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Parental advisory: explicit lyrics.

But where do I subscribe to misFortune

Today's National Post has an edited and updated version of my weblog entry on Sheila Copps' Liberal leadership campaign. There's nothing there regular readers haven't seen already, but you should be taking the print version of the Post anyway: it is non-abrasive, non-toxic, and guaranteed not to burst spontaneously into flame when used as directed. I'm not even the only bush-league Web celeb on the editorial page today. Andrew Marlatt, creator of the defunct, has an original humour piece about the Policy Analysis Market.

In fairness to Sheila Copps, I should point out, for those who read my original screed but may not see the hypercompressed print version, that she now does have one cabinet supporter on record: the Liberal leader in the Senate, Sharon Carstairs. Sheila may be 0-for-25 amongst cabinet members subject to the popular will, but she's batting a thousand with the ones who don't give a damn! You go, girl!

- 9:02 pm, July 31 (link)

Three true words

About a week ago, I mentioned the discovery of the body of Islanders prospect Duncan MacPherson, who went missing from a ski trip in Austria in 1989. Duncan's fiancee had appeared on "psychic" James van Praagh's TV show recently; van Praagh received word from beyond the veil, or so he said, that Duncan was alive and working for the CIA.

By chance, I've had a couple of very kind notes now from Duncan's brother Derrick. For obvious reasons I don't want to quote too extensively from our conversation, but he does mention that various family members consulted psychics a few times over the years, but none were able to give the answer they were looking for. Van Praagh and one other medium gave guesses that were wildly mistaken. Derrick writes that "The others (maybe five or so, over the last thirteen-plus years) were remarkably similar in some ways, but none were right about where his body was."

I have a skeptic's loathing of psychic charlatans, though of course I don't blame the MacPherson family for trying everything they could. Derrick, having been through the psychic consultation process a few times, says he still has a "fence-sitter attitude". Like many people, he's had experiences that convinced him there might be something to psychic phenomena, but doesn't really believe we can communicate with the dead. His family is now in the process of retrieving Duncan from Europe. "Closure," he says, "is good." Amen to that.

- 10:22 pm, July 30 (link)

Gray's gramp

Slate's Explainer feature is so terrific, but sometimes it raises more questions than it settles. Today's edition will tell you which states have voter recall, but leaves this reference hanging like a chad:

...even though Californians have launched 31 previous efforts to recall governors, none has ever made it to the ballot before. In fact, only once in American history has a governor been shown the door in midterm by voters. That was in North Dakota in 1921.

Period, full stop, with no attempt to tell the story of America's only state governor recalled by voters in midterm: Lynn J. Frazier. Frazier, it turns out, was actually a leading light of the midwestern Progressive movement (present north of the 49th parallel as well) which was responsible for the widespread introduction of voter recall. Elected under the aegis of the Nonpartisan League, Frazier tried to socialize North Dakota's agricultural economy just as a pre-echo of the Depression was about to hit (of course, socialists always have an excuse ready when things go pear-shaped, don't they). An anti-Davis site,, has an account of the drama. exports began dropping nationwide and the economy took a downturn, exposing huge weaknesses in North Dakota's budget and making it impossible for Frazier to fulfill campaign promises. Moreover, when the state-run mill lost money, Frazier's office tried to hide the losses in the state budget.

"About 80 percent of North Dakotans lived on farms, and it was sort of the only game in town," said David Danbom, a history professor at North Dakota State University. "Anything impacting farms had an immediate ripple effect on everything else."

Davis' tenure has been similarly clouded by a sluggish economy and a $38 billion deficit that Davis critics say he tried to hide last year to win re-election. "(The 1921 recall) was similar in some ways to the situation that Davis is in--where he probably wouldn't be (facing a potential recall) if the economy hadn't taken a downturn," Danbom said.

Davis also has been accused of mishandling California's energy crisis and of hiring advisers with close connections or financial ties to the energy industry. Frazier's party put campaign funds in banks that eventually failed, and he created an agency that lent first-time home buyers no more than $2,500, although he allowed a party colleague to borrow $8,000.

Much like today, it was conservative Republicans who launched the recall drive against Frazier. ...Frazier's foes got their signatures, and the recall election was scheduled for Oct. 28, 1921. Frazier was forced to run against Republican-backed candidate Ragnvold Nestos.

Nestos won 51%-49%; the only gubernatorial recall to date in U.S. history succeeded by a margin of just 4,000 votes, which is perhaps an encouraging fact if you're Gray Davis. Even more encouraging is that Frazier, perhaps best remembered for signing woman suffrage into law in North Dakota, bounced back. He served in the U.S. Senate for North Dakota from 1923 to 1941. Both Nestos and Frazier were actually nominal Republicans, and Frazier sat in the Senate as one, gradually becoming indistinguishable from other GOP colleagues as the Depression and the European crisis reshuffled the American political deck. An official state history of North Dakota discusses the longterm legacy of the Nonpartisan League.

- 9:48 pm, July 30 (link)

Blam! Meow!

Speaking of poor decision-making, the outcry against DARPA's geopolitical-event futures market will give Americans a useful chance to identify dangerously stupid politicians who believe emotional grandstanding is more important than the national security. (Surprise! It turns out to be pretty much all of them.) Ron Bailey explains the stupidity very well in Reason Online.

I suggest using the affair as a litmus test for newspaper columnists and editorial boards, too. The Kansas City Star says "Betting on potential acts of terrorism was a despicable idea." Give the Star a gold star for playing on readers' emotional prejudices without knowing anything about information markets!

Here's Florida Today checking in from the Space Coast: "The Pentagon's plan to open a Web site for people to bet on terrorist assassinations and other geopolitical disasters was tasteless, ludicrous and embarrassing to the United States." If someone wants to blow up the Vehicle Assembly Building, it appears Florida Today would rather not know! Talk about a commitment to good taste.

Newsday's Ellis Henican writes "This was an idea so patently gruesome and spectacularly stupid, when I first heard it I thought it had to be a hoax." I felt the same way when I heard there were newspaper columnists who heard new ideas and were incapable of forming any impression of them beyond their instinctual reaction. Hey, if I want to see a dumb animal recoil from a stimulus, I won't buy a newspaper--I'll throw firecrackers at my cat!

You know you're in cloudcuckooland when the Toronto Star has to step in as the voice of reason. David Olive writes "...full marks for the U.S. defence department for an imaginative response to an obvious problem. As DARPA explained on Monday, a bet on where the Grim Reaper will next strike could usefully uncover 'dispersed and even hidden information. Futures markets have proven themselves to be good at predicting such things as elections results. They are often better than expert opinions.'" Olive goes on to wax whimsical, Star-fashion, about shady Republicans harnessing greed and all--but it's informed waxing. He didn't let the eighty-decibel buzzing of a nest of hornets inside his brain stop him from actually examining the issue.

- 4:24 am, July 30 (link)

Jarred out of complacency

It's good to get some static from readers! Colin Roald read the previous entry about the CAFE standard and dashed off this note.

I'm not sure I can figure out what your CAFE article is about. You seem opposed to everything: the status quo sucks, all proposed changes are worse, we should just ditch fuel-economy standards and bring back land yachts even though that's the only greenhouse-control proposal on the table that might actually go anywhere. Do you have a point, or are you just bitching randomly? [Note: does reserve the right, at all times, to bitch randomly. -The Management]

If you are certain enough that CO2 emissions have nothing to do with global warming, then it seems a truth has been revealed to you that has not yet reached the scientific community. Even if, suppose, the warming is really primarily the Sun's fault, coast-dwelling humans, tropical humans, and farming humans are still going to suffer for it. In those conditions, are you really going to argue for saying the hell with fuel economy standards?

Some months ago, in writing about the Kyoto Protocol, I referred to a long and basically indigestible logical chain of propositions which you had to accept in order to believe that that particular measure was an appropriate one to take. The chain is shorter when we're talking about fuel-economy standards for automobiles, because Colin's "land yachts" have other effects that are better-understood than global warming. My basic point is that it's irresponsible for lawmakers to have a debate on an environmental measure without (a) specifying their premises and (b) stating how it might affect people's lives. Maybe it's really worth it to make cars out of lighter materials and condemn thousands of people to death--but the current state of the debate doesn't require senators or anyone else to be remotely honest about this. If you're "doing something about the environment" it's assumed your heart is in the right place. And that's all that matters. And in a situation like this, where everyone's wandering around in an uncritical fog of love for Mommy Earth, it will be a matter of sheer chance if lawmakers happen to do a socially beneficial thing.

I didn't actually propose that Americans should get rid of the status quo on fuel-economy regulation: I only described the way in which it sucks because it's an excellent study in the unintended effects of environmental regulation. But in the current Senate debate, nobody actually favours the status quo. Everybody wants to make some sort of change. Is it because air quality in American cities is declining? As I understand it, air quality in American cities has improved quite rapidly over the past thirty years. Is it because we can predict the state of the climate with the supreme confidence with which we specify the orbit of Jupiter, and there is a strong consensus that the earth is warming to an unacceptable, unprecedented degree because of anthropogenic CO2? We can't, and there isn't: even if you trust our mathematical climate models, estimates of the overall economic effect of warming are all over the map, and depend on where you happen to live. Going back to what Colin said:

Even if, suppose, the warming is really primarily the Sun's fault, coast-dwelling humans, tropical humans, and farming humans are still going to suffer for it.

An as interior-dwelling, subarctic, urban human, I'm a bit startled to find myself relegated to second-class status in the planet's name. There is nothing sacred about the present-day climate of the earth, this we do know: its natural background variance, which is shockingly large, somehow never enters into the discussion. We are much surer, I think, that things have been warmer for much of the past thousand years than we are of present-day anthropogenic net effects on climate. We know the Vikings traded, and indigenous people fought wars, in areas that are now icebound Gehennas. We know there were agricultural colonies in Greenland. We know there were vineyards in England in medieval times, and that you could grow melons in an English garden as recently as Pepys' time. None of this seems to have stopped relatively advanced civilizations from existing--before air conditioning--in Latin America, the Mediterranean, or the Middle East. And in the long run, humans ought to be more highly adaptable than ever to natural changes in climate.

But I don't want to pretend to have an idea about the costs and benefits of climate change. What I do know is that if intensifying and multiplying regulation is going to always be the solution to any climate challenge, then we'll end up destroying high capitalism no matter how climate science evolves--it will be remembered, by some, that global cooling was the big fear in the 1970's, and the proposed solutions were all regulatory then, too. The proposed solutions are always regulatory, and it's that mechanism I object to. I'll turn Colin's final question on its head: if you are certain that human activity is warming the planet to a degree that will change the map of the world, are you really so confident that letting people migrate inland and northward over a period of centuries isn't the most humane, practical, inexpensive solution? (And in case you're wondering, no, I don't own real estate in northern Alberta--which may actually be more vulnerable to global warming than the coastal areas which have Colin so vexed; but that's a story for another time.)

- 11:47 pm, July 29 (link)

Turning Japanese

It's just as well I didn't mention my U.S. national radio debut, which was to take place this morning: for some reason it didn't quite come off. Could the publicist for the show have heard the lurching Canadian rhythms and the John Player Special gravel of my early-morning voice and panicked? (My God, he sounds like Morley Safer with a tracheotomy!) I was supposed to discuss the U.S. Senate's current deliberations on a homemade "soft Kyoto". I've got a piece in the pipeline at TechCentralStation about tradeable emissions under a national carbon cap: that's being pushed by Joe Lieberman and John McCain. It's not likely to come about in the near term, and with good reason.

Slightly more likely to pass, by all accounts, is some change in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard (CAFE), although in that case everybody wants something different and the political landscape is a bit of a crazy-quilt. CAFE is the rule that requires automakers to sell cars and trucks that have a certain mean fuel efficiency. Passed in 1975, it interacted with the Law of Unintended Consequences to create the present-day minivan/SUV market, because the mileage standards were set high for cars but kept low for "light trucks". Vans were placed in the latter class and subject to the slacker standards, so the large, beautiful American V-8 car disappeared, and the new-auto market was bifurcated between hulking SUVs and the tin cans that would have once been called "compacts". The excess death on American roads attributable to this policy has run well into five figures over the years.

