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And those winds sure can blow cold way out there

There's a remarkable interview in today's Edmonton Journal with Gordie Johnson, guiding spirit of the bar-rock outfit Big Sugar (which is playing the Conference Centre tonight). Johnson's struggles with his label, Universal, have persuaded him to fold up Big Sugar: this will be its last date in Edmonton, whose relentlessly proletarian musical tastes have guaranteed the band its most devoted regional following. Johnson now lives on a farm near Red Deer and is looking at taking his solo career to the Internet.

Over the last two years, [Johnson] says, Universal wouldn't fund Big Sugar videos or release "All Hell for a Basement" as a national single. The track, an ode to Newfoundlanders working in Alberta's oilfields, was thought to be too regional for Canadian tastes.

"At the time, our record company hated (the song)," admits Johnson. "They only released it as a single out west and the Maritimes. They wouldn't release it in Ontario or Quebec because it said 'Alberta' in the song. Do you believe that? As every passing year goes by, that'll be a story that gets more and more impossible to believe but I was sitting in the room, listening to it.

"Someone actually said, 'Would you consider putting a different province name in the song?' Come on, give me a break. That's when you know when it's time to walk away from the Canadian music industry."

...What capped it for Johnson was Big Sugar's greatest-hits set, Hit and Run, released in September. One of the two discs was defective in some packages, just as a batch of Our Lady Peace's Live DVD was recently riddled with glitches.

"There again is a statement on the state of our record industry," says Johnson. "They say downloading is hurting record sales, well, maybe it's (because) you're not doing a good job. What are people getting for their money? ...[I]t took (Universal) a year and a half to put together a greatest-hits package for Big Sugar. A year and a half? And then when it comes out, it has a glitch on it and the drummer's name isn't in the album credits. Things like that make you go, 'Maybe it's not downloading. Maybe there are other issues you're not facing. Maybe you're in denial.'"

(Or maybe people just don't give a crap about the drummer for Big Sugar... still, the man's got a point.)

- 6:37 am, December 31 (link)

At least he'll probably win Vermont and D.C.

I'd like to see a solid accounting of whether the same people now trying to thwart Howard Dean's Democratic candidacy are the same ones who've spent the last three years sticking pins in Ralph Nader voodoo dolls. In 2000, the party lost the Presidency because it let an important sub-constituency migrate to a saint of the Left. In 2004, Howard Dean is trying to bring that sub-constituency back into the fold, and he's being hammered by the party leadership for it. But what's the third option for the Democrats here? Can they physically massacre the McGovernite wing of their party?--would that help?

When a new, committed constituency organized itself within the Republican Party during the millennial religious awakening of the 1970s, the GOP turned to Reagan, a national figure who was able to unite the party in the face of the crisis. In fact, with a vocal new wing driving the party to the social "right", Reagan was able to unite the Republicans more firmly than they had been since Ike, and co-opt a giant bloc of "Reagan Democrats" as well. Clearly, what the Democrats need is their own Reagan. And, just as clearly, there isn't one on offer, unless you believe Dean is the guy.

That would be a silly thing to think, but I've developed a certain respect for Dean--enough of one that I can sort of see why the "Republicans for Dean" meme surfaced briefly amongst culturally-left libertarians, most of whom are probably now embarrassed at any mention of this kooky spasm. I've been watching a lot of C-SPAN since I got a computer that can play streaming video tolerably (does anyone else do this? The book programs on the higher-numbered channels are fantastic). Dean, I discovered, is actually quite remarkable on the stump. He has an earnest, logical speaking style that has been cleared of accumulated emotionalist tics and pat phrases. As a result, he makes the other Democrats look like lying fools--really look like lying fools, I mean. The characteristic forensic style of the physician is rather marked in Dean: his approach to politics is diagnostic, and that's a promising one in a culture where some reverence still attaches to doctors. C-SPAN also lets you get an occasional look at a candidate's walkabouts in the crowd, and it's noticeable that Dean receives near-religious adoration from the politically ignorant young, the fretful aged, and patchouli-scented Baby Boomers. He has people running up to him and saying things like "Oh, Dr. Dean, I had a dream the other night and the Goddess told me that you are the appointed saviour of the United States of Love."

It's clear enough that the Democrats hate him because his is their true face. If you had to dream up a symbolic avatar of the Democrats, who else would you pick but someone from a profession famous for playing God?

- 5:40 am, December 31 (link)

Spot the Solecism Dept.

From Sunday's Tampa Tribune:

...What's next? A possible high-speed Darwinian evolution.

Researchers say children who grow up using mobile phones for text messaging--typing short notes on their cell phone keypads--are changing the shape and dexterity of their thumbs.

Studies in Japan found thumbs of teens and young adults have become more widely used than index fingers, and as a result have become more muscled. Japanese teens and preteens are being nicknamed the "thumb tribe" or "thumb generation." Even pointing or ringing doorbells may be done by thumbs instead of forefingers, researchers say.

The upshot? Change that once took generations is accelerating.

Maybe I'm making too big a deal of this, but calling a supposed example of Lamarckian evolution "Darwinian" has got to be the telltale spoor of a newsroom overstocked with journalism school grads, doesn't it? Hey kiddies--make sure you cut Deadlines 101 as often as possible and spend some library time curled up with a good one-volume history of science...

- 9:56 am, December 29 (link)


Monday's Post column is about mad cow disease. TechCentralStation has just posted an extensive backgrounder by Sandy Szwarc, which I recommend, though my understanding is that the link between variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob and BSE has grown more convincing than she lets on. There are certainly alternate theories to account for the incidence of vCJD, and a few scientists who believe them passionately. The connection hasn't been "proven" "causally", any more than the link between lung cancer and smoking has been, but until we develop a realtime Protein-Cam, Occam's Razor will have to remain in the toolbox.

- 5:23 am, December 29 (link)

Divine child in exile

A medieval scholar with too much time on his hands has concluded that King Edward IV was illegitimate and that the throne of England (but only England, one presumes) rightly belongs to the senior heir of the Duke of Clarence (1449-78), best remembered as a Shakespeare character and as a real-life assassination victim who ended arse-up in a butt of Malmsey. Remarkably, the Clarentian claimant has been located in the town of Jerilderie, New South Wales.

[Michael] Abney-Hastings was astounded when Mr Jones and a Channel 4 crew turned up on his doorstep. "When they told me I was surprised all right," he said.
"But I don't think it will worry us too much. Titles don't mean much out here and I have no intention of leaving Jerilderie.
"Why would you want to be king anyway? They can't do anything without someone on their back. This thing will all blow over in a couple of weeks and life will go back to normal."

It almost sounds like he knew they'd turn up one day, doesn't it? The defiantly blokey Mr. Abney-Hastings has been outed, no doubt to his severe embarrassment, as a pedigreed Pom--the 14th Earl of Loudoun, no less. Talk about an interesting family history. His great-great-grandmother, the Countess of Loudoun, was a younger sister of Flora Hastings, the lady-in-waiting whose liver disease created a crisis in Queen Victoria's court in 1839. I can't tell the story, or any story, better than my man Lytton Strachey and his cinematic semicolons. Those who believe that royal scandal is unique to our time, pay attention.

Early in 1839, travelling in the suite of the Duchess, [Lady Flora] had returned from Scotland in the same carriage with Sir John. A change in her figure became the subject of an unseemly jest; tongues wagged; and the jest grew serious. It was whispered that Lady Flora was with child. The state of her health seemed to confirm the suspicion; she consulted Sir James Clark, the royal physician, and, after the consultation, Sir James let his tongue wag, too. On this, the scandal flared up sky-high. Everyone was talking; the Baroness was not surprised; the Duchess rallied tumultuously to the support of her lady; the Queen was informed. At last the extraordinary expedient of a medical examination was resorted to, during which Sir James, according to Lady Flora, behaved with brutal rudeness, while a second doctor was extremely polite. Finally, both physicians signed a certificate entirely exculpating the lady. But this was by no means the end of the business. The Hastings family, socially a very powerful one, threw itself into the fray with all the fury of outraged pride and injured innocence; Lord Hastings insisted upon an audience of the Queen, wrote to the papers, and demanded the dismissal of Sir James Clark. The Queen expressed her regret to Lady Flora, but Sir James Clark was not dismissed. The tide of opinion turned violently against the Queen and her advisers; high society was disgusted by all this washing of dirty linen in Buckingham Palace; the public at large was indignant at the ill-treatment of Lady Flora. By the end of March, the popularity, so radiant and so abundant, with which the young Sovereign had begun her reign, had entirely disappeared.

There can be no doubt that a great lack of discretion had been shown by the Court. Ill-natured tittle-tattle, which should have been instantly nipped in the bud, had been allowed to assume disgraceful proportions; and the Throne itself had become involved in the personal malignities of the palace. A particularly awkward question had been raised by the position of Sir James Clark. The Duke of Wellington, upon whom it was customary to fall back, in cases of great difficulty in high places, had been consulted upon this question, and he had given it as his opinion that, as it would be impossible to remove Sir James without a public enquiry, Sir James must certainly stay where he was. Probably the Duke was right; but the fact that the peccant doctor continued in the Queen's service made the Hastings family irreconcilable and produced an unpleasant impression of unrepentant error upon the public mind.

In good time, Flora made up with the Queen and the matter blew over. Strachey does have a way of treating these affairs like they were artillery duels in Flanders. The fourth Earl, a cousin of "King Mike"'s great-great-great-great-grandfather, is also remembered--though not very kindly--as a commander-in-chief of the British armies in North America during the 1750s.

- 2:20 am, December 29 (link)


Found randomly on the Web: Disasters Attributable to Bad Numerical Computing.

I Heartily Endorse This Product and/or Service Dept.: Edmontonians for Choice. Edmonton has a ban on smoking in bars coming down the pipe this summer--it's already written into the relevant bylaw. The experience of businesses in other cities has finally motivated the hospitality industry to organize against the New Prohibition.

If you believe in the supernatural, it's time to bet on the Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl. Because of a gremlin lurking in the deep, deep forests of the NFL's tiebreaking system, Dallas's afternoon loss meant that the Packers had to beat Denver today to make the playoffs--no problem--and the Minnesota Vikings had to lose to the Arizona Cardinals--biiiig problem. The Cards are synonymous with mediocrity, and had lost seven straight before today's tilt against the league's best offence. A Viking victory was a mortal lock, and they led 17-12 with 1:54 left and Arizona kicking off. What followed was easily the 21st century's most astonishing sports choke. The deplorable event in Tempe gives Green Bay a home wild-card game against Seattle. After Brett Favre's astonishing Monday performance, in which he eviscerated the Oakland Raiders one day after his father's death on a lonely country road, the plot line seems clear.

