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To preserve the existing disorder

Why the Acronym SNAFU Was Invented: the New York city police arrested The American Spectator's Shawn Macomber early this afternoon, scooping him up in a round-up of anti-GOP protesters downtown and ignoring Macomber's official convention press credentials. At this hour Macomber apparently remains imprisoned, unable to file copy to TAS. I can't exclude the possibility that Macomber went nuts and started heaving Molotov cocktails around, but it seems counterproductive for New York's finest to pick up a reporter who specifically warned about left-wing protesters' plans for periconvention violence. Assuming he isn't sodomized to death with a toilet plunger, his side of the story should be out soon.

- 10:30 pm, August 31 (link)

The handle toward my hand

My proposal for a "hat tipping" symbol, or at least the theory underlying the proposal, is getting some good reviews, notably from Evan Kirchhoff. However, I must correct E.K. on one point: [Colby's] serif font, the dagger looks like a proper curly dagger, familiar from books written in other centuries by English people and so on. But my site, like, oh, maybe 40% of the web, is rendered in sans-serif Verdana, a font which illiterately draws the dagger as a tiny cross.

This was good for a chuckle at Casa Cosh, because I don't actually specify a font in the code of this page (except in the text of my transposed Post columns). I've always bridled at the presence of such typographic imposition in a digital medium, though of course it's just another form of editorial control, and thus wholly innocuous. I basically figure that if my mom wants to read this page in Comic Sans or whatever, she should be allowed to. (More importantly, visually disabled readers must be permitted to change the size and style of the body text to suit themselves; I stink on ice at Web design, but I know damn well it makes no sense for people to rant about "accessibility" and then hard-code their pages to consist entirely of 8-point type.)

So this text should appear on your screen in your browser's default font, whether it has serifs or not. If you haven't changed the default in your browser settings, and you're using IE, it'll probably be the less-than-optimum Times New Roman. I change my default compulsively every couple of weeks, flipping between Georgia, Trebuchet, and a Frutiger face that makes my weblog look super classy. But even in the serifed Georgia (the best typeface for screen viewing ever designed--holds up nicely at all point sizes), the dagger character is basically a simple, undecorated cross. It never occurred to me that it might look much cooler at the other end of the pipe.

History-prof reader Jonathan Good raised a potentially important objection, though, when he wrote to say that he associated the dagger, as a typographic mark, with death.

I read "†Fark" in one of your entries, without understanding yet why you're doing it, and I think, has Fark gone under?

I don't quite know how powerful this association is: the symbol is indeed marked as meaning "died" in whatever edition of Webster's Collegiate is lying on the carpet behind me, but with the caveat "esp. in genealogical texts." Good says Speculum slaps it onto the name of an author if he has died before a review appeared. I wouldn't want to misuse the symbol willingly just because most people won't notice the misuse, but the dagger is certainly present in contexts having nothing to do with death, too. Comments continue to be welcome.

[UPDATE, Sept. 1: Maybe this is silly, but I have to admit I was looking at the Anglo-Saxon/Icelandic thorn character, þ, as a potential alternative. It carries no baggage to speak of, it actually looks a bit like a tipped hat, and having once belonged to our language, it could stand for "thanks". The only issue is that the dagger is slightly less WTF-inducing... maybe I should put a poll applet here or something?]

- 10:12 pm, August 31 (link)

Tribune of the people

As John O'Sullivan and others have been pointing out in the U.S. press, President George W. Bush has not used the power of veto one single time since taking office in January 2001. This is such an extraordinary thing, even with the House, Senate, and White House all in the control of one party, that I wasn't quite prepared to believe it the first few times I heard it. These statistics drive home the point rather well. FDR was a wartime president whose party had a death grip on the House and Senate throughout his time in office, and he dropped 635 V-bombs over 12 years (though of course the dynamic up until the war was very much "executive vs. other branches" rather than party vs. party). The last president to leave office (not that Bush will necessarily have to do that right away) without exercising a veto was James Garfield, who missed his chance by being shot dead six months after his inauguration.

[UPDATE, Sept. 1: George Quincy Bush??]

- 9:31 pm, August 31 (link)

Today's National Post column is a rambling piece about the changing nature of pop music; it's behind the wall but available to subscribers. Here's last Monday's column about the Diana fountain. You may want to consult a photo of it so you can see what all the fuss was about...

The fountain built to honour the memory of the late Princess of Wales was officially opened to the public in London's Hyde Park on Friday -- again. Originally unveiled in July, the ovoid granite trough designed by American Kathryn Gustafson -- which would make for great skateboarding if not for all that water -- had to be fenced off almost immediately after three park visitors slipped on the uneven interior surface and smacked themselves up badly enough to require medical attention.

Which, come to think of it, certainly does call the Princess to mind. Though not, perhaps, in the manner intended. Gustafson's 2001 Chrysler Design Award citation indicates that the architect "believes in the power of nature -- and in the power of the human ability to shape it and to be shaped by it." Being shaped -- that's got to be the cleverest euphemism for head trauma ever coined.

Yes, this is the perfect occasion for cheap shots at contemporary architecture. One might feel correspondingly cheap in making them if high-rated architects such as Gustafson weren't so determined about keeping the price down. A fountain was deemed the perfect way for Londoners to remember their beloved princess, who was at her best amongst children, and would have approved of making space in Hyde Park for them to splash about joyfully. Ms. Gustafson specifically promised to deliver such a space, and looked on at the fountain's opening as the kiddies were turned loose within the slick curves of her meditative fixture.

Now she can't imagine where anyone got the idea that the fountain was for any such damn fool thing as wading, telling The Daily Telegraph on Aug. 3, "It was a mistake when it was opened to think that people should be able to walk or play in it." No one's mistake in particular, you understand. There have been other problems with the fountain: It is ringed with deciduous trees whose leaves instantly began to clog the drains, although Ms. Gustafson knows who to blame for that one. She pointed a finger at a careless deity in the Telegraph piece, talking of an "extraordinary" high wind that "was ripping leaves off the trees." The temerity!

What's truly extraordinary here is that the architect continues to declare her design a success: "As I understand it," she says, "the positive reaction outweighs the negative." This poll sample, one presumes, was not confined to the people physically injured by the design.

The egomania of architects is well past the point of cliche: They have to live with endless jokes about it, the way lawyers do about greed. But lawyers can at least claim that some of them strive, by working pro bono or full-time in the public interest, to dispel the japes. Why is it seemingly impossible for an architect to admit simple failure? Have you ever heard one come out and say "I blew it"? In the case at hand, Product X (the fountain) was meant to be used for Y (facilitating splasheriffic behaviour); X doesn't do Y, or, worse, does it unsafely. How can X reasonably be considered a success?

At all odds, the fountain has been formally declared a "problem of crowd management," which is to say it's ultimately the public's fault for treating it as a fountain. The wire fence that defiled the memorial during its closure has been removed, but the installation is now ringed with ugly pylons warning against wading, and it is to be guarded by a squad of parkies, those fun-deflating figures so characteristically English that one is surprised not to find any in Shakespeare.

The sad part is that the fountain's not bad considered purely on the basis of sensory appeal: Gustafson's intuitionist, landform-sensitive style certainly makes for wonderful photographs. By classical standards it compares very favourably to another project opened this year, Jaume Plensa's "interactive" Crown Fountain in Chicago. At the Millennium Park, situated downtown in the shadow of skyscrapers, water runs down the side of 15-metre glass-faced towers that, during the day, have ever-changing LED images of Chicagoan faces on them. Every 12 minutes, the face of the moment purses its lips and spews a hydrant-like stream into the park's reflecting pool.

It's exceedingly silly, is expensive to maintain and was unveiled along with a lot of ponderous bulldada about "contemporary media." But you can go wading there without breaking your neck, and to say that children are crazy about the giant spitting faces would be understatement. The place is sardine-packed with shouting, laughing kids. The Crown Fountain (a commission Mr. Prensa beat out Maya Lin and Robert Venturi for) may be the hit of the year if public affection is the relevant standard. It doesn't look like the memorial in Hyde Park is going to take away the prize. (August 23, 2004)

- 8:30 pm, August 30 (link)

Cash award available for a segue between these items

Rob Halford fronting Black Sabbath? That sounds like a dream I'd have after eating half a deep-dish pizza. And yet it really happened. (†Fark)

Taking the Piss Dept.: Scotty Mac of the Tulip Café in scenic Prague has a long, involved comic anecdote about a very, very bad neighbour.

- 9:35 pm, August 29 (link)

Memo to F1 drivers: next time, don't miss

Knockeenahone's most famous native son, Fr. Cornelius Horan, has made an unexpected reappearance on the world stage. The Irish priest, already famous for walking onto the track during a Formula 1 race in 2003, disrupted the Olympic men's marathon today with an attack on the race leader. Some reports have described Fr. Horan as "defrocked", which is correct, but it's worth remembering that he remains a member of the clergy nonetheless. An article printed last year in the News-Shopper of West London explains:

Although still technically a priest, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese (of Bexley) said the archbishop’s permission for Father Horan to perform the functions of a priest, such as preaching, saying mass and administering the other sacraments of the Church, was formally withdrawn in writing in April last year [2002].

Need I mention that the goal of Horan's violent attack on a perfectly innocent person today was to promote peace? After he stood on the straightaway at Silverstone last year, some Roman Catholics with prior knowledge of the man's behaviour argued that he deserved applause rather than, say, a savage hiding from angry bettors.

We have reported faithfully on [Horan's] one-man crusade for world peace, his peace dance at the House of Commons, his correspondence with world leaders and his heartfelt belief that the end of the world, as we know it, is fast approaching and will be replaced by "a glorious new world". Fr Horan’s publicity campaign has stemmed from a genuine belief that the end is nigh and, dear reader, who are we to dispute his stance or dismiss his predictions? His decision to race onto the track at Silverstone while the British Grand Prix was in full flight was the act of a man desperate to get his point across and it confirmed that he was willing to risk his own life be true to his convictions.

