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ARCHIVES for February 2005

Out of the frying pan

Those still following the Bobby Fischer story will have heard that the imprisoned chess great has been issued a special Icelandic passport for foreigners which would allow him to reside in Iceland and travel in the Schengen countries of Western Europe. The passport, issued after a long debate in the world's oldest parliament, is said to have now arrived at the detention centre near Narita Airport. has a communiqué from the committee working to free Fischer. (It features an interesting photograph of Sæmi Pálsson, Fischer's legendary Icelandic bodyguard from the 1972 championship match, and Hildur Dungal, a former Miss Iceland who is the country's senior immigration official.)

But the new must-read article on the Fischer affair is over at, where journalist and Fischer biographer Rene Chun dashes hopes for a clean break between the champ and his native United States.

Robert James Fischer is about to learn the heartbreaking lesson that was so mercilessly beat into the thick skull of Al Capone: Forget about police officers, the FBI and even the President of the United States, with his officious and menacing Executive Orders. The only thing a lawless American citizen really need fear is the IRS.

As Chun observes, Fischer is fond of boasting about his earnings, but hasn't filed a U.S. tax return since 1976. The IRS has initiated criminal proceedings against him, and grand jury hearings begin April 5 in Philadelphia. Although Chun's piece is crying out for a medium-heavy edit, it's very effective at making the reader squirm. Consider this bombshell dropped towards the article's end, after Chun discusses at great length just how many fathoms of trouble Fischer is in:

[The IRS] will pursue Fischer and his money relentlessly and prosecute him with extreme prejudice. In fact, they may be pursuing this tax evasion case not because they know that Fischer is coming back to the States, but because they know that he isn't.

Fischer is ignorant of all of this. When asked why he didn't inform his friend about the recently laid IRS trap, one inner-circle member sheepishly replied, "Bobby doesn't like to hear bad news. I didn't want to be the first one to tell him that the tax people are trying to take all his money. He'd probably think that I was somehow involved, and he'd never talk to me again." When exactly Fischer will be informed of this vital news bulletin is uncertain. ...Nobody in Fischer's Tokyo support group will want to be the bearer of such a noxious message. They will be clenching teeth and squinting through the palms of their hands as they draw straws to choose the sacrificial lamb.

- 5:02 am, February 28 (link)

Vox glitterati

The Academy Awards offered an odd sort of justice this year, I thought--the results were somehow soothing and satisfying, even though the overall quality of the year was lousy. For the first time in ages, I had seen all of the Best Picture nominees, and if you're like me you weren't terribly fond of any of them, though they all had moments. Watching The Aviator was akin to sitting through a four-hour commercial for Prozac. Finding Neverland placed the American populace in danger of a diabetes epidemic, and Ray was, when you looked under the hood, recognizable as a Behind the Music episode. Category winner Million Dollar Baby, greeted by the critics as some sort of groundbreaking exercise in minimalism, managed to be much hokier than models from a half-century ago like Requiem for a Heavyweight. And while Sideways was admirably free from the gooeyness that characterized the other nominees, I found upon watching it that I agreed with A.O. Scott's haywire critical ambush of the film. (Scott argued that Sideways was designed to be overrated by the paunchy, self-loathing, wine-guzzling midlife scribblers who do the bulk of the continent's movie reviewing.)

With such a dismal field--one which made me look back fondly to the days of Gladiator as Best Picture--you would expect to see a lot of undeserved statuettes handed out. But when you think about it, such a disappointing result is actually much more likely in a year in which there is an overwhelming critical favourite that sweeps the awards, and people are walking off with Oscars simply for being on the right soundstage at the right time. The feeble quality of the movies in contention may, I suspect, have helped the Academy focus on excellent individual work. Jamie Foxx's creepy channelling of Ray Charles deserved an acting Oscar if a performance ever did (and who knew we'd be saying that one day about the male lead from Booty Call?). Hilary Swank heroically rounded out a character that was awfully flat on the page; her right to a second Oscar was nearly indisputable. Cate Blanchett, stricken with terror at having to portray an unusual and venerated Hollywood figure she didn't particularly resemble, was magic. Aviator was rightly recognized for its technical polish, and Oscars went to genuine innovators of my generation--Kaufman, Gondry, Payne--who otherwise might have had to wait until post-senescence to be recognized. Sometimes, democracy works.

- 11:59 pm, February 27 (link)

Don't call her comatose! Let's see how this Shotgun comment thread about Terri Schiavo unfolds... -8:47 pm, February 26

They almost wrecked my university career, and now they're having a go at my real one: RBI Baseball and RBI Baseball 2 at These games were originally made for the Nintendo console by Tengen, I gather, but we were familiar with them as free-standing arcade games in the basement of the University of Alberta's Students Union Building. Since I was just talking about baseball memories, I might mention the weirdest one of all--the triple play I saw Tragically Hip drummer Johnny Fay turn against singer Gord Downie in that arcade on November 11, 1992.

Following up an eye-glazing previous entry about the movies, Wes Craven's Cursed had a disappointing first Friday ($3.75M). In the most surprising box-office coup I've ever seen, it appears America's #1 movie this weekend may be Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which opened Friday on just 1,483 screens, received little promotion compared to the other wide releases of the evening, and yet pulled in $7 million on the night--more than Hitch, which was in 3,571 theatres, and nearly twice as much as Cursed, which was in 2,805. If you live in Canada, you may not even have heard of Diary. Critics in the U.S. (mostly white ones) panned the film for mashing together low Big Momma's House-style drag comedy with a standard-issue chick-flick divorcée revenge fantasy. But looked at another way, this clumsy assemblage was merely a movie that had something for everyone. If the box-office figures are remotely accurate, Tyler Perry--who adapted his play to the screen and portrays three characters in the movie--just became 2005's Nia Vardalos.

To see just how badly white cine-dorks were wrongfooted by Diary's success, check out the box-office thread at's movie forums. You can expect to see similar reactions, though perhaps stated a bit more elegantly, in the papers on Sunday and Monday.

- 7:43 pm, February 26 (link)


All right, I haven't necessarily read as much as I should have about the new federal budget. (While the National Post's A-team was dissecting it, the desk had me prepping a column on Canada's "yes/no" to continental missile defence; watch for that in tomorrow's paper.) Still, I saw some stuff about it--and yet suddenly Steve Maich convinces me that everybody has buried the lede. X billion dollars for defence and Y billion dollars for child-care are small potatoes compared to the removal of Canadian-content requirements in RRSPs. This announcement came largely without warning, but it's going to reshape the Canadian economy like an asteroid strike, and if you're under 40, it may alter the standard of living you enjoy in the last quarter-century of your life. Hey, no biggie, right? It's obviously more important for us to sit around wanking about Stephen Harper's reaction to the budget.

- 12:34 am, February 25 (link)

How I spent my vacation... from hockey

The American journalist Edward Jay Epstein has just turned his lens on the movie business for a new book, The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood. The section of his website devoted to the book is so good, it might just give away too much of the content: you can read a fascinating prologue comparing the 1948 Oscars to the 2004 ones, find out how German tax laws pour free money into the pockets of movie studios, and even ask EJE your own questions about the industry. In his latest Q&A Epstein endorses the old Michael Medved hypothesis that family-friendly movies earn more at the box office than ones containing sex, violence, or nudity.

Oddly enough, I have some semi-relevant data I've just developed on this. A few weeks ago, when the NHL-less gap between the Super Bowl and baseball's Opening Day began to yawn wide, I fired up my long-dormant Hollywood Stock Exchange account. The HSX is a game that gives you fake money and allows you to trade stocks and bonds associated with particular movies and actors. I played pretty obsessively from 1999 to about 2002 (boosting a $2M portfolio to about $115M), but the game, not being a perfect information market, can pall fairly quickly. Because there are limits to how much of a certain property any single investor can buy, stocks move slowly toward their true market value, and you end up with a boring exercise in watching for arbitrage opportunities.

The real fun is in playing the stocks for movies that are approaching their date of initial wide release; there's no arbitrage involved there, just educated guesswork. To explain my point about family movies, I'll have to walk you through an example of how an HSX movie stock works.

Let's take Wes Craven's horror picture with Christina Ricci, Cursed, which opens on Friday and is represented on the exchange by a stock with the symbol CURSD. Back in late 2000, when news emerged of the project, the CURSD stock had an initial public offering (selling for about $14 back then). On Friday, the movie will open and trading in the stock will be halted. On Sunday its price will be adjusted to equal 2.8 × its opening-weekend box-office gross in millions. Right now it's selling for $48.38, which suggests that the market "thinks" it will earn about $17.3 million this weekend. If it earns more, people who own the stock will be able to sell for more than $48.38 after the adjustment. If it earns less they'll lose money (and those who shorted it will come out ahead).

The other thing to understand is that movie stocks don't leave the exchange right away after that initial opening-weekend adjustment. They remain in play through another three weekends--24 days past the opening in all--and then, on the following Monday, the owners are paid the total gross-to-date through the last Sunday, divided by a million. The initial adjustment is 2.8 because that's the best estimate of the eventual de-list value: movies, on average, make about 2.8 times their opening-weekend gross through their first 24 days of wide release. (Movies that go direct-to-video are delisted at $0.)

