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The management of ColbyCosh.com has come down with its annual holiday case of flu and is currently chasing the NyQuil dragon. Keep checking back for more entries: with any luck we'll have this thing licked shortly... -5:32 am, December 30
Same-sex Monday, part three

The death of Eagles-Packers great Reggie White is surely a cause of unmitigated grief for all lovers of sport. In my time the NFL has seen, I think, just three defensive players who were habitually capable of picking up a pro football game and walking off with it in their pockets. Not coincidentally, the other two--Ray Lewis and Lawrence Taylor--would be lucky to have gained admittance to civilized society without their talents. White's personality, despite his power to create chaos on the field, bordered on the beatific.

His obituaries aver that his image was "tarnished" by an awkward 1998 speech that killed his budding TV career. But his "stereotyping" of the races was little more than a statement of the Solzhenitsyn position on the existence of human varieties--i.e., that it's, on balance, a good thing that they exist. And how exactly does one challenge his description of homosexuality as "one of the biggest sins in the Bible"? I don't hold with that book myself, but its language about various abominations isn't especially ambiguous, and despite White's aggressive faith I can't help thinking of him as a nicer guy than L.T. No black American's image was ever "tarnished" by rapping about murdering gays, as opposed to merely describing them as sinful. One is tempted to suggest that these obits, in standing up for "diversity" by reproducing the blot on White's copybook, are implicitly bashing a black man for daring to speak out loud without a drum track.

- 11:22 am, December 27 (link)


Same-sex Monday, part two

Here's the lede to a CP wire story that appears in many of Canada's Monday morning papers:

OTTAWA Twenty per cent of Canadians say their next federal vote could be swayed by their MP's stance on gay marriage.
A new poll by Decima research highlights how strongly people feel about one of the most explosive political grenades to hit Parliament in decades.
"Results showed about one in five say this issue and the vote of their MP will have a lot of impact on their voting intentions," pollster Bruce Anderson said in an interview.
"There are potential political consequences, maybe more so around this social issue than we've seen around others in recent years."

Whether you support gay and lesbian political aspirations or oppose them, you probably have one huge question you want this article to answer: how does that 20% of voters break down? If three-quarters of them are opposed to gay marriage, the Liberal minority government is courting disaster with its forthcoming equality legislation. If three-quarters are in favour, it has obviously taken the pulse of the country correctly. If the single-issue voters are split 50-50, then the Decima poll is a non-story. So which is it? You have to read most of the item even to get a feeble clue: "The poll indicates that those who are against same-sex weddings are most likely to change votes if their MP doesn't hold the same position." OK, but how much more likely? I trust Decima counted--counting being their business--although since the poll isn't yet available on its website and CP decided not to tell us, we can't be certain. (Memo to Decima: making poll questions, tables of raw results, and methodological notes available to the public on the net is now the accepted best practice in your business. You have only a few months to decide whether you're going to be a reputable sampler of public opinion or a dodgy political brothel. Your choice.)

- 11:07 am, December 27 (link)


Same-sex Monday, part one

Heeeelllp!--Lesbians ate my newspaper! For some reason, all the items that have built up in my queue over the Christmas weekend seem to have a homosexuality angle. (Send the "Only his hairdresser knows for sure" jokes to the usual address, Mary.) First up is my Dec. 16 Post column, which analyzed a little-noted aspect of Canada's gay-marriage debate--namely, that Alberta, the most notable provincial holdout on the issue, has already eliminated most of the exceptional privileges attached to marriage.

EDMONTON - Is Alberta a bastion of tranquility and freedom for same-sex relationships? If it's true, it's certainly the country's best-kept secret. But when local reporters challenged Ralph Klein about his government's stance against gay marriage on Monday, the Premier made a surprising defence of the path the provincial Conservatives have chosen. "Alberta has never looked backwards," he said: "We have probably the most advanced and forward-thinking legislation in the country as it affects gays and lesbians." Surely some mistake?

Klein actually has a point, sort of. His government tried awfully hard to devise a compromise on the gay-marriage issue. In 1998 it became apparent, with the Supreme Court's decision in the Vriend v. Alberta Charter case, that the province could no longer ignore the claims of gays and lesbians to protection under various species of equality legislation. Premier Klein outraged social conservatives by suggesting that the resulting public clamour against the court was motivated by hatred, and by declaring that he was not going to use the "notwithstanding" clause to counter Vriend's effects. His promise was that he was going to, instead, put semantic "fences" around certain extremely sensitive institutions -- notably marriage.

The "marriage fence" took the form of the Adult Interdependent Relationships Act, which was passed into law in June, 2003. The AIRA is basically an implementation of the "civil union" concept; it allows partners in "committed" cohabitation to sign an unregistered contract that gives them access to a wide array of privileges previously reserved for married couples. "Adult interdependent partners" can claim "spousal" insurance benefits, "spousal" support in the event of a separation, "spousal" privileges relating to wills and inheritances, and even court-mandated protection orders in the event of domestic violence. It's designed to be marriage in all but name.

The unique Albertan quirk was that the new "interdependent" relationships don't have to be conjugal. Unmarried platonic "life partners" -- even a pair of old bachelor brothers in a tin shed --can sign on the dotted line and get the benefits once reserved for heterosexual spouses. In that sense, Alberta's law has leapfrogged beyond mere gay marriage and is arguably more "progressive" in its recognition of non-sexual life couplings. Supporters of same-sex marriage, however, feel that Alberta's expansion of spousal rights was merely a coded insult to their aspirations. For better or worse, they now insist on nothing short of the real thing by its proper name. You could argue that they're tacitly arguing for the sanctity of marriage by insisting on access to it -- and that Alberta's radical response actually cheapened the coin of marriage somewhat.

It's not quite true that Alberta was particularly far ahead of the curve in extending the social benefits of marriage to gays and lesbians. Other provinces acted faster. But it wasn't especially far behind, either. AIRA isn't too well known even within Alberta, and no one knows how many Albertans, if any, have signed partnership agreements. What's interesting is how quickly the debate moved, and how fast the courts acted to ruin Klein's attempted compromise; by the time Alberta was ready to introduce civil unions, civil unions were no longer good enough.

His heart, I think, was in the right place. Sure, Klein's protestations of sympathy are tin-eared. ("I have friends who are gay and friends who are lesbian and they are wonderful people," he said on Monday.) But it must not be forgotten that he started out as a liberal journalist, an earthy bon vivant among Calgary's most marginalized and downtrodden downtown-dwellers. When he senses that someone is being picked on, as he did in the post-Vriend deluge of Bible-quoting faxes and e-mails, his hackles rise.

Did he really think AIRA would succeed in creating stable social peace on the marriage question? His government gives the appearance of having been surprised by the result of the gay-marriage reference to the Supreme Court, as it ponders the outright elimination of marriage licences and tries to devise a response that will satisfy the Tory rank and file. (It's probably just a wacky coincidence that the Supreme Court's decision was delivered at the peak of post-election chaos in Alberta's assembly, cabinet and senior government staff.) Although Klein has been speaking all the familiar social-conservative phrases about the great antiquity and singularity of traditional marriage, his language, closely examined, suggests that the fight has more to do with the "feelings of [his] caucus" than with his own passion for heterosexual exceptionalism. Alberta may not be same-sex paradise, but its premier is a pretty live-and-let-live kind of guy.

- 11:05 am, December 27 (link)


Hope and glory

"Using sophisticated mathematical models, a group of four economists has proven..."--well, the stunningly obvious: that the best thing a country can possibly do for its economy (and probably its general well-being) is to go back in time and get itself subjugated good and hard by the British Empire.