- 1:29 am, December 29 (link)

Lone star

Former major league outfielder Ivan Calderon has been shot to death in his native Puerto Rico. The killing sounds quite random, but note carefully that Calderon was in the cockfighting business, which is legal in P.R. but no doubt still dominated by unsavoury characters. I have fond memories of Calderon, who went to the Montreal Expos in 1990 as half-assed compensation for Tim Raines. The fans must have been predisposed to dislike the scowling Calderon, who was trying to replace the greatest of all Expos, but--as players sometimes do when sent to Baseball Siberia--Ivan dialed it up a tick in '91 and had probably his best season as a big-leaguer, hitting .300 and providing the only real offensive menace on a 579-run club. (Nowadays, most years, nobody finishes under 600.)

That was, for some reason, an intense moment of Expos fandom for me, and seeing Ivan come to the plate was always a relief. You can't win many games when your cleanup hitter bats .225 with 13 home runs, but Dennis Martinez threw his perfect game that season, Mark Gardner had the no-hitter through nine against the Dodgers, Oil Can Boyd was making headlines, and there were all these amazing young players around--Bret Barberie hit .353, Marquis Grissom led the league in steals, and Larry Walker was slowly convincing the league, player by player, not to go first-to-third on singles to right. The next year Calderon was moved to make way for Moises Alou, who caught fire under his father's management. (N.B.: sometimes, in baseball, nepotism is completely appropriate.) Ivan's epitaph might well be "He carried a whole team for a whole year". There aren't all that many players who can say that.

- 4:39 am, December 28 (link)

The Bruce truce

My Friday column on Governor Pataki's Lenny Bruce pardon is online for your enjoyment. I wrote it on Wednesday, and having sat on the subject matter for a couple of days, I feel all the more like I must have dreamed that news story. What on earth was the point of "pardoning" a man whose entire creative corpus has been effectively proscribed? If someone tried to do one of Lenny's routines on a New York stage tonight, that asshole Pataki would be at the front of the torch-bearing mob chasing the unwise fellow headlong through the streets.

Nick Gillespie has a typically tart Hit & Run comment on the Bruce case redivivus.

It goes without saying that Bruce never should have been arrested for anything, much less convicted of anything. All of us who benefit from free expression are forever in the debt of the man dubbed "America's #1 Vomic" by the idiotic Walter Winchell. That's not to say that Bruce's shtick is--or was--particularly funny. Like many crying-on-the-inside-clowns, he quickly degenerated into that most vile of humorists--the moralistic, self-aggrandizing "satirist."

This is wholly true, though I'm inclined to cut Bruce a lot of slack. I think it must be hard to recognize yourself as a moralist when they're trying to throw you in prison for being an immoralist. Lenny wasn't a bore in his own day, and he'd be a lot more real use now than he was to a society in which educated opinion was all on his side. Remember how savagely he battered liberals who were self-satisfied about race but still couldn't help pronouncing "Negro" with an 'i' in the first syllable and a curious lacuna between the 'g' and the 'r'? He'd have a cornucopia of similarly hypocritical or plain clueless targets like that now, and the stakes would be much higher than a few lost club dates.

His humour doesn't hold up very well, but he has to get credit for innovation, helping to derail standup from the narrow-gauge gag track. (He had predecessors, but to cite them is to indulge in the reprehensible "The Chinese Invented It First, You Know" Syndrome.) Lenny was constantly testing how far he could take an audience without launching the zinger. Usually, it was farther than was wise. He was like the test pilot who has to fly the plane until it breaks down. His material may be more enjoyable if a contemporary listener simply undertakes to convince himself in advance that it's not comedy at all. Lenny Bruce, performance artist.

- 4:55 am, December 26 (link)

But when will he get permalinks?

Howard Kurtz pointed out Monday on his new "Media Notes Extra" site that some people still can't let go of the whole "Bush doesn't read the newspaper" thing.

President Bush's insistence to Diane Sawyer that he has no need to read newspapers continues to draw throat-clearing disapproval from, well, newspaper people. USA Today's Peter Johnson takes a look:

CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller says getting the news from his wife or aides seems to work for Bush. 'We very rarely catch him unaware of something in the way that we used to catch Ronald Reagan. He is a very well-informed president.'

And a deliberate one. Questioned at a news conference recently about a critical New York Times editorial on Vice President Cheney, Bush dismissed that influential editorial page, saying he never read it. And at last week's ceremonies honoring the Wright brothers' first flight, Bush took a dig at the Times, noting that it opined after the first flight that people were not destined to fly. 'He enjoyed that a lot,' Knoller says. The Times had no comment.

"Bush may in part be playing to people who have distrusted the media ever since the Watergate days, when Vice President Spiro Agnew railed against 'nattering nabobs of negativity.'...

"Says Playboy editor James Kaminsky: 'It's appalling to think that the man who runs the country somehow finds time for a long gym workout each day but can't muster up the intellectual curiosity to peruse the newspaper. Is it laziness, arrogance or a willful combination of the two?'

The method of absorbing the news that Bush described is certainly justifiable on grounds other than laziness or arrogance. He has people he trusts spoonfeed him the stuff he needs, and thus has potential access to important items from dozens, perhaps hundreds of newspapers--more than anyone could read personally. (He never said he doesn't read clippings.) I admit to feeling the instinct that a man should read a newspaper, and I would be hostile to arguments that Bush is too busy to do it. It probably doesn't speak especially well of Bush that he doesn't do it--but I suspect the real objection to his media-absorption practices is that he doesn't, in fact, treat the morning Times like it was a ukase from a particularly saintly pope. Would his critics be content if he just flipped through the Arizona Republic and the Manchester Union-Leader over breakfast? It is so important that he read some paper, or is the problem that he doesn't read the same papers, with the same voracity, as the northeastern elite?

I wonder, too, about Kaminsky's existential horror of a president who doesn't plunge into a warm bath of type every morning. If he'd read McLuhan he'd know that homo alphabeticus never wins the Presidency anyway. Presidents are instinctual, tribal leaders. The same goes for CEOs and holders of other high offices that require charisma. How many Fortune 500 heads do you suppose sit down with an actual, physical newspaper every morning? My bet is that the answer wouldn't be above 200.

Of course, I'm referring here (in McLuhan terms) to an electorate whose sense ratios are defined by television. The Internet--text's revenge on TV--might transfer power to a new style of candidate. There's no telling what he might look like, since we can't actually say for sure whether the Internet is "hot" or "cool", and the right answer depends in theory on what monitors and bandwidth rates are conventional. (But which?) There are early signs of what sort of creature might be slouching toward us. If Howard Dean is any indication, the Internet acts as a very hot medium indeed.

- 8:55 pm, December 25 (link)

Two signs seen while Christmas shopping

I must have seen the electrical "COLDEST BEER IN TOWN" banner on that St. Albert Trail beer store eleven hundred times--actually, that's an underestimate--but only today did it sink in how wonderfully stoopid an advertisement it is. No, we don't have a very good selection; you won't find any of that fancy-schmancy Belgo-Germese stuff here. And, frankly, our prices are pretty exorbitant. But thanks to the miracle of liquid nitrogen...

Just a few blocks east, on a row that can only dream of having enough edge to be "Skid", there's another classic. That's right, it's "EDMONTON'S FAVOURITE PAWNSHOP". Sure, like everyone else in the business they specialize in the ashy detritus of smashed dreams, but there's just something about the place, y'know? It puts the "air" back in "despair"! Or something.

- 6:38 pm, December 23 (link)

If it's Monday, this must be the Post

My latest column is now online.

- 1:05 pm, December 22 (link)

Praise the lord and pass the kingsfoil

Hey, have you guys heard about this Return of the King movie? It's pretty darn good! It's about these Irish midgets who save the world! You should check it out!

Roger Ebert, I think, got it about right, though he was only saved by his cineaste's reflexes. He notes that the source material is "a little too silly to carry the emotional weight of a masterpiece" but blunders into the perfect historical analogue. The political conceits of Fritz Lang's Metropolis mark it as a product of what may have been humankind's stupidest era, a time of unanimous intoxication by champagne and shell-shock: by comparison, Tolkien's reification of evil is almost respectable. But Metropolis's visuals still leave us winded, and its dramaturgy still brings us to our feet involuntarily, seventy-six years after it was shot. Jackson's trilogy ought to be good for at least as long. Among other things it is a decisive argument for the cinema as such, at a time when theatre economics are strongly encouraging us to remain in our hobbit-holes with our DVD collections. Someone finally made a movie that is really worth braving sticky floors, infuriating PSAs, and gabby theatregoers for.

I wasn't going to mention the elision of the Scouring of the Shire again--I don't want anyone to think I'm a monomaniac, as opposed to an ordinary maniac--but if you feel that the ending of Return of the King drags a little, you may want to think carefully about what the missing beat is. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the scene was desirable but would have been unfilmable: the people who say this seem to have forgotten that the whole trilogy was, similarly, deemed unfilmable until the night the first movie premiered. If Jackson had chosen to exercise his demonstrated talent for compressing the source material, he really wouldn't have needed more than about three or four more minutes--but I suspect most of us prefer our Lord of the Rings this way, fortified by a final reassurance that the returning hobbits haven't really been changed by their journey. It's no great matter: seeing Rivendell and Minas Tirith and the battles of Helm's Deep and Pelennor, which I wouldn't have known I had any great desire to do, is worth suffering some Hollywood molestation of literature in this case. On the whole Jackson's surgery has endowed Tolkien with a good deal more dignity than it takes away.

- 1:01 pm, December 22 (link)

Puttin' on the foil

So hockey hasbeen Tony Twist thinks that Todd McFarlane was defaming him when he named a violent character in the Spawn comics after him. That's what he intends to tell the Supreme Court of the United States, anyway. What, then, are we to make of the news that Twist was the first guy to sign up for a controversial, unregulated hockey-fighting tournament called "Battle of the Hockey Gladiators"? Maybe he was forced to do it because McFarlane has done so much damage to his rep.

[UPDATE, December 21: My Monday column will have more on this odd story.]

- 3:15 pm, December 20 (link)

And the Dean supporters cried?

Bush lied, people died... Colonel Gaddafi came onside! Makes for a rather nice little couplet, no?

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has promised to surrender his country's weapons of mass destruction and halt its nuclear development program in a bid to end nearly two decades of international isolation, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced last night.
Libya will "immediately and unconditionally" allow international inspectors to enter the country to track unconventional weapons and oversee their destruction, said Bush, describing nine months of secret negotiations among U.S., British and Libyan officials.
A team of U.S. and British intelligence agents and weapons specialists made two trips to Libya, officials said, where they were allowed to visit 10 secret weapons sites, were shown chemical-warfare agents, and discussed details with Libyan scientists. The Libyans said they had been working to develop a nuclear fuel cycle intended to provide fissile material for atomic weapons.

When Saddam was captured earlier this week, opponents of American "unilateralism"--or, to give it a name the pro-war side might prefer, American willingness to establish collective security by means other than unbounded appeasement--were mostly careful to say "This is a great day." Or, rather, "This is a great day, but...". As I predicted at the time, the various protestations following the "but" were not long in arriving.

