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ARCHIVES for August 2005

The Needleman Incident

Seven chess players. Six available slots in an important international tournament. One 15-year-old genius. Don't miss the latest cause célebre in international chess at

- 8:42 pm, August 31 (link), a fantasy sports site founded by formerly anonymous folk hero Jeff Ma, has some "beautiful evidence" pointing to the identity of the major leagues' finest outfield throwing arm. It's beautiful, but also inappropriate, since it uses hue to represent a scalar quantity. And admittedly the overall conclusion only confirms what fans already suspected. (þ: BTF.) -7:31 pm, August 31
Maybe this is unduly controversial or ill-informed,

but isn't much or most "looting" of the sort we're seeing in New Orleans just "salvage" in fast-forward? Are there really shop owners in downtown NoLa who think it's super important that their furniture or electronics are ruined by moisture over the next month rather than stolen? Isn't it arguably a good thing that valuables are being retrieved--by poor people who contrived to last out a hurricane without much help from the authorities--from a city that, for all relevant purposes, is now gone? I don't for one second apologize for anyone who uses violence against a neighbour; beheading and being fed to the crocodiles is too good for that sort. And non-violent looting cannot and should not be excused when the target is a good that's non-perishable and invulnerable to water, like jewelry. But it's pretty hard for me to get worked up about reports of people breaking and entering into pharmacies or convenience stores. Surely the wise merchant will have already written off inventory of that nature.

- 1:07 pm, August 31 (link)

Moog, R.I.P.: this Post column from last Wednesday provides only the most superficial survey of the man's accomplishments. Or at least it did until I added footnotes!

Robert Moog, whose name was literally synonymous with the first generation of commercial music synthesizers, died of cancer on Monday at the age of 71 in Asheville, North Carolina. It's hard to know just how to specify Moog's legacy. It would be wrong to just cite a list of artists that employed Moog-branded synths--but then again, it would be impressive. Consider just one fact. In late 1968, when Walter Carlos's "Switched-on Bach" revealed the artistic potential of the Moog, the systems were so expensive that the factory in Trumansburg, N.Y., never shipped more than about 10 per month. Nonetheless, brand-new units were sold to the Rolling Stones in September 1968, the Byrds in October, the Beatles early in the new year, and Simon and Garfunkel in March.

Talk about a customer list: pop royalty doesn't even come in that size anymore. (Strangely, the Monkees beat all these guys to the punch, buying and recording the Moog a full year before anyone had heard of Walter Carlos.) It's arguable whether any of these creators ever made really tasteful use of the instrument, though it does add a nice shimmer to the Fabs' "Here Comes the Sun". For a while, in '69 and after, the world was plagued with opportunistic releases now cherished by cheese-collectors as "moog records." But soon creators like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Yes mapped out the territory more carefully, and learned to use synths intelligently in an ensemble.

Moog's importance isn't about the Moog, as such. The key to understanding the man is that he started out in 1954 manufacturing theremins. The theremin was an electronic instrument invented in 1919; you've heard its distinctive swooping moan in the original Star Trek theme. It creates a beautiful effect, but the sound tends to overpower any context it's used in. And there exists what we now call an interface problem: the theremin is played by moving one's hands in a space framed by perpendicular antennae. You can't bring manual skills learned on another instrument to the theremin.

Moog was only one of at least three men to invent the analog synthesizer independently, but his machine is the one that sold, and his name is the one that people remember. (He was also, at the time of his death, still the world's most esteemed fabricator of theremins.)¹ It's hard to imagine now, but in the early 1960s, there was no consensus on the most practical control interface for electronic sound. Experimenters were messing around with round buttons, touch-sensitive metal strips, all sorts of ideas.² Moog, conscious of the theremin's history and limits, was the one who attached a familiar-looking black-and-white piano keyboard to the guts of the synthesizer machinery. This sacrificed some subtleties possible with other interfaces--but it allowed piano players to sit down and play synthesized music immediately.

As a business decision, this led to the commercial (and artistic) success of "Switched-On Bach", and the Moog-mania that followed. In a way it also did for the equal-temperament keyboard what Alan Turing did for the computer: it turned it into a "universal machine." And it suggested the possibility of other interfaces based on traditional instruments. In 2005, guitar players and even percussionists have access to the same infinite sonic palette as keyboardists.

Having practicalized synthetic music, Moog proceeded, with 1971's Mini-Moog, to bring the price within range of the ordinary working musician. From that point onward pop music gradually became suffused with synth--almost, perhaps, to the point of strangulation. Guitars began to seem passé by about 1980, and few listeners of the time would have imagined stage performers still strutting around in the 21st century with large wooden boxes on their chests. We have learned that the resonant qualities of old-fashioned acoustic instruments cannot be replaced or discarded so easily. Even the old analog Moog synthesizers have become prized for their own distinctive sound and mood, rather than for their ability to replace more traditional instruments.

If the pop of the synth age seems unnecessarily cold and severe at times, it should be remembered that every romantic movement in art has its classical antithesis. Moog's unforgiving invention injected a certain welcome rigour and hygiene into the louche, drug-fogged world of early-'70s pop. Nobody looks especially cool³ standing behind a synthesizer; you'd better be able to play a melody on the damn thing, or there's really no point. Robert Moog was a self-described "electronics nerd" who handed fellow nerds a gigantic musical sledgehammer. Which may be the truest reason he is being mourned so keenly this week.

¹He also invented the bass pedal, an indispensable item in the gear kit of small ensembles. Geddy Lee is probably the musician most closely associated with it.

²I recall reading that at least one early exponent of the analog synthesizer didn't attach a performing interface to the voltage console at all. The artist was required to program the notes in advance on a primitive sequencer, and follow along with the machine through hell or high water.

³Florian Schneider is the sole known exception.

Paul Mitchinson has a fascinating post on Moog and the cruel utopianism of electronic music.

- 11:26 am, August 31 (link)


Did anyone besides Norman Spector catch Val Sears' little drive-by from Tuesday's Ottawa Sun?

Certainly, Harper cannot be a winner as long as his national policies are devised in Alberta, that porcine province with little connection to the rest of the country.

Leaving aside the insult, I must say I've never seen the case for Alberta separatism put so succinctly. Have you noticed that it's routinely argued for much more passionately by central Canadians than it is by Albertans?

- 8:46 am, August 31 (link)


I'm sandwiched between two deadlines right now, but I thought I'd stop in here and freshen up the page. The earlier of the two deadlines was for my Western Standard sports column. I don't suppose I'll catch hell for telling you it's about the use of the Louisiana Superdome as a refuge for the stranded poor in the path of Hurricane Katrina. Will this become a (literal) killer argument in favour of public funding for expensive stadium projects, particularly domed ones?

Meanwhile, the global-warming crowd has, according to Glenn Reynolds, come out on cue to blame climate change for Hurricane Katrina. Ironically, if this premise is accepted, it can easily be turned on its head by the Lomborgians as a powerful demonstration that industrial democracies should be reducing their structural vulnerability to the effects of climate change rather than taking futile symbolic actions to prevent it. Did New Orleans do enough to prepare for a disaster that was more or less inevitable (and acknowledged as such even under formerly existing climatic conditions)? The way the Louisiana highway system was re-engineered on the fly to permit car owners to flee was an extremely impressive display of American genius. However, it is hard to deny that many of the poor were "left to drown" under the emergency arrangements. And yet again, it's equally hard to imagine a more practical way to provide for them than the one New Orleans was forced to adopt in extremis--namely, throwing open the doors of the Superdome and hoping that it wouldn't be totally destroyed by the storm. I speak here as someone too broke to own a car: should there be buses on standby for 30,000 people like me throughout the summer in New Orleans?

However these debates turn out, there is likely to be more attention paid to the wisdom of public policy that persuades people to live in areas that are certain to be flattened or washed away every 20-60 years or so. (See this snide but trenchant 2004 piece by John Stossel.) I admit that New Orleans has a long history, and that this point may be more applicable to Gulfport or Biloxi. There will be overwhelming public sentiment in favour of rebuilding New Orleans exactly as it was before it went completely to hell. But my sense is that the city didn't catch an unlucky break on Tuesday; it caught some ordinary luck after decades of the exceedingly good kind.

Antonia Zerbisias complains that "years of environmental degradation has destroyed the city's natural defences", referring (presumably) to the southeast Lousiana barrier islands. (In the same breath, she seems to regret never having had the chance to groove drunkenly to zydeco on Bourbon Street and collect beads at Mardi Gras. Was it St. Augustine who said "Send me environmental consciousness, O Lord, but not yet"?) But coastal erosion is the natural process here, and what defenders of the barrier islands are proposing is a halt to the natural evolution of the Gulf Coast for the benefit of humans. Perhaps that qualifies as environmentalism if it's a government that does it. And pumping sand into the ocean may be a good idea anyway. But it's worth noting that the barrier islands did, to all appearances, do their best to protect human habitations on Tuesday. The sandbars and the warm water of the delta diverted Katrina eastward towards Mississippi shortly before landfall, much as they did in the case of Hurricane Camille. (Local reporters covering the progress of the storm displayed undisguised jubilation at its last-minute right turn, not even pausing to regret the terrible consequences for Mississippi.) The eyewall of the storm missed the city of New Orleans completely, and Katrina lost power with unusual rapidity, dropping from a 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale to a 4 shortly before landfall, a 3 before the eye was even parallel with New Orleans, and a 2 by mid-afternoon. Katrina was not an extraordinarily bad hurricane in pure physical force, and the natural defences did act on it. They just aren't enough.

And neither, it seems, are artificial defences like levees. There may be excellent reasons for an American to be living in a south-facing semi-tropical oceanfront polder. (I like to think I have good reasons to live near the site of a tottering riparian fur-fort that existed 90 years ago on the edge of the boreal forest.) But whether there are excellent reasons for FEMA to pay people and businesses to return to the same places is another question. The agency really has no choice but to underwrite a blind Andrew-style reconstruction effort here, but in the future, actuaries could consider awarding bonuses to swamped residents willing to relocate inland. It might, at any rate, be cheaper than rebuilding New Orleans in its current configuration all over again a second time.

[UPDATE, 7:39 am: All Zerb, all the time! In today's Star Ms. Zerbisias writes:

For once, the apocalyptic hurricane coverage that cable news so often serves up has been borne out by the magnitude of the tragedy in New Orleans. This time viewers were not subjected to ridiculous live shots of reporters tilting into winds that blew over.

Obviously we were watching different channels (though it's not as if that second sentence makes any sense). The hurricane coverage at my house was a resplendent buffet of tilty reporters. Anderson Cooper cut a memorable figure, dodging fallen barge-cranes and generally looking like a Gemini astronaut in a high-G simulator. "This is CNN... and I'm melting! Meltinggg!" NBC's coverage from Jackson, Miss., featured a reporter who braved the outdoors through the worst of the storm, though admittedly he avoided tilting into the wind by dancing around it in a curious, indescribable fashion. Very jeet kune do. The New Orleans CBS affiliate, forced to migrate to Baton Rouge, had live pictures for a while from a reporter in Gulfport; eventually he was reduced to audio-only. His last dispatch of the night, delivered with audible terror from inside a fire station, was cut off after the words "...the wind is tearing the doors off...". I think he might be dead.

Bonus Zerbisiasm:

In 2001, a hurricane strike on New Orleans was ranked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as one of "the three likeliest, most catastrophic disasters" that could hit the U.S., along with a terrorist hit on New York and an earthquake in San Francisco. Since then, the army engineers' budget has been cut by 44 per cent. Not a sound from the national media.

