First day

This blog post is a writing exercise from Visit the Writers chat room every Tuesday for new writing exercises. This week's exercise: A microfiction (no more than 600 words) story with a first-line prompt of "She did her best, but she was young."
She did her best, but she was young. She sat in her chair, her legs wrapped around its, hunched over the paper. Her fingers gripped the pencil tightly as she concentrated on her work. Meticulous stroke after meticulous stroke.

At one point someone with a ball crashed into her, prompting her to put down her pencil and exclaim “Be careful! I’m writing here!” before turning back to her work. She gave an exasperated sigh as she erased the errant stroke caused by the juxtaposition of her elbow and a kindergartener.

Unmindful of the clock on the wall, she toiled away until her paper was filled to her satisfaction. Smiling, she put it aside, only to see that it was time to leave. She jumped up to go change her shoes and grab her coat, snagging her paper almost as an afterthought as she ran towards the door.

“Daddy, Daddy, look what I wrote!” she beamed as only a four-year-old can.

“Let’s see, honey!” he said, as he picked up the paper and examined the huge letters scrawled across the page


“Did I write it good?” she asked, hopping from one foot to another.

“You did, honey,” he said, a tear forming in his eye.

“Did I make any mistakes?” she asked excitedly.

“You spelled every word right, but some of your letters need practice,” he said gently. “Mommy would have been proud of you,” he added.

She took his hand, and they left the classroom to go home.

Jannik and the statue

This blog post is a writing exercise from Visit the Writers chat room every Tuesday for new writing exercises. This week's exercise: A 10-300 word story involving walking to, and perhaps riding, a subway train.
The crew cursed and yelled as they lowered the statue off the ship. It was surprisingly heavy despite being only life-sized. Jannik gasped as a rope snapped and it tumbled out of its rigging and onto the dock. The statue was only wrapped in thin cloth, yet Jannik was shocked to find that it was unharmed. They quickly loaded it onto a cart and left for the Academy.

“It’s clearly Infused,” said the Senior Initiate of Artifact Research.

“Yes, definitely solar powered,” said the Senior Initiate of Energy. “Good thing you kept it covered,” he said to Jannik.

“It may be an explosive,” said the Senior Initiate of Offensive Weaponry. “It needs further study, by a Senior Initiate,” he added. The implication was clear. Jannik was a mere Initiate. The fact that he had brought the statue all the way from the forbidden continent of Northam meant nothing.

Jannik fastened his cloak went down to wait for the subterranean train. His  anger was overcoming him so he forced himself to do a Computation Mantra, using the echos he heard to Compute a model of the train tunnels. When the train came through the echoes expanded his visualization and he realized how close he sat to the Vault itself.

It was an act of vandalism that could get him imprisoned, or worse, expelled, but he was too angry to care. He picked some items out of his pack and put them into his mouth, Infusing them with stored Essences. His teeth and tongue assembled it, and when it was ready he gently spat it into his hands. “Go on, little mole,” he said, as he set it on its way.

The Vault keepers were surprised to hear a voice from inside the Vault. When they entered they saw a thin shaft of sunlight streaming from a silvery hole, shining on an empty pedestal. Lying on the floor was a man. “Help me...” he said, then collapsed.

Mexican Food Stand-off

This blog post is a writing exercise from Visit the Writers chat room every Tuesday for new writing exercises. This week's exercise: to write a dialog (only dialog!) between two people that includes within it pants and tacos.

"Damn it, why isn't this thing working?"

"Did you try speaking more slowly?"

"Yes, and I even tried retraining it. It just doesn't understand me."

"Here, let me try. 'I WOULD LIKE A TACO.'"

"See? Nothing. The damn thing is busted."

"Je veux un taco. Wo yao yige taco."

"I'm telling you, it's broken."

"Just give it a good whack."

"How many times do I have to remind you that a replicator is not something you whack? Forget it. I'm going to go out to eat."

"Wait! You're not wearing any pants."

"Damn it! I de-materialized them because they were dirty and I wanted to make a clean pair... only now the replicator is busted ... crap, what will I wear?"

"I have a spare pair on, you can have them."

"You're wearing two pairs of pants?"

"Yeah. For emergencies."