Still, you can't make an omelet, etc., etc. Gradually engine technology has developed to the point where you see a few more mid-sized cars, by 1970's standards, on the roads; and small cars have become safer, although at the apparent cost of having the frame crumple into a wad of bumf in even a low-speed fender-bender. Members of the Senate actuated by environmental "conscience" have taken this as the signal for another regulatory change, one which is sure to have more unintended effects. (Remember, both automobile and human bodies are recyclable!) Some want both sets of CAFE standards hiked in tandem, which would preserve the status quo while making every automobile, large or small, a little less safe. Dianne Feinstein and Olympia Snowe are pushing a "compromise" that would keep the standards for cars constant but close the "SUV loophole", pushing that class towards extinction. This might be fairer from a highway-safety standpoint (yeah! Let those big Catholic families and youth soccer teams take their chances in shoddy sedans like the rest of us!), but would place a premium on the present American SUV fleet and keep those monsters on the road much longer. The original CAFE rule had a similar effect, generally dampening the sales of new fuel-efficient cars and giving old folks a strong incentive to hang onto their blocky iron Buicks from the late '70s. (And these, indeed, are the only cars I could ever afford to drive, myself, while I could still afford to drive.) Obviously this minimizes the positive environmental effect of the law while changing the new-car market in unpredictable and frankly intrusive ways.

Nobody seems to be arguing for leaving CAFE the way it stands, but senators from auto-manufacturing states are united behind a proposal that would pass the buck, and hopefully leave it unspent:

Their proposal would require the Transportation Department to increase the fuel standard, but it also requires the agency to consider the consequences of such rules before it imposes them: potential loss of auto industry jobs, impact on competition from foreign manufacturers, impact on highway safety and the availability of technologies to meet the standard, including the potential for hydrogen fuel cells. "This is asking them (DOT) to do something and then tying their hands so they can't make any real progress," says David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

That's the thing about scientists: they figure things out awful quick.

- 2:01 pm, July 29 (link)

Aquaman, maybe

New from me in the National Post: who speaks for the sea cucumber?

- 7:51 am, July 29 (link)

Won't someone think of the children?

I guess it's been like nineteen whole days since I threw a brick in Sheila Copps' direction. By the time most of you read this, the noxious one will have introduced the policy book for her doomed Liberal leadership campaign. The CP's Alexander Panetta promises it will describe a renewed Trudeauvian federalism "that features a powerful national government sowing its progressive seeds in provincial backyards." Wire copy or coded buggery reference? I report, you decide. Actually, my favourite sentence in the story is this one:

But if Martin has the leadership in the bag, Copps seems determined to keep swinging away like it were [sic!] a pinata teeming with ideas she can't ever accept.

A pinata...teeming? With ideas, no less? Why do I feel like I just dropped acid at a Luis Bunuel film festival? Copps' own rhetoric, mind you, does little to diminish the surreal aura. At one point she appears to cut off her own nose to spite the provincial governments' collective face:

"We signed an agreement with provinces naively believing that if we set aside $50 billion to invest in poor kids, they would help those kids," Copps said. "They never did. The average child in Ontario is 40 per cent poorer now than when we took power."

...and that's why you should vote Liberal again next time! If Ontarians have failed to notice an epidemic of urchinization in their surroundings, it's probably because Sheila Copps is completely out of her tree. The claim that "the average child is 40% poorer" appears to be an innumeracy-saddled attempt to refer to a supposed 41% increase in the number of improverished children in Ontario since 1989. If Mr. Pinata... er, Panetta has quoted Copps accurately, he has caught her in a profoundly preposterous math error--one that, for my money, has a more direct bearing on her fitness to govern than, say, her opinions about when the planet Earth was created.

If I may be permitted to wander off on a tangent, the increase in child poverty she was trying to describe is itself a fantasy: the "poverty line" used by Campaign 2000 and other social planners is actually Statistics Canada's "low-income cutoff"--an amount that rises steadily in real terms (as the chart at the bottom of this page shows) and thereby defines more and more people as "poor" every year. Statscan strongly discourages the use of the LICO as a "poverty line" but hasn't, apparently, made much progress amongst ministers of the Crown.

Still, one hopes it gets around, this idea that Liberal rule is turning healthy Ontarian children into toothless bootblacks. And just in case you thought Sheila had neglected to mention the party's wondrous work abroad, she reminds us of a particular shining chapter in the Liberal record:

"[Prime Minister Trudeau] understood that the role for a middle power like Canada was building bridges with the world," Copps said, recalling his friendly ties to Cuban President Fidel Castro at the height of the Cold War.

You know, they just don't make sadistic Communist dictators like Fidel anymore. But while Prime Minister Sheila may never get the chance to snog with some strapping Enver Hoxha figure, her staff can still raise a rousing cry of "Socialismo o muerte!" on Parliament Hill. Campaign manager Joe Thornley almost gives the game away at the end of Panetta's story:

He said left-leaning ideals helped the Liberals stave off a burgeoning New Democratic Party in the 1960s and '70s. The planets could be aligning for a repeat of that phenomenon, he added.

"The Liberals should never assume that the NDP are not going to be resurgent--because that is what makes us different from Americans. Canadians believe in government. Government is not a vice, it's a virtue."

Especially if you rely on government contracts for your livelihood. Just ask the contributors to Sheila's campaign--the construction trades really came across for her, stalwarts that they are. So did the cultural industries--but the fact that she controls their handouts, as minister for Canadian Heritage, is of course strictly a coincidence.

I would express surprise that her campaign manager almost seems to want you to vote New Democrat at the next election--except I'm not sure it's a surprise. Unless he's caught with the proverbial dead girl or live boy (although I'm not actually certain either one would be a problem nowadays), Paul Martin is going to be the next Liberal leader and prime minister. Copps' chance of succeeding him depends to a great degree on the survival of socialism as a defining Canadian ideal. If the NDP continues its slow-motion collapse, the Liberal party's got no reason to run any further to the left. Which means it's got no reason to put her in charge.

Certainly her pleasing personality isn't, it seems, going to do the trick. I wonder if anybody else finds it telling that Copps attracted no support in her leadership ambitions from fellow cabinet members. Of the 27 people who have worked most closely with her in recent years, one (the Prime Minister) is barred ex officio from having an opinion, two ran campaigns of their own, and 24 thought there were better choices on offer. At this hour, Copps has only one leadership opponent left, and still no cabinet colleagues have joined her side (though there are a couple of Manley backers who haven't declared a preference). Allan Rock, while still a candidate, accused Paul Martin of compromising the "basic principles" of the Liberal Party--but after dropping out of the race, he chose to endorse Martin, apparently deeming him a lesser evil than Copps. Is this what Sheila meant when she said she was Nobody's Baby?

[UPDATE, July 31: No longer Nobody's Baby? Sheila has now acquired a posse.]

- 1:02 am, July 28 (link)


Sorry it's been such a slow weekend hereabouts. I spent yesterday catching brief glimpses of friends and family. I'm finding that the weekends are, in general, the most oppressive parts of life. I can't speak for any other freelancer teetering on the brink of disaster, but for me, the weekdays are given structure (more structure, honestly, that my fully-employed existence ever had) by the fact that people with jobs are in their offices from nine to five, give or take, and to talk to them you've got to go along with civilization's habitual hours of activity. If you interview somebody, or you make a sale, or even if you just get brushed off, at least you can feel that some sort of progress is being made. One way or another, you're moving closer to a sustainable lifestyle, or to quitting and starting from zero.

But on the weekends, you're mostly left alone with your fly-blown bank account; and if you do happen to see people socially, it can degenerate pretty quickly into an exercise in misanthropy and envy. They had the foresight to actually go out and get job skills: you didn't, sucker. At the same time, there's sort of a meta-embarrassment, too. When I'm at my lowest--or when I am reminded of my Visa balance--I often have the sudden realization that I'm actually struggling--that I'm a struggling writer trying to live the life of the mind. I mean, for God's sake, what a disgusting, stupid bundle of clichés. That could drive you nuts, right there, if you let it.

On the other hand, the situation's not so bad, really, at the moment. I know some people regard slow processing of freelance invoices as a sign of poor health in a newspaper organization, so I'd like to state for the record, assuming it's not some sort of breach of etiquette, that Canwest paid me super quickly for my first two National Post op-eds. The second one was published on, what, July 14? A cheque for that one, and for the one that ran on the 9th, was in my hands on the 25th. Now that's pretty extraordinary, considering the envelope probably took three or four days just to get to Edmonton. Four weeks between publication and payment wouldn't have been grotesquely surprising, and one editor spoke to me of three. An eleven-day turnaround is unheard of, in my limited experience, so I think I owe a debt of gratitude to some nameless, hyperefficient Canwest accountant. There are still many unfunded liabilities in my life, but now at least I can go out for a hot meal or a few pints of beer without cross-examining my financial conscience.

- 6:21 pm, July 27 (link)

The missing link

Statscan released a fascinating trove of data about sexual offences in Canada on Friday. We get a breakdown of the genders of the victims, time trends in overall rates, rates in the various metropolitan areas and provinces, data about the victims' relationship to the suspects... just about everything, it seems, but one simple fact: what percentage of sexual offences are committed by males? Isn't that a number that should be in there somewhere? Is it 80%? 90%? 99%? Couldn't they spare the bits it would take to tell us?

- 10:40 pm, July 26 (link)

Surprise, surprise

Jonathan L. Bass writes in with a rejoinder to my entry about the Congressional report on 9/11:

In spite of your recognition of the wall between the agencies that have differing responsibilities in the "Intelligence Community", you appear to support the [idea that it was a] "surprise" that the DCI couldn't rouse much interest in the threat of al-Qaeda at other agencies. Surely you must have heard at least one bureaucrat say, "It's not my job" when asked to deviate from his or her job description. So why would one expect people at the FBI field office to get excited about al-Qaeda when the only pre-9/11 Islamic terrorist strike on U.S. soil, the first World Trade Center attack, was not linked to bin Laden and his boys by the Department of Justice?

Instead of dissing the various bureacracies, the Congressional Joint Inquiry should commend them for acting in the spirit of what the US government and media wanted, pre-9/11. After all, the State Department granted many of the 9/11 terrorists visas to come to the U.S. Don't we want to enrich American society through multicultural contact? Did any of the agencies have indisputable proof (as is now demanded by the media and Democratic politicians on Iraq issues) that any of the 19 hijackers had committed terrorist acts against the US? Maybe the guys just got together to enjoy Muslim culture. I'm sure the flight schools had many other students from Muslim countries who haven't flown planes into buildings (yet), so why pick on a few guys who liked Afghan winters? There would have been howls of "ethnic profiling" and "Bush is just trying to divert us from the fact he stole the 2000 election", if the administration had acted against a few folks from Araby.

I haven't seen any intelligence uncovered by the Inquiry [showing] that any agency had concrete information that the two guys in San Diego were in contact with the other 17 to actually plan the hijackings. If the FBI had known about these two and tipped off their informant--who might have been a double agent, and alerted his guests--isn't it possible that al-Qaeda would have simply pulled them off the plot?

I think the Inquiry committee... [should have admitted] that the terrorists took advantage of the freedom and openess of American society, and will be likely to do it again, especially if the public is to fall for the arguments of left- and ultra-right-wing politicians and media mavens that we shouldn't act until we know with absolute confidence that we're about to be attacked.

Jonathan asks why one would expect people at the FBI field office to get excited about al-Qaeda, when al-Qaeda had apparently, at that time, not yet committed any terrorist activity on U.S. soil. That's as may be, but, again, everybody who was even moderately well-informed thought of al-Qaeda first when the attack did happen. Moreover, the social conditions which have allowed for the growth of a Muslim fifth column in the U.S. have never been a secret, and al-Qaeda was known to have active agents in other Western democracies, like Germany. The Congressional report actually provides a strong reminder that there must be dozens, perhaps hundreds of people now still living and working in the United States who assisted or knew of the nineteen hijackers--hopefully without knowing exactly what they were up to, but certainly not without some idea that it would be a karate kick at a secularized, "Zionist"-friendly America.

As for the FBI's handling of the two suspected terrorists who got past the INS without the rest of the "intelligence community" knowing about it--if U.S. intelligence agents had tipped off two of the hijackers, inadvertently or not, there's no guarantee that the two could have been replaced by American residents equally ready to die. That might have forced al-Qaeda to limit its ambitions to, say, three planes rather than four. Hardly a worse case than what actually transpired.

The INS's connection to other agencies, in both directions of information flow, is one that could evidently use some strengthening. I would recommend that the U.S. government's obligations to resident non-citizens be specified more clearly--limited, if that's what's desired, and made less arbitrary, whatever the citizenry's collective preference. If there's a sentiment in favour of having no immigration and naturalization policy in the present-day United States, then let the people on the INS payroll go find honest work.

- 9:33 pm, July 25 (link)

Between the lines

Saskatchewan Roughriders general manager Roy Shivers tells Edmonton Sun scribe Terry Jones that E-town is an ugly city with an overrated stadium. (N.B.: link will rot fast.)

Guilty as charged, guv'nor, although the criticism might strike some as a bit galling, coming from Regina. (And after years of whining from football players about artificial turf, it is, shall we say, interesting to learn that the league's only natural surface is supposedly its worst.) But won't this quote from Shivers raise a few eyebrows, drop a few jaws?

