Monday, March 24, 2014

Happy Murph-day to me

I had a quick second thought when Elias asked to borrow a mouse. I have a bluetooth mouse that I use with my work laptop, I could let him use that, but how does that affect bluetooth pairings? I decided that things should be fine, and handed him the mouse.

This is how I ended up spending the morning of my birthday fighting to get my laptop to recognize my mouse. I rebooted, I reinstalled, I replaced batteries. But, like a jealous girlfriend who finds out she's been cheated on, my laptop refused to talk to the mouse. 

Add in an unexpected pre-coffee meeting with my boss; one that I did not know about in part because of the aforementioned PC issue, and a daylong battle with the server that i am supposed to be working with (thanks, IBM!), I had a less than productive birthday in the office. In fact, aside from treating myself to a fantastic lunch and pint at the Alehouse (where I was served by and had a great conversation with the ever-charming Mr. Eric Scouten), most of the my day seemed to follow Murphy's Law.

Especially those who went to my birthday brunch on Sunday will understand. 

Even so, taking the longer view of today I have to smile. I have a beautiful wife who made me a lovely dinner, I have a bit of time this evening before I go play hockey, and I will be sure to have a good sleep when I get home. But I also have a load of friends who have been messaging me all day to wish me well. At 41 (holy crap!) knowing that so many people want to tell me they care means a lot, even if I don't always show the same kind of Facebook friendliness to all of them.   

Last year, given that my age was such a round number, my wife put on the greatest birthday party in history for me. If you were there, you know what I mean. I don't expect to get a present like that every year; in fact, I really don't expect it ever again. But I do love that every day I have people around me who do small things to make me feel special.

Thank you all for your well wishes. They mean a lot. And please let me know if you can fix my bluetooth mouse. That would be the best present :)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Nerd alert!

I'm a nerd. Yes, it's true.

No, I don't walk around with broken horn-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector. I haven't played Dungeons and Dragons or chess since junior high school, and when people ask me my hobbies I tell them playing hockey, building a custom motorcycle and drinking beer. I have created a nearly airtight cover.

Nope, I'm not this guy.

But my wife knows better. She shakes her head at me when I am reading Michio Kaku rather than whatever Stephen King is writing. She graciously sits with me while I watch science documentaries (although she usually falls asleep). She ignores my conversations with my youngest son about quantum mechanics and string theory. She tolerates my attempts to explain to her the mysteries of the universe for which she could not really care less. 

Honestly, she married into this; she has no one to blame but herself. 

My friends on Facebook have probably noticed me getting overly excited about Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey. As Joe Biden would say, it's a big f#€%ing deal. I'm aware that not all my friends "get" my excitement, but that's okay. I still love them. 

It's possible that some people may not share my enthusiasm.

What people may not realize is that my love of science took a huge detour. So if I appear to be a zealot, it's because I feel like I'm making up for lost time. 

I remember when I was a little kid, probably 8-9 years old, I was a massive bookworm, craving facts. I would open an encyclopedia or a dictionary to look something up, and end up getting lost following words and facts around for hours. The adults around me use to laugh at my vocabulary. 

At some point my parents bought me a book called the "Big Book of Amazing Facts". To this day, I would say this was the most influential book I have read in my life. It was a thick, pulpy phone book shaped volume about 2 inches thick that had facts about everything in the world. How old was the earth? What happened to the dinosaurs? Why do trees have rings? What is an atom? I discovered the basics of the way the world worked in this book and in the additional volumes that my parents bought me.

What I wouldn't give to get my hands on one of these now.

Of course, children get older and have to face new challenges, and for me this meant going to a much bigger junior high school and struggling socially. My love of science was forgotten as I tried to do the things that those around me were doing so that I could try to fit in. Not very successfully, I might add. By the time I reached high school, I had found a social group, but it was in a  Christian youth group, where it became much more important to read the Bible than to read Carl Sagan.

