Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Iraq Situation: a quick intro

Iraq is one of those black-box subjects. We don't really know the context or the history particularly well, because the news is, well, new. I looked into 20th-century Iraq, and also Iran 'cos that seems like the next big thing to worry about. Below are the fruits of my labour.

People have been beating up Iraq for thousands of years. Every time someone went conquering, it seemed that their path went right past Baghdad. Of course, it wasn't 'Iraq' before WW1; it was called Mesopotamia (though things were so spread out, it makes more sense to call it 'the area kind of close to Baghdad'). It gradually evolved its current shape under the British, who released it to govern itself in 1932, but then invaded in 1941 because the leader, Ali, was too chummy with Hitler. They left in 1947.
1958, 1963, 1966, 1968: four coups. The last brought Saddam Hussein into power, and he essentially became a dictator in 1979. All this time, America had been sending arms to Iraq to prevent Soviet Russia from marching 100 miles south and grabbing all the oil. Iraq tried to build a nuclear facility in 1977, but the Israeli Army blew it up. Iraq went to war with Iran from 1980-89 using all sorts of nasty chemical weapons. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, but were pushed back by international forces (mainly America).
The current Iraq war began in March 2003 and has killed an estimated 3,800 American soldiers, 300 soldiers from other countries, and 1,100,000 Iraqis.

Iran is a little different. Historically it is more cohesive and has not been colonized, and established their own parliament in 1906. In 1921 a coup puts Reza Shah at the helm, and he gets busy modernizing Iran. During WW2 the Allies came in and bump him for his son. In 1953 a guy called Mossadegh is elected, but the CIA organized violent protests and put Reza Shah Jr. back in place.
Now it gets interesting. In 1979, the Shah got the feeling that fundamentalists were getting ready to take over, so he asked President Carter for help to kill quite a few people. Carter wasn't cool with that. Later that year, Ayatollah Khomeini coups his way into power and kills many, many people, and gets mad with America. In November 1979, a group of Iranians seize the US embassy in Iran, taking the staff hostage for 444 days. Carter bungles a rescue attempt and loses the next election. The Ayatollah is a fundamentalist and Saddam's looking for more power, so in 1980 this part of the world is looking pretty crappy.

No-one would care about any of this -- it would essentially be Africa II -- if the region weren't drowning in oil. The map below shows how much oil is below each nation (one oil derrick = America's total reserves). Notice also how close Russia and Israel are to the area.

(Double-click the image for a full-size view.)

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

1kg of Watties below freezing

I was foolish enough to go outside today. It's -17 C.

I learned from my previous outing at -2 C that headwear is essential, so I bought a 'Canada' beanie ($2) and pulled it down over my ears until I looked like a cross between Craig David and a flapper.

I covered up with a sweater, gloves, and a coat. My face, however, remained unshielded from the wind, and this is where cruel Nature spread her icy fingers. Or rather, placed her icy packets of frozen peas, because that's exactly what it felt like: taking a walk on a winter day with my face in a freezer full of Watties Garden Minted Peas.


I've just watched the first season of the sleeper U.S. hit, The Flight of the Conchords. Apparently they used to be in New Zealand or something. Check out this YouTube clip. [link]


Sunday, 25 November 2007

The Life of the Mind

Q. What's life for?
A. The only meaningful answer is one you find yourself.

That's an annoying answer, because it's not really the sort of answer I expected; it doesn't bring the wondering I have to an end. It's like a Zen expression, a 'koan'. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your face like before your parents were born? Statements designed to bring a quiet to the mind, to shut out the hubbub, the unbroken distracting chatter. HEY. JUST GIMME THE DAMN ANSWER.

"To predict the behavior of ordinary people in advance, you only have to assume that they will always try to escape a disagreeable situation with the smallest possible expenditure of intelligence."
-- Nietzsche

Thinking is hard. Change is hard. Questioning habits is hard. Trying to figure out what life is for is a philosophical pursuit, and philosophy is slippery because it is composed of what remains even after all the facts are in. It feels like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Even the most basic, concrete tenet of philosophy, "I think, therefore I am," can be wrong: even if the only thing that's real is my mind and you guys are all just figments of my imagination, I still can't stop you from punching me or have
any power to stop it from hurting. Philosophy takes a long time to be finally useful.

"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!"

