Sunday, December 30, 2012

Behind Every Story is a Kernel of Truth

The desire to own a part of history is probably as old as man himself. Reality television is replete with shows—Canadian/American Pickers, Pawn Stars, American Restoration and the like—that attest to this. The Victorians were obsessed with all things Egyptian. It wasn’t uncommon for the wealthy to purchase and display mummies in their own homes or host mummy unwrapping parties (History), the craze for which continues and was documented in the short-lived television series Treasure Trader. Anything ancient, it seems, is worth collecting, even fossilized dinosaur feces, which was recently sold at auction on Auction Kings (Discovery).

The problem with procuring artifacts such as these (though technically, the dinosaur poop cannot be called an artifact as it was not manufactured or modified by people—unless you call the turning of the fossil into a commodity a modification) is that it is regulated. There are laws in place regarding who may legally excavate these materials. And make no mistake about it, picking an artifact up from the ground knowing it is from a potential archaeological (or paleontological) site is considered excavation, even if it the item lay on the surface when you found it.

I can remember in the early days of the Internet finding a bottle collector’s website. Though he posted some amazing diagnostic tools, his site read, primarily, like a how-to for bottle hunters. As a practicing archaeologist, I engaged the man in a digital debate that I had no expectation of winning. Though I tried to educate him on the evil of his way, the man relied on his pot hunting to make a living. One has to look no further than SpikeTV’s American Digger to see how to do this for a living.

I was an archaeologist for about a decade of my life, and though I can say that in those ten years I never worked on a site that had been vandalized, I was sickened at the stories I heard from my colleagues. Most of my work was on public archaeological sites. This meant the sites were open to the public with the intent to educate them on the importance of the archaeological record. Unfortunately, most people didn’t get the lesson we were trying to teach. In PHASE SHIFT, the main character, archaeologist and university professor Molly McBride laments,

On archaeological sites someone always comes around and asks if you’ve found any gold yet. It’s inevitable. Tell me something, I’ve always been dying to say, when you move house how much gold do you leave behind? Instead I smile, and try to educate them on the fact that archaeology is not about the money. What’s more valuable is the information artifacts give us about what went on while the site was occupied all those years ago, regardless of their material of manufacture.
An observation that’s altogether too true. When I worked on The Trinity Bellwoods/Gore Vale Site in downtown Toronto, almost once a day someone would come by and ask if I’d found anything valuable yet. My own grandfather used to tease me about this each and every time he saw me, something which exasperated me to no end. In case you’re wondering, I never did find any gold and any of the coins I found were too old and too damaged to have been worth much of anything.

The nugget for this blog was mined from an article published on the LiveScience website about a fossil dealer who was prosecuted for smuggling dinosaur remains. The article reminded me of the stories I’d heard regarding plundered Ontario archaeological sites and how powerless archaeologists felt to do anything about it but to hire round-the-clock security guards on an already stretched budget (something Molly does to protect the TTC site in the as yet unpublished THE NEXT COMING RACE). Prosecuting looters is a difficult task as it is tough to prove in court as it often happens under the cover of night and without witness. In 1985 the July/August issue of ArchNotes carried an article by William A. Fox documenting the first case of the successful prosecution of looters to a site, but that case involved witnesses and police involvement. Had the looting been carried out by a stranger rather than a neighbour of the property owner, the case might have ended differently.

When I read the LiveScience article, I thought of the first chapter of THE NEXT COMING RACE, the book to follow the recently published PHASE SHIFT. In it, protagonist Dr. Molly McBride enlists local archaeologists to participate in cyber-stalking to determine when local bands of pot-hunters will loot abandoned sites in order to conduct raids to scare them off in an attempt to protect the archaeological record. As this is the first chapter in the novel, it sets into motion the main plot and the threads of two sub-plots that (I promise) eventually come together and make sense in the long run. The main plot supposes an archaeological site is found during the excavation for expansion of Toronto’s subway system. The sub-plots are the raids on the looters and Palmer’s involvement in a case of forensics with the police department. Please click on the link to read, and enjoy.

If you like Molly and Palmer, you can download PHASE SHIFT, my first published novel featuring these characters from my web site,, for the price of a Facebook post or tweet. Molly and Palmer are also featured in two novellas available at or entitled THE MUMMY WORE COMBAT BOOTS (largely about Palmer and DC Michael Crestwood), and THROWAWAY CHILD (featuring Molly, Palmer and Michael). Happy reading.

Note for Once Upon A Time fans: I cast my characters when I write in order to help me imagine the scene as well as to keep my character descriptions consistent throughout a work. As you read this chapter from THE NEXT COMING RACE, try to imagine OUAT’s Robert Carlyle in the role of Dr. Palmer Richardson and (not an OUAT alumni, but he played Lois Lane’s father on Smallville and has been a favourite Canadian actor of mine since the first V series) Michael Ironside in the role of DC Michael Crestwood.