- 7:55 am, December 26 (link)


E pluribus scrotum

Yesterday Chris Anderson--on his instantly-essential Long Tail weblog--quoted one of the many David Foster Wallace sentences I have branded on my brain (it's from his essay on television, "E Unibus Pluram"):

TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.

It's almost biblical in its conclusiveness, this hypothesis. But what's funny in 2004 is that if the Internet has taught us anything, it's that we are stultifyingly different from one another in our vulgar, prurient interests; while you sleep at night, or try to, your neighbour on one side is practicing animal-costume sex, on the other side someone's dreaming sweatily about being a tree frog devoured slowly by a mandrill, and across the way that nice Episcopalian pastor is ordering female-newscaster-humiliation porn from Japan. There is no longer any fantasy or practice so obscure that it doesn't have its own community and artistic genre (which is itself a "long tail" phenomenon). I suspect that the net, for better or worse, is the new background against which we see homosexual domesticity becoming an accepted aspiration, porn "stars" transforming into celebrated mainstream figures, and visible sex acts infiltrating art cinema. "As long as they don't frighten the horses" has gone from being a joke to the actual rule of 21st-century conduct--and wringing one's hands about it probably makes as much sense as resenting the tides of the sea.

- 7:27 pm, December 23 (link)


Imperial preference?

When one contemplates the volcanic energy of this century's great Canadians, from Mark Steyn to Conrad Black to Margaret Trudeau, one can only ascribe it to the saskatoon-based national diet.

Boris Johnson is livid--on behalf of an aficionado from Oxfordshire--about a British ban on the sale of imported saskatoons. Confidentially, it's unlikely that any of Boris's Eastern-born national treasures have spent much time savouring the saskatoon--the fruit is as foreign to them as the papaya--and out here, where it is a truly indigenous foodstuff, its finds its way into jams and pastries more or less as an act of geographic self-consciousness. With respect to commercial producers, the sharp-tasting little dudes are really rather like crabapples: if you have them on your property (and you probably do) you'll certainly pick them, and maybe even do some cooking for your friends, but it's hard to imagine considering them a delicacy. (þ: Hit & Run)

- 5:44 pm, December 23 (link)


Pretty poly, pretty poly

The best Canadian weblog you're not reading might just be Chris Selley's Tart Cider, despite the infinite temerity of this entry, which suggests that I might be wrong in tying the future of gay marriage to the future of legalized polygamy.

[Cosh] retreated to an argument he made in the Post some months ago: that changing "man and woman" to "two people" is conceptually the same as changing "two" to "any number of". But it just isn't.

Well, I'm convinced! The use of the Italic Decisive here must, I'm afraid, be regarded as psychologically telling. But Chris has actual points to make, too--three in number.

While public opinion on gay marriage is split, public opinion on polygamy is most assuredly not split. Cosh believes that given the activist nature of our Supreme Court, common sense and public opinion will prove no obstacle. I think this is silly.

I love the smell of straw in the morning! The misrepresentation of my views here is subtle enough that I missed it myself on the first couple of readings, and it's easily forgiven. But what I actually believe is that while public opinion may be against legalized polyamory, common sense and justice itself are strongly in its favour insofar as they are in favour of same-sex marriage. My actual feeling about same-sex marriage is indistinct bordering on coy--but put yourself in the position of an aspiring polygamist. You can snicker all you like, but these are real people backed by all the crushing weight our society gives to multiculturalism. What are you going to tell Mr. Issaka or Mr. al-Saud when he asks why the recently-invented demands of gays and lesbians for certified nontraditional couplings were met with dizzying speed, but his desire to build a tripling or a quadrupling that is traditional and even sacred to him cannot be addressed? Is whining "It just isn't" at him going to do the trick?

I am not depending so much on the "activist nature" of the Court here as on its vulnerability to a minority backed by deductive logic. How the heck do you think we got gay marriage in the first place? Even its supporters would have to admit that it wasn't the product of a careful assessment of the social-science evidence--gay marriage being so new that there isn't much evidence about.

Of course, a determined Court could always fall back on "arguments" like Chris's point #2:

Where are these people? "Muslims" are not polygamists as a rule, of course a tiny number of nutjob Muslims are. [Like the Prophet Muhammad! -ed.] Likewise, unreformed Mormons form a statistically insignificant group of weirdos. The plight of the polygamist in 2004 cannot be compared to the plight of homosexuals 30 years ago, which is what the slippery slope theorists are basically doing, for the simple reason that polygamists are, as a rule, nutters... [etc., etc.]

Four-fifths of the world's cultures are estimated to be polygamous, but we'll overlook that. Jeers at people that wear "starched hats" and "milk livestock by hand" aren't much of an argument--certainly not one that will survive in a courtroom environment--but we'll overlook that, too. The same instinctive mockery could be turned against homosexuals pretty easily by anyone else who felt that "acting weird = possessing no civil rights", but we'll overlook that as well...

...wait, this is stupid. How much stuff exactly was I supposed to overlook?

Child abuse in backwoods Mormon communities isn't any better as an argument against polygamy than AIDS is against same-sex marriage. In trying to prove that the "plight" of the polygamist doesn't exist, unleashing a fetid geyser of slurs and urbanoid prejudice would seem to rather prove your opponent's point. Dude, you're the plight. And the test case doesn't necessarily have to come from the sinister totalitarian hellhole that Bountiful, B.C. appears to be--although, at that, there are plenty of women there in polygynous marriages who seem perfectly prepared to testify that they haven't been oppressed, abused, or tricked into their lifestyle.

Point three is that

we don't need common sense and public opinion to bar the door, because unlike gay marriage, polygamy itself (to say nothing of its attendant child abuse) is expressly illegal. Churches have always been free to perform marriages of same-sex couples--some have been for years--so long as the participants understood that the union had no basis in law. This is not so for polygamous unions.

Chris is, of course, here using the Canadian "always" that dates back to about 1965--at which date a church performing a "same-sex marriage" would have been shut down on a morals charge by any metropolitan police force in the country. There is also some confusion here about the exact legal status of polygamy in this country: yes, it is a crime to enter formally into a new polygamous family relationship on Canadian soil--for the moment--but polygamous matrimonial relationships concluded outside Canada are already recognized as valid under, at the very least, the law of Ontario. (You'll want to check s.1(2) of your Family Law Act.) The tension between this proviso and the Criminal Code is exactly the sort of oddity that minorities have been using to explode retrograde social norms in the Western world for 150 years or more.

And, of course, supporters of polygamy are already--for better or worse, but certainly wisely--following the strategy of gays and lesbians; first make it legal, then make it equal. Ontario Muslims are fighting to establish the principle that their communities can make family law for themselves contractually, within a traditionalist Muslim framework under sharia. Legal polygamy may or may not be a direct result of the ongoing struggle, but either way I'm not confident that the criminal law can stand up to a good shove from a hard case. The cops in B.C. aren't either, which is why they've refused to round up the openly practicing polygamists in Bountiful. Tart Cider pins this on the B.C. government (presumably meaning both the Liberals and their NDP predecessors--right?), but of course it's the police who made the original decision that such a roundup wouldn't survive a Charter challenge for a picosecond. They've certainly had enough experience of appeal courts busting their chops to have developed instincts about this stuff.

- 2:22 pm, December 21 (link)


Gateway to the stars

Today, it so happens, is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. When it comes to our understanding of the cosmos at its largest scale, there may be no single scientific facility so important. It was here, at this almost ridiculously inaccessible location, that Edwin Hubble made the first well-founded (though inaccurate) measurements of the size of the observable universe, and discovered the ominous truth that it is flying apart at a constant rate in all directions. This brought an end to Einstein's tinkering with the "cosmological constant" and inspired him to make a personal pilgrimage of gratitude up the mountain.

