Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Snake Girl

'Lilith,' by John Collier. (Wiki Commons.)

Time stood still and held its breath for a moment.

Mason Richards sat poised on the bench of the canoe, paddle halted in mid-air. The tinkling drops falling into the still waters broke the heavy silence. A spare, balding figure, wearing his characteristic variable-grade aviator-type spectacles, the recently-divorced Mason was enjoying the dawn. He sniffed the chill but clean air. A light, cold fog came down from the hills. He needed to clear his mind, and get on with life. To focus on something other than problems once in a while. To break the obsession, with work, and money, debt and repayment, and not incidentally connected to these thoughts, his ex-wife Eileen.

The sounds of his own breath, and the boat moving forward through the water, were harsh and unnecessarily loud. He tried to ease the paddle in and out of the water a little more smoothly. This was moose habitat. Yes, it was definitely good to focus on something else for a while. Off in the distance, gulls plaintively called, and nearer, off to the southwest, or upriver somewhere, a heron let out a distinctive ‘cronk-cronk!’

Mason found himself holding his breath in anticipation, so he let it out with a deep, relaxing sigh. He saw something move through the trees on the left bank ahead of him, just a pale flash that couldn’t possibly be a moose, or a bear. It was just too light—unless it was some kind of albino. Mason stared at the darker gaps through the black spruce lining the edge of the bay. To call it a shore was going too far. From his perspective, the dark upper halves of the trees on the hillside stuck up over the cattails. To his right, or northwest by his reckoning, the hills were all lit up by the nascent sun.

Thick ranks of bulrushes over two meters tall obscured any sign of terra firma over there. He had one more night alone with himself in the park, and then it would be time to leave. Mason made a promise to himself that he would get up before dawn, and paddle to the mouth of the Nipissing River; where it entered Cedar Lake. Come hell or high water, he would attempt to find and photograph a moose, even with what was admittedly an inferior camera. The shot would never be worth money. It was simply for his own satisfaction.

A kind of challenge, not even technical, or physical, but more…spiritual.

Whether he got the shot or not, it was a symbol of something in his future. At his age, he might have twenty or thirty good years left...a man could get a lot done in that much time. The key was not to waste a second of it.

Mason promised himself that he would make all kinds of changes, starting just as soon as he got back.

Yesterday, he had actually seen a moose, but yesterday, he was too dumb to bring the camera. Awakening early, he got bored and went for a paddle. His campsite was only a kilometer away. Upon reflection, he realized they must come down here every day, before too much canoe traffic got going. The moose fed on weeds, amongst the cattail swamp, which extended for fifty or a hundred metres from shore in places. The deep channel, the only place clear of weeds, was quite narrow, curving back and forth all over the place.

The actual watercourse was hundreds of metres wide at the mouth. He was a couple of hundred metres in and still going. It was hard to say where the river mouth began, or where this arm or bay of the lake actually ended. Further up, he knew from previous trips many years ago, that the Nipissing was ten or twenty metres wide, and ankle deep. It was an unusual, yellow-coloured stream that came down, shockingly cold, from the highland dome of Algonquin Park.

He was pleased by what he found, as his canoe rounded the end of a clump of bulrushes.

There was a short, narrow alley in through the cattails, and he could see the black bottom coming up. But there were no clumps of waterweed. And there was even a small stretch of beach visible at the end of the passage. It was a bad idea to get caught in there, if an angry bull moose, sporting a two-metre rack, should decide to cross the river at exactly the wrong moment.

He dug in the bag tied to the thwart ahead of him for a small digital camera, and began to set it up on his screwed-down little aluminum tripod, specially-modified for this boat. He made sure it would flash, as it was still fairly dim. The sun was up above the top of the hill, directly in his eyes. In the event that a moose came down, he wanted a picture. But all he could do in an emergency would be to ram the boat up into the cattails, and be prepared to get out and dodge if necessary. Mason had temporarily forgotten, almost, about the flash of something up on the hillside.

Maybe he would get a chance to find out what that was. Mason’s next three strokes were gratifyingly silent, and he held the paddle straight out behind, making minimal steering inputs to keep her heading up the middle of the channel. One thing he had quickly noticed on this trip, as he watched other paddlers, was that the inexperienced ones gave distant, early warning of their coming, because they were always clunking the paddle against the side of the boat. While he hadn’t been a bad paddler to begin with, by focusing on his technique, he was getting a lot better. It was something to savor, something that when done well, was done for its own sake, for esthetic reasons. No one else in the whole wide world cared if he could paddle a boat or not. It didn’t matter and so it was profound. It held meaning in ways that his career as a family portrait photographer did not. Paddling in the dawn mist was real, so real that a man would kid himself that he could live out here, when the truth was that man was addicted to civilization, to comfort, to ease, and sloth and luxury. It was more than that, it was also the love of action, the need to be entertained, and to be amused.