Fr Horan has since expressed remorse but said he acted because he felt previous attempts to get his views aired on an international stage had been unsuccessful. "I am not planning any more stunts and I will not break the law again," he declared before adding that he hopes to return to Kerry later this year to visit his family. It is people like Fr Neil Horan that make this world an interesting place and he deserves to be treated with respect and with dignity on his return.

God save us from "interesting" people and the idiots who cultivate them. Like all peace campaigners, Horan has a particular idea of how exactly a "peaceful" world will look, and is quite capable of talking one's ear off about it. The whole thing appears to involve Christ returning to Earth as commander-in-chief of the Israeli Defence Forces. Don't miss this page on Horan, where you can purchase electronic copies of his books A Glorious New World, Christ Will Soon Take Power From All Governments, and his opus majus, The Bible and the Grand Prix Priest.

- 8:51 pm, August 29 (link)

Hasn't this guy ever heard of a memory stick

Ruining It For Everyone Dept.: courtesy of some bright spark, we present the Gmail File System.

- 8:13 pm, August 29 (link)

Leaving Las Vegas

James Surowiecki, guest-blogging at Marginal Revolution, recently caught former Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips in a rather staggering act of economic irrationality:

Phillips was seen in Las Vegas recently pawning one of his Big Eight championship rings--reportedly for $20. "He said he was stuck in Las Vegas," pawnshop owner Steve Gibson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "He said, 'I need to get out of town.' Gibson then sold the ring on eBay for a reported $1,700.

This news is of special interest to Canadians (though I'm not sure anyone up here has the story yet). After dropping out of the NFL, Phillips became a star back and full-time locker-room hassle for the Montreal Alouettes, where he came and went as he pleased, eventually getting himself released despite league-leading yardage totals. He also spent a short spell in Calgary, endearing himself to the community by arguing with coaches and landing himself in legal trouble.

Phillips was fond of declaring himself the CFL's best player, and talent-wise, this was surely no less than the truth. But being an NFL-class back trapped on the three-down tundra should already have been a wake-up call for the guy. It's hard to feel sorry for a jackass who couldn't even hang on as a superweapon in the talent-poor CFL, where coaches are prepared to put up with a lot of static from import stars.

- 7:31 pm, August 29 (link)

Hail, fellow, well met

So how do you "hat tip"?

For a while now weblogs have been groping towards a standardized method of saying "I originally got the information in this entry from X." The norm when I started out was "Via X", with variants: I still use that when I need to. A popular method on one-man sites now seems to be "Hat tip: X" or "Hat tip X".

I've been so dissatisfied with the existing shorthands that I use them less than I should (to the ultimate detriment of my traffic, not that traffic isn't an unmixed blessing). "Via" doesn't have the clarity or robustness I'd like; it's always struck me as a suspicious foreign intruder in our language, something best confined to a bus terminal. To use "hat tip" would seem like acquiescing in the coy chumminess that already infects this medium. When's the last time anyone actually tipped a physical hat?--it's too cute.

Perhaps the most popular method of hat-tipping is just to plonk the tipping link down at the bottom of an entry: that's the house style, for example, at Gawker and its spinoffs. If hat-tipping is the quintessence of your site, that works OK. But if the referred material is itself a link--if there's any sort of question of primary and secondary source material--you can create the sort of confusion that's endemic to navigating BoingBoing. The site, a model in all other respects, often steers you with a "Via". But which link am I supposed to follow out of a post like this? Will both work?

Is there an existing body of theory on this issue? What I'd like is if we could borrow one of the less-used HTML characters to stand in for "Hat tip", but I never know what characters will be recognized by everybody's browsers. Is the dagger closely enough associated in people's minds with the concept of a footnote to work, without explanation, as a non-ostentatious "hat tip" symbol?

It seems like by the time I can use this information to get clues to her personality, I won't need it nearly so much. (†Dave's Picks)

And does it even render correctly in Safari and Opera and Lumbago and Valium? Is there a better candidate character not doing other important typographic work? Comments are invited.

[UPDATE, Aug. 31: More here.]

- 8:53 am, August 29 (link)

Friday's Post column travels by swift boat from the subject of John Kerry's critics all the way to the cut-rate burlesque of last week's "confirmation hearing" for the new Canadian Supreme Court justices. Post subscribers can read the column now. Andrew Coyne had by far the best piece on the hearing and the new justices; unfortunately, it's not yet on his site, as he's been "at the lake" since August 3. Did he fall in?

(And how come he is "at the lake"? I thought it was an ironclad linguistic rule that Ontarians retreat to "the cottage" for long blurry summer drinkathons; it's we Albertans who go "to the lake". Is this a sign of divided regional loyalties on Coyne's part? I think we should be told.)

Right now I'm working on a piece about new appointee Rosalie Abella for the Western Standard. Oddly enough, while I was searching for background material, I ran across a trove (the attributive "treasure" has been deleted on purpose) of my own old reporting, which includes this 2001 Report thousand-worder on her woefully dopey decision in the Miglin case. Miglin has been much mentioned in the aftermath of Abella's appointment, so a close-up look at the details may be of interest. Bear in mind that the Supreme Court later overturned (and heaped about a half-ton of nightsoil upon) the ruling discussed herein...

Lawyers are usually fairly cagey about commenting on judicial rulings; they know that there is a fine line between criticizing a judgment and trashing a judge. But when it comes to the Ontario Court of Appeal's April 26 ruling in Miglin v. Miglin, no one seems to be mincing any words. "The s--t is really gonna hit the fan now," one prominent family lawyer told this magazine about the decision written by Justice Rosalie Abella. Another kicked off an interview by asking "You want to talk about Miglin? I sure hope it's because you know a way to get it overturned."

Across Canada, divorce lawyers are grinding their teeth over the unanimous Miglin decision. By wiping out a mutual separation agreement between Eric Miglin and his ex-wife Linda, Justice Abella has opened every existing divorce settlement in the country to potential revision by the courts. Before Miglin, courts were extremely reluctant to annul an agreement reached in good faith by both parties. But if the decision survives Supreme Court scrutiny, divorced spouses could find themselves hauled back into court five, 10 or 20 years after they had thought their obligations discharged.

Eric Miglin is a resort owner who lives in Toronto; he married Linda in 1979 and they had four children together. They ran a remote northern hunting lodge together until 1993, when Linda filed for divorce. That December, the pair reached a settlement which gave Linda $60,000 a year in child support and full ownership of the couple's Toronto home. She relinquished her shares in the lodge, but signed a five-year side deal to act as a "consultant" for $15,000 a year. They shared custody of the children, and Linda signed a paper promising to "specifically [abandon] any claims she has or may have against the Husband for her own support."

After the divorce was finalized in 1997, the friendly relations between the ex-spouses deteriorated quickly. Mrs. Miglin converted to Judaism, making Mr. Miglin nervous that his children would be raised in a faith he did not share. Mr. Miglin took the children to a psychologist behind his ex-wife's back, enraging her. In June 1998, when it became apparent that Eric would not renew her consultancy payments at the end of the five years, Linda went back on her agreement and sued for spousal support.

Trial judge Peter Tobias (who suffered a heart attack just before the appeal court ruling and died five days after it) decided that the side agreement on the consultancy was really just a tax dodge, so he agreed to overturn the divorce agreement and give Mrs. Miglin $52,800 a year for five more years. Mr. Miglin's lawyer, Charles Mark, told the Ontario Court of Appeal that Judge Tobias was wrong to undo a mutually agreeable contract between a divorcing couple: the Supreme Court had established this principle in the so-called Pelech trilogy of cases heard in 1987.

Before Pelech, the tradition in Canadian divorce law had been that marriage was a lifelong commitment; there could be no "clean break" between the parties, however much they might want one. The Pelech rulings implemented a more modern view. Although it acknowledged the court's responsibility to ensure fairness, it specified that final agreements between couples should be respected whenever possible.

In their pleadings for Miglin, neither side actually made much of this particular part of the case. But in her ruling Madam Justice Abella pounced on Pelech like a cat. Although Pelech was handed down in 1987, it had been heard under the terms of the old 1968 Divorce Act. Parliament had rewritten the act in 1985, the justice noted, appending a list of "fairness" principles to be observed in spousal-support arrangements. Clearly, fairness came first in the eyes of Parliament, and the "clean break" a distant second. Justice Abella not only upheld Judge Tobias's ruling, she erased the five-year limit he had imposed on the support payments. (Mr. Miglin intends to appeal.)

In a single blow, one of Canada's most famously progressive judges has turned back the clock 60 years on divorce law. The revived doctrine is that it is a husband's job to support his wife, and not the state's. But Miglin also makes the state, and not the husband and wife, the arbiter of how they are to divide assets. Madam Justice Abella's old-fashioned view of marriage will warm some hearts, but men and women who quite reasonably thought themselves free of their spouses are chilled to the bone. Family lawyer Grant Gold of Toronto's Goodman and Carr bemoans the effect. "I've had at least 10 former clients call me in just a few days," he says. "I just had a client in here signing a spousal support release, and I had to tell him it may not be worth the paper it's written on."

Miglin is not binding outside Ontario unless the Supreme Court ratifies the reasoning behind it. If that happens, family lawyers fear that it will add even more antagonism to divorces, encouraging husbands to fight to the last ditch. The profession has been desperately trying to sell "alternative dispute resolution" and mediation to an increasingly litigious society. Some of that work may now be undone. "More and more, the rule is becoming 'A deal is not a deal,'" says Vancouver lawyer Georgialee Lang. "It's true that sometimes women do sign agreements they shouldn't, or things don't work out for them after the divorce as well as they thought. The claims of these women deserve consideration. But when I talk to husbands, what they want most is certainty. They're willing to be generous if they can get that. There's no question that decisions like Miglin could take it away." (May 28, 2001)

The curious topsy-turvy conservatism she displayed in the Miglin case is, in fact, one of the great themes of Abella's career. There is something poisonously Victorian about the way she constantly confuses the disadvantaged with the helpless. The transliberal view of justice she upholds carries us back to the world of Dickens and Tolstoy and Flaubert: God forbid a divorced woman should have to make her own way in the cruel, wintry world! Perhaps, given time, Abella's Supreme Court jurisprudence will find its defenders on the right.

