Thursday, 31 January 2008

An All-Time Low

There were no clean spoons around the house so I ate cottage cheese with a plastic tortoiseshell shoehorn that was lying next to the couch--so I guess I’ve hit a new personal low.
Douglas Coupland, Life After God

In 1893, Calgary reached -29 C. Until yesterday, that was the coldest the city had ever been since records began. Today it was -33, and in this snow-loving, Winter-Olympics-hosting, ice-skating, earflap-wearing center, Canadians were feeling the cold.
I was, too. During my time here I have developed a personal barometer of physical afflictions which herald the onset of cold. As follows:

0 degrees Run around in underwear giggling like a schoolgirl.
-5 Nose turns red. Need gloves.
-8 Cheeks turn red. Need hat.
-10 Ears hurt. Hands in gloves in pockets.
-12 Find myself saying, Bit Cold Out There, Eh.
-15 Inhaling through nose freezes nosehairs together.
-17 Eyes water involuntarily.
-18 Hear Canadians saying, Bit Cold Out There, Eh.
-20 Blood flees from fingers and toes. Need scarf.
-25 Inhaling causes coughing.
-27 Hear the homeless saying, Bit Cold Out There, Eh.
-29 Eyes water; vision blurs; tears freeze on glasses.
-30 Fingers turn purple; toes turn yellow.
-31 Lose will to live. Look for bear to fight.
-33 Experience blurring of space and time.


Sunday, 27 January 2008

Life Inside a Laptop

I spend a lot of time on my laptop. A lot. So I've spent a bit of time customizing it to suit my workflow and bend it to my evil, fickle will.
I'm running Vista, mainly because I'm too scared to install a different system, even Windows XP. The sidebar that comes with Vista is dumb, and I'll tell you why (yes it's that sort of post today). It insists on always being on top of everything, and doesn't let anyone into its side of the screen. Ugh. Plus it has huge, huge gadgets that don't do anything great.
I tried out all the options (Samurize, Google gadgets, Rainlender, etc) and settled on Yahoo Widgets. These are them:

There's a clock (because I hide the taskbar), an internet graph, a "busy CPU" graph, a RAM pie graph ('cos I've only got 1Gb) with a battery meter inside that. The clock is 'Analog Clock' and the rest are 'Neon Gauges'.

My next one is a Mac rip-off called ObjectDock Plus. I also ripped off the iPhone icons, except the top one which is a Mac system icon. It's a shortcut to a file called WANT! where I list all the things I want to buy but can't afford... with pictures and prices (no, an iPhone's not in there). The next one is my Active folder, then Pictures/Photos, Music, Skype, IrfanView (pic editing), Photoshop, and lastly the Windows utility for uninstalling stupid software I shouldn't have installed in the first place but it seemed cool and god knows what it left on my system but hey.

The last thing is an innovation all my own. I photoshopped some wallpaper (which looks like actual wallpaper if an emo decorated your house), adding three landing strips for my Reading Pile (stuff I haven't watched/read/digested for entertainment), work In Progress, and Temporary stuff which belongs somewhere else. There's only room for five things on each landing strip, so it doesn't get overwhelming plus forces me to prioritize.

As you can see, I'm starting on 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip' and part-way through 'Hustle', season one. My work right now is a project on Antarctica and a DLE-sized design job, part B. All my temp stuff is tidied away. So minimalist, so designer-y.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

The Long Winter

Even the back of supermarkets look Christmassy.

The windswept grass is like straw.

The most Calgarian vehicle ever. Monday (left), Tuesday (right).

A spilled soda freezes on the sidewalk.

My sensible shoes, with their accompanying permafrost.

Blower One.

Blower Two.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Canadian Girls

In answer to Warwick's request (actually, multiple requests) to know what Canadian girls are like, here's a brief run-down.

Canadian girls are like every other goddamn group of millions of women anywhere in the world.