The thing to notice is that Gaddafi's sudden kowtowing to American power is going to be much, much harder to brush off. The capture of Saddam was a symbolic triumph; this is a real foreign-policy achievement, or it has the potential to be one. Is the Howard Dean set going to step forward and say "This is, um, another great day, I guess?" How many of these days will they have to live through before their position becomes untenable? As for the Joshua Marshall types working overtime to position themselves as relatively war-friendly while crafting a narrative of Bush Administration foreign-policy incompetence... well, they're entitled to take their best shot, and any minute now Marshall will no doubt remind us that Libya's efforts to get free of "rogue state" status pre-date the Second Gulf War. That's a fair and relevant observation, but it will be tantamount to asking the American voting public to please not add two and two. Saddam is dragged out of a living grave and told that the president sends his regards, and within a week, Gadhafi, one of the most comparable figures in the World Atlas of Thuggery, is voluntarily installing red carpet for a weapons inspectorate. Talk about a wacky coincidence, eh?

- 12:56 am, December 20 (link)

Drive, he said

My latest National Post column, which is about a particularly ugly instance of politics-by-headline now on parade in Alberta, is online.

- 5:36 am, December 19 (link)


SCTV on DVD latest: there is now seemingly no chance that the set will be out in January, as video trade magazines reported this summer. Joe Flaherty--yes, that Joe Flaherty--tells the newsgroup that there is no firm release date yet. Some on the newsgroup have batted around an April release, but don't get your hopes up. One piece of good news is that has a page put aside for the set.

- 3:15 am, December 19 (link)

Now it can be told

The real story behind Saddam's capture.

- 2:25 am, December 19 (link)

Spandau ballet

When I proposed the Napoleon treatment for Saddam, a couple of people wrote to ask if I was entirely serious, "reminding" me that Napoleon's escape from Elba terrorized Europe and cost something like 40,000 lives. But when the allies got serious about confining the Emperor, shipping him to one of the planet's most remote locations, there was no danger of escape.

In legend, Napoleon is said to have originally been planted on Elba, dangerously close to the European mainland, because of a foolish charitable impulse of Tsar Alexander I, whose personal relations with Napoleon had been warm. The decision was regarded uneasily at the time, and the story goes that when the Tsar challenged the Duke of Wellington during the Hundred Days, asking him "Why did you let him go?", Wellington shot back "Why did you put him there?"

Modern scholarship attributes the Elba idea to agents of the Bourbons who wanted to encourage an orderly transition of power. In any event, Napoleon's original abdication was a negotiated affair and bears more resemblance to the outcome of the First Gulf War than the Second. Saddam has nothing to offer, now, in exchange for a comfortable life on a hospitable island. If we wished, we could simply lock him up. Although the ideal facility for the purpose no longer exists.

- 10:17 pm, December 17 (link)

It's alive... alive

Those of you who have been waiting for the unveiling of the top-secret successor to Alberta Report, wait no more. The Western Standard now has an online presence and is selling subscriptions. Publisher Ezra Levant discusses his new project in today's Calgary Sun.

- 2:39 pm, December 17 (link)

Don't bother looking for Dalton Camp up there, Bob

Robert Stanfield is dead at the age of 89, no doubt from mortification at the dropping of the "Progressive" from the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. writes:

Though Stanfield never led his party to victory, his legacy remains of a man of honesty, integrity, and deep intelligence.

To one who has edited obituaries, this is painfully visible floundering: there's nothing interesting to say about this deader. He was the Man Without Qualities. Reports that Stanfield's soul instantly transmigrated into the body of a Mr. Bernard Lord of Moncton, N.B., remain unconfirmed at this hour.

- 11:41 am, December 17 (link)


Competing newspapers have politely forborne comment on the first few weeks of Berkeley Breathed's Opus, but in cyberspace the planks are already being assembled for the crucifix. Representative potshots from the Comics Journal message board:

"That has to be the slightest punch line I've ever seen."
"Tell your local editor to cancel this travesty and now."
"I think the big problem here is that Opus is what I call 'Ziggy unfunny'."
"Frankly, I'm just dumbfounded by this strip. ...weak is too small a word. It's dead. Lifeless. Coughing up blood."
"Face it, Bloom County was I Love Lucy. Outland was The Lucille Ball Show. Opus is Here's Lucy."

But surely this is thoroughly predictable "Worst episode ever" rhetoric from literal Comic Book Guys, I hear you say. Alas, no: the strip has been legitimately awful, disappointing the lowest conceivable expectations--to wit, my own. Have a look at the genuinely unpleasant third installment. Breathed's classic sin--plunking an arbitrary famous person into a strip as a substitute for satire--is perpetrated here, to be sure; but it is compounded with an extraordinarily laboured joke and an eye-fracturing layout that takes three or four passes to decipher. The pathetic gag is then stunned out of its misery by a final panel (though it is hard to identify as such, in the Berkeleyan vortex) which combines a dollop of sap with a bit of vaudeville mugging. It would not be overstating matters to describe the overall effect as "horrifying", and is the more so when you consider that Breathed bullied other strips out of Sunday colour sections to claim a half-page for himself. He was supposedly going to carry the ball for Newspaper Comics As Art. I'm only amazed that the treacle is even more indigestible than I foretold.

- 8:56 am, December 17 (link)

A Serling engine

From BoingBoing:

MAME is a project to allow for the emulation of every video-game ever minted, but what if you're more the pinball type? No fear: a group of MAME hackers are building virtual pinball machines that lovingly emulate every jot and tittle of every pinball table under the sun.

I don't know how many of you would have done the same double-take I did upon reading this... in university, I never did finish my real master's degree, but I think I'm eligible for a M.A. in Bally's Twilight Zone. (I can't claim a doctorate, because I never did get Lost in the Zone; after hundreds of games, I was always a couple of door panels short when I ran out of balls.) The VPforums have allowed me to reacquaint myself, at great temporary cost to my working life. The instructions for compiling the program are cryptic, you have to wait a few minutes between downloads, the zipped ROM files have to be fiddled with a bit after you save them locally, and technically I'm not sure it's kosher to download the necessary ROMs from the Bally website unless you own a table. But the digital recreation of TZ you're left with at the end of the hard work is fantastic. In sum, the greatest pinball machine ever devised is now a superb video game. "Hi! I'm Talking Tina! Here's... your... EXTRA BALL! [very loud explosion]"

[UPDATE, 6:56 am: it occurs to me I should say a word or two about why Twilight Zone is so terrific, for those of you who may regard pinball machines as antiquated perversions. If you were playing pinball to begin with in the 1990's, you obviously have a certain taste for analog-ness, and TZ was the table that best respected that, while adding digital sound and graphics. It has energy without ostentation. The game wasn't overborne by some clunky premise like most of your riding-'n'-shooting-'n'-rafting pinball tables for witless 11-year-old Nintendoids. The "Twilight Zone" elements are objects of occult significance from the series which are strewn about the game; they're conceptual non-sequiturs, really. Robots, sinister hitchhikers, an analog clock squatting in the playing field, the Masonic Eye of Providence as a nameless and malevolent "Power": it all adds up to a highly amusing, Harpo Marx-flavoured chaos, tied into the whole by Rod Serling's voice and the propulsive beat of Golden Earring's song "Twilight Zone". At the same time, it's just a very good pinball table. Random elements are kept to a minimum, and skill is at a premium. It's loads of fun, and there's so much going on you can keep coming back after you've mastered it. It's unlikely to be surpassed.]

- 3:16 am, December 17 (link)

All Tolkien all the time

Here's the best explanation I've seen as to why the Scouring of the Shire should have been shot for The Return of the King. Tolkien was a somewhat silly man (though unashamed silliness of his sort is often a form of distinctly English genius), and calling him a Luddite would be an insult to Luddites, but he understood some things very well.

As I insist frequently, I'm not a Tolkien Fan, but I have, unlike many who would accept the title, perused the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. How many people would be shocked to learn that our beloved Frodo Baggins is "really" Maura Labingi, or that the indefatigable Sam's true name is Banazîr Galbasi?

- 1:21 am, December 17 (link)

Better late than never

My Monday National Post column has finally made its way to the Web. Incidentally, George Jonas had a What-Is-To-Be-Done-With-Saddam column on the same page. His views are very much like mine, and are expressed far more elegantly, but he didn't consider peremptory exile for some reason.

It always seemed to me that giving Saddam Hussein a fair trial would be impossible. At the same time, giving him (or anyone) an unfair trial would be pointless. This begged the question of what to do with him. I thought that having Saddam tried by a tribunal, whether Iraqi or coalition--not to mention one set up by the International Criminal Court (ICC)--should be the last choice. My suggestions, in descending order of preference, were: 1) Shoot him out of hand; 2) Let him go, and leave his punishment to God; 3) Try him before a tribunal; 4) Let the ICC assume jurisdiction over him.

The whole column should appear on Jonas's personal page shortly.

- 5:56 pm, December 16 (link)

The unexpected heretic

A strong candidate for Speech of the Year, 2003: Michael Crichton tells a San Francisco audience in September that environmentalism is a religion--one that has already killed enough people for a hundred Crusades.

With so many past failures, you might think that environmental predictions would become more cautious. But not if it's a religion. Remember, the nut on the sidewalk carrying the placard that predicts the end of the world doesn't quit when the world doesn't end on the day he expects. He just changes his placard, sets a new doomsday date, and goes back to walking the streets. One of the defining features of religion is that your beliefs are not troubled by facts, because they have nothing to do with facts.

...Religions think they know it all, but the unhappy truth of the environment is that we are dealing with incredibly complex, evolving systems, and we usually are not certain how best to proceed. Those who are certain are demonstrating their personality type, or their belief system, not the state of their knowledge. Our record in the past, for example managing national parks, is humiliating. Our fifty-year effort at forest-fire suppression is a well-intentioned disaster from which our forests will never recover. We need to be humble, deeply humble, in the face of what we are trying to accomplish. We need to be trying various methods of accomplishing things. We need to be open-minded about assessing results of our efforts, and we need to be flexible about balancing needs. Religions are good at none of these things.

How will we manage to get environmentalism out of the clutches of religion, and back to a scientific discipline? There's a simple answer: we must institute far more stringent requirements for what constitutes knowledge in the environmental realm. I am thoroughly sick of politicized so-called facts that simply aren't true. It isn't that these "facts" are exaggerations of an underlying truth. Nor is it that certain organizations are spinning their case to present it in the strongest way. Not at all--what more and more groups are doing is putting out is lies, pure and simple. Falsehoods that they know to be false.

- 3:50 pm, December 16 (link)

Somebody get me the St. Helena real estate listings

First draft of my thoughts about What Is To Be Done With Saddam:

I'm opposed, on the whole, to international judicial tribunals that are neither fish nor fowl. We pretend, for the purpose of setting up such tribunals, that there is a true international consensus on fair trial procedures; but this is a pretence that is ultimately hazardous to our own confidence in the Anglo-Saxon legal heritage, which half of the world doesn't understand and doesn't like. It mocks justice to create a multi-headed beast like the one called into being at Nuremberg, with one species of fascist in the dock and another on the bench.

