10.31.2013

thank you, 2013 red sox! thank you, david ortiz!


This was a magical season, and the most exciting postseason I've seen in a very long time.

David Ortiz - the only man to play on the 2004, 2007, and 2013 Red Sox teams - will be a hero to the city of Boston and to every Red Sox fan forever and ever, amen. A big man with a huge bat, an enormous heart, and more brains than he gets credit for.

In the world of my personal fandom, sometime during the middle of the summer, between the foot and the flood and the move and the new job, I lost touch with the season. Or, more accurately, I began following the season the way most people do, rather than as an obsessive fan who never misses a game.

Suddenly, in mid-August, I saw the writing on the wall: this team was going all the way. Rarely do you see a baseball team with no weaknesses, and the 2013 Red Sox had it all. After the shock of the 2011 collapse and the abysmal 2012 season, the 2013 team was headed to its third World Series win in ten years.

It was time to climb back onboard and reboot my obsession. I glued myself to the Red Sox and they rewarded me with a September and October I will never forget.

Thank you, 2013 Red Sox! Thank you, David Ortiz!

10.30.2013

in which i survive three days without internet, or how rogers (maybe) punishes former customers

Sometime late on Thursday night into Friday morning, our internet went down. This is the worst possible time for such an event, as internet is our lifeline to baseball, and the Boston Red Sox are on their way (I hope) (I believe) to winning the World Series.

From the sound of things, there were problems at some major internet hubs in the area, with massive outages affecting parts of Mississauga, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, and so on.

What was the problem? When could we expect service to resume? TekSavvy wasn't able to tell me... because Rogers wouldn't tell them.

I have been Rogers-free since March of 2012, and I have been extremely pleased with TekSavvy. TekSavvy's customer service is excellent, their tech support is excellent and local, and they deliver more internet for less money. I pay about 30% less for unlimited service at a higher speed; that is, I paid Rogers 30% more for capped usage at a slower speed.

The only sticking point is that TekSavvy is a re-seller. They contract with Rogers and other cable and DSL providers to use networks and technicians. And Rogers doesn't make it easy. During this recent (and unusual) outage, TekSavvy said "the vendor" (i.e. Rogers) was giving them no information on what was happening or when the issue might be resolved.

When I woke up to no internet on Friday morning, I told myself, there was no game that day, and we had until 8:00 on Saturday. It seemed highly unlikely that we'd be without internet for that long.

On Saturday morning, we still didn't have internet, and I was getting worried. Our Halloween program at the library kept my mind off waiting, and when I came home on Saturday, I rushed to the computer. Still nothing.

By Saturday evening, hours before the start of World Series Game 3, I was a bit panicked. I have a smartphone, so I could see my email. Our home phone is VoIP, but I can live without a home phone for a while. But... baseball!!

Saturday at 8:00, and still nothing. A friend who is a Red Sox diehard texted me play-by-play of the game! (My hero!)

Sunday morning, still nothing. TekSavvy still has no word from Rogers.

Sometime during the day, we realized that the sports radio station in Toronto would probably be carrying the national World Series broadcast. I'm so accustomed to thinking of radio on the internet - that's how I listen to the local Red Sox announcers - that I had forgotten about regular, non-internet radio. The Toronto station probably didn't broadcast all the playoffs, but the World Series would be on for sure. And it was. I happen to love baseball on the radio, so I was happy and relieved.

And Sunday night, while listening to the game, I absentmindedly turned on the TV and saw that the Roku streaming device had a connection. We came back online late Sunday night, about 72 hours after losing access.

So, does Rogers screw with TekSavvy and TekSavvy customers?

On one end of the spectrum we have total innocence and coincidence: Rogers had a huge outage, and although TekSavvy was not kept informed, TekSavvy customers were in no worse shape than Rogers customers. On the other end we have total conspiracy: Rogers targets TekSavvy, making TekSavvy customers unhappy with their second-rate, discount service, and more likely to switch (or switch back) to Rogers.

In the middle, we have a gray area where the outage affects everyone, but Rogers conveniently puts TekSavvy at the bottom of its to-do list, and makes sure it gets to everyone and everything else first.

Here's a possible precedent. About 12 years ago, my phone service was "slammed" - that's when a telco illegally switches your phone service without your permission. After the surreptitious switch, they either charge you exorbitant amounts for calls, or charge you a termination fee to leave. Or, if you don't look closely at your phone bill, you just pay them and continue doing so. My service was switched to an AT&T affiliate. The AT&T customer service representative assured me that it must have been an accident, because a reputable company like AT&T had no interest in stealing anyone's business.

After my service was switched back, I reported the slam to the FCC. The FCC rep told me that AT&T was the number one slammer: it slams thousands upon thousands of customers every year.

You can draw your own conclusions about Rogers.



10.27.2013

you know her life was saved by rock and roll: lou reed, 1942-2013

Lou Reed, 1942-2013
Songwriter, Musician, New Yorker

"One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz." - Lou Reed

"The first Velvet Underground album only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought it started a band." - possibly Brian Eno

I was shocked and very saddened to learn of the death of Lou Reed at the not-old age of 71. Lou Reed made a lot of really worthwhile music, much of it after VU. I'm grateful that I saw him perform a few times, for his music, and for his politics. I'm really sorry he's gone.

10.26.2013

a small green victory: more plastics now recyclable in peel

Yes! A few years back, I blogged about discovering that many of the plastics I had been putting in my recycling bin were not, in fact, recyclable. A few months after that, I unpacked a typical environmental dilemma: organic lettuce.

