Je Suis Tout

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The world is once again reeling form a series of terrorist attacks: Ivory Coast, Turkey (both Ankara and Istanbul) and now Brussels. That doesn’t even count the numerous slaughters carried out in the half dozen countries that bear the brunt of these atrocities – Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq – which John Kerry, in typical American hyperbole, has called genocide.

Some have noted that the attacks in Europe generate headlines in North America while attacks elsewhere are barely covered. I guess it depends on which news sources you rely on. I don’t seek these things out but I certainly see them on the front pages of the papers I read and on the radio stations I listen to. I don’t regularly watch TV news so I can’t speak to that. Whether you see it in social media, I think, probably is a reflection of who is in your circle of contacts.

To the extent that we do focus more on Europe, there is undoubtedly a lot of factors at play. Racism may be involved: it has long been noted that the news seems to consider one American (or Canadian) death to be twenty times as important as the death of a foreigner. Anytime there is a plane crash, they always lead with the number of local citizens who died. This may be more a case of nativism – I expect in China, they report Chinese deaths ahead of anyone else.

It may be that we focus on Europe both because they are more like us – mostly, though hardly exclusively, white with shared cultures and languages – but also because they are close to us physically. Lots of North Americans have been to Europe; lots of us have friends and family there. You can’t say the same for Africa, the Middle East or even South America – though obviously it’s true for those of our citizens whose families came from there. I suspect – though I never want to find out – that a terrorist attack in Mexico would generate massive news coverage in the United States.

And another factor is surveillance. Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America, is rife with CTV cameras. They are everywhere and watching everything. Whether they actually are effective in stopping crime is an open question, but they are excellent at reporting it. So much of the footage on the Brussels attacks came from those cameras or from the ubiquitous cell phone cameras that almost everyone in the west now has available. And it is not simply the availability of those cameras; it is the ease with which we can upload those images and videos to hundreds of web-sites. In other countries – where governments actually block such uploads and others have limited connectivity – those images are not available.

No images, no panicked faces, no ready access to tears equals diminished coverage. As they say: if it bleeds, it leads. When we do get coverage of attacks elsewhere, the predominant image is of bleeding bodies.

There is a certain irony I suppose. Our fear leads to surveillance; our freedom leads to the ready dispersal of news – both contribute to the impression that we only care about our own. And maybe that impression is true but even if it is not, it is hurtful. So, for today, I will try to think of all the people, on all sides of every conflict, who have been and will be innocent victims of senseless war.

#jesuistout.

And that’s ten minutes.

Changes

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It has been a busy week both North and South of the border and maybe it’s time to take a pause and try to figure out what it all means.

Donald Trump has declined to participate in the next GOP debate; Fox News decided to cancel it. Trump accomplishes two things by this tactic – he assumes the role of front runner and proves it by essentially being able to pick and choose where he will appear. He has nothing more to gain from the debates – all the insults have been doled out and Trump needs to start looking more Presidential which he can start to do. His supporters are certainly convinced but they don’t make up a majority of the Republican Party let alone the country. Unless he mends fences (rather than build walls) with women and minorities, his winning ways will likely come to an end in November.

Meanwhile, Barrack Obama has done the tactically smart thing – appoint a moderate for his nominee to the Supreme Court. Judge Garland has won praise from both sides of the great divide including from a number of current GOP Senators. Already a few moderates – among those few that are left – on that side of the house have indicated their desire to hold hearings, Mitch McConnell be damned. They may still block the appointment but are then faced with the unenviable prospect of facing a much more progressive nominee if Clinton (or Sanders) is elected and who knows what if Trump becomes President. There is no certainty that he will appoint a hard-line conservative to the bench. He is nothing if not unpredictable.

In Canada, our Senate will take on a significantly different face today with the appointment of seven new Senators. All will sit as independents though one, Peter Harder, will be the government representative with the job of moving legislation through the upper chamber. He is a long time and well-respected bureaucrat who led the transition team for Justin Trudeau – so mostly non-partisan but clearly sympathetic to the government. Of the rest, only one has a political background, a former Cabinet Minister in the Ontario NDP government some 20 years ago. The others include a former Olympian, Chantal Petitclerc, and the judge, Murray Sinclair, who recently headed up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with Indian Residential Schools. One impact of the appointments is to reduce the Conservative majority to a plurality – a change which was helped by the decision of four of their caucus to sit as independents.

