Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Risen - Chapter One

They tell me that it is going to get better. That we've survived worse than this before, and we'll get through this as well. I want to believe them. I want to hope. It's hard man, hard. But this morning, the sun came up, and it was fucking glorious. Such colour, such light. Maybe today is the day it gets better, maybe today is the day we win. 


Seattle Space Needle Hilton Broadcast, September 14, 2011 



The view from the tree was perfect. He could see the entire beach - from the base of the cliff to where it turned out of sight almost a mile away. The beach was cold and empty today, the surf lazily crashing against the kelp covered rocks and sending its omnipresent tang of salt into the air. The sand and rocks were devoid of anything interesting, but the motion of the surf was hypnotic in its rhythm, enough so that Michael had to consciously choose to turn and look along the tree line.

The edge of the forest was equally devoid of anything out of the ordinary. A long line of pine, interspersed here and there with white birch and a few oak and maple trees. However, the space between the tree line and the fence around the compound, kept at a strict one hundred yards, was full of activity today. The gardening crew was busy at work, keeping the produce from being overrun by weeds or insects. Without the use of chemicals, that was pretty much a full time job.

Michael watched them at their work for a while, his eyes flicking from gardener to gardener then back to the tree line, over and over again. A soft breeze brought him the sounds of their voices, mostly just talking amongst themselves, some singing softly, other teasing each other; the healthy sounds of long-time friends and family at work. One laugh in particular would carry from time to time, causing him to smile – Venerable Huang was hard at work, but even when the old man’s back was aching, he found reason to smile and joy in the world. His saffron robes stood out clearly against the black earth he toiled over, and Michael laughed when the ancient monk tossed clumps of dirt with unerring accuracy at the raised rumps of his fellow workers.

Inside the fence-line other, smaller, gardens were also being tended. The rain had been plentiful overnight and the earth was easier to work damp. Almost everyone who had no other duties was working hard to keep the gardens healthy and productive. On a day like today, with the warm June sun shining high above and a slight breeze blowing over the fields, it was easy work, even enjoyable. Unlike standing guard, where there was little chance for stretching, no friendly chats, and no room at all for pranks.

Lately, guard duty had become one of the less desirable tasks, and the sign-up sheets had been sparse compared to how they used to fill up. Everyone knew the importance of keeping a constant watch – it was how they had survived this long – and they all remembered the consequences of letting their guard down. Even so… guard duty used to be almost a high-status job, if such could really be said to exist in the commune. Even three months ago, the elders still made a point of selecting the most trustworthy and keen sighted applicants for the duty. All had to be precise sharpshooters as well. For today's list however, Michael had seen two old men and three people who wore glasses chosen for the duty, all sober and responsible no doubt, but still...

Michael shook his head out of the reverie and reminded himself that he had volunteered for this duty, for the quiet and solitude that came with it. He remembered all too well what happened when people let their guard down, when careful watches weren’t kept. He patted the military binoculars around his neck for reassurance, he'd still been entrusted with the best set of optics the commune had, and that showed how much he was still trusted to be in the role.

He leaned back against the trunk of the tree, stretching his back as he raised the glasses to his eyes and examined each of the other twelve scout stations. In every case, he saw his cohorts actively watching the area, fulfilling their duties and maintaining constant vigilance over the gardeners and beyond. A few noted him looking their way and waved casually, the only real communication the guards had access to.

A quiet chime rang through the air and he started, not realizing that it had been so long already. His shift in the tree was almost over if it was already time for the four hour check in. Like all the other sentinels, jumped to the ground and stood at the bole of his watch tree, his left hand raised above his head until he was counted, though his attention never wavered from the area he was watching. The workers in the gardens quickly ran to their assigned lines for the count, and then went back to their work, most of them taking the time to stretch and chat among themselves as they did so. After ten years, the check-ins were second nature to the commune members – every four hours, every day of their lives, night or day. The daytime check-ins were no bother at all, and most people had quickly learned to fall back asleep quickly after the night checks.

Climbing back into the tree, he perched carefully against the trunk and went back to his watch, sweeping his sector carefully, watching for any hint of movement or colour that did not belong. It had been a long time since he had personally spotted anything, over a year now. In fact, no sentinel had raised the alarm in over six months.

That's, he mused, why the watch rotation isn't as glamorous as it once was. When we saved everyone several times a week, we were heroes. Now that we just sit in the trees watching while everyone else breaks their backs, we're lazy. He chuckled softly to himself and scratched an itch. How quickly people forget.

Another hour passed without incident. The gardeners finished their duties and began to head into the compound, the last one through calling out to a few who preceded him to assist him in locking the gates. Ten feet tall and reinforced with thick timbers, the gate was heavy, even on the high quality hinges they had scrounged from the hardware store. Without any real counterweight to assist, no one could close that gate by themself, it weighed almost eight hundred pounds. Ben would know for sure he thought, looking across the field to where the older man was working on the well again.

Ben was bent over the mechanism he'd been working on, some sort of contraption to bring water up faster than the old rope and pulley they had rigged up years ago. A pile of what looked like scrap lumber and a few metal fastenings were laid out on the ground near the well, and Ben was doing something with his tools, pausing every once in a while to scratch his head and pace around the project. He looked up briefly from his work when the gate closed with a thump, and then went right back to his work. That's pretty typical, Michael thought, old man has a one track mind once he gets set on something. Course, we're damned lucky he's here. Ben had been the one to design the fence, using only the materials they could scavenge to build something that big and that strong was a feat of engineering that no one else had the basic idea how to accomplish. The old man had simply thought about it for a couple of days, scratching ideas in the dirt (even then they had known that they would run out of paper fast) and muttering to himself. When he came up with his plan, the group, much smaller then, had thought he was crazy. But everyone knew that a wall was a good idea, even if they didn't have any inkling how to build it. In the end, Venerable Huang had agreed with the idea, and they'd started. Just in time – the wall had saved their lives again and again.