"The one thing I did right was (hire) Danny Barrett. He's a good young black coach," said the black GM. "Most of our guys are young black kids. We've got a head coach our people like to play for."

Shivers mentions this in the context of how he convinces American imports to come play in Bugfuck, Saskatchewan. Recruitment is a constant problem for the Riders, and if having a black head coach helps them overcome it, I suppose we can only laud Shivers' shrewdness--and hope that Dan Barrett is comfortable with having his boss acknowledge that he's an affirmative-action hire. There's another bit of admirable cleverness here too. I notice that as long as you infer no logical, conjunctive relationship between Shivers' four sentences, they're impossible to challenge on any standard. Hiring Barrett was a good idea--check: he moved the Jolly Greens from 3-15 to 8-10 last year and has started out 3-2 in '03. Barrett happens to be black--check. Most of Saskatchewan's imports are black--check, presumably. People like to play for Barrett--check. Where's your controversy?

Nowhere at all, as long as everyone agrees to resist imagining a hypothetical white GM who implied in the newspaper that having a white head coach helped his white players feel more comfortable. But I can't pretend to feel too indignant about the dualism. Most white people (white Canadians?) have noticed their skin colour at some point, no doubt, but don't consider themselves part of an overarching "white culture" the way that most black Americans belong to a black one. According to the canons of political correctness, this is because whites instinctually regard themselves as a norm and minorities as deviant; white nationalists would probably say it was because we haven't had our "consciousness raised" yet, or whatever--Lord knows what wording they'd use. I suppose I'd say that black Americans have shared a common historical experience dating back hundreds of years, and are therefore a self-conscious national grouping at roughly the same level of taxonomic granularity as the Italians or the Polish or the Finns. Having a Hungarian head coach on your football team would surely help you attract Hungarian players, if for some reason you wanted them. [Note: probably it is silly to spell all that out, but I felt the need to expand this last paragraph a little. You can't possibly be too clear or careful if you're going to mention something race-related.]

- 6:18 pm, July 25 (link)

The trouble with Harry

I am a bit disappointed that the report of the congressional Joint Inquiry into September 11 takes claims that the "intelligence community" was overworked and underfunded so seriously. The claims may, one supposes, be factually correct, but tell me this: can you name any bureaucracy, in any government department, in any state, on any planet, whose members do not unanimously claim to suffer from a lack of "resources"? In the case of 9/11 the claim has been made indisputable, apparently, by how badly the intelligence services fucked up. They failed--there must have been a budgetary reason.

And yet, on the other hand, there's this weird post facto expectation of outright perfection in intelligence-gathering. The lessons of Pearl Harbor about signal-to-noise ratio seem to have been poorly absorbed. And Congress appears rueful that a "wall" was built in the 1960s and 1970s between domestic policing of the American republic and the gathering of foreign intelligence, because it prevented the relevant agencies from coordinating their data and making the connections (INS-CIA-FBI-NSA) that might have saved the World Trade Center. Well, the people who built that "wall" were perfectly aware that it would have the effect of decreasing the efficiency with which the citizenry was protected. They built it because the power to protect is also the power to detect, persecute, and destroy. The wall serves to prevent a police state being created in America. That's important: not lip-service important, but future-of-the-human-species important. If getting rid of Saddam Hussein was worth American lives, the continued existence of the wall unarguably is. But something there is that does not love a wall--and it's Congress, whose job description formerly included the task of checking and supervising executive power within the United States government.

Yet surely it's not the wall's fault if the highest official in the American intelligence framework can't have a plain-English instruction acted on.

Following the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, the Director of Central Intelligence made combating the threat posed by Usama Bin Ladin one of the Intelligence Community's highest priorities, establishing it as a "Tier 0 priority." The DCI raised the status of the Bin Ladin threat still further when he announced in writing in December 1998 regarding Bin Ladin: "We are at war... I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside the CIA or the [Intelligence] Community."

This declaration appeared in a memorandum from the DCI to CIA senior managers, the Deputy DCI for Community Management and the Assistant DCI for Military Support. The Intelligence Community as a whole, however, had only a limited awareness of this declaration. For example, some senior managers in the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency say they were aware of the declaration. However, it was apparently not well known within the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In fact, the Assistant Director of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division testified to the Joint Inquiry that he "was not specifically aware of that declaration of war."

Furthermore, and even more disturbing, Joint Inquiry interviews of FBI field office personnel indicated that they were not aware of the DCI's declaration, and some had only a passing familiarity with the very existence of Usama Bin Ladin and al-Qa'ida prior to September 11. Neither were the Deputy Secretary of Defense or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff aware of the DCI's declaration. This suggests a fragmented Intelligence Community that was operating without a comprehensive strategy for combating the threat posed by Bin Ladin, and a DCI without the ability to enforce consistent priorities at all levels throughout the Community.

It suggests something, anyway: for starters, it suggests that President Bush's immediate response to the catastrophe--overlaying the "Community" with a new cabinet department of Homeland Security--may only serve to worsen the "fragmentation" that blinded U.S. intelligence to begin with. "National Security Adviser", after all, was a cabinet-level position before and remains one now. Is the "homeland" different from the "nation"? How? Will we need to resurrect dead German philosophers to help us figure that one out?

I am trying to imagine these frontline intelligence officers who "had only a passing familiarity" with Osama bin Laden on September 10, well after the USS Cole bombing. Maybe my perception has changed after the fact, but I seem to remember waking up the next morning, seeing the towers in flames on TV, and thinking, somewhere in amongst the holy-shits and sweet-Jesuses, something very like "Well, that crazy son-of-a-bitch Osama bin Laden has to be behind this, doesn't he?" I mean, I wasn't an intelligence agent--just a habitual reader of newspapers and such. I'd have thought taking out a U.S. warship by means of two guys in a powerboat would have gotten someone's attention. Perhaps I knew more about O.B.L., from reading Taki's Spectator reminiscences of seeing good old "Harry" Laden at White's, than the average CIA man did. We must trust that they've learned a thing or two since, and that an infusion of counterterrorism funding has--like a C-note waggled in the face of a stool pigeon, Rockford Files-fashion--jogged some memories.

[UPDATE, July 25: A reader comments.]

- 7:37 pm, July 24 (link)

Yellow face in sky make Humidex go up

I think the headline for Lorne Gunter's new TCS column about solar climate forcing should have been "It's the astronomy, stupid".

- 12:16 pm, July 24 (link)

Offspring has sprung

I see that tonight at eight (and, of course, 8:30 in Newfoundland), CBC Television is re-running Barry Stevens' Offspring, a documentary about the grown children of sperm donors. I haven't seen it, but I should: I interviewed Barry in the summer of 2000, during the making of the film. (As I recall, he was shooting that week and he ended up calling me from a phone booth.) Here's an excerpt from what I wrote then:

Toronto filmmaker Barry Stevens was born 52 years ago in the U.K. Like a lot of teenaged boys, Barry was not as close to his father as he might have liked. "When I look back, I can remember the way he always used to walk a few steps behind my mother, my sister and I," says Mr. Stevens today. "When he talked about the family it was always 'you three and me.' I somehow never really felt like his son." When Barry was 18 and his sister was 22, their father was killed in an accident and their mother told them something unexpected that explained Barry's feelings. Barry and his sister had been conceived by artifical insemination using donated sperm; the man who raised them as son and daughter had been infertile.

Today, thousands of children conceived through donated sperm--the exact number is unknown--are growing up, entering their 20s and 30s. Some have always known they were sperm-donor children, but the vast majority of parents who underwent donor insemination (DI) have followed the prevailing medical wisdom and kept it a secret. Either way, it is very rare for these children to know the identities of their biological fathers. An entire generation born in the heyday of DI has entered adulthood, and it is beginning to demand what others enjoy without thinking: a biological sense of identity.

Barry Stevens[...] does not want to overemphasize the damage he has suffered. "It was a shock," he says of learning that he was a DI baby, "but it didn't destroy my life." Yet in his everyday life he is haunted by the mystery of his creation, a mystery he is trying to solve as he makes his film.

"One guy in Britain wrote a memoir of his donor experiences, and among the doctors he had supplied was, apparently, the one who arranged my conception," he says. "He claimed to have fathered 100 babies in the first three years of his career as a donor, and he went on for three-and-a-half more after that. So it's quite likely I have a couple hundred siblings. The woman who [was raised in his home as] his natural daughter would often see people in the street and go 'Oh my God, that's him!' Even now her own children 'see Grandad' from time to time." There are precedents for other "superdonors" of this sort: one man in Texas claims to have fathered 3,000 children.

The remarkable thing, as I wrote then, is that nobody in the early decades of donor insemination seems to have anticipated that the children being created would one day have questions about their biological parentage. DI parents seem to have taken a tacit view something like this: "The donors are happy, we're happy--who else's interests are involved here?" Gradually doctors and families are coming to realize that it's not a rhetorical question.

- 3:07 pm, July 23 (link)

CUPW runneth over

Here's a exclusive: an insider's view of the postal negotiations from an anonymous CUPW member who is "trying to figure out a way not to get lynched on [his] route."

There is still some hope that... disaster can be averted. The Union will probably go to rotating walkouts, but then the Corp could always lock us out. I've heard all the [positive-sounding press reports]; there must be some truth to them, because the Union Local is very optimistic. This is all very strange, especially from a union like CUPW, but it could just represent a changing of the guard with all the retirements and new blood coming in.

UPS, FedEx, and other private courier companies pay in the $18-$20/hr range at the top of their scales with similar benefits. What I can't figure out is why the post office has to fight about everything just to get similar benefits and pay. I think the whole process must be dysfunctional, radical Marxist ideology of the union aside (or perhaps that is central to the whole problem).

In any case there may be a deal by 10 p.m. tonight and hopefully a new direction for the post office's labour relations.

My incognito correspondent, surprisingly, repeats a common error made by public-sector employees in comparing their station to those not on the tax teat. Sure, postie, you may receive pay similar to that of private colleagues, and your benefits may even be in the same range (though colour me skeptical), but a person working for FedEx or UPS can be fired without the heavens having to be pulled down. The main benefit to working for the government, or one of its limbs, is the job security that comes with all such positions. Private-sector workers ought to be entitled to a premium for not enjoying it (or, at least, we can say with confidence that a free market would give them one). If CUPW really has been this tough on the employees of its legally protected monopoly, its managers must be better than most of us imagine. But what, then, is the steadily increasing price of a first-class stamp being blown on?

- 6:37 pm, July 22 (link)

Where the money is

Just got back from an interview/lunch with three Montreal Expos properties currently toiling for the PCL's Edmonton Trappers: Terrmel Sledge, Valentino Pascucci, and Randy Knorr. I didn't mean for it to work out this way, but my three subjects were all guys who are beating hell out of Triple-A pitching this year. Torontonians will remember Knorr from the World Series Jays of '92-'93. He's been up and down as an emergency catcher ever since, mostly down--but he's quietly rung up some .300 seasons in Triple-A and is hitting .314 as I write this. Sledge, who does everything well, played in the Triple-A All-Star Game last week and is generally recognized as a late-blooming talent who belongs in the majors. Pascucci is an unlikely item--a 6'6" outfielder/first baseman who is also a walking machine. He led all Double-A hitters in home runs last year. (You can view their current stats at the Trappers' unusually good website.)

You could make strong cases that all three should be with the Expos, who have been giving time to Endy Chavez in center, Wil Cordero at first base (!), and superbust Michael Barrett behind the plate. But Knorr, with his experience, is arguably paid to serve as half-coach, half-backstop, and the organization probably doesn't want to start the clock too soon on Sledge and Pascucci's major-league service time. That's my own guess; none of them were eager to speculate on the topic, and it wasn't the subject of the interview (which is for a lifestyle piece).

I haven't interviewed pro athletes more than a couple times before, but things went fairly well; all three guys are lucid and thoughtful. Knorr is a take-charge, garrulous character with intense eyes. In a weird way he reminds me of Bobby Cox; he has the look about him of a future manager. Pascucci has the air of perpetual vague embarrassment that tall guys so often do. He had his sister and his girlfriend in tow for moral support. Sledge constantly has me double-checking my notes to make sure he's really 26: he looks about 19. He's soft-spoken, but like the others he had interesting things to say. You just had to pounce on his baritone mumble. None of these guys seem like the one-dimensional personalities you sometimes encounter in sports. That shouldn't have been surprising, I suppose. Baseball doesn't demand (though it will accommodate) the grinding, fanatical perfection of one skill to the exclusion of all other human interests. It requires a somewhat healthy psychology, because of the long schedule, and demands a multitude of cultivated abilities.