With the United States still asserting practical sovereignty over Iraq, any extraordinary Iraqi tribunal convened to try Saddam will have the inevitable appearance of victor's justice. If the Americans don't control whatever body is created, Saddam may be found not guilty; if they do control it, its findings will be held in permanent contempt in Iraq, and we will have made a martyr out of someone whose standing could not be lower at the moment. Meanwhile, Saddam can create enormous political trouble and vexation for the American authorities if he is to be allowed anything like a fair defence. The best case is a disgusting situation comedy like the one currently being played out in Europe with Slobodan Milosevic as the star.

One thing about Saddam's career is known to a certainty: as Iraqi head of state, he violated the moral law of nations by launching an unprovoked attack on a neighbour, Kuwait. Trying him for murder, or other specific crimes, in front of an Iraqi judicial body is the best outcome we are likely to get, and I suppose I will support it--but only because I have little hope he'll be handled as he should be: like Napoleon. No need to bother with a trial for the common enemy of mankind. If we're going to exercise victor's justice, let's exercise it, and not insult the forms of real law. Send him alone to a shabby house on the most remote island we can find, and keep him alive for interrogation by generals, spooks, and historians. Let him, in a word, rot away in isolation.

- 3:21 pm, December 16 (link)

Farewell to the poster boy

The ice finally breaks: Edmonton Oiler Mike Comrie has been traded to Philadelphia for defenceman Jeff Woywitka, a first-round pick in 2004 (which, with the way the Flyers are playing, is shaping up to be 30th overall), and a third-rounder in 2005. Comrie's holdout became ever-bigger news over the fall and winter, surging into the international spotlight last week when Oiler GM Kevin Lowe completed a deal with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim but demanded that Comrie himself contribute $2.5 million in cash to the Oilers as a condition for completing it.

This was an extremely controversial move inside and outside Edmonton, and is without apparent precedent in the NHL. A clear majority of local fans backed Lowe; Comrie's holdout has generated incredible hostility, since he comes from a fantastically rich local family and was paid $3 million last year, despite being AWOL with a wrist injury for much of the season and looking flat and uninspired in the playoffs. Some sympathized with Comrie, who had delivered full value for money in a stellar '01-'02 campaign. The story, fuelled by press leaks on both sides, has never left the papers for more than a couple of days and has been the sole topic of water-cooler talk. I didn't write about it because I never saw much point in trying to make a moral case out of a contract negotiation. On that very principle, I've been a bit annoyed with the fans who disapproved of Lowe's request for Comrie to buy out his own contract; no one complains much when a player or coach is bought out by a team, so why shouldn't the opposite sometimes be reasonable?

This Flyer deal doesn't look as good as the Anaheim one on paper, but (a) it gets Comrie out of the conference and (b) Woywitka is from Alberta and played junior with the Red Deer Rebels, so Lowe should have a unusually clear idea of his value. Moreover, Lowe should be able to tell a defenceman from a dunghill if anyone can. The Oilers were criticized for acquiring well-travelled Lloydminster product Cory Cross last year, but Cross turned out to be a pretty good fifth defenceman.

We Oiler fans have been confused by Comrie's stubbornness; why would someone already so wealthy, who was so adored by the fans, put us through such hell? I began to wonder, and I still wonder, whether the Comrie family's money may have only served to cloud the issue. To an ordinary person, the difference between $1.1 million and $1.8 million might be pretty hazy--a mere digit, especially over the (hopefully) long run of an NHL career. To someone who sees it as a question of respect rather than cash, the difference might, paradoxically, become magnified. Perhaps Comrie thought to himself "I busted my ass for these guys and I'm being offered the contractual minimum!" rather than "They're throwing a million bucks at me to play hockey!".

- 2:53 pm, December 16 (link)

In days of yore, from Britain's shore

Let's hope the National Archives of Canada can outbid the Royal Navy freaks for this one:

Scholars have a new eyewitness account of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the death of General James Wolfe, nearly 250 years after the conquest of New France. The "previously unknown and evidently unpublished" journal of Captain Gordon Skelly, a naval officer aboard one of the British ships involved in the pivotal 1759 siege of Quebec, is to be sold on Thursday at Christie's auction house in New York.

Capt. Skelly's journal includes accounts of the naval action preceding the battle, the first efforts at landing, the unsuccessful and successful efforts to scale the heights, and the carrying of Wolfe's body onto the ship. If you want to place a bid, you'd better hurry. You can look at more details of the manuscript at Christie's website and see Skelly's unusually legible handwriting on an image of the title page.

- 2:19 am, December 16 (link)

The open stable door

Canadian readers now have online access to an interesting historical footnote: Ontario Superior Court Justice Russell Juriansz's decision in the David Orchard case against the PC/CA merger. Although Orchard has the highest profile among the applicants, this memorable case is filed as Ahenakew v. Mackay. I was curious about the legal crux of the suit, and it does turn out to be interesting.

The Orchard group's argument can be summed up in four words: political parties aren't corporations. They're unincorporated voluntary associations, and not legal persons in the fullest sense, which means that every member ought to be a contracting or participating party to a radical change in their status.

The applicants' position is that the PC Party has no independent legal existence apart from the individuals comprising its membership. They rely on the common law that the members of a voluntary association are bound together by a complex of contracts between each member and every other member of the association, the terms of which are those expressed in its Constitution and by-laws. While the members of an unincorporated association are free to transform the objects of the association, merge with other associations, or even terminate their association, they may make such fundamental changes only in accordance with the terms of the association's Constitution and by-laws. Where the Constitution and by-laws are silent, they may do so only with the unanimous consent of all members. The Ontario Court of Appeal decision in Astgen v. Smith, [1970] 1 O.R. 519, is a clear articulation of this common law principle.

Astgen and other common law cases recognize the social interest that members have in their association, but they also indicate the courts' concern that a majority of members may seek to divert an association's property. In Organization of Veterans of the Polish Second Corps of the Eighth Army v. Army Navy and Air Force Veterans and Canada [1978], 20 O.R. (2d) 321 (C.A.), the Court of Appeal explained that it was because of the peculiar nature of the interest of the members of an unincorporated association in its property that Courts have been zealous to protect that interest when factions develop and the fellowship of the association is broken. The Court said that there is particular concern to do this where the fragmented association has split into a disloyal faction that has gone its separate way and attempted to take the association's property with it, and an ongoing loyal group of adherents who seek to preserve the property and the fellowship of the original association. After making these comments, the Court of Appeal restated the principle from Astgen that "unless authorized by the organization's Constitution, a mere majority of members cannot cause property to be diverted to another association having different objects".

If the judge had been willing to apply these Astgen principles to the merger, he would and could have called the whole thing off. They, indeed, anticipate the Orchard-Mackay situation with elegant prescience. But, as the judge noted, while political parties may not be formally incorporated, they are treated as legal quasi-persons under electoral law (they can be punished collectively, for example, by being temporarily de-registered) and are endowed with public benefits--tax breaks on contributions--collectively. Justice Juriasz therefore chose to regard the federal Elections Act, rather than Astgen, as the source or locus of the controlling legal framework here. And the Elections Act makes merging two political parties pretty easy; as the recent process has taught us all, you basically need a formal resolution from each party and the signatures of the leaders, and you're good to go, as long as none of the electoral or financial obligations of the old parties remain unmet. Juriasz concludes:

It is my view that ss. 400 to 403 of the Act regulate the merger of registered political parties. Registered political parties may apply to merge into a single registered party. Upon the regulatory requirements being satisfied, the statute makes the merger effective. In these cases, the common law principles regarding unregulated voluntary associations upon which the applicants rely would not apply. In expressing this view, I should not be taken to be declaring the law. In this proceeding I was asked to make declarations that the PC Party cannot merge, transfer its assets, or dissolve without the unanimous consent of every one of its individual members. I have decided, based on the view I take of the law, that it is not appropriate to make such declarations. ...Whether the resolution being acted upon tomorrow, or any other resolution, satisfies the requirements of the Act must, in the first instance, be decided by the Chief Electoral Officer. I refuse the relief requested... on that basis.

- 11:35 pm, December 15 (link)

Checking in

I did contribute a column to this morning's all-Saddam edition of the Post, but it doesn't appear to be online yet. Does anybody else wonder if the $25 million price on Saddam's head really went uncollected? That's the official story, but one would expect it to be the official story whether it were true or false. It could very well be that some nth cousin of Saddam has quietly split the country and is now recumbent on a white beach in a Speedo, taking an early down payment on 72 virgins.

A news item not to miss amidst the Saddamania is the death of a true benefactor of mankind, Sen. William V. Roth Jr. of Roth IRA fame. And everyone should read Rian Malan's cautionary words from the Spectator about AIDS in Africa.

- 10:35 am, December 15 (link)

Ready, steady, teddy

Does anybody else remember the all-girl Vancouver punk-pop combo Cub? They attained a kind of indie Valhalla by having their song "New York City" covered by They Might Be Giants in 1996. Long careers have been built on less than the stuff of that tune, but Cub, being indie chicks, had to split up almost immediately (leaving studio pal Neko Case to march onward alone to a distinguished recording career). A Google search reveals that Cub alpha female Lisa Marr, who decamped to L.A. after the breakup, is back in Vancouver fronting what sounds suspiciously like an alt-country group. Well, why not?

- 3:15 am, December 14 (link)

Sioux II?

DHL missile hit update: Aviation Week is reporting that the Airbus A300 struck on takeoff by a SAM lost all three of its main hydraulic systems shortly after impact. When a triple whammy like this happens, which it isn't supposed to, the crew deploys a ram air turbine to provide a bit of hydraulic pressure for basic control of the airframe. That didn't work either, leaving them in the unique [not anymore -ed.] situation faced by Al Haynes and his colleagues aboard United 232 in 1989: they had to steer and land the plane using only engine power settings. Remarkably, the DHL captain is said to have attended a seminar taught by Haynes earlier this year. Commercial pilots now train for the Sioux City scenario, which Haynes had to handle without simulator time or a checklist (though God did spot him a DC-10 check pilot, Dennis Fitch, who happened to be deadheading on Flight 232 and was available to help brainstorm and operate the throttles). AvWeek says "The [DHL] crew had problems controlling the aircraft and at times didn't think they would make it... But the captain recalled the Haynes presentation and started using engine thrust for control, and was surprised to find it worked rather well."

A reader sends a weblog entry with more details of the incident and tough questions about DHL's methods of persuading pilots to fly into war zones.

- 11:24 am, December 13 (link)

Hey, kimchi's just Korean for "liberty cabbage"

Is kimchi a bioterror threat? That's the question posed by the Chosun Ilbo. Me, I love the stuff, but I know some people would respond with a resounding "yes" irrespective of new FDA regulations on imported food.

