploration'.

What I will talk about is the linked article from the Toronto Star. I found it to be terribly disappointing not just from a skeptic's perspective, but even from a news perspective. We're told very little about the accident (which may very well reflect the amount of information the Star has, which is fine), but half of the narrative tries to draw a historical connection to a paranormalist bent, citing an unsolved murder, another accidental death (in 2008), and a quote from Matthew Didier, a man "who has been following paranormal activity in the city for more than 12 years".

I'm not going to fault the author for not using this article as an opportunity to present a skeptical outlook on ghost-hunting (which would be pretty damned opportunistic and tasteless), but the particular slant chosen was one of credulity. It could have been to provide more detail about the woman who died, the details of her injuries, or the dangers of drinking while exploring some of these really old buildings. Instead, it was treated with a level of credulity that makes the Star look embarrassing.

Toronto Star: You fail.


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Take the time, if you can. I understand that teenagers are inherently stupid, but this is beyond that....It's just....ARGH!!!!






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Today was my first day as a full-blown professional music teacher. I packed up my entire life, possessions, and kitty-cat and moved 3 hours away to a region where I know fewer friends than I have fingers on my right hand. It was a great-big gamble, and today, I started the job that I tossed so much into the pot for (is "toss into the pot" a metaphor? Probably not. Whatever, I don't care) in the first place.

I taught 10 students today in mostly 1-on-1 sessions (with another group-instruction class awesomely called "Rock Band Class"...and no, it's not about the videogame, so stop asking). The youngest student I taught today was 11 years old, and the oldest was 14, so I'm getting kids who are right at "that age".

I'm already a little disappointed at their previous teachers, because all the students were taught was just how to play individual songs. They had memorized the motions of songs (and did them perfectly well, to be honest), but had very little grasp of what they were actually doing, on a meta-level. I've got my work cut out for me, and I'll have to re-teach these students things like scale-building, chord progressions, and how to arch their fingers. These kids have picked up a lot of really bad, lazy habits. If they're not corrected for now, they're only going to know how to play a handful of songs, and not have a clue of how to learn songs with their own ears and creativity. I have to teach them the most basic of basics again.

And that is truly humbling, and wonderful opportunity. It will be hard work for me, but it's the best hard work I could ever hope for.




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What Labour means to me

Today is Labour Day (or Labor Day if you're American). Most people regard this as the last day of the summer: one final hurrah to get drunk with friends, enjoy a picnic with the family, or get up to the cottage and into the boat one last time. I think of Labour Day a little differently. I think of it as a celebration and recognition of the blue-collar workers who make life for you and I run just a little bit smoother.

It takes workers to pave the roads, run the telephone lines, or work the cash register. Someone had to stock the shelves at the grocery store, and someone worked inside a gas station every long weekend while you drove to your vacation-spot. Everything we consume/use today is made possible because of the over-looked workers who sacrificed their family time, their health, or their own sense of being, just to be able to put food on their table. These are the working class people. They make or lives possible, and yet we treat them like garbage (especially the ones who clean up our garbage).

Anti-union sentiment is at the highest I've ever seen it. Major companies can (and do) close down entire branches because the employees decide to resort to their only weapon to protect themselves from the abuses of the company: working together. The word 'Union' contains a pejorative connotation. As a country and civilization, we now trust the companies, the government and the invisible hand of the free market to treat our employees like human beings, more than the human beings themselves. Bargaining with the unions is seen as a bad thing and will forever castigate the individual who says, "lets hear what the union has to say".

What the hell happened here?

I hear it all the time: Unions were fine once, but now they're corrupt, all of them! All they do is make business more difficult than it needs to be, and companies are closing because of Unions!"

I call epic bullshit.

If there were no Unions tommorow, who would stand up for the workers? Modern capitalism forces short-term profits to the front of the priority list, so it's certainly in the companies' best interests to pay their employees less and to provide little-to-no safety precautions, so no help there. The government has proven to be a valuable ally for business (the bigger the better), and has written all manner of legal loopholes to limit liability and accountability for corporate fraud, abuse and theft....the government now answers to big business, not the other way around anymore, so no help their either.

The only thing workers can do nowadays is to stand together, and work (ha!) as a single unit. Not even the mightiest company can overcome tens of thousands of workers refusing to work until their reasonable demands are met.

Do your children have to work anymore? Thank a union.
Does your workweek cap at 40 hours? Thank a union.
Do you get health benefits? Thank a union.
Do you get maternity leave? Thank a union.
Do you get sick leave? Thank a union.
Does your workplace have safety-precautions? Thank a union.
Have a weekend? Thank a union.
Do you have more time off than time at work? Thank a union.
Do you get to retire one day? Thank a union.
Ever have a paid holiday? Thank a union.
Take a day off and not been fired? Thank a union.
Not been fired for being gay, black, or a woman? Thank a union.
Do you get overtime pay? Thank a union.
Have a minimum wage? Thank a union.
Has that minimum wage risen since the 1970's? Thank a union.

I may be a bit biased, coming from a working-class background, but I get positively misty-eyed when I think about how much crap unions have had to deal with, and of how much I owe my very existence to. No, I don't think I'm speaking in hyperbole here. My mom got time off of work to raise me and my siblings, and the blood (literally) of past union activity allowed her the freedoms that her mother didn't have.