I had meant to ask them if they'd heard of Michael Lewis's Moneyball, the hot book about the sabermetric revolution, after I completed the businessy part of the interview. I didn't even have to wait that long. I was asking them to name their favourite books, as part of a list of questions my editor provided for some back-page filler, and Sledge immediately chose Moneyball. I was blown away. If there was a natural Moneyball guy at the table, I would have expected it to be Pascucci, with his .434 on-base percentage. Sledge is a classic "tools" guy, a traditional scout's darling, or at least that's the rep he came to the organization with. But when we started talking about Moneyball he showed he'd absorbed at least part of the rationalist message, even mentioning OPS and Bill James. Man, that's how you know times have changed--you interview a ballplayer and he mentions Bill James to you.

When I asked him what appealed to him about the Lewis book, his interest naturally turned out to be quite different from a fan's. He likes the book because it illuminates a part of the baseball world--general managers' decision-making, draft-day choices, trading strategies--which can change a player's life but to which he's not ordinarily privy. Moreover, some of the minor characters are people he's met or watched along the way to Triple-A. He confirmed the fascination ballplayers seem to have with A's GM Billy Beane, who is the central figure in the book. "He was like this perfect baseball gift of God," Sledge said, explaining Moneyball to Knorr, "six-three, six-four, 230 pounds, drafted before Darryl Strawberry, but he just didn't have it up here [gestures to his head]. Now he drafts these guys who are, like, the opposite of him." If anybody's wondering whether Moneyball is making an impact in the baseball world, there's part of your answer.

[UPDATE, July 23: David Pinto puts the spread of Moneyball in a Kuhnian context.]

- 4:49 pm, July 22 (link)

No, but you could ruin your eyes

Can television give you syphilis? The burning question is tackled in my latest column for the National Post.

- 9:57 am, July 22 (link)

Cross-checking a fraudster

The story: the body of 1984 Islanders first-round draft choice Duncan MacPherson is found in the Austrian Alps after 14 years.

The story behind the story: just two months ago, televised psychic scumbag James van Praagh told MacPherson's fiancee that he "felt strongly that [Duncan] is still alive, and that he is working for the CIA." Now that's what I call deep cover.

[UPDATE, July 30: Don't miss the unexpected postscript to this entry.]

- 12:57 am, July 22 (link)

What you're missing dept.

The government of the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe was overthrown July 16 by disaffected soldiers who formed a "government of national salvation" while the president was on a foreign excursion. This is not exactly the lead story on CNN, but maybe it ought to be: as Jon Lee Anderson explained in the October 7 New Yorker (in a heavily hyped story that went sort of nowhere as narrative), Sao Tome is a Western-friendly country sitting on top of billions of barrels of offshore oil. Since Anderson filed, Sao Tome's government has cut a deal with Nigeria over the division of shared oil assets and had been preparing to auction them off. It appears pressure from Nigeria and its African Union allies may force the plotters to cede control to the legitimate government. If not, maybe the U.S. Navy can stop off en route to Liberia and put the fear of God in 'em. is your one-stop shop for breaking news.

- 12:25 am, July 22 (link)

Alternative lifestyle

Mike Sugimoto probably isn't the only one linking to Maureen Dowd's column about the ABC reporter who was outed by Drudge as being both gay and Canadian. The orthodox wisdom may indeed be that this is a surprisingly lucid parry from the increasingly loopy Dowd. While I can't quite so as far as agreeing that looking up a feature in the Advocate is the same thing as barging into someone's bedroom with a Steadicam, it's true that the crux of her op-ed is reasonable. But hasn't anybody seen past the peg to the truly interesting angle? Obviously, being Canadian is the new gay. Oh, sorry, did I set off your "ehdar" just now? We're oot, we're aboot, get used to't.

- 6:56 pm, July 21 (link)

Movies I've watched on TV so far this month, being out of work and all

Michael Collins
I could overlook the moral questions about playing at hagiography with the Irish political gunman par excellence, and I could overlook the juxtaposition of the fascinating story of Irish independence with a threadbare romantic subplot featuring the badly misplaced Julia Roberts (did she wander in from another set?); but Liam Neeson was 43 when this movie was shot, and looked every day of it playing Collins, who was 26 at the time of the Easter Rising and 32 when he was ambushed and killed. Casting Collins with an older man just shows contempt for the material and, arguably, for Ireland. It's an error in adaptation on the order of making Abraham Lincoln a woman. Even if you had to go with someone older, there's a brilliant Irish actor whose physiognomy bears a positively spooky resemblance to Collins'. It's Brendan Gleeson, and he's wasted here as one of the Collins' "Apostles". But nobody, I guess, was going to let Gleeson smooch with Julia; she'd get B-list cooties or something.

Absolute Power
You know I love William Goldman; he's got two well-deserved Oscars and as a non-fiction writer he is a living legend. Moreover, he was totally, completely right to roast Martin Scorsese for having had the nerve to foist Gangs of New York on the public as a finished imaginative product. Unfortunately a certain giggly tone has crept into everything he's written for the screen since about 1980. Sometimes it works: The Princess Bride, Goldman's best work, depends on it, and in Misery it harmonizes nicely with Kathy Bates' dementia. But in Absolute Power you never feel as though Clint Eastwood is in any danger. That's a big problem if your premise involves putting Clint Eastwood in terrible danger. Still, no movie that brings together Eastwood, Laura Linney, Judy Davis, Scott Glenn, and Gene Hackman can be all bad. (Just watch them all sign up for Ishtar II as soon as I post this...)

Premise trouble isn't going to sink a comedy, but it will certainly sink a "lesson" comedy every time. Michael Keaton decides in the end that he needs to get out from under his tyrannical boss and start his own contracting company. Good thinkin'! Too bad it didn't occur to you before you had yourself cloned three times! Fuuuuuck.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut
A tiny miracle. You can tell that Stone and Parker sat down and realized that they'd only get one shot at this, and that they didn't dare dilute the franchise by recycling a sub-par episode and tacking on an hour of padding. This may actually be the best musical--musically--made by Hollywood in the last fifty years. If you're under the age of forty, it's as close as you're likely to come to the experience people must have had going to Oklahoma! or Porgy and Bess for the first time, showing up in a state of perfect innocence and getting hit in the face with showstopper after showstopper. The profanity's just a bonus. Unfortunately the TV show isn't anywhere near this good anymore.

I almost started discussing this one the other day when Allen Barra filed his shockingly bad Slate article about the All-Star Game. I say "shockingly bad" because Barra is one of the finest, sanest American sportswriters. He also wrote a very interesting book called Inventing Wyatt Earp; it's a biography of Earp intercut with commentary on the artistic, journalistic and historical uses and abuses of his legend. One of the things you'll learn if you read that book was that Tombstone was not only livelier than Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp and a bigger box-office hit: it was also made with a lot more attention to the historical record. All those little bits of business, like Val Kilmer calling people "huckleberry" or Kurt Russell screaming "Fight's commenced!"--they all seem to at least have some tenuous warrant in fact, which is surprising. Barra mentions dozens of them. I got the impression, in fact, that the release of Tombstone forced Barra to go back to the book and rework it, because someone had finally done a good, relatively fair job with Wyatt Earp. In a way this movie is the anti-Michael Collins; instead of bending history out of shape to make it more "interesting", and failing, it sticks to the truth and succeeds.

After all the spinoffs and animated series and video games and whatnot, it's interesting to go back to the source--not that you find much once you get there. One's present impression of Ghostbusters turns out to be that it caught everybody exactly halfway through their life processes. It's a snapshot of Bill Murray in transition from young, crazed, combative comedic dynamo to crumbling Pagliacci. It's a portrait of Dan Aykroyd changing from the husky young kook who was the greatest improviser of his day into the aged, shambling wraith we see now on Psi Factor. It captures Harold Ramis exactly 50% along the road from SCTV goofball to Hollywood mogul. All contribute brief flashes of their prior greatness, but in the end the movie is a depressing cadenza to a Golden Age of North American comedy.

In a way, too, Ghostbusters was the apotheosis of an archetype, of what almost constituted a genre unto itself--namely, the extraction of laffs from the aura of imminent apocalypse that once surrounded New York. People who'd never been to NYC knew from watching movies and TV that the city was a war zone in perpetual utero where, if you didn't get mugged, you could at least count on being verbally abused. History will record that that thread was tied up by Mayor Giuliani and cut off for all time on 9/11. It makes watching Ghostbusters even sadder.

The 'burbs
Where Ghostbusters is hopelessly mired in time, The 'burbs is transcendent and seems as fresh as the day it was made. And where Multiplicity shreds credibility, The 'burbs radiates quirky verisimilitude. You can keep any two of Tom Hanks's other movies if you let me have this one. The generalized Canadian genius for comedy is no secret, but its source here certainly is. I came out of the theatre back in '89 thinking that Saskatchewan's Rick Ducommun, who stole this movie several times over as the conspiracist neighbour Art, was about to become a star. Instead, you still haven't heard of him.

The Verdict
David Mamet, like Goldman, is a writer of life-changing non-fiction, but his screenwriting, like Goldman's, has an instantly-recognizable tone that always threatens to overbear the material. He likes these little parables about the Man Alone fighting against Powers Beyond Comprehension. When the Man Alone is Paul Newman you forgive an awful lot (like, say, the fact that the movie is twenty minutes too long). Maybe you've noticed that not only is Newman one of those actors we all like, to say the least, but you can also trust him to select pretty good material; if he's in it, you can almost rest assured that it's going to be watchable, and for other reasons than just "Hey, it's Paul Newman". Though maybe I only say that because I didn't spend twelve bucks seeing Message in a Bottle.

The Amateur
Anybody remember this one just from the title? It's a 1981 Canadian movie in which John Savage plays a CIA cryptographer whose wife is murdered in Munich by the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Savage blackmails the Agency into training him and turning him loose in Czechoslovakia ("Czechoslovakia"--there's a chilly blast of Cold War nostalgia right there) to hunt down the terrorists and kill them. Christopher Plummer chews scenery as Lakos, a KGB man who gets onto Savage's trail after he's inserted into the East.

Honestly, and with all respect to his talent, Savage didn't have the presence to carry a thriller on his own, and the thing is otherwise pretty routine. As in many minor movies, however, there's one indisputably terrific scene. Jan Rubes plays the father of Savage's girlfriend; he inadvertently convinces Savage to take revenge when he tells his own tale of losing his original family in the Holocaust and tracking down the Mengele-esque doctor who put them to death. "I strangled him with these hands," Rubes says with no small hint of pride, holding them up. "But it didn't bring them back to life," hazards Savage, obviously uncertain of his own feelings. And then Rubes pounds the table and bellows, "It brought me back to life!" That's a pretty good line: how it found its way into this cheapo Canuck sub-Ludlummery, I don't know.

- 5:39 am, July 20 (link)

Putting the ASS back in CASST

I was just now listening to AM talk radio when I was astonished to hear a short advertising clip from something called the Coalition Against Satellite Signal Theft, "a group of concerned broadcasters, content providers, and distributors". How concerned are they? Pretty concerned! Their ad contains a clip from a fictional radio talk show in which a woman calls in with this question:

Because of our illegal satellite dish, my son Timmy now thinks it's OK to steal! What should we do?

The fake host responds:

You'll have to decide what's more important--free TV, or little Timmy's sense of right and wrong!

If little Timmy can't tell the difference between shoplifting physical merchandise and merely decoding information beamed onto one's property by satellite, he doubtless has profound cognitive problems that would inhibit the function of an ordinary conscience anyhow. Personally, I suspect Timmy's moral compass went awry when he heard that Canada's "broadcasters, content providers, and distributors" were airing fake talk-radio programs on real talk-radio stations in order to propagandize the public about "signal theft." I say we euthanize the little bastard.

- 12:24 am, July 20 (link)

Out of the kitchen

I hope I'm not the only one who feels at sea in trying to comprehend the story of Dr. David Kelly's suicide. The Ministry of Defence, at one point, suggested that Kelly had probably been the key source for journalist Andrew Gilligan's story about the subtle spin-doctoring of intelligence documents (and particuarly the unwarranted insertion of a claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed in 45 minutes). But the Foreign Affairs Committee's supposedly draconian questioning of Kelly allowed him to exonerate himself, to the committee's apparent full satisfaction. Kelly may not have been strictly comfortable in front of the cameras, and he did have to admit to holding unauthorized meetings with journalists, including Gilligan; but he walked away having shown, if Gilligan's own testimony was accurate, that he was not the person the committee was looking for. He had been told he would not be punished for talking to Gilligan, and there is no indication that he told Gilligan anything especially sensitive.