- 6:13 am, August 28 (link)

Not torn from today's headlines

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - In an unexpected coda to his pivotal Friday speech about the U.S. government's longterm budget commitments, Federal Reserve Grand Imperial Wizard Alan Greenspan, 102, stood upright on bionically enhanced legs and told an aging conference that he wished to "die with dignity--immediately".

"I was already tired of this job under Bush Senior," recalled Greenspan, who was originally appointed Fed chieftain by President William Howard Taft. "I've tried to refuse re-appointments but the Secret Service keeps threatening my family members. Now I ache for the sweet balm of death."

Over the years Greenspan's presence at the Fed has become a totem of international economic stability, despite the relative unpopularity of the nebbishy goldbug's actual theories. Bill Clinton once said, when asked about the possibility of Greenspan expiring in office, that he "pitied" whichever chief executive had to "take cover from that shitrain". Asked last year why he had re-confirmed a centenarian as the helmsman of world capitalism, George W. Bush developed a blank animal stare and proceeded to recite twenty minutes of passages from the Book of Revelations.

As a consequence of Greenspan's indispensibility, he now lives under 24-hour Secret Service supervision at a heavily guarded compound whose location is undisclosed. A meagre, porridgy diet is prepared for him by a team of extropian nutritionists, and his collapsing physical body is sustained by constant cellular and orthotic upgrades. The RAND Corporation estimated on Greenspan's 100th birthday that he already consisted of less than 15% original organic tissue.

The irony of his lonely cyborg existence is apparently not lost on Greenspan, who has outlived nine wives and dozens of concubines. He fended off handlers with powerful mechanical arms Friday as they attempted to cut his remarks short. "I've been saying for decades that the entitlements of the aged will eventually bankrupt the treasury," Greenspan shouted hoarsely over the whir of servomotors. "Little did I anticipate that 6.1% of the federal budget would one day be used to trap me, personally, in the stinking, besotted world of the living like a housefly."

"Damn you all," he added, smashing a marble conference table to dust. "Damn you all to hell!" The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 38 points, or 0.4%, on word of the outburst.

- 4:50 pm, August 27 (link)

Seen and heard recently

  • Loads of Sufjan Stevens, who is almost ambitiously twee--all his albums could probably be titled "Funeral Music for a Chickadee". But you rapidly get past the oppressively low-key delivery of the songs and the cultural baggage that the banjo brings when used as a lead instrument. This is interesting contemporary music. There are some Frippian curlicues concealed amidst the flora, but mostly I'm just happy to hear decent vocal harmonies recorded anytime after 1989 (and delivered without the Marshall Herff Applewhite vibe of the Polyphonic Spree). I don't know why it's so little observed that people harmonized even on the most brutalist pub rock of the '70s, and that they don't bother now. For some reason only those who have bizarre hippie upbringings--the people who were homeschooled on buses in nudist colonies and whatnot--seem to have preserved the art of the human voice in popular music.

  • I was also having a Judas Priest Friday right around the time Chris Onstad was (Point of Entry, British Steel, Sin After Sin). Time has further weakened the Priest's uncomfortable historical position in the annals of British metal, trapped between the insomniac, belligerent grandeur of Ozzy-era Black Sabbath and the bottom-heavy prole postpunk of Iron Maiden. The dual-guitar sound--it's an "attack", I guess: always a "twin-guitar attack"--is still nice and caramel-y on the studio records, though, and every album has a few salvageable anthems. Unleashed in the East, which I had to buy from Japan when I was filling out my Priest collection a few years back, positively crackles with life. Mostly what you notice, and I've probably made this complaint before, is that nobody who does nu-metal seems to have actually listened to these records. Taking your guitar a half-step down from standard tuning doesn't automatically make you "metal".

  • Continuing the '70s theme, I screened Walter Hill's The Warriors and the lamentable Fritz the Cat movie, which, taken together, serve as a useful reminder that as crushing as politicial correctness gets, it was actuated by a pretty horrifying mental environment that would be dignified considerably the adjective "sexist". I figure that a later generation of Western civilization's enemies have been making it pay the bill for a prior generation's misogynist excesses: most of the representative pop-culture artifacts from 1965 to 1980--from Ken Kesey and Easy Rider to Saturday Night Fever--seem to treat women as a species of radioactive trash. It's not even what these books and movies are about: it's just sort of taken for granted.

    I pass over Fritz, which has enjoyed occasional and misguided efforts at rehabilitation despite being--like every half-excreted thing Ralph Bakshi ever had a hand in--unwatchable. The Warriors (a sort of New Wave Clockwork Orange) has no merit whatsoever except for what it absorbs from its mangled classicism, but is a high-voltage pole for nostalgia if you were born in 1972 or earlier. (Everyone, I think, remember their first sight of the Baseball Furies on illicitly viewed late-night TV.) Seen now, it turns out to be a relentless anti-female charter: the beleaguered Warriors wouldn't have had much trouble making their way from Pelham to Coney Island if they weren't tripped up continually by a meddling Deborah van Valkenburgh, the omniscient radio voice of the (unseen but unmistakeable) Lynne Thigpen (R.I.P.), a scheming gang of sirens called the Lizzies, and a trap laid in Central Park by a young Mercedes Ruehl. This was the stuff you grew up on if you were born in 1971!--movies in which the heroes were, basically, unapologetic rapists. You took it in with your Cheerios and Dubble Bubble! The men who are now between the ages of 30 and 40 may be pretty feminized and dessicated, but it could have been much worse.

  • Trey Parker's Orgazmo, an early lo-budget, lo-brain effort that surfaced for some reason in 1997. Like me you may be tempted to bet on the genius of a South Park co-creator despite the movie's bad notices, but, sadly, those notices turn out to have been entirely just. Even the characteristic "Oh no he didn't!" laughs fall flat, although Parker is pretty charismatic here--more so, maybe, than in the cult favourite Baseketball--and has a weirdly enjoyable rapport with sidekick Dian Bachar.

  • The Matrix Revolutions. Only one comment seems necessary: it's not every movie that has an actual character named Deus ex Machina.

    - 11:36 pm, August 26 (link)

    Bad batch II

    I guess Carolyn "Americans Are Bastards" Parrish felt left out of yesterday's feature on Liberal women and their opinions on continental missile defence. She'll be getting all the attention she wants and more, if only from the Prime Minister, after her Wednesday outburst:

    "We are not joining the coalition of the idiots," Parrish said at a small anti-missile-defence rally outside the Parliament buildings. "We should be joining the coalition of the wise." ...Asked to clarify her latest outburst, she denied saying Americans are idiots and asked media not to air the comments.

    That's one way of putting it: the Reuters account has the Wisdom Queen literally begging reporters not to quote her after being caught in a lie.

    Parrish... at first denied using the term "idiots", and when reporters pointed out they had her remarks on tape, she said: "I don't mean Americans are idiots. ...Please, guys, don't put that on tape. I already got into trouble once... Really, please, I've had enough trouble."

    It's those damn tape recorders that keep landing Parrish in the soup! There really ought to be a law...

    - 12:32 am, August 26 (link)

    Quadrophenia 2004

    Alexander Panetta's CP story on the unanimous stance of the Liberal women's caucus against Canadian participation in continental missile defence provides a ringing answer to all those questions about why Paul Martin didn't elevate more females to cabinet: he got stuck with a bad batch.

    Panetta could locate no Liberal women MPs who support cosmetic political cooperation with a military plan that we don't have to pay for or devote resources to, that is purely defensive, that has a bipartisan consensus behind it in the U.S., and that could enrich potential Canadian military and engineering contractors. He got four quotes from opponents of missile defence, all of which--even, perhaps, to an opponent of the idea--display varying degrees of defective thinking. Least objectionable is Anita Neville's--

    ...many feel very strongly about it--that we did the right thing in Iraq and that (abstaining from missile defence) is the right thing to do here.

    --although it ties together two completely unrelated topics: the whole basis of objecting to participation in Iraq was that it was not justifiable on the grounds of national self-defence, one had thought. (Is Iraq to be used as a permanent pretext for opposing all American initiatives involving the common defence of the continent?) Slightly more befuddled is Sam Bulte's quote:

    Personally I think that you'll find a lot of consensus among women my age, who are mothers and parliamentarians, that we're not interested in missile defence. All this weaponization of space, the reality is Mr. Bush has not said he's going to rule it out. ...I think we should be proactive, the same way we were in Iraq.

    Leaving aside the "weaponization of space" canard (and the horseshit about "mothers"), what strikes one here is the surprising redefinition of the word "proactive" as a synonym for "passive". Eleni Bakopanos, by contrast, embraces a venerable form of political insanity without being too mealy-mouthed about it--

    There's generally a consensus among women that pacifist options should be pursued at all levels.

    (Don't you love it, ladies, when someone saves you the trouble of expressing your own opinions?) But the booby prize surely belongs to electoral fraudster Maria Minna, who offers a confusing objection to the concept of missile defence.

    It will only encourage rogue states to build and proliferate instead of minimize nuclear weapons. And really we should be dealing with the real threat--and that's terrorism. Terrorism isn't going to come in through missiles from rogue states. It's coming in every day, anyway. Look what happened on Sept. 11.

    It's a proverbial failure of generals that they are always ready to fight the next war on the principles of the last: here, we have a rare armchair general who actually seems to think that's a good idea. One must say that the "terrorism vs. mass destruction" thing sounds somewhat like an informed objection to missile defence--it echoes Robert Gard's arguments--as opposed to the merely philosophical and self-refuting objections of an Eleni Bakopanos. But national defence planning, in general, doesn't take the nature of a choice between mutually exclusive single threats. Is it really Minna's view that the U.S. isn't doing anything, at all, to resist the "real threat" of terrorism?