With that out of the way, I can say that, having served thousands of Canadians in Calgary, the women around here are:
1) married by 25
2) usually attractive if working 9 to 5
3) usually strange-looking if unemployed
4) slimmer than Kiwi girls
5) far less dumpy than English girls
6) nice, if slightly lacking in edge.

In Toronto, because of the universities and the magnetic pull from the rest of Canada, the women are consistently, distressingly attractive, particularly downtown. In Calgary, it is difficult to tell men from women during the tightly-swaddled winter months (October to March).

In my experience, Canadian women can look like this:

...and are nice and intelligent.

Or they can look like this:

...and be borderline psychotic, with a certain animal cunning.

So if you come to Canada with the intent of searching for and obtaining their women, bring (a) hair gel and an encyclopedia, and (b) bear spray.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

How Is A Job Good?

I have an interview next week with a company that needs the one-two punch of modern promotion: graphic design and web coding. I can do one of these things, but I'm allergic to the other. The last job I had was a similar compromise: graphic design and technical writing. "No-one," quoth the Bible,"can serve two masters, for he will love one and hate the other." (While the book is mostly Iron Age fear-mongering, this is a diamond in the rough.) And so it went--I loved the design, but hated the 'writing'... as I grew more accustomed to the role I liked, the role I didn't like lost none of its power to annoy.

The intellectual vacuum that is my current job leaves me acres of opportunity to consider what a suitable, satisfying job would look like. But virtues are not represented best by contrast, but rather by aspiration; saying I want to be inspired is better than saying I don't want to be bored.
There have been studies on what makes two seemingly identical jobs awesome or terrible.

Things that make jobs bad
- not having enough authority to carry out your responsibilities
- being unclear on what you are responsible for
- not having a clear promotion path
- always being behind
- trying to satisfy conflicting demands of superiors
- feeling underqualified
- ambiguous evaluations/unclear expectations
- not having enough information
- making decisions that affect people you know
- not getting on with co-workers
- having your opinions ignored
- having a moral conflict
- not achieving a work/life balance

Things that make jobs good
- freedom over time, procedures, and other decisions
- continual, useful data generated from work itself
- continual, useful feedback from boss and others
- good social interaction
- clear, specific goals
- variety of tasks
- clear tasks with a beginning and an end
- exercising high-level skills
- exercising a variety of skills
- feeling job is significant to the company
- learning, improving
- clear promotion path
- feelings of achievement
- having input in key decisions
- open communication channels
- high-enough pay (not necessarily high pay)
- recognition from others
- good job security

All this is from Dail Fields' book, Taking The Measure Of Work. It assumes that subjects have chosen their jobs rationally and appropriately. Experience shows this is not always the case, but I can see some of these satisfiers in my video store job which make it less bad at times.
My chief question these days is how much compromise will turn an unsuitable element in a job role into a deal-breaker. Some things, like a 20-minute in-and-out workflow would be irritating but livable. Other things, like coding in... well, any programming language, would be a stone wall.

A guy dies and ends up in hell. The Devil greets him and explains that it's really not so bad. "You like drinking?" he asks. "Yeah!" the guy replies. "Well, you're gonna like Mondays." says the Devil. "Tequila shots, beer chasers, free vodka all night. How about gambling? You like that?" The guy says yeah; this place is looking pretty great! "You'll love Tuesdays then!" the Devil grins. "Do you like chronic? Into coke?" "Wow!" the guy says,"you've got drugs here?" "Sure we do! That's what Wednesdays are all about!" the Devil enthuses. "How about male action? You into gay sex?" "Uh, no." the guy says, recoiling. "Ooookayyy..." the Devil mutters. "Well, you're not going to like Thursdays much."

