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ARCHIVES for January 2005

Brief candle

From the world's point of view, Pelé is the incarnation of Brazilian soccer. But a new book reminds us that when Brazilians look at themselves, they don't see Pelé; they see Garrincha, the doomed, gifted "wren" with the crooked legs. Guy Burton has a rundown for Brazzil magazine.

- 5:30 am, January 31 (link)

Free John Barleycorn

Despite his Newfoundland vantage point, Damian Penny has come up with the most succinct summary of what happened with liquor privatization in Alberta. Labour unions warned at the time that prices would soar and selection would decline; now, 12 years later, enemies of the free market complain that prices are too low and selection has improved. There is a special whimsy in watching these people travel east to warn Ontarians--whose leaders are pondering the fate of the LCBO, or pretending to--that retail privatization somehow intensified the blight in Alberta's poor urban neighbourhoods. Watch out, Toronto! Don't turn into another Medicine Hat!

We're all a little mystified out here at why Ontarians regard a monopoly on liquor retailing as such a wonderful thing, but the LCBO actually seems to do a fairly good job at imitating a private business in its retail policies (price aside) and service practices. And perhaps its customers are comfortable susidizing the monopoly behind the monopoly--which doesn't want any change made to its happy, profitable little conspiracy with the government against drinkers. "Conspiracy" is not a word to be used lightly, but when one of the parties comes out and pretty much says "Look how much money we're squeezing out of these sodden jackasses!"--well, what else would you call it?

- 6:37 am, January 31 (link)

Suicide solution

Marcel Tremblay, who made headlines by announcing his imminent suicide earlier this week, followed through late Friday by killing himself in the presence of his family with helium and a plastic bag. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, the antique Romans said, but I found Mr. Tremblay's comments that he wanted to "spark debate on the right-to-die issue" rather odd. When the law received word of his plans, he was asked to present evidence of his capacity to make such an irrevocable decision. He did so, and was not prevented in any way from carrying out the act. Tremblay's right to die, if such a thing exists, was respected fully. So where's the debate?

The stooped, frail-looking Tremblay sat before a phalanx of cameras at his lawyer's office to say that he was ready to die and didn't care who knew it.
He was lucky, he said, because he was still strong enough to tug the bag over his head--his method of choice--and "pull the plug."
Those who don't have that strength are left without a choice, he said, because the law bans assisting a suicide.

In short, society expects us to make choices of ultimate import for ourselves while we're still mentally and physically responsible for ourselves. Which seems pretty sensible and fair. Guess what: you lose some of your freedom of action when you become totally dependent on others! And if that's hard cheese, I'm afraid there's no other kind in the pantry.

Tremblay was given a freedom of action by the authorities that he certainly could not have expected if he were 18 years old, or for that matter 35. In a way, he was trying to use his age and condition to bully the rest of us into accepting a bogus premise. His personal situation, after all, wasn't much of a counterargument to the general idea that society has a huge interest in stigmatizing, discouraging, and putting obstacles in the way of suicide. That's a job he's made marginally harder by his theatrical manner of death, for which no one seems it necessary to forgive or excuse him. (No one even seems to feel obliged to offer the pro forma "Kids, don't try this at home" disclaimer--even though his technique is bound to be imitated.) The forethought he gave to his end and the heroic, stubborn calm with which he planned it only raise further questions, to my mind, about the Sue Rodriguezes of the world, who demand the privilege of being killed by someone else. Tremblay's courage is a model for us all, but if he expected to become some kind of martyr for the right-to-die movement, he sure went about it ass-backwards.

- 5:04 am, January 29 (link)

The apostolic succession

The best postmortem of Johnny Carson online is one written long before he died by Kenneth Tynan for the New Yorker. The day Carson expired, I was contacted by an editor checking in to see if I could supply some quick, clever copy about the man. Like other freelancers, I have a rule that I DO NOT refuse assigned work for a decent day's wage, but in this rare case, I chickened out. I'm a member of the Letterman generation; for us, Carson was, Nietzsche-fashion, something to be surpassed. And I didn't have much to say beyond that.

It's true that, as Kevin Grace pointed out to me the other day, Carson pioneered the incessant, audience-demeaning self-deprecation that became a staple of Letterman's goofy-midwesterner schtick and has reached dangerous flood-tide levels in the act of Jon Stewart. Letterman, like Carson before him, raises the avoidance of political controversy to the level of pathology; and now we've learned just why this is wise, as Stewart doles out smug little fatwas against pet media hates while continuing to issue ironic boasts about his Emmy-devouring "fake news" show.

But the distinction between Carson and Letterman was noticed, before there was a Letterman, by Carson himself (speaking in Tynan's piece):

“When people get outrageous, you have to capitalize on their outrageousness and go along with it. The only absolute rule is: Never lose control of the show.”

Bad rule. The reason a certain age cohort of North Americans stopped caring about the Tonight Show was precisely that its host was never at any risk of losing control. All the best-remembered moments from Letterman's shows--Crispin Glover's karate kick, Harvey Pekar's Mexican standoff, Andy Kaufman vs. Jerry Lawler, drug-addled Farrah--have been segments in which things went completely pear-shaped and unprofessional. Letterman, who has always worked to channel Carson, was never comfortable on any of these occasions, but his ill-confined anger just made things that much more interesting. For some reason, Generation X isn't looking to television to serve as some sort of electronic Valium, as the Boomers invariably seem to have. Indeed, the definitive '70s lifestyle drug seems to be as much a part of Carson's permanent image as loud checked jackets and Ed McMahon's baritone guffaw.

- 1:17 pm, January 28 (link)

M.D.-a culpa

I had a few interesting responses from health professionals to my January 7 Post column about Vioxx, the anti-inflammatory drug recently pulled off the shelves by Merck & Co. The best one, I thought, was from Dr. Michael Schweitzer, who is a family physician in Ancaster, Ont. In addition to having a famous medical surname, Dr. Schweitzer is unusually up-front about the influences on doctors as their hand is hesitating over the prescribing pad. When I asked him if I could reprint his letter (and then promptly misplaced it), he very kindly recast it as a guest column for my site, in exchange for a promised plug for his "Unending War" trilogy of fantasy novels. (Don't miss the reviews page.) Here's what the doc has to say about Vioxx.

Some days it's really hard to be a doctor. On one hand, you want what's best for your patient. None of us want to see our patients suffer. But with the volume of medical information and the number of treatment guidelines growing faster than ever before, it becomes difficult to keep up with what the most appropriate therapies are for patients.

Now, one condition that's becoming more common is osteoarthritis, the good old fashioned creaking of the joints that comes with age and use. For years, the number one treatment of this condition was a drug from a class called "non-steroidal anti-inflammatories" (NSAIDs). To keep things simple, you must understand that there are two enzymes in your body that these drugs work on--COX-1 and COX-2. COX-1 is responsible for maintaining your stomach lining, while COX-2 has roles in inflammation, kidney function and blood pressure control, among other things.

Old NSAIDs inhibits both COX enzymes. By working on COX-2, they decrease the inflammation in your joints, hence less pain and more function. But by inhibiting COX-1, they also decrease the lining of your stomach, making it more vulnerable to acid. Therefore, the rate of upset stomach, reflux and ulcers increases while on these drugs. In fact, it's pretty much a given that if you take an NSAID long enough, you will get an ulcer. And this was always the limitation of therapy with the drugs. Yes, there were other side effects, but almost everybody got stomachaches with them, so the others were ignored over time.

By the early 90's, drug companies had already twigged to the idea that if you invent an NSAID that leaves the stomach alone, you will have a best-selling drug. First came drugs like Ultradol (made in Canada) and Relafen, which were called "COX-2 selective" in that they inhibited COX-2 far more than COX-1, which translated into far fewer stomach side effects. And then, in the late 90's, Celebrex hit the market with a campaign that made D-Day seem subtle. Celebrex was even more selective than the other new NSAID's and immediately grabbed all their market share. Overnight, it became the anti-inflammatory to prescribe. Why? No stomach side-effects.

Shortly after, Vioxx hit the market. Now, there's a rule in drug marketing. The first drug in a class to market, as long as it gets settled in fast enough, always remains number one unless a later entry can demonstrate it's much better. Losec, the first drug in its class of stomach medications, is still the best seller, for example. So Merck, which makes Vioxx, went all-out to promote it. This meant tons of samples, frequent visits by reps, and lots of support on the product. It meant a marketing campaign which touted the value of the drug and gave the impression that the drug was as safe to take as water in any person, anywhere, anyhow.

Now, let's take a step back. Remember I said that COX-2, in addition to being involved with inflammation, also works in the kidney and affects blood pressure. What this means is that even though Celebrex and Vioxx are safer on the stomach than older drugs like, oh say, Naprosyn, they were NO SAFER on the blood pressure and kidneys. And even in terms of effect, all the studies showed that Celebrex and Vioxx were just as effective in controlling pain as the older drugs, not MORE effective.

What does this mean practically? Well, before the new drugs came out, it was understood that you didn't give NSAIDs to people over 65, or patients with blood pressure, kidney, or heart problems. Not because of the stomach issues, but because of the other things I mentioned. What got lost in all the marketing was that Celebrex and Vioxx shared those same concerns, and yet they were specifically marketed at that age group. Whether it was the picture of the old lady in the pool, or the geriatric couple jumping on their bed, the message was clear--these drugs are safe for these people.

Which wasn't true. And even the fine print at the bottom of the ads confirmed it.

Mind you, Vioxx did have its advantages over Celebrex. For one thing, Celebrex has a sulphur compound somewhere in it and therefore is avoided in people with sulpha allergy. Secondly, Vioxx is taken once a day while Celebrex is supposed to be taken twice. Doesn't sound big, but the chance of a person taking the drug properly increases the less he has to take it. These were the advantages Vioxx had over Celebrex.

However, in truth, we did over-prescribe them. The bottom line with both drugs is that they needed to be used almost exclusively in healthy young people with acute musculoskeletal injuries or people with chronic inflammatory conditions (for example, lupus) who would be on the drug for a long time. But in the first group, a short course of Naprosyn would have been just have effective at a fraction of the cost, and probably the side effects wouldn't have been that noticeable after only a few days.

The bottom line is that, as physicians, we must share some guilt in the wide use of both Celebrex and Vioxx. Are they both good drugs? Absolutely. Were they overused and in the wrong people? Yes. And that should serve to all of us as a sobering reminder of the power of advertising and the need to rely on our own continuing medical education and not industry sponsored learning.

Now, buy my books!