Yet the real guiding spirit of the observatory--I think the astronomers would back me up unanimously on this--is not Hubble but his assistant, Milton Humason. As a young man Humason drove the mule trains carrying the building materials for the observatory up the side of Mt. Wilson. At 26, still possessing no formal education, he took a job as the observatory's janitor. Before long--this being the last age of the self-made man--his talents were recognized and he was employed as a night assistant, photographing the spectra of distant galaxies in order to map the cosmos and test Hubble's theories. Soon he was publishing papers under his own name, was recognized worldwide as a talented astronomical experimenter, and was made secretary of the installation he had helped physically drag up the mountainside. The only university degrees he ever did get were honorary doctorates.

Here's a photo taken during Einstein's 1931 visit to Mt. Wilson. Humason is at far left; Hubble is the tall gentleman next to him. You can probably find Einstein yourself. On his immediate right hand is Albert Michelson, whose efforts with Edward Morley to detect the "ether", a stable frame of spatial reference, ultimately led Einstein to the discovery that there was no such frame. (Which is what's known, for short, as "relativity".)

- 4:10 pm, December 20 (link)


The case for Shotgun control

When the Western Standard first started its popular weblog The Shotgun, it was soon discovered that some sort of editorial oversight was necessary to keep the passionate social conservatives, the fanatical libertarians, and the old-fashioned Red Tories from discharging their ammunition at each other. Or at least it was thought to be necessary; I don't see what's so bad about a little of the old ultraviolence, and when it comes to building traffic, people love nothing more than a pitched battle. The latest effusion of blood originates in Norman Spector's complaints that the site tends to be obsessed with American news stories. Kathy Shaidle subsequently posted an item with a snarky headline, and Spector used the occasion to launch a non sequitur at her broadside:

In the Montreal Gazette, Environment Minister Stephane Dion acknowledges that Kyoto makes no sense, is a lousy deal for Canada and he's looking for an alternative. You'd think Canadian conservatives would be all over this statement, but I've not seen any comments on the Shotgun site. Kathy, perhaps it's your position on abortion that has taken you out of the Canadian political arena. It would be great if you didn't try so so hard to take others with you. We need them here.

Shaidle understandably raised the stakes--though not the tone--in the comment thread ("Hey Norm, go screw yourself"). Game on!

(Oh, and that Kyoto story Spector was referring to? It was actually in Saturday's Ottawa Citizen, not the Gazette, and Spector's summary seems overspun by a factor of roughly ten. Dion describes the Kyoto Protocol as "too bureaucratic" but is looking forward to replacing it, when it ends in 2012, with a better deal that will somehow enchant the U.S. into signing on:

"After Kyoto, everything's on the table, and I think we have time to try to frame a better international agreement that will have the strength of Kyoto without the shortcomings," he said.
...Dion said some mechanisms for trading and obtaining emissions credits need to be streamlined. He also said too many countries lack actual targets, leading to a "free-rider effect."
For more on what's happening in Buenos Aires, check out Ron Bailey's dispatch for Reason.)

- 2:20 am, December 20 (link)


Consciousness--raised

What does a robust social-planning industry do when compassion fatigue finally ossifies and people become averse or downright deaf to pleas on behalf of the homeless? Toronto's Raising the Roof agency has found the solution--create more "homeless".

You have seen homeless people who live on the street, in parks, in doorways and in other public places. But we rarely see 80 per cent of those without a place to call home - the hidden homeless. They are the youth, adults, families and seniors who move from friend to friend and relative to relative while looking for affordable housing. ...They sleep in church basements for the winter. They are women who accept housing from a man, even in dangerous situations, rather than freeze on the street.

In other words, they're homeless people who have disguised their true status by the cunning expedient of having a place to live! I was so unaware of this issue, I never even considered that I myself might be one of the "hidden homeless", but I'm damned if I can work out the exact criteria.

- 12:36 am, December 20 (link)


And catch the grey men when they dive from the 14th floor

Maybe I should just go into the public relations business. Apparently no one actually practicing in that industry has figured out that the old "release bad news on Friday" trick has become an open secret: reporters now plan their weeks around easily-anticipated embarrassing announcements, members of the public joke about it, and if a competitor happens to have bad news of his own--congratulations! Your collective superstitions about the right time to disclose nasty information just snowballed into a banner headline!

Pfizer has now had to absorb the nonnews that Celebrex, its COX-2 inhibitor for arthritis, carries cardiac risks similar to those which led Merck to pull Vioxx earlier this year. In other amusing news, Astra-Zeneca announced that a new lung-cancer treatment, Iressa, failed to outperform placebo in a huge clinical trial. There's a particularly strong thread of black comedy in that announcement, as Iressa had been approved for sale by the FDA with a requirement for a weird caveat to customers that "There are no controlled trials demonstrating a clinical benefit, such as improvement in disease-related symptoms or increased survival." (Trivial considerations at best, no doubt, for a lung-cancer sufferer!) Since the nature of today's announcement is merely that this is still the case, it's hard to see exactly why Astra-Zeneca's stock fell 9%.

The case of Iressa also makes this statement in the Reuters report sound rather hilarious, to my ears at least:

Industry analysts said the slew of bad news reflected the difficulties of bringing effective new medicines to market and the increasingly tough regulatory environment in terms of proving safety and efficacy.

What Iressa's failure proves, of course, is exactly the opposite. It was a drug cleared for sale with no genuine scientific evidence for its efficacy and with a warning right on the bottle saying, basically, "We're not sure this pill will help you." For the FDA and other national government agencies to approve it for lung-cancer patients was, of course, an ethical thing to do: it's all right to let patients and doctors fighting especially dangerous diseases make judgment calls about experimental medications. But we shouldn't let bamboozled reporters and industry spokesmen try to blame an "increasingly tough environment" for it when it doesn't work out.

(Incidentally, I also got a kick out of this concluding sentence from the Reuters story about Pfizer's other COX-2 inhibitor, Bextra:

The company recently updated Bextra's insert package label to warn that it can cause a rare and sometimes fatal skin disorder called Stevens-Johnson syndrome.

No biggie, right?--some obscure "skin disorder"? Speaking for myself, I can say this: of all the diseases I know of, Stevens-Johnson syndrome is quite possibly the one I most hope not to get. People with weak stomachs and Pfizer investors shouldn't check out this photo, or this photo, or indeed any of the SJS pictures from the Dermatology Image Atlas at Johns Hopkins. But, to be fair, there are plenty of drugs that could carry a theoretical SJS-risk notice, and it's been seen as an apparent reaction to everything from antibiotics to over-the-counter anti-inflammatories.)

- 11:06 am, December 17 (link)


A House close to home

Grant McCracken has some interesting thoughts on the hurried pace of the dialogue in this site's show of the moment, House, M.D. It took me a while to notice just how fast the show moves. I think I clued in during the third episode, when I realized that a passing reference to VRSA hadn't been explained to the viewer at all (let alone at the agonizing length you'd expect).

I'm glad I got it on record quite early that I like the show so much, because since I first wrote about it, the program has been creepily thorough about tracking my former preoccupations as an erstwhile occasional writer on science and medicine. Through five shows, Doc House has interrupted the plot at least three times to rant about things I've written about professionally in the past--the diagnostic elusiveness of "chronic fatigue syndrome" (episode one), the irresponsibility of frontline physicians who prescribe antibiotics for upper-respiratory infections (episode three), and the taboo surrounding the health benefits of nicotine (this week's episode--House startled a patient by prescribing cigarettes for temporary relief of irritable bowel syndrome). It's like the writers somehow ransacked a reporting oeuvre that even I no longer have access to. What's next--a subplot about chemical hormesis? Natural carcinogens? The medicalization of personality? Are we going to see a guest appearance by Thomas Szasz? How exactly are the creators of this TV program reading my mind?