Organic lettuce is the perfect example of a green paradox. It's unquestionably better for the local water supply, and for the health of the people who pick it and who eat it. On the other hand, it requires a huge amount of energy to stay fresh, and is often packed in non-recyclable plastic. We can ask, "Which is better?" but the answer is another question: "Better for what?"

Now, after considerable consumer pressure, Peel Region will accept clear plastics for recycling. Of course, it's always better to avoid buying produce that is packed in plastic, but if you shop at a supermarket, that is difficult or impossible to do. I hope this change marks the beginning of more recycling province-wide and nationally.

10.24.2013

faludi: corporatist pseudo-feminism vs radical change for women and all working people

I would like to draw your attention to an excellent article by Susan Faludi in The Baffler: Facebook Feminism: Like It or Not.

Faludi contrasts the corporatist, individualistic, me-first, privileged, self-centered, pseudo-feminism of "Lean In" with the collective, cross-class activism of some of the original feminists: the "Mill Girls" of Lowell, Massachusetts, who fought for human rights and labour rights for all women. Describing the links between feminism, class struggle, the labour movement, and even the abolitionist movement, Faludi demonstrates how all oppression is interconnected, and how only collective solutions can affect change. She shows how an effective women's movement most be anti-capitalist and anti-corporatist, too.

Faludi dissects and deconstructs the Facebook-based "Lean In" and its corporate partners, peeling back the cheery, self-help facade to reveal the status quo underneath. It isn't pretty.
Lean In Platform Partner Wells Fargo: In 2011, the bank reached a class-action settlement with 1,200 female financial advisers for $32 million. The sex discrimination suit charged that the bank’s brokerage business, Wells Fargo Advisors (originally Wachovia Securities), discriminated against women in compensation and signing bonuses, denied them promotions, and cheated them out of account distributions, investment partnerships, and mentoring and marketing opportunities.

Goldman Sachs (whose philanthropic arm, the Goldman Sachs Foundation, is a Lean In Platform Partner): In 2010, former employees of Goldman Sachs filed a class-action suit against the company, accusing Wall Street’s most profitable investment bank of “systematic and pervasive discrimination” against female employees, subjecting them to hostile working conditions and treating them “like disposable, second-class citizens.”

Lean In Platform Partners Mondelez and NestlĂ©: In 2013, an Oxfam investigation in four countries where the two companies outsourced their cocoa farms found that the women working in the cocoa fields and processing plants that the companies relied on “suffer substantial discrimination and inequality.” When women at a cocoa processing factory demanded equal treatment and pay, the investigation noted, all of the female workers were fired. The same companies that “put women first in their advertisements,” Oxfam concluded, “are doing very little to address poor conditions faced by the women who grow cocoa.”
And so on. Lean In's message to women confronted by institutional barriers and the absence of social supports: try harder. Join a Facebook group. Believe in yourself. If it isn't working, you haven't tried hard enough.

Faludi contrasts this with an inspiring history lesson.
In 1834, America’s first industrial wage earners, the “mill girls” of Lowell, Massachusetts, embarked on their own campaign for women’s advancement in the workplace. They didn’t “lean in,” though. When their male overseers in the nation’s first large-scale planned industrial city cut their already paltry wages by 15 to 20 percent, the textile workers declared a “turn-out,” one of the nation’s earliest industrial strikes. That first effort failed, but its participants did not concede defeat. The Lowell women would stage another turn-out two years later, create the first union of working women in American history, lead a fight for the ten-hour work day, and conceive of an increasingly radical vision that took aim both at corporate power and the patriarchal oppression of women. Their bruising early encounter with American industry fueled a nascent feminist outlook that would ultimately find full expression in the first wave of the American women’s movement. . . . .

The Lowell factory owners had recruited “respectable” Yankee farmers’ daughters from the New England countryside, figuring that respectable would translate into docile. They figured wrong. The forces of industrialization had propelled young women out of the home, breaking the fetters binding them to the patriarchal family, unleashing the women into urban areas with few social controls, and permitting them to begin thinking of themselves as public citizens. The combination of newly gained independence and increasingly penurious, exploitative conditions proved combustible—and the factory owners’ reduction in pay turned out to be the match that lit the tinder. Soon after they heard the news, the “mill girls”—proclaiming that they “remain in possession of our unquestionable rights”—shut down their looms and walked out.

From the start, the female textile workers made the connection between labor and women’s rights. . . . The mill workers went on to agitate against an unjust system in all its forms. When Lowell’s state representative thwarted the women’s statewide battle for the ten-hour day, they mobilized and succeeded in having him voted out of office — nearly eighty years before women had the vote. Mill women in Lowell and, in the decades to come, their counterparts throughout New England threw themselves into the abolitionist movement (drawing connections between the cotton picked by slaves and the fabric they wove in the mills); campaigned for better health care, safer schools, decent housing, and cleaner water and streets; and joined the fight for women’s suffrage. Sarah Bagley went on to work for prison reform, women’s rights, and education and decent jobs for poor women and prostitutes. After a stint as the first female telegrapher in the nation (where she pointed out that she was being paid two-thirds of a male telegrapher’s salary), she taught herself homeopathic medicine and became a doctor, billing her patients according to her personal proviso, “To the rich, one dollar—to the poor gratis.”