Nobody has offered a convincing explanation as to why the man might have taken his own life, and it was damned careless of him not to offer one; if he felt victimized, he missed a good chance for vengeance. He may simply have concluded that it would be impossible for him to continue his work for the Ministry of Defence. Someone at MoD seems to have felt that Kelly would make a good patsy, and then perhaps gotten angry when the shoe failed to fit. There should certainly be an inquiry into the sequence of events, and it seems implausible that no careers will be destroyed. But right now people seem determined to blame some institution, whether it's the BBC, the committee, or the ministry. Shouldn't a public broadcaster try its hardest to unlock government secrets? Shouldn't a parliamentary committee do its best to subject government employees to questioning about behaviour that may affect national defence? Shouldn't a government ministry take steps, within reason, to ensure that secrets do stay secret? Even if you think they shouldn't, trust me: they're going to. There is a sort of self-adversarial web of institutions here which is necessary to a liberal democracy that is also a great power, and nobody should rush to damn it for functioning, even if one particular reserved, peace-loving man found one day that he couldn't stand the heat. For a professional weapons expert and inspector, he doesn't seem to have been especially well-equipped in the way of inner resources.

This article and timeline from the Independent are a good starting point for foreign readers trying to catch up with the story.

- 9:39 pm, July 19 (link)

Lanky liberation

Leafs backup Trevor Kidd was in the Toronto Star this morning waxing indignant about the NHL's new 38-inch height limit on goalie leg pads.

"Mine were 39 inches, but it's not that big a deal for me to drop down to 38," said Leafs backup goalie Trevor Kidd, who stands 6-foot-3.

"But it creates an unfair playing field," he added. "A guy who is 5-foot-9 to say 6-feet or 6-foot-1, that guy is allowed to wear a 38-inch pad now, so when you're talking about a five-hole advantage, those guys are the ones who will have the advantage over the taller guys ...Because that's all we're talking about here with the height of a goalie pad--the height just covers the five-hole better, it doesn't help you when you're sprawled on your back or doing the splits."

I think it really says something about the pervasiveness of hockey in Canada that the Star doesn't have to explain what the five-hole is. (It's the space between a goalie's legs when he's standing upright on his skates.) It strikes me that Kidd's complaint is the sort of thing that might inspire Ruben Bolling to do one of his "Lucky Ducky" cartoons. An "unfair playing field" for larger goalies? Uh, don't they start out with certain advantages, like being larger? The new regulation does hurt them more, but some measure to correct the widespread (lawful) abuse of the goalie's requirement for extra padding was clearly desirable. Introducing the three-point shot to the NBA privileged accurate shooters of all sizes over lumbering Godzillas who relied on height and bulk (who nonetheless haven't exactly gone away); the league didn't introduce the rule to penalize the tall per se, it introduced it to keep the element of skill alive in the pro game. This is a similar sort of change which will have much smaller ramifications.

- 9:28 pm, July 18 (link)

The scarlet 'A'

Damn me to hell for saying so, but I've always felt what Julian Sanchez has set down in electrons: self-described "agnostics" are mostly just chickenshit saddoes. Come on, you people, you're atheists: face the fact and get on with your lives. This idea that "atheism requires as much of a leap of faith as theism" will not stand; any atheist might be converted in an afternoon if God came over to his house and started wonder-working, but few convinced believers seem inclined to switch sides just because of the invisibility, silence, and apparent indifference of God. I call myself an atheist, since I'm an unbeliever, but I don't see that that makes me less open to new evidence than a so-called "agnostic". It just so happens that there is no compelling new evidence in view.

The comical thing, really, is that "faith" is much rarer among theists than is usually acknowledged. Who amongst Christians does not have some argument from design or factoid about the historical Jesus that he finds particularly compelling? And I can't tell you how many godders I've met who have some just-so story they are happy to relate: "I was sitting on the beach one night, and suddenly my whole body became paralyzed, like I couldn't move, and I started to hear this strange whisper, and even though it wasn't in a language I recognized, I found I had no trouble interpreting the words, and then I was bathed in this weird light..." Others obviously have such a story, on investigation, but are less inclined to share it. Epistemologically these are people who have felt the wound in Christ's side--they've encountered something in our world that convinced them, and we are neither privy to their experience nor obliged to accept it as evidence. They are not "the faithful", they are the fortunate and/or gullible who are beneficiaries of direct revelation. The number of the "blessed"--they that have not seen, and yet have believed--is startlingly few.

- 8:49 pm, July 18 (link)

The outsider

Ben McGrath's New Yorker piece about Bill James is now online. As a longtime Jacobite, I was a bit disappointed: I learned less that was new than I expected to, though the existence of an unpublished book-length manuscript by James about crime is certainly a blockbusting bit of news.

James is a man of many seeming contradictions. He is an English major who has made a name for himself as a math whiz. He has been called the Sultan of Stats, despite arguing that you should "never use a number when you can avoid it." He is a self-described "scientist," who frequently reveals little concern for precision, a relentless counter who can't be bothered with individual sums. James is a rigorously organized thinker who is hopelessly disorganized when negotiating mundane daily responsibilities. He is, he says, a "completely ethical person," and yet he is obsessed with crime. ("Why the justice system doesn't work better than it does is to me a topic of great fascination.") He has long been revered by rationalists for promoting the virtues of objective analysis, and yet, after an extended hibernation from writing about contemporary baseball-during the nineties, he focussed mainly on the history of the game--he reemerged on the statistical scene with a new metric to define the over-all contribution of each player, whose formula has a built-in "subjective element," allowing him to adjust the numbers more or less as he pleases. And, after so many years of presenting himself as the consummate outsider, he has now, in middle age, gone inside.

I expect James is probably kicking himself over his own choice of name for the "subjective element" in his Win Shares system. It's not necessarily the most accurate term, as McGrath might have recognized if not for the terminology. The so-called "subjective" grade was used sparingly to incorporate what is, in fact, objectively known about players but not quantified in the math behind the Win Shares. If you are trying to rank Hal Chase among the first basemen of history, you can't simply use his statistics without acknowledging the fact that he probably threw more games, including pennant-relevant games, than any professional athlete who ever lived. You have to downgrade him somehow, or you're being unfair to Stuffy McInnis and Keith Hernandez and every other honest guy who played the position. Similarly, if you have a guy who improved the statistics of his teammates in some way--say, a pitcher who taught a half-dozen rookies how to throw the forkball--he deserves credit for adding value to the teams for which he played. Making adjustments like that is "subjective" if you have no defined procedure for making them--and James didn't--but they are certainly necessary on objective grounds.

- 12:59 pm, July 18 (link)

Two cheers for the feds

There is, I think, enough embarrassment to go around for all parties in the latest act of Canada's gay-marriage drama. As usual, the Liberals deserve the lion's share, and Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper is going to serve it to them by reintroducing an exact copy of the anti-gay-marriage Commons motion the Liberals voted for in 1999. Justice Minister Cauchon voted for that motion, but now says permitting gay marriage reflects "our values as Canadians". Once again, many millions of us have been cast into the outer darkness of unCanadianism. After twenty years of this maple-leaf McCarthyism, are there any "Canadians" left?

Yet the other side--the Alberta government, which apparently intends to carry through with its battle against the bill, and the CA, which is opposing it while sounding the right notes about letting individual MPs vote their conscience--had better double-check its own strategy. The draft bill affirms that "officials of religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs." To a social conservative, though I can't really claim to speak for 'em, having this principle set down in statute ought to be worth the relatively trivial concession of permitting gays and lesbians access to the vague benefits of formalized marriage (as opposed to "civil union"). For libertarians, the bill is arguably a victory both ways.

Yes, the government is pushing us further down a supposed slippery slope--but it is also pounding in a piton with its dual-purpose bill. Socons don't have any problem with gay marriage per se; their problem is with active, unashamed homosexuality in itself, on the one hand, and the possibility that their religious freedoms will eventually be curtailed, on the other. No Liberal government can give a credible ironclad assurance about anyone's religious freedoms, but what more can we expect than the assurance Cauchon is now attempting to make, and enact as law? The Justice Minister is explicitly standing up for a genuine, fundamental, traditional Canadian freedom; he may only be doing it to assuage pet constituencies, but it's a delightful novelty all the same.

- 11:02 am, July 18 (link)

Owner of a lonely heart

Via Fumbling: a 12-year-old boy plays with his organ in public--and the Edmonton Sun is there!

- 7:45 am, July 18 (link)

Grumpy old man

Russell Weller, the 86-year-old man who turned the Santa Monica farmer's market into an outtake from Carmaggedon, has been quick to trot out the Which Pedal? defense:

Weller apparently tried to stomp on the brake when he realized his mistake but hit the accelerator instead, [a policeman] said. It was not clear how fast the car was traveling as it crashed through barricades and into the crowd.

In the classic form of the opening, the elderly murderer will normally claim that the gas pedal got "stuck". Since Weller's Buick survived relatively intact, this standard variant is probably untenable: it's too easily investigated (not that it ever pans out too well, mind you, when it's tried). So Gramps will be left to explain why, even at the age of 86, it took him three full blocks to conclude that the brake pedal was having the counterintuitive effect of accelerating his automobile. An account that reflects even less well on Mr. Weller is now emerging. Maybe he should have pulled a U-turn and tried to finish off the remaining witnesses. Or maybe that's what he was already doing...

- 7:42 pm, July 17 (link)

Hard on the eyes

I guess I shouldn't get caught up entirely in opinion-weblogging and half-baked journalism here; this site seems to feature an ever-attenuating amount of whimsy. But it's hard to write about my life without getting sidetracked into that stuff. Mulling over the news and trying to imagine what possible financial use I can make of it: that's 85% of my life, right there, these days.

Worrying about the website is another, say, 6%. A couple of commenters over at Hit & Run pointed out that the blue I had chosen as the summer colour for the sidebar was pretty eye-searing to viewers other than my fellow protanopes. It's completely my fault: to make previous changes I had relied on colour samples from photos of the natural world, but this time I got lazy. I suspect this new, muted colour works better, but honestly I have no earthly way of knowing. The severely colour-blind become semi-inured to this sort of humiliation pretty quickly.

Top Ten Canadian Weblogger Tim Bray has also been chiding me for the relative sloppiness of my auto-aggregated RSS feed. He really went the extra mile, sending digital images of how my site looks to an RSS-reading app and giving me instructions on how I could hand-edit the RSS to make it more appetizing. This all apparently relates to his work somehow, and he's a very good and patient consultant, if his free advice to me is any indication. I feel lousy about having zero intention of acting on it yet (though I'm filing it away carefully).

There are plenty of reasons not to act, some good, some bad. I find, upon introspection, that a big and bad one is this: over a year's work (the official first anniversary is Saturday), I've built up a successful (if homely) website with a loyal following, and it's surpassed every goal I set for it, or thought about setting. I've become as famous as, and maybe a little more famous than, the badly-promoted and occasionally daft magazine for which I used to work. I've met other people in the journalism business, despite being snowbound in hyperborea; thanks to generous readers, influential new fans, and a ready-made digital calling card, I will probably be able to withstand the career crisis that might have destroyed me if it had arrived two years ago. If the Web didn't save my life outright, it certainly has improved it on a number of fronts.

The point is this: I was able to accomplish this for the cost of (1) a half-hour spent learning HTML and (2) US$10 a month in web-hosting fees. Now, I'm an atheist, you understand, so I'm strictly not allowed to refer to this as a miracle. All the same, I am reluctant to make more sophisticated than it is--out of a perverted pride in its crudity, and because I'd like to think that others can still stumble a bit closer to success (however defined) with only the same meager tools.

Obviously the desirability of all-around user-friendliness outweighs this rather absurd psychological reflex. But that's the point: it's a reflex.

- 5:40 am, July 17 (link)

Bear necessity

It's not mentioned much, but it's becoming increasingly probable that the Kyoto Protocol will never come into force. Seems startling, after all the hype on one side and dread on the other, not to mention the billions of dollars spent on promotion, argument, lobbying, and diplomacy. But there are signs that the Protocol may in fact be doomed. Consider Article 25 of the text:

This Protocol shall enter into force on the ninetieth day after the date on which not less than 55 Parties to the Convention, incorporating Parties included in Annex I which accounted in total for at least 55 per cent of the total carbon dioxide emissions for 1990 of the Parties included in Annex I, have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession. [Emphasis mine]

There are thus two hurdles for the treaty to clear. For a graphical depiction, you can visit the UN Convention on Climate Change's handy-dandy "Kyotometer". The second criterion is the relevant one: it gives a Kyoto veto to any group of countries which were responsible for 45% of the world's greenhouse emissions in 1990. One such group could consist of the USA (36.1%) and the Russian Federation (17.4%). And we know the U.S. Senate isn't going to reactivate President Clinton's signature on the treaty, which leaves Kyoto's fate in the hands of Russia.

