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The pigeonhole principle: here's my column from January 14's National Post.

In the Symposium, Plato teaches that men and women were once complementary halves of a primordial, androgynous human entity that was bifurcated by Zeus as punishment for waging war on the gods. We are thus cursed to wander the Earth seeking our lost half: " ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man." Subsequent inquiry has not yielded what you'd call evidence for this fable. But it is funny how rarely we notice, when talking about the sexes and marriage, that nature has arranged for there to exist one man for every woman.

Specifically, around the world and for as long as humans have practised demography, there have been 95 or so females born for every 100 males, giving the clumsier and more reckless sex a few extra opportunities to survive childhood. We perhaps could have evolved in bee-like hives, with thousands of males to every queen -- but we didn't. Men and women were almost literally made for each other.

But humans now have the unfettered medical power and the moral authority to alter the sex ratio in the service of their personal desires. As Sharon Kirkey related in Monday's Post, a new Lancet study confirms suspicions that, in India, female fetuses are being disproportionately aborted on a sobering scale. There were 96 Indian girls born alive for every 100 boys in 1981. But owing to male chauvinism, dowries and other bridal expenses, and the widening availability of ultrasound, there were just 93 in 2001.

In 1992 Nobel economist Amartya Sen first sounded a warning about sex ratio imbalances throughout the Third World, writing memorably of "100 million missing women." There is no longer much doubt where they went, or that more are joining them. By Sen's count the female-male ratio among live births has dropped to below 80 per 100 in some Indian states, and stands at 88 in South Korea. Data from China's 2000 census imply that the overall ratio for the world's most populous country has dipped to around 85, and is well under 80 in several provinces. Similar deviations from the norm have been spotted in parts of Latin America, North Africa, and even the old Soviet bloc.

Some of you will be hearing about this issue for the first time, but there's a case to be made that it is the world's biggest problem -- bigger than nuclear proliferation, than globalization, than pandemic disease. We're standing around fretting over cloning and stem cells while a fundamental biological characteristic of the species is already being altered in large parts of the world.

Popularly engineered sex ratios will provide a straight-ahead test of fundamental economic logic -- of how far human behaviour is predictable according to axioms of self-interest. The Indian case suggests that state intervention is helpless to support a one-to-one sex ratio where abortion is otherwise legal: fetal sex-selection has been formally illegal in India for more than two decades, but the rule has proven unenforceable. Some economists argue that sex ratios are inherently self-correcting, precisely because we are so powerfully disposed to pair-bonding. As wives become scarcer in India, for instance, there is a reasonable expectation that dowry payments to bridegrooms' families will decline or reverse direction, encouraging women to raise more female babies.

But the equilibrium sex ratio in any country could still end up being 70, or 50, depending on how much power institutions have to counteract biology. It's been conjectured that China's excess men threaten world peace, providing a potential army of self-sacrificing bachelors whose lack of hope for progeny leaves them ready to rampage across the face of Asia. Yet it is perhaps equally plausible that skewed sex ratios could re-energize monastic traditions, opening old paths to respectable celibacy for more men. Or they could create incentives for empowered, urbanized Asian women to live lives of serial polyamory; there are already some signs of this among today's young Chinese women, who grew up as scarce "commodities" in the world of the One-Child Policy. The possibilities are endless.

As China and India reproduce the material conditions of the First World, their sex ratios may begin to conform to the West's own relatively rock-steady and "natural" ones, just as their fertility rates are declining and approaching ours. But it's not necessarily easy to be optimistic. The Lancet study confirms Sen's troubling observation that the parts of India that are committing gendercide most vigorously are also among the best-educated ones. And there is evidence that some Indian and Chinese immigrants to North America bring the practice with them instead of abandoning it in the new environment. This serves to depress our own female-to-male ratios slightly -- which might depress you too, if you're an unmarried man seeking to undo the injury Zeus inflicted on our ancestors.

- 11:20 am, January 27 (link)

Honeymoon period: My Maclean's election blog hasn't quite sputtered out; indeed, one could argue that it's improved since the results came in. Posting there will continue at least until Harper names a cabinet. -6:41 pm, January 25
Left to report: 1

Sarah Marchildon, weblogger and federal deputy returning officer, paints a portrait:

Keith is a 60-year-old retired cab driver. He’s been shot and stabbed and has the scars to prove it. His marriage broke up after he caught his wife in bed with another man. He has two daughters he hasn’t spoken to in years. He quit smoking two weeks ago but when he laughs you can still hear the phlegm rattling around inside his chest.

Keith is also really bad at math. He's the reason why Vancouver Centre was the last place in Canada to report its election results...

(þ: Nestruck)

- 6:41 pm, January 25 (link)

Nobody could possibly have seen this coming in a billion years

Wonderful meth-war news from Iowa: threatening pharmacists and browbeating their customers has led to a reduction in the local supply of pseudoephedrine, and meth labs are closing left and right, with a corresponding drop in burn-centre traffic.