- 6:11 am, January 27 (link)

Wikipedia's naked lunch: the Agenda Bender discovers the open-source encyclopedia's "vandalism in progress" page. Hilarity ensues. -7:56 am, January 26
Buk of love

Curious reader Robert Fiore of Los Angeles has been doing some research into my mysterious Charles Bukowski snapshot. What he has found is quite remarkable. Mr. Fiore has ascertained that the photograph is almost certainly from Bukowski's 1985 wedding to his future widow, Linda Lee; the event, he says, is described in Howard Sounes' biography Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life. But that's not the cool part.

The cool part is that R. Crumb did a portrait of Bukowski based on, Fiore says, "another photograph from the event." Here's a scan:

I have to say I'm not so sure about the "another photograph" part. If you compare my Buk photo to the Crumb drawing, it almost looks like it has to be a copy of the very same photo that Crumb was working from. In the drawing, Bukowski's suit has been tarted up with more visible pinstriping, but when you look at the skew of Bukowski's tie, the tilt of his body, the angle his hand gesture forms with the line of his lapel, and even the shadow of Bukowski's hand formed by the camera flash... well, sheeit. It's the same picture, isn't it?

Is it possible I came into possession of the actual print Crumb worked from? Could it have been his signed copy of Love Is A Dog From Hell I found it in? The mind reels. I'm a much bigger Crumb fan than I am a Bukowski fan--that long turgid essay I wrote for The Comics Journal last year was mostly paid for, at my request, in softcover Complete Crumb volumes. I never expected him to come into this. Many thanks to Robert Fiore for solving and intensifying the mystery, all at once.

- 1:41 am, January 26 (link)

Asset for export

Tonight is the night for Scots--those at home and members of the diaspora--to partake of the annual Burns Supper. In Canada, which in many ways remains the most visibly Scottish child of the Empire, the festival seems to be increasingly popular as the years go by. In Scotland, however, the future of the Burns Supper is in question. The young apparently regard it as a low-key lark for dessicated Rotarians, and the physical legacy of Burns' life has been left in a shocking state of disrepair. Although Scottish enterprise minister Jim Wallace apparently has them lining up for haggis around the block in Peking, one cannot think he is really helping matters by talking about Burns in terms normally reserved for car parts and industrial chemicals.

- 9:19 am, January 25 (link)

Dead cousins on television: from the same-sex marriage/polygamy files, Evan Kirchhoff proves that the writing on the wall can be read from San Francisco. Important note: the linked entry is funny, and is neither slog nor screed. You may click in safety. -11:14 pm, January 23
Back to the well

Since I helped to pioneer this whole gay marriage/polygamy thing, I suppose I'm obliged to perform an overview of the strange non-debate now going on in Canada, wherein received opinion rises up to denounce the idea that there might be any connection between Discrimination of Type A and Discrimination of Type B. The whole thing re-entered newspapers about a week ago when word got around of a Status of Women Canada call for academic proposals on the subject of polygamy and the future of Canadian law.

The Criminal Code of Canada prohibits the practice of polygamy. However, it is being practiced openly in the community of Bountiful. The British Columbia government has been aware of it for years, but has not prosecuted due to uncertainty about getting a conviction. Some have expressed the opinion that the current Criminal Code ban on the practice of polygamy may interfere with guarantees in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of religious freedom. Certainly, the issue is complex, and will require questions of religious freedom to be considered in light of the possible impact on other Charter guarantees, including the equality guarantees of section 15 and 28.

The request for proposals is an ill-disguised plea for answers to the question: "So, since we're against polygamy--like all decent folk--how exactly do we get around these annoying Charter guarantees?"

Since then, all kinds of people have come out of the woodwork to start addressing the questions I raised to very little avail last summer. Not that my original column went entirely unrebutted. If we're going to revisit this issue again, I guess I had better do my job right and rewind to some responses that were printed back then in the Post, and which are, in part, models for the ones now being aired as the issue heats up.

Letter-writer Daron Westman took the already-familiar line that the difference between same-sex marriage and polygamy is that same-sex marriage is nice, and polygamy isn't:

Mr. Cosh claims that changing the heterosexual aspect of the definition of marriage requires one to change the "two-ness" of marriage as well. But the nature of the marriage relationship is quite a different issue from the genders of the people involved in the relationship -- or the racial backgrounds, which is why the acceptance of inter-racial marriages did not lead to an acceptance of polygamy. Race and gender are not central to the intimacy and equality that marriage entails. Two men or two women can have the kind of relationship a man and a woman have; one man and five women cannot.

Polygamists will have to fight their own battle, based on the nature of polygamy itself. And, despite the claims Mr. Cosh makes for the allegedly beneficial nature of polygamy, the real-life experiences of women in modern polygamous relationships reveal real problems of male dominance and inequality that do not arise in same-sex marriage.

"Two men or two women can have the kind of relationship a man and a woman have; one man and five women cannot." Perhaps if this is chanted often enough, we'll all become convinced that it is true; we'll adopt it as an axiom! That's really all we can do, since it's a statement for which no evidence is offered and no test is possible. Other than asking some of the world's zillions of polygamists, that is, whether they have intimate, fulfilled, contented relationships.

Gays and lesbians have succeeded in making it impolite to ask whether two men or two women can really have the kind of relationship a man and a woman have. In truth, I do wonder; nature has arranged things so that roughly equal numbers of males and females are born, and we two sexes appear to possess very different psychologies, as well as genomes so dissimilar, by some accounts, that we might as well be different species. I regard these things as VERY LOUD clues to the possibility of an innate biological complementarity between the sexes. But I don't think they matter much when we're tackling the question whether gays and lesbians should be permitted to marry, which is different from the question whether it is wise or prudent or appropriate for them to marry (a question whose answer I leave to my gay and lesbian friends, with my best wishes). And, in fact, these clues were mostly ignored in the debate over gay marriage. The dominant pretext for gay marriage was that there were same-sex couples who wanted very much to be married. Am I crazy, really, for thinking that that's relevant to the polygamy question--if and when it arises, which it appears to be doing right now?

Former weblogger Andrew Coyne thinks so. Indeed, he thought so last year, when he wrote a rebuttal to my original column for the Post. His core paragraph ran thus:

Call me a social conservative, but I don't actually favour legalized polygamy. My gut tells me it would cause real harm to society, though I'd have to think a little before I could explain why. But that's not the point. The point, rather, is that we should never be afraid to put our gut feelings (prejudices is another word) to the test. Either our objection to lawful polygamy is soundly based, or it is not. If it is--if it would cause the sort of social harm I fear, or could reasonably be expected to--then we are entitled to forbid it, Charter or no Charter: that's the point of the "reasonable limits" clause. If it isn't, then the prohibition is no more defensible than that which once forbade homosexuality. Allowing gays to marry may force us to ask the polygamy question. It does not prejudge the answer.

There were, it bears saying, plenty of people whose "gut" told them--whose gut in fact still tells them--that the legalization of gay marriage would harm society. Coyne seemed to be suggesting that we go back in time and make a careful evidentiary assessment of that claim. But there's a problem: since Canada is so far to the forefront on the gay-marriage issue, there was and is no relevant evidence worth considering on the matter. We went ahead precisely because same-sex marriage was not framed as an issue to be studied serenely over time; it was framed as a rights issue, and supporters of same-sex marriage were not one iota afraid to cast the shadow of the old lynching tree over their opponents. There is only one part of Canada left that has proposed to legalize same-sex marriages in a piecemeal fashion, and it--Alberta--is being annihilated in the public discourse for displaying such contempt for gay and lesbian aspirations.

So how can Coyne now propose to deny polygamists their culture while we sit in the drawing room for 20 years and talk the thing over? This may be the ideal approach (I favour the individual-rights, consenting-adults analysis myself, not being a "social conservative" like Coyne) but can anyone reasonably think it will happen that way? Are polygamists to have the door closed in their faces precisely because they do have thousands of years of tradition behind them, where gay-marriage advocates did not?

Anyway, sometime between August and January 22, Coyne appealed from his gastrointestinal tract to his mind; and he is now fully prepared to deny any logical connection between altering marriage to suit gays and lesbians and altering it to suit Arabs and Nigerians.

[T]he two are entirely separable issues. The one is about whether the general legal preference for monogamy may be reserved to heterosexuals, or whether it must be extended to homosexual couples. The other is about whether the preference for monogamy itself is permissible. True, both are instances of "discrimination"--in one case, against homosexuals, in the other, against polygamists. Had the courts outlawed discrimination of any kind in the marriage laws, we would not need to worry whether polygamy would be next: it would already be here. But that's not what the courts have ruled, and nothing obliges them to do so in future.

...It was the courts' judgment that, the state having established a particular legal status for monogamy in the marriage laws, it was unreasonable to reserve this only to heterosexuals. Whether that seems as sensible to you as it does to me will depend in part on whether you agree that the essence of marriage, at least as far as the law is concerned, is monogamy--and not, as others argue, procreation. But nothing in the legal definition of marriage says anything about children. You are not required, as a condition of licence, to produce offspring. You are required to be monogamous. Adultery is grounds for divorce. Infertility is not.

If marriage is, legally speaking, about monogamy, and if there is no evidence to suggest that allowing homosexuals to wed will change that, then it follows that there is no reasonable grounds for preventing them from doing so. And as sexual orientation is, by previous jurisprudence, one of those personal traits the state may not discriminate against -- or not without reasonable grounds--then the constitutional basis for the traditional definition of marriage falls away.

Race and religion, I'll add, are two more of those personal traits. Very well: Coyne has constructed a legal fiction here that the defence of "monogamous" marriage is not merely prejudice in favour of European Christianity against other ways of life, or even in favour of the New Testament against the Old. This may in fact be the rock on which the defence of the number "two" in matrimony is eventually founded. (We can't be racists!--We're feminists!) For this rock to stand, you must convince the court--in the face of anthropology and history--that marriage is, in some sense, inherently pair-based. The untruth of the proposition is really the only problem with it. Well, that, and the fact that the tactic may--if you are a member of a polygamous culture, or a lawyer representing one, or a judge confronted with one--savour vaguely of old pseudo-scientific justifications for bans on interracial marriage.

The Supreme Court would also have to look awfully hard for a precedent on marriage that really does establish its confinement to couples. Coyne claims that the court has, at some time, done so. I am unaware of any such language in the recent same-sex marriage reference, which was mostly concerned with the federal power to make statutes defining marriage. (Though it certainly talked about the need to interpret legal terms "largely and liberally".) A majority of the Court vaguely implied something about "couples" in the 1995 Egan decision--but, embarrassingly, the ruling also said this:

Marriage has from time immemorial been firmly grounded in our legal tradition, one that is itself a reflection of long-standing philosophical and religious traditions. But its ultimate raison d'être transcends all of these and is firmly anchored in the biological and social realities that heterosexual couples have the unique ability to procreate, that most children are the product of these relationships, and that they are generally cared for and nurtured by those who live in that relationship. In this sense, marriage is by nature heterosexual.