I did learn to play guitar, and write my own music. I learned through this that I had a talent for language and writing. When it came time for university, I chose to pursue arts rather than sciences, even though I knew I could go either way.

Before I finished university, I was married and had children. This effectively put an end to any inquisitiveness I had for the next phase of my life. With responsibilities to my wife, my children, my church, my school and then my employer, life settled into a busy hum for the next several years. I didn't read books on science - I didn't even have time to read the Bible, though I had no problem teaching from it. 

When you are young, a generation is a lifetime. But when you have your own children, a generation is just one cycle. And as crazy as it sounds, a generation had passed and I was watching my own children go through the elementary->junior high->high school->university cycle that I remembered going through myself. And as they worked their way through this, their demand on my time lessened and was becoming free again to explore what I found interesting. Without the adolescent requirement to do make this exploration line up with what others are doing, I discovered once again my childhood passion: science.

But had science forgotten about me? Certainly it had changed. There were so many things we have learned about the world since I had last been looking at it. While this was happening, the face of science had also changed; Sagan and Feynman were gone and now the voice came through people Tyson and Krauss. Although Hawking and his Speak & Spell monotone was still to be heard as well. 


Also, I had changed. As an adult, I was capable of understanding things that were much more complex than those I had been awed with as a child. Where 9-year-old Joey was amazed that that dinosaurs existed, 39-year-old Joey was blown away the biological and geological data showing that the present-day descendants of the dinosaurs who survived a meteor impact 65-million years ago  (aka birds) can be linked back to their ancestors by analyzing their DNA!

So, like any born-again convert, here I am making a fool of myself. I have watched the entire Cosmos series by Carl Sagan multiple times. When I heard that Neil deGrasse Tyson was remaking the series, I could not help but get excited. Tyson is more than just a cameo character on The Big Bang Theory, he is probably the greatest astrophysicist since Sagan himself. So I'm going to continue to talk about it, mmmkay? I can't help myself. 

Watch out, guys! We're dealing with a badass over here!

If you don't share my excitement, I feel bad for you. The story of our universe is the greatest story to be told, and Cosmos may be one of the tellings of this story I can imagine. I have watched the first episode twice now, and I'm sure I will watch it again. It puts our entire existence into perspective in a way that many people have never thought about (or don't want to think about). 

And if my devotion to this story, my evangelism of this series or others like it; if this makes me a nerd, then so be it. In the Bible there is a story about King David where he strips naked to dance before God. I think that's pretty embarrassing, and David's story makes me aware that enthusiasm can seem a little silly to outsiders. But like David, in the face of transcendence it is difficult for me to contain my excitement.

If you have not seen Cosmos, in Canada you can watch it here: Global TV Videos. Or call me and invite yourself over, I will have them all on my PVR, and I would definitely be willing watch it again with someone.

In the US, it is on FOX.

Gratuitous advertising banner for Cosmos. You're welcome.

Monday, March 10, 2014

What's news, Pussycat?

First - totally off-topic, but in homage to my punny title for this post, here is the incredible Tom Jones:

They just don't make music like this anymore.

So, the news. It was only a few hundred years ago when the idea of knowing what was going on in the world was simply not possible. Even the learned and important people most likely had no idea what was happening to others more than a mile away from them. Today, it's very difficult to keep this in mind as we live in a world where the internet give us instant access to the happenings around the world, where we can hear the ideas of strangers in other countries almost as effortlessly as we can get at the thoughts of the people who may even live under the same roof as us. It's a small world, after all.
Yes, I went there.

But with this glut of information, we can hear all kinds of messages that conflict with things we know or believe, or even simultaneous messages from other sources. When I read two of my friends saying exactly opposite things on Facebook about the same event that neither of them was present for, I am challenged to find out what is true and what is not so much (as Stephen Colbert would say, something that has the property of "truthiness").

Cousin Stephen loves the truth.