The survivors here in the commune had never had to worry about the hordes that they had heard of in the larger centers. The remoteness of the location, away from any real population centers, meant that not many of them had made it this far out. When they did get here, it was usually just isolated individuals or very small groups – nothing that couldn't be handled, if you were aware and ready for them. Michael remembered the one large group that had made it here, following the Miller family no doubt. There had been over a hundred of them, and their combined weight had nearly brought down the brand new fence. But it had held, and the sentinels were able to take care of the attackers, though it had been a slow and nerve racking process. Michael hadn't been on duty then, he'd only been fourteen, but he remembered carrying water to the sentinels and the other adults. They ran out of bullets long before they ran out of targets, so the older children had carried buckets of rocks and with fire hardened spears. For two days they fought off the horde, praying every moment that no more showed up.

Michael remembered the look on Ben's face the moment the fight was over. When the last of them fell, there had been a hush, then some muted cheering – everyone was too tired to sustain even a small amount of celebration. Ben had walked up to the heavy gate, its main supports sagging and splinted, but still standing strong. He'd run his calloused hand over the wood, smiling softly all the while. Michael had been standing close enough to hear him say to himself "I'll be damned, it worked." That had been even scarier for him than the attack itself – knowing that even Ben wasn't sure they were going to make it.

He smiled softly at the memory then turned his attention back to the tree line with a sigh. His stomach rumbled slightly and he grimaced, knowing that the dinner bell was still an hour away, and his watch wouldn't be over until his replacement arrived after they had eaten. He rubbed his stomach through the thick flannel shirt he wore and settled in to the trunk again. As a matter of habit, he checked that his rifle was still carefully positioned in the rack secured to the tree, and that the bow, with its quiver of arrows, was equally accessible. Just because it had been so long since the last sighting didn't mean that he should be lax in his duties.

There was a loud crash and he started, whirling about in the tree, one had grabbing the rifle and bringing it up as he spun. He had the rifle braced against his shoulder and pointed in the direction of the sound before he even registered what he was seeing – Ben, swearing up a streak and kicking a large piece of wood which had obviously fallen from the scaffold he'd been building. The old man gave the wood one more kick then turned to wave sheepishly at the closest sentinel. "Sorry, damned thing nearly broke my foot!" he hollered out, then stooped to grab the heavy piece of timber and went back to work.

Michael took a few deep breaths to steady himself, his hearth hammering in his breast as he got himself back under control. He laughed to himself as he braced the rifle back in its spot and positioned himself to resume his watch, as always scanning back and forth, along the beach, along the edge of the forest.

A spray of water off the coast caught his attention, and he watched, spell bound, as a large pod of pilot whales breached, almost as one. He found himself grinning as dozens of the small whales surfaced, splashing and whistling to one another, the shrill sounds carrying easily over the calm water. Their grey-black bodies would have been hard to see against the steel grey of the cold Atlantic water, but their movements were so excited and the group moved so quickly through the water that they were hard not to stare at. He laughed out loud when a smaller whale was flipped up and into the air by one of the bigger ones, both of them whistling and chortling at each other.

"Globicephala melas, the common long-finned pilot whale."

Michael yelped in surprise and twisted about, losing his balance and tumbling from the tree. He fell the fifteen feet from his perch and crashed to the ground. The soft loam under the tree cushioned his fall, merely driving the wind from him. As he lay on the ground, gasping to get his breath back, he heard laughter and looked over to see Angela, no doubt his replacement, gasping and wheezing as she laughed. His surprise and pain turned to embarrassment and he scrambled to his feet, comically waving a fist at her.

She looked up from her knees, saw him standing with fist raised and collapsed into gales of laughter. Her face was obscured by her long dark hair, and she laughed so hard that she couldn't stand. Howling, she fell backward onto the ground, laughing the whole time.

Michael tried to maintain his composure, tried to keep the scowl on his face, but her laugh was infectious. He chuckled to himself and then laughed out loud. He sat down beside her on the ground and the two of them leaned against one another while their laughter ran its course.

"I'm sorry," she said, trying to stifle a giggle, "but you should have seen your face as you were falling!"

"Damn it Angie, I could've been hurt! You know better than to sneak up on anyone. What if I'd had the rifle in my hands? Someone could have been shot."

She grinned and pulled herself to her feet, offering him a hand to stand. He took it and she helped to pull him up as well. "You're right Michael. That was a dumb-ass thing to do. I am sorry, and it won't happen again." She looked out over the water, where the pod was swimming out to sea again. "They are beautiful though, aren't they?" Without waiting for an answer, she continued, "Did you know they are one of the only cetacean species where the males stay with their mother's pod? And yet they are careful in their breeding – there is no incest."

He looked at her blankly for a moment, wondering where this lecture was coming from, then remembered "That's right, you were taking marine biology or something, weren't you?"

She smiled up at him, the top of her head barely reaching his chest. "Yup, good memory. My Masters' thesis was going to be a study of the mating habits of the pilot whales. They get together in these huge pods from time to time, over a hundred of them. We think that is where the selection of mates happens, but we've never been able to corroborate that. They are amazingly social, maybe even too social. They are prone to stranding themselves when they try to join each other – if a high ranked member gets stranded, or a young one does, the rest of the pod can end up stranded as well. We're not sure why, though there are a lot of theories." She laughed "but you don't want to stand here and listen to me talking about the mating habits of whales. You must be hungry. Shifts over man, head on back and get some dinner. Susanne made a great stew tonight."