"You wouldn't happen to have a spare taco, would you?"

"Sorry, no."

The Garden

This blog post is a writing exercise from Visit the Writers chat room every Tuesday for new writing exercises. This week's exercise: A short story with 2 paragraphs, no dialogue, containing a rusty nail, a tulip, and the word "spangled".

I reached for my glass of iced tea, but it was empty, and even the ice-cubes had disappeared. I thought about going inside to get more but I couldn’t move. It was just too damn hot. I played with my empty glass while contemplating my garden. To be honest, “garden” was a strong word for it. I never weeded it or planted things. Stuff simply grew there; that stuff wasn’t grass, thus it was a garden. I knew I should really do something about the ivy, because it was encroaching on, well, everything: the patio stones, the fence, the tree, even the house. But it was just so hot that I sat there contemplating doing something rather than doing it.

I was out of iced tea and it was getting hotter. I thought about the front lawn, or “lawn”, now that the grass was all dead from the drought. There had been tulips growing in the middle of the lawn in the Spring, but they were long gone and so were all signs of life from that part of the yard. Only the back yard, with its modicum of shade, withstood this infernal heat. Only the ivy thrived, encroaching on everything: the gate, the hedge, heck, one tendril even climbed all the way up the wall and wrapped around a rusty nail that used to hold up a downspout. I have no idea how it found that nail. The dog lay complacently on the ivy-covered stones, and again I looked at my empty glass of iced tea, and contemplated the lure of the air conditioning on the other side of the patio door. But it was too hot to move.

The sun’s heat was reflecting off the patio stones and surely baking me even though I was sitting in the shade. I gazed at my empty glass and my garden with its lush ivy. The ivy was a rich green colour and its broad leaves hinted at the coolness of their shadows. I was sitting in the shade of an ivy-encrusted tree but it was still so hot and my glass of iced tea was bone dry. The tree was not unique in being covered in the ubiquitous ivy; it encroached on everything: the patio table, the barbecue, the eavestroughs, even the dog. I wondered if the dog was cool under there. I was hot so I took off my hat and placed it on the table, and I hummed the Star-Spangled Banner while contemplating the ivy and my pruning shears, which were in the garage, but anyway it was too hot to prune today.

I picked up my glass of iced tea but it was full of ivy and I didn’t think those leaves would make good tea and besides I had no water. I couldn’t see the dog and the ivy was now encroaching on my legs. The heat was dizzying but my feet felt so cool and I wondered why I’d ever wanted to trim this ivy, which was encroaching on my belt. I couldn’t see the dog or the patio table or any patio stones, only the ivy, which was encroaching on my head. At last I felt cool as the ivy closed over me.

I reached for my glass of ivy but the glass was gone and so was the table and to be honest I wasn’t sure where I was anymore. But it was blessedly cool and I contemplated my garden. Next summer, I thought, I’m hiring a landscaper.

Atheism is not a religion - Response to Rabbi Marmur in the Toronto Star

Rabbi Dow Marmur writes in the Toronto Star that Atheism resembles religious fanaticism and that atheism is a religion:
Atheism nowadays does indeed require a lot of devotion as it’s on the way to becoming a religion.
This is not a good start to his essay and it gets worse from there. There is so much wrongness in his essay that I barely know how to respond, except by doing a point-by-point tear-down. All of the following quotes (with a blue background) are from Marmur's article, which has so many wrong things that I've reproduced almost the whole thing here:
Atheism nowadays does indeed require a lot of devotion as it’s on the way to becoming a religion. The title of Alain de Botton’s new book heralds it: Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. He even wants to build temples because “it’s time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals.”
First of all, atheism does not require any devotion. This is the fallacy commonly made by believers: that atheists have to work hard to not believe in a god. In fact it's quite easy to not believe in a god. Most Christians do not believe in Thor, or Odin, or Loki, or Zeus, or Mithra, or Vishnu, or the Force. It does not require any faith or effort or devotion on their part to maintain this disbelief. Atheists simply add "Yahweh" and "Jesus" to that list.