Coyne, in an account of Canadian jurisprudence drawn from the world of forms, fails to see that Egan will be a loaded weapon in the hands of any lawyer seeking Charter recognition for multiple marriage. It was established legal doctrine in this country in 1995 that the essence of marriage was procreation: no one said very much about snuggly pair-bonding. But the Court's own words did not stop it from later recognizing cultural claims to individual rights of the sort that liberals are supposed to consider fairly urgent. And in that respect, there seems to be less standing in the path of activist polygamists, should any appear.

I don't have much to add, really, about the comments that have been made in the past week. Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, confronted with the Status of Women Canada call-for-proposals, merely remarked that "We [Liberals] don't see any connection between the issue of polygamy and the issue of same-sex marriage." Indeed? I suppose that's why they call them unintended consequences, Minister.

Elsewhere, Canadian Islamic Congress president Mohamed Elmasry insisted reassuringly that Canadian Muslims had no reason to make polygamy a legal issue--and then, of course, turned right around and defended polygamy. You all know I'm no Elmasry fan, but it bears observing that his contribution to the debate has at least a prima facie claim to be backed by knowledge and experience. From the Post's Friday account by Chris Cobb and Bob Harvey:

According to Mr. Elmasry, polygamy, as practised in Muslim countries and by "a few" Canadian Muslims, can be a positive family force--"a husband having a mistress is legal and socially acceptable in Canada," he said, "and it's irrelevant if the wife knows or not."

He said polygamy can be more moral than a secret affair because the first wife accepts the second wife and the second wife, and all children of the marriages, are treated equally in one family unit.

"Mistresses, and especially kids from a mistress, can have big, big problems," he said. "It is devastating when a kid cannot say 'this is my father."

This isn't terrifically convincing. But how much more convincing are the vastly more common arguments that abuse, violence, and terror are inherently part of multiple marriage?

Chris Selley has always found them so, and he has returned to this issue, too, with the same visible reluctance I feel. For the reader's sake, I won't initiate an enfilading fire against his latest comments; read them for yourself and weigh them against my own.

- 10:46 pm, January 22 (link)

Journoparents II

There's been a great deal of mail about "Who let him in", and it's been linked to a lot. So far no one has challenged my basic premise--namely, that journalists who come from working-class backgrounds are surprisingly scarce. A few writers, and other people, checked in to share their own class anxieties. I was curious whether anyone would prove capable of sending me a grocery list: "But what about X, whose father was a plumber, and Y, whose mother was a typist and a single parent, and Z...?" Didn't happen. In the U.S., you could probably make a good start by looking at black commentators like Thomas Sowell, who (unlike me) faced actual struggles in growing up and getting educated.

Steve Sailer, the Darwinist dynamo of American conservatism, wrote to confirm that Thomas Frank's book ducks questions of family income, but does spend time meditating on the intensifying exclusiveness of Mission Hills, the suburb of Kansas City where Frank grew up. The area was already home to KC's richest when he lived there, so, as Steve quips, "It's class war between the 97th percentile versus the 99th percentile." Since Frank's father still owns the property, you could also characterize it as curious bitching about a financial windfall to one's family.

Since I had compared journalists to physicists, it was only natural that an e-mail should arrive from a physicist, Duke University's Kevin Kramer.

I was reading your blog today and was interested in your comments on the relative socio-economic demographics of journalists and physicists. I don't know much about journalism or journalists (knowing them only through the blogs I read compulsively), but as a physicist I can give you a rough estimate (completely anecdotal and limited to my experience) of the background of physicists born in North America:

35% has at least one parent who is an engineer
25% have parents with moderately affluent rural occupations (farmers, small businesses, college professors at a cow school, etc.)
10% has a parent that is a doctor
10% has a parent is a high-school science teacher
20% has "other"

So I wouldn't say that people with a working class background are strongly represented, as much as a middle class background with parents possessing a profession that emphasizes non-verbal skills requiring a college diploma. Physicists tend to be suburban technocrats and/or country folk. On the other hand, I don't know a physicist who has a parent who was a lawyer.

Having said that, the percentage of non-North American physicists working in North American universities and labs is 40%-70%, depending on where you go. However, these people tend to have the same sorts of background as their North American counterparts, if not as affluent, with various local variations.

That may be a strike against that particular part of my argument. I went to school with several ordinary middle-class guys--or farmers--who became physicists or entered other hard sciences. You wouldn't call farmers a "moderately affluent" class where I come from, though they definitely have a tendency to bitch about their incomes while skating over questions about their net worth. I always felt that the door to the sciences was open to me; in fact, I was nearly shoved through it when I won a physics prize in grade 12. (I hope Mr. Thimer isn't too disappointed that I ended up as an occasional science explicator/critic rather than an actual scientist. He was a hell of a teacher--he was relaxed almost to the point of anarchism, but he was always commanded respect for himself and the subject matter. Seems like some weird sort of magic trick, in retrospect.) There was an organized structure in place to turn gifted country kids into scientists. The path to a career in letters was a lot less clear.

Jim Miller had American data to hand, and wrote an entry which bears reading. He writes:

Those who become journalists are overwhelmingly from well-off families. They are even more overwhelmingly from urban areas. And it shows when they cover rural areas; their stories typically--and I do not say typically without considerable thought--combine ignorance and condescension.

My rural background (strike two!) is something I'm less conscious of than my class origin, but this is a point worth remembering.

My white table whine attracted tons of comment at Reason Hit & Run. As usual with H&R, very little of it has anything to do with the original entry, but even the tangential stuff is pretty interesting.

Ross Douthat has a good follow-up at The American Scene, suggesting that "media bias" might be class myopia in disguise, and that, whatever else one thinks of the Thomas Franks of the world, they are at least "thinking outside the box". Frank's creation, The Baffler, certainly is (or was) consistently clever and original.

[UPDATE, January 22: Jesse Walker, who has a review of What's the Matter With Kansas? in the can, writes to say that Frank is actually "pretty upfront about the fact that he comes from a privileged background." Incidentally, Jesse was also one of many people--it was getting ridiculous there for a while--who wrote in to point out the Vietnam subtext in Glen Campbell's "Galveston", which I'd totally missed. I have to say, though, that the song was way more impressive when I was still ignorant of the context...]

- 11:31 pm, January 21 (link)

Without a net

Today's talk at the CUP National Journalism Conference went all right. The turnout (about fifty students) was pretty good for a no-name who hasn't done much public speaking, and I was unusually relaxed. And that's not even code for "drunk"! I may have assumed that the young crowd was more conversant with the weblog scene than they really were--in a crowd of student journalists that size, I would have expected to hear from at least one who had his own website--and I found myself wishing, insanely, that I'd arranged for some flashy adjunct audio-visuals. A speaker who commits to holding an audience on his own makes things a little tougher on himself, which doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do. If you're visiting the site after having attended the session, the sloppily-categorized links on the left-hand side are your introduction to the great and good in the world of the electronic citizen press.

One of the ancillary functions of is to provide a place for me to post my freelance columns and articles after the copyright reverts to me. So here's one that ran in the National Post seven days ago; it's about a high-profile, widely-publicized piece of Canadian science that, if not outright junk, was certainly somewhat shabby.

You've heard, perhaps, about the study released on Monday by two U of T economists, Gordon Cleveland and Michael Krashinsky. The pair have been teasing apart some pre-existing data on the quality of service in daycares throughout six provinces, and what they found -- or what nearly everyone told you they found -- is that the non-profits scored "ten percent higher" in quality. This number, 10%, found its way into almost every reporter's top paragraph.

But the inquisitive reader might have asked: 10% of what? Do the young clients of non-profit daycares get 10% more nap time? Do they suffer 10% fewer ear infections?

It turns out that, well, they did 10% better on the scales that are used to measure these things -- "environment rating scales" for child care created at the University of North Carolina's FPG Child Development Institute. The figure doesn't translate directly to anything in the real world, but it's so exact-sounding as to be irresistible. This is a good example of how science has trained us to be suckers for illusory quantitative accuracy.

If you check, you'll find that the FPG Institute's scales are based on observer ratings of child-care environments. Basically, a trained data-collector perches in a corner and gives the daycare marks for things like "discipline," "music and movement," and "promoting acceptance of diversity." A process like this is perilously close to not being science at all; the danger of an observer bias against for-profit daycares is obvious. Still, it's not an entirely subjective procedure. The Institute explains carefully that we know the scales measure something real, because the scores have been shown to be strongly correlated with other "measures of quality," such as child-staff ratios, staff education levels and teacher/supervisor salaries.

Cleveland and Krashinsky set out with this measurement instrument and proceeded to "show," based on a mass of empirical data, that non-profits -- which, in their sample, had lower child-staff ratios, better-educated staff and higher salaries -- were superior. As I see it, Cleveland and Krashinsky are using X to measure Y, even though any confidence we have in X depends on its prior agreement with Y. To that extent, the study's argument is circular, an artifact of the yardstick rather than the thing being measured.

Maybe that's a quibble. What really interests me about the study was a table buried in the middle; in the rush to tell you that non-profit daycares are better than commercial ones -- science has spoken! -- many press accounts forgot to mention that this was not true across the board. Single-proprietor commercial daycares fared almost exactly as well (with an average score of 61.0) as non-profits overall (62.0) and better than non-profit parent co-operatives (60.3). Given the size of the sample that Cleveland and Krashinsky used, these are insignificant differences.

The "single-proprietor day-care" is, generally speaking, somebody's house; a place where someone has the time and interest to pick up extra money watching a few kids for local working families. The "owner" is often a neighbour or a friend of the customer. And the study found that the care in those settings is as good as non-profit professionalized care. This is not too surprising. But remember -- the measurement criteria are rigged in favour of "environments" with high-paid and highly educated staff who know exactly how to impress someone with an education PhD ("OK, kids -- it's Diversity Time!") The playing field was uneven, and the sole proprietorships still earned a tie.

Yet the study is already being used to argue that the federal government should pour cash into non-profit daycares, even though non-profits are already, on the whole, better subsidized than their commercial competitors. If Ottawa isn't careful, it may end up giving parents financial incentives to take their kids out of informal "commercial" arrangements and move them into non-profits -- which are no better, and may well be worse overall. In the meantime, the reporting on this study could be raising needless concerns for parents who have found comfortable places for their children within for-profit sole proprietorships. I hope nobody is that gullible, but you never know.