He thanked her and turned to walk back to the compound, his stomach already rumbling.
"The Rising was probably the best thing that happened to them you know."

He turned back to face her, his head tilted quizzically. She didn't turn back to look at him, her gaze locked on the retreating whales. "They were threatened before The Rising. Maybe a couple hundred thousand left in the world. But without us hunting them, and we did, by the thousands, I bet they have almost doubled in population by now."

"Like the deer you mean?" he asked.

"Exactly. Mankind was their only significant predator. Without us hunting them for blubber and meat, they would be rebounding fast." She chuckled, "Well, maybe not as fast as the damned deer, but fast."

He nodded, unsure what to say, then waved and headed back to the compound, his stomach leading the way.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Two up, Two down!

After a serious marathon couple of days of writing, I finished the NaNoWriMo challenge.  50,000 words in 30 days.  I stopped writing mid-month for about eight days, it then decided, on November 27th, that I did want to complete the challenge.  So on November 27, with only about 25,000 words written, and a story that I wasn't sure where to take it, I picked up the thread of the idea, and ran with it.

I have to say, I am very pleased with the outcome!  Just like last year, it is by no means finished, but the ideas that it generated, and the paths the characters have taken, are fascinating.  The more I write lengthy pieces, the more interested I get in the creative process, and how it is different for everyone.  I've read several books now on how to write, and each one is different, which I suppose is the message to take from that.  If you are a writer, or want to be one, then you just have to find what works for you, and run with it.  The important part is to just keep trying.  And that's the hard part for me.

Laziness is a constant problem for me.  I don't usually feel terribly motivated to do much of anything, other than hang out with my kids and play games with them.  Which, as a father, is pretty much what I am expected to do.  So I suppose that is a win for me.  Or them. Or both.

When I was younger, I was a lot more driven.  I had long term goals and intended to follow through on them.  But as I have aged (and the big 40 is on the horizon, a month or two away now) I have found that I seek out goals and thrills less and less.  And that is OK.  There is nothing wrong with being happy with where you are.  There is a great deal of satisfaction in feeling that the place you are in your life is a good one and you don't really want to change.  But...  There is always a but, isn't there?

There is a fine line between satisfaction and complacency.  And complacency can very easily lead to stagnation.  It is important for us to challenge ourselves, it is important for us to learn new things and try new experiences, if we don't do that, we may be cutting ourselves off from something we would love, if only we tried it.

I suffer from "man-itis" - a common condition among men where we find the things we like, and then just stick to them for ever.  Ask any man about his clothes, and most of them will be able to tell you where they always buy their pants, and even that they don't have to try them on anymore, as that style and cut fit them perfectly, so they can just walk into their store of choice (mine is Mark's Work Wearhouse for pants) go over to the pant section, grab two pairs (one khaki, one blue) and take them to the counter.  Ditto our favorite restaurants and pubs.  We have our beer and our dish that we like.  We get them every time.  If it changes because the menu changes, we will be upset.

Now I don't mean to suggest that man-itis is a bad thing.  It isn't wrong or bad to stick to something that we enjoy.  But it does mean we don't learn to enjoy new things.  We don't discover new loves, new passions.  We need to make that effort to try new things all the time.  Or at least I do.  The rest of the men, you guys do what you want, but I am going to try a couple new things this week.  I have no idea what they will be, but they'll be new.

I have no idea how this turned from a quick "Hey!  I did it!" about NaNo into a discussion of personal habits and expanding horizons, but hey, that's the writing process for you.  :)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Zombies are Coming!!!

Vancouver International Airport had quarantined a small section of the airport after several passengers on a flight from Mexico were "very ill."  As of this time though, the plane is back in service and the people are fine.  Or are they?  This smells of cover-up from the highest levels.  Of course Steven Harper doesn't want us to know that the outbreak is coming - and he definitely doesn't want you to go see World War Z when it comes out in June 2013.

He really doesn't want you to see that movie though, it might give you ideas on how to overthrow both he and his voting base.

I kid, I kid.

On a more serious note, I was a busy boy today, getting in over 7,000 words on my Nanowrimo project, hereinafter titled "Lucid".  Par for course, the main story hasn't even taken off yet, and we are almost 17,000 words into the thing.  For those playing along at home, that is slightly more than 1/3 of the way through it.  Yes, I am aware that I am behind, but I am confident that it will all work out in the end.  If I can nail 7K words today, then I can maintain the 1,900 a day that I need to finish on time without even breaking a sweat.  Hell, I just wasted over a hundred here!

Friday, November 02, 2012

NaNoWriMo

I decided, somewhat on a whim, yesterday that I would try to do the National Novel Writing Month experiment once more.  Last year was a success - well, I completed the task of writing 50,000 words in the month of November - and I am confident that I can make it two in a row by doing the same this year.

Writing, as of late, has really fallen by the wayside.  I have no idea why.  Writing relaxes me, lets me get rid of stress and gives my creativity the outlet that I so desperately crave.  I love watching my characters come to life on the screen, and can't wait to see what they are going to get up to next.  An hour of writing is probably the best hour I will spend in any given day.  Yet, for some odd reason, I find myself finding excuses all the time not to write.

It is probably the simple fact that, as enjoyable as it is, writing is work.  Hard work.  A good writing session leaves me tired, just like a good work out session.  And a great marathon session of writing, where the words just flow out onto the screen as fast as my thick fingers can kit the keys, leaves me exhausted.  But, like a good workout (or good sex), it is a good kind of exhaustion, the kind where you have that afterglow of endorphin fueled euphoria.

