Thursday, December 8, 2011

Santa's Real, I Have Proof, and He's an Idiot

A few days ago I was putting my daughter's clothes in the wash. "Check the sleeves of her hoodie", calls my wife from upstairs. So I pull the hoodie out of the hamper and inspect it. This is a cute little item of clothing; really it us. It's white fleece with a white faux-sheepskin liner, white hood and a white faux-fur trim around the hood. It's white.

Actually it's more difficult than that because it's not pure white, it's off-white. You know the colour. It's not so off-white as to be cream-coloured, but it's not white either. It's just off white.

Anyway, during the inspection of the off-white hoodie I notice that the cuffs - both of them - are essentially black with sweaty-hand grime and it fades gradually back to off-white as I move up the sleeves. There is also something that looks vaguely like strawberry jam or red candle wax on the left sleeve. And see, if it was white, I might be able to just bleach it. But, as I mentioned, it's off-white. No bleach. Just lots and lots of scrubbing, cursing and (manly) tears are all that are in my near future.

Oh goody.

So I stare at the little off-white hoodie and imagine all the adventures that went into creating the mess that it has become. What fun it would have been to root around in the sand under the jungle-gym at school. How amazing to pick up the last, visible fall leaves and show them to your friends. Oh the excitement in squirting a full juice-box up into the air like a beautiful, pink fountain.


As much as I am enthralled by these fanciful thoughts, I really only have one question rolling, ever so incessantly around in my brain. That question begins to burn it's way into my consciousness, demanding an answer. The question begs for an answer, and much as I might be afraid of the answer, I holler the question up to my wife: "What kind of brain-dead, moronic idiot buys an off-white hoodie for a seven-year-old?"

The answer is more painful than I imagine: "Santa."

Honestly? Really? The guy who knows everything about you - when you're sleeping, when you're awake, bad vs good, Santa? Santa brought the hoodie? The omnipotent guy in the red suit decided that it was smart to bring a white article of outer-clothing to an active, seven-year-old girl?

If that's how great Santa's judgment is, then this year instead of milk and cookies, the jolly fat man is getting a snack of scotch laced with Xanax. Then, when he's out cold on the living room floor, I'll tie him up, get those spooky flying ungulate friends of his airborne, and fly his crazy ass to the loony bin.

Sorry kids Christmas is cancelled. Why? Well, because Santa proved that he doesn't have the sense it takes to not lick the frozen flagpole, much less the intelligence needed to safely navigate the planet, passing judgement on children. So, we've taken him out and put him somewhere he can't hurt himself, or cause extra laundry trauma to unsuspecting parents.

Let this serve as a warning Santa - if that's your real name. One false move this year - one ill-conceived notion of getting my kids a puppy, one mis-placed dirt-bike, one false gift-giving move and your festive rear-end won't know what hit it.

You're an idiot. I've got enough problems in life without you deciding how long my laundry should take.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Winter Bike - Part 2

I left my last post with a promise that I'd write another winter biking piece; this time, about staying alive on your winter bike-commute.

Now, let me begin with the obvious: This isn't for everybody. I personally love being on my bike and I consider bicycle commuting to be an ethical choice. It just so happens that I prefer riding my bike, to driving to and from work.  But, as I said, this isn't for everybody. Winter biking is harder than spring/summer biking. It requires preparation, motivation and commitment - much of which I covered last time. It also requires some uncomfortable realities and some strategic and tactical thinking, fast reflexes, and often, infinite patience.

Motivation. I will never judge someone for choosing the car over the bike, in the middle of winter. The reality is that we live in a bloody cold country for five months of the year and, here in Red Deer, we have distances to travel. If you live in one of the neighbourhoods - as opposed to downtown - expect commutes that are measured in kilometres, rather than blocks. To take on these commutes in sub-zero temperatures requires you to make a conscious decision to dress in layers, pack a bag with a change of clothes, ensure you have a lunch, leave a little earlier etc... It's much, much easier and more comfortable to throw on a jacket, pour a thermal-mug full of coffee, hit the command start on the car and walk to the garage. I get it. If you're going to winter bike, you've made a real commitment to a more difficult choice. I'll let you in on a secret: As much as I love my bike and love riding to work, there are winter days where I get up and decide "Man, that coffee and heated seats would sure be great today", and I'll choose the easy option. It also makes my kids happy because they get rides to school on those days. It doesn't happen often, maybe once a week.

