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Friday, 31 October 2014

My Favourite Day of the Year - Hallowe'en!

I don't know what happened to the way people spell it, but I'm sticking with Hallowe'en. It's indicative of its origins as All Hallow's Evening. A few letters got taken out of 'evening' and so an apostrophe was used to replace them. That's true of all contractions, and so I don't see why it should be any different for Hallowe'en. Mind you, if they really wanted to be precise about it, I suppose it would be more like:
'hallow'e'en'
I guess it's a bit bulky to have four apostrophes though. Never mind the fact that a large number of people don't know the difference between there, their, and they're, so that many apostrophes in a single word would have been a nightmare. Imagine if we used an apostrophe for every single letter that was missing in our contractions! Of course, I will never for the life of me understand where the word "won't" came from. That's not a contraction of anything. We certainly don't say "wo not" if we say it straight out. It's supposed to mean "will not" and to me the contraction should then be "willn't" and that sounds silly even to my own ears. Maybe at one time that was used, along with words like "whilst" and such. Then again, I used that word recently - possibly in my last blog post, but I don't remember exactly.

Not that any of that has to do with Hallowe'en (there, I did it again), but that's a normal segue for me. I meander down strange and looping paths.

Having grown up with Trick-or-Treat as part of every year of my childhood, I was more than a little surprised to learn a few years ago that it's only popular in North America. The day itself is based on very, very old religious stuff, but the candy thing is all on this side of the world. In fact, I was even more surprised when I learned that Canada is the country that is apparently responsible for it as we know it today. The first real trick-or-treating supposedly began in Alberta of all places. Not the sort of area where you'd expect it, really, with the whole cowboy reputation they've got over there. Not that it's actually like that in a lot of places. Calgary may have its stampede, of which I heartily disapprove (I'm not fond of spurs being raked into animals myself), but for the most part Calgary and Edmonton are shiny urban cities. Lots of modern buildings and the like. I ought to know, seeing as I lived in Edmonton for far too long.

Oil refineries are the thing in Edmonton, and since the whole geography of the province is being destroyed by Stephen Harper and the oil sands being processed, I doubt very much that I'll ever be back there. Y'all thought the chemical spill in West Virginia was a big deal? You should see the spills they have there! In June of 2013 a pipeline leaked 9.5 million litres of industrial waste water. How does that compare to West Virginia? Well, their leak was 28,000 litres. Yeah. Alberta's was about 340 times the size. Killed off boreal forest (like the taiga in Russia), and affected about 103 acres of land. According to a database report obtained by Global News (a Canadian media company), there have been over 61,000 pipeline incidents in the last 37 years. But for some reason we want to put in the Keystone XL pipeline so Americans can have their oil. In fact, the vast majority of the politicians in my country's government have voted to press on with it. Not surprising, and the reason I will never vote liberal or conservative again - we have another major party in Canada, which is the NDP, or New Democrats, but we have a whole slew of smaller ones, too.

Okay, so I did a wild detour from the subject at hand, I know, but really there isn't all that much to say about Hallowe'en in and of itself. It's fun for kids, and it's a time of religious significance to anyone who celebrates and follows the earth-based religions. I've had friends who were Wiccan, Druid and Pagan. I studied the Wiccan religion at one time, myself. It was interesting, and is about 28,000 years older than Christianity, so I figured maybe it had a little more legitimacy than the more popular religions today, but I wasn't about to prance around skyclad (otherwise known as 'naked') to honour the Goddess, Diana. Of course, it all boiled down to the fact that I simply wasn't a follower or a believer in any of them. I'm a spiritual person in a lot of ways, but it comes down to morality more than it does any written texts - which is maybe a bit funny coming from someone who cherishes books so much. That kind of thing has to come from within, though. My whole spirituality is based on doing what I honestly believe is the right thing. Not that I'm always successful, but I do have a conscience that leads me. More than I can say for the zealots who are persecuting anyone who isn't of their personal faith.

So why is Hallowe'en my favourite day of the year? Well, it is a day that I do feel a spritual connection to, though maybe it's more the season. In my childhood and young adulthood, it was almost always the day that I experienced the first snowfall of the season. Maybe I'm 'misremembering' it, but that was how it seemed even then. I specifically remember some years where I was out walking in the wee hours (my night owl tendencies have been with me my entire life) and the first flakes would flutter down past my face. Now, I can't start getting all poetic because it just isn't my style. Sardonic would be a closer approximation if we had to put a label on it. I just loved the crisp air, the beautiful leaves of my home town (Huntsville, Ontario - a stunningly gorgeous place for seeing the fall colours), and the smell of woodsmoke on the air.