The big winner? Mexican drug cartels, according to the New York Times, which dutifully reports the Iowa drug czar's admission (Iowa has a drug czar?) that his crackdown on precursor chemicals created a market for more expensive, super-pure imported meth. Result: more overdoses, more thefts by price-squeezed tweakers, and more child seizures by social-welfare authorities.

"It's killing us, this Mexican ice," said Mr. Van Haaften, a former sheriff. "I'm not sure we can control it as well as we can the meth labs in your community."

(þ: Rescorla, whose referring entry ends with the witticism of the year.)

- 10:41 am, January 24 (link)

Do you believe in miracles? Cellini's golden salt-cellar, easily one of the five most precious artifacts of the Italian Renaissance, has been recovered intact. -2:11 pm, January 22
How did Expos great Jeff Reardon end up robbing a jewelry store? The Palm Beach Post delivers some stranglingly sad background. (þ: BTF) -12:30 pm, January 22
"An important and growing part of her constituency is in the jazz world, where the pop singer is increasingly recognised as the leading composer of new material; some feel that her songs may become the new standards. ...[One saxophonist] has organised an 18-piece big band... devoted entirely to her music." Meet the surprising new first lady of jazz. (þ: BotWiz) -12:21 pm, January 22
Do they know it's Christmas?

That's right--given a second chance, I found the perfect pop-culture-jackass title for an entry about Ukraine's delayed feast of the nativity.

My offhand query attracted just a ton of mail from readers. Most of it was just wide of the mark--it tended to come from people who'd start with "My family's actually from Belarus, but I'm sure it's pretty much the same deal." To add to the frustration, people got more and more eager to hear an answer as time went by. But I was waiting for that extra dollop of authority, much like the last spoonful of sour cream on the perogy platter, and it came from Paulette Demchuk MacQuarrie, host of the Nash Holos program on Vancouver's CHMB radio.

Dear Colby Cosh, If you're still interested in an answer to your Ukrainian Christmas question, the answer is yes--in contemporary Ukraine, Christmas is indeed celebrated starting Jan. 6. New Year's would have been celebrated last weekend [Jan. 14-15] (as it is here too, with "Malanka" celebrations). Most Ukrainian businesses closed for the holidays and re-opened Jan. 16. If you recall the Orange Revolution last year, the pivotal presidential vote was held on Dec. 26, and the 25th was just another day on the election campaign trail.

In Ukraine, Christmas has retained far more of its religous significance than it has in North America... Some Ukrainians may celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 as well, as was the practice when I was growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan. ...An acquaintance of mine who emigrated from Canada to Ukraine a few years ago sent around an email account of her hilarious and fruitless attempts to buy a turkey for her first Dec. 25th in Ukraine, which she was celebrating with friends from the West.

The source of this e-mail brings up another entirely different instance of "You know you're in the Prairie Provinces when...". In contemporary Vancouver Ukrainian radio has a corner on the (understandably) Asian-dominated schedule of a multiethnic station. When I was a boy, the Ukrainian Hour was probably the single most popular program on what was then the most popular radio station in Northern Alberta. And aside from a brief rundown of content at the outset, it wasn't a bilingual show either.

Which, for some reason, didn't stop my father--and thousands of others who, like him, are no more Ukrainian than Boutros Boutros-Ghali--from listening religiously. That's sort of the way it works out here: you kind of grow up Ukrainian, whatever you actually are.

- 7:23 am, January 22 (link)

Familiarity breeds contempt. Especially familiarity with the Seahawks

In re this entry, Mike Storeshaw writes from Ottawa:

I grew up in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and was force-fed the inept Seattle Seahawks versus the equally inept San Diego Chargers seemingly EVERY WEEK because our network affiliate was out of Spokane. So for most of my childhood and part of my adult life, that “uncontended command of about five states and two Canadian provinces” meant watching really, really shitty football every week. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for the Seattle fans that their team is now in the NFC, that they’re good, that they don’t have to cheat death by going to the Kingdome, and all that, but I was REALLY hoping I wouldn’t have to sit through another bloody Seahawks game in the conference championships. I think I’ve suffered enough. Apparently the man upstairs disagrees, since I’m now subjected to weekly Detroit Lions crap-stravaganzas.

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?

- 4:28 pm, January 20 (link)

Hello to visitors from Click the big button at the upper right to see my day-to-day election coverage for Maclean's, or just have a look around hereabouts. -10:10 am, January 20
Peyton's place

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has an interesting list of the top 10 most popular NFL jerseys... sold in women's sizes. The ladies do love them some Hines Ward. Not spotted on the list: Ron Mexico.