Mason hadn’t really spoken to another person at all for the last two, maybe two and a half days! At some point one would go mad. All alone, stuck out here in some little cabin, at the end of one very long and very dicey road in the middle of winter. Yes, to be a wildlife photographer was his big dream as a kid, but then reality hit. Everyone and his brother thought they were a wildlife photographer. It was very competitive. But not everyone could find the money to make an investment in a portrait studio. Ultimately that was where his talent lay, in getting the store off the ground. In the years of routine picture-taking, he had completely forgotten the joy of chance, accident and spontaneity.

Mason would have to do some deep thinking about that. What could he do to try and elevate his photography back up to the status of an art, or even a hobby? To at least make it fun and challenging again?

This trip was valuable in so many ways, not the least of which was the enforced introspection. There was a need to confront one’s issues before they overwhelmed you.

He was just congratulating himself on finding this unusual place, and peering for signs of tracks on the beach, when the most stunning redheaded girl Mason had ever seen in his entire fifty-three year life came down out of the bushes. With startling, big, dark blue eyes, she was almost completely naked, and barefoot. While her long coppery tresses partially obscured her breasts, the sight of her mons veneris, with its characteristic patch of brilliant red hair, was enough to convince him. She was like Botticelli’s painting of Venus arising from the waves, without the fig leaf. He wasn’t mistaking what his eyes were seeing. She was almost completely nude except for some kind of weird costume.

The girl, magnificent as she was, must have been close to two metres tall, and about sixty-five or seventy kiloss. She was simply ravishing. The mere sight of her made his heart begin to pound in his chest. In her long, green, velvety harness-like apparel, oddly enough, looking like the heavily-padded ropes in the front of a typical museum display...

No! He suddenly realized that she had something, something as thick as your arm, and long, and a kind of dappled green and it was moving! She had a snake around her neck!

It was all twisted around her, lovingly riding along on its mistress’s shoulders.

“What the?” he blurted out, with an insanely foolish look, a half disbelieving grin, and a kind of horror.

The snake must have been three or four metres long. He realized with a start that it weighed almost as much as she did. This was amazing; simply amazing. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. She looked like some goddess of classic antiquity, her pale skin making her an alabaster statue in the warm, reflected rays of the sun, still not penetrating into the river valley bottom. She stood there, inscrutably watching his approach.

Mason had absolutely no thought of photographing her. Not yet, at least not without her permission. He dug in with the paddle, sending the boat beach-ward, trying to be nonchalant, and kind of non-threatening and non-judgmental at the same time. But Algonquin Park was a public place, and he was more within his rights than she was. He really wasn’t looking for trouble, but this was just so fascinating. For any photographer, this was the opportunity of a lifetime, really.

Almost as if sensing this, she struck a dramatic pose and stared into the snake’s face for a long moment, lips framing silent words. His breath caught in his throat. This girl was amazing; there was no other word for it.

Was this some kind of an act, or what?

He was just trying to figure out what to say, or where to start; that was when the girl, staring deeply into Mason’s eyes, still standing tall and majestic at the water’s edge, casually bent over and gently released what he saw to be the blunt, shockingly large head of the animal, from her left hand. He saw the thing uncoiling from around her slender shoulders, as it begin to slither into the water.

“Oh, hey,” he called.

She just ignored him, as the animal slowly uncoiled and slid from around her waist and shoulders and torso, then down one long, pale; shapely leg. Her eyes came up and found his.

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” he told her, trying to sound light-hearted in spite of his disapproval. “Unless you’ve got that thing trained.”

Mason found himself stiffening uneasily in his seat, yet still trying to make a joke out of it.

Mason Richards’ gunmetal grey eyes were riveted by her expressionless face as the girl straightened, and he saw with a sick fascination that the tip of the snake’s tail was disappearing into the water. He saw its dark form, a series of s-curves disappearing, going from the lighter sandy area into the weeds and darkness. It was coming straight for the boat.

“But he is trained,” she told him calmly, staring into his eyes with a kind of never-ending, sphinx-like calm.