Secondly, Alain de Botton does not speak for all atheists. He is not a leader of some "atheist church". Atheists do not elect or appoint leaders and follow the leaders' directions. Some atheists are famous for speaking out about atheism, such as Richard Dawkins or P. Z. Myers. However they hold no authority over other atheists and they only have "followers" inasmuch as people usually agree with them.

In fact, Richard Dawkins recently lost quite a bit of credibility among atheists when he essentially told a female skeptic to shut up about her experience being sexually harassed at a skepticism conference. Professor Dawkins is respected only as far as his actions take him; if he offends people then others will stop listening to him.
[de Botton's] book may be an improvement on the many rabidly anti-religious tracts that have become bestsellers in recent years. Whereas they seem to tell readers what they’re against in religion, de Botton’s is potentially a more positive, albeit eccentric, message.
"Eccentric" doesn't even begin to  describe de Botton's message. P. Z. Myers said it better than I can: de Botton wants to take all the creepy parts of religion, such as indoctrination and centralized control, and copy those in secular society. He feels that this is somehow an improvement. But most people who are atheists don't really want to be indoctrinated or controlled. That's often one of the catalysts for their de-conversion: repulsion from the way religious organizations operate.
Frank Furedi is a sociology professor and, by his own admission, a supporter of the British Humanist Association. He writes: “Where atheism was once depicted as a dangerous and subversive creed, today it is often portrayed as an enlightened outlook that perches on the moral high ground.”
Atheism is STILL depicted as dangerous and subversive, usually by religious people. And it IS dangerous and subversive to religion and religious organizations, who cannot maintain their riches and power when they have no followers. But if you tell me that religious people don't also portray themselves as  having "an enlightened outlook that perches on the moral high ground" then I'll call you a liar.
There was a time when exponents of conventional religion were criticized for being overzealous and dogmatic. Today, in the religious circles in which I mix, openness and tolerance are the order of the day. It’s the New Atheism that, according to Furedi, “expresses itself through a doctrinaire language of its own.”
I’ve, therefore, consistently refused to engage in debates with atheists. They may consider me a cowardly man of little faith who’s afraid of exposing himself to the truth, but impartial observers will know that contemporary atheists are often even more fanatical than religious fundamentalists. Their zeal seems to know no bounds.
Anyone can be overzealous and dogmatic. And again: there are lots of religious people for whom "overzealous" and "dogmatic" are polite understatements. The Westboro Baptist Church comes to mind. New Atheism is simply made up of atheists standing up and proclaiming their atheism, so that they are no longer an invisible and silent minority. New Atheism doesn't like religion because there is so much to dislike about it.
This may be due to their realization that conventional religion is here to stay, not as “the opiate of the people” in Karl Marx’s oft-cited description, but as “an ethical and cohesive force,” as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has called it. Conventional religion bestows purpose and meaning on life; atheists may be envious of it.
Wow! What a leap of logic in this paragraph. Conventional religion is actually declining in most developed nations. Atheists do have meaning and purpose in their lives, if they choose: they work to make this life better for themselves and their fellow humans, because it's the only life they have.
Because religion is articulated and administered by human beings, it often falls short of its stated ideals — just like atheism. Though atheists are keen to parade the abuses committed by some religious leaders and attack distortions attributed to others, they don’t seem to apply the same criticism to themselves but tend to hide behind what they call reason and science.
Atheism doesn't have "ideals" - it is simply the lack of belief in gods - though there are some groups who are organized around the ideals of humanism or of combating religion. But typically if any members of those groups "fall short of their ideals" then they are dealt with accordingly. People who fail to perform in their roles are fired. People who commit crimes are turned over to the police. I know of no atheist or humanist or other organization based explicitly on atheist or skeptic or scientific goals that has had a world-wide sex-abuse scandal, or that was stealing babies from politically-disadvantaged women and selling them to the rich, or that advocates for putting all gays behind electrified fences until they die. Religious groups and public figures have many flaws and have been guilty of many crimes that went unpunished; where are the corresponding scandals in the Atheist community? When has the Atheist community protected its own members no matter what monstrous crimes they committed?