So why don't I write more?  I have no idea.  But I am working on it.

Long story short, I am writing like crazy this month, so if I don't respond to your email or telephone call, I'll get back to you later.  Maybe in December.  See you then.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

An Apology


I sat down at the computer tonight, after a day of gaming with some great friends, to write an apology note to a friend – to protect the innocent, we’ll call her Feather.  Her and I engaged in a disagreement today, and I didn’t like the way it ended – I felt that I had wronged her, and wanted to apologize.  I know, I know, the internet is hardly a good way to do that.  Don’t worry, I fully intend to deliver the apology in person as soon as I get the chance.  I wanted to pre-empt any hurt feelings as soon as I could and this was just the best way to do it.

Of course, it being me, I had to go back and re-read the apology three times before hitting the old “Send” button. I am really glad I did. The apology was terrible.  Not counting the commas (twenty seven in two paragraphs) and the run-on sentences (all of them) it was a horrible apology.  It was of the typical “Sorry you were offended, but that’s just the way I debate” variety.  That’s not an apology.  That’s a continuation of the argument.  The more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of something a former friend of mine once said.  To paraphrase him, “Yeah, I am an asshole, but that’s just the way I am.  Sorry if you don’t like it, but that’s tough.”  My gaming friends likely remember that chap, and we all remarked on the comment at the time.  It was a ridiculous comment and to see that I had essentially copied it bothered me.  A lot.

I have been spending a fair amount of time over the last year or so metaphorically staring at the man in the mirror, and I have to say, I don’t like him all the time.  Not that I think I am a bad person, no one ever does really. I do have some characteristics that I don’t care for.  They are characteristics that I really don’t want my sons to carry forward, but if they see me modeling those behaviors, they are sure to do so.  Parenting aside, they are traits of mine that are that I am not proud of… no, that’s not strong enough.  They are traits that I am downright ashamed of, and that needs to be fixed.

Now, before I go any further, let me be clear.  Overall, I like myself a fair amount.  I think I am a pretty decent guy.  I’m no poster child for anything, and there is likely neither canonization nor a Nobel prize in my future, but overall, I think I do more good than harm in this life.  I am not suggesting that I am spending all my time thinking about how loathsome I am.  I’m just looking at my behavior and thinking about how I could be a better person.

I have no intention of listing them all here – I am vain enough to think you might care, but I don’t feel the need to share them all at this time.  But this one thing, I am throwing out.

I have to be right, all the time. I try to justify it as being strong willed, or opinionated. That, like most justifications, is bullshit. If I hear someone say something that I think it wrong, or that I even disagree slightly with, I seem to have a tremendous inability to say nothing. I am compelled to “correct” that individual.  Why?  I have no idea.  Never have, likely never will (though my shrink’s going to get an earful next time we talk) but that’s not the point.  It is a problem.  It alienates people.  It hurts people that are important to me. It gives people the impression (sometimes accurately admittedly) that I don’t have a lot of regard for their feelings and opinions.  And that is not the behavior of the person I want to be.

Who is that person?  I have no idea.  He’s me.  He’s just a better version of me.  He’s not taller or thinner, he doesn’t have better hair or whiter teeth.  That stuff is nice, but it doesn’t define who a person is.  We are defined by our actions. The face that we present to the world is not nearly as important as the manner in which we conduct ourselves.

So tonight I want to start something better. 

Feather, I am sorry. I did not give you, or your opinions, the respect they deserved. I can tell that you feel passionately about certain topics, and I while I disagree, that does not give me the right to treat you, or your opinions, in the manner which I did.  I won’t guarantee it won’t happen again, but I will guarantee that I am trying to rein in that sort of behavior and will make every effort to keep my damned mouth shut.  Failing that, to give you the respect you deserve when we discuss things.

I am tempted to offer apologies to a lot of people, but the more I think about it, the longer the list becomes. That list includes the names of people I haven’t seen in decades, and the names of people that I saw today. So I will just say, to the universe in general, I am trying to be a better person, and I will make amends for the wrongs I have committed.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Good Laugh

A good laugh can solve so many of life's issues.  I woke up in a foul mood, after falling asleep in an equally foul one.  Then I found this - if you have ever owned a dog, you'll get them.

Just a little something to brighten your Monday morning.


Thursday, March 08, 2012

Critical Thinking & Kony 2012


It never ceases to amaze me that in this day in age, with access to the vast amount of information we have available via the phones in our pockets, let alone the computers on our desks, that people seem to be incapable of checking into things they hear / read, and instead react much as they have for the last two thousand years – by grabbing their pitchforks and torches and storming the castle when they hear something they don’t like.

Seriously people, the sheer amount of information available via a high speed internet connection is staggering.  If you feel righteous indignation about something, you can make sure, in about twenty minutes, that you are enraged by the right thing, or that your ire is not misplaced.  A few clicks, some reading, and viola, you’re educated.

The recent success of the Kony 2012 movement is amazing to behold.  The video they created (they being Invisible Children Inc., a San Diego based not-for-profit) has been viewed thirty two million times between Vimeo and YouTube alone.  It has been forwarded on Facebook, Tweeted about and is the subject of everyday conversations around dinner tables and in schools as we speak.  That’s an amazing feat for any organization, and the fact that it’s an organization that is trying to do some good makes it even better.