With the U.S. Bioterrorism Act taking effect on Friday, the Korean Ministry of Agriculture and Farming (MAF) has said that from now on packages of food such as kimchi, instant noodles and dried seaweed must be registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before being shipped to the United States.
Sending food packages without prior registration or food from companies not registered with the U.S. FDA is not permitted, and in the case of multiple offenders could result in packages being returned starting in August of next year.
The U.S. FDA's registration procedures are quite complicated, however, and homemade food cannot be registered at all, so initial confusion can be expected.

I read somewhere the other day that small Canadian maple-syrup exporters were caught unawares by the regulatory change too, and are concerned about their ability to comply with the regulations.

The Bioterrorism Act was created by the U.S. government to respond to the threat of biological and chemical terrorism in the wake of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Prior to the act's taking effect Friday, companies that export food products to the United States were issued identification numbers, upon registration. ...Registration requires stating in English the name of the individual who purchased the food, the recipient, the name of the food product, the date the package is being sent, and the name of the food company that produced the product, after which the sender is issued a "delivery number" to write on the outside of the package.

Apparently writing this delivery number on the package will, through numerological magick, render inert any bioterroroidal pathogens inside. Or maybe the whole thing is just typically asinine stealth protectionism. I report, you decide!

- 3:44 am, December 13 (link)

P2P 24/7

Peer-to-peer file traders will want to bone up on the new ruling from the Copyright Board of Canada, which (a) imposes a small "copying levy" on portable MP3 players sold here and (b) freezes existing levies on other media. There's an important (c), too: the Board refused to impose new levies on blank DVDs, flash-memory cards and removable hard drives, ruling with lustrous good sense that there is no evidence that those media are used chiefly to copy music. You can

· read the Board's news release;
· view its formal decision (PDF);
· read a solid Jack Kapica story on the decision from the Globe (key passage: "The CPCC would not say that downloading music files from the Internet is illegal under Canadian law, but also said that the board's decision did not legitimize the practice");
· scan the reax in the CP's wire story (vendors happy, music industry unhappy);
· get the goods from the Register's inimitable Andrew Orlowski ("Canada's copyright agency has OK'd the downloading of copyrighted music from Peer to Peer networks"--not quite, but if it's going to tax blank media, it may not have much choice).

- 10:08 pm, December 12 (link)


Today's National Post column, about the interesting role of labour unions in the national life of Quebec, is available for your perusal.

- 2:01 pm, December 12 (link)

Once upon a time in the East

Unnoticed news dept.: a highly amusing drama of American foreign policy is taking place in Nigeria, where former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor is holed up. The appropriations bill passed by Congress in November to fund military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq contained an interesting little line item--a $2M reward set aside for the capture of "an indictee of the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal", obviously Taylor. The Nigerian government understandably soiled its shreddies over the U.S. action, which was tantamount to placing a bounty on the head of a person under Nigerian protection. American diplomatic staff in Nigeria were forced to offer laboured explanations, as the Vanguard of Lagos reported at the time:

The [U.S.] embassy's information officer, Mr. Michael Hankey... stressed that Washington would continue to dialogue with Abuja on the issue of bringing Taylor, who had been indicted by the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal for Sierra Leone, to justice.

He said: "The United States government does not support any violent or illegal means against the Nigerian government. The money in question (Congress' $2 million ransom for Taylor's capture) gives the U.S. government an additional tool they need in future.

"Just as president Bush said, at a time the U.S. government believed that bringing Charles Taylor to Nigeria will help bring peace to Liberia. The American government opposes any violent means towards capturing Charles Taylor."

Yesterday the head of Northbridge Services Group Ltd., a "security service" (i.e., mercenary shop) based in the UK, went on the BBC World Service to say his company would be happy to collect the $2M on Taylor's head. The Nigerians will doubtless be simply thrilled to learn that Northbridge apparently has operatives already in place awaiting the green light from Dubya. The Americans persist in assuring Nigeria that they do not intend to use violent means to grab Taylor. There is really no credible explanation as to how else it might happen, however: Taylor is unquestionably paying the Nigerians more than two million dollars for their hospitality. And one can't help wondering whether Northbridge's sales tactics will encourage others to carpe diem and seize the valuable Gen. Taylor from under the noses of his Nigerian guardians.

- 4:55 am, December 12 (link)

ROTK amber alert

I am beginning to suspect that Sam Mikes was right to sound a warning about The Return of the King. I'm the furthest thing from a true Tolkien fan (owing to fine olfactory sensibilities, no doubt), but I sympathize with the point made at the end of this passage:

Perhaps there is a certain kind of "incurable Tolkien purist" who is satisfied when the backdrop of a film is sufficiently near to his imaginings. But the movies fail to capture the essential moral character of Tolkien's story--which is a Christian story set in a pre-Christian world--and therefore are nothing more than well-funded action flicks with a Tolkienesque setting. If you understand why The Scouring of the Shire is the most essential subplot of the trilogy then I believe you will understand what I mean. (It's hardly a subplot, actually; it would be more fair to call it the main plot.)

The Scouring is incalculably important, and the apparent excision of Christopher Lee from the finished movie gives cause for serious concern about whether that chapter will get its deserved place in the movie. I don't know whether it's troubling or encouraging that AP's David Germain warns that "viewers are treated in some detail to such comparatively passive sequences as the survivors' return home." Passive?

I'm not so much interested in the moral point here. That chapter is the one point in the trilogy in which Tolkien achieves a really impressive narrative effect; as one reaches it, one almost feels the hand of the philological fabulist shrinking from the manuscript and the true novelist taking over. If the Scouring is not the "main plot", it is fair, at any rate, to propose that Tolkien wrote the eight grillion words of the trilogy in order to arrive at that one chapter and make it stick. The temporal economy of the feature film is a harsh mistress, but since Jackson has got so much right about the movies, it would be a shame if he fell down on his final duty to Tolkien's vision.

- 4:01 am, December 12 (link)

Tick, tick, tick

You can read my Monday Post column about Christmas music while I'm working on Friday's. A preface (not put there by me, obviously) warns:

Enjoy full access to this story during our trial period. After January 24th, 2004, complete access will be limited to registered 6-day National Post print subscribers.

What exactly happens after Jan. 24--whether content initially available only to subscribers will, after a decent interval, become available to everyone for general discussion and dissection--I won't pretend to know. As I've said before--it's a statement of intent which is rapidly and distressingly rising to the level of a promise--I will, if necessary, make the columns available here a week or so after publication, when the reproduction rights revert to me.

- 4:29 am, December 11 (link)

Thalassa, thalassa

I've been spending the day enjoying my new computer, if "enjoying" is the right word. After six years with the same, amazingly durable old Pentium I, which I bought used to begin with and which never cavilled too much at inhaling the ash and tar of 15 cigarettes a day--well, it's a bit like taking Old Yeller out behind the barn. And the new Pentium IV is so flashy, with its ClearType and its new XP commands and conveniences and the flat-panel monitor, that it's actually imparting a science-fictiony sort of feeling to my sensory field. I feel less gleeful than thoroughly Future Shocked--a bit queasy. At the same time... surely, surely the Blue Screen of Death is lying in wait just around the corner? The old tension is hard to shake. I find myself still being as scrupulous as a virgin governess about what I save and install, even though my disk space has suddenly leapt from four gigabytes to 75.

There's been some correspondence on the boarding-party issue, though none, I think, that comes quite up to the requested level of "expert". A few of you pointed out that future Admiral Thomas Cochrane once led a boarding party onto another ship during the Napoleonic Wars, which was something I'd discovered for myself but didn't take into account too closely, as the circumstances were special: since the extraordinarily belligerent Cochrane was leading all his men onto the enemy's vessel (leaving behind only his surgeon), he could hardly stay behind himself. What I didn't know was that Cochrane is said to have been a particular model for Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey. The best-informed response seemed to be Bruce Rolston's:

Naval boarding actions in battle (as opposed to cutting-out expeditions, etc., which a ship commander did often assign to subordinates) are actually relatively rare, surprisingly, but boarding by the captain was not uncommon in British practice; look at Philip Broke in Shannon v. Chesapeake, for instance...

Nelson at St. Vincent, although he had the rank of commodore, was not commanding a larger group of ships. He was more just an extraneous senior officer in a fleet action. There were already 4 admirals for a 15-ship squadron, and really only Jervis gave the orders that day. [Jervis received the Earldom of St. Vincent for his role in the action. -ed.] Nelson's "squadron" prior to the day of battle had been only two frigates, Minerve and Romulus, neither of which were engaged in the main battle. It'd be interesting to know why Jervis assigned him to "ride along" with Capt. Miller, but it was still an unusual situation. Indeed, the fact that both he and Miller went for the boarding chains, and Nelson sent Miller back, indicates both thought a captain's role at that point was in the close-quarter battle.

- 8:34 pm, December 10 (link)

Far-flung places

Evan Kirchhoff has a rejoinder to my entry on DHL. He'd probably find shipping things to Kazakhstan a good deal easier now that the place has become a vital part of the world's petro-bloodstream, bound with tight golden bands to places like, well, Alberta. Our oil and gas companies, oilpatch servicing outfits, and law firms now have little colonies there, as they do in other charming vacation spots like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and--until Talisman Energy lost its nerve recently--the godforsaken Sudan.

Readers Alan Jacobs also writes with his own personal testimony:

About ten years ago I spent a summer in Nigeria, and made several visits to Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State. Though Ilorin then had over a million people, there wasn't much there of interest, except for one imported food store and, on the ground floor of the Kwara Hotel, a Chinese restaurant (the proprietor of which had put a satellite dish in the parking lot so his patrons could watch CNN). I couldn't figure out what had made Ilorin a city, or what went on there, but also in the Kwara Hotel was a tiny DHL office, and about every half an hour a guy on a motorcycle with a white DHL box bolted onto the back would zoom in, deliver or pick up a package, and zoom out again. I was never sure whether it was one guy or several, but when I think of Ilorin, the first image that comes to mind is watching the DHL logo on the back of the cycle disappearing into the dust, weaving in and out of traffic. I always thought DHL should do a commercial based on that courier.

- 8:44 am, December 10 (link)

A good commander knows how to delegate

Went to see Master and Commander tonight. I must say that, although computer graphics have temporarily helped to rob motion pictures of their soul, as the advent of sound once did for a while, it is wonderful for us to have convincing images and sounds of the effects of pre-modern cannon. What The Patriot--a wholly ridiculous movie in other respects--achieved on land, Master and Commander does at sea, without being at all ridiculous. I did come home prepared to quarrel with the versimilitude of the movie in one respect--namely, the scene in which Russell Crowe leads a boarding party. A ship's captain wouldn't charge willy-nilly onto the enemy's decks in the middle of a sea battle, would he?