We talked about the clothing and bike preparation in the previous post. Once you've got your bike ready and you've got a handle on keeping your cycling clothing from becoming a bio-hazard, the next step is your daily preparation. You have two options:

  1. Be a super-early-rising keener who gets up, puts on a pot of coffee, feeds the kids breakfast, has a shower, finds and packs the fresh work-clothes, makes and packs lunches for everybody and skips out the door with time to spare. If this is you, I hate you.

  2. Do the clothes-finding, bag packing, coffee-maker-loading, lunch making the night before so that you can squeeze in the final iota of sleep in the morning and delay the inevitable start to the day as long as possible. 

I'll leave it up to you to figure out which one describes my routine.

What you won't be able to do however, is combine all the jobs from option one, with the late-sleeping, day-break-avoiding sloth of option two. Trust me, I've tried. What you end up with is a panicked dash out of the house, trying to get your own bag secured, while you are strapping on your helmet, only to find that one of your bike gloves is stuck up inside it - making you wonder why the damn thing won't fit. Add in the pushing of two small children out the back door, telling them "start running, Daddy will catch up when he gets his bike", because God-forbid they're late for school. Yeah... choose one option or the other, but don't mix 'em. It just doesn't work.

Now, you're out the door, the house is locked, the kids are walking to school and you can head off to work. Phew...I'm exhausted already and we just started this thing.

Once you're on your way the first thing you'll notice is that you'll often feel like you're riding in pudding. This is due to two things: One, it is a given that no matter what direction you ride in the winter the wind will be in your face. Just accept it. You can't beat the wind. Two, the edges of the road bed, in Red Deer, suuuuuuck. In the spring and summer they're merely rutted and full of holes that threaten to toss you and your bike alternately into traffic or merely up onto the boulevard. In the winter though, those little (and by little I mean massive) ruts and holes fill with slush, ice, snow, pea soup, bacon fat and who knows what else to become bike tire traps. And, you have to ride through them. Unlike the summer, you cannot gently weave around these holes.

"Why," you might be asking yourself. Well, by my careful, scientific estimation there are like a zillion more cars on the road in the winter, effectively creating one long line of moving iron. There are no spaces to dodge into, to get around the hole. To make matters worse, this snake-like iron and plastic leviathan is controlled by humans who - let me be delicate here - turn into cold-lulled, meat sacks unable to see anything beyond the dvd infotainment system in the dash, once the temperature dips down below "chilly".

This brings us nicely to "Strategies and tactics to make sure you don't die".

First, base all your decisions on the following assumptions:

  • Nobody can see you. It doesn't matter how bright the jacket, how loud the bell, how good the lights; in winter you are beyond invisible.
  • Nobody is stopping for you. They're cold, the light is yellow, they're going through. Likely, this is because it's probably safer for them, than stopping would be. Do not be tempted to jump the light or snake a lane in the winter. Nobody is going to hit the brakes in the middle of an intersection and risk sliding into the guy in front of them.
  • All cars are broken-down, barely maintained heaps of junk. It's patently not true. But if you assume that the cars around you have no brakes, bad tires and poorly maintained steering systems, then you'll be mentally ready for things to head south.
  • The winter road will never be as good as you imagine/hope. You will always find glare ice, drifted snow, new potholes, broken car parts, dead kitties, sand piles etc... littering the curb lane and the intersections. Be ready for these obstacles.
  • Eventually, somewhere, somehow you will get hit by a car. It probably won't be serious. But it will happen. More on this, below.

Given these assumptions here then, is how you survive as a winter cyclist.

Plan your route. Red Deer is an easy city to ride in, largely because you can route-plan on the fly. Lots of side streets will take you to the places you want to go, almost as fast as the main arterials. When you leave the house in the morning, make sure you have a couple of optional routes in your mental map so that you can bail out of your main route, if things are getting dicey.

Keep your head on a swivel. More than anything else, you have to be hyper-aware of what's happening around you. You should know roughly how many cars in the in lane behind you (I count them at stop lights), if anybody behind you is planning a right turn at the upcoming intersection - this is a great place and situation in which you can get hit by a car, and what the traffic lights are about to do. You should be aware of the roads and traffic up to a block ahead of you, and you should be scanning the sidewalks for pedestrians who may be feeling adventurous. Are there yards with potentially open gates on your route? Dogs and cats aren't afraid of you and will run out into traffic. Cats will do it just to try and make you swerve into a bus - sadistic little bastards. The more information you can track in your surroundings, the better you can avoid protential problems and the more options you can find for escaping trouble.