Finally, the CBC has announced that it will no longer allow commenters on its news stories to remain anonymous. This follows the decision to moderate all stories on Indigenous people in order to get rid of racists. While some will complain that this silences those who fear for their jobs or friendships if their identity is known, it is a significant step forward for public civility. Maybe some of the trolls will find the courage to come out from under their bridges – if not, their voices surely will be missed by no one but themselves.

And that is a very public ten minutes.

 

The Nature of Evidence

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I tell this joke (which has recently been borrowed by Robert J. Sawyer for his excellent new novel, Quantum Night).

What is the difference between a psychopath and a homeopath? Some psychopaths do no harm.

That pretty much sums up my view of much of what is called alternative medicine – or what I call ‘not-medicine-at-all.’ I’ve said all this before so I won’t go on but I raise it because of a story done on CBC’s The Current yesterday.

The trigger for the segment was the decision of Health Canada not to approve homeopathic medicines for children unless they had been proven effective through double-blind scientific testing. In effect, they banned these substances.

Of course, the homeopaths and their organizations are outraged. In a gentle friendly kind of way. They were represented by a nice doctor who is a real M.D. but who also uses homeopathy. I was not surprised to learn that he practices on Denman Island in BC. Anyone who has ever been there will understand what I’m saying. He talked about his ‘experience’ giving homeopathic ‘medicines’ to children with colds. It was as effective (or more so, he claimed) than other remedies and helped avoid their side-effects or the excessive use of antibiotics. And, I’ll grant, that’s not a bad thing.

But only because other remedies are not any more effective than letting the cold run its course. And antibiotics don’t have any impact on viruses (the source of a cold) and lead to drug-resistant bacteria.

All well and good. The doctor uses placebos to calm the nerves of kids and especially their parents.

The host then interviewed a researcher who used to be a homeopath but gave up when tasked with reviewing the research into the practices he himself followed. The host asked why he stopped believing in homeopathy. He responded: the research showed it didn’t work. Yes, the host said, but why did you stop believing in homeopathy? It was at that point I blew my top. Which is the whole point of this blog.

The vast majority of journalists have no clue what science is. They think it a belief system and that a theory is just a darn good guess. Trained to think that every side has an equally valid point of view, they fail to understand that science is not a point of view, it is an evidence based form of inquiry designed to test the validity (or falsity) of a thesis. That is, I think this vial of agitated and highly diluted liquid (diluted to the point that there is nothing there) will immunize you against diseases. Let’s test that proposition. Oh my, there is no evidence to support it. Oh my, it doesn’t work.

The researcher turned away from homeopathy because the evidence proved it didn’t work. Really quite a simple concept. Yet, media outlets continue to give climate change deniers (though some have dropped those guys), anti-vaxers and homeopaths a platform to promote not only incorrect ideas but dangerous ones. People will actually suffer and die because of these ideas.

Just maybe, if you don’t understand science, you shouldn’t report on it. Oh, and that joke I started with? The researcher in question had to give up his work and retire early because he kept getting death threats. From gentle friendly homeopaths.

And that’s ten minutes.

Click on This!!!

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A man wrote 600 short essays. And you won’t believe what happened next!

We’ve all read the overheated headlines promising some amazing revelation of human nature. But human nature being what it is – the results are seldom amazing.

Still, hope springs eternal and, despite our determination never to be sucked in again, we click on the link of 25 pictures that broke the Internet. Most of them don’t even cause me to break into a smile.

Everything is designed to try to get you to follow the link to this or that site. And why? Well, apparently, the more people that visit a site, whether it is a pseudo-legitimate news site like Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post or much less reputable portals to a life poorly wasted, the more they can charge for the advertisements that appear on them. Because that’s what they really want you to click on. The endless ads, carefully (ha ha) selected to match your tastes and habits.