- 1:52 pm, December 16 (link)


Damn these modern coaches!

This week's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column by Gregg Easterbrook contains a whole sequence of solemn disquisitions on the connection between sportsmanship and refusing to run up the score on an obviously inferior rival:

Sportsmanship has both to do with how you honor your opponent and how you manage your own inner fears. Teams that seek to humiliate opponents by running up the score lose the ability to respect their opponents -- and pay dearly when they line up against an equal. Teams that run up the score gain experience laughing at the other sideline, but learn nothing about calling on character under duress. At the deepest level, sportsmanship is about finding out who you, yourself, really are. What you want to find out about yourself is that you respect others and possess character. Teams that run up the score, disdaining sportsmanship, neither respect others nor build their own character.

It's a persuasive point. But Easterbrook undercuts it, later on in the world's longest regular column, by briefly commemorating John Heisman, the mythic figure who invented the snap from center, was the first professional coach in American college football, and had the former Downtown Athletic Club Trophy renamed in his honour posthumously. (Heisman couldn't possibly win the Heisman today, TMQ observes, because he was an offensive lineman at a small college.) What was John Heisman's other claim to fame during his lifetime? Running up the score against weak opponents! Heisman was the coach of the winning team in the most one-sided game in college history--Georgia Tech's 222-0 blowout of Cumberland College in 1916. At one point in his career as Georgia Tech coach, Heisman's teams ran off 33 consecutive wins and outscored the opposition 1,599-99. As the coach at Clemson, Heisman had previously (1903) led the Tigers to a 73-0 annihilation of the Tech squad. And they licked tiny Guilford 122-0 in 1901 under Heisman's tutelage.

Running up the score, it seems, is so deeply entrenched in the history of U.S. college football that it's practically synonymous with the name of its most revered figure. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

- 7:14 am, December 16 (link)


Stanley Kup kapture korner

I suppose I can't afford to be lazy about my quixotic quest to retain proper credit for suggesting a Stanley Cup tournament outside NHL auspices eight months ago (would box seats be too much to ask?). So let me publicly tackle a forward-looking question raised yesterday in my inbox by reader Jeff Riddolls, one that's likely to come up if the season is finally cancelled and the idea goes forward. Jeff reminds us that the real historical "Stanley Cup" resides permanently under glass at the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto; what the NHL gives to the players at the end of every season is one of at least two heavily modified replicas of the original trophy. Even if the league cannot claim moral or legal title to the original Cup, Jeff asks, surely they can assert ownership of the replicas?

And surely they can! But even assuming we want to leave the "real" Stanley Cup safely under glass, what's to stop us from making another replica? One answer, Mr. Riddolls suggests, is simple horror:

If push came to shove over ownership, it wouldn't be pleasant to see a split where the NHL hands out the familiar trophy renamed the "DaimlerChrysler NHL Championship Cup" while the decrepit old Stanley Cup is (gingerly) awarded to the Kelowna Rockets, U of Manitoba Bisons, or Dundas Real McCoys.

This is a good point--but no one is contesting the established right of the NHL to award an unchallenged replica of the "real" cup to its champion if it's actually going to hold a frigging season. (And even that easement, I'd suggest, is contingent on the continued existence of a significant number of Canadian NHL teams: the trophy was a gift to the Canadian public, and we retain a moral veto over letting "Americans" compete for it. Considering the way that successive NHL presidents have watered down the Canadian content of the league, we should perhaps--if we care for our compatriots in Winnipeg and Quebec City--already have been considering the exercise of that veto.)

The hidden question here is this: does the NHL have good moral or lawful title to the image of the Stanley Cup? No more, I'd say, than they do the real thing; and if the NHL wants to test that issue in court, I think any estate lawyer worth his salt would say "Let's rumble!". For the purposes of determining an ontological "Stanley Cup champion" I am perfectly comfortable with calling up a silversmith and having another fake Stanley Cup made as a representation of the "real thing" (which may, for the purposes of this discussion, not even be the original bowl per se). If and when the National Hockey League ever comes back, we'll tuck the Schismatic Stanley Cup away in the Hall of Fame, not too far from the real one. All will be forgiven if they'll just play hockey. If they won't, they have no rights or claims worth respecting.

- 4:47 am, December 16 (link)


Alberta: enemy of "traditional marriage"? In today's National Post I assess an odd claim made earlier this week by Premier Ralph Klein that Canada's stubborn right-wing province has "probably the most advanced and forward-thinking legislation in the country as it affects gays and lesbians". Hey, even I can only be so contrarian--the statement is a clear exaggeration if you take "advanced and forward-thinking" in its typical formal meaning ("liberals like it"). But there's a little-known fact here, squatting in the background of the national gay-marriage debate: Alberta's mysteriously obscure new law creating civil-union-type arrangements is, in one important respect, more radical than proposed federal law--it extends access to "spousal" benefits to non-conjugal life partners, including unmarried relatives living together. Same-sex activists actually dislike this because it's too inclusive--its effect is to lump them in with single people in platonic cohabitation. In that sense, they're serving as defenders of "traditional marriage", amended so as to cover them, against the country's broadest regime of practical access to spousal privileges. You can find the details on page A21 of today's paper.

- 4:00 am, December 16 (link)


I've been loading a few shells into the comment threads at The Shotgun lately, including this Andrea Labbé entry... -7:05 am, December 15
Respecting his Lordship's will

The Colby Cosh plan for taking the Stanley Cup out of the hands of an idle NHL takes another small step this morning with a short unsigned leader on the front page of the National Post. A relevant excerpt:

Although the league has long had control of the Cup, through an agreement reached with the Cup's trustees, that contract is subject to the NHL remaining operational -- a condition unlikely to be fulfilled this season. A good way for the Stanley Cup's trustees to fulfill Lord Stanley's original intent would be to reclaim control of the Cup and set up a nationwide hockey challenge. The trophy would wind up in the hands of the best active hockey players in Canada -- be they from junior teams, college leagues or ad hoc groups.

In this age of exorbitantly paid sports stars, the prospect of an athletic competition based on teenage or part-time athletes would be an appealing throwback.

- 3:45 am, December 15 (link)


Trouble in Foggy Bottom: the Curse of Youppi may have claimed its first victim, blasting a hole below the waterline of the Washington Nationals' stadium deal. -3:17 am, December 15
Run with the fox

The latest public independent data show Firefox's share of the browser market growing fast--from 3% to 4% between November and December. (Þ: Taylor.) Is this surprising news? It is to this Firefox convert, not because 4% seems like a lot, but because my own browser-share figures have had Firefox running in double digits for some months now. Check out the browser-share numbers at Instapundit, which should be similar (they vary from hour to hour). It seems like Firefox users are overrepresented amongst people who read weblogs, who may be relatively savvy and Internet-immersed. Internet Explorer, of course, can last a long time as the Browser for People Who Don't Know Any Better. (AOL, which occupies a similar position amongst ISPs, is still chugging along.) But Microsoft must at least be a little bit unnerved about all this.

[UPDATE, December 15: The very mention of a datum I'd have thought demanded some sort of explanation (I like Microsoft too much to think it's merely a matter of free-form hostility towards it) has enraged one web developer into a fit of magnificent snottiness. The accusation of glibness might be a fair charge--in fact, I'll plead permanently and incorrigibly guilty--but one can't sit still for it from someone who thinks this is a killer point in IE's favour:

...here's the serious footwork Microsoft would have to do to "catch up": 1. Put the Explorer control in a tabbed shell. The end. Well by god I don't know if the boys in Redmond are capable.