Here's the uncomfortable reality I mentioned at the top of this article: Some day, you will eventually have a negative interaction with a car. It doesn't matter how much you've perfected your situational-awareness, how great your studded tires are, how well you've planned... eventually things are going to go bad and you will either hit or get hit by something outweighs you by 2800 lbs or more. It will hurt.

Practice falling off your bike. Go to a frozen school-yard and fall down. Do it at fast speeds and slow speeds. Get someone to push you over as you ride by or simply throw yourself off the bike. You need to know how to hit the ground effectively. Hit with the biggest amount of  body real-estate. It's instinctual to put your hands out to try and catch yourself. This is a great way to break your wrists. Try to land on your shoulders, side, or hips. Let the force of the landing get dispersed across as much of your body as possible.

Once you're on the ground. Roll. If you've broken something (on you, not your bike) your body will instinctively try to protect that part. Rolling does two things. One, it helps to protect the injured part by moving it out of harms way and two, it further dissipates energy. It redirects the energy of the impact over space and distance.

By practicing falling, you're developing muscle memory. If you get hit, your body will just "know" what do. This is important because when bad things happen, they happen with little warning and you simply can't remember fast enough, what you should do to protect yourself in a fall.

In the event that you do have to fall:
  • Once you're down, stay down. Do a self-systems test. Does your neck hurt? Does your back or head hurt? Did you black out? Can you wiggle your fingers and toes? Once you've established that you've not compromised anything critical - and if nobody has stopped to help - you can try to move. Be slow, be deliberate and double check those fingers, toes and neck for sensation, mobility and pain. If there's a negative change, stop what you're doing and wait for help.
  • Do. Not. Let. Anybody. Help. You. Up. If you've hit hard enough that you require assistance, just ask someone to call an ambulance and let the EMTs take care of how and when you move. Don't let passersby remove your backpack or helmet. At this point, those things are stabilizing any injuries and removing them could cause more harm than good.
  • Don't get up fighting. Remain calm, ask for the driver's insurance and registration and leave the scene as calmly as possible. The police and insurance companies will figure out who was wrong and who pays what. Don't assume that just because you're the cyclist that you're in the right. Your own stupidity or bad decision could be to blame. 

So, go forth my winter-biking soul mates. Remember, prepare your bike and gear, plan your routes and rides, assume the worst and prepare for it. With patience, a good long-range route plan and excellent short-range situational-awareness, you'll have a great winter biking season. The winter air is crisp and fresh and the coffee - once you dig your thermal mug out of the depths of your backpack, is the best you've ever had. You'll find that you have more energy throughout the day and that you sleep better at night.

See you on the road

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why and How You Should Winter Bike

So, I'll being this little missive by confessing that I took a fairly easy, cheap-shot at Granville Mag this evening. Their article "Preparing Your Bicycle for Winter" is an excellent guide to getting both your bike and yourself adequately prepared for winter, bicycle commuting - in Vancouver.

The cheap shot was easy to take, so I took it. Vancouver doesn't get winter. Vancouver gets damp, followed by wet, followed by wetter, followed by damp again. To be fair, the article does acknowledge this fact and spends its time discussing the proper methods of wet-proofing your bike and dressing in quick-drying layers. It also mentions that once the snow flies, it's time to take the bus. Pansies.

Now, I lived in Vancouver for a long time and was a regular, year-round bike commuter. Yes, commuting in the rain sucks. Big time. But the problem isn't so much that you get wet while riding. The real issue is that due to the high levels of moisture in the air, none of your cycling clothes ever dry out. At the end of every work day, you're always putting on slightly damp layers of slightly smelly clothes. If you want to be a successful and non-aromatically-repulsive cycle commuter through a Vancouver winter, get your employer to invest in a clothes dryer. Or, double the weight of your backpack and bring along an extra set of riding clothes.

So, I may have called winter riding in Vancouver "cute". My bad, but I stand by it.