Thoreau was a wealthy, slightly weird guy who went and built a house in the woods after his wife died. For about a year he was almost completely alone, listening to birds and chipmunks and growing wheat. He wrote a book about it called 'Walden,' the place near Boston where he lived. Of course, he never got sick, or too lonely, or made his own tools, or had a harsh winter - all things you need community to survive - but he was able to shut out the noise of society and focus.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

I feel a little like Thoreau lately... not so much that I swim in Walden Pond (I'm more about surfing the net) but that my signal-to-noise ratio is very high. I can now, even more than ever, watch the films I like, read all over the Dewey Decimal System, and peruse the Web with the preternatural calm of a Hindu cow. The significant questions I have - the Big Rocks - are being answered. They're not quick and easy answers, because they're not well-defined questions. They add to my map of the known world. Like this 16th-century map of Australia below, it's not very complete. Is there part of New Zealand in there?
If only they had spent more time. Then they would understand properly.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Cold Enuf For Ya?

I walked to the store [supermarket] tonight, experiencing Calgary in all its wintery goodness. The snow falls evenly overnight but melts in unusual ways. Cars move, leaving rectangles of dark asphalt. Snowdrifts pile against fences and in gutters, and cling to windows and awnings. I look for undisturbed snow to tread on with my solid, sensible shoes.
The store has central heating, and I take my hands out of my pockets and my gloves off, massaging my fingertips. They're playing Christmas songs, bouncy and cheerful with bells a-ringing. The checkout clerks are friendly and upbeat. When I walk outside, a blast of -10C wind hits me and I put my gloves back on, alternating hands in coat pockets every minute to keep my fingers awake.
My nose was running in the store, but it has stopped now; as if sensing that Logan's face was something of a bad bet, it tried to run while the running was good. I'm walking side-on to the wind, so my nose is the extremity which is bearing the brunt of the curling, restless zephyr. It begins to grow numb. It doesn't feel cold; it just doesn't feel like it's there anymore. As I trudge on, no longer noticing the winter wonderland, the numbness spreads over my face. I can feel my sinuses aching with frozen neglect, and as I turn onto my street my ears begin to sting.
African elephants flap their ears to cool off, the blanket-like appendages bearing vast networks of blood vessels channeling hot plasma to the thin, flapping skin. The thinnest parts of my ears send sharp messages as the wind whistles past: my body has begun to shut down. It is withdrawing from my ears, my face, my fingers; my expedition to the store has become indistinguishable to my body from Scott's trip to the Antarctic.
As I lever open the door and set my bags down, I pull off my gloves and rub life back into my hands. I touch my nose, my ears; they are cold and otherworldly, like a dead man's. Parts of my body were preparing to perish.

That's all very sad. Here's a picture of a lolcat.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

From The New Yorker


I hear honking every so often around Calgary, and I look up.
Canadian geese are flying in huge, dark V-formations. The first few times I heard them, they were going south. Well, that makes sense. It's getting into winter. But then I saw a gaggle of geese honking west, towards the snow-capped peaks of Banff. Then a flock heading west, then one group heading NORTH. Maybe some geese were mucking around in the back and the lead goose decided to turn the V around. Perhaps they've been watching too much Al Gore and have become brazen concerning Arctic temperatures. Who knows. But that whole thing about geese flying south for the winter is shot to hell.
The last direction I would look if I heard honking is the road, for Canadians do not honk. At all. For any reason. The typical Canadian, upon being cut off in traffic by a crass foreigner, might consider nervously nibbling his lower lip and glancing away. For this reason I have become the worst pedestrian in the world. I cross when and where I feel the urge, knowing that motorists will treat me as gingerly as they would a row of baby ducklings. This is bizarre when you consider that most cars in this part Calgary are looming, ancient rusty American pickups driven by moose-jawed mouth-breathers. Their 1983 Lincoln Continental would go through me like Boss Hogg through a bowl o' grits, but they're more chicken than a turkey round'bout Thanksgiving.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Firetrucks are green

Unworldly things in Calgary

Fire trucks are green.

Tax is only 6%; food under $4 is tax-free.

The wind either makes it ten degrees colder or ten degrees warmer.

Cars do not require WOF or any kind of safety checks.

It gets light at 10am; it gets dark at 4pm. In January, it's 11am and 2pm.

The zoo is on an island.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

I Wish I'd Done That

Here's a collection of stuff I wish I could claim ownership of.