And science is not something that one "hides behind". To make that claim is to fundamentally misunderstand what science is, how it works, and what its goals are. Science is a process of thought and discovery and invention. The methods and data and experiments and processes used are documented and open. There are no hidden rituals or secret cabals. Anyone can take part in it and take it apart. Science adjusts its views when it is shown to be mistaken. (This process can take time - scientists are human and have egos, like anyone else- but it is guaranteed to occur). Science is about transparency. You can't hide behind a transparent window. Nor do you hide behind science. Science stands on its own merits and falls by its own method, only to stand again stronger than before.
Religion, because it’s attuned to and aware of human inadequacies we know as sin, seems to be much more conducive to self-examination and a determination to do better next time.
Joseph Harker, writing last December in the British daily the Guardian, made a strong case for belief in God when he stated that “it offers clarity and opportunity for regular self-assessment, in an atmosphere of genuine humility.” In religion, he wrote, “the world doesn’t evolve around ‘me’; I have to contribute to the world.”
This is hogwash. First, the fact that a ritualized belief system has, as one of its components, an exhortation to perform self-reflection, has nothing to do with whether or not the god presupposed by this religion actually exists. Joseph Harker's article doesn't even make the claim that god exists, only that religious rituals can help people better themselves. But this is also a non-sequiter: people who want to do self-assessment will do it whether or not they believe in a god, and people who don't want to self-assess won't. Religion doesn't have a monopoly on telling people that they're doing something wrong.

Meanwhile, what most religions call "sins" or "human inadequacies" are merely arbitrary. It is a "sin" for Jews or Muslims to eat pork, or for Hindus to eat beef. Christians can eat anything... as long as it's not meat on Good Friday. Who's right? Why do these rules even exist or matter? Jews are prohibited from working on the Sabbath; a prohibition that extends so far that even carrying a cane for walking is considered forbidden. But it's okay, because they build holy fences around entire cities in order to squeak in under the law. Masturbation is considered a grave sin in the Catholic Church. Yet pretty much everyone does it at least occasionally and it causes no harm. So why is it a sin? The Church demands "self-reflection" and tries to shame you into feeling guilt if you don't follow every little rule, no matter what the actual harm is or how petty or random the rule is.
Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, writes that religious ritual practices point to a solution “to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.” A religious community gives adherents a home and something of a family. Community members often testify to it and, therefore, remain unmoved by atheist onslaughts. Perhaps that’s why de Botton now wants to imitate religious congregations.
Finally! Finally something that makes sense in this whole ridiculous essay. Yes, it is a well-known fact that people cooperate better when they have a commonality to link them. So essentially: religious people are like Toronto Maple Leafs fans, who keep paying exorbitant prices to watch their team lose again and again, yet stick together because they are sticking together. Go Team!
In fact, the most common cause of religious conversion is the security of rituals and the comfort of community. Both help people to experience the caring God who loves them. Atheists, however devout, aren’t ever likely to know it.
 Atheists often come from those very communities. And often they don't tell tales of security and comfort. They tell different tales: Tales of being made to feel fear and shame for no good reason. Tales of abuse in the name of God. Tales of institutionalized sexism or homophobia. Tales of brainwashing. Community is important. But religion is not the only source of community. And where is the caring and loving God who let Catholic bullies torment Jamie Hubley to death?

Religion may have helped people cooperate in the past. But now religion often stands in the way of progress. The Bible was used as a defence of slavery and racism. It is used to oppress women. It is still being used to oppress gays. Rabbi Marmur says that religion is about tolerance, yet the Catholic Bishops are still trying to suppress equality for gays. Why is it that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and not the Bible, is the tool that makes life better for women, and minorities, and gays, and other disadvantaged people? Why are the Catholic Bishops trying to suppress anti-bullying campaigns in Ontario schools?

Atheism, at its core, is simply about rejecting religion because it makes no sense. But once that step is taken, once the supernatural is removed, all that's left is this world, just this one world we live in. There is no reward or punishment in your next life. There are no second chances. There is only here, and now, and us, and we have to work together to make things better for all of us. But I guess that's a sentiment that devout religious people will never understand.

Takei-Straight Alliances in Ontario Schools

The Catholic bishops of Ontario are all upset these days because the provincial government is passing a law that forces Catholic schools to allow students to form gay-straight alliances: anti-bullying clubs intended to protect LGBT students. The schools currently may or may not reluctantly allow these clubs (some do, some don't), but they are not allowed to be named Gay-Straight Alliances, or any other name that suggests homosexuality. Even names like "The Rainbow Alliance" and the like have been vetoed by the schools.