There's plenty in the column about the Bush administration's contempt for the environment, but I'm damned if I can find anything else about the reforms to the Corps of Engineers that led to the budget cuts. Where did the pressure for the reforms come from? Where else? Environmental groups that have been crusading noisily for years against wasteful and ecologically harmful Corps projects. This could account for the relative silence of a "national media" that lacks Ms. Z's Star talent for spectacular own-goals.]

[UPDATE, 6:46 pm: A greeting to readers of National Review's pioneering Corner.]

- 2:55 am, August 31 (link)

Refusing to Neal

Everybody already knows what the "five tools" for a general manager are: spin, swindling, schmoozing, hiring people who make you look smart, and pinching pennies. That aside, Neal Pollack's Slate piece on the cult of the general manager is an instant classic. (Why, yes: since you asked, I do much prefer the new, no-longer-trying-to-make-a-career-out-of-piledriving-a-tired-joke-into-the-ground Pollack.)

- 1:32 am, August 30 (link)

Team speed? For Christ's sake...

A scene from today's baseball action: Oakland is in Baltimore, trying to go a full game up on the Anaheim/California Àngeles de la Porciúncula or whatever they're called this week. Score tied 5-5 in the bottom of the 8th. A's All-Star reliever Justin Duchscherer gives up a leadoff double to a bush-league Venezuelan first baseman named Alejandro Freire. Freire comes out for a pinch-runner, Luis Matos. Duchscherer proceeds to dig the latrine deeper by misplaying a David Newhan bunt, which puts runners on the corners with nobody out.

This was a good time to lay a bet on the lead runner scoring and Oakland probably having to go to Anaheim on equal terms with the Angels. The A's infielders even come in to make sure of the double play and concede the run. But when Duchscherer gets Sal Fasano to bounce to short, Matos remains rooted to the spot like a mighty California redwood as Oakland turns the twin-kill. Camden resounds with boos as the last batter is quickly retired. Baltimore's bullpen runs out of gas first, in the 12th inning, and Oakland wins 10-5.

My question to you is this: doesn't this seem to happen quite a lot? It's rare that a pinch-runner makes the difference between a run and an out by himself, but about equally often--to my eyes, anyway--he will mess up or just run the team out of an inning. Orioles third-base coach Rick Dempsey took the blame for the Matos play, admitting he had told Matos to hold up when he should have had him running on contact. If you don't have him running, there's no point in making a switch which might cost you at the plate later on. (Freire was 2-for-3 with a walk when he was pulled; Matos stayed in and later led off the 11th with a groundout.) So maybe what we need instead are pinch coaches?

Bonus question: Duchsherer's throwing error came in a standard bunt situation, but it got me thinking too. Shouldn't we maybe be seeing more freestyle bunting against young relievers? It sometimes seems like none of these guys can field the position worth a damn...

- 12:18 am, August 30 (link)


Yesterday, close to 250 protesters gathered on Parliament Hill to demand the prime minister rescind [Michaelle] Jean's appointment [as Governor-General].
Protest organizer Debbie Jodoin, a member of the conservative group Free Dominion, questioned whether Jean was the appropriate choice to represent the queen in Canada.
"Who comes first, Madame Jean? Quebec, France or Canada? Madame Jean, where do your loyalties lie?" asked Jodoin, calling attention to Jean's dual French and Canadian citizenship.

And while we're at it, what kind of passport did those shady characters Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain carry?

There are good reasons to oppose Michaelle Jean's appointment, but her "dual" citizenship doesn't strike me as one of them. I put "dual" in quotes only because the adjective is being so widely used; I would have thought that Ms. Jean was at least a triple citizen, but perhaps someone has already explained how a person born in Haiti might have misplaced her natal rights in that country.

I don't think dual citizenship is particularly rare in Canada. [UPDATE, Aug. 30: A reader supplies an official estimate of 700,000 resident dual citizens and 6,000 triples.] When I expand my Google Talk window to display the ten people I e-mail the most, I find (using my best guess) four dual citizens and a fifth who's arguably on the way (he's a Canadian native living in the U.S. with a green card and an American girlfriend). A sixth is married to a citizen of the U.K., which requires three years of residence (and "good character") before naturalizing spouses. For all I know there may be more in the lot. I don't suppose any of these people consider themselves disloyal. Some of them have made use of the economic and travel advantages of dual citizenship, and I challenge anyone to deny that he would do the same given the choice. (Note that carrying multiple citizenships can, in some cases, allow one's children to make residency choices they wouldn't otherwise possess.)

We live, after all, in a country that had no separate concept of citizenship for about half its history. Five or six generations of Canadians certainly would have been surprised to learn that it was in any way awkward to be both a British subject and a good Canadian. As a monarchist I would argue that it's still appropriate for Canadians--whatever their ethnic origins--to feel powerful emotional attachments to Britain. And it's only natural that a French-Canadian (or a Haitian-Canadian) would feel similar cultural attachments to France, attachments welded in place by law, language, habits of mind, and an intellectual heritage. I disapprove of the school of "conservative" thought that denies the special status of France and Britain vis-à-vis Canada; it is simply bad philosophy, and bad Canadian history, to challenge someone to produce a unitary declaration of loyalty to "Quebec or Canada or France." (Though there's no harm in asking them how they voted in the 1995 Quebec referendum.) I myself am ineligible for citizenship in any other country, but don't ever ask me whether I'm loyal to Alberta or to Canada if you think you might not like the answer.

- 7:43 am, August 29 (link)

Common sense, lost and found

Reader Tomislav Renic points out that there's one website that puts baseball's division and wild-card standings on the same page where they belong. Embarrassingly, the site in question is right in my own backyard, so to speak. (But it's still nice to have a graphical representation of the numbers.)

- 7:37 am, August 29 (link)


I'm up late watching streaming video from WWL, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina is about five hours from landfall; a meteorologist reporting from the Superdome--now full of twenty or thirty thousand people who had no way to escape--is explaining very carefully and literally that residents who ignored the evacuation order and remained in city homes are as good as dead. At last report, most of New Orleans still had power: some of those people are probably watching the same broadcast.

- 2:00 am, August 29 (link)

Half man, half journalist

Today's Saskatoon Star-Phoenix has a big feature about the relationship between weblogs and traditional journalism. You might think reporters Jeremy Warren and David Hutton are late to this party, and by new-media standards you'd be right. But their contribution is unusually deep--and, if it's all right to say so, by catching me after I spent much of the year giving lectures on the subject, they got the benefit of my pithiest and most carefully thought-out observations. (Bonus: the accuracy of the quotes is exemplary.) If you're reading me regularly, you will probably want to read this article. It's also a good time for Saskatchewan's press to acknowledge the rising influence of Delisle's Kate McMillan.

- 1:58 pm, August 27 (link)

No matter how you slice it, it's still andouille: Andrew Coyne has popped up with a very sensible take on Lance Armstrong. -5:31 am, August 27
My #1 info-representation pet peeve...

...recurs every year around this time as baseball's pennant races tighten. Let's say, reader, that you are a follower of the Oakland A's, and that it is August 26, 2005. How, you ask, do matters stand with the White Elephants? You check the American League standings. Looks like they're a game and a half behind the Angels in the West.

Wait, but what about the race for the AL wild-card spot? Better flip back to the entirely separate page of wild card standings, which doesn't contain the division leaders. Okay, Oakland's tied with New York and Cleveland for the wild-card lead. But if you've already forgotten how far Oakland was off the division lead, you have to switch back to that other page. And if you're interested in more than one team, or you want to know what happens if the Yankees pull away and Oakland has to catch Boston, you can find yourself spending ten minutes flipping back and forth, trying to get an overall picture of the entire playoff situation.

It's completely infuriating. In late August, a fan of a team in contention wants to know one fucking thing: how that team stands in the playoff dash. And even fans of doomed teams will have moved on and started following the contenders by now, so basically everybody wants to know this one thing. Every standings reference on the goddamn World Wide Web treats this one thing as two things, and put the two things on entirely separate pages so you can't view them at the same time. Am I the only one driven batshit by this?

This is a screencap of the gizmo I built for myself to solve the problem. It's basically an Excel spreadsheet that gives me a contextual view of the playoff race; it updates itself live whenever I jab "Refresh data". The "games back" scale is on the left side. I think it's pretty self-explanatory, so much so that it redoubles my anger at having to build it with only the benefit of my crappy programming ability and some Aspergerian elbow-grease. With something like this, the Oakland fan can see at a glance that the A's are a game and a half behind the Angels and tied with Cleveland and the Yankees for that wild-card spot. If I cared to I could fill the little coloured rectangles with the numeric text of each team's record and add a marker indicating the .500 level. And, looking at it now, I see (duh) that the Western Divisions of both leagues should be on the left.

This is a clunky solution to a problem of information representation, but as far as I know, nobody else on the planet has given the problem any thought (unless you count those magnetic standings boards you used to see advertised in Baseball Weekly, of which this is merely a digital adaptation). Grumble.

[For a previous adventure in baseball info-representation, go back in time to February of '04.]

[UPDATE, August 29: More here.]

- 2:58 am, August 27 (link)

Methamphetamine follies: say cheese

3 p.m. Tuesday: A Saskatoon Salvation Army staffer finds "suspicious materials" on the premises; after an initial examination, police conclude that the strange-smelling chemicals might be a meth lab or the remains of one. The residents are rousted out and hosed down, and police wall off four city blocks for much of the afternoon.

Wednesday morning: The Sally Ann clients are restored to their rooms, and a police spokesman tersely reassures the public that the chemicals were not, in fact, dangerous. The eminent Star-Phoenix offers no mention of what they, in fact, were.

Wednesday afternoon: That possible meth lab that shut down much of the city? Turns out it was a darkroom. Sure, dozens of people were humiliated, thousands inconvenienced, and the city's police apparatus immobilized for hours, but at least we're safe from the vinegary menace of stop bath.

- 8:48 am, August 25 (link)

A question

...for all you hockey lovers out there who have been calling for Todd Bertuzzi to be thrown out of the league forever and put in prison. Is it a particular problem for you that the Ottawa Senators just gave $13 million to a guy who killed a teammate and got zero jail time for it?

I assume there'll be a huge groundswell of indignation here, right? We don't want to "send the wrong message" about how seriously we take reckless driving after a night on the tiles, right? Heatley's displays of contrition shouldn't necessarily be taken any more seriously than Bertuzzi's just because he's a curly-headed cherub with no five-o'-clock shadow, right? The calls for Bertuzzi's head didn't have anything to do with him simply being an unpopular player before the Steve Moore incident--right??

Hey, I'm in favour of forgiveness, but when Bertuzzi was reinstated I got the distinct impression that I was the only one left who was. Now Heatley gets traded to the Sens and the phrase on every Canadian sports page is "fresh start." Maybe a whole lot of people got religion while my back was turned. It's been suggested widely that Bertuzzi shouldn't be allowed to come back to the league one minute before Steve Moore does. Funny--I don't remember anybody suggesting, when Heatley donned skates again, that he should have to wait for Dan Snyder's comeback.

