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The Engineer

The Life and Times of Donald F. Simmons



Haven't posted here in a while, will try and do better...

Saturday on me way back from getting some groceries I ran into the Liberal candidate for Trinity-Spadina, Christine Innes knocking on doors on Shaw Street, and talked with her for a bit. I saw her last election at the All Candidate meeting and was very impressed with her, and still was after speaking with her. Trinity-Spadina is currently represented by Olivia Chow, and likely has more progressive candidates than it really needs, so I'm going to have to think hard about who to vote for. The Bloc has turned into such a spoiler in Quebec that it's tough to see anyone getting a majority in the near future, but I do want the Liberals to make a better showing of it this time than last. Even if the Conservatives get back in with a minority I think it's likely we've seen the last of Harper, it'll be clear to the rest of the Tories than he can't deliver a majority and the knives will start to come out.


Call the Mayor! About anything!

Like EYE Weekly argues this week, Rob Ford seems to be governing in a pure populist mode. If people say "We do/don't like this" he acts on that, whether is makes sense or not.

If that's the case, then we all need to let him know what we think. You can reach the mayor's office 416-397-3673 or by email at mayor_ford@toronto.ca

I just phoned them and talked to a guy about the 5 cent bag tax (which I support) and he said he tallied me on that. I also expressed concern about the possible cuts to the public library book allocation budget. I'm going to do this whenever a civic issue that I do/don't support comes up, and I encourage everyone to do the same. Maybe it'll actually work.


CFI on the cover of EYE!

The cover story of EYE Weekly today is about the Center of Inquiry and its head, my friend Justin Trottier! There's a few annoying bits but generally the article is quite favourable to CFI, atheists, and the Extraordinary Claims campaign, coming soon to a TTC bus near you. Read the article here.


Holiday Report

A good holiday that's unfortunately now over.

Started on Xmas Eve with dinner with my brother, moon_custafer and green_trilobite, and the Peter Cushing version of the Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle (which takes place at Xmas). On Xmas day Dave came over with a bag of junk food, I had previously gotten a chicken and some vegetables for dinner, and we watched all 26 episodes of the anime series Gurren Lagaan (skipping the recap episode), which took about 10.5 hours in all. It was a great series and a lot of fun. It starts out as a wacky giant robot show in the first half, and turns into a sprawling Doc E.E. Smith SF Opera in the second half.

My Boxing Week shopping consisted of an expedition to IKEA, which thanks to the crowds took about twice as long as I hoped. But I came away with a new couch and coffee table, which was delivered very promptly the next morning and assembled with some effort that evening. The old ones are still in front of my house hoping to be carted away.

Managed to reshelf all my books, and took a bankers box full of old ones to BMV, which took about half of them. Took the rest to the Reference Library to dump in the book donations box. Got some serious cleaning of my place done as well, which I'm very pleased of accomplishing.

Saw The King's Speech again with some friends (totally worth seeing twice). Also saw Barney's Version (Cancon alert!) with some others. A pretty good film with a great cast, I think there's a rule that any film shot in Montreal has to have Saul Rubinak in it.

kelpqueen's New Year's Eve party was the social event of the season as always, and for once it wasn't snowing that night (it was astonishingly mild). She had a Mad Men theme this year, so I found a lounge jacket in the back of my closet that got a lot of compliments (for reasons I can't understand). It was a great time with a great crowd, and I got home very late.

And it's back to work tomorrow (it was agreed that we'd take the Friday as the statutory holiday so to reduce the number of vacation days needed between Xmas and New Year's). Happy 2011 everyone!


Back on Projects!

I got an early Xmas present at work this week. As most of you know, I've been doing Technical Support at work for most of this year, which has been OK, but definitely not what I want to make a career out of. This week I got moved back into Projects (which is what I've been doing for nearly all of my time at MSC and Mechanical Dynamics before that). The deal is for me to still help out with Tech Support when they are short handed, but the important point is now that Projects owns my time, not only will be working on analysis projects again (which is what I want to do) but Tech Support only gets to use me when Projects (i.e. Steve McLellan who runs my office) says they can. Before it was the other way around.

Needless to say, I'm very pleased by this. Being permanently in Tech Support was something that was really beginning to worry me, as the skills from it don't make me any more employable anywhere else (should the worse happen), and it flat out not the work I wanted to do. Happy camper now.


Extraordinary Claims Campaign

The Center for Inquiry here in Toronto has kicked off its Extraordinary Claims campaign, a follow-up to the Atheist bus ads two years back. The goal is to point out the need for fact-based evidence for, well, just about anything. Is believing in Bigfoot really any different from believing in Allah or Yahweh? If you think it is then why?

They're hoping to run a new bus ad in the spring, and I'm taking bets on who will be the most pissed-offed about it.

As you might expect I'm a big supporter of the campaign. They need a few more bucks to really get going with it, so I ask anyone who's interested to go to their website above and make a donation.

The Toronto Star just ran an article on the campaign (available here), and the comments are more positive so far then I figured they would be, aside from the "I don't understand why people would waste there time with something like this" kind ("Because religious and pseudo-science claims have a large impact on our society and we need to push back and ask if those claims are actually doing more harm then good" is the short answer).