However, winter riding here in Alberta is a totally different ball game. The challenge here is not staying dry, or even staying warm (layers and the energy required to ride in snow and ice will keep you warm. No, the challenge here is not killing yourself while riding and avoiding frostbite. I'm not even kidding.

Keeping warm while winter riding is a relatively simple endeavour. The rules are the same for all winter sports:

  • Do dress in layers to trap thin envelopes of air around your body. Your body heat will warm the air and you'll stay warm. 
  • Don't - read that as DO NOT - wear cotton. When cotton gets wet, it sticks to your skin and destroys that first, critical warm air envelope. Wet skin loses heat about 800 times faster than dry skin. Cotton kills. 
  • Do trap heat around your extremities. That means layers of socks (thin ones next to skin) and mitts on your hands. On really cold days, I wear my full-finger cycling gloves inside a pair of warm mitts.
  • Do wrap yourself in a windproof layer. Even I - the guy who wears shorts year-round - am not stupid enough to let the wind blast through a porous outer layer.

All of this is pretty much what the Granville Mag article was talking about - minus the rain. But given our frigid climate between November and March, there are a few extras we need to keep in mind. The big one for our bodies, is frostbite.

We all know what windchill is right? When the temperature is below 0c, the wind will make it feel colder. What lots of people forget, is that you don't need a windy day to experience windchill. The movement of the bike will take care of that for you. For instance: While I will generally stay committed to riding my bike down to about -25c, much of our daily commutes happen in the -15 to -20 range. At an air temperature of -20c, and a ground speed of 20km/h, you are creating a windchill of -29c. Exposed skin will freeze in a short period of time - the best estimate I could get is about 15 minutes. However, once you dip below that, the freezing time drops dramatically.

So, covering your skin is important. My standard winter riding outfit includes a full, one-piece, head-and-neck-covering helmet liner that pulls up over my nose. If the temperature is above about -18, I wear sunglasses. Once we start approaching -20 I put on ski goggles. I have zero exposed skin once we get down to those temperatures. I've seen and treated frostbite on other people. It hurts, it damages skin cells and in bad cases, creates ugly scars or worse. No thanks.

Now you're warm and protected from the wind and cold. Let's get to the bike.

Lubricate everything - every bearing, hub, gear, cog, chain... you name it, with thin oil. Thick oils are great for wet, warm-weather riding but in the winter they get really thick, making the moving parts that much harder to keep in motion. I just test them by dabbing a little on my fingers. If it feels like peanut oil, it's pretty good. If it feels like syrup it's too thick.

Lights. I cannot say this enough. Here in Central Alberta we have really short winter days. That means that you'll probably be riding in the semi-dark to really-dark, most of the time. Invest in a flashing-red LED for the back. Put it on your pack, your seat post - wherever; just make sure it can be seen. A bright-white LED for the front is also important. Make sure that you can position it so that you can see what's in front of you without blinding oncoming drivers. I like LEDs because winter is really hard on batteries and LEDs don't draw much power. This helps extend the life of the batteries.

Finally, tires. Stud them. All the layering and weather protection in the world won't be much comfort when you find yourself lying on your side, staring at a truck tire pass inches by your head, because you hit an ice-patch and the bike went sideways. Studding a tire is cheap, easy, and as long as you're patient, doesn't take too long:

  • Go to MEC or Canadian Tire and buy a cheap, wire beaded, heavily treaded mountain bike tire. I have Kenda Kinetics; about $20 each.
  • Take your tires to the local hardware store and buy a box of 300, self-tapping, sheet metal screws. Measure them against the knobs on the outside edges of the tires. Buy screws that are about 1/4 inch longer than the height of the knob.
  • Take all this home.
  • Book off a Saturday afternoon.
  • Using a power drill and the thinnest bit you have, drill a series of pilot holes. You're going to drill through the inside of the tire, through each of the knobs on the outer edges of the tire.
  • Using a manual screw driver (no power tools here) screw one sheet metal screw, through each of the pilot holes. You'll probably get about 70 screws per edge; so about 140 screws per tire. The finished product should look like this:

  • Do a tire swap - wear gloves as the screws don't mix well with tire irons and bare knuckles. 
That's about it for the pre-winter prep. I strongly encourage you to try it. The air, while cold, is fresh and the skies are generally clear. 