This reminded me that all week sportswriters have been complaining about the "small-market" football teams that made the conference finals; apparently the TV networks were looking forward to hyping Indianapolis-New England. I don't know if it's the TV executives or the sports media who are exhibiting signs of brain damage, but since when did Indianapolis become a large market? And were American football fans really looking forward to seeing more of Tom Brady's empty-headed grin and dodgy passing technique in a big game? Weren't we all pretty damn glad when the cleats were finally put to the faces of a million chowder-scarfing Massholes?

What we have in the conference tilts are "Carolina", a market that was expanded into just about this time last week because it was supposedly on fire; Seattle, a franchise in a fast-growing and romantic metropolis that has uncontended command of about five states and two Canadian provinces; and Pittsburgh and Denver, which have got to be two of the five top candidates for the ever-contentious title of "America's Team." We also get to watch the league MVP, Shaun Alexander, and Steve Smith, who has somehow managed to find universal agreement on his status as the best player in the game without being the MVP. This doesn't seem like such a bad hand to be dealt, but nowadays we're led to believe TV executives start weeping openly whenever no New York team is present in any athletic contest--though a Subway Showdown would presumably "make the rest of the nation switch off" and be bad for business too.

- 9:01 am, January 20 (link)

Yeah... that would definitely be the most awkward thing I've ever heard on the radio.

A few minutes ago, Bryn and Jake, morning noise pedlars for the local sports station, were making the same jokes you already have about Brokeback Mountain when they suddenly introduced 63-year-old local football legend Tom Wilkinson.

"So, Tom... did you know that you're actually in that movie?"

At first I thought perhaps some lame joke about the other Tom Wilkinson was being essayed, but the pair was actually in earnest: at one point in Brokeback, they explained, an old Edmonton-Montreal Grey Cup game is visible on a television. "I haven't seen any cheques yet," said a nonplussed Wilkie, handling the disclosure as politely as possible.

- 8:46 am, January 19 (link)

Out of the box

I'm hardly the first to say it, but is perhaps a little more fun and sophisticated than previously existing music-recommendation services. Computerized culture recommendations have got to be the most tragic failure of the New Media revolution so far, don't they? Just look at it's simple enough for your grandmother to use, it changed the way we shop, it revolutionized logistics and invented a bunch of back-end stuff we don't even see that ten thousand other retailers have ripped off. This has got to be one of the greatest concentrations of innovation in the annals of humankind--but its automated recommendation system hasn't really got past telling you "If you appreciated November 1918, you might like these dozen or other so books by Alexander Solzhenitsyn." Really? You think?

I mean, that's about as useful as a hammerblow to the ankle, isn't it? I always hear these recommendations in Marvin the Paranoid Android's voice: "Here I sit, brain the size of a planet, and all I do is spend the bloody day looking in the card catalogue."

Pandora improves on the idea--and in a way keeps it simpler--by asking for one favourite song and choosing similar ones by their muso qualities: instrumentation, key, speed, vocal style. If you tell it you like Booker T & the MGs you'll get just as many organ-heavy R&B instrumentals as it knows about. Sales are left out, so mentioning a relatively popular song can lead to more obscure selections being reflected back at you, which is what you really want if you're asking an automaton for suggestions anyway. (That's another respect in which Amazon is a busted flush: it hard-sells you on certain universally-loved objects no matter what recommendations you make. If you select any semi-serious graphic novel it's going to act like some halfwit acquaintance in a comic shop and start bugging you about "Jimmy Corrigan".)

Like all computer algorithms, Pandora is still brutally stupid sometimes: give it Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" and you are likely to get a live version of, er, Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" as the first hit. But when I plugged in Mötorhead's "Ace of Spades", it didn't take long to play back "Symptom of the Universe" and move on to further sensible choices; some were indigestible nu-metal, lacking the desired sloppy punk spirit, but the series as a whole was fairly convincing. File under "Not as crushingly disappointing as other services like it."

- 10:28 pm, January 16 (link)

"We're standing around fretting over cloning and stem cells while a fundamental biological characteristic of the species is already being altered throughout large parts of the world." Catch my latest print column in Saturday morning's National Post.

- 9:09 am, January 14 (link)

This entry is not about astronomy: Final Messier numbers from eBay--US$920 for two concourse-level seats, US$728 for two near the rafters. I couldn't be prouder of Messier: after all, we're probably the only two natives of Sturgeon County who have slept with Madonna... -8:38 am, January 12
Link-fu challenge

Ten days ago I linked to an amusing story about Ikea and watched the Spiegel piece spread virally to far-flung outposts like Fark and BoingBoing. Let's see if it'll happen a second time. Today's Christian Science Monitor has a fascinating piece about how design "piracy" is bringing Ikea furniture to a billion Ikea-less Indians.