- 12:30 am, August 25 (link)

Ambler fans: your hero is back from computer hell. -11:09 pm, August 24
Heavy metal civil war

Metal Hammer has a remarkable backstage report from an Ozzfest debacle that is making international headlines. The official Ozzfest site has a terse farewell to Iron Maiden: apparently it came as a total surprise and a grievous offence to everyone involved with the festival to see the Union Jack making an on-stage appearance at a Maiden show. Fancy that. (Is the display of any flag that's not the Stars and Stripes now considered a casus belli throughout the U.S.A.?) The Sheriff of Huddersfield has also issued a defiant bull on behalf of the Irons.

- 3:00 pm, August 24 (link)

Winston Churchill in a Yukon gulag

The history of Canada, as it happened not to happen. (þ: Geitner Simmons)

- 4:58 am, August 24 (link)

Shorter Pete Townshend

"I'm kind of jealous of my girlfriend's weblog traffic, but then again I did predict the internet before she was born, so there."

- 4:47 am, August 24 (link)

What's in a name

Sure, maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson was just a guy who was afraid of vampires. And then again, writes the Agenda Bender (er, two years ago), maybe he was an archmage of Europe's hidden voodoo traditions.

While we're on about Emersons, mourners of Dr. Robert Moog can read a short tribute from the Moog's most aggressive and flamboyant exponent. And check out this impressive pencil sketch of Moog by the artist who made him a household name.

- 4:39 am, August 24 (link)

The ball's in your court, Charlie Daniels. -4:19 am, August 24
Summer sporting scene: the columns I wrote for the July editions of the Western Standard were unusually popular with readers, and they're about due to appear here. The first is an introduction for North Americans to world soccer's most singular figure.

Hockey had Gretzky; basketball had Jordan; baseball had the Babe; and sports officiating has Pierluigi Collina.

Wait... Pierluigi who?

To those of you've watched international soccer, Collina will be familiar as "that bald Italian chap." But even those who recognize the cadaverous head may not realize that Collina is the most renowned and respected official in the history of professional sport. There is certainly no analogue in the more familiar North American games. And if you're tempted to disagree, consider a few facts.

Collina is paid almost as well as players for the use of his image in commercials and video games. Last year he was awarded an honorary doctorate in sports science by the UK's University of Hull. He has been voted the world's referee of the year six times. After a match at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the entire Chinese national team lined up to get his autograph. In June, Guardian columnist David McKie suggested (at least half-seriously) that the European Union's growing credibility problems could be solved by making Collina the EU's president. Throughout Italy, referees who blow calls are always greeted with the same cruel chant: "We want Collina!"

It is hard to specify what sets the man apart without resorting to platitudes. Without doubt, it is partly his curious appearance. At 24, Collina developed autoimmune alopecia, suffering unexplained, total, permanent facial-hair loss within two weeks. Before 1995, when he was added to FIFA's list of approved international refs, he was already recognizable to non-Italian fans, who first noticed the recurring "baldy" on highlight broadcasts, and then noticed that the "baldy" conducted smooth-flowing games while tolerating no theatrics. His pate and his bulging browless eyes make verbal barrackings from Collina frightening, but he is also quick to smile, and has even been seen comforting losing players after matches. His appearance may have made him Italian football's biggest star, but, as he observes, it also means that "If [I] were doing a poor job, everyone would know it was [me]."

Players simply don't mess with Collina: his presence cuts soccer's endemic diving and whining almost to zero. He is a noted proponent of preparing and positioning differently for teams according to their tactical setups and their propensities for trickery. His international assistants speak with awe about his intricate pre-game chalk talks. His physical conditioning equals any player's, and it probably helps his reputation that he used to make tackles himself, playing in the backfield of a Bolognese local club. Collina has detractors--particularly in Turin, where rowdy Juventus supporters are accustomed to being able to intimidate referees--but mostly he is admired by fans and players worldwide.

It would be unfortunate if Collina left the planet's best-loved game without receiving some of the attention that Gretzky, Jordan, and the Babe got when they departed. It's hard to believe that it could happen in super-progressive Europe, but Collina, at 45, has reached the age of mandatory retirement in Italian and international football. On June 8 he officiated in what might be his last Serie A game, a relegation playoff held in his hometown of Bologna. Eurofans are now waiting to see whether Italian officials will grant Collina a waiver to return for another year.

His fitness and visual acuity are undisputed, and in England, where the retirement age is 48, the footie-mad would like to see "baldy" calling Premier League and FA Cup matches. The FA is open to the idea, but it says it hasn't been approached by Collina. For his part, the legend has spoken of returning his original "future" profession; he's a financial advisor, and has kept an office open through his sports career. Some believe he will be named Serie A's "designatore", the official who assigns referees to individual weekend matches.

Perhaps it's a little weird that there should be an international cult surrounding a soccer referee. The laws of the game, after all, number a paltry 17. But interpreting them is more difficult precisely because they are so laconic. And, as in hockey, the quality of the gameplay in soccer is dreadfully dependent on that interpretive art. In fact, the next time I see my Oilers get burglarized by a Dennis LaRue or a Rob Shick, I know exactly what I'm going to shout. "We want Collina! We want Collina!"

This story hasn't quite been resolved. Collina was in fact granted an additional year by Serie A (though not by the UEFA), and the league chose a different official to serve as designatore. But then Baldy turned around and signed a lucrative advertising deal with Opel to flog the Vauxhall Vectra on TV. This violated Italian football guidelines, because Opel is also a major sponsor of powerhouse club AC Milan. (The vice-president of the Milanese club can't see why this is a big deal, pointing out that English Premiership refs are allowed to share some sponsors with league clubs.) The authorities have issued an "ultimatum" to Collina--drop the publicity contract or face sacking--and at last report he had yet to reply.

My next sports column for the Standard expressed sentiments that will mortally offend about half of you. The other half will say "It's about time someone said it."

This year's British Open, held at St. Andrews from July 14-17, offered an unusual amount of drama. Tiger Woods, who not long ago seemed to have lost the plot, held off the field and cruised to victory. Colin Montgomerie, a hard-luck Scotsman looking for his first major in front of a saltire-clad crowd, matched Woods' pace until the back nine on the last day. Fred Couples, a dazzling talent long gone astray, finished a stunning third. Alcohol- and food-ravaged superhitter John Daly hovered near the front of the pack all weekend, along with greats like Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer.

All terrific stories. And no one paid a damn bit of attention. All weekend, it was nothing but Nicklaus, Nicklaus, Nicklaus.

The Open was Jack Nicklaus's last competitive tournament. The dispute over the identity of history's greatest golfer boils down to Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, and Woods; Nicklaus is probably the strongest candidate, and when you factor in his legacy as a course designer, he is unquestionably the game's supreme figure. But by the time he reached the 18th hole of the second round, three shots shy of the cut, I was cheering for him to have one of those impaled-on-his-own-club freak accidents.

Nicklaus, 65, has spent the last quarter-century being frenched by sportswriters as he "left the game" in super-slow motion. When he started to reduce his competitive schedule in the early '80s, the hacks were already moaning about the end of an era. Then, at 46, he unexpectedly won the Masters, giving every pathetic Baby Boomer with a spare tire and a golf addiction dreams of defying Father Time. Ever since, Nicklaus has been the story whenever he was within ten strokes of the lead. By the late '90s, the phenomenon grew positively embarrassing, as writers jittered like children again and again over whether he'd even make the cut. Meanwhile, Nicklaus added fuel to the fire by griping about his back and his play. As early as 1992--Sports Illustrated's Gary Van Sickle wrote about this on Open weekend--he was telling sportswriters "This is probably my last British Open." He's had more farewell tours than The Who.

It would be fine if none of this impinged on the attention paid to actual tournament play, or to Nicklaus's great contemporaries. But look at Cam Cole's National Post piece from the Saturday of the Open. It begins with a quote from Tom Watson, "who spent a career trying to beat Jack Nicklaus." Maybe Cole's forgotten, but Watson and Nicklaus went head-to-head five times in the final rounds of major tournaments. At least three of these shootouts are immortal golf moments, and the 1977 British Open "Duel in the Sun" at Turnberry is considered the greatest of all. Watson won in the clutch, every single time. Five-and-oh. Somehow, in 2005, he has ended up as a faceless commentator who "tried to beat Nicklaus."

Still more embarrassing were the countless strained attempts to turn Nicklaus into some sort of unpredictable, lively neighbourhood character. Quin Hillyer's attempt to snap off a novelistic anecdote on National Review's website was lamentably typical.

Nicklaus spied a piece of left-over lemon cake among some goodies on the bar. 'That's a big, delicious piece of sin sitting there,' he said to no one in particular. Then, smiling and shrugging his shoulders, he devoured the dessert almost whole.

Can't you just taste the heroism? Nicklaus is still a compelling figure, but his intensity and majesty aren't really suitable for the comic-book treatment. The most uncritical behaviour of all came at the start of the Open, when the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a five-pound note containing images of Nicklaus on the back. North Americans freaked out: wow, a golfer on money! Try finding one single reporter capable of explaining that the concept of "legal tender" doesn't exist in Scotland; that the RBOS isn't a central bank; and that Nicklaus has had a sponsorship deal with the RBOS since 2003. In other words, the Nicklaus fiver was a cheesy collectible advertisement.

If any other sports figure had been involved, the gesture would have attracted snickers. But when it comes to Nicklaus no one wants to say "Bah, humbug." For all his former greatness, I'm glad he's finally leaving. He takes up too much room.

- 2:28 am, August 24 (link)

Sorry about the day or so without major updates--my ugly homebrewed system for updating the site requires me to, at one point in the process, snip an individual entry from one Notepad window and paste it into the index file in another window. I dropped the ball for the first time in three years last night, and I didn't have time to pick it up again, because I had to go to work on my column for Wednesday's National Post about the Turing of music, Dr. Robert Moog.

Consider just one fact. In late 1968, when Walter Carlos's Switched-on Bach revealed the artistic potential of the Moog, the systems were so expensive that the factory in Trumansburg, N.Y., never shipped more than about 10 per month. Nonetheless, brand-new units were sold to the Rolling Stones in September 1968, the Byrds in October, the Beatles early in the new year, and Simon and Garfunkel in March. Talk about a customer list: pop royalty doesn't even come in that size anymore.

Look for that on page A18. Or, if you're an electronic subscriber, right here.

- 2:10 am, August 24 (link)

PowerPoint and the shuttle: Matt Fenwick offers an engineer's perspective. -3:43 am, August 23
Unhappy punters

When a football game has to be telecast in silence because of a public-service labour dispute, you suspect you're in Canada. But you don't really know it until someone files a lawsuit. From Monday morning's National Post:

A blind Calgary lawyer has filed a complaint against CBC for failing to provide colour commentators during a televised Canadian Football League game Saturday night. "I believe it's a violation of my human rights," said Robert Fenton, who was out at a bar with friends to enjoy the Toronto Argonauts-Edmonton Eskimos game. "Football is a social thing, so when I realized that I wouldn't be able to participate because I couldn't hear it, I couldn't follow it or discuss it, I went home."

I sympathize, but considering the quality of the game, I'd say it's unquestionably the sighted who ought to be standing on their human rights here. It's not every day that a team is described in newspaper headlines as having defecated all over the stadium, but that day has arrived.

- 3:26 am, August 22 (link)

Penny wise, pounds foolish?