I recently explained my take on storytellers writing their own version of the truth when I discussed The Life of Pi. However, often people aren't even making up the stories that they tell, but are simply repeating what they have heard elsewhere. On social media, this often takes the form of sharing a post or image on Facebook, a retweet on Twitter, or something similar. I frequently see images of articles written by some third party that are innocently promoted by my friends.

When I say use the word "innocently", I am tying to be as charitable as possible. The truth is, people who I truly love drive me absolutely mad with their willful ignorance. As long as a story agrees with their point of view, they love to share it, regardless of whether they have looked into the merit of the story. This brings me to what I believe is the crucial point of delivering news.

Check your sources.

If you don't check your sources, she could be one, and you'll never know the difference.

So you believe in the health benefits of organic food? I can respect that, whether I agree or not. But I will not be persuaded by an article posted on Or Or any number of similar sites. Why not? Because they are a biased source. When a study is released, or an event happens, it is not in the best interests of these kinds of sites to find out what it really means or if it really happened the way they would like - they have an agenda to promote, and that is more important than getting the facts straight.

But I can hear the objections now. It is like a sweet chorus of "Now, wait just a moment" harmonized with "You can't say that!" Why am I hearing these objections? Well, because every source is biased. It's true, I'll admit that. But they are biased in different ways.

When we are talking about real news organizations, whose objective is solely to report the news, the motivation of these groups is to get as many readers/viewers as possible. That is how they make their money. Now, if you are Alex Jones, you will make the argument that somehow these organizations are paid off or unduly influenced by the government, or McDonalds, or the Illuminati, or something. It is true the advertisers and governments get uncomfortable at times with what is reported about them. But when a news organization pisses off one group, they will generally gain support with that group's opponents. These things tend to even out over time in such a way that it does not discourage the organization from publishing what it sees as being the most accurate report. Given the volume of bad news and critical reports we see, this would appear to give us evidence to support this.

Do you want the bad news first, or the worse news?

So if "the news" is most biased towards getting viewers and readers, how would they logically go about this? It would seem to me that the best way would be to find the most interesting and unlikely stories, and to make sure that they are backed up by evidence. Mistakes will be made, for certain, but no credible news source wants to be seen as anything other than that: credible. So consider the Warren Commission report on the assassination of JFK: pretty likely, since all the major news outlets have reviewed the case and agree with it. The 9/11 Commission Report? Sorry Antti, but I don't wish to waste any more time on it since CNN backs me up on this. You've got to understand that if any one of the major news organizations could blow holes in these stories, they would love to do it; it would be exciting, it would sell copy. Yet no matter how much time they have spent investigating them, they cannot find enough plausible evidence to warrant a conflicting report.

Goes to Ukraine so you don't have to.

So as boring as it sounds, I get all my news from the mainstream media. For all my intellectual pretense, I'm sheeple. And as gullible as you may want to make me out to be for it, they are the only ones I have a reason to trust. I don't choose these sources for no reason - it's because I have looked at the evidence, and they seem to me to be logically the best source. The media is a very established machine, and I believe that as a critical thinker my conclusion has to be that it is the inertia of this machine makes it the most effective at providing the correct information.

Often, the mainstream media may have conflicting reports or overlook the story altogether. When this happens, it is more work for me, because I need to check sources myself. This leads to reading a lot of boring stuff, data-sets and accounts. Sometimes there are tools to help get to the bottom of this stuff, as any user of Snopes will know. But sometimes there is not. Frankly, since I don't always enjoy this stuff I will usually just ignore the story if it doesn't mean enough to me. Usually, if I wait long enough the real story will find its way through the CBC or BBC or some intelligent news source.

Sometime you just have to do some research.

So if you are looking to impress someone with some story you are relaying, whether it is on Facebook or in person, know your facts. If you don't, and if you choose sources that are not convincingly unbiased, I will probably ignore it. If you do it enough, I may unfollow you. Nothing personal - I'm still your friend. I just don't want to hear what you have to say.