    One can also imagine that there might be some merit to her argument that missile defence, pursued in earnest, will force "rogue states" to redouble their nuclear arsenals and missile programs in an effort to overwhelm the half-implemented shield. But we're talking about countries here that are trying to reinvent the atomic wheel with scientific and administrative cadres depleted by the inevitable anaesthetizing effects of totalitarianism. Countries where--as travellers in the Middle East can tell you, and as I'd presume to be true of North Korea--ballpoint pens are prized artifacts of irreproducible foreign manufacturing sophistication. These "rogue states" are never likely to be able to stamp out working warheads and missiles in numbers that would vex the productive capacity of the United States of America. And even if they had unlimited access to cash, brains, and fissionable materials, it's not clear that engaging them in an arms race would be the wrong thing to do. There appears to be an unrefuted consensus that the mere threat of American missile defence won the Cold War; you would think that even a "soft power" advocate would have learned this large-print lesson of recent history, and made suitable emendations to her screechings.

    It is, of course, welcome to hear that the Tamilophilic Minna has developed such grave concerns about terrorism. She can convince me easily that she's aware of the next "real threat" the continent faces from without: having cited September 11, she only needs to point out where in the record she is shown, with all her confidence as a strategist, to have foreseen it. She claims to have a crystal ball now; where was it when it might have done some good?

    - 1:34 am, August 25 (link)

    First you need endurance

    Updates to the site were patchy over the weekend because I was recovering from the final stretch of what I'm now calling the None But a Blockhead Project, a 2,500-word backgrounder on Canadian politics for an upcoming Dave Sim Festschrift in The Comics Journal. Dirk Deppey, who I think was still mixologist-in-chief of ¡Journalista! back then and is now managing editor of TCJ, didn't have to work too hard to convince me to do a long essay that I'd have the whole summer for and that would appear in one of my favourite magazines. Although the compensation is meagre, I am glad I was forced to go past 1,200 words for the first time in, probably, two years. I'll probably need the expanded wind if I'm to take up the slack from the truncation of my Post workload.

    I had underestimated the amount of research required for the piece (it came to about 3,000 pages of reading), and, more relevantly, the difficulty of burrowing to the core of Sim's blistering contempt for modernity. Any attempt at a summary, even the pictorial sort one might construct in one's own head, will raise more questions than it answers: OK, he's a hyperrationalist antifeminist who practices a personal form of gnosticized Islam... wait, what the hell did you just say? It's obvious enough that the man is a national treasure, but it's honestly hard to tell whether it's the sort of treasure you find in Dante or Milton, or the sort represented by Simon Rodia or Dr. Emanuel Bronner. In the end I stuck close to the safer shores of recent Canadian political history. I'll add a link to the TCJ piece from this site when I'm able.

    - 2:55 pm, August 23 (link)

    Your correspondent waxes cultural in today's National Post (subscriber-only link) with a column about the catastrophic fountain, dedicated to the memory of the Princess of Wales, that re-opened Friday in Hyde Park. The botched design of this granite abortion is so awful that there have been more problems--a mudslide (!) and another injured tourist (!!)--since I filed the column less than 24 hours ago. Since the story's still developing, perhaps a relevant excerpt from the column is in order:

    A fountain was deemed the perfect way for Londoners to remember their beloved princess, who was at her best amongst children, and would have approved of making space in Hyde Park for them to splash about joyfully. [Architect Kathryn] Gustafson specifically promised to deliver such a space, and looked on at the fountain's opening as the kiddies were turned loose within the slick curves of her meditative fixture.

    Now she can't imagine where anyone got the idea that the fountain was for any such damn fool thing as wading, telling the Daily Telegraph on Aug. 3 that "It was a mistake when it was opened to think that people should be able to walk or play in it." No one's mistake in particular, you understand. There have been other problems with the fountain: It is ringed with deciduous trees whose leaves instantly began to clog the drains, although Ms. Gustafson knows who to blame for that one. She pointed a finger at a careless deity in the Telegraph piece, talking of an "extraordinary" high wind that "was ripping leaves off the trees." The temerity!

    Here's last week's poo-stirring column about the future of marriage in a "multicultural" Canada...

    Are you enraged by the presence of polygamy in Canada? Too bad: You might as well learn to like it. Some newspaper columnists and a great many letters-column correspondents have suddenly become concerned with preventing backwoods weirdos and self-made sheiks from forming plural marriages in our country. Best of British luck to them. We can, and surely shall, choose to drag this issue through every court and arena of public opinion we possess. But the final outcome, for my money, is inevitable.

    For years, troubling reports have been emerging from Bountiful, a southeast B.C. town where polygamists have been practising an unreconstructed Mormonism for decades, marrying off 16-year-olds in job-lots to community elders thrice their age. The B.C. government is now investigating reports of coercion and abuse in Bountiful, and there are questions about possible immigration violations. There may well be cause, in the end, for traditional criminal charges to be brought. And perhaps adventurous prosecutors can, on grounds other than multiple marriage, topple the icky patriarchal structure that governs the town.

    But the British Columbia police have long refused to take action against the community's open practice of the polygamous lifestyle, as such. Despite the statutes limiting us to one husband or wife at a time, the cops say their hands are effectively tied by Charter of Rights guarantees of religious freedom. What they mean is that these guarantees are likely to be construed by the Supreme Court of Canada, should it come to that, as permitting marriage between one man and many women.

    There exists a serious question whether the police are usurping the function of the judiciary by anticipating it in this way. But no one acquainted with the animating ideology of our high courts can doubt the cops' mind-reading is more or less accurate. If it were simply a question of snaggle-toothed proto-Mormons versus feminists concerned that polygamy is facilitated by (and perpetuates) an environment of psychically oppressive sexism, the Bountifullers would certainly be helpless against our laws and governments. But they will have on their side, if only implicitly, Canadian Muslims who regard polygamy as a sacralized cultural tradition. And by the time the matter comes to issue, if it ever does, they are likely to be able to cite the existence of legal same-sex marriage in their favour as well. The lesbigay cavalry, without doubt, will be pressed into the rescue effort whether it wishes to be or not.

    Canada is standing on the precipice of abolishing the traditional legal definition of matrimony as involving one man and one woman. This will be done with the support, judging by polls, of about half the Canadian public. I count myself in that half, though in a wavering sort of way. But I am aware, in so counting myself, there is no logical seam that will let you change "man" to "woman" or vice-versa in the classic equation, but then balk at changing a "one" to a "two" or a "three" or a "sixty." This slope, I'm afraid, is pristine in its slipperiness.

    Having unmade matrimony, we could simply dig in and assert stubbornly, arbitrarily, that "marriage is defined as the union of no more than two whatevers." I expect that this would be a pretty popular solution, despite its illogic. But it wouldn't be popular with the minorities excluded by it, or with courts that need important pretexts for restricting the civil privileges of such minorities.

    One of the ironies on display will be that of liberal feminists hoping to prevent harem-formation by pounding their fists and asserting the cultural superiority of the Western way of life they have spent 30 years denouncing as a femicidal conspiracy. They will be left looking even sillier the first time some moneyed Saudi immigrant to Canada asks why homosexuals should be the only ones who get to rewrite the common law of marriage on selfish grounds.

    And there is no good answer, unless you think "That's just not how things are done here, dammit," is a good answer, as stern conservatives do. Polygamy -- to understate the matter considerably -- has a much firmer track record than same-sex marriage. It is a genuinely tenable "alternative lifestyle" that extends real benefits to its practitioners. The most notable victims, actually, are probably the men ultimately denied wives by someone else's collector instinct, since males and females are born in roughly equal numbers. Feminist opponents of polygamy are, thus, probably serving the interests of those men more than anyone else's.

    During the argument for gay marriage, we have been asked, incessantly, to simply "keep an open mind" and imagine the possibility that such an arrangement might be happy, permanent and beneficial. But open your mind that far, and you'll find that polygamists -- like it or not -- can make the same case, upon a good deal more data. There is a line here that, for better or worse, we simply do not have the cultural courage to draw yet. (July 30, 2004)

    - 7:50 am, August 23 (link)

    Big Blue Machine

    The 1994 Montreal Expos are one of baseball's great what-if stories--what if they'd played out a full season?

    ...I was playing around with the Streak Reports on some time ago, and noticed that from August 19, 1993 through May 5, 1995--a full 162-game schedule including the entire 1994 regular season--the Expos won 110 games and lost just 52. The Expos finished the 1993 season on a 31-10 tear in a futile attempt to catch the Phillies, went 74-40 to post the best record in baseball in 1994, and opened 1995 with a 5-2 spurt before slumping to a last-place finish with a depleted lineup. For that stretch, they were, in plain sight, a great team for one full season's worth of games, similar to, say, the 1975 Reds (108 wins), the 1986 Mets (108 wins), or the 1984 Tigers (104 wins).

    The Baseball Crank has all the numbers.

    On a cheerier note, you can now download a Devo-enhanced trailer for Wes Anderson's forthcoming The Life Aquatic.

    - 8:27 pm, August 20 (link)

    Highs and lows

    Marc Emery, the Canadian businessman and marijuana activist, has been given a three-month jail sentence by a Saskatoon judge for handing a joint to a supporter in the aftermath of a pro-hemp political meeting in March. "Trafficking", you know. I'm afraid CP's wire story doesn't quite capture the flavour of the proceeding, so one must turn to the Star-Phoenix's Dan Kinvig:

    Emery, a well-known marijuana seed dealer who founded the B.C. Marijuana Party and Cannabis Culture magazine, was arrested at the Vimy memorial bandshell on March 22 following a pro-pot speech at the University of Saskatchewan.

    Crown prosecutor Frank Impey told the court that between 20 and 30 university-aged people showed up at the bandshell with Emery. A witness interviewed by police confirmed seeing Emery pass one joint, but no money changed hands. Emery produced four marijuana cigarettes containing a total of 2.3 grams when searched by police.

    Bear in mind that a gram is about the weight of a paper clip.

    Impey conceded the amount of marijuana in question was small, but emphasized Emery's 10 prior drug offences warranted more than a suspended sentence or a fine. "Mr. Emery has been fined in the past and his behaviour continues," said Impey, who suggested a term of three to six months.

    Leanne Johnson, Emery's lawyer, said her client was making a political statement and he did not profit from passing the joint. Johnson also argued that the public attitude toward marijuana has changed, noting Prime Minister Paul Martin plans to reintroduce legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug. But [Judge Albert] Lavoie cut her off.