One thing I have noticed is that the worse my day is, the more euphoric I am after I finish. It wears off after a short time, but the contrast between obligation and freedom is great enough to make normality feel like happiness. An ancient Greek called Epictetus said of a angry man being thrown in prison: "What prison?—Where he is already: for he is there against his will; and wherever a man is against his will, that to him is a prison." A Stoic, he believed that it is not events that shape us, but rather how we interpret them and then twist our thoughts, and then our actions. Born a slave, his mind and thoughts were all he had to bear the suffering of life. Further reading here; bold quotes are most interesting.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Better Living Through Chemistry

Because my job--in a total, awful and scientifically verifiable way--sucks, I have tried various ways of (a) making it unsuck, and (b) when that didn't work, make myself numb to wage-slave hell. Because my job is monotonous and repetitive, it provides an gentle rhythm of consistent, even suffering. This means I can control for the ups and down of work, because there are none. It is the perfect blue-screen backdrop.

Week One: Food and Drink
Nutritionists, dietitians, doctors, Arnie, yo' mamma and shoeless Greenpeace collectors all agree: your body is a temple and what you put into it can change your life for the better. I took the following steps for one week:
* Eating a high-fibre, natural breakfast * Snacking every two hours to keep my blood sugar up * Consuming low-GI foods * Avoiding coffee * Drinking plenty of water

Week Two: Positive Thinking
Deepak Chopra, Anthony Robbins, the Dali Lama, Tom Cruise and self-repressing suburban hausfrau all recommend banishing negative energy and welcoming love into your chakras. I took the following steps for one week:
* Smiling at people * Asking about others' lives * Counting my blessings * Being one with, you know, trees and birds * Violently pushing skeptical, critical thinking deep down inside until it formed a tight little ball in the pit of my stomach * Petting kittens

Week Three: Drugs
Sigmund Freud, Hunter S. Thompson, Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse offer case studies in drugs, of one form or another, being used to creative and mood-altering effect. I tried the following (week in progress):
* Drinking eight cups of coffee in eight hours * Smoking, drinking beer, and coffee on my break * Taking an ECA stack (ephedrine, caffeine, aspirin) at the beginning of (then next day, halfway through) my shift.

Of all these techniques, the only one which had any measurable positive effect was the ECA stack. While eating right and being nice to people is necessary to avoid sliding into a spiral of self-loathing and despair, the other techniques merely helped to keep me out of the valleys of the emotional rollercoaster ride.

Ephedrine is natural substance which is the basis of speed, and is banned in most First World countries for this reason. In Canada you can get it mail-order for ten bucks a jar. Bodybuilders use it in conjunction with its accelerators aspirin and caffeine to drive weight loss and take the dopey edge off a high-protein diet. It differs from caffeine in that it provides a cleaner high, a longer period of energy, is less habit-forming, and doesn't mess around as much with brain chemistry.

I took 8mg ephedrine with 200mg caffeine and 200mg aspirin. That's not very much; lifters in a serious cutting phase take 15mg of ephedrine four times daily.
It would cost too much to do that for me, plus I would have to cycle off it, having entire weeks without any at all.

Films that will Make you Stupider

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

Gaysploitation for mouth-breathers.

Dragon Wars
Straight-to-video CGI of dragons crushing houses.

Lost: SSN 3
Come ON. If you were stuck on a Third World island for this long, you'd have expired of massive renal failure and monkeys would have fought with giant crabs over your exquisite floppilidopplies.

Shoot 'Em Up
The worst film Clive Owen or Paul Giamatti have ever done; the third-worst film
Monica Bellucci has appeared in.

Any Canadian TV series
Corner Little Mosque on the Prairie Gas, the animated series... not bad for Saskatchewan, eh?

I Know Who Killed Me
Here's a shock; it's your own hard-drivin' lifestyle, Lindsay. I only seys it because I luv you.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Get Out While The Getting's Good

Some people volunteer their time to the SPCA. Well, that's nice. Others give charitably when the Red Cross calls. OK. Many reach into their pockets for the Salvation Army. Good for you.
All that's not really my sort of thing, though. I'm designing, pro bono, for the
Right To Die Society of Canada.