Works Cited
Discovery. Auction Kings: Dino Poo. 2012. . 30 December 2012. (Video)

Fox, William A. The Freelton/Misner Site Looting and Prosecution. ArchNotes. July/August 1985. . 30 December 2012. (Newsletter)

History. Mummy Unwrapping Parties. 1996-2012. . 30 December 2012. (Video)

Parry, Wynne. Dealer Pleads Guilty to Smuggling in Largest International Dino Case Ever. LiveScience. 29 December 2012. . 30 December 2012. (eZine)

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Fan is an Enthusiastic Devotee...

When I was younger I was, admittedly, a fan girl. I can remember having more than 200 pictures of Gregory Harrison posted on my bedroom walls when I was twelve. As a teenager, it was Simon LeBon of Duran Duran. I’ve seen them in concert a total of four times and own every album they’ve ever recorded. Ditto The Human League. But those were the days before the advent of The Internet, when the only fans you connected with were your friends or the people in the audience. Though we argued over whether Simon was hotter than Roger or Nick, there was no debating our love for the music.

I’m also a Star Trek fan. I collect memorabilia, everything from action figures to decorative plates. I’ve watched every television episode and movie multiple times and connected with actors and other “Trekkers” at conventions. We disagree over which Trek is best, which captain is most commanding and whether Romulans or Klingons have the ability to kick the most Federation butt, but the atmosphere at these gatherings is congenial.

My first foray into online fandom occured nearly ten years ago now I joined Nick Mancuso’s Yahoo group, which ultimately led to my meeting the actor, an experience which I will never forget. While I was active in the group, I was surprised at the vehemence many of the fans brought to it. Though we knew the actor tuned in from time to time, some of the members felt no compunctions posting unfavourable criticisms of his work, critiquing his choice of scripts and his acting ability in a voice that could be described as anything but constructive. Other members used the group as a forum to spew racist remarks at which some of the fans (including myself) took umbrage to the point of bowing out of the group. At times I was surprised Mr. Mancuso didn’t do the same.

The idea for this blog post came after a similar experience regarding fans of ABC’s Once Upon a Time in which people who are so passionate about the show they are willing to post artwork, fan fiction, critiques and predictions about it online for the whole world to see, only for some to be shot down for their admiration in the most horrific way.

In planning for this blog, I returned to the dictionary definition of “fan”, which is: “an enthusiastic devotee, follower, or admirer of a sport, pastime, celebrity”. pinpoints the origin of the word to 1885-1890 as an “Americanism; short for fanatic”. Synonyms include “supporter, enthusiast [and] addict”. Another definition it gives is “a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal” (emphasis added).

What strikes me as most interesting about this definition is the synonym “addict” and the fact that a fan typically has an “uncritical” zeal. Many people who blog about OUaT are anything but uncritical, both of the show and of their fellow “fans”. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and as an opinion is made with insufficient grounds to produce complete certainty (, an opinion can never be wrong. An opinion can be formulated based on ignorance or misinterpretation of fact, but it can never be wrong because, by definition, it is based on uncertain grounds. What this means is that if I thing Belle and Hook would make a better ship than Belle and Gold, that’s my opinion. You can disagree, but I am not wrong because this is my personal view. (I don’t by the way. I so love seeing Gold thrown off kilter as he tries to figure out how to win and keep Belle’s favour.)

As a mature adult, I may think that someone is off his rocker for even suggesting Belle be shipped with anyone other than Gold, but I must voice my opinion in a way that expounds my personal view without personally attacking anyone whose opinion differs from mine. This all goes back to my previous post which discussed online personas. I can make a name for myself as a diplomat who is willing to engage in an adult discussion of fact without devolving into schoolyard name calling, or I can make a name for myself as a foul-mouthed, narrow-minded dictator who is unwilling to allow for any opinion other than the one I’ve formed for myself. As I told the student who used Twitter as a sounding board which included a lot of unkind epithets directed at my teaching ability, there are ways to express your frustration without resorting to swearing and personal attacks.

I love the online debate that ensues as a result of the twists and turns Kitsis and his staff throw at OUaT’s fan base, but I could do without the swearing, name-calling and personal attacks. And while I’m sure those who see themselves in this blog will no doubt take umbrage in its posting and wind up throwing a few of those epithets my way, I am, like so many of you out there, sticking my neck out to post this nevertheless.

I leave you with the following two quotes, which I think sum this post up nicely:

Can we all get along?” (Rodney King, I believe)
If you can’t say something nice, shh, say nothing.” (Thumper)

Graphic from

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Anonymity and the Net

There is an inherent sense of anonymity built in to all modes of social media. This can be a good thing if your aim is to create an online persona in the event you wish to publish under a pseudonym, tweet as a character you have created in your writing, or post under your maiden name to avoid online detection of private status updates by your teenaged students. In most cases, however, the anonymity afforded by many online sites becomes a mask behind which those who disparage others hide. Perhaps the most frequent use of social media to this end is in cyberbullying. When I was a youth, bullying took place face to face, we always knew the identification of our tormentors, and there was a serious threat to our physical well-being in addition to our emotional well-being. Teachers felt free to ignore our reports, and telling us to ignore the bully and s/he would go away was classified as "doing something" about the problem.