    "I'm not here to discuss the pros and cons of marijuana," he said.

    In this land of "conditional sentences" in the "community" for manslaughter, it seems the law's hands are still tied when it comes to victimless crimes.

    - 9:35 am, August 20 (link)

    More content! In today's National Post you can read my assessment of the outgoing Governor-General and a piece of controversial advice for the next one. That link is for subscribers only, but all and sundry can now read last week's column about flying things.

    I'm afraid I take the Generation X view on missile defence. Retired American Lieutenant-General Robert Gard was in Ottawa on Tuesday, trying to convince Canada to take a stand against the Bush Administration's imminent deployment of experimental anti-missile technology. Gard argues that continental missile defence probably won't work, isn't needed, and will divert funds from other American security initiatives. It's a serious subject with potentially profound geostrategic ramifications. But I'm afraid I couldn't summon up much more than slacker anti-platitudes. "Missile defence? What-ev-errrr."

    It just seems to me that we Canadians don't spend much time enjoying the benefits of our inattention to national defence. I would love it if we had elected a federal government with a practical foreign policy and a plan for rehabilitating the Canadian Forces. But most of us voted the other way. Fine. So let's go ahead and enjoy our lassitude. Having forfeited a practical say in continental defence, surely we can chill out and let the neighbour that cares about this stuff, and is capable of paying for it, make the decisions?

    Apparently not. The people responsible for discarding the practical mechanisms of our national sovereignty are naturally most insistent on preserving the pretense of it. So although nothing we say or do can alter the American administration's true course of action (though it could certainly injure NORAD), we regard ourselves as obligated to replay the American debate on missile defence domestically, and decide for ourselves -- like an eight-year-old meditating on Daddy's tax return -- whether it is a good thing. The whole box of eels could even be a potential deal-breaker for the Liberal minority government, which must placate starchy New Democrat feelings about the Reaganite heritage of "Star Wars" while meeting a firm electoral commitment to co-operate with the U.S. government. And it serves them right.

    Lt.-Gen. Gard's credentials are usually presented with a curious gap: Few reporters mention his close connection to that convert peacenik, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. As McNamara's executive assistant from 1961 to 1968, Gard was something of a sub-midwife to the Vietnam War. It would be mean to suggest that he brings to this issue all the brilliant strategic insight which drew America into that struggle. But it is worth noting that, for all his long public service, his views (like McNamara's own) are now outside the mainstream of contemporary American leadership in both parties.

    There is a curious tendency on the left to treat missile defence as a singular obsession of the so-called "Bushies," but the Clinton administration went ahead with what used to be called the Strategic Defence Initiative. It's President Clinton's timetable, more or less, that Bush is now trying to meet. Clinton did slow the pace, but only late in his second term, when he was a half-lame duck and international support was needed for NATO action against Serbia. John Kerry, who as a senator voted against SDI funding about a zillion times, suddenly "evolved" into a supporter when it came time to run for the presidency. There is no anti-missile-defence candidate in the presidential race, any more than there is ever an anti-medicare candidate in Canadian elections.

    The U.S. public and its military establishment have made up their collective minds. And as North Korea and Iran proceed with nuclear development -- coupled with some hair-raising missile testing in the former case* -- one is inclined to regard dismissals of the ballistic threat from rogue states with hyperextreme skepticism. Gard makes the point that American ports may be a much weaker link in the chain of defence against nuclear and radiological attack, and it's a good one. But he makes an odd bedfellow of the disarmament crowd travelling in his wake to denounce missile defence.

    He helped organize the "generals' letter" of March, in which 49 senior U.S. military figures urged the Bush administration to scale back active deployment of certain ground-based anti-missile systems. Far from being a disarmamentarian charter, that letter's argument is predicated on the old Cold War-era doctrine of mutually assured destruction. It is "highly unlikely," the letter says, "that any state would dare to attack the U.S. or allow a terrorist to do so from its territory with a missile armed with a weapon of mass destruction, thereby risking annihilation from a devastating U.S. retaliatory strike."

    In essence, Gard's stated position is that as long as the U.S. is still prepared to wipe small countries off the map, missile defence is unnecessary. Do the NDP and the anti-war left agree?

    Gard might even be right about this, though I would say he is dangerously overestimating the rationality of the adherents of death cults like radical Islam and Korean-communist juche. In any event, the generals' letter is now being used as an internationalist shell game. Gard was able to find many signatories because the complaint is closely circumscribed: Mostly, it's a quarrel with the degree of testing to which one stage of American missile defence has been subjected. But now it's being waved around (outside the U.S.) as a supposed cri de coeur from the upper ranks of the American military, in the same precincts where mutually assured destruction used to be described as "MADness." History takes some funny turns. (August 13, 2004)

    *Even as I was writing these words last week, Iran was doing its level best to catch up with North Korea in the unapologetically aggressive nutbar missile-testing sweepstakes. What was that you were saying about an Axis of Evil, Mr. President...?

    - 3:52 am, August 20 (link)

    Isoperialist? Impolationist? Brand new and 100% live at thoughts on the newest version of the "Fortress America" canard.

    - 8:39 pm, August 19 (link)

    Cigarette absolutely not optional

    I couldn't be more proud to introduce the latest awesome Internet craze to the Dominion of Canada and the ships at sea. Ladies and gentlemen, break out your digital cameras and Do The Lynndie.

    - 1:49 pm, August 19 (link)

    Just say nault?

    Only in the Medical Post--where physicians occasionally tell each other things they might not necessarily share readily with the general public--would you get a headline like "A colonoscopy to remember". The jest here is that normally patients don't remember colonoscopies because they're given Versed beforehand; the MP story is a rare after-the-fact account by a doctor who took it like a man without letting her memory be erased. But the surname in the byline--"Arsenault"--has to be a pseudonymous bit of bathroom humour, doesn't it?

    - 1:32 pm, August 19 (link)

    Random browsing day

  • Today's Achewood turns out to pretty much nail the story of Photoshop's origins. Well, maybe not, but the hair is about right. One brother was trying to persuade the Macintosh to display grayscale images; the other was taking a vacation from Industrial Light & Magic, where he was working on a little thing called PIXAR; and the rest is history.

  • "Famine--the lack of food--is principally a man-made condition. It is not a natural phenomenon or act of God." This was one of the hard but encouraging lessons humanity learned in the 20th century: that only command economies can make the bizarre economic errors required to leave large numbers of people utterly without food. The economist Amartya Sen received a Nobel Prize for establishing, as he says, that "no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press." Which brings me back around to my original quote. It was not uttered by some development officer wrangling grain shipments from behind a desk in New York: it comes from a newspaper in a country on the verge of serious famine, namely the Nation of Nairobi, Kenya.

    I don't make a particular pursuit of following politics in Africa, but since the Internet magically globalized major newspapers, what I've noticed (and what ought to have been obvious) is that Africans, far from being passive victims, typically know quite well who is to blame when they're going hungry. Three years of spotty rainfall have "caused" famine conditions which were declared a national disaster by President Mwai Kibaki on July 14. About 2.3 million people are now in peril of malnutrition, and the Kenyan government--having relented on its opposition to food aid that might include genetically-modified content--is appealing for large quantities of maize, in tandem with the World Food Project, UNICEF, and other international agencies.

    All of which will focus, in presentations and reports to the press, on how very dry the weather has been; and none of which will emphasize the rampant corruption which led the EU to cut off foreign aid to Kenya just last month. Or the fact that the country's national strategic reserve of maize was sold off wholesale at cut-rate prices two years ago in a series of dodgy transactions. Or that the import of maize is tightly controlled by the "parastatal" Cereals and Produce Board to provide price supports for domestic farmers trying to grow a rain-hungry crop in semi-arid regions. (Or even the superstitions which circumscribe Kenyan dietary practices.) In the West, as a rule, African hunger is reported on as a crime without a culprit.

  • Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair Dept.: Egyptian builders constructing a post office have discovered the remains of another site once devoted to the ubiquitous (and obviously psychopathic) pharaoh Ramses II. The find includes the largest sculptural head yet known of the XIXth dynasty king; comically enough, it was uncovered by tomb robbers.

    It was actually the illegal excavators exploring a tomb in the modern necropolis who stumbled upon a huge head of Ramses II. The head was 2.60 metres in diameter and was wearing the royal nemes head-dress. "The [illegal] excavators were caught red-handed, but only after they had revealed another important part of the magnificent statue," Abdel-Aziz said.

  • And finally, one gets the impression that we are about to hear more about unrest in the northeast Indian state of Manipur, where a student protester set himself on fire Monday and ran nearly a mile before collapsing with mortal injuries. Short version of the trouble, as best as I can work it out: Manipur, the ancestral home of the game of polo, was not made part of India when the British pulled out in 1947, but was cajoled--in a transaction no doubt involving many crores of rupees--into merging its independent principality with the new Indian state two years later. For much of the time since--thanks to separatist sentiment, standard-issue ethnic tension between hill and valley people, and Communist meddling--it has lived under the sour black cloud of an "Armed Forces Special Powers Act". We all know how much ordinary folks love that sort of thing. Keep your pen ready, War Nerd. (Manipur also appears in history as the entry point of Subhas Chandra Bose's Japanese-backed Indian National Army into the subcontinent in 1943.)

    - 4:07 am, August 18 (link)

    Theoretical novelty

    Fischer file latest: the chess legend's Japanese girlfriend has suddenly announced the couple's intention to wed. Let no one say that she failed to answer when opportunity knocked! The move, obviously, will be too late to prevent Fischer's deportation, but there is hope amongst Fischer's supporters that it will introduce "humanitarian considerations" to the Japanese government's decision-making. Apparently Fischer has implicitly backtracked on his claim that he wants nothing further to do with Japan. has a long Japanese magazine article about the arrest and a pretty unsettling photo of a Saddam-emerging-from-his-hole-esque Fischer being detained.

    - 2:38 pm, August 17 (link)

    One less competitor

    At 87, that old crock Walter Cronkite is quitting his syndicated newspaper column, which most of you probably didn't know he had. I never did see a single person cite it, hear anyone discuss it, or even witness an attack on it. An entire nation simply averted its eyes in pity. I haven't read his valediction, but judging from Reuters' excerpts he seems to lack the vestigial humility one might demand of someone whose preeminence in American life is long vanished, and was based mostly on the parts of his career spent reading other people's words into a camera lens.