No level of medical surveillance will prevent NFL players from getting injured, and sometimes dying, from injuries and stresses inflicted on the field. High-level American football, in its physical demands and its inherent violence, is a scarcely-mitigated recreational version of hell. It is perhaps popular precisely because of this. (It certainly remains popular with members of the U.S. sporting press who routinely describe the NHL as "barbaric".) The custodians of the game appear to be admirably safety-conscious, but are they doing enough? A passage in the Salt Lake Tribune's story on the late Thomas Herrion makes me wonder:

"We have done everything medically we could do," NFL Players Association President Gene Upshaw said Sunday. "We have doctors trained in emergency medicine, in heart problems and other specialties standing by at every game. It's not just internists. It's people who know what to do in every emergency. It just wasn't enough.
"This is the second time this year we've lost a player, and that's two too many."
Upshaw said that physicals are not a catch-all. New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi had a stroke on Feb. 16, 10 days after beating Philadelphia in the Super Bowl.
"He had a hole in his heart and might have played with it for years," Upshaw said. "No one ever noticed it."

I hadn't realized that Bruschi had been diagnosed with a heart defect after the fact. Isn't a cardiac perforation precisely the sort of thing that a full-body MRI would pick up? It appears that such body scans cost in the neighbourhood of $850. You wouldn't have to do one every year for every player: an NFL team could probably have one done for every new player on the roster, and repeat them every three years for veterans, at a cost of $25,000 or $30,000 per annum. That's a pretty significant layout--but losing Tedy Bruschi's services for a year, or having Thomas Herrion die on you, will surely cost you a hundred times that amount.

Probably the economics simply don't work; the NFL presumably receives excellent advice from its insurers, and otherwise-undetectable fatal defects are rare by definition. The league has a certain right to the presumption that players who have completed a college career are well enough to sustain the rigours of NFL play. An extra level of surveillance might conceivably be advisable for offensive linemen, whose hearts are working to move 300+ pounds of meat with every thunderous step. Yet such a regime wouldn't have covered Bruschi, a linebacker who is by no means (6'1", 247) extraterrestrial in raw size or build. Bruschi, I guess, simply drew a bad ontogenetic hand, and suffered health consequences that, while major, are no worse than those met by millions of others inside and outside his profession. But I will be watching the results of Herrion's autopsy with interest.

- 1:46 am, August 22 (link)

The Viking Tocqueville

In 1838 a Norwegian emigrant to the United States, Ole Rynning, wrote a True Account of America for the benefit of curious compatriots who had heard strange and conflicting rumours about the U.S.A. The book is a remarkable report from a new land that might as well have been as far away as the moon to most of its readers; chapter one, for instance, carefully explains that "America is a very large Continent which is situated to the west of Norway." Lest anybody think Rynning was unsophisticated, I will note the prophecy--inaccurate in detail, dreadful in its basic rightness--that appears in the chapter on religion and morals:

The northern states try in every congress to get slave trade abolished in the southern states; but as the latter always oppose these efforts, and appeal to their right to settle their internal affairs themselves, there will in all likelihood soon come either a separation between the northern and southern states, or else bloody civil disputes.

Rynning, the leader of an ill-situated frontier colony of Norwegians, did not live to see this prediction come true, nor to learn of the profound influence of his little book. Shortly after its completion, he fell ill working on the Illinois and Michigan Canal and found his way into an unmarked prairie grave. "Nothing," wrote the colleague who took his Amerikabog back to Norway, "could shake his belief that America would become a place of refuge for the masses of people in Europe who toiled under the burdens of poverty."

- 1:43 am, August 21 (link)


Did Ralph Waldo Emerson exhume his first wife and tamper with the remains because he believed she might be a vampire? Historian and critic Caleb Crain says "maybe". (þ: Weekend Stubble)

[UPDATE, August 24: Or maybe the truth is even crazier.]

- 10:30 pm, August 20 (link)

The Edmonton Experiment

Sometimes, when fans are ripping bad television sports announcers, you'll hear them express a wish that the games could be broadcast as-is, without commentary. There's good news for those who have always wondered what that would be like. Because of the CBC lockout, Saturday's network broadcast of the game between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Toronto Argonauts will be accompanied solely by the live public-address audio from Commonwealth Stadium. (For those who feel the need for an audio crib, Edmonton's CHED AM and Toronto's MOJO 640 will be streaming orthodox radio broadcasts of the game.)

- 12:10 am, August 20 (link)

Cinema: recently seen

The Longest Yard

I continue to find it strange that younger people--the same young people who are willing to bring back love beads, wear large male perms, and laboriously match the exact color and grotesque size of the lapels I wore when I was 7--apparently have no patience for any movie made before 1999. It's very strange: somehow the fashion is perfectly acceptable for ransacking and acculturation, but the cinema, the actual visual record of how guys like Starsky & Hutch or the Doobie Brothers carried themselves, is considered grimy and intolerable, fit only to be reshot with friendly faces. I mean, you could rent the original Longest Yard, right? You'd pay half and you wouldn't have to put up with Adam Sandler. Downside?

It should be noted, though, that it really was kind of gross to be alive during the '70s. You can't unsee all those hairdos, medallions, and Day-Glo typefaces. You just kind of have to put your head down like a shell-shocked veteran and stride your way grimly through a happier age.


This will probably sound dumb, but I kind of liked this movie's all-around plausibility. The misunderstandings that create the tension don't require the characters to be downright retarded, which most romantic comedies do. The one problem I had [SPOILER WARNING] was this: why would Will Smith get so upset about the unmasking of his confidential dating consultancy? The way this works in the modern world is that the New York Times Magazine outs you, and then you get a six-figure advance for, ta-dah, your book. What am I missing? The guy was upset about having his face above the banner of a big NYC newspaper? What United States of America is this movie set in exactly?


I really wanted this to be good, which it very wasn't. I think I mentioned this already (the defence mechanisms kick in fast), but the '70s were horrible in a lot of ways, and one of them was the male role models, all of which were basically moist, girlishly fervent variants of Alan Alda. When "Moonlighting" came on the air in the '80s Bruce Willis was like a meteor hitting the earth. David Addison was sort of the antimatter version of Hawkeye Pierce: a unapologetic, leering, insolent, whimsical ass, but without the sanctimony, the jitteriness, or the concealed ovaries. I bet you could make three million dollars selling that "Medicate Me" T-shirt he wore in one episode. It was on-screen for thirty seconds and 200 of you remember it. Also, Hudson Hawk was terrific and I will personally fight anyone who disagrees. Sad to see the great man reduced to Die Harderest In A Gated Community.


Utter junk, but I pretty much went half-gay for Gavin Rossdale playing a demonoid in this. He just bursts through the screen. Who knew he had it in him? Not that stealing scenes from Keanu Reeves is hard: furniture has been known to accomplish this. Also, I get the whole Tilda Swinton thing now, too.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Take away the guns and explosions, and what you basically have is Lambada: The Forbidden Dance. Putting the two leading sex symbols of the century together and stirring isn't a bad theoretical idea, but in the end you're still just killing an hour and a half waiting for two people to have makeup sex.

Batman Begins

Liam Neeson is the goading, brawny, violent father figure! Morgan Freeman is the Magic Negro! Michael Caine is the old English guy with a twinkle in his eye and a gift for saying just the right thing! And no one needs to know you painted by the numbers.

Les invasions barbares

A Canadian work of art for the ages: poignant, hilarious, intelligent, everything good. It immediately shot into my all-time top 50. (How the hell did it win the Oscar?) Moreover, with Michaelle Jean's pinko coterie all over the news, it could not possibly be more timely. Seeing this has suddenly become an urgent act of civic virtue.

Les revenants (They Came Back)

Slow-moving, low-budget succes d'estime. Zombies pour forth from their graves and return to the world: since it's a French movie, the zombies are treated not as a menace, but as a problem for social services. If you're like me, that premise is enticing, but the movie itself is humourless, confusing, and overlong by a factor of three. And it's not like there's no tart political streak in the George Romero movies. You're better off renting The Crazies--before the bastards remake it. (Q: Why is Hollywood so fascinated with zombies and vampires? A: You know the old saying--"write what you know.")

- 2:11 am, August 19 (link)

Is our engineers learning?

The post-touchdown report of NASA's Return to Flight task force--and particularly the soon-to-be-controversial minority report written by seven members of the absurdly overcrowded team--makes for some pretty astonishing reading. The task force was assembled before the flight to guarantee that the main recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board were followed, and on most of the points NASA gets a passing grade. But according to the minority group, the agency is still haunted by a failure to measure risk in rigorous, quantitative ways, by the subsequent impossibility of combining those risk estimates in any coherent way, and by the tendency to simply waive safety requirements when they threaten the political timeline for the mission.

One much-publicized observation in the CAIB report was that contemporary engineers are slaves to PowerPoint:

As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information is filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.

At many points during its investigation, the Board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.

What has changed as a consequence of this stern, almost desperate warning? Nothing at all--and the minority report comes awfully close, in my eyes, to concluding that the problem is inherently incorrigible within the limits of professional training for American engineers.

We... observed that instead of concise engineering reports, decisions and their associated rationale are often contained solely within Microsoft PowerPoint charts or emails. The CAIB report (Vol. I, pp. 182 and 191) criticized the use of PowerPoint as an engineering tool, and other professional organizations have also noted the increased use of this presentation software as a substitute for technical reports and other meaningful documentation. PowerPoint (and similar products by other vendors), as a method to provide talking points and present limited data to assembled groups, has its place in the engineering community; however, these presentations should never be allowed to replace, or even supplement, formal documentation.

Several members of the Task Group noted, as had CAIB before them, that many of the engineering packages brought before formal control boards were documented only in PowerPoint presentations. In some instances, requirements are defined in presentations, approved with a cover letter, and never transferred to formal documentation. Similarly, in many instances when data was requested by the Task Group, a PowerPoint presentation would be delivered without supporting engineering documentation. It appears that many young engineers do not understand the need for, or know how to prepare, formal engineering documents such as reports, white papers, or analyses.

[AFTERWORD, 4:39 pm: You guys can stop writing to me about Edward Tufte. Look, Tufte's critique of PowerPoint is that its "cognitive style" turns otherwise erudite professionals into tenth-rate, ham-handed digital showmen. The Return to Flight report is raising a much more disturbing possibility: the existence of a generation that can communicate only in point form. Tufte is sometimes criticized for blaming the tool for the flaws of the users; I believe there is much truth to what he says, but I also suspect that if PowerPoint did not already exist, it would be necessary to invent it. Ask yourself why the program is so popular--anyone who has ever attended any conference knows it ain't because it boots so very reliably.]

- 10:28 am, August 18 (link)

The Coffey in our Cups

The Edmonton Oilers announced yesterday that the Oilers will retire Paul Coffey's number 7 on October 18--the scheduled date of Wayne Gretzky's return to Edmonton as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. Coffey's election to the Hockey Hall of Fame last year restored his profile in Edmonton, which had suffered somewhat due to his early, acrimonious defection from the '80s dynasty. Grant Fuhr, being a local boy, has always gotten much more love here despite a mid-career drugs rap. (Fair or not, there is perhaps an informal local consensus that the Boys on the Bus were all chemically refreshed; Fuhr was just the one who got caught with a finger in the coke drawer.) I believe Coffey was the greater player--talent-wise, he was the second greatest player in one of history's most loaded lineups. Let the record show that Coffey remains the greatest rushing defenceman not named Bobby Orr, and that he had a pretty amazing gift for breaking up passes too.