It was cold by then back in those days. Now we live in southern Ontario, and despite the fact that we're still in Canada we're actually farther south than most of the Canadian border. I don't like it. I miss the north. Global warming has had a hand in it, too. It's nowhere near as cold as it used to be, on average. We might get one cold year that would compare to an average year twenty years ago, but in general the winters are much warmer. Last year's polar vortex? According to The Weather Network it wasn't any colder than a regular winter a couple of decades ago, but suddenly schools were being closed because of the 'extreme temperatures.' Little do they remember!

I remember one winter in Huntsville that was so harsh, that even with a block heater and a battery blanket you were lucky if your car started. If you're from a warmer climate, you probably don't even know what block heaters and battery blankets are. Wikipedia's description of a block heater:
The most common type is an electric heating element in the cylinder block, connected through a power cord often routed through the vehicle's grille.
Battery blankets wrap around your battery, and plug in to keep the battery at a decent temperature. Our temperatures during one cold snap went down to minus 50 Celsius, which converts to minus 58 Fahrenheit. That was before the wind chill factor. It was minus 70 with the wind chill (minus 94 for my American readers). No, I'm really not kidding. It's not like we were living really far up north or anything either. Huntsville is nowhere near as far north as Edmonton is. In fact, it's also very far below most of the Canadian border if you care to look at a map. You might even have heard of it from when the 36th G8 summit was held there in 2010. Its global coordinates are 45° 20′ 0″ N, 79° 13′ 0″ W, whereas the large part of the Canadian border sits at around the 49th parallel, 4 degrees further north, which is actually quite the distance in global terms.

Temperatures like those will cause your engine block to crack. Even a lot of the antifreeze we use up here can be useless against that kind of cold. Some of the most expensive stuff will only guarantee protection down to about minus 36 or 37.

So, again...why is Hallowe'en my favourite day? I think the more I try to explain it, the less enticing it sounds, even to me. However, I do actually enjoy winter. Mostly because I'm indoors for almost all of it now. There's something so homey and inviting about thoughts of snow outside and perhaps hot chocolate inside, with a good book of course. Hallowe'en is the day when I can feel that coming. I've still got the warmth outside, with the beautiful leaves on all the maple trees, but it evokes the silence of winter. There I go waxing semi-poetic again, but winter is so obviously quiet and I do love my silence. Snow, whether on the ground or in the air, muffles a lot of the sounds we're subjected to in the city. The cars aren't as loud, unless they're crashing into one another on icy roads. People talking and yelling get muffled and absorbed. It's nature's soundproofing.

Maybe you wonder what's so appealing about silence, and quite frankly most people can't stand not having some sort of noise around them. They like having the TV on 'for company' apparently. Why do people need company so badly? Why don't they like to hear their own thoughts. I rather enjoy mine. (So much so, that I inflict those thoughts on everyone else, such as when I write my blog postings.) My best creativity comes from the wee hours, when people in my apartment building are mostly bedded down for the night, and I know it's not bloody likely anyone would have the nerve to knock on my door. No phone calls from people I don't wish to hear from - the people I do like hearing from know it's actually the best time to call me.

Silence is one reason I'm so entranced by ferrets. The only sounds they make are happy little chirps and squeaks (called dooking). They'll squeal when they're in serious trouble (like when one is being bitten by another one a little too hard), but generally the decibel level is very low. You'll never have neighbours complaining about the noise from them. Cats & dogs people will complain about, especially if you have a cat that goes into heat, or a dog that's always barking.

I do love the costume part of Hallowe'en, though, and some of the very few happy memories I have from childhood are based on the costumes I wore. I created a 'Ms. Pacman' costume one year. I had two big cardboard pieces that I cut into the right shape, and then wrapped yellow material around them with me in the middle. I even had little ghosts dangling in front of the mouth. No other kid had a costume even close to that. Most were wearing the pre-made pieces of crap they sell in the stores. No creativity and ingenuity - just money spent.