    The newsman said he values the Internet as a research tool, but he finds some stories published on the Web -- scandals especially -- play too fast and loose with the facts.

    "I am dumbfounded that there hasn't been a crackdown with the libel and slander laws on some of these would-be writers and reporters on the Internet. I expect that to develop in the fairly near future," he said.

    Well, here's hoping you live long enough, Wal-Tor, to behold that day when people finally wake up and realize that the Internet is a mere "research tool", incapable of the serene objectivity and probing intelligence of network television news.

    - 2:20 am, August 17 (link)

    You get what you pay for

    I am losing too many valid messages to Hotmail's blindly aggressive spam filter--it dumps good ones into "Junk" faster than I can add correspondents to my "Safe List"--so I'm switching the link at top left to point to a new Gmail account. I had thought to road-test Gmail a little while longer, but the Hotmail false positives are just growing too outlandish for me to persist in my notorious inertia (you know, the kind that still has me hand-coding a weblog). You can still reach me at indefinitely if you're inclined to chance a wrongful junking.

    - 7:35 pm, August 16 (link)

    If same-sex marriage is on its way, plural marriage can't be more than ten minutes behind: that's the theme of today's Post column behind the subscriber wall. It's actually a slightly shopworn topic, at least in the conservative press, but it seems to have been very catalyzing amongst readers all the same, judging from the Inbox. I'll probably have more on the existing debate, and on reader responses, when I copy the column here in a week's time.

    - 4:36 pm, August 16 (link)


    Every year a formal ceremony observing the anniversary of Japan's surrender in the Second World War is held at Budokan, and the attendees, including the Emperor, pray for the souls of the 3.1 million Japanese who died. The Asahi Shimbun observes in its coverage of this year's ceremony that few war widows are still able to attend the event, and that the parents of war victims were represented Sunday by a single attendee--Mrs. Michiko Okamura, 95, of Hiroshima. There is plenty in the story, including the annual Yasukuni Shrine watch (in which the number of cabinet ministers visiting the ghostly heart of Japanese militarism is carefully monitored by the country's Asian neighbours).

    - 3:29 am, August 16 (link)

    Hey! You got some David Stove in my Aaron Haspel! -5:47 pm, August 14
    John Holbo has opened a Crooked Timber thread pursuant to this entry. -4:14 pm, August 14
    It so happens I am on crack, and it still sounds nutty

    Paul Wells is on a rather excellent tear about college and university tuition fees (start with that entry and work upwards one at a time).

    Yes, I'm calling for higher tuition fees--at the very least, on those programs of study that produce a reasonable expectation of high incomes after graduation. It's just nuts for cab drivers and janitors to subsidize the education of business students and engineers.

    This means that the gentleman who worried I was sounding "dangerously NDP-like" is off base. No, the NDP wants the lowest possible tuition fees. Free university education is their ideal. I like that ideal too, but let's all understand what it means: that the majority who receive no university education must entirely subsidize the grooming of a national leadership class. This is enlightened social policy? Sure, if you're on crack.

    Ratcheting up tuition fees would create new problems of economic calculation for universities. Wells is essentially calling for a closer approach to market pricing for collegiate education here, but as von Mises taught, there's only one thing that can really do market pricing, and that's a marketplace. Anyone planning to introduce a fiat scheme for imposing different "value-for-money" tuitions on different sorts of degree had better be prepared to replace the original egalitarian débâcle with a thousand new, small ones.

    The change still seems worth making, and indeed many schools have already begun making it in Canada, torquing tuitions for the prestige postgraduate degrees. What we still have, though, is not only a system that subsidizes affluent people at the expense of many middle-class ones, but arguably a system that cross-subsidizes law, medicine, science, and engineering undergraduates at the expense of liberal-arts students. (One guess what kind of degree I have.)

    And then again... one is almost tempted to make the opposite case: maybe liberal-arts and humanities degrees should be priced much higher with respect to their ostensive future cash value than ones in which the quality of the training and the demand for trained labour is fairly easy to measure. At the very least it would shoo 34-year-old permastudents with low courseloads and heavy "activism" schedules out of our SU buildings, and create pressure on instructors to deliver value in the classroom. For that matter, it might encourage universities to stop relying so heavily on footloose sessional labour while tenured superstars remain M.I.A. The thing that strikes you is that one cannot say to within an order of magnitude how over- or under-subscribed arts faculties are right now. Do we have twice as many young people taking degrees in English as we ought? Or five times as many? Or a hundred? It could even be half, I suppose.

    If you're like me, you can sit down for fifteen minutes and think of a dozen ways, all worth trying, to improve post-secondary education in this country. We should, I think, consider introducing a cheap sub-baccalaureate, lasting 18 months or two years, that offers the rudiments of Western thought, history, and good English to every young person without the senior-level seminars and research training of the full four-year meal deal. [UPDATE, Aug. 14: The truth of the comment on Mark Steyn's sidebar must be conceded here.] We should consider coding baccalaureates according to levels of student achievement: we don't take our domestic versions of summa and magna cum laude very seriously, and we seem to regard the various bachelors' degrees as more of a half-contemptible endurance test than anything else.

    We might consider charging different tuitions for different undergraduate years, as a fellow suggested to me over the phone not long ago. He was trying to hunt up someone with the surname Cosh (I couldn't help him) and when he found out I was a newspaper columnist he talked my ear off, pretty insightfully, for a half-hour or so. He feels there is little point in offering a tuition subsidy to the many, many youths who are going to party their way out of university in about 14 months, and thus he believes that everybody should have to pay a big schwack of his share of a four-year tuition up front. I don't know that I'd want to discourage experimentation with the academic life, but the guy has a point: it's the entryway to the meat grinder that is crowded right now, and we could discourage the uncertain and lazy, while encouraging determination amongst those already enrolled, by adopting something like his pricing idea.

    There are loads of things we could try. We could do more encourage the pairing of traditional university disciplines more closely with vocational education, letting students try Latin and astronomy for half the year while they learned their way around Photoshop or a natural-gas plant in the other half. (If a liberal education is really any use, there's no reason it should be denied to people destined for the trades.) We could formally tier the level of tuition subsidy according to some standardized test of intellectual potential, giving the top n students in a province free undergraduate educations while hiking the price for the rest. If we had some trusted, valid equivalent to the SAT, we could even put the subsidy on an actuarial basis: those most likely to complete an education that returns value to "society" could receive proportionately bigger breaks on tuition. We could--and this is already a cliché--be doing more with the Internet to allow people to learn at their own pace and in their free time. The net, practically by accident, is already becoming a sprawling continent of free but poorly-organized course material, and maybe we should get serious about allowing people to turn this bounty into a transferrable, tested credential. Or simply to enjoy the philosophical benefits of exposure to the core ideas of mathematics, economics, or, ah, philosophy.

    And then again, maybe we should just close up the public universities and see what springs up in their place. I'm a libertarian--I'm always standing over the Gordian knot with a sword in my sweaty, spastic paws. One thing is sure: the current system militates like the freaking Wehrmacht against any sort of progress, experiment, or intelligent change.

    [UPDATE, Aug. 16: A UBC student sends along the data behind his school's halfhearted attempt to price undergraduate degrees differently.]

    - 11:09 pm, August 13 (link)

    Today's Post column brings the happy news--which will be universally ignored--that Canada doesn't really need to have a passion-fraught domestic debate on continental missile defence. Americans who sit patiently through long stretches waiting for me to cover American subject matter should come back in a week and look for that one. In the meantime here's last Friday's (pretty good!) column about Dalton McGuinty.

    They say in the 12-step recovery programs, and they say wisely, that the first step in curing a disorder is admitting you have one. On Tuesday, the beleaguered Premier of Ontario finally hit what alcoholics call "rock bottom."

    "My name is Dalton M., and I have a credibility problem ..."

    At a (mercifully great) distance, I have been watching Premier Dalton McGuinty sweat for 10 months now. And I mean "sweat" literally. Maybe it's just puckish news photographers at work, exercising their sovereign power to inflict visual torture, but every day McGuinty's face seems to get a little more strained and shiny. He looks like a guy whose mother is on Death Row. Something in him finally snapped the other day: In a lunchtime speech to the Liberal riding association in Markham, he did what few lie-ensnared politicians ever do -- he owned up. He even did so in more or less plain English, though he certainly did his best to misdirect. "I'm not for an instant denying that I made a promise and I've broken it," he said, "but I'm also asking people to take a look at the circumstances that led to that."

    Granted, the quotation is a bit confusing. Far from having broken "a" promise, Mr. McGuinty has trampled what must be dozens. Auto insurance; disability payments; highway tolls; electricity rates; the new healthcare tax; municipal de-amalgamations; drainage subsidies; urban sprawl in the 905... Stop me before I run out of space, Mr. Editor.

    It's well and good for the Premier to say it all comes down to Conservative fudging with the provincial ledger. One sympathizes with the unwitting inheritor of a diseased institution. But, as many Ontarians have asked, how did the Liberals come to be so unwitting? It's traditional, as I understand it, for opposition parties to operate research mills staffed with people capable of analyzing a balance sheet and spotting trickery therein. These shadowy wizards are known as "accountants," and you can find as many as you like (yes!) in the Yellow Pages. Even Alberta's quixotic opposition parties, which are financed on a frayed shoestring, do a decent job of spotting flaws in the budgeting process. In B.C., challenges to dodgy accounting helped Gordon Campbell's Liberals impeach the NDP morally and overthrow it. By contrast, Ontarians seem to have elected an opposition that was unprepared to govern.

    Sure, maybe all the alternatives were equally lousy. But there is a profound moral hazard involved in excusing Premier McGuinty his shattered hordes of terra cotta oaths. Just how many broken promises would be too many? Is he to be permitted unlimited treachery just because the numbers weren't right and his own people didn't have the energy or the intellectual wattage to question them? Forgiving the Liberals would mean extending carte blanche to build a whole new catacomb of lies for the next election ("Ontario will put a man on the moon by 2010"), and then plead "circumstances" the minute the votes are in. If a screwy budget will serve to liberate a man from his word of honour, any old thing might do.