One wonders if the Oilers will have any numbers left for contemporary players when they are done taking '80s stars out of the mix. The numbers belonging to Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, and WHA-era leader Al Hamilton are already gone. Someday Mark Messier's #11 is going to have to come out of the laundry basket for good. The same goes for the #9 of Glenn Anderson, a Hall of Fame candidate and perhaps the greatest clutch scorer of his times. There will be powerful sentiment in favour of retiring Kevin Lowe's #4, especially if he enjoys some success as a GM. Andy Moog won 164 games in Oilers silks, and was the team's first great playoff performer; there are probably still people who think he should have started over Fuhr. Billy Ranford carried the team, single-handed, to a Stanley Cup title no one thought they could win. And if I had my way they'd winch Esa Tikkanen's #10 to the rafters immediately; they're never going to put E.T. in the Hall, but he was absolutely as important to the late dynasty as any other single individual. He would, and could, do anything to beat you.

This seems like a fairly modest schema for jersey-retirement, but it takes away 6 of the first 11 integers. Then again, that may be a net benefit in a world where the ownership of jersey numbers is an increasing source of contention between teammates.

- 9:15 am, August 18 (link)

The meaning of the affaire Michaelle Jean... pretty clear to me, in my hedgehog fashion. As I've argued before, English Canadians persist in regarding the divide between federalism and separatism in Quebec as something clear and static, and reality persists in defying them. Quebeckers, and sane people outside Quebec, are united in regarding Quebec as a linguistically and culturally distinct nation. In this context, nationalism is the ideology, and separatism is just a negotiating position. Silly linear Anglos! It's not just that an individual with a separatist past can be redeemed magically and come crawling bareheaded and open-handed into the federalist camp. It's that an individual can be a provisional separatist and a provisional federalist at the same time, in precisely the same way that a person can be a democratic socialist for the purposes of short-term politics and an adherent of proletarian dictatorship for the purposes of a distant, idealized future. Indeed, this is not just a simile; the positions basically go hand in hand. The lingering influence of Hegel amongst white-wine revolutionary intellectuals makes it pretty easy for these people to create and maintain convenient compartments between "being" and "becoming". (And it is true, in addition, that there is a cultural gap between the adversarial style of anglo discourse and the playfulness of the franco kind; we each have our characteristic paths toward the truth.*)

Since our law overtly contemplates the peaceful democratic dissolution of Confederation as a future possibility, I do not believe we are in a position to object to the nomination of a separatist or ex-separatist to the office of Governor-General on those grounds alone. (An FLQ supporter is another thing altogether, and I think the new "prince consort", as the separatist media has been calling Jean-Daniel Lafond, still needs to come clean about his past positions with respect to revolutionary violence.) But I also don't take Mme. Jean's brief, formal statement of loyalty to Canada very seriously. Yes, yes, you love Canada and you love Quebec--don't we all; they're both so adorable. The question is whether you envision one being a part of the other a century from now. The press has seized upon Mme. Jean's ambiguous quote that "independence isn't given, it's taken", and paid less attention to the context of the infamous dinner--a context encapsulated in the toast "C'est fini les petits peuples!" It seems clear enough that Jean and Lafond share an appreciation, perhaps grudging, for Canadian institutions as currently constituted. It also seems pretty clear that, at one time at least, they were crass leftist hipsters with a serious boner for Frantz Fanon.

Perhaps merely sitting at a table and tipping back plonk with a former leader of the FLQ should be enough to disqualify Mme. Jean from the viceroyalty. It may be worth noting, though, that when Pierre Vallières brought out the old chestnut about Quebeckers being les Nègres blancs d'Amérique, she parried with a silencing witticism: et les Nègres blancs québécois ont aussi leurs Nègres noirs, de plus en plus. Well put--and reminiscent, too, of Orwell's observation that when you embrace the nationalistic aspirations of people B oppressed by people A, you immediately start hearing from people C, who are routinely kicked around by B and regard A as their protectors. (Hey, welcome to Canada!) All I can think about with regard to Mme. Jean, I find, is what fun it would be to ferret out her thoughts about the future of Quebec at length. But nobody's going to be given that opportunity as long as she insists on clinging to the hope of obtaining the best job in the country. She became an ex-intellectual the minute she agreed to it.

(*This is one reason signs of incipient secessionism amongst Western Canadians need to be taken more seriously amongst those categorically opposed to the idea. In a binary-minded place like Alberta, a place dominated by the Protestant imagination, the time spent contemplating open rebellion can be expected to be long--but if the event should ever become psychologically possible, it won't be confined to salons for forty years. The knives will come out quickly.)

- 11:52 am, August 17 (link)

Intai shiai: that's the Japanese term for the indigenous baseball tradition of the "retirement game." Ex-major leaguer Kazuhiro Sasaki just had his in Sendai. (þ: BTF) - 8:13 pm, August 16
The She Be She ish on shtrike again

I flipped on CBC-1 this morning, hoping that the lockout which began overnight might have led to another big break for an unheralded programming genius. Unfortunately, all that's on at the moment--and presumably this is true nationwide--is a low-key broadcast of syrupy lite jazz, introduced brusquely by a Toronto CBC manager. Aside from the periodic apologies for any disappointment or inconvenience, it's just about indistinguishable from the CBC's regular programming.

What strikes me is that when nurses or postal workers go out on strike, they're normally legislated back to work, after a suitably short pantomime of solidarity and defiance, by the authorities. Policemen, firemen, and doctors usually don't strike at all per se, but merely opt out of inessential work. It's basically understood even by these workers that they perform "essential services" for society. If the CBC is an "essential" source of cultural definition, as its fans sometimes claim, surely its on-air personalities should be frogmarched back into the booth? Isn't every passing moment of the lockout making us more and more American as we're left defenceless against the cultural behemoth to the south? My stars, I think I feel faint!

Of course, if the CBC really were the air we breathe, it would be a simple matter for the corporation's managers to stand on their "public" mandate and open up the airwaves to, you know, the public. Instead administrators trundle into the studio, and--with exceptions--do the job about as well as the people they're replacing. I don't want to minimize the difficulty of introducing a record or reading the news in a professional manner, but the network's very occasional strikes do demonstrate--perhaps counterproductively, from the standpoint of the workers--that it ain't rocket science.

- 8:37 am, August 15 (link)

High on anger: you can now read the National Post column I was working on the other day when I wrote the "primer" immediately below. What actually happened was that I spent about ten hours wading through the North American media's sudden methamphetamine explosion, reading up on the Canadian government's subsequent headline-driven "crackdown", and checking around for actual new information on meth abuse in Canada. During a nap taken in the middle of all this, the "primer" literally appeared to me in a dream. I almost wish I could tell you it was inspired by a few timely pipefuls of high-grade Vietnamese opium, but I'm not really much of a drugs guy. Just a freedom guy. (Which, in this country, is seen as much stranger and less socially acceptable.)

- 8:21 am, August 15 (link)

A primer on Drug War panic for morons in journalism

OK, I've lived nearly half my biblical span--I know exactly how this works now. IF A RECREATIONAL DRUG:

  • promotes drowsiness or lassitude: you can frighten people about it by warning that legalizing it will create impaired drivers, impaired pilots, impaired helmsmen of Viking ships, etc.

  • prevents drowsiness or lassitude: you can frighten people about it by warning that prolonged use induces lack of sleep and hence psychosis.

  • is expensive: you can frighten people about it by arguing that the crippling costs of addiction ruin human lives.

  • is cheap: you can frighten people about it by emphasizing its "availability" to the young and the impoverished.

  • is physiologically addictive: you can frighten people about it by describing in detail the Goya-ish horrors of detox.

  • isn't physiologically addictive: you can frighten people about it by warning of the nerve-shattering psychological "crash" that invariably follows heavy use.

  • occurs in nature: you can frighten people about it by warning that manufacturers will steal energy from neighbours and utility companies to grow it.

  • must be synthesized chemically: you can frighten people about it by talking about the poisons, waste products, and/or dodgy thermodynamics involved.

  • is easy to make: you can frighten people into believing that their neighbours might secretly have a truckload of it in their basement.

  • is difficult to make: you can frighten people about it by warning them that only organized crime is sophisticated enough to organize its production. (N.B.: the same product can simultaneously be described as easy and difficult to make if the general public doesn't know any better.)

  • is novel: you can frighten people about it by simply stating that the long-term effects of use are unknown.

  • has a long history: you can frighten people about it by finding the most stupid and risky possible method of ingesting it--which will inevitably have its partisans amongst idiots looking for something to be addicted to.

  • gets you really high: you can frighten people about it by emphasizing its power and allure.

  • doesn't actually get you all that high: you can frighten people about it by emphasizing the despair and generally lousy lifestyles of the people desperate enough to take it.

  • can be made readily in your home country: oh shit, it's turning our kids into drug manufacturers!

  • must be imported from a different climate: oh shit, look at all these evil foreigners who are profiting from our misery and boredom!

  • is used chiefly by the well-to-do: you can frighten people about it by describing it as "trendy" and pointing to celebrity lives ruined by it.

  • is used chiefly by lower-class scum: you can frighten people about it by merely pointing in the general direction of said lower-class scum. (Hint: phrases like "poor man's cocaine" come in handy here.)

  • is often used as an ingredient in, or companion to, other drugs: you can frighten people about it by talking about all the other bad stuff users are taking.

  • is never used as an ingredient in, or companion to, other drugs: you still have the option of describing it as a "gateway" leading to worse substances (don't worry about contradicting yourself by admitting tacitly, for the moment, that there are worse substances).

  • carries a danger of overdose: you can frighten people about it by discussing the danger of overdose.

  • does not carry a danger of overdose: you can frighten people about it by emphasizing the effects of chronic use, since no one is terrified into quitting by the risk of immediate death.

    Special note for semi-clever contrarians: you can not only practice the use of this guide by writing an imaginary scare story about licit drugs like alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine--you can actually go ahead and write that piece and sell it, thus breaking new ground in a totally innovative manner! Have fun!

    - 3:05 pm, August 12 (link)

    Potter: the muggles fire back [see below]

    Nicholas Tam's weblogged reply was certainly the snottiest, and also maybe the best; I approve heartily of the multicoloured mucosal palette, and disapprove only of the heavy use of mid-century authors in rebutting a point about much older ones. (Roald Dahl? Powerful corner on relative immortality as far as I'm concerned, but the jury's hardly left the courtroom.)

    Sarah's post is somewhat convincing, grounding the books in an eternal England of the imagination. But there is a question how eternal it really is (Sarah's emphasis on the book's connections to "John Major's England" is itself telling). Rowling's own influences include quintessentially Anglo-fetishist authors who were once globally enormous. Enid Blyton? Still famous, but mentioned most often as an object of scorn. Elizabeth Goudge? E. Nesbit? Remember that an author's reputation can be dragged down awfully fast by crummy imitators, which I suspect has happened to some of these names.

    Perhaps what's wanted most is not concrete Englishness at all, but an English sensibility. I don't think the sly political comments in the books, or Rowling's childlike delight in word-sounds (possible doctoral thesis alert!), hurt her at all in this regard. On the other hand, when searching for areas of narrative tension, Rowling seems to favour race over class--a very American tendency, as opposed to a British or English one. (Possible doctoral thesis alert continues to sound!)

    Douglas Corning of Ottawa contributed this to the Post letters section on July 21:

    Harry Potter is not high or classic literature, it is fad literature. Having said that, though, J.K. Rowling's books will probably be remembered and read in the future, not as Dickens' or Shakespeare's or Hemingway's, but as children's literature. That is what they are, in the same vein as Peter Pan, Charlotte's Web or Alice In Wonderland. Harry Potter is a fad, and like all fads will fade. The Potter books will inevitably join the pile of kiddie lit as the Rowling money machine eventually grinds to a halt and a new phenomenon takes over.