Increasingly, the mill girls were joined in these efforts by their middle-class sisters. Cross-class female solidarity surfaced early in Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the horrific building collapse of the Pemberton Mills factory in 1860, which killed 145 workers, most of them women and children. (The mills in Lawrence would later give rise to the famously militant “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912, in which female workers again played a leading role.) In the aftermath of the Pemberton disaster, middle-class women in the region flocked to provide emergency relief and, radicalized by what they witnessed, went on to establish day nurseries, medical clinics and hospitals, and cooperative housing to serve the needs of working women. By the postbellum years, with industrialization at full tide and economic polarization at record levels, a critical mass of middle-class female reformers had come to believe that the key to women’s elevation was not, as they once thought, “moral uplift,” but economic independence—and that cross-class struggle on behalf of female workers was the key to achieving it.
You may imagine that the obstacles faced by working women in 2013 and those faced by female factory workers 150 years earlier is an apples-and-oranges comparison. They have more in common than you think. So do the solutions. Read the essay here.

The story of the Mill Girls is one of my favourite pieces of history - women's history, labour history, and the history of radical people's movements. So for me, Faludi's essay contained an amazing bonus: I learned that there is a Lowell National Historic Park! It preserves the historic mill buildings and celebrates the work of our radical foremothers. I had never heard of it before. I hope to make a visit within the next year.

10.23.2013

dirty wars: an important movie, marred by nationalism

Last night we watched "Dirty Wars," investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill's documentary film exposing the United States' covert, lethal, extra-governmental operations around the globe. It's an important film. Depending on your level of knowledge of the US, it may be eye-opening, or it may be shocking.

If you have not yet seen this film, I urge you to. It's available on US Netflix and from many public library catalogs. (The website has a link to agitate for cinema screenings in your area.)

Please note I have called this film "important" and I have urged you all to see it. I have tremendous respect and admiration for Jeremy Scahill.

This post, however, is a criticism of one aspect of "Dirty Wars" that disturbed me, and undermined the film's effectiveness in my eyes. But please read this criticism in context of a documentary that is well written, well made, and incontrovertibly accurate.

We can't investigate what doesn't exist

The film opens in Afghanistan. Scahill witnesses the aftermath of a killing of a family by US "special forces", and the subsequent cover-up. Somewhat naively, Scahill pushes for an investigation, but no US official will even acknowledge that the incident took place.

The massacre of an innocent Afghan family raises disturbing questions. As Scahill follows the trail - with persistence and open eyes and more than a little danger to himself - the evidence becomes increasingly disturbing and strange. Scahill eventually discovers that there are hundreds of US military operations that exist outside the boundaries of normal government and law, beyond any democratic oversight, and out of the view of the media and the public. These are the now-infamous "kill lists" - people who US President Barack Obama and the commanders of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have decided must die. (Barack Obama was not the first president to use the JSOC kill-lists, he merely expanded the locations of special operations from 40 countries under George W. Bush to 75.)

Scahill shows how the kill-list grew from 10 names, to 52 names, to hundreds, and now thousands, as US drones drop missiles around the world, sowing new hatreds and creating new enemies for the US.

Then Scahill reveals what he calls "a watershed moment," a moment that spins him down Alice's rabbit hole, dizzies him, makes him feel he is on the precipice of the known world: the kill-list, it turns out, contains the name of an American citizen. This, Scahill says, shocks him to his core.

And this bothers me greatly.

Unprecedented? Shocking? Both... or neither?

First, is it truly so shocking that the US government will kill a US citizen; is it truly so unprecedented?The US has executed untold numbers of US citizens, either by allowing them to be murdered in vast numbers (lynching, for example), or sending them to kill or be killed for ideology and profit (Vietnam, Iraq, and so on), by using US citizens as nonconsensual test subjects to measure the effects of radiation, hallucinogenics, sexually-transmitted diseases, torture, and other horrors, and other scenes from the country's brutal past.

Second, is the fact that American weapons are killing defenseless people around the globe not in itself shocking enough? In one segment of "Dirty Wars," a Yemeni man describes the carnage he witnessed as the first to arrive on the scene of a drone attack. It is horrific. Is Scahill saying that this unprovoked attack, this carnage that rained from the sky, vaporizing whole families, is not itself the edge of the world, but the inclusion of one American citizen as a target is?

"One of our own"? Really?

You may use the standard response: supposedly, all people care more about "their own" than about others. First, I will tell you that the belief is not universal. I can state with great certainty that I am not the only person who thinks an American or Canadian life is no more valuable, no more worthwhile, no more sacred, than the life of someone from Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, or anywhere else.

But even if we acknowledge that nationalism is a common concern, I ask you, how many Americans actually consider Anwar al-Awlaki, as Scahill put it, "one of their own"? Between rampant Islamophobia, an unquestioned belief in the justice of the US's global "war on terror," and the constant exhortations that al-Awlaki is not only a terrorist but an emissary, an evangelist, of terror, how many Americans would feel commonality with al-Awlacki on the basis of his US citizenship? If you guessed "none," you are correct.

Scahill implies that, if Americans knew about JSOC's killing operations, and if they possessed any power to stop it, they wouldn't mind so much that their tax dollars are used to shoot cruise missiles all over the world, to kill people that have done them no harm, and ultimately making the US more vulnerable to actual terrorist attacks, but that the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki would be the rubicon they could not cross, because of this man's citizenship. No. I don't agree.

Belief or effect?

