Monday, 31 March 2008

Taken. Granted.

"There's no way this winter's ever going to end if this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. He's gotta be stopped. And I've got to stop him."
Groundhog Day

Despite it now being spring, five inches of snow fell last night here in Calgary. Trudging home last night in eddies of huge swirling snowflakes and looking out over the lumpen, white landscape this morning while masticating my oatmeal, I realised that I had not taken a photo for months. Calgary has lost its charm for me, has become quotidian, is now so commonplace as to become invisible.

I have gathered my worldly possessions into four piles: Take, Package, Donate, Trash. Small, useful things will come with me. Large, not-very-useful things will get packed into a single big box. Crap that wouldn't look right in the garbage will be donated. Crap that was just sitting around is gone, baby, gone.
It's interesting to do this again. It's not so much like spring cleaning as it is like that 1000-year-old building in China which is torn down and rebuilt every year. It remains unchanged, yet is constantly re-crafted.

I guess I'm nervous about leaving homestead-ishness to embark on frontier-ishness. I don't experience these feelings first-hand, but sort of arrive at them by guesswork and elimination. "Well, my stomach feels strange. I didn't eat any unusual twigs or berries, so it must be psychological." "I'm dizzy and nauseous. Either I'm pregnant or there's something else going on." "I can't seem to feel my leg anymore. Gosh, will you look at that. Cannonball took it clean off."


Friday, 28 March 2008

Everything Just Got Smaller

I'm buying supplies for my trip, which may last six weeks, and I'm packing everything into one bag. So I'm replacing everything I use daily with teeny-tiny versions. Like Will Ferrell's phone in that one SNL sketch.

Tiny shampoo containers. Small hangers. Mini sketchpad. Micro-fibre towel. I made a teeny-tiny Scrabble board. I already own a teeny-tiny laptop. I have a Swiss Army knife the shape of a credit card. A compass the size of a marble. A travel lamp the size of my thumb. A USB thumbdrive the size of a paperclip. A paperclip which is so small I've lost it already.
I'm taking travel books which I'll post back to the library, pulp fiction I'll throw away and DVDs I'll send to the less fortunate (hi, Hadley!). Even disposable clothes, because it's not worth lugging used underwear through twenty states.
I'll buy stuff on the way: socks, maps, a Taser (I'll tase you, bro), abortions, dignity, hoagies, tiny American flags, hookers, penicillin, Caffeine-Free Cherry Diet Dr Pepper, a severe case of type-2 diabetes, a one-way ticket to hell, chutzpah, and the eternal gratitude of waitresses called Flo.


Monday, 24 March 2008

Never Jam Today

The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today.
Lewis Carroll

Trying to connect to my train next month is proving a maddening exercise.

The most logical solution would be to travel south-east for five hours and catch it at the closest station, in Montana. To do this, I would have to catch a bus to Seattle, then Butte, then Billings, then some form of donkey cart. The path resembles getting out of a car through the exhaust pipe.

My next option is to travel east within Canada, then south to Minneapolis/St Paul, Minnesota. This involves three buses, three provinces, and more than 24 hours' travel--before I even get to the Canadian-U.S. border.
This is all made more complicated by Greyhound Bus staff being bamboozled by the crossing of borders. Despite 80% of the Canadian population living within 100 miles of America, facilitating the trip seems beyond the imagination of many. (Of the staff at the video store, only half have ever been to America, and only two have been more than once. One went for business conferences, the other travelled with a carnival.)

The final option is to fly. U.S. airlines operate a byzantine system of connecting flights, whereby a two-stop, 18-hour trip is half the price of a direct flight. Even if you know for a fact that a direct flight exists, you often may only use it to connect to other places.
Thus, Minneapolis direct costs $368, while connecting in Minneapolis to get to Las Vegas costs $184.
It gets worse. You can connect to Chicago via Pittsburgh, and to Pittsburgh via Chicago, but flying direct on the same flight costs $200 more than either.
Airlines realise that customers realise this, and apply strict penalties to people trying to jump ship between flights. While it's difficult to imagine being forced on to a flight to Vegas at gunpoint, I certainly wouldn't be able to get through Customs at a connecting airport, even on a 8-hour layover.

The irony of all this is that I may end up going to Vegas to save money.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Wealth = Virtue

...or, the lack of money is the root of all evil.

One of the advantages of knowing no-one within 7000 miles is the tremendous amount of spare time I have for academic pursuits. Going through most of the 100 Greatest Books series, I find myself with knowledge about the groundwork of Western economic and social theory, and its antonyms. The Wealth of Nations, The Social Contract, Das Kapital.