Kyoto diplomacy has seemed to proceed, since the document was adopted in December 1997, on the assumption that Russia would gladly ratify the protocol sooner or later. Since its heavy industry has contracted rapidly since 1990, Russia already meets the Kyoto criteria for greenhouse-gas reductions with room to spare. European enthusiasts for the treaty have been promising Russia that, if Kyoto were passed, it would become ground zero for a lucrative trade in emissions credits. But it's been five and a half years, and there has been (a) little (though some) progress toward a serious international framework for the trading of such credits, and (b) no legislative progress at all toward Kyoto ratification within Russia.

Russia is the elephant in the room, and the climate cops are now beginning to speak out loud about it. On July 3 came a Reuters wire story:

OSLO - The head of the U.N. panel on climate change said on Wednesday that any failure by Russia to ratify a pact on global warming would mean almost a decade had been wasted in efforts to protect the environment.

"The whole world is waiting with bated breath on what Russia's going to do," Rajendra Pachauri told Reuters of Moscow's delays in ratifying the United Nations' Kyoto Protocol. "We need to know one way or another."

..."I'm afraid that if Kyoto is not ratified we will have lost about eight or nine years chasing what might turn out to be a mirage," said Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Asked if he had any idea when Russia might ratify the agreement Pachauri, speaking on the sidelines of an environmental conference in the Norwegian capital, replied "God knows." [!]

"If you talk to 10 different people you get 10 different views of what Russia is likely to do...I don't know why it's taking so long," he said.

Sounds kinda depressed, doesn't he? Individual politicians inside and outside Russia have often given assurances that the protocol will be passed real soon now--certainly, certainly well before 2010, the deadline for the treaty to pass into history. Enough of these assurances have come to naught, however, that one is entitled to wonder at the good faith in which they are made. In October 2001, after the Johannesburg summit, UN officials said that Russian ratification was an absolute lock in the near term. In September 2002, the Prime Minister of Russia, Mikhail Kasyanov, said "We consider that ratification will take place in the very nearest future." Yet environmental NGOs are now complaining of Russia's "mixed messages" on one hand and calling on Putin to act as the "saviour" of Kyoto on the other. The World Wildlife Fund's Russian branch reported in May that the Protocol is still very far from reaching the president's desk. The bureaucrats who will provide Putin with the data to make a decision are far from confident that the deal will be good for Russia.

Currently [German] Gref, the Minister of Economic Development and Trade, must re-send the set of documents on ratification to Deputy Prime Minister (PM) Victor Khristenko. The Ministry had already sent the papers and proposals twice (in January and then in the end of March), including very skeptical views on Kyoto, but the Deputy PM once more asked to improve the submission. The Economics Ministry underestimates the economic benefits almost to zero and highlights poor provisions of the Protocol, probably purposefully.

...Gref unwilling or unable to unblock the dossier within his own administration. Some officials (e.g. Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Trade Muhammad Tsikanov) are possibly afraid that after ratification they will be overloaded by the difficult task of Russian quota selling because they will be asked to "get billions of dollars from Kyoto". Lower levels in the bureaucracy do not want to get additional work with Kyoto (no additional offices planned, no increase in salaries, etc.). A few people speak about hidden US money, but experts do not think that is the case.

Officials of Russian Academy of Science, supported by the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, ...are strictly against Kyoto. They say that climate change should first be investigated more deeply, that the Kyoto Protocol does not take into account crucial GHG sinks and emissions, and that activities under the Protocol attract and use funds which can be used for climate science if the Protocol is rejected.

This springtime report foresaw the possibility of Kyoto ratification going before the Duma in early summer. Yet Russian scientific officials, led by Protocol skeptic Yuri Izrael, have scheduled an independent international conference on climate change for Moscow in September. Is it remotely credible that the stalled bureaucratic process is likely to get underway before this conference takes place? Moreover, the jury within Russia is apparently still out on the pure economic benefits, which are supposed (by the Europeans) to be self-evident. Deputy PM Khristenko spoke to Rossiiskaya Gazeta on Monday and quietly admitted--in an interview confusingly interpreted by the news agency RIA Novosti--that he is still waiting to hear from those layabouts at the Ministry of Economic Development:

The government will use a forthcoming expert forecast to decide whether or not it is feasible for Russia to sign up to this international document, the Vice Premier said.

What we have here is a classic war between politicians and bureaucrats, and to some degree every politician is inevitably a prisoner of his bureaucrats (cf. Yes, Minister). Only Vladimir Putin himself has enough clout within Russia's turbulent and still-mutating political system to make Kyoto happen. Russia's hesitancy and confusion could simply be a negotiating ploy, and after all they do have until 2010 to sign--though, don't forget, they've also had since 1997, which is further away in the rear-view mirror than 2010 is on the road ahead. What I do know is this: Putin's eventual decision will be decided strictly on the basis of Russia's interests. Like George W. Bush, Putin is a chief executive who doesn't give one tiny goddamn, emotionally, what they write about him in Le Monde or the New York Times. In the end, I expect he will conclude that it is best for Russia's future for Gazprom and like companies to expand and streamline their enterprise rather than wallow in a tarpit of uncertain returns from GHG emissions credits.

- 1:23 am, July 16 (link)

Looks like we're due for another hostage-taking

I suppose I should update my prior announcement about donations to this site: they ended up coming to nearly $2,100 Canadian before they tailed off. My Paypal debit card arrived yesterday, so I now have access to the money, and not a moment too soon: an imminent postal strike is about to lead to indefinite confiscation of the few freelance cheques I have in the pipeline so far.

Yes, I did notice that "both Canada Post and the union representing 48,000 postal workers say they do not want a strike and hope to avoid one." For all I know, it may be true that the Canadian Union of Postal Workers does not want a strike. But whether it wants to strike or not, labour unions for employees of legislated monopolies are logically compelled to do so periodically, and the calendar has spoken. In Canada, the period is every six to eight years, on average, though I don't have hard data. Ask yourself this: what reason do posties ever have not to strike? Is Canada Post going to go out of business while CUPW is walking the picket line? Whatever CUPW can attain through ordinary bargaining, it is sure to attain more through its power to immobilize a noncompetitive, essential public service. The sword, as someone told me yesterday, must be taken from the scabbard occasionally to keep the rust off.

We wouldn't have to take away anyone's sacred "right" to leave work without being sacked in order to repair this situation: we just have to drop the unjustifiable price controls on the private-sector delivery of first-class mail. It is illegal under the Canada Post Corporation Act for you to carry an addressed envelope from one place to another unless you charge at least three times what Canada Post does. If your taste doesn't run to radical change, perhaps you could countenance making this provision inoperative during a strike, or reducing the ordinary limit to double or half again the price of a stamp, rather than treble. The Commons could do the work in an afternoon. For myself, I'd get rid of the price control altogether and bust up the monopoly, although I know isolated rural customers can probably deploy highly advanced arguments for the proposition that urban businesses should be taxed in order to hold down the cost of their Christmas card mailings. Most Canadians feel comfortable--to the point of smugness--about living in a gummy web of coercion in which the post office is merely one tiny strand.

- 3:52 pm, July 15 (link)

The Water of Life

An interrogative postscript to my July 3 appreciation of Frank Herbert's Dune: can the stillsuit be far behind the CamelBak?

- 11:13 pm, July 14 (link)

Call and response

Joanne Jacobs and Kimberly Swygert have weighed in, each with good points, on that questionable Canadian Teachers' Federation poll.

- 10:37 pm, July 14 (link)

Où sont les soeurs

In the grand tradition of folk music, Kevin Steel is using his time on the dole to lay down a few tracks. His new song Rafters and Beams is now online in MP3 format. This is best described as a tabletop demo of an extremely promising countrified waltz. Kevin has double-dubbed the talented singer he's discovered, Debra Bachman Smith, to create a nice McGarrigle Sisters effect (which suits the lyrics perfectly), but the banjo track remains distinctly controversial. Hmmm... do we know for an absolute fact that there are two separate McGarrigle sisters? Assuming they're real, someone should sell them this number.

- 10:27 pm, July 14 (link)

Same old subject, slightly new one-liners

Which needs reforming more urgently: the Canadian Senate or the prime minister's mail room? Find out in today's National Post under my byline. Remember, printed copies are highly collectible.

- 9:53 am, July 14 (link)

It's Q time

The word "quagmire" may still be a bit of a hot button when you're talking about military adventures, but it's actually quite well suited to the American republic's insane determination to proceed with online voting in national elections.

The Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment, which began as a tiny demonstration project in the 2000 general election and involved just 84 voters, could give 100,000 voters the chance to cast absentee ballots online in next year's presidential primaries and general election.

Going from 84 eligible votes to a hundred thousand--wait, scalability issues? Whaddaya mean, scalability issues? Voters will be able to cast their ballots from "any Microsoft Windows-based computer with Internet access," and we all know there are no security problems with those babies. What I wonder is why it's so all-fired important to transcend the system existing in backward countries like Canada, where you have to show up at a polling place to cast a paper ballot or make special arrangements to mail one in. Obviously there's a runaway corporate interest on the loose in the American system here, but I suspect the madness also has something to do with the American phenomenon of marketing elections as a consumer product. Voting is not only kewl, it's now easier than ever.

"Internet voting takes just seconds instead of weeks if you were to put that ballot in the mail and send it off," said Polli Brunelli, director of the Pentagon's Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Sure, lady, but I still have to crowbar my arse out of the La-Z-Boy and trudge all the way over to the computer. That could take me a full minute. Can't you guys, y'know, invent some way for me to cast a ballot with my remote? Put your heads together with those guys who manufacture TiVo already! They know what they're doing! Wait, I've got it--we'll modify The Clapper™!

- 8:10 pm, July 13 (link)

Damn, another penis-enlargement pourriel

On a happier note from the realm of Quebecois letters, the Academie Francaise, quasi-official guardian of the French language in France, has taken the unusual step of formally adopting a coinage from Quebec. The backward state of Internet development in France has left the mother country with no popular indigenous term for e-mail. I recall that, many years ago, they were trying to get comfortable with emaillure, an existing but obsolete word that would have fit the bill nicely, but that didn't work out--nor, reports the Post's Graeme Hamilton, did the Academy-proferred confection mel, short for "messagerie electronique". "Mel", to my mind, shows that the Academy is very good at imitating natural language development. It's the kind of word you would expect to end up being the right one. Unfortunately, real language almost never does what you expect: it defies ordinances and, even in France, tweaks the noses of academicians.

Which means that the choice of the Academy, the organically-grown Quebecois word courriel, may never take root either. How verbable is it? Not very, I should say. Meanwhile, Quebec's own Office de la Langue Francaise is well ahead of the Parisian Academie in developing neologisms.

While courriel was already in limited use when the Office began looking for a term for e-mail, it was the in-house linguists who came up with pourriel, to denote spam or junk e-mail, and clavardage, for electronic chatting. Pourriel combines the French word for garbage with courriel, while clavardage blends the French words for keyboard and chatting. Neither of those words has been accepted by the venerable Academie, which was reluctant to have too many words with an "-iel" ending and found clavardage a little hard on the ears.

I believe the beauty of English is underrated, but I have to admit I fell instantly in love with clavardage, and I recognize it as the kind of thing of which we are quite incapable. Cla-var-dahzzhhh. Isn't that perfect? We don't even have a good single word for chatting/IMing/messaging (as often as not, we find ourselves using the freaky back-formation "messenging"), and here is one that somehow has just the right shape. The "cla-" may bother the hypersensitive Academy, but it is the exact sound my keyboard is making right now: claclaclaclacla. I intend to adopt this word at once.

- 12:15 pm, July 13 (link)


Seen on the Infomart wire: a Montreal Gazette headline not quite copyedited to the fullest pitch of perfection.

Developer holds key to ski park: 1,000 acres between Val David, Val Morin Developer holds key to blah blah blah

Sic! Don't believe me? The Web version of Elizabeth Kalbfuss's story has, at this hour, the exact same subhed. Not sure whether it saw print.

- 11:49 pm, July 12 (link)

A full Saturday

Wow! A semi-cryptic URL in my referrer logs turns out to belong to the marvelous and renowned American critic Terry Teachout, who has been endowed with a weblog by Go there, bookmark it, visit often, and while you're at it, buy me his new Mencken bio: I'm dying to read it. T.T. has, in recent days, also joined the crowd on NRO's Corner, as has TechCentralStation editor Nick Schulz. It is called the Corner because they're trying to corner the market on right-wing comment?

As if getting blogrolled by Terry Teachout weren't enough excitement for one day, I'm headed to the Edmonton Trappers clubhouse later to get started on a freelance sports story. By chance rather than by choice (both clubs ended up as the last ones without an affiliate on their respective tiers in the off-season), the Trappers are now the Triple-A farm club of my beloved Montreal Expos. There are some pretty nifty things about this freelance business if you don't mind poverty...