When I watched the video the first time (I’ve watched it three times now, but more on that later) my first instinct was exactly what the producers of the film were aiming for – I wanted to help.  But my skeptical and cynical side reared its ugly head, so I did a bit of digging.  I checked the net for more information on Kony in general (and no, not just the Wikipedia article, though it is actually pretty good).  I learned that he was, in fact, doing precisely what they allege – he’s leading a ragtag army (opinions vary on the size) of largely child soldiers that he has conscripted into his, dare I say it, holy war.  I checked the website of the International Criminal Court for verification, and I read the indictment against him and a number of the senior officers of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army).  Everything they said in the video checked out.  I was intrigued, and felt that this campaign of awareness raising was worthwhile to be involved in.  I forwarded the video on my Facebook and Google+ pages, and started to think about how else I can get involved.  There was nothing organized in Halifax (yet), but the internet gives us all kinds of options.  Time will tell.

I posted the video (after having it drawn to my attention via the Phillip DeFranco YouTube show) Tuesday night, around midnight.  When I woke up the next morning, two of my friends had reposted it.  That number grew throughout the day, and then the whole internet seemed to be getting on board.  I know it wasn’t my influence (my Effbook friends list is small by comparison to most – I only have actual friends on it) but I was happy that I was a tiny part of this awareness raising campaign.  When I saw the talented and passionate George Takei post the same video, I knew the movement would succeed at its goal of getting this message out – with his million followers, he’s a great internet voice.

Then, on my way home from work that day, my wife informed me that there was some controversy happening – people were saying that Invisible Children was a scam.  That one hit hard and fast.  As soon as we got home (and my sons finished beating the stuffing out of me during our ritual wrestling match) I grabbed an internet connection and started doing some research / reading.  It ended up lasting until midnight, with a short break for a Zombies, Run! inspired walk/run.

Seems the internet was all abuzz because of two main factors with regard to Invisible Children Inc.  Firstly, that the organization had received a rating of two stars (out of four) from one of the more prestigious charity watchdogs, Charity Navigator in regard to the organization’s “Accountability” which apparently meant they were untrustworthy and the whole organization was a scam.  Secondly, that only 30% of the money raised by the organization was actually being used to fund programs on the ground in Uganda, clearly evidence that Invisible Children existed only to bilk the gullible and line the pockets of greedy film makers.

Charity Navigator, and groups like it, perform a very valuable service.  They let potential donors learn the hard facts about charities – are they trustworthy, are they using your funds properly, is the money going where they say it will, do the heads of the charity earn exorbitant salaries, things like that.  The problem is that the numbers they provide require the reader to actually read deeper than just the basics to really understand them.   In the case of Invisible Children, they gave the organization a four star rating (out of four) with regard to Financials and a two star rating for Accountability and Transparency, with an overall score of 51.52.  They spend their money properly, with approximately 80% of the money they raise going into the actual programs they implement.  That’s very high indeed.  For comparison’s sake, look at two of my favorite charities.  Amnesty International is close to the Invisible Children Inc. amounts (approximately 76% and a much lower overall rating at 42.88) and Oxfam America spends their money about the same (approximately 78%) but has a very high rating, gaining a four star rating and a full score of 62.97.  If you want to see how these scores are calculated, this link will take you to the full explanation.

Invisible Children did get a two star rating in their Accountability and Transparency section, primarily due to the fact that they have only four members on their Board of Directors.  Apparently, charity rating organizations really want to see at least five independent members on a Board, and anything less than this automatically earmarks you as scoring low in this area.  Invisible Children has released a statement on this issue, noting that they are in the process of hiring someone to fill this fifth position so that they can “regain their four star rating”.  The other reason that the rating is low is because the 2011 independent audit of Invisible Children (which you can see here, along with all their other financial information and independent audits) was not available at the time of the scoring.  The organization’s financials, including copies of their Form 990 (the tax exempt return form not-for-profits submit in the USA), their independent audits and their annual reports, are easily available on their website – and have always been.  They did not put them up in response to the criticism, they are required by law to be there and they have always complied.

As to the second allegation against them, that only 30% of the money they raise actually makes it to the ground in Uganda, there is no defence.  That argument is actually 100% accurate, and the organization freely admits it.  Here’s the thing though – that’s not the purpose of the organization, or at least, not its primary purpose.  The organization’s mandate is to use “film, creativity and social action to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war and restore LRA-affected communities in Central Africa to peace and prosperity.”  That first part, the “film, creativity and social action”?  That’s the main mandate of the organization.  They are an advocacy and social awareness group that also happens to help build schools and radio towers and sponsor community programs to help people.  The fact that the lion’s share of their resources and funds go toward the very thing they were created to do should not be upsetting to people.  That would be akin to expressing outrage at Ford for making cars or at Apple for designing and selling electronics – it is why they exist!  The fact that they spend almost a third of their funds on a secondary (or even tertiary) goal is outstanding – there are charities out there that can barely manage to get 30% of their funds into their primary goal.

People have also come out in anger against how the money is spent.  The fact that approximately $250,000 goes to the salaries of the founders is “outrageous!” they claim.  Wait a moment… there are three of them – so that’s only about $85,000 each.  There are bus drivers on strike here in Halifax who make almost that much, and I seem to recall a story about a toll booth operator taking in over 100K a year – largely due to overtime, but does anyone think that the founders of Invisible Children Inc. are working thirty five hour work weeks?

Then “they” rage against the sheer amount spent on travel – a significant expense for the organization.  Hmm… Gee… you think that an advocacy group that travels all over the US and makes routine trips to and from Africa might have a large travel bill?  Common sense people, open your frigging eyes, but more importantly, use your minds.