- 7:13 am, January 12 (link)

Measuring God

There are 35 soothsayers covering Google Inc., the Internet search company whose stock has risen more than fivefold since it sold shares in August 2004.
Seven have a "hold'' rating, while 27 have the company as a "buy,'' according to Bloomberg data.

On today's Bloomberg wire Mark Gilbert profiles the 35th man, Philip Remek of Florida's Guzman & Co. Remek thinks Google is worth "only" US$270 a share, not the US$470 it currently trades for on an estimated '06 earnings-per-share of $7.31.

What do I think? I think it's awfully dangerous to stake your reputation on a valuation of Google that depends on the stepwise fractional growth of its current business model. How much is Google worth on the assumption that it will be as big as CBS or NBC in 2011?

- 7:06 am, January 12 (link)

EBay watch

Do they love Mark Messier in New York City? The Rangers retire his number 11 at Madison Square on Thursday night, and a pair of concourse-level seats at one end of the rink will run you US$671. It's US$645 for two nosebleeds.

- 8:36 pm, January 10 (link)

Free at last: here's the text of that National Post column about murder rates in Edmonton. Rarely has something I've written inspired so much speculation and so many questions. I half-expected one of the federal party leaders to inject these surprising figures into the campaign, for it is easy to see how either Liberal or Conservative could incorporate them into a nifty little piece of spin. Is this your Alberta Advantage, Premier Klein? As usual my delusions of controlling events from afar have been cruelly thwarted.

EDMONTON - There is no question about it anymore: the City of Toronto has a problem with violence. And when Toronto has a problem, Canada has a problem. The whole country was shocked by the Boxing Day murder of Jane Creba, a 15-year-old who was checking out bargains on Yonge Street when she was caught in a gang firefight. The Prime Minister, whose political existence may never have been in greater jeopardy, was forced to spend the weekend on the telephone with Toronto's Mayor and Ontario's Premier. He seems to have made impromptu promises to overthrow major principles of criminal law, and amidst the panic no one seems to have entertained the possibility that someone else might be in office after the Jan. 23 election. But that's Toronto for you -- it turns instinctively for help to the Liberals even when the Liberals are arguably the authors of its troubles.

It's customary at the end of the year for cities to look back on their homicide counts as an index of peace and order, and nowhere is this being done more intensely than in Toronto. The city had 78 murders in 2005, a figure that has already been the subject of a gruesome online cyber-exhibit by the Toronto Star and the cause of a minor international scuffle about handgun smuggling between Canada and the U.S. In most other major Canadian centres, the dead are not stacked quite so high even when you adjust for population. There were just 16 murders amongst the half-million or so residents of the City of Vancouver, who have outsourced much of their criminal mayhem to the fringes of the Lower Mainland. Ottawa proper, with three-quarters of a million people, lost only 11 to violence.

But Toronto's 78 murders are not the most shocking Canadian crime statistic of the year, and the city cannot reasonably claim the title of Canada's murder capital. The icy, impassive City of Edmonton, which is a little more than one-quarter the size of Toronto, had 37 homicides in 2005. Calgary and Ottawa, each of which is more populous than Edmonton, reported only 34 murders between them. Even Winnipeg, a traditionally bloody municipality roughly Edmonton's size, did away with only 24 of its citizens. It would appear that according to the year-end murder counts, Edmonton's homicide rate exceeds Toronto's by about 75%.

The national press has not paid much heed to the fact that Edmonton is plagued with fatal violence worse than Toronto's. You won't see this Prime Minister shredding his agenda book to confront the problem. Our supposed ambassador to Ottawa, Anne McLellan, is too busy seeing National Rifle Association "operatives" around every corner to take public note of the numbers. Yet one must admit that neither Edmonton politicians nor provincial ones are ringing Martin's or McLellan's phones off the hook to whimper for help. Perhaps we are ashamed to call attention to the grim statistical truth.

Without doubt, most of us regard the anomalous violence as an unfortunate by-product of our oilpatch-driven prosperity. The sense I get -- living in one of the city's riskier neighbourhoods -- is that the inflated death toll isn't gang-driven; if anything, 2005 seemed like a quiet year for organized crime. The heavy lifting is being done by lunatics, party-crashing hooligans, booze-fuelled deadbeats and probably at least one serial killer of prostitutes. In the late '70s and early '80s, the time of Ralph Klein's still-remembered quip about "Eastern creeps and bums," prosperity brought drug traffic and rowdy transients to Edmonton. It's doing so again, and maybe we think it's inevitable. Maybe we even think it's an acceptable price.