- 1:05 pm, July 12 (link)

Why shoot the teacher

Got another busy day tomorrow, but perhaps one can pause before bed to take note of a pristine case study in why pollsters and public educators have their own level of hell awaiting them.

According to a public opinion poll released today, Canadians favour by a 2 to 1 margin teachers' evaluations over standardized province-wide student achievement tests when it comes to measuring student progress.

"Only 28 per cent of respondents support standardized tests," said Doug Willard, President of the Canadian Teachers' Federation (CTF) during his opening remarks before delegates attending the federation's Annual General Meeting in Fredericton, New Brunswick. [My teachers would have given me hell for that missing comma, but times have changed. -ed.]

"This speaks to the public's growing uneasiness and concern around standardized testing. Parents are witnessing firsthand the negative impact of these tests on students' learning and development.

"Standardized tests can't measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable attributes.

"However, what they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and functions--the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning," explained Willard. "These high-stakes tests serve to sort and rank students rather than support student learning."

Let the record show it: the national labour apparatus of Canada's schoolteachers regards skills like reasoning, mathematics, reading, and history as "the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning." You must have suspected this already if you've tried to have correct change made in a shop lately. Actually, I think it's rather courageous of Doug Willard to admit that standardized testing absolutely can measure student mastery of basic skills. That is, after all, just what those tests are meant to establish. Would you criticize a tailor because his measurement of your inseam failed to capture your ability to shoot free throws?

The poll shows that many parents are uneasy about the potential prominence of standardized testing: it's the new wave in the U.S., it's an established presence in Alberta schools (which are, no doubt by pure coincidence, the finest in the land on other objective measures), and it's making halting progress in Ontario and British Columbia. If the poll shows anything real, it's that teachers have had great success spreading scary phrases like "high-stakes tests". The Teachers' Federation is certainly entitled to pat itself on the back for its skill at propaganda. But if you look at the "overview" of the poll findings--which is all the Federation has chosen to let you see--you may notice that the questions were asked in a certain order. The flashy result in the lead of the press release actually emerged from the last question asked in the survey:

In your opinion, which of the following is the best way to measure student progress in school and how well the school is doing in educating students?

This question immediately followed one with a long, informative prologue that read thus.

From time to time, the media publish rankings of elementary and secondary schools in the provinces based on student test results. Some people say the rankings are valuable while others say it is misleading to rank schools only on the basis of test results.

This is designed to scare people into giving the correct answer to the final question, a technique which is to polling what embezzlement is to banking; but it is unfair in another respect. Ranking schools against each other on the basis of test results in the same year is only one possible use of the results. As everyone who's inquired into the rankings knows, it's not a particularly enlightening use. Academically enterprising schools do well in the rankings--duh. Schools in impoverished areas, schools with many aboriginal students, and schools with many English-as-second-language students do poorly in the rankings--double duh. What the teacher trust is eager to have you forget is that there are other, more informative ways to study test results. A school's results can be compared with its own results in past years to find whether its performance seems to be declining or improving. It means nothing, on its own, that Anytown Junior High finished #100 last year; it may mean a great deal, however, if it was ranked #10 the previous year, or #300.

(And, at that, even if you ignore the time-series element, you could at least use the rankings within a single year to find underprivileged schools which succeed unusually well in teaching basic skills. As a reporter, I have used them that way. But unionized teachers are more interested in fostering "initiative" and "creativity" amongst the poor and disadvantaged. These qualities will no doubt help them cope with flunking out of college and raising children on retail wages.)

If you're not convinced on this basis that the Teacher's Federation and Vector Research & Development Inc. deserve to have large "SCUMBAG" signs hung around their necks, imagine what the results of the poll would have been if I'd had the chance to write the prologue to Question Four.

From time to time, the media publish rankings of elementary and secondary schools in the provinces based on student test results. Some people say the rankings offer an objective picture of student achievement in mastering basic skills like reading and mathematics. Some people say that these skills are completely unimportant, and that no one but a teacher should ever, ever, ever have the sheer bleeding audacity to gather data about a teacher's or school's performance. What do you think?

- 2:19 am, July 12 (link)

Yearning for safety

Sorry about the slow day yesterday: I've been busy trying to drum up work. It's a process which has given me new respect for weblogging freelancers. I suppose I knew this before, but every moderately clever idea they have has to be examined from all angles for economic potential before they post about it and donate it to the common intellectual heritage of humanity. It's a bit nerve-wracking. On the other hand, a weblog is a good place to get half-formed ideas road-tested.

You know what I'd like to have? I was thinking about this. I've put almost a year's worth of text here: at a guess, I've written three or four hundred thousand words for the site. What I'd like is a program that analyzed my word frequencies and compared them to some background standard to see which ones I might be overusing. I don't know if other writers have this phobia... sometimes I'll use some slightly obscure adjective, and I'll realize, "Hmmm, I've written that word, what, three times in the last two months? It's kind of an unusual word. How often can I get away with this before people start to notice?" And so I have to strike it out of my vocabulary for a while. But maybe there are subconsciously irritating "favourites" I'm not aware of. If there were a way for a large cross-section of a person's prose to be analyzed in this manner... well, I'm perfectly aware that there are sophisticated forensic tools for the analysis of word frequencies, I just don't know if any of them have ever been adapted to a specifically literary purpose. Even a crude application would be useful: the old Smith-Corona electronic typewriter that got me through college was able to do this kind of analysis on a single document, and I came to rely on it to save me from embarrassing word repeats.

- 4:48 am, July 11 (link)

Left ahead

There's been a lot of meta stuff about publishing and journalism here lately, but I enjoy it when other people talk about their work, and writing for pay is mine, so why not forge on? Ikram at Path of the Paddle writes:

The Dominion is a new electronic national newspaper started by Dru Oja Jay of Misnomer and a few other lefty friends. The paper comes out in Acrobat format, and has the now de-rigeur attached weblog.

I'm not really much of a lefty, but I am always impressed by the ability of the Canadian left to start up new publications. Blogger Colby Cosh is now unemployed after his right-wing Canadian magazine The Report folded. Why not take a page from the Canadian left and start your own? Though, as Colby points out, political magazines never make money. Lack of profitability seems to bother righties more than lefties.

This raises a bunch of interesting points, but first I should answer the question "Why not start your own electronic newspaper"? The answer is, of course, that I did: you are looking at it. The difference between and the Dominion is close to being a matter of semantics (italics, maybe?); the Dominion looks much nicer than this page--after you've taken the trouble to download the PDF (Pain in Da Fundament) file--and has a bigger staff and some art. But the Dominion has no revenue and doesn't pay anybody, and hence is, for the moment, a vanity project which differs from this site only in its ambitions. I don't mean to use the phrase "vanity project" as an insult: I mean it to apply to this site and to all weblogs. I'm fairly explicit about hoping to use to rebuild my shattered career in print, and I started it knowing that such an effort might be necessary a year or so down the road, when they dropped the pill on the old Alberta Report. (O terrible clairvoyance!) I don't know if the rules of leftist cred would forbid Dru Oja Jay from turning the Dominion into a high-paying sinecure at the Star or someplace.

Leaving aside the question of how our metropolitan dailies should be identified politically, the left does seem good at keeping small-scale periodicals--free muckraking urban weeklies, This and its imitators, badly-spelled Trot rags--in front of readers. There is a thriving, though undoubtedly badly recompensed, indie progressive press in Canada. Report was the country's sole exemplar of indie conservative press above the level of the personal newsletter. (A successor may still arise, but I'm not holding my breath.) I can think of many possible reasons for this disparity.

· Small-l liberal sentiment tends to concentrate in the metropolis, for a variety of reasons, making distribution and promotion relatively easy for a paper of the left. If you're going to write something stiff-necked and fam-val conservative, a lot of your potential readership will be out in the suburbs and the country. This makes marketing--even if it's non-profit marketing just to build a readership--very, very hard.

· Progressives have a tradition of revolutionary newspapering on the cheap; they, quite simply, know how to get the job done. Campus newspapers add to this tradition with a new batch of Quark-conversant graduates every year. In any large city you can probably find a passel of old lefties who know how to repair an offset press, run a process camera, or shop for paper. At the very least, relative neophytes who come out of campus-paper shops have a rudimentary knowledge of how not to get screwed over by your electronic pre-press people. And both kinds of lefty newspaperman are bound to be comfortable, or to feel obliged to feign comfort, in a low-cost communitarian environment.

(An environment, while we're on the subject, like that in which Alberta Report's predecessor was created: it began as a Christian colony which offered reporters room, board, and a dollar a day. If Canadian history provides a single credible example of a successful public figure who "dropped out" Sixties-fashion, it is surely none other than Ted Byfield, who is still tilting against hippies thirty years on.)

· A related idea is that leftists have a body of knowledge on how to work the system, and a large group of sympathizers inside labour unions and government offices. I don't mean to be snide, but to take one example, "political" organs and organizations aren't supposed to be eligible for registered charity status and the attendant tax exemption. The Report never bothered applying. The successor non-profit think-tank, the Citizens Centre, concluded that obtaining tax-exempt status would be impossible even if it disavowed formal political affiliation. While the Fraser Institute does enjoy a tax exemption, it has to police its every published utterance fanatically for the wrong kind of political import (theory is OK, advocacy isn't), and its private struggles with Revenue Canada have become legendary. Meanwhile, This--whose slogan is "Because Everything Is Political"--passes as a culture magazine and is published by a registered charity, the Red Maple Foundation (*wink*).

· Having said that, the left-wing press is favoured by the free market, too, in an important way. A paper of the left can raise funds, or so it seems, by advertising pretty much whatever it likes; it's not going to take major crap from subscribers over a lingerie ad, nor alienate gay creative workers at advertising agencies by waxing indignant about Supreme Court decisions. Much of the alternative press in Canada seems to be an offshoot of the sex trade, and hey, more power to it. Personally I'd love to work at a place where you could advertise Viagra without having to cut everyone's pay in half.

· There's a content issue here, too, of course. An alterna-rag or a glossy culture/politics mag of the left can build ties to urban artistic communities, and report on the culture with good cheer. Conservatives, in some respects, suffer from the necessity of having to denounce 90% of everything; in standing for the invaluable right to sneer, they may find themselves doing it so much that it belabours the reader who is not on the front lines of the culture war (and, again, recall that the best audience for a conservative pub is largely outside the metropolis, where soft summer lawns are unscorched by the grosser forms of cultural unrest). The hidebound, persnickety, self-consciously superior nature of much of the writing talent on the right jacks this up to, what, 98%? Things are changing, as the weblog phenomenon perhaps proves, but as always things are changing a little more slowly in Canada than they have in the U.S. I should add, I guess, that the flip side of the conservative's tendency to "stand athwart history crying 'stop'" is that the independent "progressive" press consumes 98% of its ink trying to convince its readers that various flavours of shit (modern poetry, modern painting, modern theatre) are really shoe polish.

· Finally we must return to the point Ikram made so succinctly: "Lack of profitability seems to bother righties more than lefties." It's true, and true for obvious reasons. I must take this opportunity to tip my hat to AlbertaViews, a handsome glossy bimonthly in the ever-beleaguered tradition of dissent from Alberta's large-C conservative rule and small-c conservative habits of mind. The paid part of its circulation does not amount to ten thousand copies, yet it has outlived its grubby, strident, vastly more popular opposite, Alberta Report. And that's scarcely a surprise, for its publisher, Jackie Flanagan, is married to Allan Markin, chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (2002 revenues: US$2.6 billion).

Flanagan and Markin are among Alberta's most generous philanthropists, and I expect they see AlbertaViews as an extension of that activity: it's an investment in culture and the political climate. By contrast, Alberta Report's white knights--who are also oil millionaires, but on a much smaller scale than Markin--always expected to get their money back, with interest. I don't fault them for having acted on an expectation which was, no doubt, consciously inculcated at the time of their investment; everybody who worked there feels indebted to them. (Whether outright pity is justified remains to be seen.) The point is only that they did expect the return on their investment to have monetary form: Jackie Flanagan and Allan Markin don't. That difference is an artefact of "conservative" culture. "Conservative" businessmen want to see a business plan that's not a mile-long strip of blood-red ink.

[UPDATE, July 10: Jay Currie responds.]

- 8:29 pm, July 9 (link)

Suitable for framing

Get thee to a newsstand! In today's National Post David Staples offers a blockbusting revelation about the 1992 murder of nine men at the Giant Mine in Yellowknife, N.W.T. And if that doesn't make it enough of a collector's item, it's also got my brand-new column about the UN Human Development Index. When this baby's going for $80 on eBay in a few years, you're going to be sorry you didn't shell out for a few copies.