After the movie, Allan and I discussed whether Scahill is using this idea for shock value. That is, he himself does not believe that the extra-judicial killing of an American citizen is unprecedented and unspeakably horrible, but he is banking on his audience to feel that way. And that after presenting all these clearly horrible, unethical, immoral, brutal, violent acts so early on in the film, the only way to ratchet up the investment is to unveil this one last horror.

I don't know the answer to this. I'm not in Scahill's mind. But whether Scahill actually believes it to be so much worse, or whether he's counting on his audience to believe it, in my eyes, it's a mistake to flog this America-centrist, nationalist trope.

The JSOC operations are wrong. They are not wrong because there is one American name on a list of thousands. Those thousands will be exterminated. That is wrong.



10.22.2013

on the internet, everybody knows you're a dog (the story behind the iconic cartoon)

We all know the iconic cartoon the title of this post refers to. Boing Boing has republished a story about it, originally run in The Magazine, an ad-free, reader-supported magazine that looks really interesting.

It's a wonderful little piece: the story behind the story, a glimpse into the life of people who try to earn a living from their own considerable talents, and a look back at the early days of the internet, and how things have changed, before tinfoil-hat predictions were proven to be not paranoia, but prescience.

Go here to read the story (really, it's fun), and here to see the rest of this cartoon. Please click through. The talented people at Joy of Tech get paid by clicks.

Then...



















And now...




10.20.2013

red sox. american league pennant. happy.

The 2013 Boston Red Sox have won the American League Pennant, and the right to play the St. Louis Cardinals in the 110th 109th* Major League Baseball World Series.

This makes me incredibly happy.

1903, 1912, 1915, 1916, 1918, 2004, 2007... 2013? Seven wins down, four to go.

That is all.


-----
* Oops, forgot about the strike year.

in praise of freecycle

It's been a while since I wrote about Freecycle - once as we were getting ready to move to Canada in 2005, then again when we moved from our first place in Port Credit to the Cooksville section of Mississauga.

On this last move (Cooksville to Square One), I had no time to go through things and pare down. I hired some folks to pack us up, and now I've been combing through everything as I unpack. I thought that was completely backwards, but it's turned out to be efficient and logical. Once you're moved in, you have a better idea of what works and what doesn't, and also more time, since there's no looming deadline.

To those ends, I've been giving away lots of things on Freecycle, and I've discovered yet again that many people haven't heard of it.

Freecycle is a network of local groups, run entirely by volunteers, through which people give and get things for free. You find a Freecycle group in your own community, post items that you want to give away, and (if you choose) look for things you might want to pick up at no cost. It's like leaving something at the curb for others to take, but with a much greater reach. There are now more than 5,000 Freecycle groups globally. The only criteria for giveaways is that items are legal and free. Yay, no haggling!

Now I have a pecking order for giving stuff away.

Clothes go immediately to a Goodwill thrift shop. (People need to see clothes and try them on.)

If I need money and feel something is too valuable to Freecycle, I post it on Craigslist. Working electronics, furniture in decent condition, rugs, shelving, and tools are all great for Craigslist. Many people have switched from Craigslist to Kijiji, but I have not had one positive experience with Kijiji, only annoyance, so I gave up.

If the item is not worth selling, or if it hasn't sold on Craigslist in several tries, usually I will post it on Freecycle. Freecycle has saved me from putting countless useable items into the waste stream. I recently Freecycled our old washer and dryer (both bought used, and there are dozens for sale on Craigslist), two ceramic mugs we don't like, a gravy boat that I will never use, a stack of burner guards for the stove (the new stove has flat burners), and a dozen audio cassette tapes (outdated technology).

Freecycle is great for getting rid of furniture or housewares that no longer work for you, but that aren't in top condition. Many people Freecycle children's books and toys, and baby furniture, which is brilliant, considering the relatively short span of usefulness of those items. Planned obsolescence and the horrendously cheap and shoddy quality of almost everything sold these days works against the Freecycle mentality, but many still-useable items are thrown out - and don't have to be.

There are only two things I don't like about Freecycle, and both are minor. Because the "gifter" is not obligated to give to the first person who responds - members are encouraged to give to people in need - "giftees" often try to demonstrate their need. I find this quite irritating. If I have something really juicy to give away, I have taken to writing "Please, no sob stories" on my posts. Some people find this amusing, others dislike it, but it has helped! The other thing that can be a drag is people who say they want something, email several times for information, then no-show.

These are not major drawbacks, but it does occasionally give me pause. More than once I've been tempted to throw something out rather than deal with Freecycle, because of some members' lack of respect for other people's time. In the end, though, I'd rather give something away than chuck it, so I'll wait until I'm feeling more patient before posting.

In general, people you deal with on Freecycle are friendly and appreciative. Everyone loves to get stuff for free, and being generous makes people feel good, too.

10.14.2013

what this blog has been missing!

It's strange to be so completely focused on something and not post about it here at all. So...

OMG RED SOX

That's better!

The 2013 Red Sox continue to thrill and amaze us. Last night they pulled off one of the most improbable comebacks in postseason history. (Allan has a nice look at how it happened.) I expect to be watching baseball deep into October.

Or listening to, as the case may be.

We're not supposed to see these games at all, because telecom companies rule the world, and postseason baseball is only available via cable TV. And as you are undoubtedly sick of reading about by now, we dumped cable in favour of streaming.