But there are other social considerations here, too. As violent as Edmonton may be, it has not yet produced a Jane Creba. Gun deaths are bound to get more attention from a gun-obsessed government, and while 52 of Toronto's 78 murders were committed with firearms in 2005, only 13 of Edmonton's 37 were. And legitimately or not, we are helpless to resist making a distinction between the random slaughter of a teenaged girl browsing for shoes and the quiet disappearance of a teenaged street hooker peddling her wares. Few of us would like to say out loud that Jane Creba's life was worth more than, say, that of a drug addict who loses an argument in a crack den. We profess a belief in universal human dignity, and it's important that we do so. But the measures of the marketplace -- the column-inches in a newspaper, or the precious space in a politician's day-planner -- suggest unsettlingly that we are not all really created equal.

This piece attracted one intriguing letter to the Post denouncing my heartlessness. I won't reprint it here, but the upshot of the letter was that it was cruel--and somehow distinctively Western--to even consider comparing the lives and souls of the merely stabbed or beaten to those of the victims of gun crime.

- 3:50 am, January 10 (link)

You know you're definitely in the Prairie Provinces when...

...on January 6, you hear a talk-radio caller mention that he lives out of town but that he "came home for Ukrainian Christmas."

Are there any readers who happen to know when and how Christmas is observed in the contemporary Ukraine? I have a sneaking suspicion that they've adapted to the Gregorian date over there, and that "Ukrainian Christmas" has become an indigenous tradition of Western Canada.

[UPDATE, Jan. 8: Just to clarify, I'm perfectly aware that the religious observation of Christ's nativity still happens on the Julian date. I'm interested in the secular and folkloric celebration known as "Christmas." Actual information is strongly preferred to speculation.]

- 2:59 am, January 7 (link)


In a literal Rush of loud music and XFL-style marketing, professional lacrosse has arrived in Edmonton. The home team lost the historic match 10-9 in sudden-death overtime. It's the first Edmonton sporting franchise with its own official monster truck and its own in-game DJ (who doesn't stop the music for the play), not to mention its own PG13-rated NBA-style dance team.

- 12:25 am, January 7 (link)

No doubt this is just another one of those "blatantly inaccurate hitpieces" cooked up against Hugo Chávez.. -6:07 pm, December 6
Funniest moment from the McLaughlin Group's 2005 year-end awards

John McLaughlin Okay. The most honest person of the year. Pat?

Pat Buchanan [fumbling around] Have you been stealing all my notes here, John?

John McLaughlin I worked for Nixon, Pat. I know how to do it.

Unintentional-funniest moment from the McLaughlin Group's 2005 year-end awards

McLaughlin Okay, time for the Group to grade planet Earth, A through F, for 2005. Pat?

Buchanan: I'm going to give it an F. I think the world is really headed toward a war of civilizations. I think the West doesn't realize the trouble it's in. I think the whole global trade regime is coming down. And I think the Islamic threat is coming to the West.

McLaughlin: Elinor.

Elinor Clift: My list of threats is different from Pat's. I think the environmental degradation is something to be really concerned about. Even Republicans acknowledge global warming is real. More people are getting AIDS than last year. The trend line is the wrong way.

[Somehow this seems to sum up "conservative" and "liberal" in a nutshell: equally pessimistic about the world, for entirely different and mostly bogus reasons.]

- 12:57 am, January 6 (link)

Battle royale

The Asahi Daily has an interesting summary of the ongoing struggle between the Japanese Imperial Household and the country's scholars over access to, and the authenticity of, early royal burial sites. Caught in the crossfire: at least one small child.

For Yasuhide Hiramatsu, a 12-year-old at [Gunge Elementary] school, all this talk of history is almost beside the point.
"I was glad the discoveries of burial figures at the tomb made me realize that my favorite place for hide and seek is a precious historical monument. I was told by my mom if any object decisively linking the tomb to the imperial family is unearthed, the Imperial Household Agency may move to control it and prohibit us from entering the tomb. I do not want that to happen."

- 4:42 am, January 5 (link)

Why yes, it is 4 a.m.

A lot of time is being spent these days on beside-the-point comparisons of Wikipedia with traditional encyclopedias. As the Wikipedia faces more and more tests, I'm curious about why it's so rarely pointed out that the underpinnings of the world's most esteemed reference book were produced by means of a distributed, collaborative effort amongst non-experts--by, as it were, a 19th-century wiki.

The Meaning of Everything, Simon Winchester's slender, elegant history of the Oxford English Dictionary, was one of the great publishing successes of 2003-04. Winchester's narrative dollies back and forth from James Murray, the OED's great editor and animating spirit, to the thousands of anonymous readers who contributed references to Murray's files. No one who has read Winchester can mistake the OED for a work authored, in the simple sense, by Murray. It would be at least as accurate to say that it was created in an "open-source" fashion by the educated public, and given only its final shape--along with the esoteric drapery of etymology--in the famous scriptorium. Throughout The Meaning of Everything Winchester quotes from the appeals made for research assistance by Murray and his predecessors in the erudite periodicals of the day. They bear an almost comical resemblance to Jimmy Wales' contemporary efforts. And Winchester also makes clear that, when the first OED edition was finished, it was regarded as a collective effort--as the first draft of a grand, involute dialogue between the English-speaking peoples and themselves.