If you're actually playing the HSX, an important thing to know is whether some types of movies tend to earn less than 2.8× the opening-weekend gross, because their box-office power drops off quickly. For those movies it might make sense to sell them right away after they adjust (and, indeed, short the stock). And you'd also want to know whether some types of movies earn more than 2.8× the opening weekend, because their box-office power remains steady. For these movies, you'd hold them for longer to extract further profits, just an exhibitor might keep them in the theatre longer in hopes of continued cash flow.

The unsurprising punch-line here is that, on the HSX, a more restrictive "adult" rating really does mean a faster box-office dropoff. I have a big database of pretty much everything released wide (on 800+ screens) since 1999. The G-rated movies, on average, delist at 109% of the adjust price, which suggests (ignoring some technical complexities) that the average take from their first 24 days is 3.05 times the opening-weekend gross. For PG-rated movies, the figure is 104% (2.9). For PG-13 movies, it's 94% (2.63). And for R-rated movies, it's just 92% (2.58).

Of course, these ratios could be the product of lower opening-weekend activity for family movies, rather than superior box-office staying power. But you'd have a hard time demonstrating this from the data. On opening weekends, R-rated movies grossed about $6,110 per screen during the period covered by the database; G-rated movies earned nearly $7,100. That's a 16% difference just in dollars; in terms of butts-in-seats (which lead to more profitable DVD sales down the road) it's much greater because of discount tickets for kiddies. And in return to the cinema owners, it might be greater still, assuming that younger people consume more at the concession counter.

Anyway, you should check out Epstein's book-site if you're interested in the movie business on any level. Playing the HSX is a real education in the realities of American taste, too (and not a bad introduction to certain aspects of the stock market, either). If you're already playing the HSX, I suggest buying plenty of CURSD; despite the disappointing theatre-count announced today (2,805) it's probably still worth $55.

- 5:11 pm, February 24 (link)

Long live Rock

Richard Lederer is asking print and web baseball writers (including Bill James and Peter Gammons) a question: "Who was your favourite player growing up?"

Baseball Prospectus's Jonah Keri names Tim Raines and recalls his jaw-dropping individual performance on May 2, 1987--my sixteenth birthday. That was the year Raines was shut out of the free-agent market by collusion and had to re-sign with the Expos, which meant (and still would mean, under a weird and rarely-exercised MLB rule) that he had to sit out the month of April. Rock might have regarded himself as a victim of unjust restraint of trade and played the '87 season at half-speed. Instead he came back and, in his first game, went 4-for-5 against the Mets with a stolen base and a game-ending grand chelem. The season as a whole was the greatest of a great career.

My own favourite player in childhood was Gary Carter, but there was nothing more exciting than watching Raines on the bases. He's in the borderlands of the Hall of Fame statistically, and you'd have a hell of a time convincing me he shouldn't go in. (Check out the sponsor of his Baseball Reference page--he remembers that Mets game too.)

- 2:39 am, February 24 (link)

But shouldn't there be a bare-chested Boris Vallejo guy on top with a big axe?

Oh man. Edmonton totally needs its own 130-foot tower of ice. In fact, I think we need a whole forest of these things down in the river valley. The simplicity and elegance of this project practically punch you in the face. Unfortunately, and it's a little embarrassing to mention this, the weather this winter would have been much too nice to support such a structure. We've only had two cold snaps, neither really worthy of the name, and February has offered more melting days than freezing ones.

Actually, if my father sees that page he's going to want an ice tower for the farm, and he'd end up breaking his neck clambering around on it. Fortunately I think Mom has enough sense not to show it to him. Unless she wants to spend the next 15 years feeding him tomato soup through a straw... (þ: BoingBoing)

- 1:45 am, February 24 (link)

A page from history

Today's Issues & Ideas section of the National Post also features a 1,200-word article by Bradley Miller about the last time competition for the Stanley Cup was suspended--in 1919, when an echo of the Spanish influenza epidemic wiped out the Montreal Canadiens roster on the West Coast. As a companion to that piece, here's a contemporary account that appeared in the Calgary Herald on April 2, 1919, the day after the series was written off.

Condition of Lalonde, Kennedy, Coutre and Berlanquette Said to Be Most Encouraging--Stanley Cup Will Remain in the East, According to Decision Reached Yesterday

SEATTLE, Wa., April 1.--The famous Stanley Cup, emblematic of the world's hockey supremacy, will be without a home during the next twelve months, and for the first time in history a championship series has ended in a tie.

With five of the Canadien players under the care of physicians with a disease believed to be influenza, officers today decided that it would be impossible to settle the tie existing between the Frenchmen and Seattle. The ice has been taken out of the arena and the hardest-fought series since the Stanley Cup was put up for competition has reached an unsatisfactory ending.

Jack MacDonald and Joe Hall, two visiting defense players, were today removed to a hospital. Their condition is reported serious. [Hall died on Apr. 5; MacDonald recovered. -ed.]

"Newsy" Lalonde, Manager George Kennedy, Couture and Berlanquette are all under the care of nurses and will not be removed from their hotel unless their condition becomes worse.

Cup Stays In East

Technically, the Seattle team could have claimed the title as a result of the Canadiens' failure to play the deciding game. However, under present conditions, President Frank Patrick of the Pacific Coast Association declined to claim the cup on those grounds. As Toronto, last year's champions, won the trophy by defeating Vancouver in the big series, the Stanley cup will remain in the east this year.

"This has been the most peculiar series in the history of the sport," declared President Frank Patrick after the decision to definitely cancel the game had been reached.

"Precedent after precedent had been broken. There never was another series of games like the present one. We are sorry that the Seattle fans could not witness the deciding struggle, however confident they were of winning, but the circumstances were such that it would have been impossible to play the game."

Manager Kennedy of the Canadiens was anxious to play the game even under the conditions. He proposed borrowing several men from the Victoria team and putting a club on the ice anyway. The Seattle men disagreed to this proposition, however.

Not only was tonight's game called off, but all exhibition contests will have to be cancelled. Seattle and Montreal were scheduled to play in Victoria tomorrow night, but that game has been definitely cancelled. The players, who are given the proceeds of the first three matches, will divide the money on a 50-50 basis. The winner was to have been awarded 60 and the loser 40 per cent. An equal division is the only possible way the money can be disposed of under the circumstances.

Late tonight the condition of Hall and MacDonald were reported to be improving. Lalonde, Kennedy, Couture and Berlanquette are all showing signs of an early recovery. Their temperatures were reported as normal tonight, and the doctor expects them to be up in a few days.

- 8:21 am, February 22 (link)

For those of you who can't secure a copy of my HST obit in today's National Post, here's my February 12 column about an underappreciated aspect of recent American military adventures.

A hundred years from now, what will people remember about the U.S. war in Iraq? Perhaps they will have chosen, finally, from the dueling morality plays now on offer; it may be remembered as a triumph of democracy, or as a first self-conscious step in the march of American empire. But maybe it will be remembered for something else, long after Saddam Hussein is forgotten and G.W. Bush is just another name in the honour roll of presidents.

In wars of the 19th century, when human beings started taking statistical record-keeping seriously, there were about three soldiers wounded in combat who survived for every one who died. This ratio varied, but not much. The meticulous Germans kept track of casualties during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and got a figure of 3.02. The Battle of Gettysburg (1863) had about 5,000 Union dead and 14,500 surviving wounded. This three-to-one rule was considered so reliable that it was used by demographers to fill in some vague parts of the First World War. And it held up through the Second World War, too, despite the astonishing interwar progress in medicine.

It was only in Korea and Vietnam that well-equipped American doctors began to change these stubborn mathematics noticeably. With the advent of the MASH unit, the Americans were able to get the numbers of dead down to one-fourth of the surviving wounded. We think of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital as a sitcom; in truth, it was a landmark in the history of medicine.

During Desert Storm, U.S. doctors attained the same four-to-one ratio, which was troubling. We should be saving more lives, military planners thought: how do we make it happen? A conscious effort was made to find and reduce preventable types of combat death. The army got serious about researching, and about making men wear, body armour. Training and treatment doctrines for medics, once based heavily on civilian first aid, were modified for combat. Medics began to "war-game" triage and care dilemmas in real time. Everything medical personnel had done for 20 years, or 50, was re-examined.

And the MASH unit, as Dr. Atul Gawande reported in an essay for Dec. 9's New England Journal of Medicine, was shoved headlong into the 21st century. Studies of the Vietnam experience revealed that helicopter evacuations of the severely wounded saved few lives. So the U.S. army now deliberately puts surgical teams much closer to the front than Hawkeye Pierce ever got. The new Forward Surgical Teams consist of four surgeons and 16 other crew members; they ride in Humvees on the heels of advancing units, carrying instruments, anesthesia equipment, and advanced gadgetry in specialized backpacks. An FST makes the "mobile" hospitals of the past seem lame; it takes less than an hour for them to build a functioning operating theatre. The surgeons aren't lavishly equipped--they must, for example, stabilize fractures without benefit of X-ray--but they can tackle the big things that kill soldiers needlessly: bleeding, shock, pneumothorax.