Welcome to the new millennium where online bullying runs rampant, partially due to the anonymity factor, but also because it is easy for cruel jests to get sucked into the black hole that is cyberspace where they are lost to all but a select few who know their way around and who have precious time on their hands to uncover those small lumps of coal within the diamond mine that social media can be. Unfortunately, there is more publicity about Amanda Todd stories than positive ones about young people utilizing social media to exact social change. One example of this might be to use these sites to report incidences of cyberbullying rather than LOLing, retweeting or +1ing them. And while zero tolerance for bullying policies now extend beyond the confines of the schoolyard and into physical and online communities, it takes a strong-willed, sensitive principal to follow cyberbreadcrumbs and get to the bottom of reported cases of cyberbullying with as much zeal and sense of responsibility as they do for offline bullying.

Surprisingly, adults are not immune to the effects of online bullying. Teachers have been suffering through it every day of late, as people of all ages and from all walks of life lend their cybervoices to teacherbash with increased frequency. Web sites like RateMyTeacher give students and parents of said students from elementary through post-secondary a forum to lie about their teachers, blaming them as the root cause of all their problems--real or imagined--anonymity guaranteed. Sounds like a sweet deal, until you consider that poor teachers are not given the opportunity to confront their cowardly accusers. Isn't the right to confront one's accusers a basic tenet of some constitution or other?

The problem is, teachers deal with immaturity every day. They battle with children in adult sized bodies who refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions. If they fail, the teacher doesn't like them, or she's a hard marker; it has nothing to do with the fact that they arrive late, talk or tune out during lessons, and leave everything until the last minute when there is no time left to produce any sort of passable work. In their anger at getting into trouble, parents having been notified, or the realization that the month of July will be spent in credit recovery, social media becomes a handy outlet to besmirch the professionalism of the teacher. It is an opportunity to rally friends and family around you in cyberspace for a huge digital "there, there", an opportunity that teachers, in their professional maturity, are not afforded.

Though I don't advocate censorship of the net, I do advocate parental control of children using the net. Parents should make it a condition of their children owning a Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, etc., account that their parents are a part of their circle of friends, followers, and the like. This might make the children--and let's face it, teenagers are children--think twice before they post. They might not mind if their friends see the posts, they might not believe their teachers are intelligent enough to find their posts, but if they knew their parents (or worse, grandparents) were reading their posts, it's just possible that it might make a difference.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

419 - Critique

419 by Will Ferguson is this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner, so I thought I would read it to see the calibre of writing worthy of winning the Giller Prize. I wasn’t disappointed.

419 refers to Nigerian email scams. We’ve all received those emails requesting monetary assistance with the promise of a windfall in return. 419 explores the depths of what might happen when one responds to the emails and gets caught up in the web of deceit, fraud, and blackmail perpetrated by the scam baiters. In 419, a man commits suicide after losing his life savings, including the house. His daughter decides to avenge her father’s death and winds up being scammed herself.

The novel follows four storylines: Laura, the daughter of the man who has committed suicide; Winston, the perpetrator of the crime; Amina, a young, pregnant Nigerian girl; and Nnamdi, the young boy who falls for Amina, assumes responsibility for her child, and winds up being killed when he, too, is swept up in the business of 419. Laura and her family’s story is interesting, as is Winston’s and his involvement and cavalier attitude toward the 419 frauds he perpetrates. To him, people like Laura’s dad are rich, stupid Americans, ripe for the picking by anyone with the smarts to outwit them. Nnamdi’s story becomes interesting, too, but only after he joins Ironsi Egobia’s team of thugs and is tasked with getting rid of Laura after she becomes a thorn in his side. But the stories of Laura, Winston and Nnamdi’s demise are parenthesis to a confused middle story which sees the introduction of Amina and Nnamdi with no indication of how they fit into the grand scheme of the story.

I read about half of the novel in one sitting, unable to put down the discovery of Laura’s father’s demise, the family’s reaction, and the police detective who flirts with Laura. I continued reading as I learned the ins and outs of the 419 scams. The reader is gradually introduced to both Amina and Nnamdi as their chapters alternate with Laura’s and Winston’s which are all but lost as Amina and Nnamdi take the forefront. I found it difficult to keep reading after fifty or so pages after that and almost put the novel down because I could not see how the new characters fit in with the old. Trusting that Ferguson wouldn’t leave his readers hanging, I pressed on, and I wasn’t disappointed. Once the stories met up, the book morphed back into a page-turner and the end was worth the wait.

As with many books I’ve read, Ferguson is rewarded with The Giller Prize for doing something others have slapped my wrist for doing—introducing characters with no immediate connection to the story with which the novel was begun. The fact that Ferguson has enjoyed such acclaim with this structure renews my hope that there is nothing wrong with the stories I’ve been writing, and that, with persistence, I may find a publishing house yet.