Stay tuned. In a couple of days I'll talk about actually surviving your winter bike commute. Preview note: drivers who don't see you in the summer, really don't see you in the winter.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Further Thoughts on Technology and Nature

I received some interesting feedback from Phil French (you can read his blog here). Phil illustrates how technology can enrich the nature experience and has often made his nature experiences better. He makes the point, very eloquently, that he rarely experiences nature without some technology at hand - a compound bow, a video camera, or a fishing rod. I too keep those items (not the bow - I'd hurt something, probably me) close at hand while hiking, paddling, etc... But to my mind, these technologies don't mediate the experience. They augment it in a very tangible way. By casting into a stream in the hope of bringing in a fish I'm interacting with the habitat in a very real way. Fishing is a completely immersive experience; replete with a complete suite of sensory cues. The sound of the stream, the feel of the drag on the reel, the smell of the forest, the myriad sights and even the taste of the spray coming off the reeling line. This is not an experience that can be replicated by viewing additional content through the screen of my mobile device.

Hiking, skiing, paddling, snowshoeing, climbing - they all have their respective technologies that are required to take on the sport, and they are all activities that take place in natural spaces. But as with fishing, the technology makes these multi-sensory experiences possible, without mediating them in any way.

Therein lies the distinction for me and the crux of my original argument. Technology that filters the experience of simply being in the natural world, acts as a solvent to the experience. While all of our modern communications tools and platforms are sold to us with the promise that they will enrich our lives and broaden our understanding of the world, this promise falls short in nature. Climbing a piece of rock, fishing in a stream, skiing through a forest, hiking up a mountain trail are all very real experiences; just as sitting next to a pond watching swallows catch and eat mosquitoes on the wing is a real experience. All of these experiences require some technology to facilitate them - even the pond experience may require binoculars.

However, none of this technology mediates the experience. They don't diminish the experience in the way that sitting next to the pond, texting our friends about what we're seeing, does. Or in the way that standing in a forest learning about a tree - that we're standing in front of - by reading a wikipedia entry about it, on our iPhone. The natural experience we should be having and the real meaning in the experience is found in the touching of the tree, the smelling of it's leaf buds, the sound of the birds and squirrels in the canopy. Instead, all too often we place the mobile device between ourselves and the experience.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Technology and... Nature?

I will begin by admitting that I love modern, digital technology; unabashedly and unashamedly I am enthralled by what we've managed to do with silicone and electricity. The sheer volume of information we can access and control, the content we can create at a moment's notice, is unprecedented in human history. The reality of being able to access, manipulate and add to - in a very real sense - the whole of human knowledge from a device smaller than a package of cigarettes, is unbelievable. To use a word that is over-used in the English language: It's awesome.

Not awesome in the sense of, pancakes in bed are awesome. I mean awesome, like, I have seen the depths of universe and have been irrevocably changed by it, awesome. The technology that we wield with aplomb and abandon, is nothing short of Awesome (capital A intended).

Now, here is the "However".

I think that our technology has limits to where it belongs.

In an age where children are exposed to screens for an average of 53 hours per week outside of school time, that there are some places where we need to put the devices away. While information is powerful, it cannot replace experience. In many cases I think it can't even augment experience in a meaningful way. Every time we place a screen between us and a real experience, we are mediating that experience. We are making the experience more sterile, cleaner. The trade off is that we can access all sorts of supplementary information about the experience by mediating it.

My question is: Is it worth it? Is the extra information we can get online, via smart-device worth the price of tactility? Would you rather have your child learn about the animals in a wetland by leaning in with a dip net, carefully catching insects, larvae, fish, amphibians and, with the guidance of a facilitator, learn about those animals and all the connections between the animals, the habitat, the child and the greater environment beyond? Or, would you rather your child stood at the edge of the pond, pointed a digital device at it, took a picture and the went surfing online for information about ponds and wetlands - all while texting their friends?

I will choose the less-sterile, more connected experience every time.

You may argue that some kids don't have the opportunity to visit natural spaces, to get dirty and to explore wetlands (keeping with our pond example). I would counter-argue, that it's your responsibility as a parent to provide your child with those experiences. If you can't, there are resources in almost every community that can help you. And often, those resources are free-to-minimal-cost.

The point is, that nature doesn't need to be mediated. Experiences with nature and natural environments don't need to be enhanced with video, interactive content and QR codes taking you to websites for more information.