Finances aside, people have been quick to point out that Kony and the LRA are no longer even in Uganda - which, had they watched the video, they would know that Invisible Children is well aware of, they even have a nice graphical map in the video to show where the LRA has moved to.  People have also suggested that the LRA is all but gone, and that they have been quiet for years now - which is directly contrary to the information the UN is operating under, that the LRA is renewing its attacks, that they have staged twenty attacks since January 1, 2012 and that three thousand people have been displaced, one killed and seventeen abducted in that time.

Suffice it to say, the vast majority of the objections to this organization are based on misleading or incomplete information. See, that’s a much nicer way of saying “idiots who don’t check their facts”  isn’t it?  Who says I can’t be tactful.

Now, all that said, there are some legitimate concerns about the organization’s mandate.  Critics have pointed out that the Ugandan government, who the organization works with, has a lengthy history of human rights abuses of its own.  That’s a gray area – lesser of two evils and all that, but it is a legitimate criticism.  Critiques also include that Invisible Children is simplifying the situation too much. Implying that all that needs to happen is the arrest and conviction of one man, peace will be restored to the region is na├»ve at best.  And those critiques are accurate – the problems of Africa are myriad and incredibly complicated, made moreso by foreign interventions.  Arresting (or otherwise stopping Kony) will not change that.  But it would be a step, even if it is a tiny one, in the right direction.

And other suggest that US military intervention, on any scale, is not the answer.  Most of the folks taking this position seem to suggest that Invisible Children is advocating a full scale military action against Kony - which is directly contrary to what the organization states over and over in its video - they just want the existing 100 military advisors, and their expertise, to stay in Uganda to help track down the LRA.

Does that smack of colonialism and “white guilt”?  Probably.  Many of the problems that Central Africa faces today can draw their origins directly to European colonialism, and are perpetuated due to, largely, western corporate concerns today.  That’s another rant entirely, but even if it is true, even if the real answer is to let people solve their own problems, is it really wrong to want to help stop a group that murders, rapes and kidnaps as part of their normal business?  Invisible Children says that the LRA has kidnapped over 30,000 children to serve as soldiers or sex slaves.  The World Bank estimates that number much higher at over 66,000 children.  Millions have been displaced as a result of the conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government.  While many have made their way back to their homes and started to rebuild, many also have not.  As noted in the UN document above, there are still people being displaced as we speak.  Helping to stop that is a good deed – no matter the reason, whether it’s white guilt or genuine compassion.

I suppose the whole point of this (rather lengthy) rant is to remind people to think critically about the things they read online, and elsewhere.  Journalists are not infallible, and the internet is full of self-styled journalists who answer to no one.  These individuals are able to hide behind complete anonymity and say what they want with impunity.  They don’t have to check their facts, they don’t have to prove their cases.  All they need to do is make a believable claim, and then let the panic and fury of thousands of people run with it.  Fortunately, we have the tools today to do the research, to get to the bottom of claims like this.  We may not get a complete answer, or one we can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt, but we’ll have a better understanding of the situation.  We’ll have open eyes and open minds.  And we’ll make informed opinions.  When we rant at the unfairness of it all, we’ll know what the hell we’re talking about.  And that’s one of the best things about the internet. 

To quote the X-Files, “the truth is out there.”  Now go find it.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Where Will It Take Us?


A long time ago I suggested that we all Try Having a Little Fun Sometime, that we can all make something fun simply by making a game out of it – that you can take the ordinary and everyday tasks of your life, add a little zest, a dash of whimsy, a half an ounce of excitement and whammo!, you have a game again rather than a boring task to complete.

I acquired an iPhone a while ago, much to my personal glee.  I am officially an Apple fan, with five apple products in the house now – though I blame my father for at least three and maybe four of them, he’s a bad influence.  The iPhone is far more portable than my iPad, and I love that it is now my defacto camera for random shots, my phone, bus route checker and music player.  One of the apps that I grabbed, and one that I had been eagerly awaiting, is Zombies, Run!  This app is exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote that old post – a little bit of fun that encourages us to get out and do something sort of humdrum again.  The premise is pretty straightforward, you run while listening to your music, and it tells you a story as you do – a story which you are a part of as 'Runner Five'.  It’s a blast. I’ve had it for two days and have already put an extra 7.5 kms onto my sneakers.  Now that doesn’t seem like much at all to most runners, but for me those are huge numbers – I would have spent that hour and a half sitting on my butt watching movies and eating chips.  Instead I was out running (well, walking mostly, but at a fast pace, with occasional bursts of panicked speed) and enjoying it.  Maybe it was the thought of leveling up (which you do, sort of), maybe the thought of increasing the size of my virtual zombie free base, maybe just the idea that I was actually playing a zombie game.  But the why doesn’t really matter – the fact remains that I was out getting some great exercise in fresh air, and I was loving it.  And I hate running, always have.  But I had a blast two days in a row, and I am looking forward to my run tomorrow.

My enjoyment of this app, and by extension my iPhone, demonstrates something that I have been spending a lot of time thinking about lately – the role of technology in making our lives better.  I am not just talking about the fleeting enjoyment of life that games and the like can bring – though computer games are a blast.  I am talking about the way in which technology has improved the lives of millions of people (some more than others of course) through connecting people across vast distances.  The way that the blind can see (sure, its rudimentary now, but it won’t be long until we have visual prosthetics) though technology.  The way that the deaf can participate fully in a conversation with a group of people via an iPad app.  The way that we can communicate (often badly) in ways that we have never had access to before, and the way that we can connect with each other in ways that were unheard of a decade ago.