Hey, join the club! I listened to people rave about tabbed browsing for, what, two or three years while a bunch of random guys in hempen sweaters worked in their spare time to bring the open-source browser up to speed. I thought tabs sounded like a stupid idea until I tried them for a week or so. What kind of argument, exactly, is "Product X is actually superior because it could contain Feature Y without too much trouble on the part of the manufacturer"? Hint: starts with 's', rhymes with "cupid".]

- 1:33 pm, December 14 (link)


Goose, gander, it's all foie gras to me

Kelly Nestruck's Friday reaction to the gay marriage reference is distinguished by one metaphor of enduring value: social conservatives as marriage vegans. Admit it--it's as satisfying and elegant as the Pythagorean theorem.

- 10:13 am, December 14 (link)


Food bank vs. shrewd skanks

From Mike Sadava in Tuesday morning's Edmonton Journal:

EDMONTON - Local people have offered to buy back the Edmonton Food Bank's original Internet domain name from a company that put a penis enlargement ad on the organization's former website.

Doh! A Swiss domain-farming company snapped up the food bank's original URL, but offered to sell it back for $200 when it discovered that it was trying to sell phony wang-embiggening pills to people who can't afford a Big Mac. The unfazed food bank had offers from concerned citizens willing to cover the cost, but it has said it would rather live with its four other still-working URLs (which all point to the legit site) and spend the $200 on food. Another cautionary tale for domain owners goes into the record book.

- 7:38 am, December 14 (link)


Ian King wants the world to know that he has moved to a new and more effectively self-promoting URL... update your bookmarks. -3:58 am, December 13
Not so fast

Newfoundland-based correspondent (and lawyer) David McCarthy wrote in on Friday to suggest that I'd overstated the potential effect of the Supreme Court reference in re gay marriage.

What the SCC has said is that the question on the "natural limits" of marriage remains open, and that they will not determine the natural limits in this decision. The SCC is reluctant at the best of times to answer such questions. One need only refer to the abortion cases to see how reluctant the SCC has been to make a definitive statement on the full extent of the rights under section 7 of the Charter. They have simply dealt with the question before the court... The SCC's comments are ancillary to the questions before it, merely giving the reason why they will not answer the question.

...A court faced with a question on polygamy would hardly be bound by this decision. Sure, the polygamy proponent would cite it in argument, but the precedential value of the comment is virtually nil, other than to say that the question remains open.

You cannot read the last line in isolation. The proceeding lines are important. The natural aspect of marriage is the voluntary union of two people to the exclusion of all others. Using your reasoning, one could argue that the court has opened the door to finding a law banning arranged marriages, hardly that voluntary, to be constitutionally valid.

What David is saying here, if I've understood him correctly, is that the court's agnostic deference to differing opinions on the "limits" of marriage needs to be read as applying strictly to the question of division of powers, which is the rubric under which "limits" are treated here. The "large and liberal" principle is a rule of interpretation that originates in a division-of-powers dispute (the "Persons" case), and it's only being used here because the crux of the argument in the reference is whether the federal government or the provinces shall have the final say over marriage.

Re-reading the ruling in the reference again, I see that this is unquestionably right--and, in fairness, I should probably put a period after "right" and leave off. But if Mr. McCarthy is right to call our attention to the big picture, I must stand upon my right to drag in the even bigger one. The court has made liberal interpretation, in its modern meaning, a general rule of conduct for itself in other cases (not just in federal-provincial disputes). This decision not only gives a passive nod to the permissibility of statutory action on gay marriage, but positively praises such action as being an advancement of Charter values; doing so will make it incrementally harder for a future court to find logical grounds on which to outlaw polyamory, and it's my belief that no such logical or moral grounds can in fact reasonably be postulated once gay marriage has been permitted. Again, my basic question is, if there's nothing exceptional about the conjugal relationship between a man and a woman, then what's so damn special about the number "two"?

- 3:56 am, December 13 (link)


Teachable moment

Speaking as a callous jackass, I approve heartily of the drunken antics at Shamings.com (coming soon to a frat house near you). Speaking as a former ambulance cadet this seems like a good opportunity to instruct everybody in the use of the recovery position--an indispensable, simple piece of first-aid for your next out-of-control party. First make sure that your inebriated friend won't die senselessly from aspirating vomit--and then you can go ahead and humiliate him on the Internet.

- 3:14 am, December 13 (link)


OK, but what I really want to know is, who would win in a fight between the sensory homunculus and the motor homunculus? (þ: BoingBoing) -10:09 pm, December 12
Home cinema--recently endured

Showtime

The merciful veil of forgetting has already been drawn over this 2002 Robert De Niro/Eddie Murphy picture. Trying to tart up the "buddy cop" premise by capitalizing on reality TV wasn't too terrible an idea, but the implementation rings false; I suspect what we have here was an old script reworked unsuccessfully in an attempt to catch up with life. The Hollywood caricatures producing the movie's reality show spend all their energy trying to make De Niro's gruff, uncooperative old pro act more like T.J. Hooker (literally--Shatner has a long cameo). But the obvious lesson of the success of Cops--maybe the seminal reality show--is that people are more interested in watching the work and talk of real policemen. And as a result of Cops and its imitators, they're also now quite familiar with it. That's why the fake cops on police procedurals these days are, with exceptions (I'm looking at you, Vincent d'Onofrio), pretty understated. No one working in TV above the level of janitor is unaware of this--but Showtime is completely reliant on the opposite premise.

Reality TV started becoming a presence in cop movies as early as The Chase (1994), so it's really much too late for a movie to get this stuff so abominably wrong. Moreover, Murphy fails in Showtime to deliver the goofy energy he brought to the sidekick role in Shrek; it's almost like he's taken his character's quest for dignity too much to heart. The results are leaden, predictable, and unbearably disappointing even if your expectations are suitably low.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

This stinkbomb has many flaws, the most serious of which for my money was its repeated perpetration of the cardinal sin of retrofuturist movies: distracting anachronism. Period newspapers use last week's typefaces, as does signage, and there's a long running joke about "Nanjing"--a city very well known in the English-speaking world as Nanking at least until the adoption of the ghastly Pinyin romanization system in 1979, and probably still better known by that name today, owing to the work of the late, lamented Iris Chang. I mean, yuk--they totally lost me the minute Gwyneth blurted out "Nanjing"; it's either an obvious blunder in a movie with nothing but periodicity going for it, or it's mercenary anachronism, a willful abandonment of the movie's commitment to time and place tolerated in order to send a respectful message to the face-sensitive national-socialist apparatchiks who control the Chinese entertainment market. This is me throwing up in my mouth instead of enjoying the film.

There's very little else to be said for Sky Captain; its visual Fritz Lang-ism gets old rather quickly, and Angelina Jolie's performance was praised mostly by comparison with a background of awful performances. Jude Law might as well just change his name to Ivan Mozhukhin at this point, Gwyneth is visibly annoyed with her stunningly unsympathetic pretty-idiot role, and Giovanni Ribisi's worried expression always leaves me wondering why he doesn't just rush home from the set and double-check that he really did turn off the oven. The plot is full of hints pointing nowhere (Gwyneth "doesn't trust" the jolly fat Gurkha guy, but he's dispensed with before her comment is connected to anything in the story) and there's a frustrating lack of fun, sly pointers toward what's really going in the World of Tomorrow. Was there an Adolf Hitler who became chancellor of Germany in this version of history? It's awfully hard to tell: it feels like about 1945, and the "First World War" is mentioned (suggesting that a Second took place), but the great powers appear to be at peace, and Japan and Germany are briefly treated as economically equal to the others. For all one knows, the setting of this movie's first act could be a fascist America, or a red-socialist one. This is Hollywood at its worst--the Hollywood that sacrifices every consideration to sensory seduction on the most mammalian level; the Hollywood that's now incapable of offering even the limited intellectual pleasures of a Tilt-a-Whirl with loose bolts.