But I never click on the ads, you say. I’m not influenced by such things. I wonder how the advertising industry has managed to sustain a multi-billion dollar business if no one pays attention to ads.

But of course you do. Most of us can sing a dozen ad jingles from our childhood – back when jingles were a thing – but not a single number one hit of our teenage years. Of course, advertising has an impact. You may not notice it but every time you are looking at a shelf of nearly identical goods – especially if you are in a rush and aren’t really focused – you will almost always reach for the one whose name – whose brand – you recognize. And you will, from time to time, believe that you do so because it is better quality than its cheaper competitors.

Years ago, when I was in chemistry class, we did a blind experiment to see which detergent was best at removing dirt. We stained identical scraps of cloth with identical and carefully weighed samples of dirt and grease. We then washed them for identical periods of time in identical amounts of water.

Guess what? The cheapest brand did the worst job. But not by much. And the most expensive one was slightly worse than the one in the middle. And none of them did a worse job when it came to the naked eyes. That is you could weigh the remaining dirt but not see it.

Most of the students were outraged by the results; some because they wanted the cheap brand to do best, proving a corporate conspiracy. Others wanted the brands to do exactly as well as the price attached to them. Because that’s how the market works, right?

Actually the market works exactly like that – on false information and inflated expectations. All driven by advertising.

There are those that think money doesn’t make a difference in politics and cite studies to show that high spenders don’t always win. But when you consider that in a perfect world those high spenders would not even be in the running based on their non-monetary characteristics…

Click on this to learn the real story.

And that’s ten minutes.

Twitchy

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You’ve seen them. People with their faces buried in their devices as they drift down the street or grabbing their phone when if ‘bings’ – even if they are in the middle of a conversation. Their fingers drum impatiently on their desk if their computer takes a few seconds to boot up or connect. They growl when their texts or tweets or Facebook posts or Tumblr messages aren’t instantly answered. They hate waiting for anything; they don’t seem to know how to relax, even for a moment. Instant gratification gratified instantly.

You know who I’m talking about. The Twitchy generation.

Oh, not millennials or whatever generation comes next. A lot of them seem pretty laid back about everything – their love lives, their careers, the end of the world. They even read physical books. But that’s another story.

I’m talking about the forty-somethings (spreading into the fifty-somethings). They seem to think that history happened six months ago and the future had better get here pretty damn quick. And why can’t I get that show on Netflix!?

I think people under thirty actually understand that none of the programs which are supposed to connect our world really operate in quite the way they promised. At least their eye-rolls and shrugs when I ask them about it seem to suggest that.

No it’s the people who didn’t grow up with the highly connected and immediate (unmediated) world, that seem to have lost all sense of time, all sense of the slow changing nature of the world.

Take the current political world we live in. Nothing has really changed in the last fifty years. Governments have a life and elections – unless you are living in an unstable democracy or none at all – occur to a schedule. Presidents are almost never impeached; majority governments never fall before their allotted time.

Yet, to listen to the pundits, six months is an eternity. I saw a headline the other day asking if Justin Trudeau was the Teflon PM. For crying out loud, he’s been in office for less than four months – how much dirt do you think the world has generated in that time for any of it to stick? And as for delivering on his promises – why aren’t they all done right now? Why do we have to wait for consultation or debate or legislation or doing it right? If it isn’t here now it’s never coming, I tell you. Twitch.

Meanwhile in the USA people are moaning that Trump will be president and think how great/awful that will be. There won’t even be a vote for eight months. It’s not long but it’s not tomorrow. And when he gets there – if at all – all those things that he promised won’t arrive on February 1st. Twitch. Twitch.

I see this all the time. My boss – who is in his seventies – will leave a restaurant if there is a line of more than six to get in. My wife swears at her ancient computer every time it takes fifteen seconds to connect. People my age grumble whenever their favorite movie is rescheduled for a month – and heaven help George R.R. Martin if he delays his next book again.

We won’t stand for it. What do we want?  Everything and when do we want it? Now, goddamn it! Or yesterday.

Screw history. I want the future. And I want it before tomorrow.

Twitch. Twitch. Twitch.

And that’s ten minutes. Too late as usual.