And, as a result of all this, the wounded-to-killed ratio for American forces in the Second Gulf War (and the Afghanistan conflict) hasn't been three or four to one. It's more like ten to one. To put it another way, the United States has arguably made more progress in saving the lives of wounded soldiers since 1991 than the human species did in all history before that date. The new techniques are spreading fast: Israel, the U.K., and Canada are getting on board, and more will follow.

Inevitably, the ratio is going to increase further, and the very nature of warfare is going to change. As Gawande points out, opponents and supporters of the war have both been obsessed with counting U.S. combat dead in Iraq. But those figures may only distort the war's true scale, just as improved civilian trauma care conceals the amount of violence in our cities by driving homicide rates down. And, in fact, the increasing efficiency of battlefield first-aid really does change the ethical calculus of war in a democracy. Robert E. Lee warned that if war were not so terrible, we should grow too fond of it. It's now, for the first time, significantly less terrible in the most important respect than it was for General Lee.

On the other hand, American society is now being flooded with maimed veterans whose injuries would been unsurvivable in earlier ages. VA hospitals are already feeling the pinch. Economically, war will now become more costly, and there will be more disfigured vets to chastise the public conscience with their presence. One wonders which effect--fewer dead, or more crippled--will prove psychologically stronger in the end.

This column was largely inspired by an entry over at Flit; the defence paper Bruce links to there (written by Cpl. Chris Kopp, a former civilian paramedic who was on the scene when Canadian soldiers were killed by U.S. fire at Kandahar in April 2002) goes into extensive detail about the new principles of combat medicine. Atul Gawande's monograph "Casualties of War" can be read online for free at the New England Journal of Medicine website.

One interesting change in the way wounded soldiers are treated is that U.S. medics seem to have been given more latitude in applying tourniquets to stop serious bleeding. Tourniquets carry such a risk of circulatory harm that they are considered a weapon of absolute last resort in civilian first aid. But the army seems to have reassessed the relative risks and concluded that many of the soldiers who were formerly bleeding to death needlessly would benefit from looser restrictions on their use.

- 6:44 am, February 22 (link)

Q: Where's Cosh?

A: Putting finishing touches on a nicotine-fueled appreciation of the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson for Tuesday's National Post. Steve Sailer makes a keen observation about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas today:

I had never noticed before that nothing much ever physically happens during the course of the book. Almost everything of interest is just going on inside Thompson's violent, paranoid mind. As a child, I was in Las Vegas perhaps the same week Thompson was, and we may well have been at Circus Circus the same night -- I remember the Korean Kittens trapeze act that he riffs on -- and I suspect that to bystanders his outward behavior wasn't all that much more outrageous than mine was.

The broader point is that Thompson's matchless command of English, particularly the parts of English devoted to abuse, is incompatible with his pill-popping mythos. Like Babe Ruth, HST was a great American excessive, but it's impossible to believe he was quite as excessive as we are meant to believe. And like Babe Ruth, who is now remembered as a fat illiterate clown stuffed with hot dogs and liquor, HST is doomed to be misunderstood. But I'll have more to say on that in the Post piece.

One interesting thing about Thompson that I won't have room to talk about there is that much of his work could almost be assigned to the field of religious literature. This is not just because he suffered occasional demonic hallucinations under the influence of brown acid and ibogaine. Setting the drugs aside ("Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man"), there is a certain ascetic, unworldly quality to his work. He seems to have had a quasi-Augustinian horror of the greasy, hairy human body, and a strong distaste for squirming, brawling, lumpy, dumb man-apes in all their mass manifestations. His career-making Scanlan's piece, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved", is really an indictment of humanity as decadent and depraved--and that remains true insofar as the subject of the piece is Thompson himself and his Hobbesian preoccupations.

- 12:59 pm, February 21 (link)

In case you thought Ottawa was the zombie capital of the world, nyuk-nyuk

Daragh Sankey reports from Raccoon City.

- 1:02 pm, February 19 (link)

Spring tonic

Hockey fans discouraged by the lockout and the cancellation of the 2004-05 season may not realize that there are other NHLs with which they could potentially occupy their time. Here's a brief, Google-assisted consumer guide.

The Nag Hammadi Library
What it is: A collection of gnostic codices discovered in Egypt in 1945 and containing fifty extrabiblical gospels, accounts of the apostles, and other texts relating to early Christianity.
Pluses: Fans may find that the quest for the historical Jesus is slightly less laborious than the annual quest for the Stanley Cup. Neutral-zone trap was unknown in the first and second centuries A.D.
Minuses: Study of gnostic truths may implicate orthodox fans in heresy, create risk of eternal damnation and/or madness. Alternately, you may simply find yourself becoming a cocktail-party bore on subjects like the "female emanations of the Christ."

The U.S. National Park Service's National Historic Landmarks
What they are: Over 2,000 buildings and locales deemed to "possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States."
Pluses: There are over 2,000 of the damn things. That could keep you pretty busy until the league resumes play in 2007.
Minuses: Beer unfortunately not on sale at birthplace of Herbert G. Hoover.

Noordelijke Hogeschool Leeuwarden
What it is: A technical university in Leeuwarden, Holland, with 9,000 students.
Pluses: The exciting opportunity to study difficult subjects far away from home in a tongue-spraining and frankly preposterous European language.
Minuses: School does not seem to have a hockey team.

Norske Homeopaters Landsforbund
What it is: The professional college for homeopaths in Norway, this NHL has 400 practitioner-members, assuming I've had enough to drink to understand Norwegian.
Pluses: Requires nothing but a few simple years of training in a fake science invented by hillbillies. Upon completion of your degree, you will be licensed to practice quackery in a land of oil-rich, alcoholic, gullible Scandinavians.
Minuses: You might have an attack of conscience halfway through, and then your tuition would be completely up the spout.

The National Harmonica League
What it is: "The NHL is Britain's national harmonica club... supporting and encouraging the playing of all types of music on the chromatic, diatonic, tremolo, octave and chord harmonicas."
Pluses: A real winner for lazy hockey fans who were too busy watching Predators games to take up a musical instrument "like [they] always meant to." You would literally have to smash a diatonic harmonica with a hammer to get it to play out of key. As long as you're capable of plucking the right one from a case, and you hang out with bar bands and not jazz quintets, there's a place for you right up there on stage, stud.
Minuses: May be none. You might be concerned about suffering ridicule for joining something as trainspotterish as an international "harmonica club", but pointing out that former NHL president Larry Adler had sex with Ingrid Bergman should silence the rebarbative twats in your social circle.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
What it is: A type of lymphatic cancer discovered by a doctor named Non-Hodgkin, apparently.
Pluses: If this NHL takes a year off without activity, you won't mind so much.
Minuses: The homeopathic training you received in Norway isn't going to help a goddamn bit.

- 2:52 am, February 19 (link)

In memory of Frederick Jackson Turner

The amount of e-mail asking for my breakdown of the death of the NHL season has become too massive to deal with. Well, OK, it's probably about three letters, tops, but there does seem a certain amount of bemusement out there that I retained my smirking-Buddha silence while 2004-05 turned completely to poo. In large part this is because I've already dealt with the subject--having bet the right way on the final outcome of negotiations--in the issue of the Western Standard now hitting homes and newsstands. I believe there are large elements on both sides of the dispute, as I explain there, that have no interest (in any sense of the word) in reaching a deal. Indeed, without the requirements of labour law in the various jurisdictions to which the NHL is subject, the league and the players might already have moved on and broken off collective bargaining for good.

I watched Gary Bettman's press conference Wednesday and was struck by the continued failure of the commissioner and the press to really be clear about the distance between the two sides in the dispute. Bettman continues to talk about a maximum team payroll as if it would apply to all 30 teams immediately--that is, to speak as if every franchise's payroll would immediately shoot upward to the total amount permitted--and he continues to throw the resulting math in reporters' faces. (Cf. Goodenow's Second Epistle Unto Bettman.) Under a salary cap, the payrolls of teams still determined to run things on the cheap would probably go down, not up; no owner is going to stop seeking the extra dollar just because he happens to be running further in the black. The salary cap would affect more than just the star player--it would drive everybody's price down, because the value of players is almost completely fungible; if one Jarome Iginla is worth four Cory Crosses, cutting the market price of an Iginla will ultimately affect Cory Cross's price.

The media are even worse--they may not, in fact, even understand enough to really challenge Bettman on this point. The Post is the best newspaper in Canada, and even it fumbled this ball:

In a frantic exchange of letters Tuesday night, the NHLPA offered to accept an individual team payroll cap of US$49-million, a dramatic about-face... [the league's final offer] contained a salary cap of US$42.5-million, up from US$40-million. The US$6.5-million void, which seems a paltry sum for a US$2-billion industry, could not be overcome.