The final conclusions that supporters of nonprofit daycare are trying to squeeze out of this study might not be wrong. What parent shopping for a caregiver doesn't want to hear the message, "We're not in this to get rich off of your child"? But I don't think staticky, politicized signals help parents make good decisions. That's what these economists sent out, with the accidental (but, alas, predictable) complicity of the media. (January 14, 2004)

- 10:31 pm, January 21 (link)

Whoa! My column for Friday's National Post is on the free side of the subscriber wall. Take advantage of this unexpected generosity now, and read my nonexpert thoughts about the new Airbus A380 superjumbo jet. I'll be back later today with last Friday's Post column and some correspondence and links relating to Wednesday's piece.

- 6:24 am, January 21 (link)

Open bar

I mentioned once before, I think, that I'm hosting a rap session about weblogs and journalism at the Canadian University Press National Journalism Conference on Friday. (It's appears I'm one of the opening acts for Lewis Lapham.) Only quite recently did I realize that this unpaid appearance would more or less oblige me to finally go out and buy a printer, so that I could get my speaking notes down on paper. I've been running a paperless office for nearly ten years now, and whenever I needed to take large amounts of text with me to other places, I could always use my PDA. But I'm not deft or heroic enough to try and fidget with Palm OS while holding the attention of what will doubtless be a mercifully small audience.

Best Buy had a Lexmark all-in-one inkjet on sale; it prints, scans, and copies. Needless to say, it does none of these things very well (in addition to being ugly); but then again, I've had meals that cost more. I tested the scanner on this photo, which is also, perhaps, the only collectible or achivable object I own in the world:

I was browsing through an outdoor book sale in London, in 1999, when I ran across a signed copy of Charles Bukowski's Love Is A Dog From Hell (1977); this snapshot of Buk slid out of the flyleaf. Even just as a book, it wasn't such a bad bargain for £12, though I'm no Bukowski acolyte. Like many other things that happened in London, it was exactly the sort of surreal aleatoric thing you expect to have happen in London. It's a city that lives up to its promises.

I don't know what sort of festivity is depicted here, but the getup on the woman who's half-cropped out seems vaguely bridesmaid-y. Perhaps she was Bukowski's date--a majorette in his endless parade of book-smitten women--and his brave semi-grimace is a reaction to her catching of the bouquet.

[UPDATE, January 26: A reader makes a startling discovery about the photo.]

- 1:48 pm, January 20 (link)

Over at Educated Guesswork, Eric Rescorla has (in Nestruck's phrase) gone and posted the cat--but it's actually pretty damned interesting! -5:09 am, January 19
Who let him in?

Arts & Letters Daily links today to a new interview with Thomas Frank, founder of The Baffler and author of What's the Matter With Kansas. I wouldn't have mentioned it except that it's the latest occasion for certain familiar questions to recur in my mind:

Can you give some historical background for what you call the “Great Backlash”?

What I mean by that term is populist conservatism. It’s this angry right-wing sensibility that speaks in--or pretends to speak in--the voice of the working class.

This implied claim to have discerned the true sentiments or interests of the "working class" is a depressingly familiar trope. It would probably be a little suspect even if Frank had ever been a member of the working class. But what I notice is that no one ever asks a liberal what class he did, actually, grow up in. In Frank's case, I was curious, as I invariably am: I'm good with search engines, but the closest I got to an answer was a footnote in WTMWK itself (þ: Amazon):

In the sixties and seventies my father designed steel-frame cattle auction markets for towns across the Great Plains.

Frank Sr., in other words, was an industrial designer or architect with a wide, eager market for his work. But perhaps there was an authenticating whiff of cowshit surrounding the family home.

I bring this up because becoming a political writer has had the perverse effect of radicalizing me, emotionally, about class matters. I followed what now seems like a pretty singular path into this job; the enormous majority of my colleagues, on all points of the political spectrum, seem to have backgrounds that can safely be described as affluent. There are exceptions, but very few. And while I wouldn't quite say as a rule that the most strident protectors of the working class were raised the furthest from it--well, golly, it sometimes seems that way. I don't know if I can describe, as someone who once lived in a trailer park, how it makes me feel to hear Naomi Klein (parents: doctor, filmmaker) or Avi Lewis (no genealogical comment necessary) or Linda McQuaig (parents were, as I recall, some sort of doctorate-wielding consultants) mash the W word and the C word together in that self-satisfied way of theirs. It's not simple anger, because I know perfectly well that they can get away with it forever--that, for the most part, hardly anyone on the other side is capable of playing the class-origin card against them. Who's going to do it? David Frum?

I've even gotten angry letters, after some libertarian blovation or other, from readers and colleagues who were quick to accuse me of being some sort of hyperprivileged out-of-touch power-monger. There's a kind of Marxist presumption that because I'm a right-winger I must have a trust fund somewhere, or that pater must be a stockbroker ensconced in a leather chair, applauding my every blow for the plutocratic Home Team. (In truth, all he wants is the temperature kept reasonably warm in the machine shop.) There's really no escaping the vanguard mentality wherever you look. And it actually may be that journalists are skeptical about the meritocratic nature of a free market precisely because they know, on some level, that their own business isn't very meritocratic, even though it enjoys a privileged position of constitutional unregulatedness.

If you compared the average working physicist to the average working journalist, I believe you'd find that the latter had parents whose income was much higher. And I believe this is so even though it's the physicist who is ostensibly in greater need of early-life educational advantages, an encouraging household milieu, and (to stick one toe into Larry Summers territory) inheritable cognitive endowments. This happens not because journalism is a cliquish, incestuous business, or just because it is; it's also because a child of intellectuals or businessmen just has a much easier time imagining getting paid for doing mental work and nothing else.

Leftist writers raised in affluent circumstances--as I think even they would admit, in honest moments--suffer from heroic self-image as an occupational disease. And perhaps this is equally true of the conservatives as well. But when you come from the actual working class--when your father is someone who actually helps assemble buildings, as opposed to designing them--you can never, as a professional intellectual, shake the suspicion that you are going to get caught and sent back to learn a proper living. I think it's part of why relatively minor career crises have such a shattering effect on my nerves; as a columnist I've turned out to be much more of a cowardly beggar for editorial reassurance than I ever thought I'd be. It's because I see my career subconsciously, and always will, as the product of some inchoate power's inexplicable carelessness.

[UPDATE, January 21: Loads of follow-up material here.]

- 4:00 am, January 19 (link)

My body, my Hajj

On the eve of the assembly of Muslim pilgrims in the holy city of Mecca, the Arab News has some health advice for visitors that reveals the extreme logistical difficulties of making a 21st-century hajj.

Particular attention should be given to food, not only from the aspect of hygiene but also from that of nutrition. To remove parasites and undesirable microorganisms, raw fruits and vegetables should be treated in a special way. All greens, root vegetables and fruits, as well as all other edible raw plants should be soaked for 15 minutes in water with apple cider vinegar added to it--one tablespoon of vinegar per gallon of water. Vinegar is a good disinfectant, readily available and easily affordable.

The article mentions the sacred water from the Zam Zam well near Mecca, which the angel Gabriel is said to have revealed to Abraham's wife, Hagar. Arab pop culture attributes miraculous healing powers to the water of Zam Zam, but the Saudi kingdom is now growing concerned about the future of the aquifer in an age of one billion Muslims and cheap air fares.

- 1:30 am, January 17 (link)

And speaking of sports...

...ESPN has a couple of stories of interest this morning. Over on the NHL page, Terry Frei is killing time by looking at the last-ditch scheduling scenarios which might kick in if a miracle happens and the NHLPA and the league get a deal done. A 24-game steeplechase to the playoff wire would indeed be full of heart-stopping thrills, but I've seen nothing in months to suggest there's any chance. In the "sports business" department, Darren Rovell files a story for American fans about Saskatchewan Roughriders kicker Paul McCallum auctioning off his Western Final cleats--the ones that missed an 18-yarder to tie the game--for tsunami relief.

The winning bidder in the auction, which closed Sunday, was a 14-year-old entrepreneur from Quebec who told that he plans to give them to a kicker in the Quebec Junior Football League.

I figure the kicker in question is probably the school bully, and the "gift" is designed to put a hex on the guy. After all, even a high-schooler would be embarrassed about missing an 18-yard field goal.

McCallum was recently on the local sports-talk station discussing the sale of the cleats, and showing, I might add, that he is the epitome of a good sport. It turns out that one of the gentlemen charged with trying to dump manure on the lawn of McCallum's Regina home after the missed figgie was actually a brother-in-law of the person he purchased the Rider-green domicile from. That's how the culprits knew where to go--though when they got there, being a rather dim lot even by the standards of Rider fans, they accidentally targeted McCallum's neighbour instead.

- 12:57 pm, January 17 (link)

Get in the game

My new fortnightly sports column for the Western Standard magazine has, I see, just been formally announced in a Very Special Episode of the Shotgun.

He’s one of Canada’s best writers, but Western Standard readers will get to see a new side of Colby, as he applies his unique insights to the world of sport.

For the readers of this site, of course, hearing me blather about sports will seem about as "new" as acid-washed jeans. The Standard columns will consist of the same idiosyncratic observations you've come to know and, if my inbox is any indication, love a little bit. The content will, naturally, have a western Canadian focus; Thomas Grandi's miraculous World Cup giant-slalom wins at Alta Badia and Flachau arrived just in time to give me a topic for the first installment. Subscribe today and be sure to tell the magazine how excited you are about their newest regular feature. And feel free to send me your ideas, too.

- 10:26 pm, January 14 (link)

New (?) in chess

Recently Viktor Korchnoi--one of the two or three strongest chessplayers never to be world champion, and still formidable at age 73--called attention to a curious yet remarkable accomplishment. At the 1953 Soviet team championship, Korchnoi had played against Russian legend Gregory Levenfish, who had been born in 1889. Korch has now also faced rising prodigy Magnus Carlsen over the board, no easy task despite Carlsen's age. Since Carlsen was born in 1990, Korch can boast that he has played serious high-level chess against opponents born a century apart.

In a recent lecture at the London Chess Center, world number-one Garry Kasparov made a note of this--obviously delighted at discovering a new chess goal for himself--but pointed out that Korchnoi's "century" is not the record. Vassily Smyslov, the still-living former champion, can claim a 104-year spread of opponents stretching from F.I. Dus-Chotimirsky, the teacher of Alekhine (b. 1879), to Étienne Bacrot, today's top French player and world #10 (b. 1983). But that's not the record either. Dutch chess journalist and author Tim Krabbé (who wrote the book that was made into the movie The Vanishing, and is a brother of the actor Jeroen Krabbé) has unearthed even more impressive "centuries" for two American legends, Samuel Reshevsky (109 years) and the just-deceased Arnold Denker (an arguable 115). Click this link and scroll down to item 271 to see the details.