With his breath frozen in his throat, all his questions died on his lips.

Mason Richards watched, his heart rate accelerating, as the snake came up beside the boat, and then surfaced, right beside him. It wriggled in close, eyeing him with its head out of the water, and with its long yellow tongue tasting for his scent. And then it began to slither up onto the boat. Mason screamed and screamed and screamed, even as the boat tipped over with a resounding splash into the cool, calm, tea-colored water. But it did him no good in the end. He didn’t even get a picture.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Editorial: Wild West in Cyber-Space

In the book ‘Sex, Law and Cyberspace,’ authors Jonathan Wallace and Mark Mangan bring out some of the evolution of cyber-law. As the title implies, sex tends to dominate the discussion, but then sex kind of dominates the fringes of the internet, doesn’t it?

Cyber sexual harassment is a crime that no one heard of just a few short years ago. The situation is a kind of ‘wild west’ in cyber-space, although there is some evidence that lawlessness will not be tolerated forever; and in some countries they’re quite forward about cutting off access to certain websites. In those countries, it is more for political reasons, in order to stifle dissent or even free discussion of relevant issues. This includes nations such as the People’s Republic of China; Myanmar, (Burma,) and others. More recently, there have been crackdowns in the west over file-sharing sites distributing pirated movies, music, and software.

Let’s follow a brief history of electronic communications law. In 1918; the U.S. federal government introduced the first wiretap law, at the close of the Great War. It was supposed to help federal agents to catch spies and saboteurs, the original ‘terrorists,’but it was soon used extensively to catch criminals running liquor. In 1928 came the Federal Communications Act. This prohibited the interception of radio and wireless messages. The Supreme Court held up this decision subsequently, effectively making information obtained from wiretaps inadmissible in court. When WW II intervened, President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order which permitted wiretapping for national security reasons. In the 1967 case of Katz v. The United States, the distinction that existed between planted ‘bugs,’ i.e. radio and recording devices, and wiretaps, (telephone type taps,) was erased.

“Barring reasonable suspicion and a court order, people have a right to keep private conversations private,” said Justice Louis Brandeis in a famous opinion. “The right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the most valued by civilized man.”

As the reader will no doubt agree, this seems relevant to the question of cyber-harassment.

“We have the right to be let alone.”

Sounds so simple, eh?

According to Wallace and Mangan, “The courts are faced with new questions concerning the right to privacy as new technology continues to evolve.”

“The changing medium of the internet seems to defy definition and open new gaps of interpretation.

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are teaming up, scrambling for position as the digital infrastructure is built…the FBI says the new telephony technology is tipping the scales in favour of the criminals…”

Now that communications are becoming fully digital, even the FBI argued it will 'Soon be incapable of performing its current level of wiretapping.'

For many years in fact, the FBI conducted about 1,000 wiretaps a year. These would be mostly organized crime figures of the classic ‘Mafia’ type, plus other criminals who entered federal jurisdiction by crossing state lines in the commission of certain offences.

Sometimes other officials get a wiretap to listen to communications between two murder suspects; one of whom has agreed to cooperate.

Canadian law differs somewhat from the U.S. In Canada if someone phones you up, and threatens you, it is oddly illegal to tape record that conversation! But even the police need a court order to get a wiretap. In Canada to possess child pornography is an offence, and the police regularly go into chat rooms online to establish contact with pedophiles; in an attempt to identify them and arrest them when it is warranted by gathered evidence.

Where does the law stand in Canada, as regards to cyber-harassment? At the very least it is a public mischief, but the penalties are such that a prosecution seems unjustified by the cost of proving it; in some professional opinions. Essentially, why spend eight, or eighty thousand dollars if the perpetrator is going to get six months probation for a first offence?

The gathering of call records, or services provided are only part of a successful prosecution. You have to prove that so-and-so actually did the crime—and sometimes a computer is used by many individuals, in some kind of public institution; or by using a stolen phone, or some other wireless communications device.

The police have to catch the person with the phone, and then prove it was in their possession at the time the call was made! This type of investigation is time-consuming, and requires a special kind of training, and effective application, and a thorough understanding of new technologies.

In a 2010 Canadian decision, an accused was not convicted due to the fact that child-porn images were not actually in their possession. They were viewed online on someone else’s host server.