For individual franchises with values in the $80M-$200M range, of course, it's not a small distinction at all; it's a chasm. The $6.5M difference applies immediately to every team whose payroll is now above the higher of the two caps; I haven't checked the exact figures, but there are about ten such teams. So you're talking about sixty million dollars right there. Factor in the more general salary-depressing effects of the cap, and you can tack on another notional sum, lost to the players on other teams, between $0 and $60M. Given the bitterness of this dispute and the amount of damage to league that the players and owners have been willing to accept, there can't be any doubt that the point of this lockout is to settle the salary structure permanently. So you're talking about $60M+ a year in perpetuity, basically; once the cap's in place there's no going back. That's a pretty significant amount, even when set beside a "$2-billion industry" that may not be worth nearly so much anymore.

The Hockey Rodent, as always, has been offering intelligent and informed commentary on the ongoing fiasco. One of the Rodent's great edges on salaried reporters is the close attention he pays to European hockey, and when he talks of a Super Euro League you need to sit up and pay attention. Viewed one way, the recent history of the NHL and its rising salaries have been about owners mortgaging their brands to attain a monopoly on frontline hockey talent from around the world--the kind of monopoly that Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NFL, its most significant competitors, all enjoy. In retrospect, the period from 1989 to 2004 may be seen as the NHL's missed shot at becoming the sole home of high-level hockey, and the Great Lockout may come to be seen as an acknowledgment of that failure.

The imposition of a salary cap is likely to send some European NHLers home for good, even without a European superleague. As the Rodent noted recently, we've already seen the back of some internationally respected guys like Jiri Dopita who were simply more comfortable in their skates back in the Old Country. (Peter Forsberg, by some accounts the most valuable current player in the universe when he's healthy, almost left the NHL behind for good not long ago.) And if the salary cap were severe enough, it would certainly tempt some North American talent to test the waters abroad. Hell, there were already guys like lockout loudmouth Corey Hirsch playing in Europe--pretty solid players who, in baseball, would be described as "quadruple-A". Soon, some of the quintuple-A guys will go.

The NHL, implicitly, is in competition against domestic leagues in nations that are (a) economically pretty strong and (b) fairly passionate about hockey. The other "major" North American sports don't have this disadvantage to the same degree; in a sense, one of the NHL's problems is precisely that hockey is a more "major" sport than the others in northern and western Europe. Given the depth of support for hockey in the United States, and the relative feebleness of the Canadian economy, it was probably never reasonable to expect that the NHL could keep hold of 19 of the 20 best players from every serious hockey nation in Europe. The lockout does, clearly, open the door to the creation of some sort of Euro League. Ask yourself why one didn't exist already. It's only because the NHL's Wild West frontier was so attractive--but the frontier is now closed, and Eastern Europe now has its own crazy, bored multimillionaires. If the Europeans get their act together and construct a superleague, it is likely to be as strong as the NHL. Depending on the CBA that's eventually hammered out on this side of the Atlantic, it may be stronger. If the owners are too successful in this labour fight, the danger is created that we may become stuck with an NHL that's like the Canadian Football League--a poor second cousin to a foreign superstar. Fortunately--though I like the CFL--I don't think Canadian fans, or fans in the Maine-Minnesota U.S. hockey belt, would settle for this.

The good news is that this possibility opens up a new vista for hockey as a truly global sport. Bettman & Co. want very much to turn the NHL into the NBA, but should it necessarily settle for that when it could be transformed into Formula One or soccer?

[UPDATE, 11:38 pm: E-Mac has more. And so does, er, E-Mac.]

- 7:49 pm, February 17 (link)

I'm all right, Jack

There's been a lot of intelligent discussion around about the late Arthur Miller: Tuns, Nestruck, and Terry Teachout all had a go. I don't have much to add, not being terribly familiar with Miller's oeuvre. When I think about the man who wrote plays about how capitalism thwarts human aspirations, and then got married to Marilyn Monroe, I'm afraid about all I can do is giggle.

- 11:51 pm, February 16 (link)

Buckley's remedy

Some people are wondering whether William F. Buckley Jr. could possibly have chosen the provocative headline used for his February 9 column--"Death for the Pope". I'm pretty sure that WFB is personally responsible for it; the subtle use of the dative in the headline gives unmistakeable evidence of being the product of a brain pickled in Latinity. It's not "death to the pope" that Buckley is bellowing, though there has been understandable confusion about this amongst the less literate. Buckley imagines a death for the pope, a translation into the kingdom of heaven that would release the old fellow from the cruel travails of the flesh.

I can't say that critics of Buckley who believe this to be a sideways slip into "culture of death" territory are entirely out to lunch. In English, that dative is a little persnickety--uncomfortably so. And of course Buckley has fallen into the universal error of equating sickness with suffering. Which is, or may be, the fundamental solecism on which the "culture of death" is founded. Do we lament John Paul II's illness because it makes him uncomfortable, or because it makes us uncomfortable? I'm afraid I believe the answer to be embarrassingly self-evident.

- 12:34 am, February 16 (link)

Pop demography

Forget red states and blue states. Everybody knows that the real America, like ancient Gaul, is divided into three parts: soda, pop, and "coke". (þ: Pickover)

- 11:30 pm, February 15 (link)

He hucked when he shoulda bucked, or possibly vice-versa

Deuce of Clubs presents an anatomical study of awkward football poses from the game's antiquity.

- 2:03 pm, February 15 (link)

Anne Heche in reverse

New from the Ambler: does NDP MP Libby Davies have amnesia, was she misquoted, or is she just fudging her personal past to score cheap debating points?

- 1:24 pm, February 15 (link)

Right behind Left Behind

Tyndale House, the publishing company that blundered into a gold mine with the Left Behind series, has now dared the opprobrium of many of its evangelical customers by bringing forth the anti-Left Behind; Hank Hanegraaff and Sigmund Brouwer's The Last Disciple. Where Left Behind treats the Book of Revelation as a coded map of the coming End Times, The Last Disciple spins a Quo Vadis-style fiction predicated on the older view that St. John's visions were connected with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. One result: a highly comic theological tug-of-war between preterists and dispensationalists on Disciple's page.

Rev. uses the word Prophecy as noun/verb re John's writing 7 times - 4 times in Rev.22 alone. The words prophetess, prophets, prophesy(ing), false prophet are used a further 14 (7x2)times. If Rev. is so decidedly prophetic in nature, it must have ongoing relevancy not only to 1stCentury saints but to all saints until 2nd Coming. This fact is compromised by Preterism claiming vast bulk of Rev. prophecy was fulfilled 70AD. Not even Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zech, Jesus' Parables, etc. are that restricted in prophetic fulfillment! Prophecy tends to be telescopically fulfilled in multiple segments from prophets' own time to years later to Christ's 1st Coming to Kingdom Age to 2nd Coming.Preterism is scripturally too delimiting in scope.

Oh, SNAP! Bro did NOT just go there!

Now we just need somebody to write the atheist account of the Apocalypse--a light Cheech-and-Chong style comedy about a guy who gets so high on a Greek vacation that he starts seeing dragons, angels, and edible books. (þ: Radosh)

- 10:59 am, February 13 (link)

The new-look, new-boss National Post debuts today, which is reason enough for you to check it out. But it also contains a column from me (in a rechristened "Issues & Ideas" section) that features a startling and potentially world-changing statistic from the U.S. war in Iraq. Andrew Coyne is also in there; he's still watching the Gomery Inquiry and thundering away in magnificent, 19th-century style. His weblog is even showing signs of life. Here's my Super Bowl-themed column from last week.

"I don't care if we have to mortgage our house -- I'm going."

Those 12 words have made Philadelphia suburbanite Kevin O'Donoghue a minor celebrity this week as he makes his way to Jacksonville, Fla. After the NFC championship, which the Eagles won on Jan. 23 to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 years, O'Donoghue turned to his wife and made his dramatic announcement. It was, one suspects, one of those moments upon which the fate of a marriage can pivot. Fortunately, according to an AP wire story, Mrs. O'Donoghue said, "Maybe that's a good idea."

Mr. O'Donoghue, 36, took out a home-equity loan to raise the US$4,000 that the trip and the tickets will cost him. He's not the only one. Up and down Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, bankers spent the week fielding calls from Eagles diehards looking to refinance mortgages or dip into savings. Some fans headed straight for Jacksonville, trusting to fate without having bought tickets. Let's hope they bring cash; as I write, the high eBay bid on one pair of upper-deck Super Bowl tickets is US$4,250, and a front-row pair on the 40-yard line will cost at least US$8,975.

The interesting question is: What specifically are these people paying for? There is always the half-ritualized, half-anarchic, all-alcoholic spirit that descends on a Super Bowl host town. But, mostly, what these pilgrims are getting for their money are the hardships of post-9/11 travel, the complexities of navigating an overbooked city, and a far worse view of the actual game than you could get in a rec room full of nachos and amigos. Football fans have always been associated with odd collective behaviour and grandiose gestures, and Sunday's game is a special opportunity for Philadelphia, which has gone without a championship since the Sixers brought home the NBA title in 1983.

Still -- refinancing your house? I think there's something else going on here besides ordinary fandom.