I hadn't though a lot about economics in the past, preferring to stick with the "It's Not Fair" theory of university students and other over-privileged and lazy people who don't feel like questioning broadly-reasoned beliefs in unfamiliar fields. The supply of money, inflation rates, the exchange of international currency and the creation of wealth were things other people, you know, did. Old, fat people who wore ties and drove dull but expensive cars.

However, working at the ignominious bottom of a corporate structure has made me question why such wage-slave jobs exist, how they are different to Industrial Revolution-era jobs, why such roles are given such low value, and if life today is actually any better than some historical zero-point of life quality. Clearly someone was making money from my labour. The questions for me were, how is money made, and is life better now than before?

To establish a zero-point scenario where results from work and from process are clear, let us imagine Robinson Crusoe (AKA Alexander Selkirk) on his island. He has no society; he has no technology; he has no infrastructure. His economic status is zero, and his environment is likewise, unclouded and unimproved.
The first priorities for Crusoe are to drink, to eat, and to shelter from the elements. Therefore he must gather, hunt, locate potable water, and construct a home from materials. Let's assume that during his first three months he carves out for himself a workable routine which provides food and water, and that he has somewhere dry to lay his head. He spends most of his waking hours collecting and preparing food and water; say, eight hours a day. This leaves him two hours of sunlight with which to engage in other activities.
In the book (and now documentary series) 'Guns, Germs and Steel', Jared Diamond explains that farming high-yield grains and domesticating work animals allowed Middle Eastern prehistorical societies to grow and develop at an unprecedented rate. Other societies, such as those in Papua New Guinea, are stuck with yams and pigs to this day. If Crusoe was able to catch goats or large herd animals, his access to protein and outsourcing of hard physical labour would increase the amount of free time he had during the day; let's say it is now four hours. Increasing efficiency and leveraging his own effort, Crusoe creates greater freedom over time.

Looking back even 200 years, our lives are populated with evidence of incredible 'wealth' -- instant communication; instant information; cheap, varied and accessible food; near-universal medicine; myriad consumer goods. Our lives are measurably more powerful than at any point in history. So when does nirvana arrive?

Money is an abstraction which evolved from the need to formalize trade promises. In a month my harvest will be rotting in the field, but I shall need food and other things then, as now. Money pauses my trade's value until I choose to un-pause it by spending.
Today money is even more abstracted; barely 5% exists as physical paper or coin, the rest electronic juggling balls handled by banks. Major institutions create money by making loans, as follows.
If I put $10 in the bank, the bank may loan out $90 to someone based on the $10 security. They then receive payments on the loan, which both reduces the $90 loaned out and increases the security dollar value. When $1 is paid back, the security is now $11 and the loaned amount is $89. The bank may then loan a further $10: $9 based on the extra dollar as security and $1 because the current loaned amount is reduced by that amount.
The Reserve Bank/Federal Reserve controls inflation and interest rates by limiting or increasing the amount of security banks keep. It is through this cycle of controlled release of capital that goods and services, which often derive their value from increased efficiency, are created.

So now we have societies with great wealth and fairly easy standards of living. Why aren't we all happy?
What I wonder about dissatisfaction in wealthy countries is whether total wealth or relative wealth is more important. If no-one has a TV, I don't feel bad about not having one. If everyone has a TV, I feel bad about only having a black-and-white set. In absolute terms, of course I'm better off; in relative terms, my goalposts have shifted. I've become a Player Hater.

An interesting statistic from Freakonomics was murder rates per capita from the 19th century (in America) until the present day. The rates declined by orders of magnitude. OECD countries are hugely safer than in the past, and wealth is a major cause. When work provides a living wage, when public services are sufficient, when life expectancy is long, people are persuaded to lead civil lives. The social contract breaks down when crime is seen as necessary and germane. Corrupt countries like Zimbabwe do not have the requisite wealth or perceived promise of a better future which is necessary for people to lead obesient lives.

I don't think that wealth by itself creates any personality shift, either beneficial or corrupting, because people adjust so quickly to situations. However, poverty brings into sharp relief the needs upon which life is built, which tap into far stronger motivations than the need to watch the last episode of 'Lost'.