Big Brother

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In 1948, George Orwell wrote one of the first dystopic SF novels. The horrors of Nazi Germany were evident and, slowly, the monstrous impact of Stalinism was becoming apparent. Orwell wrote 1984 as a cautionary tale of what totalitarianism might bring – even to supposedly safe places like England and America.

Nowadays, it might seem more like an instruction manual. We all know – and some are outraged – by the surveillance of the state of their own citizens. The omnipresent closed circuit televisions (CCTV) in England, where there is one camera for every eleven citizens is one symptom. The only people who seem to have benefited are the manufacturers of hoodies and Guy Fawkes masks. Edward Snowden revealed US spying on both their citizens and on their so-called allies. Relations between America and Germany became decidedly chill when it was claimed that Washington had tapped Andrea Merkel’s phone.

Right now, Apple is fighting with the FBI over the encryption of a single iPhone, that owned by mass murderer (and presumed terrorist), Sayed Farouk, who killed dozens in a California attack. The FBI says it needs the information to save lives; Apple argues that breaking encryption will put everyone’s privacy (and financial security) at risk.

Yet, our phones are already used against us. These days, Big Brother is sitting in our pockets. Apps on millions of electronic devices are streaming private information to China – to what end no one quite knows. Certainly, most of us willingly give up private information on Twitter and Facebook, and while many may grumble about targeted ads, we don’t stop engaging in the addiction that is social media. Some buy ad-blocker apps – but if you think they aren’t mining your activities for information, I’ve got a bridge in New York I’d like to sell you.

Social media fulfills yet another of Orwell’s predictions. With the death of evidence-based and fact-checked journalism – started by Fox News, but perfected by dozens of blogger based ‘news’ sites, social media has made sure that, for many people, Truth is Lies and War is Peace. Propaganda has become the new reality; simply listen to the current debates in the US presidential campaign and you know that some people have come to prefer the pleasing lie to the hard truth.

In Orwell’s day, a novelist could actually have an impact. His novels – both 1984 and Animal Farm – did wake people up to the dangers of totalitarianism in both its government and corporate form, though it hardly stopped millions of people from flocking to new charismatic leaders and causes.

Can anyone wake up America and Europe, where neo-fascist parties of both the right and left are gaining traction?

It won’t be a politician though it might be a philosopher. And angry shouts and shaking fists are not the alarm clock we need. Those are the weapons of the enemy.

If I seem despairing, I’m not. I have a lot of faith in people. I’ve seen communities embrace the better angels of their nature. I’d like to leave you with a nice aphorism – such as ‘do you think I’ve come this far to stop now,’ but it turns out that those who listen to aphorisms may be prone to totalitarian thoughts.

And that’s ten minutes.

Spies!

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Do you remember the scene near the start of Casablanca, where a man is warning an elderly couple to be very careful because there are thieves everywhere? In the meantime he is slipping the gentleman’s wallet out of his jacket pocket. These days the warning would be that there are spies everywhere, told to you by people who are busily invading your privacy.

Of course, we are being spied on relentlessly – by corporations, by governments, both domestic and foreign and, most of all, by our friends and acquaintances.

Yesterday, the new Canadian government declared a moratorium on supplying communications meta-data to our allies because it illegally contained personal information about Canadian citizens – rather than simply visitors or perceived foreign threats. They won’t start up again until they are sure that the Canadian spy agency is obeying the law. Of course, in the United States, there would be no such problem because the law apparently lets – even encourages – the security apparatus spy on presumably innocent citizens. If you don’t believe me ask Edward Snowden.

Spying has a long tradition – it’s been going on ever since formal states were created. States have spied on their enemies and often on their own citizens. In communist China, grannies were the primary recruits, combining their natural inclination to gossip and judge their neighbours with a small state stipend.

Soon, everyone got in on the game, and spies were dispatched far and wide. If they were caught, their governments disavowed any knowledge of their actions – yes, just like in Mission Impossible. The Canadians who were just arrested in China were no more guilty of spying than the Chinese diplomats Canada expelled a couple of years ago.

And so it goes. Spying is big business. Most corporate security firms have branches that carry out industrial espionage. Knowledge is power and information – which may want to be free – is worth big bucks.