Mass media have a tendency to bring distant events ever closer to us, in increasingly high-definition, convenient forms. The news has its own 24-hour channels, the whole NFL season is available on satellite for a pittance, and you can watch the deliberations of the U.S. Congress live on your computer. We don't even have to leave our chairs to enter the global village. But now that this moment has arrived, it looks like a huge counterintuitive premium has been placed precisely on the act of leaving one's chair. What's special now, in an age where every visual spectacle is recorded and digitized, is the irreproducible in-person experience -- the chance to say "I was there."

I'm no stranger to this weird confluence of scarcity and authenticity; when I visited London in 1998, I went to an Oasis concert one night, mostly because, well, it was 1998, and it was London, and I figured I'd regret not going. It appears that better media reproductions of events don't necessarily diminish the taste for the events themselves; if anything, they intensify it. Photography and printmaking did more to confer sacred status on painting that they ever did to harm it. The advent of stereo broadcasting was followed, in a literal matter of months, by the ecstatic concert scenes of Beatlemania; was that merely a coincidence?

I see a connection between the Super Bowl superfans and the dorks lining up for months on end to see the sixth installment of the increasingly dire Star Wars series. It's not the thought of that big light-sabre duel between Vader and Obi-Wan that motivates them. It's the communal experience and the bragging rights that come with having been present; it's the I-Was-There Factor. Someday cinemas will smarten up and shorten those queues by simply charging first-night attendees absurd sums. As Internet file-sharing improves, they'll have no choice in the matter.

For another example, consider the lucrative mini-theatres that superannuated musicians and comedians have colonized in Branson, Mo. Yakov Smirnoff and the Gatlin Brothers are still down there slugging away, god love 'em. I figure Branson is the future of entertainment, though it's disguised convincingly as the past. Without the IWT Factor, it's impossible to imagine why people would fill a theatre to see Bobby Vinton. Someday, every star may have his own personal theatre.

As more and more people watch the Super Bowl, the charmed circle of actual spectators gets ever tighter psychologically. You can stay home and be comfortable, and be one amongst 800 million. Or you can take out a second mortgage, go to Alltel Stadium, and be one amongst just 78,000. The math seems vaguely silly, but in a mass age, the power of authentic presence seems destined to get even greater.

- 12:39 pm, February 12 (link)

If this be terrorism, pass me the Semtex

I don't get it--I really don't. Workers at the Wal-Mart in Jonquière, Quebec received union certification in August--the first workers at any Wal-Mart to do so--and now the corporation is shutting the store. Okey-dokey. The NDP, displaying typical respect for niceties of the English language, are calling the shutdown "economic terrorism". But isn't this sort of threat part of the deal between labour and capital even if you believe in labour unions? The whole premise of a union, it seems to me, is that it allows the workers to collectively withdraw their labour and go out on strike if bargaining doesn't go to their liking. The law of Quebec entrenches their right to do so, and union men make a point of not crossing picket lines. So how is Wal-Mart's closure of the Jonquière store any different morally? They're withdrawing their capital. It's theirs to withdraw just as the workers' labour is theirs, no? In what sense is closing a store the equivalent of "terrorizing" its employees?

It seems that the citizens of Jonquière didn't want to work for a non-unionized Wal-Mart, and now they're getting their wish--an eventuality that was, incidentally, at least as foreseeable as a Ken Griffey hamstring injury. Why aren't the employees thrilled about this? Wouldn't "Don't you dare close your evil, oppressive store, you heartless, convenient bastards!" be a good English translation of all the Gallic gibberish being spouted here? Am I alone in suspecting that this farce is being staged as a satire in honour of Ayn Rand's centenary? Do Quebeckers really think that calling in bomb threats to other Wal-Marts is a good way to keep the retailer in Quebec?

My brain is drowning in WTFs here. Bernard Landry, for instance, offered this pearl of wisdom: "Quebec is an advanced and progressive society [you can tell by its 1960s labour legislation -ed.] and when you invest here you must obey our laws and the spirit of those laws. Anti-union attitudes are not welcomed here." So what am I missing? Quebec has certain laws, and Wal-Mart closed the store rather than operate in conformity with those laws. Isn't that what they should do? Doesn't Bernard Landry want Wal-Mart to respect the rules and mores of Quebec? The mayor of the Jonquière region called Wal-Mart a "bad corporate citizen." Then why aren't you celebrating the closure of the store, you crazy idiot? The bad citizen is leaving! Wave bye-bye!

- 5:23 am, February 11 (link)

P to king's bishop four

Last month, at the Ottawa RA Winter Open chess tournament, Canadian IM Michael Schleifer did something over the board that is guaranteed to ensure that his name is remembered forever by chessplayers.

Unfortunately, it wasn't what you'd call an elegant move. And I don't exactly know how to represent it in algebraic notation. IM Schleifer has apologized, and so far the incident has escaped the attention of the press.

- 7:58 pm, February 10 (link)


Jeremy Lott and Will Wilkinson are discussing the Orwellian idea that the revealed preferences of Christians are incompatible with a genuine belief in a just Christian God, or in hell. Wilkinson's formulation of the notion is less than ideal, but Jeremy, for his part, seems to think he can refute it by calling it "obtuse" often enough. It requires an "imaginative leap", apparently, to understand why modern Christians are so poor at avoiding sin. Fair enough, but what would that great cleric, William of Ockham, advise us? Orwell's explanation--that Christians feel obliged to profess beliefs they won't act on, and therefore don't "hold" in any serious sense--requires no acrobatics at all. I am surprised to hear Lott argue that there is no issue here; the response one would expect from a serious Christian is that there is in fact something to Orwell's point. Instead he cites the earnestness of his atheist friends, on unclear grounds, as evidence of their insincerity. I'm not sure how it works, but apparently we're not hypocritical enough to convince him that our beliefs are sincere.

- 7:41 pm, February 10 (link)


As a Muslim living in the West, especially after September 11, it becomes a responsibility and duty to speak out and coach others to express themselves about what Islam really is. It's important to let the community know who you are and that we can live together. - Retired NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon, speaking in Calgary on July 27, 2003

A mosque established and funded by basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon gave more than $80,000 to charities the government later determined to be fronts for the terror groups al-Qaida and Hamas, according to financial records obtained by The Associated Press. - AP wire story yesterday

The big man told the AP in a phone interview from Jordan--as in the Hashemite Kingdom, not Michael--that he couldn't "go back in time" and undo his financial contributions to terrorist front organizations. I guess we can't go back and delete his tireless publicity work on behalf of the Religion of Peace™, either.

- 3:13 am, February 10 (link)

Quis custodiet

Memo to Mike Jenkinson: the greatest danger of weblogs is that they place print journalists in danger of using their own credibility as toilet paper. Do you really want to stand by your claim that the Eason Jordan story is "so utterly ludicrous as to not waste valuable actual physical space on it in a newspaper" [sic]? I ask only because it's starting to appear, y'know, physically, in newspapers. The head of news for CNN accused the U.S. military of deliberately killing journalists in Iraq! I'm pretty satisfied that this passes the man-bites-dog test. What exactly did they unteach you in journalism school?

I'm afraid it's perfectly understandable that Eason Jordan's ruminations are considered more compelling by the world at large than the verifiable abuse of power which has been uncovered here in Edmonton. Still, I'm happy to give the Kerry Diotte story an international audience; I might have friends visiting Edmonton sometime, and they should know that our lovely city is not without its unsavoury elements. On November 18 seven members of the EPS, responding to what they say was a pair of anonymous tips that someone was planning to drive home drunk, staked out the Overtime Broiler and Taproom on 111 St. There was a Canadian Association of Journalists event at the bar that night, and the particular objects of this extraordinary use of police resources just happened to be Diotte, a Sun columnist who has been sharply critical of the service, and Martin Ignasiak, head of the civilian police commission. Excerpts from a transcript of police-radio conversations show that the cops were slavering at the opportunity to nail Diotte to the wall.

Yeah, I think the guy who gets this target will never have to pay for a drink as long as he lives.

I heard [his columns] are cut and pasted from the Internet.
You know what--I'd do his job and I'd do it better than him. A fucking idiot can write that up in about five minutes.

Nobody is dressed like he is anyway so he will stick out. He's got a real bright royal blue button-up shirt with a tie on and a sports jacket and his shiny, shiny dome.
A couple faggy-looking guys coming out now. Maybe one of them's him.

Diotte and Ignasiak took cabs home, denying the seven cops their prey--though the whole thing must have provided a nice little break from preventing and solving actual crimes. Unfortunately for the EPS, a Sun reporter had overheard the bizarre details of the sting, and soon an internal investigation into Operation Overtime was underway. On February 4, Edmonton police chief Fred Rayner released a carefully selected segment of the final report. Unfortunately, he wasn't careful to not tell obvious lies; Rayner suggested that Ignasiak wasn't targeted, but Ignasiak is openly referred to as "T2" (target two) in the transcripts, and the probe did find that the names of both Diotte and Ignasiak had been improperly checked against police databases beforehand. Rayner "wouldn't explain why, saying that that information could jeopardize a possible appeal by the officers involved." He also deflected calls for an outside investigation into the stakeout. The next day, a police flack "clarified" the obvious: that Ignasiak, the man in charge of civilian oversight of Edmonton cops, had in fact been a target of the preposterous, overmanned fishing expedition.