I guess George Takei's solution is needed.

But the bishops are all upset because they feel that the government is encroaching on their religious freedoms.  Guess what? "Religious Freedom" is not a blank cheque for discriminating against the population. And these schools are funded by taxpayers. That makes the schools part of the government, and the government is prohibited from this kind of discrimination. The taxpayers largely agree: they voted to keep the current Liberal government in power, in part because of the homophobic nutcases running under the Conservative banner.

The views of the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality are wrong. They are wrong and they are hateful and they are evil. Hopefully, the momentum has shifted in these schools, and the future Catholic leaders will make changes. If they don't, they risk alienating their members, who will leave the church for less hateful pastures, and they risk alienating the taxpayers, who will demand the privatization of the Catholic Schools if they don't get in line with modern values.

Lego Star Wars 7965 Millennium Falcon

Christmas 2001: my wife and I were Christmas shopping. We went to a Toys R Us and I admired the Lego Millennium Falcon (7190). My wife told me to leave the store and she later came out with a flat box in a bag, a box which made a rattling sound. On Christmas morning, as I unwrapped a rattling box, I was surprised to find... a Scrabble game! Which was also a great gift but wasn't what I had expected. Anyway, we decided to go Boxing Day shopping, and I tried to find the Millennium Falcon, but it was sold out everywhere.
That summer, my wife surprised me again: on my birthday I received another box, which didn't rattle, but which contained a tightly-packed Lego Millennium Falcon that she had bought on eBay. Did I mention that she's awesome? She is.
My birthday present

Well, that was 2002, and in 2004 Lego released a new version of the Millennium Falcon (4504). It improved on the old design a lot. I wanted to buy it but I was told that I couldn't, on account of "You already have one, and I paid way too much money for you to buy another one." And that was that, for years. I watched a few Millennium Falcon models go by, including the oh-so-tempting full-minifig-scale Ultimate Collector Series version. But I didn't buy any of them.

So imagine my surprise last Saturday, when I went downstairs for breakfast, and found a new Millennium Falcon (7965) on the table! With the help of my daughter I put it together. Let me get right to the point: this is one of Lego's best kits ever. It is a very good rendition of the Falcon. The shape is quite accurate; it has several important details such as landing gear, entrance ramp, smuggling compartments, Dejarik table, guns on the top and bottom of the ship (including a place where Han and Luke can sit back-to-back, to recreate the scene in Episode IV when they are escaping the Death Star), and even a little flying orb and welding helmet for Luke to practice his lightsaber. It comes with 6 minifigs (Han Solo, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Obi-wan Kenobi, and Darth Vader). There are 1254 pieces, but the assembly is in six stages, with the parts separated in numbered bags to make it easier. The resulting model has no useless features or oddly-coloured parts. In fact, I have only two complaints:

  • There are no droids. Why include Darth Vader, when he was never on the ship, but leave out the droids? Not that I need more droids, but for the price of this kit I think they could toss in a couple.
  • Stickers. Round stickers that are hard to apply and that don't stay stuck. Again, considering how much this kit costs, a handful of printed pieces shouldn't be a luxury.
Old MF
New MF

I thought it would be fun to compare this model with the one from 2000, so I dug it out and put it together. The first thing that struck me was how the new kit really uses appropriate colours in a way that the old kit did not. The old kit used a simpler arrangement: every piece of a certain kind was the same colour. Every 1x8 brick is blue. Every 2x6 plate is dark grey. Every 2x10 plate is light grey. Every 2x4 brick is red. Etc. This makes building the model easier, because it's easier to find the piece you want and easier to see where it goes on the model. However, it makes the resulting model look like a box of Crayola crayons sneezed all over it.