It would be easy to push this metaphor too far. But to some degree all reference books express a "wikified" nature--the mountaintop upon which the expert editor stands is always built on the undifferentiated labour of lesser men. The attentive student of behind-the-scenes Wikipedia editing processes may even have reflected on how closely they resemble the construction of knowledge within a single human mind. As you're reading these words, I'm "editing" you--trying to induce a change in your verbal image of the world, your own "Wikipedia." "You" must decide whether to keep the edit, but note carefully--most of the accepted data you must try to reconcile this idea with, and most of the standards you use to make your judgment, were imparted before by other "editors". The "edit" is more likely to be accepted if it is presented neutrally, tentatively, and "reasonably." If you find it controversial you are likely to struggle with it, changing your opinion many times and trying to arrange your epistemological web into a satisfactory equilibrium. But, as an inquisitive human, you never accept any revision permanently: your "book" always lies open to the next editor who happens along.

There is, of course, a pre-existing structure of axioms embedded within the Wikipedia. Regarded one way, the Wikipedia has an inviolable "soul" consisting of a few basic principles--social regulations, structural antidotes to recursion, and rules designed to immunize the information network against undue influence. It goes without saying that the quality of a Wikipedia--or a mind--will be determined entirely by the choice of these principles.

[UPDATE, January 7: Steve Sailer comments:

Darwin's most famous books are also quasi-open-source in their supporting details. Much of the evidence comes not from official authorities but from Darwin's enormous correspondence with enthusiastic amateurs. You are constantly coming across sentences rather like, "A letter from Gussie Fink-Nottle, newt-fancier from Kent, says that the spotted newt can hybridize with the striped newt, but not the solid newt." It makes Darwin's books hard to read and hard to trust in the details, but I don't know how else he could have written them.]
- 4:21 am, January 5 (link) the empire sells out

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: I'm thrilled to disclose that I have been named a charter member of's all-star team of superpowered mutant Canadian election bloggers. Maclean's has given me my very own page on which to perpetrate all-new, exclusive Colby Coshery for the duration of the campaign. Please do bookmark that URL, and help spread the word. Updates will be frequent. But for heaven's sake don't stop visiting the old familiar I'll still be posting non-election stuff here throughout January. It's two weblogs for the price of one!

Also weblogging Election 2006 for Maclean's will be Maude Barlow, Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah, and Warren Kinsella.

- 2:38 pm, January 4 (link)

Sherlock's not home

A surprising number of you made inaccurate guesses when I tossed out a teaser for my Tuesday Post column about the identity of Canada's murder capital. Hello? You guys know where I live--connect the dots! Ryan Cormier had a full treatment in Tuesday's Journal, with a guide to weapons, addresses, dates, victims, and other details of Edmonton's stunning 37 homicides in calendar 2005. Today Paul Stanway is in the Sun with a column that tracks my earlier Post piece unnervingly closely. I should say that Stanway (whom I know slightly, and recognize as the preeminent dean of Edmonton newspapermen) is obviously innocent of conscious knockoffery. But I will stake a claim to one of the dozen beers he'll be able to buy with what the Sun pays for 700 words of editorial content.

- 4:16 am, January 4 (link)

This strikes me as pretty cool even though I only understand 18% of it: Chris Hammond-Thrasher's play-by-play of a capture-the-flag competition for white-hat hackers. -3:48 am, January 4
Coal-black rose: In Paul Wells' latest Maclean's feature, he basically says "screw this" to covering the petulant minutiae of an election and flees north to meditate on Fort McMurray's dark satanic mills. It's a borderline-Gonzo gem. -3:25 am, January 4
And speaking of the masterpieces of humanity's intangible heritage... Sure, ex-Oiler Daryl Reaugh may now be a hireling of the repulsive Dallas Stars. But if there were a Vezina Trophy for hockey webloggers, he would clean up like the freaking Ti-D-Bowl man. -2:58 am, January 4
Elegy for the unglobalized: I almost neglected to post this column from December 16's National Post. It's about UNESCO's fascinating program for the preservation of our species' "intangible heritage." Surf around from that link and you can find details of the many local traditions now rubber-stamped as world "masterpieces."

Even a diehard despiser of the dysfunctional club known as United Nations sometimes can't help feeling the pull of the 20th-century romance it represents. Like a lovingly maintained Edsel, it has a beauty all its own. Perhaps the most poetic of all the UN's idealistic endeavours is UNESCO's World Heritage project, which is famous for its efforts to preserve natural and man-made monuments like the Great Barrier Reef and the Egyptian pyramids from the effects of war, fanaticism and commerce. What's less well known is that the UN has lately taken on a more challenging but no less noble task: preserving the "intangible heritage" of the human species.