As Diotte pointed out in his personal response to the report on February 6, the city's police union has ostentatiously instructed its members not to talk to Sun journalists; there can be no reasonable doubt as to why the Overtime was beset by cops that night. Yesterday, thirty minutes before the police commission was to meet and discuss the affair, Chief Rayner announced that he was going on indefinite medical leave. You can't fault the man's knowledge of defensive tactics, but he really ought to have gotten his cover story straight: as the Globe observes tartly, the chief's particular condition "remains undisclosed." Rayner's predecessors stepped forward to offer half-hearted defences of their slimy protegé. Leroy Chahley, perhaps the last Edmonton police chief who had an ounce of credibility to spend, fired it out the window by expressing "disappointment" but saying that the sting wasn't a firing offence. Of course, the filth seem quite keen on giving journalism a try, so perhaps some of them will retire voluntarily to the belletristic life. I'd have thought the comment about "faggy-looking guys" was a career-killer in itself, in this day and age--but I'm happy to regard it as merely a rather ripe punchline coming from some creatine-riddled Edmonton cop who just stepped off a Tom of Finland poster.

Ex-chief Doug McNally added, incidentally, that "Every honest, hard-working, ethical member [of the service] is hanging his head wishing this hadn't happened." To which one can only reply, "Gosh--both of them?"

[UPDATE, February 13: I'd better follow this one up for the Instapundketeers... later in the day this entry was posted, Chief Rayner was told his services as Edmonton police chief would no longer be necessary. Now, believe it or not, it's Martin Ignasiak who is in trouble. After Rayner was sacked, Ignasiak is said to have assured one candidate for the job that it was his for the asking. This wouldn't have been terribly appropriate even if it were in his power to do it. The council had to offer an embarrassing apology to Ignasiak's preferred applicant, who had previously been turned down in favour of Rayner, so that a proper search for a new chief could be conducted. Columnists are calling for a public inquiry into the series of bungles. It's just a typical week in a town where the guardians of the law get into all kinds of curious misadventures.]

- 12:12 pm, February 8 (link)

Justly condemned

From Calgary, the sad story of a pet's last inexplicable mistake. (þ: DeVilla)

- 9:30 am, February 6 (link)

You have nothing to lose but your first-down chains

I'm no more qualified to make a Super Bowl pick than my bathroom mat is, but I figured I'd go on record and join the chorus: it's New England by a bundle. With the embarrassing disparity between the conferences, it feels like about time for another one of the Super Bowl snoozers of my childhood. Subjectively and objectively, this Patriots team is better than the ones that have already won two rings. When I saw the on- and off-field ecstasy in Philadelphia after the Eagles won the conference championship, I was already fearful for the underdogs: they had, it seemed, already won their Super Bowl. Aaron Schatz at Football Outsiders has a lot of data pointing toward a big Patriots victory. And as Aaron points out,

Philadelphia went 2-2 this year in interconference games. They were demolished by Pittsburgh [who were, in turn, humiliated by New England two weeks ago--ed.], narrowly beat Baltimore, and got taken to overtime by Cleveland, arguably the worst team in the AFC. Even in the two games where they sat their starters, the second-stringers played better against St. Louis than against Cincinnati. As noted above, two of Donovan McNabb’s worst performances of the year came against AFC opponents. So did Westbrook’s two worst games of the year.

My feelings about the game are counterintuitive in one respect: at this point, I'm cheering for the Pats to annihilate or at least frustrate McNabb. When the Eagles won two weeks ago, a lot of sportswriters used the occasion to kick Rush Limbaugh one last time, as if he hadn't already lost his TV gig. Some of these same revanchiste geniuses used the same game to denounce Michael Vick--not for the first or last time--as some kind of doomed freak of nature. As always, they used his poor passing statistics lamppost-fashion; because he lost, they demonstrated his essential inability as an NFL QB. (He had thrown for a mere 82 yards in the previous week's 30-point blowout of St. Louis; it's Vick's rushing stats that tell the real story, and the Atlanta defeat only confirmed that.) Because McNabb won, his paltry 180 yards through the air were somehow proof that he was so clutch that he could even overcome himself. Or, perhaps, the supposed lack of receiving talent on the Eagles--though Vick has, I suspect, much less to throw to in any given game. (Surely it's right to at least wonder whether Freddie Mitchell and Todd Pinkston would be such notorious "underachievers" with another QB delivering the ball. There was a universal consensus, at one time, that they had talent.)

What we've got here is a double standard--not one based on race, obviously, but one based on Vick being a novel kind of talent in the league and hence, to sportswriters, inherently incomprehensible or objectionable. Vick's coaches are trying to fit their star to their system, rather than choosing a system to fit their star. This is a quintessential piece of stupidity, even though Vick is doing pretty damned well in spite of it. But the writers will always, as a group, take the side of the coaches, since they rely so heavily on them. And they'll always take the side of a player who tries to fit in and participate in a structure that lets them arbitrarily select "heels" and "faces", WWF-fashion. McNabb goes along to get along; he smiles at the men with notebooks, and willingly accepts the burden of being a protagonist in a cockamamie Race-in-America narrative. I don't fault him for this at all, but with respect to this structure I consider myself a revolutionary, and a Patriots win would be a blow to the interests of the groupthink machine, which thrives on novelty. If the technically outrageous Vick were playing in this Super Bowl, instead of a B-grade traditional passer like McNabb, the story would be football instead of the second coming of Doug Williams.

- 1:52 pm, February 5 (link)

It's not too late to snap up a copy of Saturday's National Post and read my column about people mortgaging their houses and crossing a continent to be at the Super Bowl in person. It seems like high-resolution digital media should make outrageous, self-sacrificing acts of spectatorship obsolete--but in fact it has the opposite effect. My best shot at an explanation is on page A17.

- 10:31 am, February 5 (link)

Continental divide

Tom Benjamin at the Canucks Corner weighs in on the prospects for pro hockey in Edmonton. Apparently, I said something he's been waiting to hear.

The league has managed to make Edmonton the poster boy for everything that is wrong in the NHL. It's an insult which makes me mad, and the fact that it is an insult that has worked makes me even madder.

I've earned the enmity of 98% of Oiler fans clumsily trying to make this point. Over the past ten years, Edmonton has presented a team that ranged from lousy to mediocre. Depite that, they still sell lots of tickets, they still generate revenues that are near the league average, and they still make money.

That is a good NHL market. That is not a threatened market. Edmonton is not Winnipeg or Quebec City. It is twice as big as those cities, it is growing, it is affluent, and it has a rink. A well-managed team in Edmonton can win. The problem over the past decade has been management. (Why Oiler fans got mad at me when I said that still puzzles me. I think they can win and their fans hate me for saying it!)

Not this fan. Though the "mediocrity" thing might be a touchy point for some. For two years now, the club has actually been an excellent outfit with a D-grade goalie. Tommy Salo's last game in the copper and blue was on March 7; it was followed by 11 straight games without a loss in regulation. And the sad fact is, the Oilers really were that good.

- 10:26 am, February 3 (link), agora for alcoholix

My inbox is swelling with a wave of pro-market comment on liquor retailing. The most urgently relevant missive comes from Matt Bazkur, a hophead who has the goods on the bureaucratic habits of the LCBO (and others). Let's roll the tape:

As an Ontario beer geek, I want a better selection of beer in Ontario. I’m even willing to pay more for the right. As a right-wing nutjob, I want the government out of the booze business. However, my beer-geek desires override my nut job instincts to the extent that I could live with a mix of private and public. Heck, I could live with all-public if they just had a better selection.

Fat chance!

...there is a lot of nonsense that goes on because of Ontario government involvement in the liquor distribution process:

1. Exhibitors at wine/liquor/beer festivals must buy their own products from the LCBO and additionally pay a mark-up. From a posting by an importer at The Bar Towel:

"...all products being poured at this festival and any other beer and wine shows like it where consumers pay for samples must be purchased from the LCBO under a Special Occasion Permit For Sale, which means that we pay full retail plus an additional 16% levy on top."

2. All products must have their alcohol content expressed on the label in alcohol by volume. U.S. beer producers often don’t list the alcohol, and when they do it’s often done by weight. Overseas producers generally work with other methods of measuring alcoholic content--Balling, original gravity, Plato, etc. Any that wish to sell in Ontario must either change their labelling--most balk at that and tell Ontario to stick it--or have the importer slap on stickers.

Here’s another quote from the same importer at The Bar Towel on the issue of labeling:

"...bad news is, American micros are notorious for having alcoholic contents vary widely from batch to batch. One of the Rogues and 4 of the Dogfish are now held up because the alcohol content on the bottle does not come within the allowable variance from the actual tested alcohol. We're trying to sort this out but it will probably involved our having to pay the LCBO a usurious fee to re-label. Can't apply stickers ourselves...unionized warehouse...they charge us the equivalent of about $80 an hour to have these applied...I believe they're using unemployed brain surgeons, which is why it's so expensive."