Lord Nelson had "already" (before the historical date of M&C) done just this at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, and one could expect no less of Crowe than to follow the great man's example. There's only one problem: Nelson, then a commodore, had command of the fleet in that battle, but not of any particular ship. When he leaped aboard the Spanish San Josef (cutting quite the dashing figure in the process), he specifically instructed the commander of his flagship to stay behind. Which just seems like common sense, under the circumstances. Expert comment is invited.

[UPDATE, 8:38 pm: More here.]

- 2:20 am, December 10 (link)

Barger Stylites?

I have a gigantic psychological block against Mammon-in-general, and no long-term ideas how to overcome it. Alternative currency? Retreat to a cave?

It looks like Jorn Barger, the eccentric leftist who coined the word "weblog", has opted for the cave. Barger stopped updating his influential Robot Wisdom site in September or thereabouts. Late last month it was announced that, according to his roommate, he'd simply gone missing, leaving his possessions behind. It turns out he's alive and well: he just had a sudden hankering for anachoresis and fled into the New Mexico desert without telling anybody.

- 5:21 am, December 9 (link)

Neither rain, nor snow, nor SAM...

A recent event in Iraq--namely, the surface-to-air missile attack on a cargo plane taking off from Baghdad airport--provides the occasion for a tangential lesson in the power of marketing. FedEx is, with good reason, one of the world's most unambiguously beloved brands: Tom Hanks, you may rest assured, will not be engaged for a hagiographic portrayal of Ronald McDonald anytime soon. Rival UPS has developed a cult of its own in recent years, with its trademark brown uniforms becoming an ostensibly improbable but apparently ubiquitous element in the fantasy lives of big-haired North American receptionists. Meanwhile, the German-owned DHL goes about its business unnoticed--due to its own marketing lassitude--by the broad public. Or, at least, the broad public that isn't sending Christmas prezzies to Kyrgyzstan.

Yet, in truth, DHL has probably the strongest claim among courier firms to genuine logistical heroism. It owned the plane which was disabled by the Iraqi missile last week, and that's not a coincidence, since DHL was the only international courier serving Baghdad Airport. When a country turns into an annex of hell, DHL generally stays behind as others flee: it continued to ship packages to the Balkan states, for instance, throughout the late unpleasantness over ethnic cleansing and counter-cleansing, and I believe it's still the only reliable way to get a package to Bosnia. DHL was the first carrier to get a toehold in the Eastern European communist states--back when they were communist states--and is still ahead of the competition there. It opened up the fast-shipping market on the Indian subcontinent. If you want to get a parcel to Burma or North Korea, DHL is about your only choice.

Some might regard the company's ties to authoritarian regimes as somewhat unsavoury, of course: DHL's intrepidity is of the same morally ambiguous species as a mercenary's. Still, you'd think the one company that goes everywhere would be able to make hay out of it. Cripes, the ad copy writes itself: "When one of our planes was taken out by a missile, DHL suspended package service to Iraq. For about a week."

[UPDATE, December 10: Readers react.]

- 3:46 am, December 9 (link)

A second home

It's a bittersweet day. The good news: the Web Nibelungs at the Post have finally given me my own columnist's page. Now you can stop pestering me about it. The bad news (for you): the content linked from there, for the nonce, is marked subscriber-only. Friday's column about the Acadians is stamped with the fatal 's', but if you go through the archive page for that day's paper, ta-da, there it is, available for free! Read it now and stick it to the Man!

(The bad news for me is that the Post's line art of my head, which commits the unforgivable crime of unscrupulous accuracy, is now online. It was designed for reduction to postage-stamp size, and in print it looks all right, but on the Web I magically become a Mexican serial killer.)

I don't know whether the little black symbol signifying paid content will eventually come off the columns after a few days, or what. If not, I'll soon start posting my columns here, or archiving them on another page, about a week after they appear. But why wait? A Post subscription is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving! Yeah... don't worry, I'll spare you the full sales pitch. You might check out the columnist bios and be reminded how formidable the Post's talent is.

- 12:36 am, December 9 (link)

Yeah, we were rotten

An interesting hockey soap opera takes a new twist. From

The Penguins will lend goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to the Canadian national junior team for the world championships in a few weeks, general manager Craig Patrick announced Sunday night during the broadcast of Pittsburgh's game at Calgary.
Fleury was the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft and has been anything but a disappointment. He is 4-9-2 with a 3.15 goals-against average for the struggling team. However, he has a clause in his contract that causes a $3 million bonus to kick in if he plays in at least one period in 25 NHL games this season, and the cash-strapped Penguins can ill afford the payout.

It is true, incidentally, that Fleury, at 19, has been excellent. There are still holes in his game, but he's clearly the best goaltender the Penguins have, and equally clearly in the top half of NHL goalies. The comic part is that the Pens, at first, were roasted for starting the kid. Old farts like Don Cherry insisted he needed three years, or some arbitrary amount of time, in junior hockey: a 19-year-old simply cannot succeed as an NHL starter right out of the gate, blah blah blah. I guess Grapes forgot that just last week he was praising new Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr, who played two years of junior to Fleury's three and was the Oilers' number-one goalie by his 19th birthday. Or Patrick Roy, who was 20 when he took over the Canadiens' starting job. Or the guy whose chair Fuhr took unexpectedly--Andy Moog, who was carrying the Oilers in the playoffs at 20. Or Tom Barrasso, who was the starter for the Sabres at age 18 and took home the Calder. These guys were not only successful at very young ages, they also had long and distinguished careers. Unusually long and distinguished ones.

I suspect Don is just dishing out random hockey "wisdom" from the days when the NHL was a six-team league in which the owners held all the cards. Under those conditions, if you had a bad run, the tenth-best guy in the world might be available to take your job. Without comprehensive professional scouting and modern media, you might not get it back, and you could be tearing your hair out in the Pennsylvania Anthracite League for the rest of your life. It's not like that anymore. You're going to have the 45 or so best guys in the world getting regular NHL work, and some of them will surely be teenagers. And since any high-level draft pick ends up being a megadollar investment, they get a lot more help and attention than they did in Don's day. Keeping a player in the minors or junior after he's proven he can win--or can make a revolting team like the Pens semi-competitive--is just giving away points in the standings and destroying the merit principle.

The loan gives the Pens an extra month to work on the big decision: Fleury has already appeared in 17 games of the 25 which would activate the big bonus. Craig Patrick's announcement is a little frustrating, because Penguins coach Ed Olcyzk was on Hockey Night in Canada's After Hours show Saturday night after their loss to the Oilers and wouldn't say what, if anything, had been decided. The team drove a few hundred miles south to Calgary, and suddenly Craig Patrick was ready to blab. I guess that's how it goes sometimes.

Olczyk did say, several times, "Whatever will do, we will be guided by the best interests of Marc." This is an fascinating statement, because it's obviously a lie, and if it's anything but a lie, Olczyk has his priorities wrong. A front office and a coaching staff have to do what is best for the team, which is not always what is best for an individual player. And sometimes, what's best for the team, in the long term, involves cold financial calculation.

In this case there's no doubt that Fleury has earned a starting job and that his presence would give the depressed Pens fans something to root for. Fleury wants to stay in the NHL and has discussed waiving the bonus to allow the Pens to keep him. Which is interesting. If the Penguins engage in any such discussion, it will be a tacit admission that they want to keep him with the NHL club, whatever his own interests, and that only the amount of the bonus would stop them. This, in turn, would seem to suggest that they had negotiated the bonus in bad faith to begin with. If there were no circumstances under which they would let Fleury play enough games to be paid, why did they offer him the bonus?

To sign him, of course: so the real question is, why did Fleury's agent, Allan Walsh, allow the bonus to be put in there if his player's number one priority was to remain in the league if he earned a job, as any player's would be? The Ottawa Senators went through a situation like this last year with Jason Spezza, who was unforgivably benched during a bitter playoff fight. NHL agents, you need to wake up. Stop negotiating performance bonuses for your young players with people who would rather lose games than pay them what they're worth. Otherwise you're just interfering with their career, and neither they nor you get anything out of it.

The ticket buyers need to start leaning on GMs, too. You recall the exculpatory fable sometimes told of Eddie Cicotte, the pitcher who was a pivotal member of the Black Sox conspiracy? Cicotte had a performance bonus in his contract for winning 30 games, the story goes, and team owner Charles Comiskey kept giving orders to bench him down the stretch, causing him to finish with 28 wins one year (1917) and 29 in the fatal year, 1919. Cicotte, they say, was so enraged by this unfair dealing that he was--if not right, then, say, partly justified--in helping to throw the World Series. In fact, this story is an easily-refuted lie. It's funny, though, that behaviour for which people damn the long-dead Comiskey (certainly an unpleasant human being for better-documented reasons) seems to be accepted with relative aplomb in the present-day NHL.

- 10:43 pm, December 7 (link)

Patton's invasion

Stand-up comic and Professional Sitcom Wacky Neighbour Patton Oswalt (I think he's one of those guys who has to try and live with the appellation "cult favourite" without swallowing his tongue out of sheer rage three times a day) has a dispatch from Vancouver, where he's shooting a movie.

All of the bands in Canada right now have that early 90's bullshit going on, all mopey singing and thick guitars. They also add one or two elements which ruin the whole grunge-wannabe feel. Like this one band trying to do a whole Mazzy Star thing, until the harmony singer brought out a fucking TRUMPET and started playing it.

- 1:10 am, December 6 (link)

Around the web and from the mailbag

My column about the Larry Spencer affaire (and the weblog entry that came out the same morning) have attracted more attention than anything else I've written for print by an order of magnitude or so. To recap my most important point:

If gays and lesbians stopped to consider how much they have gained since 1969, and how firmly Canadian society is now on their side in so many respects, they could entertain more tolerance for reflexive "intolerance" like Mr. Spencer's. ...[The] old social order has come apart very quickly, and not with entirely happy consequences. It is hard for younger people to understand that conspiratorial explanations for its collapse might present themselves as natural to an older mind--to sympathize, that is. Without agreeing.

Most everybody understood what I was getting at, sort of, and almost everybody disagreed. It would be easy to assume I was right just because the disagreement came from all sides; I won't do that, but nobody has convinced me I was wrong yet. Here's a rundown of some responses that weren't outright gibberish:

Mr. Cosh states that "We, as a society, have redefined one of the most revolting sins in the Christian cosmogony as a lifestyle choice." We most certainly have not. The notion that homosexuality is a matter of choice is a mainstay of those such as Larry Spencer, who remain opposed to the treatment of gays and lesbians as equal in the eyes of the law.
As I'm sure any gay or lesbian person will tell you, sexual preference is innate, not chosen, and is as natural to them as heterosexuality is to others. Recognition of this fact by most of the rest of society is largely responsible for the gains made by gays and lesbians since the 1960s. -Evelyn Peters McLellan, Vancouver [letter to the Post, Dec. 1]

I'm not sure how this crabby little lecture is relevant, since my whole point was that homosexuality was once regarded differently than it now is. Yes, a different view now prevails: that's what I was talking about. Some people haven't absorbed contemporary conclusions about homosexuality: we should try to understand that, and phony, overwrought indignation does not strike me as the best teaching method.