We have a workaround, and have been watching games on a computer... but it doesn't always work. Friday and Saturday nights, I watched playoff games online, with perfect streaming that was as good as watching TV. Last night, it didn't work at all, and I only had the radio broadcast.

Fortunately I love listening to baseball on the radio, and I can watch highlights after the fact (which I plan to do this morning). But still, it would be nice if streaming via VPN worked more often than not.



10.13.2013

how to pursue something you don't really want

Since the day I decided to go to graduate school and change my career(s), my mind has reeled with questions about the future. When will I be able to quit my horrible law-firm job? When will I get a professional position at the library? When I get it, will I succeed, and will I enjoy my new work? What place will writing still have in my life? Will my health suffer? Will I have enough energy for these new demands? And on and on. It didn't feel worried or anxious, but I was incredibly impatient for my new future to arrive. Sometimes I could think of nothing else.

One after the next, these questions have been answered, and all in the affirmative - a source of unending delight.

Now only one question remains, and it's a big one.

My current position is part-time and temporary. Whenever the next full-time librarian position posts, I will apply for it. (If I don't get a full-time position before this contract ends, I will return to a part-time position at a lower level of pay and responsibility, and continue to wait.) Meanwhile, I have been building my profile at the library, and I expect to be in a very strong position to compete for any position that posts. I have every intention of applying for - and getting - a full-time librarian position.

Yet at the same time, I dread the thought of working full-time.

My current position is 24 hours per week, and it's perfect. I work enough to be involved in the department and see many of my ideas come to fruition. I make a decent salary. I have time for activism, time to be involved in my union, and I can find time to read and to write (never enough, but that's always the case). To use that awful HR-speak, I have "work-life balance". I'm really enjoying my life so much, and I don't want to change anything.

But. There are two big Buts. One, part of the incentive for this whole Big Life Change was to increase my earning potential, and I still very much want to do that. And two, I have a strong sense of my leadership potential in library work, and in order to meet that potential - in order for the work to remain challenging and interesting - I will need to advance. My immediate goal is a full-time librarian position, and after that, senior librarian.

But... I am afraid. Afraid that when I work full-time, I will not have enough energy for anything but work. Afraid that I will be able to work, and come home and rest, and nothing else - afraid that fibromyalgia will let me stretch that far but no farther. Afraid that I won't have time for activism, which is so important to me - and which is also a big chunk of my social life. Afraid that battling fatigue may lead to enjoy my job and my life less.

I know that many professions demand much more than full-time work. Lawyers, for example, might well regard the 40-hour work week as part-time. However, I have consciously made other choices. The idea of work that I enjoy and that absorbs me is wonderful, but at this age, I would never pursue a profession that would be so demanding of my time.

I also know people who work full time and are still heavily involved with activism, or school, or sports, or whatever they're into. But I don't know if that's an option for me anymore.

I have not had a full-time job in nearly 20 years. Of course, if I added up all the hours I would spend on writing assignments, activism, and my day-job, I was often working well beyond full-time hours. But cycling through various parts of my life - changing hats frequently - always felt very different than working full-time.

The truth is, we should all work part-time, and we should all be able to support ourselves and our families and still have time and energy left for other pursuits. Believe me, I know I'm in a better position than most. But that knowledge doesn't change my concerns.

My resume is updated, and I check the internal job postings daily. And I obsess on this one last unanswered question.

10.11.2013

what i'm reading, children's books edition # 9: wonderstruck

Over the summer, I wrote about The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, a children's book with a suspenseful, convoluted story, lavishly illustrated with Selznick's beautiful pencil drawings. (I scanned several of those images into my earlier post.)

I've just finished Selznick's most recent book, Wonderstruck. Wonderstruck is filled with drawings in the same distinctive pencil style, but it is even better than Hugo Cabret.

The central story of Wonderstruck is more linear, so it's easier to follow. But Selznick employs a brilliant device that adds mystery and suspense to a straightforward story.

The reader follows the story of Ben, a boy from Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, who dreams of wolves, and misses his mother, and travels by himself to New York City. Interrupting Ben's story at intervals is another story, told in wordless pictures, of a girl from a different time and place - a girl who also travels to New York City on her own.

The two stories, one written in text and one illustrated, unfold independently of each other. The reader knows there must be a connection between them, but can we piece the mystery together? The two stories intersect in marvelous, poignant, and satisfying ways. The use of dual plot lines told in different formats is a gutsy choice that really respects the intelligence of the young reader.

I must admit I have an extra attachment to this book, as so many of its elements have been fascinations - or obsessions - of mine at various times in my life: wolves, New York City, Deaf culture, sign language, the American Museum of Natural History, even - amazingly - the New York City Panorama in the Queens Museum of Art, which I frequently recommend to exploring New York-ophiles. The book also pays homage to a classic children's book of an earlier era, E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Like Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck is about the search for our authentic selves, our need to belong, and the creation of families, both biological and chosen. I highly recommend this book. As I tell our young customers at the library, it looks huge, but flip through it - half of it is pictures, and it's a really fast read, because you won't want to put it down.

Postscript: On the Wonderstruck website, there are wonderful essays that provide more context for the many threads of the book. Great stuff: go here.

the tarsands are coming to toronto: speak out on october 19 (and every day) to stop the madness

By now I hope you all know about Line 9, Enbridge's plan to transport the dirtiest, most spillable oil on the planet through the most heavily populated areas of Canada and some of the most environmentally sensitive areas of New England.