Chess (like baseball) is full of this sort of fun, shake-hands-with-Lincoln analysis. I recall an article in Chess Life, from when Kasparov himself was champion, that talked about the "Kasparov numbers" of some leading American players. I'm forced to paraphrase here, but the idea was that if you'd beaten Kasparov over the board, your number was 1. (Not many American citizens--even among post-Soviet diaspora players--can claim such a distinction; the list was confined to Gulko and Seirawan and perhaps a couple of others.) If you'd beaten someone who had beaten Kasparov, you could claim a Kasparov number of 2, and so on. In other words, it's a chess analogue of the Erdös Number Project. Even a fairly casual club player in a big city can probably claim a Kasparov number, and this is an attractive idea--that even the lowliest schlub, assuming he's beaten someone, can ultimately claim to have beaten the man who beat the man who beat the man...(etc., etc.)...who beat the greatest of all time.

In other chess news--indeed, in other Dutch chess news--the Corus tournament in Wijk aan Zee begins tomorrow morning. Nowadays Wijk aan Zee is rivalled only by Linares as the high point of the tournament calendar, and this year the field is amazingly strong. Kasparov is the only one of the world's nine top-ranked players who is not in attendance. Returning to competition is the only woman who fits that description, or comes within a mile of fitting it: Judit Polgar, who took some time off to add a new male member to Hungary's first family of chess Amazons. has also assembled some interesting new stuff from the Indian press about Corus favourite Viswanathan Anand (and his wife, Aruna).

- 3:58 pm, January 14 (link)

My column in today's National Post is about Canada's hot new day-care study--a rather cheesy piece of work that is being spun into the stratosphere by those who want non-profits to have a corner on the Liberals' pie-in-the-sky national child-care program.

Here's my column from one week ago about the roots of the Vioxx fiasco. I'll put sources after the text.

In September, the U.S. drug giant Merck & Co. shocked the world by pulling its arthritis drug Vioxx off the international market indefinitely. The evidence of unacceptable coronary risks had become too overwhelming to ignore, and the company's shareholders could no longer put off taking their medicine, so to speak. When the recall happened, a team of Swiss researchers decided to go back and answer the big question of the hour: how soon should an unbiased observer have been able to conclude, based on the emerging clinical-trial information, that Vioxx was killing too many patients?

The disturbing answer is "about four full years before the recall." In early 2000, as the first results came in from large Merck-funded post-approval studies, it was starting to look like Vioxx recipients suffered from a roughly doubled risk of myocardial infarction. That verdict was clear by that year's end. Yet only a few skeptics made anything of this, and their criticisms of Merck went largely unheard.

As the Swiss group's report in a November issue of the Lancet points out, the magnitude of the problem may be worse than it looks. In the clinical trials, Vioxx was mostly given to people who enjoyed good health aside from their arthritis. In the real world, most arthritis sufferers are frail, older people with other medical problems. One retrospective Medicaid study from Tennessee, published in the Lancet as long ago as 2002, suggests that more than 40% of Vioxx recipients had a prior history of cardiovascular disease. For the Tennessee sample, the apparent risk of myocardial infarction wasn't doubled: it was multiplied by eight. The researchers estimated that for every 70 patients given the drug, one additional infarction was caused. Merck says that the drug has been prescribed 105 million times in the U.S. alone since its introduction in 1999.

This fiasco happened, in part, because Vioxx had ready-made excuses for itself. It is easier on the stomach than older non-steroidal pain medications. Even if the use of Vioxx carried minor cardiovascular hazards, there was still a good chance for overall benefit to patients, both in clinical outcomes and quality of life -- so Merck pressed on. As the risk numbers got uglier, some researchers noted that Vioxx was being compared to the old anti-inflammatory Naproxen in many of the studies. There's a theory that Naproxen, like aspirin, has cardio-protective effects, so Merck could (and did) argue for a while that their drug wasn't harming anyone -- it was just that the most common control-group therapy was really, really helping them. The Swiss team says, though, that it was never too credible that Naproxen would magically cut myocardial infarctions in half on its own. That defence was a costly cop-out.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal is the voice of the consensus amongst Canadian doctors: on Jan. 4 it ran an unusually polemical and damning editorial about all this. Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it says, fast-tracked approval for Vioxx without a compelling pretext. "Using an active surveillance system that targeted serious adverse events would have sounded the alarm much earlier," writes the CMAJ's editorial board. "Both the FDA and Health Canada have failed miserably in carrying out this important aspect of their public mandates.... The FDA and Health Canada have demonstrated their structural inability to do ongoing safety monitoring of new drugs and devices, and industry is far too conflicted to be able to carry out this important task."

This now seems undeniable. But the CMAJ also suggests explicitly that both physicians and patients were equally victimized by the regulators. Speaking as a patient, I wonder about this attitude. Merck unleashed a faulty product on the public and the regulators waved it through -- but did the pill prescribe itself a hundred million times? What made physicians such eager early adopters? If the CMAJ speaks for doctors, one can only conclude that they accept little or no duty to be aware of current pharmaceutical research. Some Canadian physicians, after all, knew enough to stay away from Vioxx and other newly suspect drugs of its class. A few have even denounced them.

Why does the profession as a whole seem unable to make a principle of prescribing new drugs conservatively? The CMAJ makes a plea for the creation of "new national agencies to monitor drug safety independently from the approvals process." This is probably a good idea. But, on its own, it lets physicians off the hook for their naive trust of regulators, their self-evident susceptibility to drug hype and their habitual acceptance of small-scale bribery by schmoozing pharmaceutical reps. We have a problem here that goes much deeper than government helplessness in the face of pharmco greed. (January 7, 2005)

Here's an informative CMAJ alert about Vioxx and other drugs in its class. As the alert says, the evidence of at least passive malfeasance here seems inescapable:

The indication for COX-2 inhibitors is very narrow: short-term pain control in elderly patients at high risk of gastrointestinal bleeding in whom NSAIDs might be relatively contraindicated. However, they soon became widely and indiscriminately used in place of NSAIDs even though preliminary trial evidence with rofecoxib showed excess, although not statistically significant, cardiovascular and neurovascular events when compared with nonselective NSAIDs.

This link points to the CMAJ editorial mentioned in my column. The Lancet "smoking-gun" study has been taken behind the subscriber wall by that journal, but for the moment there is a PDF copy online here. The time-sorted funnel plot in Figure 3 is of particular interest.

- 2:20 pm, January 14 (link)

The boy with the thorn in his side: The Icelandic hat makes another convert. -1:54 am, January 14
So sue me--I think Thomas Friedman's "rules for Middle East reporting" are quite clever. -8:04 pm, January 13
I get ideas

Amusing news meme: the Mac Mini, an impressive piece of consumer-product design. My idea: surely you can't sell a computer this size and not include a wall mount for it? If I were a Mac user I'd be grateful for the reduced footprint of the case (Oh boy! Extra room for my Dungeons & Dragons figurines and my enuresis medication!) but why not reduce it all the way to zero? This desktop looks ready to lift off and float right away from the desktop. Make it so!--assuming it isn't already so; but I see no indication that this has occurred to Apple.

Amusing news meme: McDonald's hypes the McShawarma in Israel with a Pulp Fiction-inspired ad. My idea: well, it's sort of the same idea I've been pushing for years--namely, that the future of McDonald's is a breakup of the chain into different consumer segments. (Right now McD's here is in the middle of a bungled attempt to sell toasted deli sandwiches.) The McShawarma, and the other specialty menu items you often hear about in foreign markets, always have the same effect on me: I want one! What's to stop McDonald's from converting a few locations in the more oversaturated North American markets to McDonald's World outlets where the adventurous (and new immigrants) can order Chicken Tatsuta or Filipino-style McSpaghetti? It's a recipe for high overhead, but a proprietor could charge much higher prices, too. This business is suffering the thousand-cuts torture at home, in part, because of the internationalization and increased tolerance for complexity of the North American palate. Memo to Ronald: make it work for you!

- 7:57 am, January 13 (link)

The not-so-great

Colin Farrell, who plays the title role [in Alexander], helpfully added his own explanation for the biopic's commercial failure: "The film is a draining experience to watch. It's loaded with mythology, icons, symbolism and destiny."

It's also loaded with stiff dialogue, risible imagery, self-conscious performances, and a needlessly non-serial narrative structure! I guess Colin forgot to mention those.

In truth, after watching Alexander recently, I was awfully tempted to essay a defence of it. But with the actors and the director still tilting at critical windmills, the fun has rather been taken out of such an exercise. A proper apologia for Alexander would start with the observation that epics, in some sense, stand above or perhaps outside our usual expectations of a movie. Alexander is really no worse in most respects than Star Wars, and just how good do you really think Spartacus would seem if it were released out of the blue now without Stanley Kubrick's name on it? The sheer bigness of Alexander means that it would almost be petty to feel cheated by it.

Still, a failure's a failure. The story of Alexander would be hard to film intelligibly under the most propitious of circumstances. I have always found Alexander's motivations to be difficult to grasp, and if anything I feel stupider after watching Stone's tale. It is disappointing that he felt the need to wax conspiracist around the conqueror's demise, while largely neglecting the actual dirty secret of Macedonian greatness--Philip II's establishment by force majeure of a near-monopoly over the world's gold supply. Stone's other psychobiographical speculations are, mostly, merely confusing. Alexander set out to conquer the universe because his mother looked really hot in a tunic? Huhwha?

Some of the classicist's wish list is here, and in a way it's interesting to see any depiction of what is, for us, a sort of befogged lacuna between Thucydides and the emergence of Rome. One of great themes of Stone's life, and what we know attracted him to this material, is the tension between East and West. This drama, coupled with what I take to be Stone's unusually good understanding of what a battle feels like, gives some crude energy to the movie's last quarter or so, wherein his soldiers encounter monkeys and then learn about something called an "elephant" at the battle of the Hydaspes (here perhaps a little more Vietnam-like than the real thing). Stone goes entirely over the top toward the end, giving way to a Goya influence and drenching the frame in crimson. It's silly, but somewhat enchanting on its technical merits too, like an ABBA song. Or perhaps merely less tiresome than the contrived conflict and hackneyed tableaux that have preceded it for two exhausting hours.