    Part of me admired McGuinty's attempted judo throw of the voters. What he said Tuesday, lightly paraphrased, was, "I'm being upfront with you about not having been upfront with you before." For a moment I could feel for a man driven to such a desperate tactic. But, alas, he kept talking. "Some people will say: 'Well maybe you've made too many promises, McGuinty.' Well, maybe I did, but I'd rather be accused of being overly ambitious for Ontarians than to side with the cynics who will tell you that you can't really make a difference."

    Is it me... or did the Premier of Ontario actually say... that it is better to make stuff up than to "side with cynics"?

    I'll remind you of Cosh's Interpretive Principle, which I intend to repeat until it enters general usage: "Cynicism" is a politician's term for "hatred of politicians." Whenever one of these slug-like beasts does something creepy, dumb or destructive, and is criticized for it, his response is always to denounce "cynicism." Where do these office-holding prats go to learn these infantile debating techniques? Is there a secret school somewhere that teaches Tie Selection and Advanced Thermonuclear Gibberish? It's worth remembering that the original Cynics of ancient Greece were seekers of virtue who rejected the illusory values of the marketplace. The powerful didn't have much use for them back then, either. (August 6, 2004)

    - 1:52 pm, August 13 (link)

    But he ain't no sheep

    I feel a bit cheated by Brian Lamb's self-cancellation of C-SPAN's "Booknotes": watching the show has been one of the pleasures of finally owning a computer that can intelligently handle medium-band video throughput. Lamb has a unique interviewing style that's unduplicitous but possesses the staccato rhythm of a "gotcha" sitdown. Half the time you feel "Jeez, he's roasting this guy", even though Lamb may only be asking what kind of attaché case an Undersecretary of Defense carries. The process yields a weird stream of pure information with occasional detours into the absurd. I watched the Sir Martin Gilbert episode mentioned in the Post (every author, of course, has a lifetime maximum of one appearance) in which Lamb interrupted the verbal rally with a request for a definition of "buggery". Charlie Rose, one suspects, probably wouldn't have done that.

    - 11:15 pm, August 12 (link)


    The weirdest judicial publication ban in Canadian history appears to have been suddenly blown aside by the announcement that Dave Hilton Jr.'s sexual assault victims are collaborating on a book. Hilton, a wildly popular Montreal boxer, was convicted in March 2001 of having abused "two young sisters" for years from the time they turned 12. The court adopted the standard procedure of requiring journalists to conceal the sisters' identity. The undisclosed twist was that the victims were Hilton's own daughters.

    I assume that every living scribe in the country knew this, since the word passed through the grapevine as far as our miserable little ink mill on the tundra. But until now it has not, to my knowledge, been advisable for anyone to write it. It's hard to know what effect the media ban had on the public perception of Hilton's case, though one's instinct is to assume that it mitigated the horror of the crime in the eyes of those outside Montreal. He certainly didn't lack for vociferous supporters in his hometown. Hilton's release from prison has been delayed by his continued protestations of innocence and his refusal to accept clinical treatment. Earlier this year he even refused to attend his own parole hearing.

    - 5:21 pm, August 12 (link)

    Back from Toronto

    I suppose the couple that put me up for the weekend didn't realize they were making such a wonderful black joke by having a paperback copy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation lying on the coffee table when I arrived. I was thumbing through the book and was reminded that, at the outset of Asimov's space epic, the galactic capital--a vast, crowded, barren planet frantically maintaining a tenuous grip on empire--is called "Trantor". Coincidence or prophecy?

    I kid. We provincials are fond of complaining that Toronto regards itself as the "centre of the universe". But, honestly, what else can we reasonably expect? I'm not certain any other city so closely resembles what the actual metropolitan centre of the universe were to look like if such a thing existed. And I mean this in both bad ways and good. Listen to the polyglot hum emerging from the television and the street; consider the historical layering and the Herculean churn of the city's architectural scene, which runs the gamut from ruins-in-progress to outrageous new confections; ponder the way Toronto tries (oh so very hard) to assert a proprietary interest in universal mass culture by obsessing over its movie shoots and semi-notable part-time residents. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that "there's no there there"; in Toronto's case the genius and the calamity may, equally, be that there's an everywhere there, trying to fit into a somewhat narrow geographical space.

    - 1:15 pm, August 11 (link)

    All right--I'm off, more or less... unlike most webloggers I can't really afford some sort of schmancy wireless-equipped laptop that would allow me to post second-by-second from the road. (Now I'm in a bar! Now I'm on the observation deck of the CN Tower! Now I'm shooting smack down by the Don River!) I may check in, but more likely you'll be hearing from me early Wednesday. Enjoy your August weekend... -The Management
    Friday's Post column about Dalton McGuinty is behind the subscriber wall--not a problem, of course, if you're a subscriber. Newsstand grazers should remember that I'll be skipping Monday's. Here's last Friday's column about free trade.

    A little while ago I was reading up on the new free-trade agreement between Australia and the United States. A pact has been signed, and the Australian Labor Party, which holds the balance of power in the Senate, is now deciding whether to let it pass or reject it. Australia's Green Party is arguing passionately for the latter course. That much is predictable. But I was nonetheless startled to see a recent observation by one of the verdant-hued Aussie MPs, who doubtless thought himself very shrewd in making it. Australia's Liberal-led government, he noted, is telling Australians that free trade will benefit Australia. But the American trade reps, conniving wretches, are telling Americans that free trade will benefit the United States.

    "I am not an economist," the backbencher admitted, but he felt sure that "Those positions cannot exist at the same time; they are mutually contradictory."

    There you have, I think, the apotheosis of opposition to free trade. It's a naive view of wealth creation as a zero-sum game: If someone gains, someone else must lose. A person, firm, or country can only enrich itself at another's expense. That's only logical, isn't it?

    You don't have to be an economist to know how frivolous this "logic" is, though it helps. When economists talk about free trade, there's inevitably some fiddlefaddle concerning "Pareto optimality" and "G-cubed" thrown about. But at root, the economists' overwhelming consensus in favour of trade liberalization is a simple recognition of first principles. If two people or institutions have engaged in a trade, it must have been -- in their judgment -- a mutually beneficial exchange. Otherwise, why did it take place? Every freely contracted exchange delivers, in principle, gain to both participants. Expanding the universe of possible trades between two countries can only enrich both sides (though not necessarily equally).

    Still, zero-sum logic is terribly compelling to some minds: Every leftist heresy from pre-Marxian socialism through environmentalism is arguably founded on it. I believe it to be based on a certain kind of narcissistic projection. Consider: This column I'm writing is not worth as much to me in cash as it is to the National Post, so the paper takes it and sends me a cheque. I spend the money; the Post uses the article. Everybody wins. But what if I were convinced that there was some very high intrinsic, or essential, cash value to my words -- that, say, every column I wrote was, perhaps in God's or Marx's or Gaia's eyes, "really" worth $10,000?

    Why, I would regard the necessity to sell it for much less as an injustice, and my whole working life as a barrage of such injustices. I'd be screaming "Unfair! Unfair!" and my screams would join the infinite, unrelenting chorus directed at that ghastly predator, The Market.

    I bring this up because the Democrats finally pushed me over the cliff of comprehensive irritability on Wednesday night. During her address to the party's national convention in Boston, I heard the Canadian-born Governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, start off saying "We want trade with other countries ... lots of it," and then pause, condescendingly, as if any adult in the United States could not have anticipated the kicker: "But we want it to be fair trade."

    That's trendy baby talk for economic planning: "fair trade" equals centrally planned trade. The Democrats want to forbid international exchanges they dislike, particularly ones that let people in cash-hungry places demand a lower price from American companies for their labour. They perceive a patent unfairness when some unionized American factory worker whose wages have grown obese is suddenly underbid by a foreigner. The American, after all, was getting what the job was "really" worth.

    It's the same intrinsicism in a different guise. The "fair" wage, which exists only in the mind of the politician, is postulated to actually exist somewhere out there in the world of forms. But it certainly doesn't exist in the mind of the Third World worker trying to compete with it.

    Because our economic health depends on the continued commitment of the American government to free trade, and because these Democrats might take back the White House or the Senate in November, it is vaguely worrisome to hear senior Democrats babbling in such a fashion. The good news is that regional trade agreements are very durable. Hell, on a casual analysis, they appear rather more durable than nation-states nowadays. Politicians are always threatening to shred or revise them, but in practice they never seem to get around to it. And with good reason. (July 30, 2004)

    - 8:39 am, August 6 (link)

    Old wounds

    I suppose a great many of you have visited Dave Kopel's copious catalogue of Deceits in Fahrenheit 911. I experienced the uncanny after following Kopel's link to something I hadn't seen before: the New York Times 2000 presidential election decider, which allows you to pick a set of ballot-acceptance standards and find out whether, according to information compiled during the "media recount", Bush or Gore would have won.

    My hasty thought process--I was just taking the Times "web widget" for a spin--was that on optical ballots, only filled ovals, rather than "any marks indicating choice", should qualify for counting. I figured that if you can't follow a simple, visual set of voting instructions, you can't really complain about disfranchisement. In cases where more than one person examined each ballot, I figured that unanimity was a reasonable standard to expect. And when it came to punch-card ballots I could allow holes with "chads detached at three corners" to serve as a signal of voting intention, but two corners seemed to be leaving the door open a little wide. So I, playing god, made my choices and hit "Show Results".

    By the best known guess, if the statewide Florida vote had been counted according to my reasonable-seeming criteria, the final result would have been:

    George W. Bush: 2,915,247
    Al Gore: 2,915,245
    Bush margin of victory: 2

    Uh... yeah. Whoa.