(For material along similar retrofuturist/techno-Langian lines that is a lot more fun, you might look for the anime series Last Exile, whose subtextual ruminations on the history of warfare could fuel a doctoral thesis.)

The House of Sand and Fog

It's a little too long and a little overpraised, but Ben Kingsley will knock you off your feet, take your wallet, and use the money to get elected Mayor-For-Life of Awesomeville. One would be tempted to call this the best performance of his career if the labour of confirming such a statement weren't so forbidding.

We could spend a day talking about this movie if you'd seen it: I suppose one can go as far as mentioning what's been widely reported, which is that it's about what happens when the home of a recovering substance-abuser (Jennifer Connelly)--too depressed to open notices from the county after her husband has left her--is seized for "unpaid taxes" she didn't actually owe, leaving her little or no legal recourse. Kingsley plays the Shahist Iranian colonel-in-exile who buys the house in an auction as a means of escaping from menial round-the-clock toil his relatives know nothing about. We see him early on, in a supremely skillful narrative touch, eating a Snickers bar behind the counter of a gas-'n'-go at 3 a.m. and punctiliously, touchingly, entering its precise sale value in the store's ledger.

The movie has been interpreted widely as a morality play about the dazed, entitled white American struggling to live alongside an immigrant community possessing notions of work and honour so foreign that the two "sides" are practically fated to wage annihilative small-scale war. (Hey, happy holidays!) That's probably a fair summary--and it would probably be fair to say that writer-director Vadim Perelman has stacked the deck against his soft, whiny, clueless WASPs--but the presence of a third actor, the faceless government and its toxic agents who thoroughly bugger everybody here, should not be overlooked. Perelman's diorama of the national question can be construed as a crypto-libertarian treatise if you're so inclined.

Reviewers have missed some other touches too. If Kingsley works harder than any American does, he also treats his wife a good deal worse than an American would be expected to. And at one key point, Kingsley's worried son asks him "Dad, are we Savaki?" The colonel reassures the boy--no, son, back home your father was an ordinary army officer, nothing more than that. Yet when Connelly sends a bent copper to the "stolen" house one night to intimidate Kingsley's family, Kingsley leaves no doubt that his character well understands the import of a late-night knock at the door by a cop with missing insignia--and, in fact, he is a bit disgusted at seeing the blackest work of the authoritarian state done so badly. That he's capable of communicating all this--plus the near-oppressive topicality of the material--is why House of Sand and Fog is a must-see, even if it is too long by at least 20 minutes.

- 5:56 am, December 11 (link)


Dropping a Dime

Pantera was probably the most influential act to emerge between the end of metal's golden age and the current tide of goth- and Ritalin-influenced nu-metal; they were very huge with people born a little too late to have bought And Justice For All. By "very huge" I mean "having a record debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 virtually without airplay" huge. They were never exactly my own cup of sulfur. Were they for kids just that little bit too sickly for Slayer?

I did wonder how long it would take the mainstream press to pick up the fan angle on the onstage murder of former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell. As the Beeb is now reporting, Dime's former frontman Phil Anselmo has been pursuing an unusually ugly feud with his ex-bandmates, calling mere days ago for Dimebag and his brother to be "severely beaten" and even warning that his own adherents were perfectly capable of following his orders.

The police have said that slain shooter Nathan Gale screamed something about Dimebag having broken up Pantera before opening fire. Informed opinion actually holds Anselmo responsible for the dissolution of the group--which may, I guess, make Wednesday's gruesome spectacle just that little bit more so.

- 5:57 pm, December 10 (link)


But it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve and Sheila and Carol and Angela...

A couple of notes on the Supreme Court's answer yesterday to the federal government's gay marriage reference (text here):

This Court could obviously do with a trained intellectual historian or two--though, alas, such people were still rare in the generations from which the current court is being drawn. In paragraph 22 of the response it cites the ruling of the imperial Privy Council (then the country's highest legal authority) in the Persons case of 1930:

Their Lordships do not conceive it to be the duty of this Board -- it is certainly not their desire -- to cut down the provisions of the [B.N.A.] Act by a narrow and technical construction, but rather to give it a large and liberal interpretation so that the Dominion to a great extent, but within certain fixed limits, may be mistress in her own house...

"Large and liberal" is promptly and explicitly equated with "progressive" in the social sense, which--as John Lukacs has just been attempting to explain--is rather hilarious. "Liberal", at that time, still denoted the ideals we are now increasingly forced to call "libertarian"; it carried none of its current connotations of free-form social re-engineering. The Court has here ignored the basic necessity to immunize itself from Newspeak by interpreting past decisions according to their contemporary meaning.

That said, factually it is in the right insofar as the redefinition of marriage is consonant with libertarian ideals. Which it is, if one believes that excluding gays from the benefit of marriage is analogous to, say, forbidding miscegenation. Sometimes bad legal reasoning can yield the "right" result, and when it does (Brown vs. Board of Education being an oft-cited American example) we are usually inclined to live with the results and forget the mistakes.

But there is less excuse for the frankly bizarre foray made in paragraph 26 and 27:

...some interveners emphasize that while Lord Sankey envisioned our Constitution as a "living tree" in the Persons case, he specified that it was "capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits" (p. 136). These natural limits, they submit, preclude same-sex marriage. As a corollary, some suggest that s. 1 of the Proposed Act would effectively amount to an amendment to the Constitution Act, 1867 by interpretation based on the values underlying s. 15(1) of the Charter.

The natural limits argument can succeed only if its proponents can identify an objective core of meaning which defines what is "natural" in relation to marriage. Absent this, the argument is merely tautological. The only objective core which the interveners before us agree is "natural" to marriage is that it is the voluntary union of two people to the exclusion of all others. Beyond this, views diverge. We are faced with competing opinions on what the natural limits of marriage may be.

Period, full stop. Nearly six months ago I pointed out that the legal certification of polygamy (or, for that matter, polyandry) was a natural corollary of the logic of permitting gay marriage; others, notably Mark Steyn, have made the same case. About two-thirds of the readers I heard from on this subject disagreed with me. They ought to go back and read that second paragraph again: the Supreme Court has left itself--for better or worse--defenceless against polygamy. You don't think "views diverge" on how many people belong in a marriage? All they do, all over the world, is diverge. There is a great deal more "divergence of opinion" on this subject than there had ever been, before about 1970, on what sexes could get married. The language used here is so doctrinaire in its deference to disagreement that Muslims and unreformed Mormons have, to all intents, already won their case. Feminist opponents of polygamy in fundamentalist religious communities will find, soon, that the "living tree" bears bitter fruit.

[UPDATE, December 13: Check out one reader's informed rebuttal.]

- 6:11 am, December 10 (link)


Cat released from bag

"Unsharp mask is your friend" says the all-knowing Instapundit in a new post, thus giving away one of the digital darkroom's trade secrets for the price of 21 bits of bandwidth. If you push the little slider all the way to the right and apply the effect a few times, you can also use unsharp mask to get the intriguing (?) halation and contrast effects familiar from the banner on this page.

- 10:42 pm, December 8 (link)


I thought I smelled rotten eggs

I spent the last six months listening to people (some of them "peak oil" types, some just pessimistic by nature) tell me that Alberta's conventional natural-gas resources were pretty much past their prime and would start falling like a rock any day now. I should have taken all that talk for what it was--an obvious signal to buy shares of Shell Canada... Shell's new find near Rocky Mountain House could increase the total national reserve of methane by a percentage point or two on its own, although that wouldn't make up for last year's decline (itself partly a matter of revised accounting by the Alberta oil and gas regulator).