Of course, I was used to having to make and wear costumes. Or my grandmother made them for me. Figure skating required a lot of them. What people see on TV is only a tiny portion of what figure skaters do on the ice. Ice Capades will give you a larger perspective. We had a skating carnival every year, and quite often every one of us were in many different numbers. I had solos as well, and a few quick-changes (much like stage actors do). There were group numbers and duets that I had to perform in as well. Each had a different costume. I was a pink panther one time, a chicken another time, an owl, a rag doll, Pinocchio, Minnie Mouse, you name it. There were also competitions that required costumes. It was how I learned I was allergic to Noxema and Elastoplast bandages. So much make-up to take off with creams that turned my skin bright red with bumps all over it, and being Pinocchio required a long nose that used flesh-coloured first-aid tape to stick it to my face. It wasn't until the nose was peeled off that the rash became obvious.

I loved the costumes. I wasn't much for the 'win-this-competition-or-else' part of things, but the costumes were fun. This is the only time of year where I have a vague wish that I was more social face-to-face, so there would be a Hallowe'en party I could go to in costume, or I could host one where a few people might show up. I guess they have the public ones where you can buy a ticket, so that's an option I suppose.

I do have one really weird memory of a Hallowe'en that will stick with me for the rest of my life. It's one of those, "You haven't lived until..." moments. For me anyway. I wasn't actually in a costume, but I was dressed up 'to the nines' as they call it, which my friends laughingly said might as well have been a costume since it wasn't my normal wear. I was at a bar in my home town. One friend was a bouncer there at the time, and my other friend was also a bouncer part-time, but he wasn't working that night. Well, wouldn't you know it but that I got hit on. Here's the strange part. The guy who hit on me wasn't hitting on me for himself, but for his friend who wasn't quite brave enough to take on the risk himself. This friend who was taking the decisive action happened to be dressed as a woman. It was more than little surreal. Especially when it came out that they had apparently 'called dibs' on me. Uh, what? The whole thing was probably really insulting if I think about it, but I've never been able to do anything but laugh at the experience. I was hit on by a man...dressed as a woman...for his friend...who was too chicken to approach me himself...but he got 'dibs' on me. Again I say, uh, what?

In case you're wondering about my response to the above approach, it wasn't in the affirmative. I've got no interest in someone who won't approach me on their own. It's one thing if they met me through a friend, and didn't have a way to contact me. That's happened to me any number of times, and I'm okay with them asking the mutual friend to talk to me. How else are they going to reach me? I'm not always going to be interested, obviously, but I'm never mean about it if they're decent guys. I probably come off pretty blunt and harsh in my writing, but I honestly hate hurting or humiliating anyone. It takes guts to tell someone you're attracted to them.

So, those are the best of my Hallowe'en thoughts and memories. I hope everyone stays safe, happy and healthy for this really cool day. Happy Hallowe'en everyone!!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Appendix, and Other Organs You Thought Were Useless

A few years ago I got a bee in my bonnet about vestigial organs - organs that a species has no use for, and that have often shrunk or disappeared as the species evolved. It all started with a movie, as my weird 'thinks' often do. I was watching something called Lake Placid, which is actually a really funny movie. Betty White and Oliver Platt just killed it for me. "If I had a dick, this is where I would tell you to suck it!" Pretty much the ultimate Betty White line. Ever. Sorry for going off on a tangent, but it's what I do best, and quite frankly that's probably my all-time favourite movie. A lot of people didn't see it, because most figured it was a horror movie with a crocodile, which is a pretty lame concept. The people who marketed the movie that way should have been shot, or fired, whichever is easiest, because it was a comedy from start to finish.

In the movie Oliver Platt's character, Hector Cyr, talks about crocodiles having nictitating lenses. Having had pet cats for many years, I already knew what they were, but for anyone who doesn't have cats or hasn't made the connection (or maybe their cats don't fall asleep upside down like some of mine have), they're a second set of eyelids. You'll see them in cats when their outer lids fall open while they're sleeping, and the inner ones remain closed. Sounds like something from the first Men in Black movie, I know, but there are a lot of creatures on this earth that have them. Birds, crocodiles, etc. In birds they're meant to be closed while they're in flight, because it keeps the dust and debris from getting into their eyeballs. The lids are very thin so they can see shadows and such, but they can't see with any detail when they're closed.

So what's the connection with the appendix you ask? Well, the first connection is that humans actually have vestigial nictitating lenses. If you look at the inner corner of your eye you'll see a tiny lump of tissue. It used to be a second eyelid, or was intended to be at any rate, but we didn't need them. I don't know if it's because we don't spend a lot of time in the water, or that we don't move fast enough on our own to get that kind of debris in our eyes, but whatever the reason we've evolved to where we don't have them.