I suspect we may be too close in time to Hitler and Napoleon to feel that Alexander can be anything more complex than a very bad man who pursued his folly unusually far. (And I'm afraid the epicene nuances of Farrell's characterization, however justifiable, don't help much.) What you must do, if you are to make an Alexander movie, is to unlock the secret of his power and to account for how such a monster could have emerged from Hellas, the common cradle of the Western world. The historical person named Alexander may even be beside the point: the urgent question may really be "How could an Aristotle, chattering away in his grove, have accidentally remade the lives of millions of people from the Nile to the Ganges within a matter of a dozen or so years?" This movie has only thrown more veils in front of the mystery, shoving cloddish ironies about Lebensraum in the mouth of the old philosopher. Never has there been more cause to regret Stone's ravenous ego. A nice little three-act play about Aristotle and Alexander would probably not have been above his grasp of classical material, and would have been a service to undereducated 21st-century man. Instead of behaving with the humility of a real artist, he regarded himself as being in the business of constructing myths; it's painfully apparent that the real hero of Alexander is meant to be none other than Oliver Stone, Oracle of Our Times. Many artists have shared this ambition, but if you indulge it without being a true genius, you'll get eaten alive every time.

- 10:13 am, January 12 (link)

I've got a new post over at the Shotgun about India's Dalits, who have been doubly victimized by the December tsunami and by social prejudices that make it hard for them to receive proper relief. -4:09 pm, January 11
Karma chameleon?

Marc Weisblott shoots a few bottle rockets at Malcolm Gladwell in a recent Better Living Centre installment, missing by miles but putting on a good light show. My man-crush on M.G. is intense enough to have survived his eerie, astringent appearance on Tina Brown's talk show. But there's nothing wrong with the odd warning shot at people in super-comfortable journalism sinecures (note: opinion may be subject to change if I ever get one myself).

- 2:46 am, January 10 (link)

Pyjama party '05

The Rathergate Report has finally hit the street. Hey, look! It's set in Times New Roman!

Four CBS employees have been canned for "myopic zeal", for making a "rigid and blind" defence of bogus documents, and for "disregard [of] fundamental journalistic principles". That about covers it, I guess... The tale told in Thornburgh and Boccardi's review of events is very entertaining, and one cannot help relishing the hysterical desperation of people within CBS who figured things out early on. Watch for the quotes from the sad clown of the drama, CBS Communications Group chief Gil Schwartz:

We need our [document] expert available NOW to speak to all those who are reporting this story. We need the expert. Now. We need him now.

[This] is essential RIGHT NOW. We NEED THAT EXPERT. Without him, we’re TOAST.

As far as the press is concerned, the “th” issue is NOT gone. It’s very much alive, and they have people crawling all over it. If we wait to address the issue until tonight’s news, we will DIE in the press tomorrow. Die. As in... dead. You tell me. How do I get the message out RIGHT NOW, as in RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE, that the “th” thing is no longer an issue?

Our entire reputation as a news division now rests on our fielding a couple of experts on our side TODAY. BY PRESS TIME.

These pleas were directed at Mary Mapes, the producer of the segment, whose big-swinging-dick attitude oozes through the Thornburgh/Boccardi report. Even as she was fending off Schwartz's pleas, Mapes was telling other executives "that one could always find experts willing to take different sides in an authentication debate." To this day, she still hasn't found one to take her side on the central issue. Do you suppose she'll keep looking now that she's been fired?

- 9:59 am, January 10 (link)

Libraries gave us power: Jonathan Rose has a fantastic piece in the autumn City Journal about the liberating force of the canonical literature now derided by Marxists as inherently oppressive. (þ: A&L Daily) -6:17 am, January 10
This business of pity

I've been accused, all too often, of waxing indignant in my newspaper columns--of being an angry, cynical sort of fellow. But I beg you to shoot me in the head if I ever write anything as prissily poisonous as Earl McRae's Sunday column in the Ottawa Sun. Take heart, tsunami families: your loss was not in vain, for it enabled one lonely crusader to file some blazingly crass newspaper copy on a cold Canadian weekend. McRae's outburst was provoked by unexpectedly poor turnout at a national memorial service for the Asian dead; I believe it may be the worst-written thing I have set eyes on in ten years as a reporter and editor.

Where were the 15,000 the government believed would come to the Civic Centre, their presence to be a living testimony for the victims and families of the tsunami that Canadians are nurturing the connection of compassion, the 15,000 letting them know that Canadians will be steadfast, will help raise them up, will be there for them now and tomorrow and all the tomorrows it takes?

There were no more than 600 people in the stands. And, in chairs placed on the arena floor in front of the stage, almost as many invited politicians, diplomats, and friends and family members of some of the stricken. Surrounding them, almost 8,000 empty seats.

Unless I'm mistaken--and given the grammar here, I sure could be--McRae is saying that the government's inappropriate choice of venue for the service and its false expectations as to the turnout are somehow supposed to be a rebuke to the rest of us. If Paul Martin says that 15,000 people are going to turn up, then, by God, 15,000 people had better turn up, or else Earl McRae is going to lose his very own personal poo in the pages of the Sun.

McRae calls it a "day of no excuses". I guess that shows me--I was a mere two thousand miles away! A lot of us are probably shaking our heads that we had the temerity to write cheques for tsunami relief instead of booking a last-minute flight out East. Not that I've donated a red cent to the cause, mind you: as appealing as we all find the concept of generosity, it doesn't make an especially effective negotiable instrument when you're explaining why you didn't pay your rent or your gas bill for January. Put me in the queue for a crucifixion if you must, but please, let's not tar the whole country with the reeking pitch of selfishness: better Canadians than I have voluntarily donated nearly $100 million to the cause of tsunami relief, and the government is going to kick in another $80 million. McRae expressly believes that the failure of Canadians to show up for the politicians' little ceremony--where did they find a Zoroastrian priest on such short notice, anyway?--negates every last dime of our nation's charity. Actual giving counts for less in his moral calculus than failing to grieve suitably, according to the postmodern, post-Diana, collective manner.

In truth, I can only feel proud that so many of my fellow Canadians stayed home. Until now our prime ministers had foregone acting as popes of the Church of Sacred Emotion. But on Saturday the dignitaries in attendance delivered a familiar Clintonian sermon on the theme of empathy as the greatest of all virtues. (How fortunate that it's also the very cheapest!) The Governor-General, always ready with a quote, told the empty seats that "the key to life" is to "try to feel in your heart's core the reality of others." The obvious corollary--and clearly McRae will go along with this--is that how you conduct yourself matters not at all. But if she could really "feel... the reality" of a hundred and fifty thousand dead in her "heart's core", she certainly wouldn't be up to standing at a podium, channelling Margaret Laurence like some fatuous cocktail-party guest.

Paul Martin dug even deeper. "South Asia's pain is our own," he said. Let me rephrase: he said it to the families of a bunch of people who had been drowned or smashed to death by a giant tidal wave. I mean, fancy that! Most of you may have thought you were encountering, at worst, a negligible sort of gloom at watching the casualty figures mount up. But according to Mr. Martin, you were actually suffering. Of course, he cannot mean it; it would be monstrous for him to claim a genuine share of South Asia's pain, for himself or for Canada, in complete earnest. The statement was intended only to reassure the listener of Paul Martin's cosmic-scale sensitivity and good intentions.

It is hard for me to see why those of us who have actual grieving to do must do it in public. The only interests it serves are those of the people who aren't really grieving at all, but who wish to give the appearance of grieving--who wish to rudely annex the shared aura of the suffering for their own purposes. What might those purposes be in the case of those denizens of Ottawa who did show up? Since I feel able to confess not having had my life seriously interrupted by the tsunami, it falls to me to meet rudeness with rudeness, and point out that South Asians are amongst the Liberals' favourite client groups, and that they carry political weight in this country well out of proportion to their numbers. The question McRae raises--"Why only 600 mourners?"--could be co-opted as evidence in the odious parallel inquiry: "Why even hold a national day of mourning?" I can't guess how South Asian residents of Canada will react to the prime minister's efforts to muscle in on their intimate feelings. I suppose they'll figure he meant well, and note that he opened the public purse; and most likely they will ignore what must have been the sharp sting of being told that their pain, like the moon, belongs to everyone.

Earl McRae, in reporting on all this, went to the trouble of buttonholing someone who actually knew a tsunami victim. Sorta.

Feeling pain was Keith Scheid, a 38-year-old electrical engineer who drove to Ottawa from Hamilton. But for a different reason. Sitting in the stands, he said angrily: "This turnout is bloody pathetic. Is this what Ottawa people are like? I've seen more people in a church banquet hall." His eyes well up. "My wife is from Thailand. This was too painful for her to come to. Her girlfriend, her best friend, lost her husband in the tidal wave. I met him once, he was a good guy."

I would not dream of making fun of Mr. Scheid, though "I met him once, he was a good guy" makes it hard to resist. (In the world of Feeling-Above-All, we are continually supine with agony over our wife's friend's husbands and other such people.) I ask you only to imagine the scene as Mr. McRae fixed on Mr. Scheid--his eyes as bright and voracious as only those of a man on deadline can be--and began quizzing him, steno block aquiver, about his personal connections to the calamity. Earl cares--Lord, does he--but why should a few tears stop you from getting the money quote?

- 4:39 am, January 10 (link)

Funny because it's true?

The Calgary Herald and many other papers were forced to run an editor's note like this on Sunday morning after a poorly-timed gag slipped into the comics section:

Today's Hi & Lois strip in the colour comics shows the characters Hi and Lois looking out their window at a huge blanket of snow that has just fallen.
In the next to the last panel, Hi says, "Sometimes, I wish we lived in the tropics!"
In the last panel, Lois has a thought balloon showing a family stuck on a rooftop with winds howling around them and flood waters lapping at the roof. She says, "Careful what you wish for!"
In light of the horrific tragedy that has occurred in south Asia, this strip now seems inappropriate. The Herald and the strip's syndicate, King Features, want to assure readers that Sunday comic strips are created, and printed, well in advance of their publication date, and the Herald was unable to remove this strip.

I don't suppose anyone will own up to the real truth--that the same hundred or so Hi & Lois installments have been running over and over again since 1959. Wasn't Hi complaining about Chip playing his Rudy Vallee LPs too loud just last week?

