Five by Five

How am I doing? “Five by five”

This was the strange, meaningful-sounding, but-no-one’s-quite-sure comment given by Faith, the other vampire slayer, whenever anyone asked. If it’s good enough for Faith, it’s good enough for me.

Actually, except for the way-too-warm summer, things have been fine. Photography has been in a slump during the warm weather, but reading’s gone way up. I just finished Stephen King’s Under the Dome, and enjoyed it hugely. It’s a page turner.

I read it on my Kindle, which I think attests to the Kindle’s readability. In print form I’m told it’s a 1000-page novel.

I’ve been writing like mad for the past 4-6 weeks. I had four magazine assignments due nearly all at the same time. Last night I filed three of them and I have a week to finish the fourth. My favourite was a feature article on e-books and e-publishing written for Here’s How! Once it’s in print, I’ll provide a link.

In other news, I’ve ordered an iPad and expect to take delivery around Aug 30. I’m curious to see how it compares to the Kindle as an e-book reader, but I got it as reading, writing, and entertainment gadget. A reward to myself for hitting my deadlines.

Summer viewing fare has been thin, although I did catch up on a couple of older movies: Dirty Harry and The Exorcist. It was my first time viewing for both. I also re-watched a couple of classics: My Fair Lady and Blowup. I watched the entire TV series Twin Peaks, and though it rather fell apart part way into season two, overall I enjoyed it. The music haunts me.

We’re into the part of summer I hate the most (I don’t like summers in general). The dead zone. The zombie zone. The period between when nothing happens and school begins. For me September has always been the start of the year.

Not that I’m taking any classes. I have enough learning on my plate in terms of new computer programs. I purchased the Adobe Design Standard PS5 suite and now have the make the transition from PageMaker 4 to InDesign PS5. I should pick up a little Illustrator while I’m at it. The core of the package, for me, is Photoshop CS5, and it has enough new features to keep me learning for quite awhile.

The only disappointment I have of late is my lack of any creative writing projects. I hope to fix that soon. I have a couple of creative nonfiction pieces I want to work on. Maybe when the iPad arrives …


Snow (by StarbuckGuy)

Finally, some snow to brighten a dry winter. It’s been cold — cold enough to form a respectable layer of ice on the river — but snow has been rare.

It’s disorienting. Seasonal weather is what binds us to the year’s cycles. When there’s no snow in Ontario (in this southern part of it), and there are heavy snowstorms in Washington, DC, and Richmond, VA, it feels wrong. If it happens once in the winter, it can be passed off as an oddity. When it happens three times, and your friend in Richmond jokes about moving north where the winters are mild, it’s spooky.

And so today’s snow, wet and sticky though it be, is reaffirming, or in that new modernism, validating.

Kids of all ages yearn for snow because they know snow’s secret: snow is for playing in. While adults shovel driveways and curse the driving conditions, and weather men measure snow’s depth, kids are busy. Making snow angels, snowmen, trying out the sled on the hill in the park, throwing snowballs. If nature hadn’t intended us to throw snowballs, why does snow pack into such perfect balls for throwing?

And you wonder, what does any of this have to do with climate change? Maybe a lot, maybe nothing. Climate Study 101 tells us that weather and climate are different. Weather is capricious, uneven. It sometimes has small cycles of a few years, even decades, that become warmer, colder, drier, wetter. Climate is about long-term patterns. Trends and history that can only be measured statistically.

And that’s why climate science is rife with argument and disagreement. Argument and disagreement, of course, are the crucible of scientific advancement. You have to defend your hypothesis, strengthen it, convince your peers, and even abandon it, if the evidence changes. But if your hypothesis stands the test of peer review, and of time, you’ve moved closer to truth of things.

While climatology has advanced enormously over the decades as more data filters in, climatologists will be the first to tell you that predicting climate change is difficult, uncertain work. No honest climate scientist can say, “this is definitely what’s going to happen.” Instead, they say “evidence for climate change, collected from a wide range of data sources, suggests the climate is warming, and that this warming trend correlates to an increase in greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere primarily through human activity, in the form of automotive and industrial exhaust, and the general burning of fossil fuels.”