- 10:25 pm, December 8 (link)


Whither the metrosexual?

Paul Brent has a piece in the Post about a catastrophic 2004 for draught beer sales in Canada. The headline highlights the NHL lockout; the article itself, and the numbers, point to new anti-smoking bylaws. (There's a double benefit to the bartenders and waitresses saved from all that second-hand smoke by the new laws; they get plenty of extra cardio-enhancing exercise walking to pick up their unemployment-insurance cheques!) The Post article makes no mention of a possible third suspect in the mystery of the empty tills, but a good candidate would be the late Dr. Robert C. Atkins...

- 10:07 pm, December 8 (link)


'...every bum has a family...'

My name is Mud: Peter Schilling talks to broken-hearted Montreal Expos fans in the new issue of Mudville Magazine. Yours truly makes a marble-mouthed guest appearance, trying unsuccessfully to cram Canadian history into a couple of paragraphs for an international audience. (Main point, which may or may not come through in the text: the Expos' heyday coincided with a time of Canadian optimism and good feeling about our bilingual exceptionalism. And the team started to go south right around the time our hopes for pervasive, truly pan-national coexistence between the founding cultures did. See, I can't even put it concisely even when I'm sitting here taking a second run at it!)

- 6:10 pm, December 8 (link)


Maple fudge

Here's a hint for sellers (and buyers) of Canadian disguises for American travellers abroad: you should probably look for a shirt that doesn't spell "O Canada" like it was an Irish surname, you retards.

The American who goes abroad in safe Canadian mufti has long been a stock comedy character--at least in the United States, where apparently even the people who know enough to be wary of the U.S.'s international reputation don't realize that appropriating somebody else's national symbols for one's own benefit is completely repulsive. This is never so much as hinted at in stories like the AP wire piece linked above. I know plenty of Americans who are too proud to dream of travelling in foreign countries as Canadians; it's the sensitive, worldly Canadaphiles, ironically enough, who talk breezily of co-opting the Maple Leaf for travel purposes--thus adding new silverware to the "Why Do They Hate Us" trophy case. My country's flag? An emblem of republican heroism! Your country's flag? Some sort of hypnotic device for seducing drunken female hostellers in Hamburg, wasn't it?

The redeeming factor is that any American who thinks he can pass for Canadian outside North America with the aid of a Maple Leaf flag patch is likely to land himself in a doubly hot soup of suspicion and sneering (notwithstanding the large amounts of advice to the contrary from supposed experts). Even leaving aside the decibel issue, non-North Americans have less trouble telling the Canadian accent from a midwestern or northeastern American one than either Canadians or Americans do.¹ This is a paradox I am at a loss to explain, but it means that if you're serious about globetrotting under red-and-white cover, you'll have to shell out for a dialect coach to get any return on your investment.

¹[Your mileage may vary. I've heard from correspondents who insist that it's hard for foreigners too. -7:35 pm]

- 11:54 am, December 7 (link)


'Serious lark'

Damn--this is a brilliant idea! I don't mean lobbying for the return of the Stanley Cup to the public trust--that would lack humility. I mean the part where they raise money for the cause! I knew I was forgetting something. (þ: CBC.)

- 10:23 am, December 7 (link)


How we appear to the gods

Did anybody catch Al Michaels' interview with a careworn-looking Tiger Woods at halftime of Monday Night Football? After hitting Woods with a few unwelcome questions about his post-nuptial flameout, Michaels had him view and comment on the golf swings of three star athletes.

They looked at Jordan's inelegant but smooth bicycle-wheel swing: "Not much rotation," Tiger observed, "but you don't need much when you're that strong [and tall]. He hits the ball a long way." Then they showed John Elway's almost gasp-inducingly pretty form, and Tiger pointed out that Elway is a one-handicapper at Cherry Hills GC, which was a rare case of actual information flow toward the viewer during a sports broadcast. Finally they showed Charles Barkley trying to hit a golf ball in a manner one doesn't dare describe as simian; Barkley sort of lurched during the downstroke and brought his clubhead to a halt, as if he'd had a sudden irresistible desire to go for a hoagie mid-swing. It was meant to be funny (and, Lord, it was), but what you noticed about Tiger's reaction is that he was actually offended into spluttering incoherency by Barkley's form. (He looked, in fact, exactly like he was trying to retract his nose into his sinuses.) A priceless bit of TV from the good folks at MNF, and the game wasn't too bad either.

- 2:05 am, December 7 (link)


Of local interest

Is it better to be the guy nominated for a Weblog Award, or the guy who has the comment thread at the Weblog Awards humming with people asking why the hell he was left out? Kate from Small Dead Animals ventures that I shouldn't really be eligible because of my "close associations with formal media". Boy, there's a novel in that little phrase right there--the story of a man living circa 2004 who spent half his days being treated by the old media like some dickhead arriviste and the other half having his weblogging credentials questioned by those who are keepin' it real. Pardon me while I just go see how the barrel of this 12-gauge tastes.

In happier news, Apple has responded to clamorous popular demand and introduced iTunes to Canada. Reports that I had anything to do with this should be strictly disregarded. The funny thing is, Apple's apparent decision not to introduce iTunes here made perfect sense to me, since Canadian judges and lawmakers have so far refused to take the strong steps against filesharing technology that have made iTunes a relatively attractive deal for consumers in the U.S. It seemed like a simple case of Apple hiding out in Galt's Gulch, as it would have been entitled to do. And the introduction of iTunes Canada won't make bundling iTunes with Quicktime any less annoying, smeevy, and RealNetworks-like as a business practice.

- 3:39 am, December 6 (link)


'The bell curve isn't going away'--Atul Gawande looks hard at cystic fibrosis survival and physician quality in the Dec. 6 New Yorker. -8:30 am, December 4
Heavy meta

A representative story of our times:

(1) GTA indie band names itself Val Kilmer, after insufferable but gifted Hollywood actor Val Kilmer;
(2) Val Kilmer graffiti tags employing stickers of the actor's face begin to appear all across Toronto, in homage to the group;
(3) The cops turn up at one of Val Kilmer's shows to demand a stop to the tagging;
(4) Band professes ignorance and helplessness;
(5) Bass player calls out after departing, frustrated copper in a moment of inspiration: "Good luck solving the Val Kilmer tagging caper!"
(6) Band laughs about this incident for so long that it actually changes its name to "The Val Kilmer Tagging Caper".

(þ: Sankey. And, by the way, rent Spartan if you get the chance--it's the best 2004 release I've seen so far, but it died a dog's death in the theatres.)

- 6:17 am, December 4 (link)


That's gotta hurt

Many of you will know the story of Phineas Gage, the New England railroad worker whose grotesque 1848 head injury and subsequent personality changes are a sort of textus receptus for psychology, neurology and philosophy. Gage accidentally blasted a three-and-a-half foot tamping iron clean through his own forebrain, was saved by the skill of a Vermont doctor, and recovered his cognitive ability--but became a markedly different person until the end of his days in 1860. Two Boston medical-imaging experts have now created a weird, compelling digital video clip (the second one in the set) that reconstructs the injury. Ow.

- 1:52 pm, December 3 (link)


Possibly not yet mightier than the sword, however

This is a little weird, but I've had this near-obsessive feeling that somebody should put on record how much pens have improved in the last 5-10 years. I've been sitting here kind of freaked out about all the people being born who will never know of ballpoint pens that run dry a week after you buy them, or get clogged with gunk and become unusable, or blow up in your pocket.