Yes, it's what Hitler did (let's get this one out of the way). He euthanised like crazy. He started with the mentally ill, followed up with the gays and lesbians, and topped it all off with six million Jews. He began with a re-education campaign calling the maladroit "useless bread gobblers." Then he ensured that no government department had complete authority, but rather competed with one another to indoctrinate best. Blended with a fervent medieval Aryan pride and a blaring background of Wagner, 100,000 non-Semitic undesirables disappeared into the bowels of the Third Reich.

That doesn't really hold much appeal for me. Quite apart from genetic science making a myth of race and therefore eugenics, killing otherwise healthy people because you don't want them around cluttering up your perfect society is a little unsustainable, because you tend to have trouble setting boundaries. Rather, having a right to die is more something someone chooses themselves.
We've inherited a 'life at any cost' mentality from our pious ancestors, who believed that God gaveth and God will taketh when He Feels Like It. These were people who also believed that leeches were a pretty good idea and wearing coloured clothing was for kings and hookers. We have moved on in many ways, but the way we deal with the end of life is mired in deeply traditional thought--just look at funerals--which is worlds apart from how we deal with life when it is active, vital and free. Hospitals update their equipment as quickly as they can, but their thinking about end-of-life issues is staid and Victorian.

Personal freedom has become elevated to an ideology; it is naive to think that the 'Me' generation will suddenly shift gears when considering the end; as Byron put it:
The leaves must drop away:
And yet it were a greater grief
To watch it withering, leaf by leaf,
Than see it pluck'd to-day;
Since earthly eye but ill can bear
To trace the change to foul from fair.

While doctors now may, with a sidelong glance, secretly prescribe fatal doses of painkillers to patients whose bodies are riddled with cancer, no politician with a sense of self-preservation (!) would ever advance the cause of this final and ultimate freedom: to end one's own life when it is clear that there is little ahead but pain, suffering and ineffectual intensive care destroying any financial advantage you had hoped to gift to the living. This taboo is idiotic, destructive and at odds with every other value we practice. This is not even a prolonging of life, it is a desperate pushing back of death, the horror of the unknown as primal as fear of the dark, of spirits, of monsters under the bed, or as Hamlet soliliques:
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
...And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Friday, 11 January 2008

I Have A Shitty Job

Despite all my attempts to find design work, I find myself working 35 hours a week at a Blockbuster video store.
It's not as shitty as some jobs, but it's way shittier than I can tolerate for more than eight hours at a stretch, and not much of a reason to get up in the morning. It takes about 10 minutes to walk to the train, another 20 to get into the city, and another 20 to get to the store. It's a long time to spend considering the shittiness of my job, both before and after each shift.
The shittiness is partly acknowledged by my co-workers, or at least those intelligent enough to differentiate between grinding out each day and actually living. My manager fails to see this distinction. While not actually stupid, he lacks clarity and in all is rather hobbit-like, drifting gently around in a fog of contentment. The next most senior in our disparate Blockbuster family is genuinely stupid. When her point is made in conversation, recognised, agreed upon, and completed, it is then repeated until it is recognised, agreed upon, and completed. Her general tone is that of a Holstein who has spent too much time in the same paddock and considers it her own.
It's not often you get the chance to use the term 'disgruntled former employee', but Aaron is now one. A short, pock-faced dynamo, his clipped speech always seemed to end with a sharp intake of breath, and his dignity was ever on a knife-edge. Two weeks ago a customer playfully slapped his shoulder. Aaron changed colour several times, marched into the manager's office, and quit. Bustling out with accoutrement akimbo, he made straight for the door and never looked back.
The previous store manager gradually reduced her responsibilities and hours, dropping down the ladder to the second-lowest rung over the course of four months. A benign and gentle soul, she once picked up a trail of ants with paper and dropped them outside rather than subject them to the capricious fate of the vacuum cleaner. Her rule has become corrupt and lackadaisical, much to my relief. I am free to learn nothing and engage in various busywork, periodically checking the time to ensure I am engaged in obligation no longer than I must be.