When a majority of climate scientists who have examined each other’s statistical studies find themselves in accord on the basics of climate change, and what this might mean for the future of humankind’s tenure on the planet, they find various ways to getting this message to the public, and to decision makers.

Unfortunately, climate scientists, like any group of people, have members who are opportunists — who take advantage of the shift in awareness of climate issues to try for additional grant money and positions of influence. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it makes them vulnerable to, sometimes justifiable, criticism.

While I don’t presume to know if climate change is as drastic and concerning as some climatologists would have us believe, there is one recent development that bids me pause.

In the US, the Republican Party, which in my mind is synonymous with the Religious Right, has begun attacking climate scientists with the fervor they normally reserve for abortion clinics and the teaching of evolution. They are launching well-funded smear tactics, the kind they use in political campaigns, against climatologists, or those who represent them, in positions of authority.

They are working hard at discrediting climate studies, attacking the statistics, and citing other scientists, most of whom are not climate scientists, who question the stats.

What is most telling in this, is that they present no fresh alternative studies, no fresh alternative data that tells a different story about climate change. It’s always ad hominem, ad statisticum.

I’m not a tree hugger or a whole-earth advocate, but when I see this type of attack against the interpretation of the data, yet see confirming evidence that the polar ice at both poles is melting, I don’t think any amount of smear tactics will make the evidence change.

So, on the whole, until I see something scientifically different, I think the climate is changing, warming. Will it have drastic effects? Maybe yes, maybe no. If it changes unabated, then probably yes. The problem is, we don’t know enough about climate change to know if the earth itself has balancing methods and cycles that might deal with it. If it does, the balancing cycles might be measured in geologic, not human time. It would be prudent to accept what appears to be solid, peer-reviewed, evidence that global climate change is upon us.

In some old, and wise, words, “As ye sew, so shall ye reap.” I don’t know about you, but I’m working on shrinking my carbon footprint and will support any of my government’s efforts to do this on a large scale. I rather like living on this planet, and I desire future generations to it as well.

The issues are too important to be obscured by special-interest snow jobs.

More Snow

More Snow (by StarbuckGuy)

A few days thaw and break from winter weather served as a tonic for those of us stuck in mid winter, but it never lasts. Today the snow drifted back and the bare sidewalks were dusted in a covering of white powder that made walking a little tricky if, as I was, you were wearing sneakers instead of winter boots.

It caught me a little offguard. I didn’t sleep well last night and was up and about at 4:30am trying to decide whether to go back to bed or read a book until I snoozed off again. But sleep wouldn’t come, so I breakfasted, packed my tote bag with my netbook and digicam, and set off for Starbucks, which opens at 6:30 on weekdays.

It was unusual to walk to Starbucks in the dark. Some of the early regulars were there and I said hi to Lew and Lori and to the barista Ann-Marie.  Finding a table was no trouble. I had my choice of where I wanted to sit, so I grabbed a corner table and set up for some writing.

I’m on deadline this week with an article for Here’s How. Half the interviews are done so I began putting together the pieces, working them into blocks of text that will eventually be  organized and finessed into an article. Two hours of work and I felt good about the progress. It’s moving from the loose chaos of notes and interview answers to an coherent story.

I watched out the window but the sunrise never happened. After a bit of pinkish glow on the horizon the sky greyed over and it started snowing. I hadn’t checked the weather report or I’d have worn my winter boots. Sneakers are so much nicer for walking, when the sidewalks are clear, but suddenly the sidewalks were slippery with a fine dusting of snow.

So, instead of a long walk after my writing session, I shuffled home the short way. Knowing that we have plenty of winter left but not minding so much. The break gave us the pause we needed.

Wind & Words

The Eloquent Essay (by StarbuckGuy)

A fresh wind blew in yesterday — a strong warm wind that reduced piles of snow into slush pools. A big, high wind. The kind that starts in the Texas Gulf then sweeps through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio on its way to Ontario, pushing aside all lesser weather fronts along the way.