Line 9 is the third stage of Enbridge's plans to get their resource-draining, health-destroying, earth-killing tarsands oil from Alberta to the rest of the world, putting the drinking water, health, and lives of millions of people at risk in order to squeeze more private profit out of our earth.

On October 19, concerned Canadians will demonstrate outside the National Energy Board hearings in the Toronto Metro Convention Centre. The rally caps a two-week calendar of events educating the public about this insanely dangerous plan. For more immediate and excellent education, see the Oil Sands Reality Check website, which gives you the basics in a few important clicks.

The Line 9 plan would reverse the flow in two existing pipelines, causing oil to flow from Alberta through Sarnia, Hamilton, the Greater Toronto Area, Montreal, and down into New England, ending in Casco Bay in Portland, Maine - approximately 1200 kilometres (750 miles), through the most densely populated area of Canada, through the sources of drinking water for millions of people. The route passes through 99 towns and cities and 14 indigenous communities.

This is absolute madness - as are the other two Enbridge pipeline plans, now (at least temporarily) stopped: the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska, and the mind-blowingly insane plan to bring huge supertankers into the rocky, island-dotted British Columbia coast.

The fossil-fuel industry and the politicians who they own (including, of course, much of the Harper Government) peddles their snake oil with lies. (Remember this map?) It's up to us to educate ourselves and each other.

My comrade Dr. J of Your Heart's On The Left gives us nine reasons to oppose Line 9. Along with the ultimate goals of protecting clean water and protecting our health, Dr. J challenges the false choice of environment vs. jobs: the fallacy that we need to destroy the environment and our health in order to provide employment.
8) demand green jobs
The billion dollars in subsidies to the tar sands each year could provide thousands of green jobs, and the climate justice movement includes labour activists pushing for a just transition from the oil economy to one based on sustainability. Last year unions endorsed a sit-in against tar sands pipelines and tankers, and this year the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council has endorsed the rally against Line 9 and provided funding for First Nations activists to bus into Toronto to join the rally. As a CAW organizer said last year, “tens of thousands of unionized and other jobs depend on healthy river and ocean ecosystems. We will be standing in solidarity with thousands of working people in BC and our First Nations sisters and brothers.” Line 9 will only produce a few temporary jobs in an industry that exposes workers to chemicals while undermining the environment on which future jobs depend. Stopping Line 9 is part of a movement demanding good green jobs for all.
If you're in the Toronto area, there will be two great opportunities to learn more about Line 9 and tarsands oil in the week preceding the October 19 demonstration.

On Tuesday, October 15, Toronto350 is showing the movie "Do The Math", followed by a panel discussion. Screenings at 5:45 and 8:00 p.m.: Details here.

On Friday, October 18, the Tar Sands Reality Check Tour comes to Toronto, at the Bloor Street United Church, 6:00 p.m.

And on Saturday, October 19, you can join the NO LINE 9! NO TAR SANDS PIPE LINES rally outside the NEB hearings.

And finally, whether or not you can attend the October 19 rally, make sure your MP and your City Councillor knows how you feel about Enbridge putting your health, your water, and your city at risk for their own private profit.

10.10.2013

october 10: world day against the death penalty

Al Jazeera
Today is World Day Against the Death Penalty. Al Jazeera has a fascinating infographic about the use of the death penalty worldwide, as far as can be known from on available evidence.

It is my fervent hope that the more people learn about the unjust, political, and often arbitrary use of the death penalty, the more they will question its use, and that, in time, such questioning will lead them to understand the inherent immorality of state-sanctioned murder.

For those agnostic but unconvinced, I recommend reading Dead Man Walking, by Sister Helen Prejean. This book had a powerful effect on me, ultimately changing my conditional opposition to the death penalty to absolute.

Al Jazeera global capital punishment infographic here (interactive).

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (US)

Abolish the Death Penalty (Amnesty International)

International Commission against the Death Penalty

The Innocence Project


10.06.2013

snowden: mass surveillance threatens to be the greatest human rights challenge of our time

The heroic Edward Snowden, in his own words, via Jesselyn Radack, at the European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee in Brussels.
I thank the European Parliament and the LIBE Committee for taking up the challenge of mass surveillance. The surveillance of whole populations, rather than individuals, threatens to be the greatest human rights challenge of our time. The success of economies in developed nations relies increasingly on their creative output, and if that success is to continue, we must remember that creativity is the product of curiosity, which in turn is the product of privacy.

A culture of secrecy has denied our societies the opportunity to determine the appropriate balance between the human right of privacy and the governmental interest in investigation. These are not decisions that should be made for a people, but only by the people after full, informed, and fearless debate. Yet public debate is not possible without public knowledge, and in my country, the cost for one in my position of returning public knowledge to public hands has been persecution and exile. If we are to enjoy such debates in the future, we cannot rely upon individual sacrifice. We must create better channels for people of conscience to inform not only trusted agents of government, but independent representatives of the public outside of government.

When I began my work, it was with the sole intention of making possible the debate we see occurring here in this body and in many other bodies around the world. Today we see legislative bodies forming new committees, calling for investigations, and proposing new solutions for modern problems. We see emboldened courts that are no longer afraid to consider critical questions of national security. We see brave executives remembering that if a public is prevented from knowing how they are being governed, the necessary result is that they are no longer self-governing. And we see the public reclaiming an equal seat at the table of government. The work of a generation is beginning here, with your hearings, and you have the full measure of my gratitude and support.

my favourite customers and two-way readers' advisory

The children's library where I work services a huge age-range of young people and their caregivers, from birth up to around age 12. I enjoy the full range - helping parents understand the importance of reading to their children, helping kids find fun books to read, finding material for school projects and reports - all of it. But what I love best is connecting avid young readers - of the age group known as "tweens" - with books they enjoy.