I argued in an earlier post (two or three years ago) that we have lost our ability to be awed. At that time I was talking about technology. We have lost our ability to be astounded by the next great thing our digital device will do. We simply expect the next generation-device to be faster, more advanced, more capable. Well, I think that along with the inability to be awed by technology, we've lost our ability to be awed by nature.

We - and I admit I'm talking in broad strokes here - live in a society that is so driven by dynamic imagery, that we can look at the mist on a pond say to ourselves "Pretty", and then pull out our phones to check in to twitter or Facebook. We have lost the ability to watch the mist curl over the water and dance on the air currents. We have lost the desire to simply sit at the pond edge and watch the ducklings trail along behind their mother or to peer through the cattails and spy on a fishing spider, dangling over the water. We'd rather point our phones at a code and watch a video of the very thing that is in front of us - live.

And yet, when we interpreters can get people's attention and get them to sit and close their eyes and listen or to simply sit and watch the pond with new eyes, they're hooked. I've seen well-healed, metro-urbanites nearly brought to tears when they sat on the Nature Centre's viewing deck and simply listened to the activity on the pond.

Invariably the first two words out of their mouths are: "That's Awesome."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

New Look - Keep or Toss?

Blogger has given us a bunch of new "Dynamic Layouts" to play with. What do you think of this look? You, the reader, can change it by clicking on one of the tabs (mosaic, magazine etc...) just under the title bar.

I think it looks slick, but I think I miss some of the functionality of the more traditional layouts. Gone are the sidebar links to other blogs and websites, gone is the shelfari widget.... I'm conflicted. What's more important to you? Do you like the readability and the improved access to old posts, offered by the new layout? Or do you prefer the old layout?

Let me know. Comment below.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

How to Justify a Killing

I am quoting liberally from myself in the attempt to frame my thoughts about last night's killing of Troy Davis. Please indulge me in the first section of rather dry academics.

“There is… consistency between what a person knows or believes and what he (sic) does” (Festinger, 1957, p. 1). According to Festinger, we are unconsciously strive for consistency between what we believe and how we act. Acting against our beliefs sets up inconsistencies that we feel compelled to make sense of by either changing our behaviours or our beliefs. In Festinger’s (1957) opening chapter he illustrates a smoker rationalizing the dangers of smoking. The smoker tells him or herself that it is too hard to quit, or that smoking makes them feel good, or that it can’t be as bad as people think. This rationalizing of the inconsistency of smoking when the smoker knows it is a dangerous habit brings the belief and the action into consonance.

However, Festinger postulated that these inconsistencies cannot always be rationalized into consonance. When they can’t for some reason, or when the attempts to rationalize fail, then the inconsistency remains. “Under such circumstances – that is in the presence of an inconsistency – there is psychological discomfort” (Festinger, 1957, p. 2), which he referred to as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory states that dissonance is psychologically damaging and that a person will be motivated “to try to reduce dissonance and achieve consonance” (Festinger, 1957, p. 2). When confronted by cognitive dissonance (i.e., when one’s behaviours and beliefs are not congruent), a person will not only seek to abate the dissonance, but will also seek to “avoid situations or information which would likely increase the dissonance” (Festinger, 1957, p. 3).

Setting aside the morality issues surrounding the death-penalty as a punitive tool, I think that there is some worth in framing Troy Davis's execution around cognitive dissoance.

Troy Davis was convicted in 1991 of the beating and shooting death of a police officer (that's the extremely short version). He was convicted on eye-witness testimony and some circumstantial evidence around a gun that he once owned being the same caliber as the gun that killed Officer MacPhail. However, there was no direct-evidence linking Davis to the actual killing. Davis for his part has never denied being at the crime scene. He has always maintained that he didn't actually kill MacPhail.

In North American courts of law the burden of proof lies with the prosecuters. It is up to them to establish the accused's guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1991, with their witnesses' testimonies, prosecutors acheived that benchmark in the minds of the jury. Davis was sentenced to death and the process of appeals etc... began. This is the place where a discussion about the morality of capital punishment should take place.

However over the years. seven of the eye witnesses have recanted their testimony; many of them claiming they were coerced by the police into signing statements, that as illiterates the witnesses couldn't read or understand. One of the prosecution witnesses is widely-believed to be the actual shooter; deflecting blame from himself by accusing Davis. Again it has been pointed out, there is no actual, physical forensic evidence linking Davis to this horrible crime.