    As an artist, J.K. Rowling is no Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Charles Reade or even E.B. White, but in today's celebrity lit world, does it really matter? Her books are read by millions and she has brought joy to millions, which is all any author hopes for.

    In the same number, Ann Wood of Oakville said:

    All Harry Potter books derive from a long tradition of quality writing on fantasy and magic themes by British authors. One example is Diana Wynne Jones, whose novels are tight with excellent plot and character development. If you read her Christopher Chant series, written well before the Harry Potter books, you may detect a resemblance.

    I haven't read the latest Potter book, and I must admit that, having read almost the whole series, the one before bored me into giving up, especially when it detailed some rather nasty ideas about sadistic school punishments, which might surprise readers' parents.

    The e-mails I received personally went like this (names have been removed unless the correspondence was clearly intended for publication):

    Upon seeing the title of your editorial today I was looking forward to your views on the subject, as it is something that I myself have been contemplating. I was, however, disapointed to see it turn into a grande bashing far away from what you originally had promised to discuss. I find different views to be extremely interesting but when these views are not supported AND the person giving these views has not even read all of the available material to properly make these views you only feed the hate and anger of Potter haters. -K.M.

    I enjoyed your article and more or less agree. I think this is "a big to-do about nothing." I have a couple of young daughters who love Harry Potter. (I hate to admit it, but I love the Potter books too). Of course these books and their plots are complicated - as you say that's what the kids like. Sure they are too long - but they like that too as it extends the experience. They like to read it aloud on long trips - my daughter read for 5 hours straight on a trip out west.
    Everyone needs to relax about this and maybe go back to worrying about Pamela Anderson's chest size. J.K. has the gig figured out and a bunch of critics are jealous. Of course the reason they are critics may well be because they could not even get a short story published, much less a series - initially planned to be in 7 parts. Who knows? J.K. Rowling may turn up as a marketing exec next. You have to admit, it is pretty impressive, the way she can call the shots with the publishers, the movie producers... and even a B.C. judge. And the fact that everyone simply returned the books when asked to is an immense show of respect to the author they adore.
    By the way - promoting signs of respect is hardly a bad thing. If there were more of that around we might have fewer suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism. -T.D.

    This is in response to Colby Cosh's article on J.K. Rowling. He took an unfavorable view of Ms. Rowling's lawyers swooping down to keep copies of her book from going public until the release date. I don't think that any harm is meant, but the plot of the book is a very big deal to fans. No one wants to have information leaked about the books until they have had a chance to read it. At least after the book release, those persons who have not had the opportunity to read the book yet will know not to read internet chatter or listen to news reports as they may contain spoilers. They could be caught off guard, though, by reports that come out because of early released copies. I know if you go to fan sites that all you see is endless speculation about what is going to happen, but that is all it is, speculation. It is fun to guess, but very few people want to know until they read the book. I believe Mr. Cosh misunderstood the intent behind keeping copies out of circulation before the release date. In the grand scheme of things it reallly does not matter. There are more important things to worry about in this world, but Harry Potter is a means of escape for many people from the problems of this world.
    Yes, J.K is a rich woman, but she totally deserves it for bringing some happiness to her fans. She is one of the few people out there who has money but is still very grounded. I think the combination of her talent and personality will mean that she will be known and admired by future generations. -Margaret Kidd

    I was flipping through today's National Post when, on page A16, I happened to come across your rather poor article about your personal loathing (jealousy?) of J. K. Rowling. I shall attempt to inform you that the reason the court made them swear not to read it was to keep the secret until the official release date. Had I been one of the people who purchased the book,I would have returned it simply out of respect for J. K. Rowling, the best children's author out there. It's obvious to me that you aren't a fan of the books, and hey, not everybody is, but to go off and write an article insulting someone simply because people respect them, is downright wrong. Your article was whiny and pointless. I can't believe the National Post advertised your pitiful article on the front page, like it was of some importance. No, your article was simply a lesser man ranting about how much better H.G. Wells was than J.K. Rowling. She's a children's author, for God's sake! I think you should stop worrying about whether or not your grandchildren (though I seriously doubt you are married) will remember Harry Potter, and start worrying about who will remember Colby Cosh. Probably no one. -Andrew Brimmell, Victoria, B.C.

    I am astonished to hear you openly criticise a book that you have never read. You have taken the word of a few critics as to the basic contents of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. How can you feel the plot is a "teenage drama that plays like Beverly Hills 90210 on fast-forward"? I would suggest that as a reporter, you should research the topics of your editorials before tearing them apart. Besides making yourself look foolish for stating such gross inaccuracies towards the books, you help a reputation they don't deserve nor desire. I could step aside here and point out the errors in judgement you have made, but that would be a complete waste of time, because I'm fairly certain you don't care that you're wrong about the books. However, there is one area that I feel drawn to attempt to correct you in. Well, perhaps not so much correct as deflate the huge imbalance you have created with your conclusions. You chose to compare J.K. Rowling with Harold Bell Wright, because they have both obtained fame through their enormous wealth. But in my opinion, the amount of money an author makes says nothing of how well they will be remembered. After all, no one would claim that Shakespeare was extremely wealthy, but we still remember Shakespeare's work. In short, no one gives a damn how much an author makes, it is their writing that is important. To give another, more closely related example, I will mention J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings. I certainly don't remember when he was alive, being a mere 16 years of age. As a matter of fact, I believe Tolkien belonged more to the time of my grandparents. I have read his works and enjoyed them immensely, even though it was after the initial hype (and before the second one that came with the movies, mind you). His works, though he denied it thoroughly, seemed to reflect his own times, depicting the tragedies and horrors of warfare, and yet they still managed to make an impact on me, a person who was not born in that age. Why did it impact me then? Because of the story that was well told, because of the well developed characters and because of the social commentaries and profound moral lessons. Incidentally, these are some of the very same reasons that I enjoy Harry Potter, and also the very same reasons you outline as negative points in your, to say the least, uninformed editorial. In short, Harry Potter has exactly what it takes to become timeless, and honestly, only time will tell if it does. And one more thing, before you openly criticise the second best selling novel of all time, please just read it, attempt to read it, or play the stupid movie for five minutes. -K.H.

    - 3:58 am, August 12 (link)

    That Potter piece: here's the (unexpurgated version of the) controversial column I wrote for the Post's July 20 edition, just as The Half-Blood Prince was hitting the shelves. Coming shortly: a run-down [see above] of reactions from the paper, my Inbox, and around the weblogs.

    At times like these, Pottermania can get to be a little oppressive. And I'm not speaking entirely in metaphors here. Last week J.K. Rowling and B.C.'s Raincoast Books turned lawyers loose on some Canadian fans who had happened upon pre-release copies of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" shelved carelessly in stores. A friendly B.C. judge agreed to treat the contents of the book as an industrial secret, and actually issued an order forbidding the buyers from reading or discussing it. Most of them voluntarily returned their copies anyway, not wishing to disturb the peace of their faraway idol by quarrelling with a court about elementary logic or their constitutional rights.

    This incident, though settled peaceably, left me with a rather poor opinion of Rowling. I realize that in the public mind, she's still seen as the heroic single mum on the dole, toiling away at her baroque personal vision in between baby-feedings. The next door down, basically, from the Virgin Mary. But what are we supposed to make of a billionairess who sets the Dementors of litigation on the very people who made her rich?

    Thus ill-disposed, I've been taking refuge in cruel thoughts on the fleeting nature of literary fame. It comforts me to consider that our grandchildren will have no idea who J.K. Rowling was--and it's a fairly safe bet they won't.

    Imagine that you had a chance to step into a time machine and visit, say, the young men in the Allied trenches of the First World War. You'd see the soldiers browsing some familiar names: Zane Grey, Booth Tarkington, perhaps even H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" itself. But you'd find the historical romances of Jeffrey Farnol equally common, and you'd marvel at the popularity of Winston Churchill, an American author now remembered only for sharing a name with a distant British cousin. The two most successful American novelists of the period were perhaps Gene Stratton Porter, whose image subsists on the slender strength of "A Girl of the Limberlost", and Harold Bell Wright, who has vanished utterly. Yet contemporaries called Wright history's first millionaire author. He was the inflation-adjusted J.K. Rowling of his day.

    What blind god bestows immortality on some authors and consigns others to oblivion? Objective literary merit may be a consideration, though I honestly couldn't tell you whether H.B. Wright had more or less of that than H.G. Wells. Some writers simply turn out to be unreadable outside their own times, once they no longer enjoy the aid of fad-inflating newspaper editors and frenetic press agents. Rowling has had an awful lot of that sort of help. It is one thing for us to consume the Harry Potter heptad in convenient biennial doses, but it will be quite another thing for a child born after the hype dies down.

    Already the series' adult readers must, I think, have developed a sense of being trapped on an out-of-control carousel. Rowling has committed the cardinal sin of doing in seven books what she might have done--though not so lucratively--in three or four. (Fair play to her: the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis, despite their ironclad reputation, start to blur together after a while too.) I'm indulging in criticism of a book I haven't yet speed-read here, so Potter fans may wish to send abuse to the e-mail address at the foot of this column. But if the detailed early reviews and summaries are any indication, the plot developments in "Half-Blood Prince", those frightful secrets that the majesty of Canadian law was summoned to protect, are events that were being blatantly telegraphed to the reader in the late 1990s. And the whole thing is blended with a teenage drama that plays like Beverly Hills 90210 on fast-forward.

    All best-selling fiction books, the truly elite ones, are baked with generous helpings of naivete. What seems to distinguish the Potter series is its exponentially expanding complexity. For every character Rowling kills off, she begets twenty more: her story is now thronged with choruses of people, all with names like Febrimius Churlcape or Columba Slobmouth. And they're all embedded in their own mini-dramas. Sorting it all out is the sort of hypnotic, compulsive activity children love. Perhaps Rowling's hero should have been called Harry Pokemon.

    I'm not sure how much all this has to do with "reading" as we traditionally understand it--that is, as a private bond between the author and the individual reader. (Another irritating feature of public portrayals of Rowling is the way she's made out to be some sort of angelic, selfless literacy crusader.) The Potter phenomenon is public to the point of feeling orchestrated and insincere, like one of those creepy North Korean mass calisthenic exercises. And yet the books, in their sheer proliferation of detail, might truly be objects of spontaneous adoration. The author and neurology expert Steven Johnson released a book called "Everything Bad Is Good For You" this spring; Johnson proposes convincingly that television and movies have become more complicated in the last 20 or 30 years, so much so as to suggest that the mass audience is getting smarter. Rowling's mad hive of spells, wordplay, relationships, and disguised social commentary almost seems to have anticipated this argument. The Potter bildungsroman may be the perfect cult object for an age of dissectable media, virtual worlds, and large brain volumes.

    Either way, I am rather curious to see how Rowling wraps the whole thing up between one more pair of covers. (Will Lucretia Larchmount find true love? Will the Spell of Stiffening solve the embarrassing problem with Soylent Botulinum's wand?) And after that, who knows? I half-suspect that, after Potter VII comes out, Rowling will be persuaded to license all-new Star Trek-style hack fiction rooted in the fertile soil of Planet Hogwarts. It couldn't possibly be good for more than another billion dollars or so. (July 20, 2005)

    - 12:47 pm, August 11 (link)

    "Life looks good, and the cake looks tasty!" Scottish art musician Momus, perhaps channelling his namesake, fires off a stream-of-consciousness anti-goth, anti-gloom manifesto. -10:33 am, August 11
    "There's nothing like a Winnipeg thread to bring out the Thunder Bay goons..." The Something Awful forums dissect urban life in Canada, making heavy use of the rusty scalpel of stereotype. -8:41 pm, August 9
    X marks the spot

    2003UB313 is still awaiting a proper name, but in the meantime, it's good to know that the Dewey Decimal Classification has its bases covered.