3. All products must be bilingual. Here, from The Bar Towel, is the owner of The Scotch-Irish Brewery on why the introduction of his excellent Sergeant-Major’s IPA was delayed:

"The LCBO has requested a change to the six-pack carton. The French translation of "returnable bottles where applicable" was omitted. Since the cartons are already printed, I am making an adhesive label to put on the cases. Once I have this done (the labels should be ready on Friday) I must courier a sample of the stickered carton to the LCBO for final approval."

4. A beer called Delirium Tremens has recently been pulled from the LCBO shelves. Evidently they received a complaint about the name. Maybe two. Nobody knows. This is the same beer that is held up as an example of American bible-thumpingness, as there’s often a state or two that will ban it. But who are the reactionaries now? Here’s a comment from the same importer:

"I was offered this beer many years ago and did in fact contact the LLBO at the time. They told me that they would not approve the product for sale in Ontario because of the name, so I never pursued it. These are the same people who told me that they would not accept Rogue Santa's Private Reserve and who, after we already had a P.O., cancelled an order of Pike Auld Lang Syne because the old man with a beard on the label (representing the old year) looked too much like Santa Claus--even though he had no hat and the beer was not an Xmas beer but a New Year's beer."

No one here holds out any hope of Arrogant Bastard Ale being made available anytime soon.

5. Finally, here’s some nuttiness that went on over some sour Belgian beers, including a few that included cherries as part of the recipe. The LCBO first held up the shipment because the beer was too sour. Then the Canadian Food Inspection Agency held up the shipment because it contained cherries. So the brewery told Canada to get stuffed. Here are the quotes from the importer:

"Well, I should have known, the LCBO lab is holding up the Cantillons deeming them "unfit for sale" because the "volatile acidity" exceeds the doubt Molson Canadian sets the standard! We'll be appealing this ruling based upon the fact that Cantillon is such a unique product that no Canadian standard for beer could ever have been set with a beer like this in mind. As the acidity does not pose a health hazard, we are hopeful that we will be given an exemption.”

"...We've put a hold on the second shipment pending resolution of these lab issues. If we don't get an exemption, the LCBO will either destroy the beers at the supplier's expense or ship them back to Belgium with the supplier picking up the tab for freight in both directions. Either way, if this happens, we'll never see Cantillon in Ontario again. As it is, Cantillon is now refusing to sell to the LCBO, and will only do so if I pay them in advance."

[Later] "Well, some good news today...the LCBO is going to release the Rose de Gambrinus so now we only have the Kriek to deal with and a chemical substance which comes from the cherry pits is currently considered a "contaminant" by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency--so we now have to wait for a ruling from them. We hope they will rule in our favour, as it's hard to imagine that real cherry pits pose a health hazard to consumers considering how much other crap we shove down our gullets every day."

In fairness to the CFIA, fruit pits can sometimes pose a toxic hazard; this doesn't necessarily seem like sheer adventurism on the agency's part, presuming that foreign imports of foods and beverages should be government-inspected at all. It is profoundly shocking if true, though, that the LCBO should treat Belgian cherry beers--one of the most famous beverage treats in the world--like some incomprehensible potation from Saturn. And I believe Cantillon can be purchased in Alberta, though I've never looked for it myself.

Craig Burley wrote to defend the LCBO--though only in part, and with the same kind of frank selfishness I've heard from a few other readers.

For one thing, the inability to purchase beer and wine at groceries and corner stores is unconscionable--not only would it be a significant shot in the arm for small business (which every politician claims to support), but having lived for many years in Quebec I can testify to the consumer benefits.

But that doesn't have much to do with the LCBO per se. LCBO's stocking fees are too high, but living in Hamilton, minutes from the Niagara wine region, means I don't have to worry too much about that. Its practices vis-à-vis the smaller wineries are unconscionable, but that doesn't affect me too much (unlike the person in, say, Ottawa or Windsor or Timmins) since it's easy for me to just go to Thomas & Vaughn, or Magnotta, and buy a reasonably priced, high-quality bottle. Or case. (Or several cases).

What the LCBO does do is selection, and it does it well. Even smaller centres get a breadth and depth of selection that is wonderful (and you can get it shipped in free if the LCBO lists it, even if you're in Deep River and they don't stock it). And the LCBO does have terrific market power--it's one of the world's largest purchasers of liquor, beer and wine [actually the largest -ed.] and while they don't throw their weight around enough, they do use it.

On balance, I like the LCBO. I wouldn't shed a tear over it if it died, and frankly I'd take a lot of vicarious pleasure in the victory of the Magnotta people (easily the best low-cost winery in Ontario, Magnotta carried on a famous fight against the LCBO). But I honestly prefer the Quebec model, and if they were to convert to that I would still patronise the LCBO for wine and liquor--just as I did at the SAC in Quebec--and I'd get my beer elsewhere and be happier.

Garth Wood sent a good e-mail talking about the retailing situation in Alberta from a more informed standpoint than my own.

The Chateau Louis doesn't just have an impressive array of beer--it's also got the most un-freakin'-believable selection of Scotch I've ever seen, anywhere in North America. There's gotta be a specialty Scotch store somewhere on this great big continent that has more selection, but I wonder... Even the Willow Park flagship store here in Calgary can't beat it. Apparently, the gent who runs the Chateau Louis store is kind of a Scotch nut. [True. -ed.] Which merely points out the beauty of having private stores--their owners can even indulge their own whims and whimsies, sharing the goodies with the general public as a result.

One of the reasons people find the booze pricing so attractive in Alberta is because, when the Alberta government privatized the retail side, the ALCB on the wholesale side broadly switched from a percentage-markup pricing system to a flat-rate-per-unit (however defined) pricing scheme. Lower-priced products such as beer are slightly more expensive than in other provinces as a result, but higher-priced stuff like Scotch, fine wine, etc., end up being less expensive than before. My brother, who's lived on the Lower Mainland for the last twenty years, fairly drools when he comes to Alberta, and he always goes home with a few bottles of Scotch, port, Irish whiskey, and so forth. He claims he saves around $100 or so on a typical buy, which lasts him several months...

3. The criticism that the overall selection of booze in liquor stores has dropped may even be true in some system-wide sense, but it doesn't really matter--what really matters is whether I have access to more selection than previously. [There's that "frank selfishness" again. -ed.] Back in the day, there were a couple of really high-end ALCB outlets in Alberta (in Edmonton, it was in the "Beaver House" building downtown), and they had impressive selection. The average ALCB outlet, however, had mediocre selection at best. Nevertheless, because these high-end stores existed (and thus were part of the ALCB's overall price list), it could be said that the ALCB system had a great selection. If you happened to live in Edmonton or Calgary and could get to these showcase stores, you too could enjoy the variety. Otherwise, the ALCB's message to the average Albertan imbiber was "suck it," and I had to belong to the Opimian Society in order to get access to decent wine and reasonable variety. I've long since discontinued my membership in the Opimian, since the average booze store now does really quite well, thanks.

And the other nice thing about the new system? Even if the selection has narrowed overall, the churn in the selection is fairly high--new products are constantly coming onstream, old or unpopular products are discontinued apace, and we have a moving window on the variety our planet has to offer. It's nice. Now if only we could get rid of the [government involvement in the] wholesale side, so I could finally get my Leffe Dubbel Brun...

I'll finish by linking to some observations made a while ago by Pieter Dorsman in B.C. And then leave off. Is the sun below the yardarm yet?

- 7:00 am, February 3 (link)

Is dies etwa... der Tod?

Martin Kettle makes a shocking and, as far as I can see, nearly incontrovertible observation in today's Guardian: when it comes to the permanent classical repertoire, Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs really were the four last songs.

- 11:54 am, February 2 (link)

Here's to your health

My recent brief entry about liquor privatization attracted some interesting comment, though none, so far, from Ontario. The most interesting--from the standpoint of one who is always looking for opportunities to put his half-baked grad-school French through its paces--is at le blog de polyscopique. Laurent's entry is short, too, and basically says that it seems anachronistic and weird for the state to maintain a monopoly on liquor retailing in the 21st century. A commenter popped up to provide a link to a précis of the Alberta experience--a précis, it so happens, trafficking under the schmancy rubric of a "study" and funded by SEMB-SAQ, the union of Quebec liquor-store employees.

The commenter in question protests that l'étude should not be dismissed just because it was written at the behest of SEMB-SAQ. And I agree. It should be dismissed because it's ridiculous. Its chief points are that:

  • the ALCB's buildings were sold for less than it cost to buy them in the first place;
  • the government's rakeoff from liquor declined when it was no longer in charge of selling it, depriving the Alberta treasury of money;
  • the price of alcohol rose faster in Alberta after privatization than elsewhere in Canada;
  • most privatized booze shops in Alberta offer a narrow selection of goods;
  • and the whole process wasn't particularly happy for the unionized ALCB workers.

    The first point will come as stunning news to those who haven't heard that capital depreciates, and the last point can be conceded freely. As for the money lost to the Alberta treasury--well, you'd have to be an idiot living in a cave to think it needs any more just now; that's money that stayed in the private economy at a time when the government was in surplus.