I apply for, on average, about four jobs per week. Since I arrived in Calgary in September I have sent over 70 resumes and received precisely three responses. Two were for interviews. (One of the interviews extended to a second interview. )The third response was to inform me that the position had been filled. Clearly, Calgary's economic miracle extends only to those professions that involve the potential loss of fingers, either to machinery or to frostbite.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims: what's the difference?

The chief cause of deaths in Iraq is sectarian violence between two schools of Islam, Sunni and Shi'ite. About 65% of Iraq fall in these two groups. 25% are a third group in the north, Kurds, who mostly represent a mild form of Sunnism. The remainder are of various ethnicities.
90% of all Muslims worldwide are Sunni.
Less than 10% of Muslims are Shi'ite.
The two split from a general Muslim faith soon after the prophet Mohammad died in the 7th century.
Sunni follow a series of religious leaders (like Popes) called imams. Iraqi Sunnism is largely in central and northern Iraq. Osama bin Laden is a Sunni Muslim, as was Saddam Hussein.
Shi'ite Muslims, the more orthodox of the two, followed leaders of a bloodline of one of the four leaders who rose after the death of Mohammad (like royal lineage). Shia numbers were very low until the beginning of the 20th century. Shi'ite Muslims are now a majority in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, and a minority in Pakistan, India, and other countries. Iraqi Sunnism is largely in southern Iraq. Hezbollah, a Lebanese (terrorist) organisation is Shia.

Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims have not historically been enemies--it is unusual to find any serious conflicts between 700 and 1960--but have engaged in sectarian violence heavily in the last 5-10 years, particularly in occupied Iraq.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Marx and Lenin and Stalin, o my.

The predominant struggle of the last sixty years was that of democracy vs communism. The Cold War wasted untold billions on armaments, irrevocably damaged many countries, and has repercussions, largely accidental or careless, which we see today in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Africa, Cuba, and countless other parts of the world.
Apart from a brief study of 'The Communist Manifesto' some six or seven years ago, I realised I knew little of how the other half lived, and thought, and dreamed. So I dug a little into communism and all those other -isms to see precisely how they worked, or rather if they worked.

The first thing to know is that 'communism' is an idealised end state, achieved after a long struggle, where communities maintain themselves in harmony; man did not exploit man, and all gave, and all had. This ideal was a dream that was never reached, and realistically never could be reached by any society of greater than perhaps 150 people for short periods. It was a system designed for saints, of whom, as the saying goes, there are few, whereas capitalism was designed for sinners, of whom there are many.
Marx (with credit also to Engels) penned his manifesto while seated in the very pink of capitalist privilege, the British Library. For Marx, the market was anarchy: it exploited and alienated people, and created unintended consequences. He was infuriated by the powerlessness of the worker (the proletariat) and the ascendancy of the business-owning middle class (the bourgeoisie [bor-zhwa-zee]). His belief was that workers, if given sufficient power, would create and maintain a more equitable society.
Jumping straight to communism is simply not possible. 'Socialism' is a transitory stage in which there is a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' whose job it is to distribute goods and services evenly. It is an economic system where production is nationalised. Thus one would have a socialist revolution with a view to eventually purifying society enough to advance to communism.
This was a time when it was pretty awful being anywhere in the bottom 90%. You and your children would work in a factory for 12-15 hours a day, tip your toilet into the street, lose most of your teeth by 40, and die upon having your fifth child. The idea of having a smidgen of power and freedom was more intoxicating than penny gin, though marginally more dangerous.
A vast swathe of Europe rose up and rushed about in 1948 and around that time; France much earlier (see Les Miserables) and Russia much later. Most of the revolutions were disorganised and extremely dangerous to be part of. England, true to form, trod slowly and carefully through a bloodless revolution, perhaps remembering how dull Cromwell's petit-revolution had been in the 17th century.
Russia's revolution came very late because Russia remained virtually medieval outside the major centers. It was only the spur of WW1, with its toppling of the old order of aristocratic Europe, that Russians got the idea into their heads to do the same. It helped that the post-war army was scattered all over the map; certainly a rag-tag bunch of intellectuals (i.e. people who wore spectacles) and torch-wielding shoeless peasants wouldn't have had much luck otherwise. With Lenin at their helm they killed as many rich people as they could find, and set up a little government.
Lenin headed the Russian socialist state from its formation in 1917 to 1922, when he got ill. Stalin took over and initiated his 'social fascism', which really got things moving. Russia got rather powerful, but this involved killing quite a few people (Lenin was more about disenfranchising and deporting; he killed only 6m vs. 30m, but he wasn't in power as long).
As I mentioned earlier, Russia was to a large part medieval at that time, so the changes pushed through five centuries' worth of technology in just a few decades. Large changes plus large population plus large country equals rapid power shifts, and Russia started taking over other countries.
The USSR was a totalitarian regime: it controlled not only currency and goods, but also the hearts and minds of its citizens. The ideology of purification, of cutting out the diseased elements of society, had no logical end in sight. Everyone was suspected; rules were capricious; law was total. Although the ostensible goal was to achieve communism, the practice merely served to cement Stalin's rule. Top-down orders trucked grain from fields in the east, leaving the farmers themselves starving. The socialist state failed to serve the workers, instead institutionalising the very inequality revolutionaries had fought against.
As with most totalitarian states, an inordinate amount was spent on great shows of force. By 1980 the Cold War arms race had left Russia virtually bankrupt. It had few natural resources and exports, and little food. It began cutting loose USSR satellites with all but Georgia gone by 1992.