Saturday, 15 March 2008

The Gist of April

I've made some specific plans for my U.S. trip in April. As follows:

Fly to Vegas on 31 March.
Stay at the El Cortez casino

Fly to Houston on 4 April
Stay in a hostel

Get an Amtrak (rail) pass for 30 days
Trek through the southern states for a few weeks: Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Florida
Trek through the eastern seaboard for a week or so: Virgina, D.C., Pennsylvania for the Democratic primary on 22 April, Connecticut, Massachusetts

Wind up in New York
Stay in New York for a week or ten days

Catch a bus back to Toronto (not all that far; same as Auckland to Wellington)

My rail pass lets me go anywhere here (click to zoom): I may end up anywhere. If I can't find a place to stay, I can just hop a long train ride and sleep on the way.

I'm taking one carry-on bag, one and a half laptops, and probably not enough socks.
I will see the America which is too boring and ugly to put on television, and experience it in all its gun-totin', Bible-believin', pig-wrasslin' glory. Hopefully not all on the same day.

My Racist Right Eye

I've got something wrong with my eye.
A few days ago, one of the muscles under my right eye began to jerk occasionally. It's the kind of thing you would expect to see when a drill sergeant, frozen in unbelieving fury, is about to go completely nuts.
I think it's a result of late nights, a poor diet, and an odd work schedule. Reading a computer screen a lot wouldn't have helped much. This would all be fairly benign if it weren't for the fact that I interact with thousands of people every day. The twitching increases with stress; on my breaks it may only be at two beats per minute, but when I'm serving a customer it can go up to 120, or twice a second.

A white customer, that is.

When a black guy comes up to the counter, my eye goes into overdrive. I must look like a tweaked accountant, talking in a regular voice while one eye spasms like Steven Hawking when he's on a rag about black holes. I was standing next to a black guy on the train... thank god he was on my left, because had he been on my right, he would have inched away for fear of catching localised epilepsy.

I hope this goes away before I get to Vegas. If I get black jack, everyone would take one look at me and fold.

I've tried contacting my travel agent to get details about my medical insurance, which cost in excess of $1000. I am yet to hear back.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Reading List 2008

A Year Without 'Made In China'
Sara Bongiorni
A business writer goes for one year trying to avoid buying anything manufactured, wholly or in part, in China. It's hard to do. That's scary when you realise that if trade ceased (because of embargoes or conflict) the Western world would suddenly have no shoes or plastic goods, for example. None.

Nobody's Perfect
Anthony Lane
My favourite film critic's collected writings; also on theatre and general topics. Masterful turns of phrase apt to cause tears of jealousy.

The Annotated Pride & Prejudice
of Jane Austen
200 years is a vast cultural gulf. The myriad footnotes of this version of the 1813 classic reveal details lost in the mists of time. The text is printed on the left-hand pages; notes and illustrations are shown on the right-hand pages.

The Annotated Lolita
of Vladimir Nabokov
Only 50 or so years between then and now, but Nabokov's tendency to make puns in three languages makes expository text vital. Seeing his verbal acrobatics unpacked detracts little from the enjoyment.

On War
Carl von Clausewitz
I picked this up in L.A. last year for three dollars, but didn't read it until recently. A German military man whose career branched Napoleon's, his insight into conflict and its place in the world is fascinating reading for damn liberals like me.

Reading now:
Frommers Las Vegas
Lonely Planet Las Vegas
Frommers Texas
Fodor's City Guide Houston
Insider's Guide Alabama
Fodor's Gulf Coast Getaways
Frommer's Washington DC

Highlights from 2007:
Guns, Germs & Steel
The Tipping Point
Getting To Yes
Crucial Confrontations

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Friday, 7 March 2008

Bad Day At The Office

This video is, I believe, the best expression of having a bad day at the office known to man:

*Bad Day*


Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The New New Thing

Flying through the blue states. Busing through the red states. About three weeks: most of April. Tentative at this point.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

You Can Take This Job And Shove It

I gave notice at my work today, and then later at my flat. I'm quitting this job and this house and this city.

A steady stream of freaks, the unemployed, the homeless and the flat-out thieving passed by my uniformed gaze today, as it does most days. Eventually, after 5pm the regular working people begin to saunter through the doors, stepping out of their SUVs long enough to pick up the latest marketing explosion. Films are rented not by merit, but in direct proportion to the amount spent on their promotion. The Big Macs of the film world fly out the door with dulling regularity while the back catalogue of films guilty of nothing but being old languish in ignominy.

My flatmates: exactly like these two guys.

Calgary: like the picture below, but with half-melted snow mixed with dirt, solidified exhaust fumes, staggering homeless people, fifteen commuters in shapeless cheap winter jackets and a sign on the bus saying 'OUT OF SERVICE'.