    You did know there was an official Dewey blog, didn't you?

    - 6:47 pm, August 9 (link)

    Withdrawal from the Euro?

    Technically, good Europeans are supposed to give the Lisa Simpson response to this phrase: "I know those words, but that sign makes no sense!" Unfortunately, mere consensus may not be enough to keep a debt-straitened Italy from trying to push the Maastricht baby back into the birth canal, as Anatole Kaletsky reports for the Times of London. (þ: Samizdata)

    - 2:43 pm, August 9 (link)

    Less is more: parents of young children shouldn't miss this Scientific American piece about how the little yardapes learn abstraction. -11:55 am, August 9
    "Get the big broom": A great interview with Camille Paglia in The Morning News. -11:53 am, August 9
    Beauty and the Beast

    Call me crazy, but I'm starting to think the NHL's year off might have been worth it. Earlier today, two stunning new plotlines were thrown into a season that already promises unprecedented uncertainty, novelty, and drama: The Great One announced that he will take over as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, and Todd Bertuzzi was unexpectedly reinstated to the game by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

    What are the chances that Gretzky will make a success of a step he's skipped on his way up the hockey ladder? Gretzky has already won Olympic gold as the de facto general manager of Team Canada. He has never failed at much of anything, with the possible exception of his part-ownership of the CFL's Toronto Argonauts. But in all honesty, one can definitely regard his cool self-confidence ("I felt like I was the best person to coach this team") as arrogance. Who was the last really great hockey player to go behind the bench? Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr never tried convincing themselves they were capable of it (even though all three had some of the personality traits you look for in a coach). And those that have, as Jim Matheson points out, haven't always been successful:

    Maurice Richard lasted only two games coaching Quebec City of the old World Hockey Association. New York Islanders centre Bryan Trottier lasted only 54 games as New York Rangers coach in 2002-03 and another Hall of Fame defenceman, Brad Park, just 45 games with the Detroit Red Wings in 1985-86.

    Trottier, the last Hart Trophy winner to become head coach of an NHL team, was a pretty notable failure in the job. So was his predecessor, Boom-Boom Geoffrion. Both had experienced the pressure of being huge stars on championship-class teams in big cities, and yet both found that they could not adapt psychologically to the totally different pressures of head coaching. Geoffrion's stint at the helm of the Habs is said to have wrecked his health (not that successful coaches aren't pretty huge coronary risks). TraitorTrottier, fired by Glen Sather about one-quarter of the way through a three-year contract, was a highlight-reel favourite for his twitchy facial expressions at Madison Square.

    OK, so these guys are human; we're talking about Gretzky here. It is hard, nearly inconceivable, to imagine Gretzky losing his psychological hold over a team the way Trottier did. You would expect that players will listen, no matter what: it's Gretzky. Unfortunately, the closest analogue may be the managerial career of Ted Williams, baseball's crotchety God of hitting. After one successful season, Williams was not much use as a manager, and by the time the Washington Senators moved to Texas his players had actually formed a secret "Underminers Club" designed to make his life hell and get him sacked. You tell me: does Gretzky have more going for him than a leader than Ted Williams? USMC Captain Ted Williams?

    Those who remember the sight of the paranoid, verbally crippled Gretzky on the eve of the 2004 Olympic gold medal game cannot be encouraged. A coach can't hide from the media, and his work is only beginning when the players depart for a few beers after the game. It's the long nights that devour your stomach lining. Gretzky is right to say he knows the fundamentals of hockey as well as anyone, and no doubt he can teach them. (Even the players who hated Williams as a manager all said they learned a lot from him.) But to be a successful head coach requires a particular blend of patience, showmanship, and guts. Looking at the history of hockey, you would be hard-pressed to find any correlation between the traits that make a legendary player and those that make a great coach.

    And I think that, by and large, you know a good coach when you see one. In any sport the winning coaches tend to be vain, irritable, proud, obsessive, orderly, noisy, passionate, forthright, and highly intelligent. There is a fairly strong tendency for them to be religious men, and a stronger tendency for them to be appallingly heavy drinkers. You can name many good coaches who don't have all these qualities, but they're the ones (aside from the booze) you might consider looking for. Although Gretzky is much underrated as a locker-room leader of the '80s Oilers, he doesn't conform to the mould well at all. He created so much awe as a player that it is hard to know how good he can be at inspiring trust in day-to-day relationships with ordinary humans. And the two words "Bruce McNall" sum up his basic track record as a judge of character.

    If you held a gun to my head and asked me "Who are the best coaches in the game right now?", I'm going to throw out names like Darryl Sutter, Marc Crawford (gag, choke), John Tortorella, Jacques Lemaire, Ken Hitchcock, Ron Wilson. Do a lot of these guys have temperaments resembling Gretzky's? Are their backgrounds like his? Intuitively, when you imagine Gretzky in a one-on-one situation with Hitch or Crawford, which man do you envision giving the orders?

    You can list lots of advantages for Gretzky, starting with his stature in the game. He's a part-owner of the club; he's not really going to have anybody looking over his shoulder. He has an excellent staff of assistants. The expectations for the Coyotes are low right now. He has a lot of friends in the game, and--to be candid--the game has a keen interest in not seeing him fail. Gretzky was going to be judged in the long term on the performance of the team anyway (sure, but he sucked as an owner!): it makes a lot of sense for him to get behind the bench and take on the burden explicitly. Needless to say, he'll pull in the crowds in every NHL city. Parents will take their children to the rink just to point him out. But it just doesn't smell right. I suspect this is an experiment that will end quickly and be forgotten even more quickly.

    As far as Bertuzzi goes, I think Bettman got it exactly right. Not only that, but he defended his decision well. A lot of people thought Bertuzzi would and should sit for another 20 games, at least. But then there are always moral poseurs around--people who, in their eagerness to seem sensitive to a victim, somehow become capable of reasoning that hurting the fans of the Vancouver Canucks will somehow make life easier for Steve Moore. Who, if it's not cruel to say so, was very unlucky in his injury, was damned lucky to make his living one of the best-insured American workplaces, and is said to be recovering well. The summer has been a time of reconciliation in the game: I think it is right to extend a grudging hand to Bertuzzi who--oh, lawsy, grab your bloomers, Mabel--punched a guy in the head.

    Here's the meat of Bettman's statement:

    I anticipate that there will be those who will say that Mr. Bertuzzi's seventeen (17) month suspension is inadequate, and not proportionate to suspensions imposed on other Players for conduct that may be considered "less severe" than Mr. Bertuzzi's actions because of the work stoppage that wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL season. I disagree. is appropriate to consider not only the significant impact the suspension has had on Mr. Bertuzzi's NHL career, but also the impact that the League's suspension has had on Mr. Bertuzzi's ability to play professional hockey anywhere during this time, as well as the financial, criminal, civil and emotional consequences he has endured as a result of his conduct on March 8, 2004.

    As a result of his suspension, Mr. Bertuzzi missed thirteen (13) NHL regular season games and seven (7) NHL playoff games during the 2003/04 season, resulting in his forfeiture of $501,926.39 in salary. Both the Vancouver organization and Mr. Bertuzzi believe that Mr. Bertuzzi's suspension may very well have cost the team competitively, resulting in a less favorable 2004 playoff experience than the Club otherwise may have achieved had Mr. Bertuzzi been on the roster and playing.

    As a result of his suspended status, Mr. Bertuzzi also was deemed ineligible to play hockey outside of the NHL during the period of his suspension. The practical consequences of this were that Mr. Bertuzzi could not join the numerous other NHL players who were able to participate in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and in the 2004 and 2005 IIHF World Hockey Championships. In addition, because he was barred by the International Ice Hockey Federation from playing professional hockey in Europe during the period of his suspension, Mr. Bertuzzi was ruled ineligible to play for any European professional team during the term of the NHL work stoppage, thereby distinguishing Mr. Bertuzzi from almost 400 of his fellow NHL players who played and earned salaries in Europe. Therefore, although he sought employment in Europe, Mr. Bertuzzi's NHL suspension effectively precluded him from earning a livelihood playing hockey for the entire seventeen (17) months of his suspension. Mr. Bertuzzi testified that following his actions on March 8, 2004 and his suspension by the NHL, he experienced lost or cancelled endorsement opportunities estimated in the approximate amount of $350,000.

    That last figure, by the way, is an extremely conservative estimate. At the time of the incident, Bertuzzi may have been English Canada's most recognizable current hockey player. Over the whole course of his career the loss in endorsements would probably come to seven figures quite easily.

    - 1:00 am, August 9 (link)

    World enough and time: Sam Mikes' co-blogger "TFox" investigates the costs of free energy. -11:07 am, August 5
    A nagging question about intellectual history

    Between Newton and Einstein there stands a third figure, an essential bridge who changed our conception of the universe almost as radically as either of the two. Q: why is the popular image of James Clerk Maxwell so indistinct?

    We have little trouble imagining Einstein, which is only natural since he is a figure (a charming, mischievous one) of the mass-media age. And we are not much less familiar with Newton: most every educated person, I suppose, can summon up a visual picture of him, with his flowing white mane and his dimpled chin. The myth of Newton and the apple is a secure part of the cultural treasury, and most of us can probably state two dozen other things about the man--that he squabbled with Liebniz, fled the plague, injured his eyes looking at the sun, talked of standing on the shoulders of giants, probably died a virgin, etc.

    I notice that this is not the case with Maxwell--yet he may have been the greatest single individual of the 19th century. He yoked light, electricity, and magnetism together, imposed the concept of the "field" on our picture of the universe, foreshadowed the shift in physics from the mechanistic to the statistical in his work on gases, and figured out colour vision (actually being the first to make a practical demonstration of the principles of colour photography). His digestion of the freaky scribblings of Cauchy and Poisson, and his transformation of them into tools of fantastic practical power, still looks like wizardry 150 years on. He may have been more important than Einstein, whose work has been inflated with a great deal of false philosophical significance. But could you say without checking what the man looked like? Or describe one unusual or funny event in his life? It's curious, isn't it?

    - 9:32 am, August 5 (link)

    "To put it bluntly, these charges have Drug War Bullshit written on them in fluorescent letters."

    My column about Marc Emery in this morning's National Post is, I think, both good and important. Subscribers can read it online; the rest of you can find it in the Post's "Issues & Ideas" section; and if you're either the Federal Minister of Justice or the judge who is going to be hearing Emery's case against extradition, I'll be happy to e-mail it to you directly. The Free Marc Emery website is back up. As I propose in the column, even if you don't think Emery should be a free man, you can still oppose his extradition to the U.S.