Gifts that don't keep on giving?

I have a gift-giving etiquette issue I'm looking for advice on. I'm a little leery about buying friends subscriptions or memberships for magazine/museums/etc as Xmas presents, even if I think they'll enjoy them, because they run out after a year, and then said friend is sort of under pressure to spend the money themselves to renew them. I feel like I'm putting them under something of an obligation to do so. Of course I could renew it myself for ever, but maybe I won't want to do that. Any opinions?


David Miller's Toronto

Here's a great article (grabbed from my friend Paul) on all the good David Miller did for Toronto. He will be missed.


Hitchens vs. Blair

Friday night was the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair on if religion was a positive force or not, held at Roy Thompson Hall on the behalf of Munk Debates and broadcast via the internet around the world by the BBC. My brother and I saw it at the Center for Inquiry, which was packed full and beyond for the event.

When this was announced tickets sold out in three hours, and Peter Munk (Canadian mining zillionaire) in his opening remarks said that he heard that tickets were going for outrageous prices on eBay, and he hoped the evening would be worth it (it was).

It should come to no surprise to people that I think Hitchens walked away with the debate. Blair did a good job for his side, but his arguments were basically limited to the idea that religion fills a void in people's lives that would be empty otherwise, religions are engaged in good works around the world, and you can't blame religion as a whole for the bad things that people do in its name. His low point IMHO was the old saw of "Hitler and Stalin was atheists, therefore lack of religion causes genocides", and his high point was his answer to the wonderful question "Which of your opponents arguments do you think is the strongest?" He replied, in answer to a point Hitchens had recently raised, is that the texts of all the world's religions espouse, in black and white, ideas that are at odds to those of modern society (like that fact women are second class citizens at best in all of them). His only answer to that is that people have to works past this to find the true meaning of faith. (Hitchens replied to this that once you agree with this you're halfway out the door already, if you accept that there are some universal values separate from the religious teachings, why do you need the teachings at all to prop the rest up?)

Hitchens (who had to juggle his chemo schedule to attend, but was looking pretty good for the whole evening) was in fine form, and unlike Blair scarcely repeated himself at all (stating after his opening remarks ran out of time "I've got plenty more!". His points that really stuck with me were 1) This is the first generation who knows how to end poverty, grant women the same rights as men (ability to decide how many children to have, apply for credit). It's worked from Bolivia to Bangladesh, and every major religion speaks against it. 2) In a great parallel, he points out that the Communist Party rightly deserved credit for some important things around the world (such as support for Ghandi in Indian independence and the same in South Africa) but it is still a failed ideology (and one of the great books about this was called The God that Failed) because it requires you to turn your own decision-making over to a higher force that can't be wrong. And that's not something anyone should do, ever, adding "You may see where I'm going with this". 3) In response to a question along the lines of "Shouldn't we all just get along?" his reply was that he'd like nothing better than to not bother the religious while they don't bother him, but that's an agreement that will never be kept. Most religions expressly have to convert, and they'll send Bibles to Haiti in the midst of disaster instead of medical supplies.

There was lots more like this, and it was far more eloquent then I make it sound here. A transcript of the event is available here and its available on YouTube here.

What's really great was in the final poll of the audience, 68% thought Hitchens won vs 32% for Blair. It was an amazing evening and we need lots more of it.


M at the Lightbox

Saw for the first time Fritz Lang's classic M at the Lightbox Tuesday. Not the best print, but an astonishing film.

M is considered by most to be the first serial killer movie (with Peter Lorre as a child murderer), and Lang's first talkie. While he now has sound, Lang still uses the power to silence to great effect in the film with long wordless sequences of the police massing for raids, Lorre being followed by criminals turned vigilante (because all the police efforts to find the murderer is hurting their business), as well as his trademark wacky camera angles. There are so many deep shots down streets, stairways, hallways, holes in the floor, that the film might actually work if converted into 3D.

One of the great things about the film is that you're never sure what it's going to do next. After a spectacularly grim opening of a mother waiting for her daughter to come home (and she never does) it become a police procedural as the cops pull out all the stops to solve the case with no clues and no real witnesses. There's an amazing sequence with the camera bouncing back and forth between identical smoke-filled rooms as the police and a collection of criminal bosses (lead by a sneering, swaggering master criminal in a black coat who's obviously a stand-in for a SS officer) each try to figure out how to find the killer. Then when the criminals get a line on the killer the film becomes the world's most insane caper movie as Lorre is cornered in an office building after hours as an army of burglars and thugs methodically take the place apart to find him. Finally it's a psychodrama as Lorre is put on "trial" and defends his actions as a compulsion he has no control over.

It's felt that the film was Lang's reaction to the forces taking over Germany at the time (it was made in 1931). Berlin is dark and dank, everyone is equally unattractive, and aside from a few grieving parents no one really gets our sympathy. And Lang doesn't go for easy answers either. Lorre is a monster, but if he is insane should he be condemed for it? Plenty of people who supposedly can tell right from wrong in the film accuse neighbours and colleagues with no evidence and form an instant mob to assault a man who was asked the time by a child.

Nearly 80 years old and it leaves most modern films lying in the dust. That's Genius and Art.