In straightforward scam operations, the cyber-criminal may be harder to convict, partly 'because they don’t look like a criminal.’ It is much more sophisticated than a mugging. There is little possibility of violence, and the law has its own logic. If some ‘work,’ has been performed, it’s not fraud, and ‘civil remedies’ come into play. You have to locate someone in order to sue them. That’s not always easy on the internet; really, only law enforcement has those kinds of resources and sufficient ‘clout.’

It probably takes more ‘courage’ to swipe a pencil out of a discount store than it does to send a classmate a nasty e-mail, or whatever. Hackers costs the taxpayers and industry billions of dollars a year. To ‘out’ a classmate, whether it’s ‘true’ or not, is just a form of cruelty, and it can be extremely damaging to the victim, whose life is often endangered by this form of crime.

Other types of cyber crime include hacking to obtain personal information, online fraud, credit card theft and fraud, the creation of viral softwre and malware, and cyber terror related activities.

How to combat crime and protect the public safety at the same time as assuring privacy and preventing abuse remains to be seen. These challenges and their outcomes affects one and all.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

About the author:

Louis was raised by Apaches.

Louis Bertrand Shalako was brought up to ride well, to shoot well, and to tell the truth. He still has his self-respect, and that’s the main thing, according to Louis.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shalako Dolls

“Keep a good pen and a notepad beside your pillow, and write down your dreams. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, then a story is a glimpse into the mind of the writer."

Have you ever wondered if we’re living in the world of the future that we read about in comic books when we were kids, and that maybe we don’t even realize it because it sort of snuck up on us?The internet is a kind of teleportation; and a website is a kind of virtual castle.It is the front door of the house we present to the electronic world. I look at that door with electronic eyes, and listen with electronic ears. We speak to each other across vast distances, using electronic tongues, sometimes in many tongues.

By creating a fictitious character, and then manipulating that character in virtual space, it is a kind of ‘gaming.’ Some people create new, virtual, ‘realities,’ devoted to a certain fantasy subset; i.e. a ‘game-space.’ The most familiar example would be, ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’ The list of imitators is endless. The popular war-games are an artificial ‘game-space,’ kept within certain boundaries. You don’t just sort of run out of ‘World War Two space,’ and then suddenly find yourself in ‘Arabian Nights space,’ still blazing away with your assault weapon.But I don’t play games in that sense. I play games on the internet itself. It’s a numbers game, in that the more stories that Shalako writes, the more stories that he can submit, the more stories that remain in play; stories that cross in front of an editor’s eyes. Shalako is a brand name, it is a persona, it is a simulacrum, an avatar—a doll in a doll house. Shalako is my toy; my game-piece, and the world is a great train-set or diorama of the imagination. Louis B. Shalako is an avatar in real-time. I can send Shalako places where I dare not tread…I just have to remember that he’s pretty grumpy first thing in the morning and likes a two-hour nap after dinner—no, sorry, that’s me.

This game relies on information theory, game theory and every so often I toss in a dollop of good old chaos theory. Like any organic thing, the blog will probably grow by bits and bytes, ultimately deriving from some nanoscopic fractal incongruencies.

Over time, Shalako’s skills as a gamer; and as a writer, will improve. Incidentally, he’s about one hundred and ninety-seven centimeters tall, about ninety kilos, fifty years old, kind of shy, likes kitty cats and he has brown eyes and hair. Lately the hair is thinning a little on top, and it has always been kind of grizzled around the edges. If the truth be told, Shalako is a paradigm, a magnificent specimen of masculine pulchritude, and quite frankly his deep, rich voice should have been trained for the opera.An unpolished gem, unlettered and untutored, with the rough, soldierly eloquence of Ulysses, master of every stratagem, including the winning of the hearts and minds of the people, Shalako is the epitome of unarmed, non-physical combat in the world of slightly-skewed perceptions.People look up to him. While he was cast in a heroic mold which is hard to live up to sometimes, he is subject to the same temptations as the rest of us. He is aware of this bright inner light, burning inside of himself; this strength, which mystifies him sometimes…Shalako seems awfully young and vulnerable one minute, and the next minute he impresses one as the sort of kid who carried a blade in elementary school, but was either smart enough or lucky enough never to use it.