Video of the text of Dr. Evil speech: Zip It [link]

Whose Line Is It Anyway: best green-screen ever [link]

Rosendahl watch for BMW

Bridge that rolls up

Circular scanner

Book darts

What stuff do you wish you'd done?
Leave your comments in the comments. That's what it's for.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Why the US dollar sucks

The Canadian dollar coin is called a loonie, because the bird on the coin is a loon. (Naturally, the $2 coin is called a toonie.) One loonie buys US$ 1.09, the highest in 130 years. The last time it was this high, the South was marching on Washington and Abraham Lincoln decreed that no-one was allowed to buy or sell gold for a little bit. It's not so much that the Canadian economy deserved a 23% hike in 2007, but that Bush's America isn't balancing the budget:
Let's imagine that you take home $50,000 a year. You've been doing all right, getting by, but not saving anything. But then you decide to give your teen a bigger allowance, and Nana more meds, plus you start shooting fireworks at that jerk who owns the gas station across the street. You owe various neighbours $35,000 though it doesn't look like you'll be paying anything back this year. In fact, you've had to borrow $10,000 over the last seven years to pay for the new expenses. But you've been getting pay raises, so it's kind of OK.
About $5,000 came from just one neighbour, who owns the $1 store where you buy a lot of stuff; it's kind of like a store credit. This guy wants to come over and invest in your wife's Amway business, but he has a tough time getting an invitation. He's also got everyone telling him to change it to a $2 store, but he's worried you'll stop buying his stuff.
Ever since one of your kids got hit with a skyrocket, your wife's been pressuring you to stop with the pyrotechnics. Plus all the gas stations in the area have raised their prices because of it, and because the $1 store guy just got an SUV to match your's. She's talking about taking away your credit card and spending your fireworks money on health insurance.
Here are the numbers:
If the US economy (GDP) was $50,000 these figures would scale:
$9500 on defense/offense
In 2001, earned $42,500 with a debt of $24,500 (first Bush term)
In 1981, earned $22,600 with a debt of $7,350 (lowest % debt)
So that's the U.S. story in a nutshell. Of course international trade is more complicated than personal finance (try owing the bank money for 200 years), and national interest is tempered by various responsibilities and political solutions that don't irritate people too badly -- initially, domestically, at least.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Eee PC

A small laptop at a low price was released lately which indicates how computer use is changing.
The Eee PC by Asus is about the size of an A4 page folded in half.
It sells for US$400. Generally laptops of this size are much more expensive than regular laptops, but prices have fallen and the Eee PC is the first of a new breed of gadget/serious-tool crossovers which will change the market.
The device weighs 900g and runs for 3.5hrs on its battery. It has a 7" screen, WiFi, a USB port, and a webcam (on some models).
There are two reasons it's so cheap: it has no hard drive or CD/DVD drive, and it doesn't include Windows. Data is stored on 4Gb internal memory and the laptop runs a version of Linux. There are options for Windows XP, and more memory (plus you can add your own card), though both of these choices add significantly to the price; also, the 15-second boot-up time would triple under Windows.
The Eee PC is an ideal second computer. There's no way you could fit all your stuff on 4Gb, or live without a DVD drive, or always work with 7" of screen real estate, but if you've ever lugged a 15" laptop around it's tempting to consider a lite option.
These are selling like hot cakes right now. While Asus pitches them at kids and grandparents, it's the nerds who are adopting them early.

For a video walkthrough, YouTube has a demo here.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Link list: videos

Now that broadband is everywhere and data caps (at least in North America) are non-existent, online video is a reality rather than a jerky wait-a-bit ordeal. Here are a few of my favourite video sites.

Funny Or Die [link]
A collection of short comedy clips. The site was started by Will Ferrell, and his skits are probably the best.

The Internet Archive [link]
Thousands of complete films, including 'Reefer Madness', are available here. This is the site that hosts the WayBackMachine, a dead-page preservation tool. Also tens of thousands of audio files, books, and historical stuff.

The Whitest Kids U Know [link]
If you don't think this skit is funny, you are dead inside.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Mike's got one


Michael has a blog, @

I think he's in Cuba or something. For reals.

Monday, 5 November 2007

-8 degrees overnight.

This picture taken last week, when it was a balmy 6 degrees. It's looking from the end of my road towards downtown. Look at the Calgary Tower, isn't it cute? (It's hiding away at the left.)

Friday, 2 November 2007


"The Internet is an amalgam of forms blurred under epistemological pressures. In Søren Kierkegaard’s words, under this flat shower of leveled information, where everybody is interested in everything and nothing is too trivial or too important, people just accumulate information and postpone decisions indefinitely, i.e., nobody takes action and nobody is responsible for truth — there is no mastery, just gossip. He called this the æsthetic sphere of existence, exhorting us to evolve to the ethical sphere, where we do not just accumulate information but take action and make commitments. Blogs are instruments to overcome flatness by creating opportunities for vertical activities."