About 30 years ago, the culture boffins of UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) began to realize they were limiting themselves needlessly by concentrating on architectural treasures and on concrete works of art. It is all very well to save, say, the ruins of Angkor Wat as the last trace of a dead culture. But what about the nuances of living ones? Religious rituals, festivals, the working methods of artisans, performing traditions -- none of this has lent itself very well to the traditional "heritage preservation" approach. And so, since 2001, UNESCO has begun identifying so-called "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."

The latest list of 43 juried masterpieces was announced on Nov. 20, joining the anointed from prior declarations in 2001 and 2003. It serves as a poignant charter of local treasures -- the itinerary of a worldwide journey amongst beleaguered traditions. It is a journey few are ever likely to make. Who amongst us has explored the baffling tapestry of isopolyphonic Albanian folk song, that tenuous musical bridge between Islam and the glories of Byzantium? How many will visit Sicily to hear the manly, affecting harmonies of the Tenore singers? Who will have his future divined by an Ifa priest of Nigeria, watch the Japanese kabuki theatre in its original setting, or see Ugandan artisans transform the bark of the Mutuba tree into a garment for a king?

It is not hypocritical to be glad that these things survive even if we have no taste for them or are unlikely to encounter them ourselves. The term "diversity," as normally used in the modern age, is a paradoxical code word for making everyone the same. Much of what the UN does militates, by its nature, against the distinctiveness of peoples. It is designed to bring modern Western standards of nutrition, health and human rights to places that lack them, and the logic and desirability of this mission cannot be denied -- but neither can its homogenizing effects on the mosaic of humanity. The UN program for Intangible Heritage seems like a sensible way of tempering the Western message of progress that arrives with every package of food aid and every election observer.

But it might also be destructive to a subtler, more fluid notion of culture. In the West, no one regrets that folk traditions like Scots border ballads and traditional African music crossbred to create forms like country music, the blues, and rock 'n' roll. The UN, by channelling (mostly Japanese) funding to local art, festival and ritual groups, is trying to insulate aesthetic traditions from the effects of a globalization to which they might well contribute. In exploring the documentation of the Intangible Heritage masterpieces, one often finds the condescending suggestion that local traditions are valuable only as interchangeable markers of "cultural diversity." UNESCO complains that the Maqam music of Iraq is being vulgarized by "violin section[s], cello, and string bass [that] tend to overpower the delicate timbres," and that the delicately painted oxcarts of Costa Rica "have been reduced to decorative craft objects." Are these things not allowed to change along with the societies that bred them?

After all, the very idea of "masterpieces" of indigenous culture seems to contradict the notion of diversity for its own sake. And surely there is an inherent danger in selecting and elevating guardians of a particular cultural environment. What do you suppose would happen if the UN declared your local punk-rock club scene a protected Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage? Some hardcore "program director" would have to be appointed based on a count of the piercings in his face. Within about a day you'd have bitter arguments developing about who was "authentic" enough to deserve funding; performers would fight to be purer, more repetitive, and less innovative.

Deep down, I don't suppose the people behind Cambodia's Sbek Thom shadow-puppet theatre are any less susceptible to base motives. But one wishes them the best.

- 2:52 am, January 4 (link)

If you can't say anything nice about Venezuela

Dru Oja Jay thinks I've been unfair to Hugo Chávez.

Chavez's backers are a diverse bunch, including old-school communists, social democrats, anarchists, social movements, poor people, etc. etc. [Poor people--nice touch. -ed.] I could go to Venezuela tomorrow and "circulate a paper in pro-government circles" advocating the mandatory wearing of pink hats. That doesn't make it government policy. Given the number of blatantly inaccurate hitpieces that have been written about Chavez and co., one might be wise to wait for more substantial evidence than "some people who support Chavez support X" before whipping out the Mao and Stalin comparisons. Few others get held to that standard.

I have no doubt that some of Chavez's supporters want to follow the Cuban path, but there is little evidence that Chavez himself, or the folks ultimately making the decisions, are interested in a state-owns-everything approach. They seem to be more in the workers-own-the-means-of-production school, providing a lot of funding to cooperatives, backing worker takeovers of factories, etc.