- 11:54 pm, January 9 (link)

One paper down, approximately 2,569 to go: The L.A. Times euthanizes Garfield at the age of 26. -10:56 pm, January 8
Currently in high rotation around the house

The Boomtown Rats, "The Elephant's Graveyard (Guilty)": a forgotten Jam-meets-Elvis-Costello gem from 1981's Mondo Bongo. Geldof sneeringly summons up a vision of Florida as a sweltering, corrupt hell of cocoa-buttered oldies on the make--"Disneyland under martial law." It's the song he and his mates perform in Eugene Levy's honour on Teacher's Pet, SCTV's send-up of To Sir With Love. I suppose the Ethiopians are glad that the Rats' frontman decided to be a saint instead of a rock star, but the rest of the band must be seething at the way their oeuvre swirled down the memory hole. No knighthoods for them, no! Not even a bleedin' OBE!

Nick Drake, "Fly": In considering the geniuses at work on the Nick Drake records, it's natural but unfortunate that we think of the doomed, good-looking one in the stylish black-and-white photographs, and overlook the jowly chap behind the console. "Fly" happens to fall just before Wilco's "Muzzle of Bees" on my playlist; the resulting effect is a pantsing of Jeff Tweedy, who essays a fairly convincing Drakean lyric, sung in distracted/pleading Drakean fashion, on the latter track. "My sleeves have come unstitched from climbing your tree" could verily have come from the master's own pen.

Glen Campbell, "Galveston": This is the only tune I know of that can best be described as a suicide note combined with a travelogue. The effect, despite the general poor aging of Campbell's songs and the sleazy string section sprawling all over this track, is actually sort of poignant in an over-the-top way. Supposedly thousands of listeners flocked to Galveston to hear the "sea-waves crashing" and "watch the cannons flashing", and relatively few heeded the ominous import of the line "I clean my gun/ And dream of Galveston." Wait--there's a sobbing guy cleaning a fucking firearm in the back of this tour bus? Can I get my fare back?

[UPDATE, 3:49 pm: I amended the "Galveston" bit to cover a monumental gaffe--forgetting that Jimmy Webb wrote the damn song. Big thanks to the Ambler for pointing out the pop-history piss-stain on my trousers, and thank goodness the Saturday traffic is slow.]

Carly Simon, "You're So Vain": I have to own up to enjoying the savage concreteness of this song, even though Carly Simon's music is, on the whole, strictly for urbane MILF aspirants. With its apricot scarf and its Lear jet, "You're So Vain" is a textbook of pop portraiture and a nice little snapshot of the '70s. Simon created decades of tiresome inquiries for herself with "You're So Vain" because it's so obvious that the song is about some real individual (probably Warren Beatty). Only that goofy business about "clouds in my coffee" spoils the effect.

Kate Bush, "Wuthering Heights": Coupled with a risqué Gered Mankowitz publicity photo, this song created an absolute mania in London back in 1978. To this day there are thousands who haven't let go of their Kate Bush obsession, and as objects of obsession go, I have to say she's not such a terrible choice. Listening to "Wuthering Heights", I just sit there with my jaw hanging open at the daring register in which Kate sings and the outrageous skill with which she interprets her own schoolgirl lyric (notoriously poor though it is as a gloss on the novel). What do you suppose would happen if someone played this on North American radio now? You feel, somehow, that young listeners would spontaneously combust or turn feral on being exposed to something so far outside their experience. Was there really a time when pop music was like this? Even the poor man's Kate Bush seems like some sort of estimable throwback to the singer-songwriter era now. The happy news, all the more depressing for being such happy news, is that Kate intends to emerge from her cave with a new album sometime this year.

- 6:38 am, January 8 (link)

Some young hockey players dream of playing for the NHL. Future Hall of Famer Theoren Fleury would be content to make the NPHL--the North Peace Hockey League. -12:08 am, January 8
The goggle-eyed whore?

I think I liked Elizabeth Nickson better before she tried to apologize for the inadvertent act of plagiarism that got her tossed from the National Post. In taking 800 words to issue a somebodya culpa to readers ("the attribution could have been dropped in the editing"), she compares herself to Anne Boleyn and Martin Luther King, no less. While suggesting that her plagiarism might have been a desk error and noting that many famous and esteemed people have perpetrated the crime, she also pleads chronic overwork (1,300 words a week being, apparently, an insupportable level of productivity). The optimum number of excuses here, I think, would be zero; failing that, one might be prepared to entertain as many as one. Trotting out three just makes you look pathetic and insincere. (þ: Selley)

- 5:53 pm, January 7 (link)

No radio today: Don Hill's CBC show this afternoon will be devoted to Alberta's beloved Lieutenant-Governor, Lois Hole, who died yesterday of stomach cancer. I'll let you know if I'm rescheduled. -11:10 am, January 7
"Merck unleashed a faulty product on the public, and the regulators waved it through--but did the pill prescribe itself a hundred million times?" In Friday's National Post, I take a stab at assessing the toll from Vioxx, explaining how the fiasco happened, and pointing my pudgy little forefinger. Don't be the last one on your block to grab a copy.

- 3:19 am, January 7 (link)

Coming attractions

It looks like I'm to be dragged kicking and screaming into the public square a few times this month, or the semi-public square, anyway; I don't know whether all of these events are open to the public. The one that definitely is happens tomorrow afternoon, when I'll be appearing with other semi-notables on Don Hill's Wild Rose Forum radio show. You can catch that broadcast anywhere in Alberta on CBC Radio One at 1 p.m. Mountain time. On January 21, at the same hour of the day, I'll be hosting a roundtable discussion for the Canadian University Press's national student media conference at the Crowne Plaza in Edmonton. Since I'm not really an expert at anything except being me, the topic will be weblogs and journalism (weblogs vs. journalism?). Finally, on January 29, I'll be doing a short talk at the Fraser Institute's Edmonton public-policy seminar for students. As an adult, one eventually learns the bitter truth of the maxim that there's no such thing as a free lunch.

- 10:37 am, January 6 (link)

Cringely on the beach: I discuss a tech-head's answer to tsunamis in a new post at the Shotgun. -10:22 pm, January 6
My TAS article about Howard Stern's departure from radio is now online at It was filed for the holiday issue nearly three months ago, yet its closing paragraphs about Stern's difficulty in preventing his show from becoming a commercial for Sirius Broadcasting have proven prescient. At the time I wrote the story, Sirius had about 700,000 subscribers under contract. Last week the company announced that--with a full year left to go before Stern makes the jump--its audience had grown to 1,140,000. It now seems likely that a deal will be cut to bring Stern to satellite early and resolve the political tensions between himself and Infinity Broadcasting's affiliates.

- 6:01 pm, January 6 (link)

The unexpected libertarian: here's my National Post column from December 28 about old and new models of democratic socialism.

My favourite candidate for "Most irony-impaired political statement of 2004" was a late entrant, arriving last week when an Ontario politician denounced the McGuinty government's tendency towards petty micromanagement of life in the province. "You hear it everywhere," said the intrepid guardian of liberty in question. "Get out of my face, stop telling me how to live, stop telling me what to think--people do not want Dalton McGuinty or [Health Minister] George Smitherman telling them how they should raise their kids, what values they should believe in or shouldn't believe in."

One is tempted to congratulate New Democrat leader Howard Hampton--for it is he!--on his late-life conversion to libertarianism.

Of course, it raises the question whether he recollects just what political ship he's the captain of. When Hampton isn't denouncing the nanny state, his NDP MLAs are (to take a few recent examples) calling for bans on tasteless T-shirts, demanding "action" against workplace sexual harassment, and opposing housing developments on the Oak Ridges Moraine. He doesn't want to tell you what to think--unless you happen to be thinking "I should ask that redhead in Human Resources out for a few pops" or "It sure would be nice to retire to that pretty country just north of Vaughan."

That's politics these days: every few years the voter must decide whose rights he feels like throwing away, and "None of the above" is rarely an option. One shouldn't, however, underestimate the value of at least talking the talk. Conservatives have been cowed into apologizing for the existence of private life and personal freedoms on the grounds that they are "American" concepts, and "Liberals" forgot the etymology of their own name decades ago. Maybe the New Democrats are the last ones left who can directly oppose government bullying of the citizenry about rich foods and mean dogs. (Most of them--as the federal NDP's bizarrely impassioned crusade against trans fatty acids shows--just don't want to.)

Hampton's comment is laughable, but--as with all good jokes--there is a philosophical argument lurking in the shadows here. After Bob Rae's regime in Ontario shuddered to bits, the party turned to Hampton as the closest thing available to an opposite. Rae was the archetypal postmodern "Third Way" socialist--a man far more concerned with race and gender than with class war. Hampton, chosen to rehabilitate the party's standing amongst the pale males of the labour unions, is more of an old-fashioned advocate of public ownership of the means of production. (Rae himself, in a funny twist of history, has abandoned the party in the name of the "free market".) When Hampton gripes about social engineering he is not being logically consistent, but he is being loyal to an older socialist vision.

It's the same vision, without the intellectual wattage, that you see in the works of George Orwell. Orwell is frightfully overused by newspaper columnists, I know, but with reason: there aren't many true socialists whose political writings are of enduring interest. Orwell was deep-red enough to believe that--to take one example--meals for the working class should probably be cooked in a centralized public kitchen and delivered to people's doorsteps to spare women the toil of cooking and washing up. He felt that the state should provide a very, very broad range of goods and services.

Yet, all the same, our most elemental liberties (aside from private property) have had few stronger advocates. Orwell advocated Spartan-style collective kitchens, speculatively, because he thought people would participate willingly. If you had banned private kitchens--or started abolishing the vices of the working classes seriatim, as the McGuinty government is doing--you'd have had a ballistically angry Old Etonian-slash-war veteran on your hands.

Somewhere along the line, most socialists stopped believing in the idea of providing for the public without pushing it around. And they were right. Orwell read Hayek's Road to Serfdom not long before he died, and was impressed by it; he would eventually have figured out that the state, once it takes on the responsibility of educating, employing, and medicating you, soon acquires clear title to your very self. The McGuinty government, with its bike-helmet jihad and its antagonism to tobacco, is merely following the principle to its conclusion.

Old-line democratic socialism of Hampton's sort is founded on the lie that the government can give, give, and give eternally without taking anything away. Lie or not, one can't help disliking the contrary trend still more--the trend, that is, for governments to take freedoms and choices away without giving anything in return. (Dec. 28, 2004)

- 12:00 pm, January 6 (link)

Down to the sea

On Wednesday morning I spotted this table of tsunami deaths in the Calgary Herald:

Indonesia: 94,081
Sri Lanka: 30,229
India: 9,571
Thailand: 5,246
Somalia: 200
Myanmar: 90
Maldives: 82
Malaysia: 68
Tanzania: 10
Bangladesh: 2
Kenya: 1

The human resistance to the abstract is so powerful that I immediately had an overpowering morbid curiosity about Kenya's one victim. The Nation of Nairobi has unhappy story of Samuel Njoroge, who picked a very bad day to go swimming for the first time in his life.