    Points three and four make a powerful impression on the mind only if you forget that privatization tripled the number of outlets. It's true that few liquor stores offer a diverse selection--most are corner shops--but we now have specialty stores and gigantic warehouse outlets where none existed before. Meanwhile, you save money on gas when you have cold beer within walking distance, to say nothing of the potential effects on the incidence of drunk driving. I challenge any liquor store in the known universe to match the beer selection available at the Chateau Louis on Kingsway, and I defy any Albertan oenophile (or any other Albertan who's not in a labour union) to tell me without laughing that things were better when the ALCB was in charge. Granted, the ALCB in its last years still had a whiff of Social Credit about it; the store hours were kept short and the locations few, and one was always made to feel as though one was stopping off at some gray edifice to perform a vaguely shameful act. In that sense, there is less for other provinces to gain from privatization.

    The SAQ price data also conflicts with the figures gathered by the Fraser Institute--pick your poison--which found that retail prices rose after privatization and then settled back down to their old levels. Since Alberta didn't privatize liquor wholesaling, any problems with pricing are arguably, and on first principles probably, attributable to the fact that we didn't go far enough. For myself, I've noticed no problems. I don't buy enough booze to be super price-sensitive; the one change I have noticed is that certain items go on sale when the private retailers want to clear out stock, so there's absolutely no question that you can drink more cheaply if your shopping tastes are even slightly elastic.

    I also had two ironically-juxtaposed letters from Newfoundlanders, no doubt readers of Damian Penny's site. One correspondent wrote:

    I spend half of each month in a small (pop. 3,500) rural Newfoundland community. The local liquor store carries a wide range of wines and spirits, which it certainly couldn't and wouldn't do if it were privatized. The demand for the more obscure or higher-priced products is small.

    I couldn't give him much in the way of personal experience, but I observed that one important effect of privatization was to vastly increase the selection available to retailers, who immediately started asking the government wholesaler for stuff the ALCB hadn't known there was a market for. I think, in fact, that Alberta's privatization was a major reason monopoly retailers like the LCBO have expanded price lists so dramatically in the last ten years: in a sense Alberta did everybody a service by taking the plunge.

    Before long another Newfie had written a quite different e-mail under separate cover.

    I am at present in central Pennsylvania, at Penn State University, and the liquor outlets here are entirely private. The Newfoundland Liquor Board does a good job in regards to selection, and gouges on price in the best government tradition; but the outlets here do better on selection, and as for price! Here, they even have sales, of all things! I have purchased a decent bottle of California wine for US$2, which would sell in Canada for at least C$14, and an agreeable bottle of New York brandy for US$8, which would never leave a Canadian liquor store for under C$20; and my explorations of brands and prices here are limited only by my liver, not my pocketbook.

    Salve lucrum!--welcome profit!--as the Romans would say.

    [UPDATE, 10:05 am: People are taking to this subject like--well, like human beings to alcohol, I guess. Ontario's Chris Selley is tired of prohibitionist nonsense. Matt Fenwick says opposing retail liquor privatization is like being against ATMs. And Bart Burgess sends this clarifying note from Penn State:

    As a student at PSU, I have to take issue with your correspondent who described liquor outlets in PA as "entirely private"; nothing could be further from the truth. We are still firmly in the grip of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which controls everything, and hides their existence fairly well behind a facade of "Wine and Spirits Shoppes" (as if any actual private business would be caught dead with such a generic name).

    I've traveled pretty extensively around the U.S., and in my experience, Pennsylvania is the very worst state in terms of consumer freedom. Until just last year, it was impossible to get any non-beer alcohol anywhere on Sundays (and now that is only possible at select outlets). The wine selection is terrible and uniformly has the worst spoilage rates I've experienced. It's quite obvious that even the most expensive bottles have spent years in improper storage. Most stores carry only a few different brands of decent wine and those with a "wide" selection are few and far between. I place "wide" in scare quotes, because if I go to any other state, I can throw a handful of stones and hit three different wine shops that have a better selection at significantly lower prices. Plus, one can typically rest assured that the special vintage you've bought for a special occasion hasn't spent the last 5 years sitting on a radiator in the basement of the PLCB's headquarters. To hear Pennsylvania's system described so glowingly by the ex-Newfie makes me shudder at the thought of what things are like up north.]

    [UPDATE, Feb. 3: Lots, lots more here.]

    - 7:55 am, February 2 (link)

    Another stage for one man's rage

    Sorry for the slight hiatus in posting; I've been working on a Final, Authoritative, Half-Mad-Hebrew-Prophet statement on the NHL lockout for the Western Standard. Which, it occurs to me, might make this a good time to preview the kind of thing I'm doing in my Standard sports column for readers who haven't seen the magazine. My first column was about the astonishing back-to-back World Cup giant slalom wins that Thomas Grandi pulled off in late December.

    There is a geographical romance, a compact novelette of globalization, behind Grandi's twin victories. It was an Austrian--a wise and courteous mountain guide by the name of Conrad Kain--who first showed visitors to the Canadian Rockies how to use skis in 1909. Grandi's parents, as it happens, are from Trieste, the ethnically Italian crossroads of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The pair was skiing in the Dolomites, very near Alta Badia, when Grandi's mother went into labour shortly after Christmas of 1972. The new family had plans to emigrate to Australia, but were turned down, so they settled on Banff, where they could continue to pursue their favourite hobby. Grandi's first win came at what he calls his "home course" [i.e., Alta Badia]. His second win was perhaps more extraordinary; Flachau is the heart of Austrian skiing, which is to say, of skiing, period. It's the hometown of Herrmann Maier, the 47-time World Cup winner called "The Herminator" by compatriots and rivals. For a Canadian to win there means bearding the lion in his den.

    The column points out that Grandi's twin triumphs were the first fruits of a strategy planned by the head of Alpine Canada, Canadian downhill great Ken Read. And that's at least as weird and ironic as the great bio-geographical circle carved out by Grandi's skis. Back in the '70s Read was one beneficiary of a controversial decision by Canadian skiing bosses to concentrate on the downhill to the exclusion of everything else. At that time, it's where the low-hanging fruit were: Read and his contemporaries were short on technical perfection, but long on courage, which counts for everything in the downhill. Thus were born the legendary "Crazy Canucks". But Read's grand plan is to reverse the very policy that created his career. Lately too much Canadian money has been thrown at mediocre downhillers while guys like Grandi--who's been skiing for a decade and has long been recognized as a technician of remarkable innate talent--went without the support needed to get to the podium regularly.

    If Read is right--and it looks like he is--Grandi will be only the first in a new generation of winners. The Canadian Olympic Committee and the sporting bosses like Read have learned from the years of summer futility and winter frustration that followed the 1988 Calgary Olympics--which left behind a fantastic legacy in terms of facilities, but whose effect on the quadrennial medal counts was less noticeable. Having world-class places to compete turns out to be only half the battle in international sport. Canadians are quickly learning (under the influence, partly, of Australian success in summer events) to set hard, quantitative, almost cynical-seeming goals for Olympic competitions. Sponsorship money will, in the future, follow success and nothing but success: the athletes who continue to turn in personal-best times and performances will find themselves getting the most help, and those who can't make the grade may find the world newly cold.

    My second column, just now reaching doorsteps, takes a hard look at the prospects for the CFL's B.C. Lions under head coach Wally Buono, who had cardiac bypass surgery during the offseason. For longtime NFL watchers, I can condense the premise into six words: "Remember what happened to Dan Reeves?" The column looks at the medical realities behind recovery from a bypass; it's good, legitimately magazine-quality stuff. Installment no. 3, about the lockout, is still taking shape--but I'm hoping there'll be room for me to fit in this cri de coeur in some form:

    We've ignored the implications of Calgary's 2004 Stanley Cup run, which showed that an NHL franchise could create miracles by investing in two crucial players--Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. It's not necessarily easy to find a Jarome Iginla, but the Edmonton Oilers, for one, had the actual Jarome in their fucking backyard. They drafted Steve Kelly instead. It would be nice if somebody held them accountable instead of telling us how tough the Oilers have it in "today's NHL."

    Wait--I'm not done swearing. Between the goal pipes and the big man, the Oilers were a decidedly better team talent-wise in '03-'04 than the Flames. The entire difference between the teams was that the Flames had (a) Iginla and (b) the guts to bench their starting netminder when he lost the plot. And now Oilers boss Pat Laforge wants us to believe, after witnessing a month-long orgasm three hours south of us, that our club can't compete in this town under current conditions. Pat--you're a marketing genius who has outfaced his predecessors and colleagues with brilliant Veeckian ideas, and I wouldn't replace you with your weight in gold, and I can even respect what Bettman is trying to achieve, but fuck you for letting this affluent, growing, hockey-mad city be used as some kind of po-faced poster boy for management struggles. You asshole owners and their shills can't seem to make up your minds whether cities that don't care about hockey or cities that do care about hockey are the problem.

    [UPDATE, Feb. 3: Follow-up here.]

    - 3:38 am, February 2 (link)