I have no great interest in the ferocious argument over whether homosexual orientation is truly innate. I have reached no firm conclusion on the matter, having not seen any decisive data: there are birth-order correlations with homosexuality, for instance, that leave the question totally open. Ms. McLellan seems to suggest that I can't like or respect my gay neighbour--and possibly that I can't even uphold his right to private consensual conduct--unless he was born the way he is. That makes her just as stupid as Larry Spencer. I don't care whether intrauterine hormones, genes, or a domineering mother made John or Jack queer. I am pretty convinced most people don't know and don't care, and that this is the secret to social acceptance of gay people: we've all discovered that we have a few in our families or social circles, and the fucking world didn't explode. That's it.

As a Canadian in my 60th year, I am outraged that Mr. Cosh has attempted to excuse the despicable rantings of Larry Spencer on the basis that he is "a man of his age."
This is an insult to all mature Canadians. Yes, Mr Spencer, like many others, has seen great changes in society. Unlike Mr. Spencer, most of us took the opportunity to learn as we went through those changes, to accept new ideas and to participate constructively in whatever new social order evolved. Some, of course, did not. Mr. Spencer is one of those who, having learned all he needed to know in 1962, has determined to remain frozen at that date.
Mr. Cosh owes an apology to all mature Canadians who are not ignorant bigots. -Eric Tibbatts, McLean, Sask. [letter to the Post, Dec. 1]

The mature Mr. Tibbatts can have his apology when he proves to me that 60-year-olds, as a group, share the same basic attitudes toward homosexuality that 30-year-olds, as a group, do. I won't hold my breath. While some older people have certainly been able to deal with social change (even in McLean, Saskatchewan), younger people didn't have to. This gives them an advantage in accepting those changes: they have no first-hand memory of a different world. For them, it's not even a question of accepting changes. Isn't this obvious? Am I the crazy one here?

I'm not quite as old as the bigotted Spencer but I'll submit my credentials as an old fart, codger-blogger. I'm straight, I was born in the 1940's and I'm old enough to be Colby's dad. In fact, my son was born in 1971 and is a few months older than Colby. I do not subscribe to the argument that just because someone is of a certain age, their close-minded opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. ...Spencer was 3 years old at the end of WWII. I have serious doubts about his ability to remember the event. Adolph Hitler was 56 at that time, by the way. Maybe he should have been cut some slack, too. Or, how about the now 64 year old Ernst Zündel? -Jim Elve

Thank God--I'm not the crazy one. Comparing Larry Spencer to "Adolph" Hitler and me to--I don't know: Putzi Hanfstaengl?--is clearly an early symptom of the bizarre illness known as Godwin's Disease. Or, given Jim's eagerness to assert his codger cred, maybe it's plain old Alzheimer's?

Larry Spencer isn't some ol' codger holding court at the red-and-white pole barber shop, he's a member of Parliament. And whatever the mode of his internal dialogue, whether it be based the 1970's or the 1870's, he correspondingly should consider exercising his internal censor occasionally too. Everyone has nasty thoughts, but most realize that there are levels of frankness that aren't particularly refreshing. -David Janes

I made this exact point in the first paragraph of my Post column. ("Larry Spencer was the Loyal Opposition critic for family issues: he had to be held to a higher standard. At this point in the CA/PC merger process, Mr. Harper had no choice but to give Mr. Spencer a swift, hard kick.") Did David bother to read it? I couldn't begin to guess. Same goes for Mark Wickens. And Alec Saunders.

Colby, you're right that there's no shock in Larry Spencer, a sexagenarian, would not be entirely au courant where gay sex and love are concerned. But does the real story not lie with Harper? I mean, there are only three explanations for Spencer's selection as Family Issues Critic.
1. Spencer lied to Harper (or his people) about his stance on the the issues--unlikely because he was dopey enough to expound on them at length to a reporter.
2. Harper never asked--speaks ill of Harper, both because of the importance of the issues to the country, and the fact that this is a hot-button issue for the party itself.
3. Harper knew, and didn't think this disqualified Spencer--wow. Both from a human dignity standpoint, and a purely realpolitik 'good of the party' standpoint, this would be shocking. -by e-mail

All this neglects the hidden background to the Spencer story. The "fourth" explanation I would submit is this: Harper fucked up by trusting Spencer.

Or, to add detail: Harper made Spencer the "family issues critic" because Spencer seemed to care a lot about family issues. Harper told Spencer something like "I know you're a firebreathing Baptarian or whatever it is, but this party is an inclusive anti-Liberal coalition; it includes Red Tories, who are going to suck it up and follow the party line on economics, and it includes people like you, who are going to suck it up and follow my laissez-faire approach on social issues." Spencer agreed, but then engaged in an ill-advised e-mail exchange which fell into the hands of Svend Robinson; then, in an attempt to account to the Vancouver Sun for what he had written, Spencer shot his mouth off still further. When he did so, he was kicked out of his critic's portfolio and out of caucus. What more can you ask of the party and its leader? Obviously Spencer was a bad choice, but there are many people like this in the Alliance, and still more, proportionally, in caucus. This is not because their numbers are overwhelming but because churches, like ethnic community centres, provide a strong natural base from which to win a party nomination and a Parliamentary seat. Harper is the leader; Harper has the mandate of the whole Alliance; and Harper signalled his attitude, and the party's formal attitude, by firing Spencer when he departed from policy (or, rather, from the determined non-policy required to sustain the coalition). What more did you want--a re-education camp?

Good for you, Colby, in recognising that seniors have a more difficult adjustment to make than those wet-behind-the-ears thirty-year-olds. They will never understand because they were never ingrained with the intolerance of our, mostly Christian, forebears. Nevertheless, one would have to live in a bubble of like thinkers not to have modified one's attitude toward gays over the years. Thank you for your understanding and your courage in writing "Tolerating reflexive intolerance". -by e-mail

Hey, someone agrees with me! I'll have to try harder next time. But it's not all whisky and chrysanthemums...

I enjoyed your recent column in the National Post that took an unemotional attitude towards the Spencer imbroglio. You did indicate that those readers closer to the end of life than to its inception might feel patronised and, being 63, that was my initial reaction. But I have "chilled down", as my granddaughter would say, and submit:
(a) Because a belief/attitude/law is current does not necessarily mean that it is better than what came before;
(b) If Hitler had prevailed and Nazism now dominated the world many of today's "tolerant" liberals would be enthusiastic believers in that evil doctrine because that was what they absorbed during their formative years.
To my mind more important than the fortunes of the Alliance/Conservatives and the personal ambition of Harper are:
(1) Is it now a fact in Canada that there are certain topics that may no longer be discussed in the public forum,
(2) Are "social conservatives" to be denied political representation? At best are they to go to the back of the bus and shut up?
I taught my children they had a duty to vote if only to respect their ancestors' centuries long fight for the franchise. Now for the first time in my life I intend not voting in the next federal election because a vote for the new Conservative Party would be used as evidence by Harper, Mackay, etc. that I approved of the muzzling of social conservatives. -by e-mail

Are "social conservatives" to be denied political representation? No indeed; the uncompromising Christian Heritage Party is there to welcome them with open arms. As far as the Canadian Alliance goes, it's an open question what the thing is for, except insofar as it is for getting rid of the Liberals--the common enemy of social conservatives, and of those who can loosely be described as libertarian. Through a rather torturous political process, the Alliance has settled on a leader who believes in pursuing libertarian values; someone has to sit in the back of the bus. The feeling in the Alliance ranks seems to be, if the person of the leader is any indication, that it's our turn to drive. After the merger between the PCs and the CA is complete, the question will arise again and will be decided again. It's not for me to say how social conservatives should feel if the answer goes against them. They may feel rejected and frustrated, and leave to support another party; that's everybody's prerogative in our system. For my part, I supported Stockwell Day when he was the leader, and have tirelessly pointed out that he led the party to significant electoral gains despite bad instincts and a campaign assembled by the Keystone Kops, but I'm only one man.

Finally, one more bouquet, and yes, I did cheat by saving this one for last, and yes, it is real.

Colby -- As a gay man, I really appreciated your editorial about that Alliance MP. There is no doubt he is an ignoramus; nevertheless, your editorial humanized people like him--for me--and gave me a more broadminded view of what is really going on with that issue. My humble thanks.

Oh God--I've been accused of being broadminded! I really will have to try harder next time.

- 12:51 am, December 6 (link)

Because booze makes you regress

For the discerning alcoholic spreadsheet-nerd: "The Malt Whisky Yield Curve", in which Daniel Davies dissects distillery dollars.

- 1:50 am, December 5 (link)

Place your bets

The New York Times tells the tale of two buyers squabbling over the frozen body of Air Canada. Somewhere in the background, Pierre Trudeau's ghost is uttering soft moans. Cerberus Capital Management, a U.S. equity fund, made an attractive initial offer, comparable to its rival's. But Air Canada accepted the other bid, saying that it had the advantage of "lower closing risk." Why lower risk? Because the other buyer, being a Canadian citizen, isn't limited in the amount of capital he can pump into the airline: Cerberus would have been limited by law to a 25% stake in the company. And that's how foreign-investment regulations tip a bidding war away from an American company--and towards the eldest son of Li Ka-Shing, who is the chief of Hutchison Whampoa, the world's largest port operator, and a perennial investment partner of the Chinese Communist government. Thank goodness we have laws to protect important Canadian interests like these!

Cerberus responded by launching a slightly dodgy second bid for a slice of Air Canada, and one hopes the resulting legal dispute can be settled politely, without federal competition regulators or the transport ministry giving unfair cues to the courts. Under the Chretien government, this might have been of mild concern to the paranoid: Chretien's son-in-law André Desmarais is a director of CITIC, which is joined at the hip with the Li family. But Chretien's on the way out, and, after all, it's not like we replaced him with someone, like, say, a shipping magnate, whose international business interests would depend on good relations with a company having control of the world's ports.

- 12:58 am, December 5 (link)

Why bother? It's only going to snow more later

The froth of indignation over the City of Edmonton's treatment of Olga Friesen has, it seems, now splashed nationwide. 69-year-old Olga has become a hero for giving the Edmonton Sun something to fill space with challenging the city's mandatory shoveling bylaw, which requires homeowners and tenants to clear their walks within 48 hours after a snowfall. Such a law might seem like a basic requirement in a boreal metropolis, but Olga insists that a light coating of snow is actually safer to walk on when the temperature is fluctuating on either side of zero, as it has been here. "Bare pavement attracts ice," speaketh the wisdom of age.