I feel like this is an exercise in the obvious, but my comments are:

1. The whole point of the El Universal piece, however else you care to decrypt it, was that the Chávez government is explicitly moving beyond the initial phase of cooperatives and proletarian empowerment to a system of "moral and social" incentives in production. This is new information about what the Venezuelan government "seems" to be doing.
2. The article in question is not an attack on Chavista policies; it's a broadly sympathetic treatment by the country's most esteemed newspaper.
3. The evidence that Chávez reveres Castro and regards him as a model, at least personally, is not scarce by any reasonable measure. Nothing I've read about Chávez--and I'm not saying I've read volumes--makes it surprising that he would revive radical, Che-era ideas that Castro himself had long since allowed the tide to wash over.
4. Where in the endless annals of nation-states has the "the workers-own-the-means-of-production school" not led smack into the "state-owns-everything approach"? (Please try to cite examples covering more than 100 acres of territory and lasting longer than eight months.) Chávez's use of state power to hassle commercial food producers out of the market is already a clear enough example of the latter, rather than the former.
5. When it comes to governments that criminalize domestic dissent, as Chávez began to do almost immediately upon taking power, it's usually the "blatantly inaccurate hitpieces" that turn out to be right in the end. And while I'll admit that Chávez has not dared to actually jail any journalists yet (in the current South American climate it's still too risky), decent leftists have no business defending such governments, either. Not that Dru is defending Chávez!
6. I hate to say it, but if I'd had any doubts that Venezuela is going to hell, a plea for evenhandedness from someone of Dru's genteel leftist disposition might just have silenced the last of them. Sorry, D.O.J., but you guys have an pretty reliable track record on this score.

Completely unrelated item not at all being placed here for sardonic purposes: did everybody see the story buried in the Christmas Eve L.A. Times about Sacco and Vanzetti being as guilty as hell?

- 1:53 am, January 4 (link)

Robbing poor Peter to pay prosperous... Paul?

Canada's opposition parties have done a good job of reminding us that contributions to the federal Employment Insurance fund have greatly outpaced payouts in recent years, and that to a large degree Finance Minister Paul Martin's budget-balancing miracle was executed with the Canadian worker as an unwilling assistant. To this, Mr. Martin could conceivably offer a very basic logical answer: "So what?" The budget, after all, had to be balanced somehow, and the low rate of EI payouts is a symptom of the general economic health for which Martin can claim some credit.

But in a November newsletter, freelance policy analyst Richard Shillington argues that EI must be deemed a badly broken program even if the surplus in the fund is ignored. During the 1980s, about 80% of the unemployed were receiving benefits at any one time; today the figure hovers around 45%. By the nature of EI, you are more likely to qualify if you weren't a low-wage, undocumented, or part-time worker in the first place--but this was always more or less so; what's changed now, Shillington argues, is that the program is now actively regressive in the way it redistributes wealth amongst workers.

In 1991 the family income group with the highest average benefits [was] the family income group of $30,000-$40,000; by 2002 the highest benefits were paid to families in the income group $60,000-$70,000. This relative shift in benefits from poorer to more middle-income families is due to cuts in regular benefits that go to the unemployed, changing eligibility criteria that disadvantage vulnerable Canadians (e.g. shifting from weeks worked to hours worked), and increasing maternity benefits which go disproportionately to higher-income families.

It should be noted that Employment Insurance is theoretically meant to be, well, insurance rather than welfare. If employment status had legitimately become more volatile for the upper-middle class in the 1990s, then an upward shift in the income ranges receiving benefits is exactly the observation one would expect. Still, such a change does undercut the moral justification for the plan. Those who are more affluent in good times genuinely need less help in preparing for a rainy day. Shillington is no feral right-wing partisan; he is probably best-known for fiercely opposing the Fraser Institute in the ongoing debate over appropriate poverty measures. It should be at least a little noteworthy to hear him all but advocate the abolition of pogey, especially on a basis that takes no notice whatsoever of its moral hazards.

- 10:22 pm, January 3 (link)

White city fighting: an outburst of violence in Toronto has taken over the national agenda and sidetracked a federal election campaign. But did you know there is a major Canadian metropolis that had at least 75% more homicides per capita in 2005? In today's National Post I give the name of Canada's true Murder City--and wonder at the curious silence of the politicians. Subscribers can read the column here.

- 12:01 pm, January 3 (link)

"...but we have learned over our years at the Star that it is impossible to embarrass journalists." That's certainly fortunate, because anyone else would be a little ashamed of ripping off a ten-year-old news item... -2:37 am, January 3
A popular stop betwixt cradle and grave

Every day, at 8.50 am, Bodo Scheel gets into his Nissan car, his stomach rumbling with hunger, and drives 11.3 kilometers down the A7 highway near Hamburg. He turns off at junction 23 to reach his destination: the Ikea furniture store. ...The deal is unbeatable: For €1.50 he gets two bread rolls, butter, cold cuts and cheese, jam and even smoked salmon. As much coffee as he can drink is also thrown in. "You can take the bread rolls home and they are still okay to eat three days later with a tin of tuna," Scheel, who used to work as a judicial officer, says.

Der Spiegel has the whole hilarious, sad story of how Ikea stores in Europe have become welfare centres--and even daycares.

- 11:01 pm, January 2 (link)