- 6:41 am, January 5 (link)

A man of letters--er, ideograms

The Chinese Foreign Minister's poem in honour of the tsunami victims proves, I think, that even in the bleakest hour, we can still unite in laughter at stupid Communist bullshit.

- 5:45 am, January 5 (link)

Some of the stuff I got for Christmas

The Flaming Lips' Zaireeka: This 4-CD objet d'art has had a curious little life since its 1997 release. After Wayne Coyne's Parking Lot Experiments--in which fans were invited to an old drive-in with their cars, were given pre-recorded audiotapes, and were instructed to pop them into their decks and start them simultaneously in order to create a distributed, performerless concert--Coyne began wondering whether the whole idea was applicable to something remotely resembling a conventional record release. With the permission of Warner, whose tolerance for the Lips' art-collective meanderings seems to defy current stereotypes of greedhead major-label behaviour, Coyne and the group made Zaireeka, a suite of eight avant-gardish but tuneful songs broken down into component tracks for simultaneous play on four CD players. When Zaireeka came out, it was immediately celebrated by many of those who tried playing it as instructed (including the critics), scorned by many Lips fans (who to this day don't seem to like the music for some reason), and denounced by those who saw it as exactly the sort of scam-disguised-as-art that would make record executives slaver like dogs on if only some gang of Oklahoman charlatans could be found with the audacity and the technical chops to pull it off. Four CDs!--and the punters ate it up!

The irony here is that Zaireeka was just slightly ahead of its time--slightly, but enough that you don't hear about it much anymore, even though we now have the power of MP3. With the digital technology that has entered most every musical household since 1997, one can enjoy Zaireeka in exactly the way it was not intended to be. The record was planned as a musical object that would never be heard the same way twice, since no two CD players play discs at precisely the same speed and no two human fingers can press "play" in exact sync. But the liner notes do say "With Zaireeka, you are in charge." And in 2004, it's a lot easier to convert the four CDs to .wavs or .mp3s, play them simultaneously in any combination with relative ease, and even make your own customized mixdowns of the songs.

This is contrary, certainly, to the stated original spirit of the experiment. The whole Zaireeka thing was meant to be lo-fi and sociable; you're supposed to invite three friends to your place, smoke a bowl, and get inside the sound while giggling over the contrivedness of it all. It's possible that as many as 20,000 people or so worldwide have actually gone to the trouble. But really this is tantamount to the suicide of what sounds to me, after a few first passes, like some truly challenging music. What if the Beatles had released The White Album on a limited run of Edisonian wax cylinders? Would you feel especially bad about copying the music onto digital audiotape for your own permanent listening pleasure? Considering that Coyne's notion was to create something beautiful without retaining complete control over it--unleashing his songs into an aleatoric, D.I.Y. universe--I don't feel inclined to apologize for playing around with Zaireeka on the computer in a way that probably wasn't imagined in '97. And doing so doesn't necessarily eliminate the future possibilities for Zaireeka parties, after all--I still have the discs.

Shut Up, You Fucking Baby, David Cross: Actually I'm having a whole David Cross Christmas (Crossmas?), with the fourth-season Mr. Show DVDs and the first season of Arrested Development arriving all at once. Shut Up is a double album of recorded stand-up: I've forgiven Cross for the long stretches of tiresome anti-Bush stuff on the second disc, because his bit about pedophilia in the Roman Catholic priesthood has got to be the greatest achievement in audience-baiting since Lenny Bruce died. Cross asks whether, since priests are God's representatives on Earth, wasn't it, in a sense, really God who was molesting all those little boys? That's just the start of the bit, mind you: after that things really get ugly. By the time he's done, the audience doesn't know whether to laugh, leave, or rush the stage. It's bravura incarnate--slashing, menacing material in an age of condom-wrapped comedy.

SCTV DVD collection, Vol. 2: After making the long wait for these discs a major theme of the site for two solid years, I never have gotten around to reviewing the finished product. The show holds up exquisitely, and as always the only slightly distancing element has been my own mental disruption at encountering evidence of SCTV fandom even more hardcore than my own. The set is an intense labour of love, with plenty of extras to justify the high price--though not as many as there might be. More audio commentary would be nice.

On the whole, watching this stuff again (some for the first time in 20-odd years) is an astonishing education. One was always aware that the show functioned splendidly on four levels (gags, visuals, satire, and theatrical performance), but the set establishes its superiority over Saturday Night Live more firmly than ever. SCTV, let's remember, was written with inhuman speed, haphazardly rehearsed, and produced on a slender budget in the middle of nowhere (i.e., here); it's full of snide in-jokes at its own expense ("You'll never get actors to travel to Planet Zontar!"). Yet its makeup, hair and costumes are still a benchmark in television comedy, director John Blanchard is still remembered for bringing tireless Grossian values to the sketch environment, and the dialogue ticks like a Swiss watch. Last night I must have watched Bobby Bittman's ten-second "Sammy Maudlin Show" screaming match in Yiddish with his brother "Skip" three or four times; it's a miraculous little set piece which leaves you wondering whether Levy and Rick Moranis really are undisclosed brothers. What I suppose I didn't understand well as a kid was how much pathos the show's most egregiously imbecile characters had, and just how textured it all was. As one of the writers points out in the commentary, even the bit players seem to brim over with backstory.

I Am Charlotte Simmons: Somehow Tom Wolfe's latest book always manages to be the event of the year. The procedure seems to be that (a) Wolfe finishes a novel, (b) it is roundly panned, and (c) it immediately becomes a monumental bestseller and a permanent reference point for its time. Wolfe, I'd have thought, won the argument over his style thirty years ago, and the current accusations that he is a clumsy caricaturist remind one of the analogous accusations made about Bonfire of the Vanities--which promptly proceeded to predict the next five or so years of American news in the intimate detail usually ascribed to Edgar Cayce. No man is above criticism, but I'm curious to see just how often Wolfe's detractors are willing to keep revisiting the same deep, clostridious wells.

I finished I Am Charlotte Simmons overnight, more or less, and the Wolfe hunters are right about one thing--their frequent comparisons of the book to the novels of Samuel Richardson. How exactly this is supposed to argue against Wolfe, I'm not sure; Richardson isn't read much today, but if you were setting out to identify the most successful post-Gutenbergian literary creator measured by the percentage of his potential audience he commanded, his doorstep is exactly where you would end up. (William Goldman likes to make a joke about the rapid transit of the gloria mundi: most people don't know, he says, that the three great writers in the Western tradition were once considered to have been Homer, Shakespeare, and Richardson. You're supposed to go "Who the hell is Richardson?"; the joke falls a bit flat if you minored in English.) Wolfe, the quintessential jazzy American writer, has the true American's eye for the main monetary chance. Our time is like Richardson's in many ways (hey, you don't have to be Michael Moore to see resemblances between America's predicament in Iraq now and Britain's in America then); there is still a market for a chronicle of a young woman's moral disintegration amidst the perilous transition from Country to unholy Town. Wolfe has never done anything of the sort less than entirely well.

- 5:47 am, January 4 (link)

King Rat?

Time magazine's bombshell about the renewed prospect of Joseph Ratzinger becoming Pope should be read with two unspoken caveats and a subtext. The caveats are that (a) media bombshells about the papacy are 99% duds and (b) John Paul II's Parkinsonism makes him appear a great deal more ill than he may be (wasn't the old gentleman supposed to have keeled over sometime in the previous millennium?).

Ratzinger, who as the guardian of Roman orthodoxy must be accounted one of the world's most powerful men, has always seemed a more likely candidate for the papacy to me than trendy press nominees like Cardinal Arinze. As Time suggests, Ratzinger's refusal to intervene in American partisan politics against "pro-choice Catholics" has earned him "Strange New Respect", in Tom Bethell's phrase, from the people who have loathed the way he stood athwart history, yelling "stop" at progressive interpretations of the Second Vatican Council.

But the "term limits" idea in the last paragraph of Time's story may have more to do with the sudden and unexpected reemergence of a respected outside candidate (one who would need to make extraordinary concessions before ascending to the throne). Limits on papal tenure would strip the office of much of its singular power, and would return diplomatic heft to a curial structure that lost authority at the hands of the globetrotting, fleshpressing, charismatic JP2. Such a scenario--a return to a shrewd, jesuitical, slow-moving church of nuncios and legates--might be lamented by those convinced that the current Pope's effect on geopolitical affairs has been much to the good.

- 1:50 pm, January 2 (link)

The same-sex Monday that ate West Mifflin, Pennsylvania

I have, or I am, recovered from the respiratory virus that pursued me through the gates of 2005. None of the symptoms were terribly severe, to be honest with you, except for the fever--a persistent presence that made sleep difficult, wrung what must have been ten pounds of sweat out of me, and made my eyes sallow and crazed-looking. Of course it doesn't help that I am ten months from my most recent haircut.

If you just can't get enough of the gay marriage-vs.-polygamy thing--if I'm right, one day we'll all be able to say we got the argument started nice and early--then you can see Chris Selley's last word on the subject. I'll content myself with quoting his closing summation--

The gay marriage slippery slope started with an increasing acceptance of homosexual relationships and ended at legal equality between those relationships and heterosexual ones; the polygamy slippery slope would have to start at legal equality and end at societal acceptance. How much more different could they possibly be?

--and noting that it's not quite apt: whether "slope", flat surface, or uphill fight, the gay and lesbian public crusade for both civil equality and public acceptance clearly and effectively began in Canada soon after Trudeau's 1968 omnibus bill, which put homosexual acts between consenting adults on a legal par (age-of-consent aside) with heterosexual intercourse. The public history of the liberation movement, as such, bursts into being seemingly ex nihilo about two years after that, as the first "homophile" community groups and pink presses are formed without having to disguise, or apologize for, their advocacy. One can cite another contemporary event as the relevant international catalyst--and one would probably be mostly right. But the Stonewall riots themselves followed liberal reforms to the legal status of gay culture in New York City.

And there you go--I talked of "contenting myself" with a short note, in the hope of leaving Chris the last word, and I've gone and shot off an op-ed. He's going to send me anthrax in the mail now, no doubt. (If you still haven't eaten your fill, Matt Fenwick has another good contribution to this discussion.) Writing columns for a living actually makes you think in 700-word blocks, you know; lately I find myself incapable of communicating except in swarms of paragraphs. I'll say nothing for three hours, and then suddenly blurt a whole lecture on how snowblower ownership is the defining difference between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in northern cities.

- 5:08 am, January 2 (link)