It was a welcome wind, taking temperatures north of freezing for the first time in weeks. It’s been a cold winter. Cold and snowy. The kind of winter beloved by travel agents selling Island packages to Canadians fed up with being cold and restricted.

The restrictions are worse than the cold. When the sidewalks ice, not even the toy snowplows that clean them can clear a reliable walking path. The guys on the plows do their best, if it isn’t before 9 or after 5, or the weekend, but once the ice layers lock down, they stay until the temperatures rise above freezing.  I’m avoiding some of my favourite park areas due to the icy footing.

I walked to the library in a light coat, no scarf, and no hat or gloves. The wind blew my hair in one direction, then another. I drank the warm air into my nose and deep into my lungs, recalling Emily Dickinson — “Inebriate of air am I.” Gulls circled overhead, surfing the air currents.

Waiting for me on the hold shelf was a copy of The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic & Creative Nonfiction, edited by John Loughery, containing seventeen essays by writers ranging from George Orwell and W.H. Auden to Joan Didion, Carl Sagan, and Barbara Kingsolver. I tucked the book into my backpack and stork-walked across the pools and puddles to Starbucks.

I glanced through the book as soon as I found a seat — Starbucks is crowded on a late Saturday afternoon. George Orwell’s “A Hanging” (1931). Lord, it’s been years since I last read that one. I saved it for later, knowing it packs a whollop.

I’d never read Joan Didion though I’ve come across her name often lately, so I started my reading with “Georgia O’Keeffe” (1976). I’ve been fascinated by O’Keeffe for years, ever since first seeing one of her large canvases of a bleached cow skull in the desert. It was hung in the library at Arizona State University and it stopped me in my tracks. The essay had bite, punch, and colour. Didion described O’Keeffe as a “hard woman” and I could see her point. O’Keeffe’s bare honesty, honed by the New Mexico landscape, was absolute.

Next up, Carl Sagan, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” from his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995). I’d read the book previously so there were no surprises — just a pleasant visit with a dear, departed friend. Sagan, who did so much to popularize science and rational thinking to the public, has long been one of my inspirations.

Then it was time to head home for dinner and rejoin the family for the evening. When I’m alone at Starbucks I’m a writing kind of person. When I return home, I’m just one of the family. Marion and I watched a video on the life of Jane Austen, then sat back and re-watched a couple of episodes of season two of Angel. But The Eloquent Essay remains in my backpack, ready for the morning’s walk to the coffee shop, waiting to infect me with prose spirit.

Thoughts on a Cold Winter Day

Cold Weather Day (by StarbuckGuy)

Just as Canadian summer has its hot spells, winter has its cold periods when the temperature tanks and we’re reminded that much of our country lies north of the Arctic Circle. When Arctic winter seeps down to the southern border where most of us live, cuddling so close to the US we can hear Americans snore at night, we’re reminded once again that we’re a northern people.

Starting last night and forecast to last for several days, the temperatures have dropped to -21C (-6F) at night to highs of -11C (12F) during the day. The brutal wind chill factor will dip to -30C (-22F) at its worst.

Such temperatures bring hazards. Street people in the city have to be moved to shelters. Elderly folk, and people with heart conditions, are advised to stay indoors. Those who are inclined to go outdoors are advised to dress appropriately, with many layers of warm clothing, good winter outer gear, and scarves and hats to protect the ears, nose, and mouth.

It’s enough to depress some people and encourage others to take those Carribbean cruises or travel packages to Florida.

And yet … cold spells excite me. If the wind isn’t strong, I try to get outdoors. The kid in me wants to experience the weather; the photographer in me wants to take photos.

As a heart patient, I have to be extra careful, so I dutifully bundle up in warm layers, including long underwear, and don my warmest winter overcoat with parka hood. I make certain my cell phone is charged, in case of emergency. And I keep my goal modest: a walk to Starbucks, then home again, with a lengthy warm-up period in between.