Wikipedia defines the tween demographic as ages 10-12, but tweens may be 9-13, or may even be as young as 7 or 8, depending on the person. Tweens are definitely not little kids, but neither are they teens, not only in age, but also in sensibility.

I love being around tweens. They are often actively exploring new likes and dislikes, trying on different selves to see what might fit. They are usually independent-minded, and although they may be socially self-conscious, they are seldom jaded. Tweens are usually more open to adults - and to the world in general - than many teens. I like being around teenagers, and I don't fear them the way many adults do, but interacting with tweens can be more satisfying.

In the library, as in much of life, tweens are often lost in a gap between children's programming and teen groups. Our library and others in the Mississauga system offer Lego Club, after-school homework groups, Robotics Club (in partnership with this organization), and a smattering of other tween activities, but there is much more focus on our younger customers. I've been keeping my eyes open for ways to improve tween programming.

* * * *

Over the summer, I was trying to find books for a frequent customer - a boy, a very strong reader, probably 11 or 12 years old. Anything I suggested, he had already read. I managed to find two books that he hadn't read yet, so when he left, I emailed staff for help. The next time I saw him, I was armed with the staff's list... and it turned out he had read all those books, too!

"You know what?" I said to him. "You are done with us. You are finished with the Junior collection. You need to go upstairs and find books from the Youth section."

He said he had already read several youth books, including the entire Hunger Games series. His all-time favourite book, he said, was a youth novel: The Maze Runner. I put it on hold for myself, and the next time I saw him, told him that he had recommended a book for me.

* * * *

A few weeks after that, I had a similar experience with another boy. He had read everything that appealed to him in our entire collection. This boy, however, was physically smaller than my other friend, and looked much younger. I just couldn't see him being comfortable in the Youth area. Then it came to me: I suggested he go upstairs, find some books... then bring them back to Children's to read. Ah-ha!

In our department, these boys and girls are the top dogs, the oldest and wisest. They chat with adult staff. The little kids ask them for help. But in the youth department, they are back to being little kids again.

This made me wonder if we could create a special space for tweens within the Children's department, or at least a special display of Youth material that is suitable for more mature tweens. I brought the idea to our Senior Librarian and Manager, who were very excited.

Now to see if we can make it happen.

what i'm reading: the maze runner, a youth novel

There's a subgenre of youth books in which young people are cast into an alien and dangerous world, where they must struggle to understand their purpose, struggle to survive. If you remember your own adolescence, the metaphor should be obvious.

These books are often characterized as nihilistic or depressing, but I find that's generally the thoughts of people who haven't read the book. While a survival book may be frightening and sometimes violent, it usually offers positive messages about what it takes to survive. Young heroes find inner reserves of strength and courage, and learn how to cope with harsh realities. There is usually a series of tests - tests of moral courage, tests of confidence - and there is often loss, and there is often the discovery of joy in unexpected places. The world may be alien, but the themes are real-life.

In many youth survival books, one element is key to survival: cooperation. A familiar message is that humans must work together in order to thrive. The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, is one such book. There are now four books in The Maze Runner series; I recently read the first. (A movie will be out in 2014.)

When the book opens and we meet main character Thomas, he is completely disoriented, frightened, and confused. He is trapped in a box, which seems to be lifting up, as if in an old mine shaft. He has no memory of how he came to be in this box. In fact, he has almost no memory at all. He knows his first name. And that's it. As Thomas discovers his new life, so does the reader.

Thomas finds himself in a closed world inhabited only by teenage boys. Like Thomas, none of them know how they got here or why.
All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every 30 days a new boy has been delivered in the lift. Thomas was expected. But the next day, a girl is sent up—the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers. Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind.
Dashner's writing is precise and meticulous. The reader not only gets a vivid picture of The Glade and of the terrifying dangers of The Maze, but is fully aware of what Thomas is thinking - and what he's feeling. I find that many youth books intended to appeal to boys are lacking in emotional content, as if publishers imagine that boys don't need the same validation and understanding that girls do. Thomas experiences a whirlwind of emotions, and the reader is right there with him.

This is an exciting book, packed with both external and internal adventure. However, I would recommend this book to serious readers, people willing to read complex descriptions and to wait for scenarios to unfold. Readers who prefer a book that reads like a movie may be disappointed.

Coming up: how I discovered The Maze Runner and how that discovery gave me an idea for our library.

watch the future unfold: gaudi's masterpiece to be completed in 2026

This post on the design blog Core77 brought back so many wonderful memories of our recent trip to Spain, especially my total infatuation with the city of Barcelona, and the wildly beautiful architecture of Antoni GaudĂ­.

Click here to see a wonderful animation of the projected completion of La Sagrada Familia in 2026.

Thanks, James!

10.05.2013

self-checkout is unpaid labour, gift cards are interest-free loans, and let's stop using both

There are two current trends that I seriously dislike, and wish we would all organize to change: retail self-checkout and the use of gift cards as thank-yous and gifts. Neither practice will go away any time soon; indeed, I'm sure they only will become more ubiquitous. But both trends are in our power to stop, and I wish we would stop them.