Not particularly gregarious, he wonders why no one has the courage to lead…as for himself, he simply can’t be bothered with consultation and building a consensus. He is a man of action in the best sense of the word.When the whole world is corrupt, what is a man supposed to do? Shalako has asked himself this question, and has come up with no good answer. Unlike the artist who does not paint, but is content to sit back and let it all be, Shalako feels the need to trim the shrubbery once in a while."Pain is the only reality, everything else is a cheap substitute,' according to Louis.I wish I new what the hell he meant by that. But I think he's just trying to write one really good aphorism and be remembered for all of history. Please bear in mind that to aspire to write is a fantasy, to actually write and market books and stories is an adventure – it is ‘reality,’ no matter how you do it. Any real adventure involves suffering, an unfortunate truism. Was a submission or a letter in a mailbox ever ‘reality?’ I say no—it was merely ‘real.’ It was also getting expensive. If Shalako had to pound the pavement to make a presentation, we would never have made this many submissions.Never.

Each submission represents one ‘move’ in the game. So far we have made at least four hundred and ninety-one moves in this phase of our campaign. Just to keep it interesting, we have several games in play at once…but that’s another story. Like any game there are risks and rewards, some tangible and some intangible. And like any game, it’s fun, too. One night, Shalako might launch himself out into ‘virtual reality,’ with the help of a server; which for the sake of argument might be located in Sarnia, Ontario. Next thing you know he’s in 'Toronto,’ or really in the virtual ‘space,’ of his invisible friend ‘Don.’ By clicking on a link on his site, it launches him across the Atlantic Ocean, at electronic speeds. Then he’s in ‘England,’ at the ‘house’ of ‘Gary,’ another invisible friend. By moving across the ‘room,’ with his manipulative tools, ‘the cursor,’ or ‘the mouse,’ he enters into what we call a ‘hall of portals,’ which is basically just a box on a screen. Viewed a certain way, it even resembles a floor plan.We click on another link, and then Shalako gets launched off to somewhere else he , or we want to be. (I get confused myself sometimes.)

Soon enough, he’s meeting another ‘mind,’ somebody or other on the other side of the world, and then we try to make our sales pitch—cold calling at both its best and its worst. Maybe it gets in your blood. But this is where any element of alleged skill might become a factor. It’s all a theory so far.Life is a game, and there are no rules. Shalako knows this, most people don’t. That gives him a kind of an edge, as the reader may well imagine. Shalako is tough as nails, but he has a good heart.It’s almost a kind of detective work in some ways, to find new markets and figure the people out.While some are spending fortunes on ‘search engine optimization,’ we just send a message right to where it needs to go—we don’t wait for someone to accidentally ramble past some site. We have our ears hung out on the line, from time to time.The funny thing is, once you’ve studied someone’s website, made submissions, read the rejection slips, you do actually begin to get an impression of that other person. You start to get into their mind, and perhaps under their skin. You start to understand them—and they start to understand you.We reveal a great deal about ourselves to an attentive listener. Every mind leaves its imprint upon its works.The terrible thing about Shalako is when he ties me up in a chair and makes me watch while he writes stuff. Shalako rides a big black horse which he picked out and captured, broke and tamed all on his own. I felt a little funny about that, but I have to let him learn his place in the world…I try to edit his work but he's just so wilful was a joy to watch him work that animal though.God, how I worry about him sometimes.

The Zuni Shalako is the festival of the winter solstice. It is a time of renewal and rebirth; a time of music, dance, story-telling and I suppose a little bit of feasting as well. This has some relevant personal symbolism to me, and you have to admit; it’s a pretty cool name.Shalako dolls are ten-foot tall constructions which are hollow, and operated by two acolytes inside. These symbolize the two forces warring constantly within a man. Perhaps we could call them ‘good and evil,’ for want of a better term. The thing works better when they cooperate! Perhaps the Zunis know something we don’t. The Shalako dolls are used in outdoor ceremonies. More secret rituals are carried out inside their sacred, bowl-shaped ‘kivas,’ special rooms which are a feature of every pueblo of consequence. They re-enact old myths, and legends, old ceremonies, for the magic of these stories is very strong. These religious observances are exclusively male, and outsiders are not welcome. It would cost my honour itself, to reveal too much, but this is the strongest kind of magic, the kind of magic that forges a bond between this world and another world where men cannot go. There are men who hold the keys to these doors. They are very old and very wise. They look after those keys very well. Kachina dolls are much smaller, and every Zuni child is given one. They look a little bit like a bowling pin, brilliantly painted in primitive colours, and no two are alike. They carry a certain spirit inside of them as well. But Shalako dolls and Kachina dolls are two different things.

Here is an Examiner article on visiting the Zuni Shalako.