Fortune favoured me today. I suspected it had when I was able to solve two medium sudoku puzzles in the time it took me to eat breakfast. The portents were good. More to the point, the air was still. When there’s no wind, the prospect of a walk during an Arctic chill is much pleasanter. After listening to a couple of podcasts while my breakfast settled in, I donned my gear and started out.

The best walking conditions occur when it turns Arctic right after a fresh, dry snowfall and the soft snow crunches and crinkles underfoot. Unfortunately what preceded this cold front was a warmer front that raised temperatures to the freezing point, which meant a lot of melt occurred. This turned to ice overnight.

While ice is good for skating, it’s miserable stuff when it’s glazed the sidewalks. The walk to Starbucks, which takes me about fifteen minutes on good sidewalks, took a bit over twenty minutes today because I had to negotiate slowly around slippery spots most of the way.

Nonetheless, the walk was fun. My outbreath froze into my moustache, my fingers went cold and numb (note to self — get better gloves), and my toes got too cold to continue sending complaints to my brain, but the walk was bracing. I even managed a few photos, clumsily using my Lumix LX3 with gloves on.

When I returned home, I gave myself some time to warm up, then enjoyed some leftover homemade split-pea soup. Quelle habitant! Later I’ll resume work on setting up the creative nonfiction writers forums, then turn to Terry Pratchett for more Discworld adventures.

To survive in a cold climate, it’s good to have an active inner life.

Snowfall & Certainty

Winter Swans (by StarbuckGuy)

Once again I had a good overnight sleep, but I didn’t feel very spry this morning. All the sneezing and coughing has tired me. I thought of staying in, but two days inside without any fresh air and exercise is more than I like. I miss my routine when I’m unable to get out. I miss my Starbucks cuppa too.

So this morning I stuffed myself with nostrums and palliatives — two Dristans and a glug of Benylin cough syrup — and headed into the falling snow. It was a slushy, stick-to-everything kind of snow. Pretty to look at and not bad for walking, but difficult for photography.

I took my Panasonic LX3 with a UV filter on to protect the lens, and carried the camera in my coat pocket. I tried, when possible, to find a protected overhang before hauling out the camera to take a shot, but sometimes I had to shoot in the open to get the image I wanted. I returned the camera to my pocket as soon as possible after the shot, and it appears to have weathered the storm.

I felt sorry for drivers today. The snowfall started last night and continued into this morning’s rush hour. The roads are slushy and at times visibility is low.

I followed my usual route to the harbour, passing behind the local library to the Credit River, then down river, under the bridges to the pier. The trumpeter swans are back and they, along with the mute swans, swam towards me hoping for a handout. “Spare bread for out-of-work wildfowl?” The ducks were in on it too. I could see a few pigeons giving me the eye.

Not many moms and nannies around today to toss bread their way while their toddlers giggle and thrill to the ensuing dash. I didn’t see any other pedestrians. Some people use common sense in weather like this and stay indoors.

At Starbucks I keyed in most of this blog, then did a little email and surfing. I had along Sibyl, my new Acer Aspire One netbook. I’ve had it about three weeks now and have come to love it. You can see from the following photo how compact it is in relation to a Starbucks cup and a standard-size ball pen.

Sibyl (by StarbuckGuy)

It took me awhile to adjust to the keyboard, but it’s actually improved my typing, which had become sloppy. I’m a touch typist, having learned to type in high school on manual upright Royals, Underwoods, and Smith Coronas with blank keytops and a large keyboard layout chart on the far classroom wall. You learned to make precise keystrokes on those machines, and over the years my technique had lost some precision. It’s needed again when I type on Sibyl.

The library had some holds that I picked up on the way home, the most interesting of which is the book On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Not by Robert Burton.

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton shows that feeling certain—feeling that we know something— is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. An increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. In other words, the feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen. [Description on]

I first heard about this book on the excellent Brain Science podcast where podcaster Dr. Ginger Campbell reviewed the book in one episode then interviewed Robert Burton in the next. Worthwhile listening. I suspect On Being Certain will be a good read, and a consideration for my permanent book collection.