It would seem, to my non-law-trained brain, that there is ample room for the seeds of doubt to be sewn. At the very least, it would seem to me that it would be reasonable at this point to stop the execution timetable, and just make sure the State was killing the right person. After all there is a maxim in demorcratic societies along the lines of: better ten guilty men go free, than one innocent man be punished. In other words, we err on the side of caution.

And yet, last night Troy Davis was executed by the State of Georgia.

The Georgia prosecutors are a case study in dissonance reduction.

The prosecution said right up to end - and continue to say - they feel that the recanted testimonies and the pointing to a lack of physical evidence are a sideshow, aimed at distracting the puiblic from "the truth"; that Troy Davis killed a cop. The Georgia prosecuters are so tied to their belief - to their belief in themselves and to their self-worth - that they denied a request from Davis' defense team for Davis to take a polygraph test in order to establish some reasonable doubt. Ironic coming from a State who's prosecution teams routinely attempt to get polygraph evidence admitted.

The Georgia prosecutors likely define themselves as:

  • crusaders for the rights of victims
  • the guardians of the public trust
  • the acheivers of justice for families
  • the punishers of criminals
  • the leaders in the fight for safe communities

These are all noble characteristics, to be sure. However, it would seem that the prosecutors are so invested in this self-image that they are unable to accept information that challenges their beliefs. For them to accept the recanted evidence is to accept - what they would preceive - a personal flaw, a failing, a challenge to their integrity.

According to Festinger, the human brain needs connsonance. It needs to have its beliefs and actions in sync. To exist otherwise is to cause psychological damage. In this case the prosecutors have two options to reduce their dissonace. They can choose to accept the new evidence, accept that they may have made a mistake and work to fix it. They can reopen the trial, ask the state to delay (at the very least) the execution while they re-examine the evidence and work to commute - if needed - the death sentence or overturn the conviction. This option would have spared Davis' life. It may have kept him in prison but it would have kept him alive. In short, they would have to modify the way they self-identify.

The other option for the prosecutors to acheive consonance is to reject the dissonant information out of hand. Like a smoker who denegrates warning labelling on cigarette packs, a climate change denyer who invokes the econonmy, or a rapist who says "she was asking for it", the prosecutors in Georgia decided to reduce their dissonace by deriding the advocates for clemency and ignoring the evidence that was under their noses. Their statement was that all the evidence that should have lead them away from Davis' execution, was a sideshow meant to delay justice.

In the end, the prosecutors will sleep well having confirmed to themselves that they acted in a way that affirms their self-worth.

And while he may not have been truly innocent, a man has died under a cloud of uncertainty because people in power wanted the easy way out.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Drinking Gin on Hornby

"Winding roads go to interesting places." So says my wife.

Winding roads lead to places of mystery and intrigue, to backwoods and sandy beaches, to mountains and to valleys. Interesting things and fabulous adventures are found along and at the end of winding roads.

Hornby Island is a case study in "The things you find along winding roads." Hornby's myriad winding roads lead to beaches, an endless array of pottery studios, stained glass artisans, houses with astounding views, little known campsites, marinas, wineries and cemeteries. There are winding roads to trailheads for hiking and biking and winding roads that make you think twice - while the theme to deliverance plays through your head.

One of the shorter -but easily one of my favourite - Hornby Island winding roads leads to gin. And not just any gin... it leads to Captain (yes Captain - he's a retired ice-breaker Captain) Peter Kimmerly and the home of Phrog Gin.

Most distilled spirits are gleaned from starchy sugars like potatoes or from grains. According to Peter and his Organic Chemist-partner, these are the culprits responsible for hangovers and aftertaste. Peter starts all his alcohol production with organic sugar beets. Apparently sugar beet sugar produces the cleanest, purest alcohol from which you can create your spirits.

You also need a great bloody still (or in Peter's case, six of them) and some really, really cool technology. For instance, Peter's son is the Chief Engineer on a cruise ship. He built Peter a vacuum evaporator. His reasoning: If it can be used to distill 40,000 gallons of freshwater each day on a ship, a smaller one should be able to distill booze. When it's operating, it creates pressure so low, it's the equivalent to distilling alcohol, 4,000 above the summit of Mount Everest. That one step renders alcohol vapours so pure, they'd seduce even the most devout priest.