A cashier is not a luxury

Buried in an earlier post about unpaid internships, I mentioned a few other forms of unpaid labour that have become commonplace. These days, most retail chain stores enjoy the benefits of an unpaid, uncomplaining labour supply that never demands overtime pay and never takes a holiday. They're called customers. Us.

Almost every major chain store now has a self-checkout lane, where customers scan, bag, and pay for their own purchases, with varying degrees of frustration and success. Typically, one worker - that is, one paid worker - oversees and troubleshoots four or six self-checkout bays.

I believe that, all things being equal, very few customers would choose self-checkout. That is, if cashiers were available with a minimum of waiting time, most people would prefer a cashier. Thus, stores make sure that cashiers are not available. On a typical day at our local Loblaw supermarket, two checkout lanes are staffed, and about eight lanes are closed. This ensures long lines, which in turn ensures that customers will choose self-checkout, thus letting Loblaw get away with hiring so few staff.

Why are we doing Loblaw's work for them? And Canadian Tire's, and Ikea's, and ... fill in the name of your store here.*

Who sees the savings?

Corporate public relations would have us believe that self-checkout allows companies to "keep prices low". I ask you, does that appear to be happening? Have prices dropped? We all know the answer, as the price of everything continues to rise.

Self-checkout has allowed one thing: corporations can continue to decrease labour costs. Low-wage workers lose their jobs or see their hours (and their income) dry up. And fewer jobs exist in our communities. While it's true that some company somewhere must make the self-checkout machines, that manufacturing is typically (a) done by robots, and (b) not in the community, or even in the country.

The work of humans is constantly being replaced by technology. This is a trend as old as human civilization itself. Scribes were replaced by setters of movable type, field hands were replaced by cotton-picker machines, assembly-line workers were replaced by robots. There is seldom anything we can do about it.

But this is actually within our control. If we all refused to use self-checkout, and the lines grew to intolerable levels, and customers complained, stores would be forced to hire more workers. The change would not be instant, but it would happen eventually.

This August 2012 story about self-checkout says that Ikea has scrapped self-checkout in the US because of long lines and customer complaints. This has not happened in Canada, and little wonder, since Canadians are notorious for complaining only to each other.

It's worth noting that Whole Foods, with its emphasis on excellent customer service, stands nearly alone in not using self-checkout. Whole Foods is certainly not hiring cashiers because they love to provide employment! They're employing cashiers because they know that it promotes a better shopping experience (especially given the stores' high prices).

Whether we are shopping for groceries or hardware, it should not be a privilege or a perk to have a store employee ring up our purchases, put them in bags, and take our money.

If everyone reading this right now would pledge never to use self-checkout - and ask five people to do the same - and those five people would ask five people... But alas, this is not a hilarious internet meme, so we won't expect it to go viral.

In praise of cash

In recent years, gift cards have become a nearly ubiquitous currency for the expression of gratitude or appreciation. Supervisors and managers give gift cards to employees as perks; friends give them to friends to say thanks for a favour. People also routinely use them for gifts when they're unable - or unwilling - to shop for a personal gift.

Gift cards are easy to buy, the giver doesn't need special knowledge of the recipient's likes and dislikes, and (now) they don't expire. But another reason people reach for the gift card is that we are embarrassed by cash.

Many times, I have received a gift card as a little thank-you. It was totally unnecessary, a simple verbal thank-you would have sufficed, but the giver wanted to do a bit more. This giver never would have given me cash. They would have considered that crude and unseemly. Yet they spent the same amount of money, plus they limited my enjoyment to one store.

They make great gifts... for corporations

Six or seven years ago, it came to light that many popular gift cards were hardly gifts at all. The contained expiry dates - often in tiny print or on disposable outer material (that is, not on the card itself) - and the companies charged fees both for purchase and redemption. (The phrase "They get you coming and going" springs to mind.)

In response to public complaints, most Canadian provinces passed consumer-protection laws regulating gift-card sales. Similar legislation appears to have been passed in the US in 2010.

Despite these necessary controls, the use of gift cards as currency puts far too much power in the hands of the corporation. This excellent article by David Olive in the Toronto Star explains how gift card purchasers extend billions of dollars in interest-free loans to some of the world's most profitable corporations.** In Canada, those loans total $50 billion; in the US, they reach more than 12 times that amount.

Give the gift of choice

When you buy someone a present, and you don't want to choose a gift, why limit their gift to one store? If you give cash, they can (obviously) buy whatever they want.

One argument I've heard against giving cash is that it might be used for necessities like food or rent. What of it? If the recipient uses a gift to help pay rent, that help is likely most welcome. At the very least, the cash gift frees up income that would have gone to rent. If a person does need help with their rent, their landlord is not accepting Tim Hortons cards.

There are times when cash is out of the question. When a close friend with a healthy income does me a favour, I don't offer to pay her. I can try to return the favour at some point, or take her to dinner, or write a note to express my appreciation. That's what friends do.

But in many other circumstances, one crisp $10 bill plus one $5 bill in an envelope would seem cheap and a bit weird. But a $15 gift card seems generous and acceptable.

Let's resist this ridiculous devaluing of real currency in favour of company scrip. Let's give and accept cash without embarrassment. Who's with me?


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* I'm not including self-checkout at the library. Library staff are public employees, self-checkout involves RFID tagging, and there are other considerations. I discussed this a bit here.

** Cited here by Impudent Strumpethey mcdonald's: the working poor don't need financial advice or higher banking costs. they need higher wages. (updated).