    - 5:39 am, August 5 (link)

    From Pennsylvania: wayward hockey fan Evan McElravy describes what it's like to win the Sidney Crosby lotto. -9:36 pm, August 4
    Everything bad is good for you--especially digital pornography, which fosters "tools that can also be used to promote liberty and justice," according to Annalee Newitz. -12:22 pm, August 4
    Not in our stars, but in ourselves

    The TPM reader who makes this point about President Bush and the space program isn't really on the right track. The search for the origins of life is not a very good rationale for space exploration: it's only in the last five years that the possibility of life of Mars became a public obsession of NASA, and I suspect the hype is mostly a cynical effort to prime the funding pump--a scientific bubble, one that will pop sooner or later. (It's the same with microgravitics research, another uninspiring favourite of the agency's P.R. people.) There's lots more left to do here on the ground when it comes to the origins question.

    The best reasons for the United States to fund space exploration are probably military ones: even if NASA's preferred self-image as a jaunty, peaceable precursor to Starfleet is basically honest, it is still useful to know, or to be able to imagine, what mischief others might do with orbital technology. The best overarching reason for space exploration, in general, is to hasten the day when our destiny as a species is no longer entirely dependent on the welfare of one planet. Even a Young-Earth Creationist could get wholly behind either aim in good conscience, so accusing Bush of insincerity or self-contradiction in supporting the space program isn't strictly fair. But there's something to it feel-wise. Space does tend to be a secular preoccupation--indeed, for some, a substitute religion.

    - 10:54 am, August 4 (link)

    Confidential to P.W.:

    He who sucks up first often sucks up inaccurately! You describe our latest TV-star-turned-head-of-state as "effortlessly bilingual", but in fact she speaks at least five languages. And so pretty! No worries--you'll do better when they give Ann Medina or somebody the job five years from now.

    - 8:26 am, August 4 (link)

    Diamond self-hatred

    For years now, the sabermetric generation of baseball fans has been listening queasily to the paradoxical rantings of ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. At every possible opportunity Morgan craps all over the modern statistical analysis of the game, which is in large part responsible for the high esteem in which a certain Joe Morgan is held. Morgan hit .300 only twice, but had exactly the wide range of "secondary" skills--extra bases on hits, tons of walks, high-percentage base-stealing, high run-scoring totals--that sabermetrics is built for teasing out of the stats. Era and park adjustments help Morgan too. In print, sabermetric messiah Bill James was ranking Morgan amongst second basemen alongside Rogers Hornsby and Ed Collins back when anyone else would have giggled. It's James' stated opinion that Morgan was the greatest second baseman ever, and almost no one who hasn't read James would agree. But Morgan is so incensed by the Jacobite changes to the perception of the game that he once actually got into a surreal second-hand argument with James about this.

    [Broadcast partner] Jon Miller remembers telling his broadcast partner about Bill James' second baseman rankings... Says Miller: "Joe said, 'Well, how could that be? [Hornsby] hit .400 and 42 home runs, and I'm hitting .325 and 27 homers.' ... What was interesting to me was, most guys, I think, number one, would already have been aware of that and would've savored that assessment. And number two, that even if they were just being told for the first time, most guys would be happy to embrace that. But Joe has such a sincere respect for the history of the game -- because who is Rogers Hornsby? I mean, Rogers Hornsby is an old redneck alcoholic who was probably as racist as anybody who's ever played the game. And yet Joe had this great respect for what he'd done and was very aware of what he'd done -- not many former players are aware of those kinds of things -- and Joe was sincerely ready to argue on behalf of Hornsby."

    As Miller implicitly suggests, there's something bizarrely admirable about Morgan's willingness to go to bat for a man who never had to hit against Satchel Paige and Bullet Joe Rogan. Why bring this all up? It's an introduction to Matt Welch's discovery that Dodgers broadcaster and Montreal Expos nemesis Rick Monday is ripping players for striking out a lot.

    I was listening to the bag-eyed ghoul go on and on about [Adam] Dunn's allegedly disastrous ponchados in that sing-songy wannabe Scully voice, I began remembering the professional ball of my youth, and ...well, didn't Rick Monday actually strike out all the damned time, too?

    Monday's another guy who never quite got his due, mostly because he was a #1 draft pick who was always hurt, but partly because he struck out so much. And like Morgan he's regurgitating a species of baseball "wisdom" that implicitly denies him his own place in the game. When they say baseball's conservative, they're really not kidding; it's almost more cult than sport.

    - 3:37 am, August 4 (link)

    They traded for who?

    Overnight the Oilers sent three players down the road to St. Louis for Norris Trophy laureate and restricted free agent Chris Pronger--a pretty stunning move even given the exuberant promises of the "new NHL". What's my take, you ask? Hey, I'm not immune to the allure of the big-ticket free-agent signing; Pronger is the most talented veteran acquisition in the history of the franchise, and this move is going to hit like a blockbuster in this city. And you've heard me belittle Eric Brewer as a beefy collection of tools who failed to coalesce.

    That said, it's not all shiny upside. Doug Lynch and Jeff Woywitka were the bedrock of the team's talent substructure--the two most projectable prospects in the system, perhaps, aside from Marc-Antoine Pouliot. Neither, probably, is going to turn into a Chris Pronger, and the Oilers have other good young defencemen around. But the quid pro quo was only one year of Pronger's contract, so it's arguably a lot to give up. The Oilers also turned around and gave Pronger a five-year deal for $31M, and that seems just about right, with respect to the cap, on a year-to-year basis. Five years is a lot to give anybody in any sport, and my number would be closer to $28M; the Flames gave Iginla $7M a year, and by that standard almost nobody would be worth as much as six. (Then again, would Iginla have played with anyone else for $7M?) But the season tickets are going to fly off the shelves now, and dealing warm bodies for one durable, dominant player is the right move in principle for a team that's having trouble finding ice time for promising blueliners. Especially one that has to play Iginla eight times a year.

    I think I understand the logic of the trade; it's a purchase of volatile risk--great if he's mostly healthy until the tail end of the contract, grotesque if he blows out a knee this coming March. (Pronger is 30 years old.) But in the meantime--it's Chris freakin' Pronger! Since heaven and earth had to be moved to make this possible in Edmonton, I don't suppose I should dwell on the exquisite added pleasure of screwing St. Louis out of a great player.

    As usual, there's good cranky discussion going on at Tom Benjamin's Canucks Corner.

    [UPDATE, 5:30 pm: Whoa! The Oilers just traded for Mike Peca! What is this, Christmas morning? Can't be: they had to give up Mike York, which legitimately hurts. Could be a killer trade for both teams; I would have thought the Isles had room to accommodate Peca's $4M salary, but if they don't I'm happy to have the guy at that price, and I think Long Islanders will see a very different York from the one who used to skate at Madison Square.]

    - 2:58 pm, August 3 (link)

    In today's National Post: my column on the collapse of the AFL-CIO and the ideological debate behind it. Behind the subscriber wall, alas.

    - 1:33 pm, August 3 (link)

    Interesting factoid about that new planet:

    The discoverers (Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo, and David Rabinowitz of Cal Tech) had not intended to announce the existence of a major transplutonian body until September. But in mid-July they found out, fortuitously, that the logs of their telescope activity were open to the public and indexed on Google. A bolt of terror struck the team as they discerned that there was a big risk of someone sniffing out their data and stealing the IAU credit for the discovery of the solar system's tenth planet. The amusing story is told here at the official website of what, for the moment, is known only as 2003UB313.

    What will the object's permanent name be? The trio isn't talking, yet, but their site contains a brief discussion of the issue.

    All of the other planets are named for Greek or Roman gods, so an obvious suggestion is to attempt to find such a name for the new planet. Unfortunately, most of the Greek or Roman god names (particularly those associated with creation, which tend to be the major gods) were used back when the first asteroids were being discovered. If a name is already taken by an asteroid, the IAU would not allow that name to be used again. One such particularly apt name would have been Persephone. In Greek mythology Persephone is the (forcibly abducted) wife of Hades (Roman Pluto) who spends six months each year underground close to Hades. The new planet is on an orbit that could be described in similar terms; half of the time it is in the vicinity of Pluto and half of the time much further away. Sadly, the name Persephone was used in 1895 as a name for the 399th known asteroid. The perhaps more appropriate Roman version of the name, Persipina, was used even earlier for the 26th known asteroid. The same story can be told for almost any other Greek or Roman god of any consequence. One exception to this name depletion is the Roman god Vulcan (Greek Haphaestus), the god of fire. Astronomers have long reserved that term, however, for a once hypothetical (now known to be nonexistent) planet closer to the sun than Mercury (god of fire, near the sun, good name). We would not want to use such a name to describe such a cold body as our new planet!

    Luckily, the world is full of mythological and spiritual traditions. In the past we have named Kuiper belt objects after native American, Inuit, and [minor] Roman gods. Our new proposed name expands to different traditions, still. We hope it is accepted by the IAU and hope afterwards that it is embraced by all.

    Brown, Trujillo, and Rabinowitz are the same astronomers who attracted attention last year with the discovery and naming of Sedna, an Oort-cloud object just short of informal planet status. Good form demands that the name for 2003UB313 should come from a creation myth. Some possible names--like that of the primordial Norse giant Ymir--were officially snapped up last year when names were finalized for 35 satellites of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus.

    - 6:28 pm, August 2 (link)

    Four Darth Vader masks?? A bookstore owner offers a personal Harper's Index of the Harry Potter launch. -5:36 pm, August 2
    More Scopes: those who appreciated the earlier entry about the Smithsonian's archival discovery should enjoy Les Jones' record of a recent visit to Dayton. -8:45 am, August 2
    Warning to entertainment editors: this conspiracy theory is completely credible. You may already have been taken in... -3:11 am, August 2
    John A. Macdonald and gay marriage: Only an Ontario schoolteacher would write something like this, and only the Toronto Star would print it. -8:13 am, August 1
    Passing Fahd

    Don't kid yourself: the death of the sovereign is always the most sensitive moment for a monarchy, and that's especially true in an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia. New king Abdullah has been running the show for years now, and the transition appears to be going smoothly--almost too smoothly, perhaps? The Arab News this morning is visibly whistling past the graveyard, placing "King Fahd Dies" right behind "Kingdom, Indonesia Iron Out Maid Flap" in the headline stack.

    The Saudi regime has taken a lot of knocks from well-meaning liberal commentators over the years, and most of the denunciations are richly deserved. Some of the odium has rubbed off on the Bush Administration, which maintains strong private and personal ties to the Saud family. Yet one must admit that the kingdom provides perhaps the best extant case for the necessity of Realpolitik. In November 1979--eight months after the Islamic Revolution in Iran--the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by a national guard captain named Juhayman al-Otaibi, who declared his brother-in-law the Mahdi, converted hundreds of believers on the scene to his cause, and issued what we would now call a radical Islamist manifesto. Otaibi held off the Saudi armed forces for two weeks until the government finally asked for help from French special forces; no one is quite clear on how the Mosque was retaken--there is some dispute whether there were Frenchmen on the ground or merely acting in an advisory role--but it was, and a round of public executions followed. Funnily enough, one certainty is that the bin Laden family, responsible for infrastructure upkeep in the kingdom's sacred buildings, must have been closely involved in the final operation.

    Otaibi's adventure has, for some reason, largely been forgotten. The sudden appearance of a Mahdist upheaval at the heart of Islam was a geopolitical nightmare in 1979; today it would be, in se, an incalculable disaster. The mere rumour of infidel boots in the Grand Mosque would lead to fires in our cities before you could say "shiat". It is depressing to reflect that something of the sort is quite likely when Saudi Arabia begins to feel the pinch of declining oil supplies. But at any rate it is possible anytime, and the legitimacy of the Saud family, morally warty or not, is the only identifiable thing standing in the way.

    - 6:56 am, August 1 (link)