Peter's newest still is a work of art. Honestly, it's worth a trip to the Phrogery just to see the still. According to Peter it took two months to design, five month to be built by grey-haired, bearded Germans, deep in the Black Forest. It was shipped to Hornby in a seven foot long, five foot high crate and it must weigh two tons. It's a gleaming piece of functional art, rendered in hand-pounded copper and stainless steel. The cracking tower is seven feet tall!

So, what comes out of all this science, heart and dedication to purity?

Phrog's spirits are Gin, Vodka, Hollunderblutin (the aromatics are elderflower) and Aquavit (of which I'm not a huge fan - sorry Peter). And what spirits they are. To mix Phrog Vodka with anything, would be a crime. To even bring a Tonic water bottle near Phrog Gin; a sin. The Gin is served best at room temperature at 2/3 gin, 1/3 water.

There are also two flavoured Vodkas - usually the death of all drinkers due to their sugars and artificial flavours. Not Phrogs. Peter's Vanilla Vodka gets its flavour from pure, scraped vanilla beans. The Black Jelly Bean Sichuan Vodka (yes you read that correctly - roll it around in your brain a while) is flavoured with star anise and hot, red Thai, chilli peppers. There is nothing synthetic in the mix. Imagine the purest licorice taste with a small alcohol kick. Swallow it and wait a fraction of a second for the chilli pepper to hit you. It's subtle, but it's there and it is fantastic.

And, while we brought home a bottle of gin and a bottle of Black Jelly Bean Sichuan Vodka, I've since learned that I may be able to buy them in town; unlike Tofino Brewing Company's Tuff Session Ale - another story for another day.

Peter's Island Spirits Distillery, home of the Phrogery and all things related to creating the best booze on the planet, is but one of the many winding roads on Hornby. At the top of the mountain, up the long winding, gravel road, you'll find the Meadery (we ascended to them last year). You'll find Ford's Cove marina and great fish and chips at the end of the long road that winds across the island.

So, the next time you find yourself facing the choice of the straight path or the winding road, go the long way around. To paraphrase John and Paul: The long and winding road, will never disappear. And, you never know what - or who - you'll find.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Well at Least it's an Excuse to Stay Away from Calgary

Things I loathe in no particular order:

  • Big cities
  • Crowds
  • Cowboys
  • Country music
  • Commercialization
I also completely and utterly, without apology, unrepentantly despise the City of Calgary. So you can imagine how thrilled I am to have absolutely no reason to go to Calgary this week. Beyond my normal desire to escape that urban hellhole every time I have to visit it, Stampede week makes the merely unbearable completely torturous.

We've lived in Alberta for 11 years now and I take it as a point of pride that I've never been to Stampede. There is so much that is great about living in Alberta: The mountain parks, amazing rivers, genuinely nice people and close proximity to BC are among it's salient features. We've made some of our best friends here and, while I still can't consider Alberta "home" it is a damn nice place to live.

But for one week (10 days? How long is this damn thing anyways?) every year, Southern Alberta loses its collective mind. All of a sudden every suburbanite commuter becomes a damn cowboy. Pancakes become a food group and competitive pancake-breakfast rallying seems to become Calgary's semi-official sport. Every damn radio station becomes Stampede-obsessed. I think, that if I printed this diatribe in the Calgary Sun, I might actually have a by-law officer visit my house for a "chat" and demand to know why I wasn't in "Stampede spirit". And I don't even live in Calgary.

This isn't about animal cruelty or the perception thereof. It's not about having to put down horses every year or about cowboys getting stepped on by bulls - although if I was a bull I know what I'd try to do.

I guess I just don't "get it". And I know that there are plenty of people who love the Stampede who would kindly - or not so kindly - tell me that they don't need me down there anyways. And that's fine. Enjoy the Stampede. Enjoy the crowds and the pushing and jostling. Enjoy the parking nightmares. Enjoy cheap pancakes served on non-biodegradable foam plates. Enjoy the sideshow. I'll stick to the places I love. Because of Stampede there are fewer people on the river and fewer in the mountains. I'll stay there.

Besides, there's less chance of being stepped on by a pancake-eating, country-music-singing, crowd-surfing, cowboy-ridden bull.