But of course, it is not only the big bad corporations and the security apparatus of out of control governments that engage in spying. Increasingly, we spy on each other. We even spy on ourselves. In the age of social media and cellphone cameras, everything gets recorded and then posted on-line for others to see. Take the guy in the Oregon occupation who thought it was a brilliant idea to film his fellow freedom fighters committing illegal – or just stupid – acts and post them on YouTube. Those clips will undoubtedly be very useful to the prosecutors.

For myself I have nothing to hide – well nothing I’m going to reveal here. I’ll probably continue to post pictures of my vacations and Christmas trees, my meals and my garden, for everyone to see. Why not? What’s the worst that can happen? Wait a second, someone is banging on my door and yelling for me to come out with my hands up. It’s…

But that’s ten minutes.

Euphoria

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In the last few days, I’ve seen a number of my friends, especially those Canadians who live outside Ottawa, express a certain amount of confusion, dismay or even anger over the current honeymoon that Justin Trudeau is experiencing. They seem almost eager for his government to fail or certainly are highly attuned to any perceived weakness or error they may have made.

It may be simple partisanship or it may be an integral part of the Canadian psyche. I recall a fake “Heritage Minute” which examined the lives of various successful Canadians but always ended with a couple of old people saying: “He’s not as good as he thinks he is.” Canadians are sometimes ridiculously uncomfortable, not just with success, but with the celebration of success.

Of course, the government will make mistakes. Trudeau said as much in his first (one of many I am sure) open letter to Canadians. He, indeed, asked for people to speak up when they thought the government was headed in the wrong direction. Governing a country, in case you haven’t noticed, is a complex business; it requires not only brilliance (and luck) at the top and a capable and engaged team of Ministers and bureaucrats but a vigilant populace and press.

Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time to complain.

I found it interesting that the first thing that was attacked was the decision to make gender equality in the Cabinet a priority. The initial criticism was based on the fake criteria of ‘merit’ as if part of merit wasn’t the experiences and worldview one brought to the job. Trudeau rightly ignored such foolishness and appointed equal numbers, but it only took a moment for the press – and then social media – to point out that some of the women Ministers were only Ministers of State and therefore paid less and had fewer perks.

The number mentioned was five (although in fact, it was only four) but in any case it wasn’t actually true. Trudeau pointed out that the rules of appointment are set by Order in Council and, until the Cabinet was formed, it had to abide by the rules already in place. Rest assured, he said, everyone is a full minister and will be treated as such; the rules will be changed and made retroactive to last Wednesday. I think we can give him that. For those that think he should have changed the rules before he made the appointments – you need to think a little about the direction of time’s arrow and the rules of causality.

Others have complained about the easy ride that the media – especially the CBC – is giving the new government. I feel your pain. You cannot believe how often I swore at the radio in the first years of the Harper administration when reporters – especially the CBC – refused to ask the tough questions. Of course, that was when they were actually allowed to ask any questions.

Maybe the media is out of practice. Or maybe, they are so overjoyed to be able to do their job that they get a little light-headed. Don’t worry, it will pass.

I think the current euphoria can only really be understood if you live in Ottawa. I can’t tell you how often I heard civil servants in the last five years complain about the Harper administration. Their biggest grievance: why won’t they let me do my job?

Quite literally people felt oppressed – not just scientists but all public servants who, despite the ugly rumours spread by the previous administration, just want to do the work for Canadians that they were hired to do.

Maybe it’s not surprising that, feeling freed from the weight of a suspicious and angry administration, they might do a little dancing in the streets. But don’t worry, that will pass, too.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Cat Videos and Other Strange Phenomena

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I didn’t sleep that well last night which always sours my mood. So today I’m mostly going to avoid politics as I need to degrumpify. Hey, if Shakespeare can invent words why can’t I?

I blame my lack of sleep on The Martian – so many ideas. It was a great film – about all the things that are possible when people use their brains and not their brawn to solve problems. A big high-tech thriller without a single gun in sight. People had to challenge themselves physically but not against each other. I heard one reviewer complain that the characters were not emotional. Nonsense – deep emotions were felt and expressed but they weren’t allowed to get in the way of people focusing, using their intellects and working hard to solve problems. I love to see the return of hard science to science fiction – while still remembering what science is all about. People working together to solve problems and help each other.