There's something to this. On a public sidewalk, unshovelled snow quickly turns slick as it is trodden down. But one's own walk is the issue here, and if it's not used much, a couple inches of snow can certainly be safer than concrete--or, at least, that's my feeling (in the brewing controversy, this apparently leaves me on the "packer" side, as opposed to the "scrapers"). I was batting this around, when the weather turned cold, with a letter carrier, who told me that while the ideal is a well-sanded or -salted clear walk, he didn't much care whether it was shovelled as long as the steps were kept safe and the snow wasn't too deep. (I've been keeping my own walk clear this winter more assiduously than ever before. In the past, I haven't concerned myself much with the mailman's welfare, but this year I'm a freelance journalist: if there's no post, I get no pay. It's a real motivator. I've actually been thinking about laying down some carpet out there.)

Our elderly She-Thoreau of the Taiga might not have become a martyr to civic stupidity under other circumstances, but she possesses a certain charm, and the Sun, seizing the occasion magnificently, sent roving reporters past the homes of some city councillors and found that some didn't care to have their walks cleared after a light snow any more than Olga does. There has been much Sturm und Drang about the scarcity of cheap labour available to those who can't shovel for themselves. (Yes, our homeless shelters remain full to bursting.) Obviously some Edmonton residents are in a real fix, but overall this is a typically infuriating instance of our habit of treating Canada's richest demographic, the elderly, as if it were its poorest. Hey, Gramps, you worked all your life--enjoy it already! Give the neighbour kid $15 and stay in the recliner to watch your stories!

- 9:00 pm, December 4 (link)

Careful with that axe, Eugene

Headline of the week:

Ewan McGregor upset as his penis is chopped out

Upset, is he? These actors can be so vain...

- 8:23 pm, December 4 (link)

Jésus de Montréal

Leaving the Montreal Expos for the New York Yankees: Javier Vazquez, probably the best pitcher the team has had since Pedro Martinez (unless you count Bartolo Colon's 2002 stopover). Arriving in his stead: Nick Johnson, the man old-school fans call "Nick the Stick" but the Moneyball crowd knows as "OBP Jesus". Johnson rocked the universe in 1999 by posting a .525 on-base percentage (not a typo) in his first year at Double-A Norwich. His .422 OBP with the Yankees last year made him one of the best first basemen in the AL, offensively, and it's far from the upper limit of his ability. Unfortunately he's been plagued by hand and wrist injuries, partly because of his propensity for getting hit with pitches. Now that he's with Montreal he'll probably have some sort of chicken-eviscerator accident. If not, the deal certainly isn't so bad as fire-sales go, with contact-hitting corner outfielder Juan Rivera also Montreal-bound.

- 8:10 pm, December 4 (link)

This p smells fishy

Just a few hours ago I was reading Joanne Jacobs' hilarious item about the effects of rampant innumeracy in the journalistic corps. As if some playful deity meant to reinforce the message, I soon ran across a BBC piece that contains a curious error--not quite as howleriffic as some, but consider that the story was written by the science editor of BBC News online. Not that the rubric "science" includes mathematics, of course, but most of the scientists I know have some kind of grip on basic number theory. And if a senior science expert can't handle math, why is math part of his bailiwick in the first place?

The story discusses the use of distributed computing and the Internet to find new Mersenne primes, which are prime numbers of the form 2p-1 where p is a positive integer. Dr. David Whitehouse writes:

The first Mersenne primes are 3, 7, 31, 127. There are only 40 known Mersenne primes. Their study has been central to number theory since they were first discussed by Euclid in 350 BC. The man whose name they now bear, the French monk Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), made a prediction about which values of "P" would yield a prime. It took 300 years and many important discoveries in mathematics to prove his conjecture.

Did you spot the mistake? The missing word here is "wrong", as in, "it took 300 years to prove Mersenne's conjecture wrong." This may seem like an abstruse matter of mathematical history, but consider that if there were a shortcut to finding large Mersenne primes--i.e., if Mersenne's conjecture were true--we wouldn't need to enlist the world's superfluous computing resources to find the damn things. In other words, even an editor who was as innocent as a neonate about number theory should have spotted this bungle. If the BBC is this far out to sea when it comes to math, just imagine how confused the deskers at your local fishwrap factory are.

- 2:17 pm, December 3 (link)

Digital carnival

I couldn't resist buying a big handful of DVDs on Monday. Season Three of HBO's Mr. Show is not just essential viewing, it's quintessential. Even if you didn't buy the Season One/Two set, you should check this out: the show took a huge leap forward in 1997, with both the ensemble cast and the production values attaining new heights. It's sketch comedy for those who have outgrown Saturday Night Live.

The two sets, taken together, do sort of show how irritating the world of DVD continues to be. Many of the best bits from Season Three ("America Will Blow Up The Moon", "Fuzz: The Musical", "Titannica") are included among the bonus features in the first set. (However, others--"The Bob Lamonta Story", "Indomitable Spirit"--are brand new.) I suspect this was done so that the Season One/Two discs could serve as a record of Mr. Show, faute de mieux, if they didn't sell well enough to justify the release of Season Three. The bean counters have now cleared a Season Three release (the first set was a riotous success, naturally), but purchasers could have been left hanging, and it's really rather hard to say why the approach was so tentative, since the price of a DVD is surely almost all markup after the show's been made. Plus we still kind of have to keep our fingers crossed for Season Four.

Longtime readers will be aware of my frustrating multi-year vigil in anticipation of an SCTV DVD release: the first installment is slated to come out in January (just in time for Eastern Orthodox Christmas?), unless we've been lied to as we have been so many times before. It will include only the Network 90 shows, and not the first season with Harold Ramis or the Cinemax shows with Martin Short. The Network 90 stuff is obviously the right place to start, but it's frustrating that we can't have the whole series at once, seeing as it's already been, y'know, produced and shot and shown in syndication a million billion times. The video merchants still don't seem to have much confidence in classics like these. I admit I haven't thought through the economics--it's probably true that releasing a show on DVD, for example, somewhat reduces the price that can be brought in for syndicated sales, and the SCTV situation was complicated by the show's heavy use of music excerpts that hadn't been paid for, and for which permissions must now be bought.

Anyway, Mr. Show is highly recommended, and you'll certainly hear about it when SCTV hits the stores because that'll be like Christmas II: Electric Boogaloo for me. I also bought the Criterion Yojimbo on Monday. Yojimbo is almost too big a phenomenon to comment upon, given the plenitude of its imitators and tributaries. If someone other than Kurosawa had made it, we would express continual surprise that some other Japanese director had shot a movie as influential as Rashomon (in which, no biggie, cinematic postmodernism was invented) or The Hidden Fortress (ho-hum, it was only the most important source for Star Wars).

One thing I noticed on this viewing of the movie: we think of Mifune's ronin, Sanjuro, as indestructible and completely unflappable, but there's a nice little acting moment that is easy to overlook because it follows the most shocking effect in the movie. I'm thinking of the shot in which Sanjuro has just arrived in the doomed, silent town and a stray dog runs toward him with something in its mouth. Trot trot trot trot... as the dog gets closer we see that what it's carrying is a severed human hand. You might not pay close attention to Mifune's face if you're busy recoiling, but what you notice, if you do, is that his reaction isn't exactly stoic--he, in fact, openly feels very much as the viewer does, undoubtedly saying to himself some Japanese analogue of "Holy Mother of Pisschrist, what the hell have I gotten myself into here???" It's a hint that Sanjuro does not lack for human feeling. I say "hint", but, of course, the right word is "warning", given that Sanjuro is later undone by his sentimental streak.

On a side note, I suppose I should thank those who voted this the most underrated weblog, at least in "right-wing" circles. (Three others tied for the honour.) But where do I go to submit my complaint about being underrated in the first place?

- 4:02 am, December 3 (link)

Red in tooth and claw

My Monday National Post column is now online. Today's topic: natural medicine, so-called. Real live doctor guy Mike Sugimoto has some comment of his own about kava, with links to the relevant background material.

- 2:12 pm, December 2 (link)

The peaceable kingdom

As the British say, you couldn't make it up. Abdurahman Khadr, the Canadian citizen just released from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, admitted in a press conference today that he was in Afghanistan--after September 11--to take weapons training at a camp associated with al-Qaeda. His father is said by the United States government to have been a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda. So what does he do when confronted by a pack of questioning reporters? Play the race card!

The U.S. army arrested Khadr in 2001 in Afghanistan. He says he had just delivered some supplies to a school and was returning to his family's base in Kabul.
"They arrested me because I was Arab," says Khadr, who denies reports from neighbours in Kabul who accused him of shooting guns in the air and taunting American soldiers.

Keep in mind, he stated openly today that he was taking weapons training in a camp answerable to, or conjoined with, al-Qaeda; his argument seems to be that it was wrong for the Northern Alliance and the U.S. Army to take him into custody because they didn't know he had connections to al-Qaeda--that, although guilty, he was still singled out just because of his race, and is therefore A Victim. The CBC seems to have left all the good stuff they aired this afternoon out of the audio clip accompanying their story. Like the part where our new-liberated compatriot says that, yeah, he was learning how to kill in a terrorist-affiliated military camp, but he wasn't learning how to kill Americans necessarily. It's just something teenagers do in Afghanistan. This is no doubt true, given Afghan military traditions, but for the purpose of getting his ass saved from a Cuban hellhole, Abdurahman wants you to know he is 100% Canadian. Well, except that he doesn't actually live in Canada.

Khadr said his family worked for Health and Education Project International Canada, a charity. He said his family came to Canada for a few months every year to raise money to help orphans and widows in Afghanistan.

The terrorism stuff was just a spare-time thingy: it's the widows and orphans the Khadrs really care about. Most of said family is still in U.S. custody; Khadr and his lawyer issued a heartwarming plea for them to be freed. Meanwhile, former Foreign Affairs staffer Gar Pardy put the finishing touches on the festival of comedy:

Pardy... pointed out Khadr is the first westerner to be let out of Guantanamo Bay. He applauded the government's under-the-radar diplomacy in gaining release of Canadian citizens.

All together now: three cheers for the Liberals! My Canada includes Abdurahman Khadr!

- 2:57 am, December 2 (link)

Can't you hear those cavalry drums

Jeez--if what Gene Healy says is true, it sounds as though Rush Limbaugh has fallen into the clutches of that Marin County self-help group that got parodied in Beck's "Sexx Laws" video. (Background, and more outsider-video fun from Vice magazine, here.)

- 1:50 pm, December 1 (link)

Dog that didn't bark dept.

I was awakened this morning by a news broadcast which mentioned, among other things, that ten people have died in an earthquake in China. For some reason, it struck home with me just what an amazing change this represents. A natural disaster kills ten people in Asia and it's a lead news story on the radio. As recently as August 1975--not recent at all, I know, but it sometimes seems like only yesterday--a dam collapse killed nearly a quarter of a million people in China and went completely unreported in the Western media. And the scale of the Tangshan earthquake the next year, which may have killed 500,000, was revealed only slowly--and only because seismic instruments don't follow the Party line.

- 6:03 am, December 1 (link)