Now the second part of the connection has to do with the common misconception that the appendix is a vestigial organ, and to be fair even the doctors and scientists believed this to be true until recently. They didn't believe we needed it, or that it was used for anything, but it turned out that we actually do. The purpose of the appendix is somewhat gross to explain, but then a lot of fascinating topics are more than a little bit disgusting. The appendix stores and protects beneficial bacteria for those uncomfortable times when we experience severe diarrhea. Our intestines need that bacteria, particularly when recovering from bad bacteria that made us sick, so the appendix keeps some tucked away until the episode has passed - no pun intended - and then reintroduces it into the intestines that so rudely shoved out the bacteria in the first place. Once reintroduced it doesn't take long for it to multiply back to its former levels.

Sure, we can do without the appendix, but like any other organ in the body, we're better off having it in place usually. The spleen, gallbladder and tonsils, along with a single kidney, can be removed as well, but we're still better off with all our parts in order. After all, the kidney is such a vital organ that we require two of them to operate at peak efficiency when it comes to voiding the toxins and useless liquid wastes in our body. If our spleen gets damaged, however, it can be necessary to remove it to prevent a patient from bleeding to death really fast. Unless these necessary organs get damaged or severely infected, removal is just stupid.

Now there's no particular reason I decided to ramble about this tonight. It all popped into my head without so much as a by-your-leave, so I just went with it. If the topic were a little more important and interesting, one might actually call it inspiration. Instead this is more likely to be termed cerebral flatulence. There are days when I write about things that are important in life, but then there are days like this where I just feel like sharing knowledge about things no one really wanted to know. I actually had a friend once who told me I should write a book about thing nobody ever wanted to know. The idea stuck with me, despite the fact that it would obviously be a wasted effort if people really didn't want to know any of those things. Why the hell would they buy the book then? Still, the suggestion has lasted in my brain for the last 25 years or so, so maybe I'll write it just for the hell of it.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Terror, Stress and Mayhem...and a Few Changes, Too

Okay, I've been shamefully remiss. I get that. It's very bad blog practice to leave your readers hanging for long stretches, as they tend to move on to more productive bloggers. For those who have remained to see what I have to say for myself, there is a great deal to cover.

Where I left off...well, I went back to school in an esoteric, online sort of way. I'm still taking my online classes through MIT, which would be plenty to stress me out I suppose. I'm taking two classes in computer science, rather than the four classes a full-time student would be taking. Technically I've already passed the one course, though I'm not yet finished with it. I still have two more lecture groups to go through, homework assignments from the previous two, and one final problem set. Plus I have my final exam which is probably worth a quarter of my final mark. However, with everything I've done so far, my grade is at 66% I think. If I stopped completely I believe I would still pass. That's a bit of a relief in one sense, but I'm pretty hard on myself and intend to finish it out as best I can.

The real issue has been the fact that I've had a very sick ferret for a few weeks. He stopped eating and drinking, and had very bad diarrhea. They already poop about 6 to 8 times a day, so when they have the runs you can imagine how much poop that might be for clean-up detail. I couldn't care less about that, though. I was too busy syringe-feeding Pepper every two hours. I have this stuff the vet gave me, called Carnivore Care (ferrets are obligate carnivores, and can only eat meat - cats are, too, but most people don't know that). It's a very expensive powder that gets mixed with water to varying consistencies, depending on feeding method. Well, it was expensive for the 70-gram pouch anyway. That was almost $40. I found out they had bigger packages, which were 340 grams (almost five times the amount), and they're only $55. I was shocked at the price difference, as was my vet. So the last time I was in there, which was on Friday, I got the bigger bag. The bigger one should last me about a month. The small one lasted a week, so we're talking $140 a month to keep him on this stuff if I hadn't done a bit of research.

Pepper was exhibiting a lot of the same symptoms as my ferret that died a year and a half ago, so I was quite literally terrified. I thought I was going to lose him. However, I checked him for masses, and then my vet did, too, but he doesn't appear to have any. We both think it's an intestinal infection. He was put on one type of antibiotic right when he was starting to show interest in his kibble again, and it made him really sick within a couple of days so I was back to square one with him refusing to eat and being skin and bones again. I had to take him off that, but I did check with the emergency clinic first (it was a holiday weekend here in Canada - our Thanksgiving).

When I brought Pepper back in for a blood test, he was getting healthier again already, and now he's on a different antibiotic. This one doesn't seem to be making him sick, though I have to force him to take it. He completely hates it. If you've never had to scruff an animal that's wriggly like a ferret, in order to force-feed them by syringe when it's something they either despise or it makes them nauseous with the smell, it's hard for me to describe how difficult it can be. You have to be heartless about it, and the only way to do that when you feel empathy toward animals is by loving them so much you refuse to let them die.