So, do you like cat videos? This is a different question than do you like cats. I know people who like one but hate the other. However, I love both. And I love aloof adult cats as much as their goofy, cuddly offspring. And I especially like it when they get the best of dogs. So here is a cat video.

Voting – so I couldn’t avoid politics altogether – is apparently a habit. Studies show that if you vote young, you are likely to vote for the rest of your life. Even eliminating the effect of general interest in politics, early voting can make a difference to later behavior. There is a campaign afoot to get voters to take non-voters to the polls. It’s a great idea, especially if the non-voter is 18 or 19.

Speaking of young people, here’s some good news for parents – and bad news. Studies of 14 year-olds show that the biggest influences on their social and political views are not their peers but their parents. When in conversation with each other, the most common point of reference begins with “my dad thinks…” or “my mom says…” So that’s a big responsibility. If you are by nature a racist, you should shut up around your kids. If not, you should understand that they can’t always tell if you’re joking. So be careful about casual racism and sexism.

Our trip to Istanbul is coming up in a few days so we spend a lot of time looking at two web-sites. The first is the weather site which tells me that it is expected to be sunny (mostly) with temperatures between 16 and 22. The second is the Canadian government travel advisory – which currently says you should avoid dark alleys and places where terrorists gather, but otherwise have fun.

I have to say the latest Conservative ad seems ineffective. It is a bunch of quotes from Trudeau, taken out of context, and generally made when he was trying to answer questions from regular Canadians. I guess we’re supposed to think he’s not ready. Of course, the Liberals can’t do that: Harper never answers questions unless they’ve been vetted. And besides I care less what Trudeau says at this point than what Harper doesn’t. Secret Trade Deals? Duffy Scandal cover-ups?

Told you I was grumpy. And that’s ten minutes.

Writing About Place

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It is said that one of the distinctive things about Canadian literature is that landscape is part of the narrative; a character as much as the people who inhabit it. Yet, having read great fiction from around the world, I suspect it is not as distinctive as one might think. It is the emptiness of the landscape that stands out but even then, the writing of Tim Winton, for example, set in the vast empty seascapes of Western Australia might as easily be mistaken for Canadian as anything else.

Writing about place is, I think, what often distinguishes fiction from literature. Take mystery novels. The really good ones are set in specific places; the rest are set in a kind of stylized New York or Los Angeles. In fact publishers often encourage writers to re-write their works to reflect those particular film-identified places. Hell, movie producers do everything they can to make Vancouver or Toronto or even Denver look like one of those two cities – as if readers and viewers can’t tell the difference.

But sense of place often shapes character and character drives plot. Travis Mcgee would not be who he was if Florida didn’t live inside the novels of John D. MacDonald.

Still, it is a complex process. Too much detail and the reader can become lost in a morass of unfamiliar places; too little and the location can be anywhere. Or New York.

Recently my wife and I were discussing the book Suspended Sentences whose author Patrick Modiano just won the Nobel Prize for literature. The stories are so rooted in Paris they couldn’t take place anywhere else. The lists of street names and landmarks seem almost overwhelming – especially if you’ve never been to Paris. If you have, it soon becomes a map in your mind but even if you never have been to the City of Lights, Modiano succeeds in creating a mythical place for you. Soon, you know what will appear around the next corner and how it would be to stagger from this particular bar to that particular address.

Other writers succeed in different ways. Alice Munro, writing, ironically, from Paris in the New Yorker, created towns in southern Ontario that you simply know must exist, places you are sure you will find right beyond the next turn in the highway. But of course it is only a map of the mind – as real as any place built of wood or brick.

In my own writing, I’ve tried to build places both real and imagined. It is sometimes surprising to walk down a street in a town or city that I’ve written about and discover that this particular building is no longer there, or, more surprising, never was. But, to me, the imagined places of my stories are more real than the places they were modeled on. Because that is where my characters live. What could be more real than that?

And that’s ten minutes.