The second thing I noticed, and it's the main problem with the old model, is that the designers didn't try very hard to use advanced techniques to achieve the Falcon's shape. The cockpit hangs off the side but doesn't look like it's connected by a walkway. The cockpit is the wrong shape (despite using a custom canopy piece). The Falcon's hull is made of four huge quarter-circle dome plates, which aren't that accurate to the movies and which make the ship look like a hamburger.
Old MF, lid off
New MF, peeled open
New MF, peeled open
The new ship goes way beyond standard building techniques to achieve its shape. Its perimeter is made of hinged sections to simulate roundness. The roof is made of hinged plate sections that peel open to access the interior. The detailing is better. Even something like the gun turret: both models have it; both models use a similar approach, but the new one uses more pieces and better colours to make the whole thing look nicer. (Not to mention that the old model only had a top gun, no bottom gun).

I loved the Millennium Falcon model when I got it in 2002. But the new one is so superior that it almost makes you want to pretend that Lego never made the old one.
Old Crew
New Crew

Lego Atlantis 7985 City of Atlantis

The Christmas season brought several new Lego kits into my home, one of which was the City of Atlantis. This is a fairly large set, with 686 pieces, and it mainly consists of a sunken Greek-inspired temple, along with a small submarine and a brick-built giant crab.

There are 5 minifigs which come with the set: two human divers, two aquatic monsters, and one human statue.  The monsters are not bad; they both consist of a printed torso and a rubbery "head" which covers the torso to some degree. The red monster has lobster claws, which are basically lobster-claw-shaped accessories that a standard minifig hand holds onto.

The submarine is a small sub with room for a single minifg inside. It features a green tome, a large propeller, two flick-fire missiles, and two arms with claws suitable for picking up sea treasure or recalcitrant monsters. The sub is well-built, using fairly generic parts to good effect, and doesn't have any glaring flaws such as huge gaps in the cockpit. It isn't very detailed but it also isn't the main focus of this kit.

The crab is a brick-built monster that defends the temple. Again, the construction is simple and elegant, not over-doing it but providing a nice little "bad-guy" counterpoint to the submarine. The pieces used are fairly generic and useful and it looks good and is somewhat poseable. I guess in the Lego Atlantis storyline, the monster sea creatures like this crab are actually machines, or so the stickers would suggest. I don't really like stickers on Lego, so I left several of them off where I felt they weren't essential.

The city itself, or rather, temple, is a pretty good representation of the facade of a Greek temple, if that temple had been submerged underwater for some time and partially ruined. There is a broken column, some seaweed, a locked gate, a treasure chest, and an arch. The temple's roof is just two narrow plates, but from the front it looks good. It's fairly obvious that a Lego kit such as this would never include proper walls or an enclosing roof, but given the constraints the overall look is quite good.

There are several booby-traps in the temple; the archway leading to the steps has an axe that can swing down; there is a trap-door, and the column that isn't ruined is hinged so that it can fall over (I suppose that might not be a proper trap, per se). There are also two flick-fire missiles in the roof of the temple but I'd rather pretend those aren't there.

One thing that strikes me as odd about these traps is that given the underwater setting, traps which rely on gravity (falling axe, trap door, falling column) seem pretty out of place. Couldn't an invader just swim down from above? In fact, that's the most likely angle of attack anyway, given that the good guys have a submarine. Maybe those traps are left over from when Atlantis wasn't submerged? One can only guess.

I've left the most interesting detail of this kit until last. This kit, like several other Atlantis sets, features a "key" which can be used to unlock a secret. At the base of the temple steps there is a round pedestal which turns freely, until the key is in place; when the key is in place turning the key causes the statue minifig to pop up from under a trap door. This little mechanism is quite nice and very fun to play with (statue goes up, statue goes down, statue goes up...). I think many fantasy creations besides "Atlantis" could use a mechanism like this and can foresee this sort of feature becoming an element in one of my future creations. It's all connected underneath with Technic parts, so it should be easy enough to extend into any kind of complicated machinery.

Overall, I find that this is a very well-designed kit. Many of the Atlantis kits didn't interest me and I avoided the theme until now. This set, however, is quite nice. The pieces are almost all universally useful. It is a good source of white parts, especially the grooved round bricks that make up the columns. The minifigs are good. The kit is well-designed with lots of interesting play features. My only complaint is the stickers. I still find it annoying when parts require stickers. I understand that this keeps the price down, but to me putting a sticker on a piece is almost as bad as painting a piece or cutting one. Don't ask me to explain that, I know it's irrational.