The internet has changed the way we relate to each other as people.  It brings out the worst in people sometimes, but it unites people in a way that nothing else ever has.  The success of some recent upheavals in the Middle East have been largely credited to the average citizen’s ability to communicate quickly and easily through things like Facebook and using smart phones.  The Occupy movement was (is?) largely possible due to its members ability to stay connected with each other.  The mis-steps (probably too light a word, but I am not here to rant about that today) of law enforcement officers is coming to light, and being proven, because of smart phone cameras.  If Google has its way (and it usually does) we’ll soon be able to let the cars do the driving, which will save millions of lives – 93% of all accidents are directly attributable to human error.  Medical technologies are moving faster than we can track them.  A NASA scientist has patented a carbon nanotube containing a tiny pharmacy with the capability to detect when and what is needed and administer the appropriate substance – all in a device no larger than a pencil lead whose insertion into the human body will be a ten minute procedure at your doctor’s office.  3D printers are already “printing” human organs, and the development of techno-organic materials the human body is capable of using without any chance of rejection is proceeding at an incredible pace.  This will one day eliminate the need for a donor for many (all?) organs for those who need this life saving surgery.

But none of that is why I came here tonight.  No, tonight I came here to tell you that the phrase “I shit my pants and run away” (a phrase my group of friends here in Halifax loves to remember for reasons which are too lengthy to go into here) has taken on a new meaning.  Tonight, running along a deserted stretch of Nova Scotia highway and playing Zombies, Run! I got a hell of a cardio work out.  Not directly because of the running, but rather on account of the game itself, and its collusion with Mother Nature.

As I crested a slight rise, the game cut in, with my guide yelling out “Damn, where did they come from?  I’ve never seen them move that fast, run, RUN!”.  At that exact moment, a deer jumped out of the brush at the side of the road.  I shit my pants and ran away.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Karma


Now I am not a religious man, nor even a particularly spiritual one.  I often defend religions, not because I think that they are right, or that there is a creature/being/entity in the sky/heaven/space/another planet that is watching us or judging us, but because I think that people ought to be entitled to their own opinions and beliefs, so long as those opinions and beliefs do not infringe upon the opinions and beliefs of others.

My close friends and I frequently get into heated debates on this subject – dyed in the wool atheists are as much fun to tease as fundamentalist religious believers – and I enjoy those debates.

Yes, plenty of terrible things have been done in the name of religion – though I would argue that the majority of those things were cloaked in religion to cover up the real reasons for the actions, namely power and control, but that is another blog post.  And there are countless good deeds and good outcomes from religions in general as well, but that is also another blog post.

Nope, the reason I am here today is to tell you that I have incontrovertible proof that there is finally one true religion, and that religion is Hinduism.  Or Buddhism.  Or maybe Jainism.  Or Sikhism.  Well, one of those religions is the right one.  The reason?  Karma is real and I saw it in action today.

We went to get groceries today, and while we were waiting for the cashier to complete running our items through, my lovely wife asked the man behind us in line if he collected Air Miles.  He replied that he did indeed, and happily provided his Air Miles card to the cashier, who cheerfully ran it through.  As I paid for the two hundred dollars of groceries, I asked my wife when we stopped collecting Air Miles, pointing to the Air Miles card in my hand.  She laughed and told me she hadn’t been collecting for a long time.  Who knew!?

A few minutes later, standing on the curb and waiting for our taxi to arrive (too many bags to just walk home, and no buses operating yet – damn you transit strike!), the gentleman who received our Air Miles walked out of the grocery store and paused to ask us where we lived.  Once he ascertained we weren’t too far from his route home, he offered us a ride.  Then backed his van into our driveway and helped carry our groceries into the house.

Now some would say that was just the fastest payout of Air Miles in history.  Others would argue that was just a nice person doing a nice thing – which is wonderfully common here in Halifax.  But I put to you that this is nothing less than categorical proof of the existence of karma.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

-Isms, -ists and cardboard boxes.


Apparently I am a feminist.  My wife informed me of this last night as I was ranting about Cosmopolitan magazine.  I have never really thought of myself as a feminist, hell, I don’t really like “ists” in general.  Always really thought of myself as something of an anti-ist, I hate labels and being labelled, and I try to avoid doing so myself.  Not because I am a non-conform”ist”, or an anarch”ist”, but because I think that labels are too narrowly applied in the majority of situations, and because labels often stick to people.  Label a kid in his formative years as a “geek” or a “jock” and you are pretty likely helping them to stick to that role for a long time.  Likewise, labels like straight and gay, while convenient when trying to date, seem too narrow and too restrictive.  One should not be defined by narrow words – those words put you in a box and leave you there.  You can spend the rest of your life trying to throw off the metaphorical shackles that you were given – often against your will. 

For example, people always ask want to ask “what were you like in high school?”  First off, why is that relevant, but secondly, how do they want the question answered?  Who we were twenty, thirty or forty years ago is rarely relevant to who we are today.  If you are in your thirties or forties and haven’t changed much since you were seventeen, I am very sorry for you, but even sorrier for those around you.

And what people really seem to want you to say is what crowd did you associate with.  Were you a metal-head, a jock, a nerd, a poser, a plastic – we all remember the labels.  The catch is though that some of us, dare I say most of us, didn’t fit that mold all that well.  I was a “nerd” because I did a noontime radio show, was in the debate club, hung around with “nerds” and liked computers.  I was a “jock” because I played football and went to the “jock” parties.  I was a “artsy” because I was in drama.  I was an “activist” because I organized a couple of rallies.  Jock, nerd, artsy, activist.  None of those define who I was or who I am.