Without intervention Pepper would have died, there's no question. It happens extremely fast with ferrets, too. Within a couple of days they can be nothing but skin and bones. Their high metabolic rate means they constantly have to be ingesting calories. They eat about six times a day. Once they stop, what little body fat they have just disappears. Pepper had become a skeleton with a very thin fur coat. That's another thing that changes with the health of a ferret. You can see it in their fur. It got to the point where Pepper looked nothing like himself. His face completely changed. My vet used the word 'gaunt' which is probably the most appropriate description.

My vet couldn't draw any blood from him, sadly. She said it was only the second time in 27 years that she'd failed to get a blood sample from a ferret, and it's not as though he was completely dehydrated at that point, either. I'd been syringe-feeding him for a couple of weeks by then. She said she's had ferrets that weren't even moving they were so dehydrated, so he must have really tiny veins. She'd like to try again, just for us to be sure this isn't something that going to be a chronic issue that needs treatment beyond antibiotics. I think I'm going to wait a few weeks, though, now that Pepper is starting to plump up again, and he's certainly getting his appetite back whenever there's chicken involved.

I'm still syringe-feeding him the Carnivore Care. I've got a good supply of it, and he badly needs to gain weight. Our other ferret, Scooter, loves the stuff. When I have a syringe that's only been partially finished by Pepper, I give the rest to Scooter. He's packing on quite a bit of weight, and his coat is gorgeous now. No, he's not actually getting fat, though I do call him my fat-boy. It's almost unheard of for a ferret to become overweight. They burn calories too quickly.

The end result of it all is that Pepper is slowly putting some weight back on, which means he's getting better, and the diarrhea seems to have gone away. He's been on the new antibiotics for about four days now, with six days to go. I'll be glad when that's over with, because I hate forcing him. It's a liquid, and I have to squirt it toward the back of his throat in order to be sure he swallows it rather than drools it back out. The danger is that animals can aspirate liquids when they're being syringe-fed - especially when they're struggling not to swallow it. It's quite possible to drown them without intending to, so it has to be done at an angle. Same with the food, even when they really like it and they're cooperating.

In the meantime, everyday life will intrude even under the most dire circumstances. I've got websites to maintain and change, I've got show stuff to work on to try to keep us on the air (our station is not broadcasting at this time, and there's no guarantee they will in the future, so we're making some changes to do it on our own for now), and I've got my schoolwork. This is why there haven't been any new articles or blog posts from me for weeks now. Thankfully the people in my life that I have to answer to - to some extent anyway - completely understand my commitment to my pets. I would still do whatever I had to do, with or without their understanding, but it eases the stress to know they're behind me when I make those choices.

I actually blew one of my assignments for my MIT course, because I couldn't concentrate (feedings every 2 hours means almost no sleep, just like having a newborn). I was at the point where it just didn't matter a damn to me. Thankfully they wipe out your lowest assignment score, because all my other assignments had 100%, and my mid-term was 87%, and this one I failed with 41%. That tells you where my priorities are anyway. It didn't help that it was multiple choice, rather than coding. That's where I fell down on my mid-term, too. I hate multiple choice. They're wishy-washy, when they use terms that haven't been covered in the course, and you only get one shot at answering them. I can test my code on my computer before submitting it, and correct any mistakes, so I get those ones right.

I've got a lot of catching up to do with my life right now, including my writing. I've got studying to do, because I'm behind on the lectures and homework. The assignments have due dates, so I've done those, but I haven't bothered doing the day-to-day stuff that doesn't have a deadline. I let everything go that I could, in order to get as much downtime as possible.

There are going to be small changes to The Kovacs Perspective, by the way, but I'll fill everyone in on that as soon as we've worked out the details. I have to make some changes to the website to accommodate what we're having to do, and I'm just now getting the time to work on it. We were hoping we wouldn't have any downtime at all, but when Pepper got sick he became my priority.

For those of you who have stuck around to continue reading, thank you for your support and understanding. For those that didn't, though they won't read this, I do understand why they're not still here. It's the nature of the beast when it comes to blogging. I went from posting every single day, to posting maybe once a month. Hopefully that will change in the near future. I've still got the second programming course coming up, but I'm kind of in a rhythm there now and getting used to the one day a week where my head goes nuts. Oh, wait, I forgot...that happens every day in my head.