I suppose that, in principle, it's still possible to buy a pen like that. But there's not much excuse for it. It just doesn't cost much to buy a gel-ink pen that writes cleanly, offers excellent control of the line, and lasts a long time. Eighty-cent pens now are better than the forty-dollar pens of my youth. I've never heard anybody mention this. Why would they, right?

- 7:16 am, December 3 (link)


Doom town

Most people read the headline "Exploding lava lamp kills Washington man" and savour a moment of detached reflection on life's cruel ironies.

I read it, imagine what might the next headline might be, and try very hard to keep my hands from shaking.

- 2:48 am, December 2 (link)


Odometer rollover: sometime in the past few days this site served its one millionth page view, according to Sitemeter (whose figures are low by about 15%-30%, but still). Thanks, and best wishes for a low-stress holiday season, to all readers, referrers, correspondents, supporters, critics, old-media interviewers, employers, and a low-cost local web host that turns around 3 a.m. tech-support inquiries in under 10 minutes. -9:19 pm, December 1
Scalzi's Least Successful Holiday Specials: the weird part is, at least seven of these strike me as completely compelling... (þ: Instapundit) -9:11 pm, December 1
"He says everything you wish you could say!" Matt Barr watches House, M.D. -6:57 pm, December 1
P.B., R.I.P.

Pierre Berton--hack, TV personality, beau-sabreur, and irreplaceable dynamo of Canadian pop history--has died at the age of 84. He had been unwell on and off for a long time; if you phoned him at his home in Kleinburg to interview him, as I did once a few years ago (he was in the book), he'd tell you as much, offhandedly and apologetically. The tributes will become oppressive very quickly, but they will be no more than he deserves--not because he was a particularly great writer, but because nobody has done more to construct the common narrative of the Canadian past. For better or worse, our story is the one Berton told, in dozens of factory-assembled, easily-digested books. I had one with me on the plane when I flew to Toronto in August. I probably wasn't the only one, either.

Oddly enough, it's the historians who have loathed Berton the most: amateurs resent him because they find it hard to make a living doing similar work without being renowned TV stars, and for academics his name is a hissed byword for the worst failings of popular history--careless generalizations, ham-fisted use of sources, and above all, getting pretty damned rich off the lovingly integrated, breezily acknowledged fruits of their labour. Most of them would denounce Berton as a con man; perhaps it doesn't occur to them that Berton's work may have led some of their talented students into the field, or that a civilian reading The Last Spike might follow the ties further into the scholarly literature on the CPR. Berton's historical work could perhaps have been done better, but no one else has chosen to make a life's work of it and communicate it to the public in the way he did; he had the energy, the planning ability, the journalistic tools, and the patriotism. Just try building a country without a Pierre Berton or two. (Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War, which deserves every iota of praise it has received from the academy and the populace, could have done with some of the concise collage-making ability Berton displays in the introduction to Vimy; of the two books, Berton's is the stronger, pictorially.)

I suspect Berton may really have been at his best as an interviewer manqué. On his CBC show he quizzed Malcolm X, freshly returned from a sudden conversion to the cause of human brotherhood in Mecca, on whether he had come so far in his transformation as to approve of miscegenation. (The answer: a reluctant, qualified yes.) When Bruce Lee left Hollywood to try his luck at making kung-fu films in Hong Kong, Berton was the first Western journalist to bring back news of his culturally seismic Asian success. Front Page Challenge is a much-parodied artifact from the Canadian past, but I am old enough to remember how the show would crackle to life after the game-show stuff ended; Berton, unafraid to ruin the congenial mood in the studio and startle the audience into uncomfortable silence, would always ask the mystery guest the most pointed, gut-rending question he could devise--and God help him if he was a Tory politician. Nine nights of ten, Berton stole the show.

Without question Berton had all the failings and pathos of the classic mid-century liberal. They're dying off now, these fellows, and I suspect we may miss them a great deal, whatever the damage they did. In his collection Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature, Philip Marchand has a hilarious piece called "The Writers Meet", a chronicle of the annual general meetings of the Writers Union of Canada (which he was once obliged to attend as the Toronto Star books correspondent). In passing he has given us a memorable portrait of Berton fighting, in his florid-faced Falstaffian way, against the emergent cravenness of his own profession.

In contrast to previous years... the 1993 general meeting was free of rancorous controversy. Most of the resolutions before the membership passed with minimal opposition. A resolution calling for the defeat of the government's bill against child pornography, and stating that censorship laws do not affect attitudes, did prompt a response from literary biographer Patricia Morley. "Laws express cultural norms and they can have a strong effect on attitudes, certainly not overnight, but over a period of time," she told the meeting.

Pierre Berton, however, rose up and thundered, "My God, this union has always stood for freedom of expression, and this idiotic bill, which has been rushed through the Commons for one reason, and one reason only, which is to gain votes for the Progressive Conservative party in the next election--we have an obligation and a duty to fight it as strongly as we can."

It was vintage Berton. There is something heartening about his attendance at these meetings year after year. He professes that he comes to the meetings for "social reasons", but in the course of those meetings he never fails to uphold his civil libertarian views.

Social reasons or not, there can't be much in it for him. Moreover, his views are increasingly under attack by many feminists and "racial minority writers", who see them, frankly, as aspects of patriarchal, bourgeois liberalism.

The next year Berton clambered to his feet and offended everyone at the general meeting once again by denouncing the union's financial support of exclusive conferences for writers belonging to sexual and racial minorities.

Berton said he approved of the idea of writers of colour meeting together, but objected to such a session being officially supported by the Writers' Union. "If people hold an exclusive meeting, that's fine," he boomed. "But the union can't, with its members' money or its imprimatur, officially support any organization--any organization--which excludes people from any function because of the colour of their skin."

This was met as you'd expect nowadays: with catcalls and cries of "This is racist shit." Rereading Marchand's account, I can only say, long live patriarchal, bourgeois liberalism; long live Pierre Berton.

- 2:11 am, December 1 (link)


A sound of gulls

Latest victim of the flesh-eating plagiarism virus (Hackia canadensis): the Citizen's Robert Sibley. (Full disclosure: at the Report magazine I edited Sibley's freelance work on a couple of occasions.) In his apology Sibley gives us an intricate case study of carelessness, showing how he repeatedly burgled individual sentences while trying to absorb reams of research material. He says it was inadvertent in every instance. If we're trying to comprehend how plagiarism is possible in a business where it's the next thing to a death sentence (although the Citizen has granted Sibley a reprieve, "reassigning" him within the paper), we're obliged, I guess, to understand how something like this could happen:

On Dec. 29, 2002, in a column on philosophers' biographies entitled "Looking at the lives behind the earth-shaking thoughts," I incorporated material from Thomas Nagel's review of Rudiger Safranski's Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, which ran in The New Republic on Jan. 24, 2002. Nagel referred to Rene Descartes as having "believed that by doubting everything he had learned in an ordinary way he would find within himself an unassailable form of thought that would allow him to reconstruct his knowledge of both himself and the world on a secure foundation." I used most of that sentence in a paragraph summarizing Richard Watson's biography, Cogito Ergo Sum: The Life of Rene Descartes.

The stolen sentence here kind of stinks. It's a rattletrap way of saying what every undergraduate knows about Cartesian philosophy. Why would you choose that way of summarizing Descartes, even subconsciously? Sibley's an educated man; he doesn't need a crib. And didn't something in his brain say "Hey, these aren't my words" when he was revising? Is it just me, or is there a shocking deafness at work here? The plagiarism is almost less troubling than the spectacle of a writer so utterly, irretrievably lost at sea.

- 1:20 am, December 1 (link)