Marx's original idea--to replace the free market with centralised order and direction--was flawed.
He believed that a seemingly chaotic system was rudderless and random, but this was not the case; a process of natural selection helps a free market evolve. Also, he did not consider that the new controllers would be untrustworthy, greedy, and corrupt (in short, human). A centralised system has more potential for abuse than a lasseiz-faire system, as when it fails consumers have nowhere else to turn. Government does not compete with itself. When it no longer serves the interests of the people, there must be checks and balances in place to correct it, and in the hastily-assembled socialist assembly there was little thought given to potential corruption. They were believers, and thought that their righteous fervour would serve.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Is there a better voting system?

The Democratic and Republican candidates have been voted on in Iowa, the first state this year to select presidential candidates. Iowa doesn't vote the way that most states and democracies do; they have a caucus.
An Iowan registered as a Democratic Party member would go down to his local school or church hall on January 3 to register his support. The first thing he sees are clusters of people, some wearing stupid hats, who support the same candidate. The Obama supporters stand in one area, the Clintonites in another. The man caucusing joins one of the groups, though is free to move to another. After everyone has chosen their first-choice group, the small groups--those with fewer than 15% of the people--must join the groups of more popular candidates. This is when the shouting, chanting and cajoling begins. "Hope, Hope, Hope!" begins the Obama crowd. "Change, Change, Change!" say the Clinton supporters. Eventually, and very publicly, everyone chooses a candidate's group. The numbers are counted. If that caucus was allocated, say, 15 delegates (representative votes from that local area), 6 might go to Obama, 4 to Edwards, 4 to Clinton, and 1 to Biden.
Needless to say, this is problematic. Fewer than 10% of Iowa voters turn out for this harrowing ordeal, where their choices are made public, questioned, criticized, and then misrepresented. However this hidebound system is traditional, and is therefore immune to change anytime soon.

Standard voting is not fair. It does not represent properly the feelings of electors, particularly those who have nuanced opinions about the candidates. If three people seek the victory, I may only choose one, and I must choose him absolutely. In countries like America where there are only two viable parties, a third-party or independent candidate does little but 'spoil' one major party's chance of success by siphoning off a crucial sliver of support, as Nader did to Gore in 2000, turning a Democratic majority into an incredibly narrow race with Bush.