When we get older, people ask the same questions, and make the same assumptions, but now it is based upon what you do for a living.  My work in the human rights field automatically paints me as a “bleeding heart lefty liberal.”  This is largely inaccurate. While I am liberal in a lot of ways, I am actually fairly conservative in many others.  Just because I happen to believe that we are all equal, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation or disability doesn’t make me politically liberal. Just because I am a firm believer in free speech doesn’t make me an Occupy member. I deplore hate speech and political correctness with almost equal passion. I like social programs, but hate that the government spends money.  I am a strong advocate for the Canadian military, and for military forces in general, yet deplore warfare.

Sexuality and sexual activity are also things that people seem to want to pigeonhole others into.  Straight, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer, open relationship, swinger, fetishist… the list is long and intriguing.  But so many of these labels are situational or misleading – I have a number of friends that have identified with more than one of them at different points in their lives, often ones that are supposed to be opposites.  From straight to gay and vice versa.  Kinsey scales aside, I have to say that sexual labels are about as useful as the label on a shampoo bottle - everyone knows they are there, but only a few idiots think you have to read and follow them.  And sexual activity and preference (note, I am not talking about orientation here, but rather what you like to do in the bedroom, or on the living room floor) change as well.  Our sexual selves and sexual desires change as we discover more about ourselves, as we are exposed to more opinions and experiences, and can change depending on our partners.

All of that to say that I don’t think I am a feminist.  Not that there is anything wrong with feminism, but to quote a great man, “-Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.”

So keep your boxes to yourself, and take your labels elsewhere.  They aren’t welcome in my home or my life.

Friday, January 27, 2012

I Remember When...


Once upon a time, a young boy moved to Medicine Hat, Alberta.  He knew no one, had no friends and was joining the class in the middle of the school year, a daunting task for any newcomer.  He’d grown accustomed to this, as he’d done it about six times by now, his step-father was prone to jumping jobs without any thought for the consequences on the family, and especially on his step-son, a chubby and intellectual kid that he never really understood – and I think secretly didn’t like all that much.

The boy meandered his way through the first few weeks of school, not making any friends, sticking to himself and reading alone for the most part.  He was old enough to start showing an interest in girls, but they were a mystery to him yet (he was only ten at the time) and the boys all wanted to play rougher games than he was really interested in.  His teachers liked him, he was quiet and attentive, without really causing any distractions in class (which of course counts for a lot at that age) and smart, but they could see he was very alone, and they did what they could to shield him from some of the inevitable bullying that chubby, smart and quiet kids suffered then, and still suffer today.

But one day, and very much out of the blue, everything changed.  The boy met a classmate, John, who saw the book he was reading (David Eddings’s Pawn of Prophecy if I recall correctly) and asked him if he liked “dragons and stuff.”  The quiet boy smiled and said that he loved them, and that The Hobbit was his favorite book (and remains so to this day).  That day, he made his first friend in this new school, and later that week, he was invited to John’s house to play a game John’s older brother had just received, a game called Dungeons & Dragons.  The moment he saw the cover, bright red with a roaring dragon being faced by a mighty warrior, he was hooked.  They spent a while making their characters (he made a dwarf, because back then, dwarf was a class, not just a race) and then spent the rest of that weekend living the lives of noble heroes, mighty wizards, skulking thieves and ancient races.  It was probably the best weekend of his life at that time.

When his mother found out what he’d been doing all weekend, her joy that her son had made a friend was replaced by concern about this game he’d been playing.  She’d seen a young Tom Hanks in a movie about Dungeons & Dragons and was concerned.  The movie portrayed the game as a brain washing exercise, and suggested that the players could be so caught in the fantasy of it that they would hurt themselves and others.  She called some friends who all told her that it was the devil’s game and that her son should never be allowed to play it.  She instantly forbade playing it.  The boy begged and pleaded with her, using the logic that his family knew would drive him to law school later in life, and finally she accepted a compromise.  She would come and watch a playing of the game and make up her own mind.  It was possibly the first and last time she would ever compromise with this son, and despite all that happened before and after, he would forever remember this one act of generosity on her part.

She visited John’s house later that week and spoke with both John’s parents and his older brother.  All assured her that there was no devil worship involved, and that it was not any sort of cult or brain washing experiment.  So they all sat down (John’s parents both joined in for the evening) and set out to conquer the Keep on the Borderlands.  Half way through the evening, the boy’s mother laughed and dusted the chip crumbs from her shirt front, loudly proclaiming that people could be very stupid about things they didn’t understand, and that D&D was certainly no more than a game.  She left that night chuckling to herself about dwarves and elves. That Christmas there were two cardboard boxes under the tree for the boy – both the shiny red Basic box that had caught his attention, and a brand new one, the bright blue Expert set, complete with The Isle of Dread adventure.

For decades, he’s played these games and dozens of others. For decades they have brought out the best in him, and sometimes the worst as well.  They taught him to act, and in that he found a passion for the stage.  They taught him to communicate in different ways, and in that he found friends and family near and far.  They taught him to examine situations from different angles, to look at things from a multitude of positions and in that he found a passion for the law and for critical thinking.  They have brought him friends and lovers.  They have helped him through dark times in his life, and brightened the good times even more.  They have had a hand in shaping him into the man he is today, and that is no mean feat for a collection of papers and oddly shaped dice.

When my sons come to me with things I don’t understand, or hobbies that I believe are ridiculous, I will hold on to the image of that young boy, and I will remember how he changed when he discovered there are worlds other than the one we walk through every day.  And I will listen to my sons, and I will not close my mind to their dreams and fantasies.  I will do my best to support them in their choices even if, perhaps especially if, I disagree with them.  Because dreams and fantasies make us who we hope to be.  They give us the flying carpets that the regular world denies us.  They let us imagine ourselves better than we are, and then, if we are lucky, the courage to make them a reality.