    - 8:33 am, August 6 (link)

    Planes, brains, and automobiles

    Speak of the devil: TAS Online is delivering a power-packed day Thursday. In the latest issue, Clinton W. Taylor industriously delivers the straight dope on that Northwest Airlines flight with the Syrian musicians: this piece is not to be missed. Bob Tyrrell checks in with a a view of Mike Tyson very different from my own (q.v.), and a John McCain-hatched plan for a national boxing commission that probably wouldn't solve the problems he thinks it would. ("A boxer going the way Tyson did in the early 1990s would be sobered up with suspensions and other sanctions," writes Tyrrell, but Tyson's behaviour in the ring wasn't a problem--was, in fact, pretty exemplary--right up until he gnawed Evander Holyfield's ear.) And finally we have some nobody named Colby Cash delivering a postmortem perspective on a great American editor.

    - 1:38 pm, August 5 (link)

    The word of the day is "vicissitudes"

    I've been much preoccupied lately with trying to get everything out of the way for my weekend trip to Toronto. (Anyone still hoping to meet me there had better trust to luck; it's a short trip and I'm afraid my calendar has gotten pretty full already.) It all reminds me why I don't leave town more often. I probably haven't been further away than Calgary during the two-year life of this weblog. Of course, I had just suffered a pay cut when it started, and I then lost my job outright at about the one-year mark. It took another four months to crawl back to slightly ahead of my old income, and just about the rest of the second year to pay off the resulting debts and redress various unfunded liabilities.

    And, of course, once you're standing upright, that's when they kick you in the balls... I've been informed that, beginning at the end of August or thereabouts, my National Post column will be appearing once a week rather than twice. Room needs to be made for the homecoming of David Frum, new faces like my fellow Edmontonian Charles Mandel, and of course that distinguished pensioner in need of a hobby, Miss Sheila Copps. I ought to have seen it coming, I suppose; even as things stood I was just about the last Post columnist with two rotation slots. And the paper has been awfully kind about the blow, giving me a few weeks to rustle up other assignments and boosting my per-column fee despite a tight budget. My tentative plan is to relinquish the Friday slot and hang on to Monday's--which is always the harder one to write, but if I have to return to the grind of reporting, it will be much better to have weekdays free.

    I'm going to try to hunt up a place in someone else's rotation if I can, but I'm really not sure how much cachet my year in the Post has given me. Editorial-page bosses weren't exactly knocking down the door before the Post rescued me from obscurity, and, to be honest, I'm not sure that my literary style hasn't frayed slightly at the seams under the pressure of daily-newspaper deadlines. (I'm also not sure anybody else pays even half as well as the Post.) Beginning very soon, you can probably expect to see more of my work on, and the excellent Western Standard seems amenable to some sort of arrangement. So I won't be reduced to baked beans and Kraft Dinner this time. And I will try making the half as much of me in the Post twice as good.

    In the meantime, this website will probably be silent between the 6th and the 10th, and I'll be skipping my usual Monday Post column on the 9th--adjust your timetables accordingly.

    - 7:11 pm, August 4 (link)

    I've chipped in a new post over at The Shotgun... go check it out. -12:32 am, August 3

    Another tragicomic note: Bobby Fischer has published a personal account of his arrest and detention at Narita Airport. I should note, I guess, that the provenance of what I've been calling "Fischer's website" has never been established to a certainty. He's usually referred to on it in the third person. But I am, shall we say, unusually confident that a prose style like his can't be imitated.

    Fischer's logorrhea is of a sort recognizably predicated on the conviction that he is superior to everyone else--something which, when it comes to chess, is more or less certifiably true. But about three-quarters of the way through his cri de coeur, the genius gives us a classic Idiot Legal Argument:

    ...both the Japanese and U.S. government by illegally and in collusion destroying Bobby’s passport have violated in a most brazen way Bobby’s constitutional rights. Because the U.S. constitution says that a person cannot be deprived of his property without due process of a law. [sic]

    The case that Fischer was not properly informed of the revocation of his passport seems strong, but relying on this particular due-process argument will strike anyone who's looked at a U.S. passport, or any other country's, as hilarious. The thing isn't personal property. It's there in bold capitals at the start of the section marked "IMPORTANT INFORMATION": THIS PASSPORT IS THE PROPERTY OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT.

    Incidentally, Fischer confirms in his latest website posting that he was, as I had guessed, trying to get to Manila at the time of his arrest.

    - 6:22 pm, August 2 (link)

    Once more unto the breach! The subscriber wall has magically parted for my Monday National Post column about Mike Tyson. As part of this amazing two-for-one offer you can come back, when you've finished that, and read last week's.

    The final report of the U.S. government's 9/11 Commission was tossed out into the election environment on Thursday like a steak into a cage full of wolves. Frontline coverage was concerned mostly with looking for traces of blame that could be assigned to President George W. Bush or his Democratic predecessor. There wasn't much to be found. A few commentators took the workmanlike approach and reported the commission's actual recommendations, which reflected a recognition that secrecy and bureaucracy are necessary to a great power's intelligence-gathering, but must be trimmed like a hedge once every generation or so.

    Almost no one, understandably enough, has talked about how impressive the report is as a pure objet d'art -- as a monument. Yet for at least the next decade or so it is bound to stand as the fullest, most meticulous possible chronicle of an irreproducible, unprecedented day. What struck me on reading the report, particularly its clinical but harrowing first chapter about the hijackings, were the grotesque Fortean coincidences that remind one just how small the fraternity of the air is, and how much stress it came under on 9/11.

    At 8:14 Eastern time that morning, United Airlines Flight 175 took off from Logan International Airport in Boston on its scheduled run to Los Angeles. At precisely this moment, hijackers were seizing control of American Flight 11, which had left 15 minutes earlier on the same route and which would be the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. At 8:42, United 175's pilot, Victor J. Saracini, made his last transmission to the Federal Aviation Administration's New York Center. "New York UAL 175 heavy.... Ah, we heard a suspicious transmission on our departure out of Boston, ah, with someone, ah, it sounded like someone keyed the mikes and said, ah, everyone, ah, stay in your seats."

    Saracini, we now know, had actually overheard the hijackers activating the wrong microphone in the cockpit of American 11. Within the next few minutes, Saracini and First Officer Michael Horrocks were themselves attacked and murdered. At 8:47, United 175 swung around, headed for New York City and changed its transponder codes -- but this went unnoticed for precious minutes, because 175's controller was also in charge of American 11, for which he was frantically searching on the radar screen. Flight 11 had, in fact, struck the WTC's North Tower seconds before. It wasn't until 8:51 that the controller noticed that United 175 had vanished too. Confronted with a situation that took most of us days to absorb, this controller needed only two minutes to overcome what must have been staggering doubts and conclude that Flight 175 might have been hijacked, too.

    He began furiously clearing the airspace in the region and informed his manager; she tried to reach senior FAA officials, but more time was lost because they were still conferring about American 11 and "refused to be disturbed." Who could imagine a second hijacking on the same day? Flight 175 hit the South Tower at 9:03.

    It's a small world in those control towers, and a small world up in the sky. One unnamed pilot -- surely the only human being who can say this -- was a witness to both the third and fourth crashes on September 11. He was ferrying an unarmed C-130H Hercules from Washington, D.C., to Minnesota for the Air National Guard when he was asked by panicky Reagan National Airport controllers to follow a jumbo jet whose identity couldn't be confirmed. It was, as they feared, the hijacked American Flight 77. The Hercules pilot just had time to spot the aircraft and identify it as a Boeing 757 before it ploughed into the Pentagon. He resumed his original flight path and, 27 minutes later, delivered the first earthly word of black smoke rising from a Pennsylvania field at the last known position of United 93.

    It is strange that a dossier on the greatest catastrophe in the history of civil aviation should build confidence in the tenuous network of fliers, ground personnel and military servicemen who keep the skies safe. But the impression it gives is not of error heaped upon error; leaving aside the open sore of airport security, there are few positive mistakes described in the report's account of Sept. 11. The professionalism of a few thousand extraordinary individuals was simply driven past all known limits. Chains of command were broken; personnel were forced to concoct decisions from sketchy information; highly trained people stuck to procedure when panic might actually have been more suitable. A group of fighters at Langley AFB in Virginia was scrambled to intercept the missing United 93 without being given a destination; the pilots, having been ordered only to get into the air, followed a generic flight plan which took them 60 miles off course (east, instead of north toward D.C.) before anyone noticed. They did just what they had been trained to do, with inhuman speed, and in 99 of 100 circumstances it would have been right.

    On that particular day, nothing much was. But the military didn't end up shooting down any civilian planes by mistake, which is damned fortunate, given the conflicting orders and information we now know it was dealing with. And the entire American airspace was cleared without incident, in a superhuman act of traffic-control choreography, after the fourth crash. As we analyze the "failures of imagination" that made 9/11 possible, it's worth considering the humble successes of professionalism that kept it from being worse. (July 26, 2004)

    - 4:20 pm, August 2 (link)

    What's the current bid on Gigli, I wonder

    In May, Duke University paleoclimatologist William Hyde was griping on a USENET science-fiction group about the novel annoyances that the scientifically illiterate movie The Day After Tomorrow had introduced to his life. Asked the nth time over for a "review" of the movie, he told the group he wouldn't waste his time on it unless someone offered him $100. A cruel interlocutor immediately kicked $5 into a fund for the purpose of calling Hyde's bluff, and challenged others to match him. The $100 goal was reached June 16. You can now read Mr. Hyde's excellent review of the movie--for free! Ah, only on USENET. An overview of the entire exchange can be seen here. (All via Kottke.)

    - 5:32 am, August 1 (link)

    Fall down go bouma

    The Microsoft Typography site has posted a scientific paper--a sort of discursive literature review written by psychologist Kevin Larson--that explodes a myth common to, and perhaps universal among, professional typographers. Larson came to work for MS straightaway after finishing his Ph.D. After giving a few in-house talks about the reading process, he was surprised to hear type designers insist indignantly that readers recognize words not from individual letters in sequence, but from their overall shape en bloc. As a cognitive scientist specializing in reading, Larson had never even heard or contemplated such a model of reading; in the academy it had been long discredited. Larson's paper is the elegant, layman-friendly story of how the idea--which seemed to have good evidence behind it at one time--gradually came to be rejected.

    - 5:15 am, August 1 (link)