The author William Poundstone recently wrote a book about alternative voting systems, some dating from the early days of French suffrage. He examined the following systems, from worst to best.

Plurality Voting: the current system, also called 'first past the post'. Voters select one candidate.
Instant Run-off Voting: voters rank candidates by preference. Loser candidates are dropped and their voters' rankings applied to popular candidates.
Borda: candidates are ranked from best to worst. Is open to abuse.
Condorcet: voters rank candidates and whichever beats the others in head-to-head matchups is the winner. Can result in strange ties.
Approval Voting: voters tick all candidates they approve of.
Range Voting: like Olympic ice-skating scores, all candidates are given a number on a range of, say, 1-10.

Poundstone evaluated the system by allowing people to 'vote' under the various schemes, then surveyed their overall satisfaction with the outcome.

Major parties resist voting reform which might increase representation for small parties. Thus instant run-off voting has been put forward as a potential system, despite it being more confusing and only slightly better than plurality voting. Its virtue seems to be that it gives the illusion of more choice while resulting in a two-party race. Range voting is simple and representative, but would generate more ambiguity. A President may be elected with only 40% of the vote, which raises questions about a mandate to govern. While parliamentary systems are open to power-sharing coalition agreements, federal positions (like President) are zero-sum games. You can't put Gore's legs on Bush's body, with Nader's left testicle; it's winner take all.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Two films about grizzly bears

I've been following director Werner Herzog's work for a while, ever since I watched 'Burden of Dreams'. His remake of his own documentary 'Little Dieter Needs To Fly', called 'Rescue Dawn', came out last year with Christian Bale. But probably his best work recently was 'Grizzly Man'.
The film tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a cross between Keanu Reeves and that blond guy from 'Queer Eye', who lives part of each year among the grizzly bear population of Alaska. The footage is Treadwell's own. It is a strange, and ultimately tragic, tale of someone who has rejected human society in favour of a deluded connection with dangerous creatures.
The heart of the film is this connection, when he plays with foxes, speaks with bears, and talks at length about protecting and maintaining the population. What drives the plot along is the awareness that he meets a horrible fate at the paws of ursus arctos horribilis. The story arc, revealed by the talking heads of friends, relatives and Treadwell himself, is his slow spiralling away from the last vestiges of sanity and into obsession. The gently-paced and whimsical film is a paen to his peaceful existence with a dramatic counterpoint of ever-threatening doom.
You can watch the trailer for Grizzly Man here.

The second film is 'Project Grizzly' by director Peter Lynch. It, more than anything, reflects rural Canadian culture in pleasant and natural setting, insofar as a man building an exoskeleton to fight bears is pleasant and natural. Troy Hurtubise (sounds like "herd o' bees") is an outdoorsman/junkyard owner from the eastern province of Ontario who has an encounter with a grizzly bear one cold winter's day in the deep forest. He emerges unscathed but is determined to meet another grizzly bear in a somewhat better-prepared state. The movie follows his comical development (and--better--testing) of a titanium, rubber and chainmail suit of armour to withstand a sustained grizzly bear attack.
As Hurtubise and his posse test the suits in their various forms, the fool's errand becomes more foolish. Troy is battered with baseball bats; he is knocked down with swinging logs; he is hit with a three-ton truck; he is tossed down an embankment. His final creation stands seven feet tall and takes tiny, mincing steps while Troy, inside, uses martial-arts mind control to overcome his intense claustrophobia.
Hurtubise is a deluded figure, there can be no doubt. His obsession with the grizzly bear encounter, built up to the level of myth, has taken over his life, yet is strangely unexamined. At the end of the film when the group of men meet a grizzly, his lack of purpose, ludicrous planning, and single-minded blinkered thought is revealed for what it really is.
This period takes place in Banff National Park, not 100km from where I live. It was fascinating to see the bluff woodsmen posturing with rifles, shaving with Bowie knives and making notes about bear attacks a mere whisker away from where I call home.
See the early prototypes being tested here.