If you ever go to a store for any reason on a statutory holiday, please thank the worker who serves you. It's the least they deserve.


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I know I haven't been really skeptical lately, but I'm really enjoying exploring the Niagara region, taking pictures (and trying to find a low-light pollution area for some later astronomy purposes). Some pretty big skeptic plans are coming to a head right now, so that is also keeping me busy.

And oh yeah, I'm starting that whole new career thing in a couple of days, so I guess that fits in there too, I suppose.

Here are some pictures I took tonight from atop the Niagara Escarpment. It's a bloody stunning environment and in less than a week, I have come to love this area more than 5 years of living in Peterborough.

Just after moonrise, the moon gets all squishy. I've been after a shot like this for a year now! The bottom part of the moon has more atmosphere and curvature to pass through than the top part, so it looks like it's being compressed from the bottom. Neat effect, Earth and Moon system!

From the Escarpment, looking south-east towards the rising moon, The QEW, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, and the United States. Hi, America!
The clouds were dancing with the Moon tonight. Very considerate of them, I thought. Especially that Eye Of Sauron-looking thing!

Toronto, as seen from atop the Escarpment. Pretty city. Bright Lights.




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Pimping for Vikings

Okay, time for some pimping.

Remember this video? Well, it was made by a long-time film-making friend of mine (we go back to the days before Back to the Future!) who has his own production company and comedy troupe (of which yours truly is an occasional contributor). He, and a bunch of other writer/actor/director-friends are in the process of making a new project, and I think it looks good. Probably because I'm not involved at all in the project, this should be pretty funny stuff.



This has been in the mind of a friend for a long time, and it's great to see it finally come to fruition.

Also, if you're at Dragon*Con right now, why haven't you drank a glass of Jameson's on my behalf? Also, why haven't you drank 17 glasses of Jameson's and drove drunk all over town, running over hobos and nuns on my behalf? The answer better be, "Papa Smurf".


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The Onion Wins Again

If this has made the internet rounds while I was mostly offline, forgive me....

Subtlety. It is the cornerstone of the best satire from Rabelais to Tom Leher to Stephen Colbert. Once again, The Onion proved to be just a little too subtle for some people to understand. In this case, the credulous were probably not EFL people, so they can get a little more of a pass than the Onion's previous victims.


Still funny though. I'm glad The Onion can still sucker people in without trying, or even meaning to.

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Okay, I'm finally back online. No longer a internet thief, my internet account came online with just 15 minutes to spare before the deadline was to be up. I'm still going through a mountain of inbox-material, so if you've sent me anything in the past few days (you know who you are), please bare with me a little longer. I'm tired, sunburned, and in no mood to be riffling through what I missed. Instead, I'll just post some more pictures of my new home. Not exactly 'my home', but in a nearby conservation area with the most unfortunate name ever: "Ball's Falls".







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The Niagara Stephensula

Firstly, I'm still stealing my neighbour's internet. Don't judge me. My own internet is on the way, and I'm only using their broadband for stuff like this at non-peak hours (note the time I'm posting this).

Secondly, here are a few pictures I've been snapping the past 24 hours. I'm really enjoying exploring the area in a way that I've not really experienced before. When I lived in London, I didn't have a car, so the exploration was limited to what my friends would drive me to, or wherever the buses went. When in Peterborough, the landscape/foliage was virtually identical to my hometown area, so it was a little boring to go exploring (and you had to go fairly far to see anything worth seeing). But the Niagara region is rich with a huge diversity of foliage, agriculture, landscapes, and waterfront. I'm within a few minutes drive from Lake Ontario, grape vineyards, peach groves, and all manner of natural-world amazingness.

Today, I bought a basket of fruit. It had peaches, nectarines, grapes, pears, black plums, yellow plums, red plums, strawberries and apricots. I paid $5. I'm sure that my American friends (especially those of you living in California and Virginia....you know who you are), might be rather unimpressed by my description of fruit everywhere. But please remember: the dominant crops I grew up around were corn, tomatoes, and lettuce. Delicious, to be sure, but borrrrring.

The point is, I'm very glad I took this job, and moved here. By my estimation, the Niagara Peninsula is giving Georgian Bay a serious run for its money for the title of "Ontario's Most Beautiful Region".

Here are some pictures:

While standing in a park in Grimsby, ON, distant Toronto can be seen directly north across Lake Ontario. See it? It's rather small.

Here, let me zoom in for you:

This was taken atop a hill in beautiful Vineland, ON. That's Lake Ontario in the background, and Toronto in the very back.



This is the Hobbiton-like countryside I now live around. Anyone who ever leaves this place and doesn't have to, is a bloody fool. I drove up that road in the foreground and bought me lotsa fruit for not lotsa money.

And finally, Toronto, from the same top of the hill....way zoomed in:


That's all for now.

To those of you attending DragonCon, and especially the Star Party: cheer loudly and obnoxiously when you see my video. Then, when you inevitably go out for drinks, please drink a glass of Jameson's Irish Whiskey for me, then send me a picture. I missed TAM and DragonCon...I need to have some degree of vicarious presence!




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