- 7:24 am, July 9 (link)

The real Canadian heritage

The Liberal government is halving the federal magazine fund and changing the budget structure. CP reports:

Ottawa will reallocate some of the funding to subsidize community newspapers, particularly those catering to ethnic and aboriginal communities and French or English publications in regions where the language is in the minority.

"By directing our support to where the need is greatest, we are laying the groundwork for the growth of hundreds of smaller publications that all contribute to creating bonds between cultural communities and the rest of Canada," Ms. Copps said.

For foreign readers, allow me to translate into the Queen's English.

Ottawa will reallocate some of the funding, previously distributed on a politically neutral basis, to groups that vote Liberal in mind-blowing electric-kool-aid numbers: new immigrants, Francophones living in English Canada, and Anglos in Quebec. The practice adds a fresh six-inch layer of political slime to Canadian periodical publishing; the minority-language press in the snowbound dominion is already notorious for trading the favour of ethno-linguistic voting blocs for advertising from municipal and provincial governments.

"By directing our support to reliable Liberal footsoldiers, we are laying the groundwork for the growth, or at least survival, of hundreds of Liberal seats in the Commons," Ms. Copps ought to have said. "Our government contracts with do-nothing, politically connected communications consultancies are attracting increasing scrutiny, so we figured we would eliminate the middleman. Belly up to the trough!"

- 6:07 pm, July 8 (link)

Mr. Litotes

Rick Hiebert: the Internet's newest sex symbol? Unlikely, but he comes off well in the official Rick Hiebert Blogcritics Interview. Zip over and find out whether gentlemen really prefer blondes.

Rick does make one comment that encapsulates his taste for understatement:

I think that you would be hard-pressed to find any ideological publication, north or south of the border, that makes a lot of money.

In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find one that doesn't lose money by the shedful: most are run, formally or tacitly, as charitable organizations. The great majority are simply avenues for the wealthy to subsidize politically congenial writers. Canada's rich--keeping in mind that Canada is a much smaller and poorer country than the United States--either lack this sense of social responsibility, don't manifest it in this form, or haven't seen the need. There are of course several honourable exceptions.

- 5:08 pm, July 8 (link)

You're in good hands with all-state

CALGARY - The Alberta government announced Monday it would work toward changing the rules governing the auto insurance industry so that drivers would pay a fairly standardized rate and be rewarded or penalized for their driving performances. However, the province said it would not introduce no-fault insurance.

Auto insurance is the hot story in Alberta right now. Its neighbour provinces on both sides have socialized auto insurance, as other Canadian jurisdictions do, and claims have been rising for certain demographic groups in Alberta's private-provided industry. Some companies have even taken the step of refusing to write new policies for Alberta customers. Naturally some Albertans are wondering whether this isn't an instance of "market failure" requiring government intervention.'s assignment desk is on the case! Although, in view of the fact that the proprietor is no longer employed as an editor, he may be first in line for his own assignment. Still, I have surprisingly few Alberta readers, so it can't hurt to show the world where I'd start beating the bushes on a story like this. I'd start where I always do--with the numbers. Even in Alberta, auto insurance is a publicly regulated business, which makes the numbers public business. Unfortunately our provincial regulator of financial institutions is a little slow with the spreadsheet: the 2001 numbers only just came out in April of this year.

The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia is B.C.'s socialized provider: you can find a link to its 2001 annual report here. I have to say that, even as a libertarian, I normally have trouble working up much hatred for the ICBC. They're replacing a private business, in auto insurance, whose operating revenues and expenses are largely going to be determined by the conditions of tort law (or statutory accident benefits) in a given province. It might be fair to say that in a province like Alberta, the government allows private auto insurers to profit from the particular legal structure; you could argue that it is an implicitly privatized business for which the state bears a logically antecedent responsibility, and that it is an open question whether private or public means of provision are appropriate. (I'll still vote private every time, myself.) ICBC does a lot of research and experimentation on road safety, it makes a show of watching the bottom line, and it seems to be a model of relative bureaucratic efficiency (it has managed, for example, to get out a 2002 annual report). That said, ICBC is not immune to the excesses of government monopoly: B.C. drivers, for instance, are still obliged to purchase license plates for both bumpers of their automobiles, a small but noticeable abuse of coercive power.

What do you find when you study the most recent (2001) set of comparable figures for premiums and claims in Alberta and B.C.? The premise in the air is that socialized insurance results in cost savings to the consumer. In truth, the savings in premiums per capita seem to have been marginal at best: $591 in B.C., $608 in Alberta, assuming that the number of drivers in each province is proportional to the population and that the demographic profiles are appropriately similar. If the assumptions hold, B.C.'s bureaucracy saved the average driver just $17 per year--

--but wait! On the claims side, the ICBC suffered staggering losses in 2001, losses that taxpayers, including many non-drivers, are ultimately obliged to cover or at least guarantee. Alberta's insurance industry paid out $527 in claims per capita, keeping $81 of each $608 in premiums for itself. (The rakeoff was even higher in previous years, a fact you should not necessarily expect insurers to remind you of just because they've been caught flatfooted by what is probably a cyclical peak in auto claims.) B.C.'s provincial insurer paid out $704 in no-fault claims per capita, losing a provincewide total of $467 million. Some of that shortfall would have been made up by investment income from the float, but in 2001, at least, it's fair to say that B.C.'s no-fault system channelled money (or a very big loan) from people who never got behind the wheel into the pockets of drivers who would have, in a tort regime, been found culpable for causing accidents.

As I say, this is where the story starts, not ends: these 2001 figures may have been completely reversed by now, and indeed the premise of the debate seems to be that they have. But that is a suspicion, not a confirmed fact. As you can see, the CBC's story is short on numbers, as other items on the subject have been. Go ye forth armed, and report!

- 3:47 am, July 8 (link)

Of sausages and bums

So farewell then, Michael Savage. It should not be overlooked that the MSNBC personality's career-suicidal Saturday tirade came in response to a caller's apparent attempt to prank the show. Savage wasn't saying "get AIDS and die" to a gay man, as such, and that's a factor that the quickie postmortems probably shouldn't be bypassing. That said, Savage has a certain track record, he was hired on the explicit understanding that he wouldn't cross certain lines, and the content of his outburst was so just-plain-weird that one wonders whether MSNBC has mastered realtime audio machine translation from English to German and back into English.

Oh, you're one of the sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig. How's that? Why don't you see if you can sue me, you pig. You got nothing better than to put me down, you piece of garbage. You have got nothing to do today, go eat a sausage and choke on it. Get trichinosis.

OK, do we have another nice caller here who's busy because he didn't have a nice night in the bathhouse who's angry at me today? Get me another one, put another sodomite on. No more calls out of--let's go to the next scene. I don't care about these bums. They mean nothing to me. They're all sausages. Next scene; onto the next scene on the Savage Nation.

The most objectionable thing about this, really, is how uninspired it is. It's more hydrophobic than homophobic. And I'm afraid anyone who thinks Ann Coulter is playing in the same ballpark as this guy must be suspected of severe tone-deafness.

MSNBC, naturally, stands tried and convicted of the same offence. What were they playing at, hiring somebody who was so obviously, with such palpable insincerity, going through the motions in the discredited Manual of Conservative Media Crossover? I fear North America is in the grip of a psychotic mass delusion--promoted, perhaps, by a sort of spongiform encephalopathy transmitted amongst CEOs--that radio, television, newspapers, books, websites, and all other forms of media are the same in essence. That talent, whether managerial or expressive, is infinitely fungible. If it were, then a World Famous Herbal Expert like Savage would have no trouble building a TV audience large enough to make him bulletproof. And Art Bell would be hosting the NBC Nightly News by now...

- 2:40 am, July 8 (link)

Tommy Lee Jones, call your agent put an "Ironic" tag on this AP wire story about bounty hunter (and convicted murderer) Duane "Dog" Chapman failing to make a court appearance in Mexico on charges arising from his capture of cosmetics heir and rapist Andrew Luster. My own choice of tag would be "Screenplay". In a world where a renowned bounty hunter jumps bail... who do you send after him? ("Whom" doesn't play in Peoria.) Unfortunately there is only $1,430 at stake, so in real life it's unlikely you'll have some kind of chase scene on Venice Beach with Chapman and the supporting cast of Desperado hot on his heels. You can visit Duane's website, but brace yourself for a couple bars of "Who Let the Dogs Out" after clicking. I think Chuck Norris has the inside track on the role in the biopic...

There are plenty of places you could go in with this material, starting from the generic "world's most famous bounty hunter jumps bail" situation. The whole "brilliant student squares off against his former teacher" thing has been done a hundred times, most recently in The Hunted, but it's still available; it's a Hollywood perennial, like the good cop havin' a bad day. And it would make for a great Act III twist if the rich sociopath rapist Duane captures before the opening credits actually escapes from prison and absconds back to Mexico. (I don't think we can keep the name "Luster", though--it's just too obvious.)

- 1:51 am, July 8 (link)

At the Calgary Stam-pied

It had to happen eventually. The modern-day Yippies who still think that hitting politicians with pies is hip and anarchistic have, in the past, succeeded in splattering such Canadian luminaries as Jean Charest and Jean Chretien. Stockwell Day, while leader of the Canadian Alliance, was once deluged with chocolate milk by an aboriginal protester who hadn't had the presence of mind to engage the services of a pastry chef in advance. But the country's ultimate "right-wing" hate figure, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, had escaped pieing--a curious circumstance, considering who's usually responsible for the hit-and-run schlorpings. (They're usually perpetrated by that oddball type of "anarchist" who believes in socialized medicine, public schools, and a hundred other things logically incompatible with "anarchy".)

This morning, Ralph finally got zapped, and a CP photographer was there to get the shot. (He obviously knew what he was doing: check out the pretty girl looking shocked in the lower left of the frame.) It is perhaps a little early to speculate on the motivations for this act, but note this detail in the Globe's account:

Mr. Klein had just started to address the crowd and was commenting on what a great job Agriculture Minister Shirley McClellan was doing with the mad-cow crisis when a man, who appeared to be in his 20s, hit Mr. Klein with some kind of cream pie.

That's some nice, fast turnaround on the news from Globian Allison Dunfield, but it shouldn't have been hard to establish the identity of the offending pie: the wire photo leaves no doubt that it was banana cream. (Klein has the stuff hanging off his earlobes: this wasn't one of your Cool Whip-in-a-tin movie-prop pies.) This is, of course, relevant, because if some enraged cattleman had taken up the tactic in a fit of despair over the continuing international quarantine of Canadian cows, the correct weapon of choice surely would have been steak-and-kidney.

- 11:10 am, July 7 (link)

Where the (affirmative) action is

I haven't written about Canadian football yet this year, which I suppose leaves most of you quite content. Honestly, my Edmonton Eskimos (2-2 after four games) have been so disappointing--and questionably coached--that I'm in no mood to proselytize. After an egregious, almost Steinbrennerian off-season of talent acquisition, the team suffered very public and ugly personnel problems in training camp. To some degree, you can perhaps count on high-paid American talent to self-motivate when it is playing in the United States; but Canadian teams--which ask guys from Georgia and Florida to play for truck-driving wages in brutal weather in front of pasty self-satisfied foreigners--can't afford locker-room malaise. Worse yet, the offensive line, disorganized throughout all of last year, still looks to be a mess. And head coach Tom Higgins is pulling away from the field in the race for the Gregg Easterbrook "Why Are You Punting?" trophy. He's not only punting in natural field-goal situations, he's punting in situations where punting might be the third-best option--forty yards out, short yardage to go on third down, and a dead-cert CFL Hall of Famer (Mike Pringle) in his backfield. Remember, this is Canadian football. The goalpost is located on the goal line, and there's no fair catch, so every punt is an opportunity for the opposing returner to hand you a pigskin enema. If my finances allow, I will be happy to fund the casting of the trophy, assuming that a nine-inch pile of chickenshit can be successfully electroplated.

I'd just as soon foreigners continued to overlook the league in a year when the Esks seem destined to finish a nondescript .500. But I will say this: aside from the merits of the play in Canadian football, which are many, it has a potential political allure for some American fans. Do you realize that the Canadian Football League is one of the clearest practical examples of a longstanding, explicit affirmative-action regime? Entirely without shame or apologies, the CFL has, for decades, imposed a quota of Canadian citizens on each team. Each CFL roster consists of three quarterbacks and 36 other players. No more than 17 of the 36 can be "imports"--in practice, players from the United States.

An ambitious sociologist who wanted practical data about the effects of affirmative action might find abundant rewards in the close study of Canadian football, whose import rules have quietly influenced the development of athletic talent in Canada, the progress of Canadian football as a business, and of course the play on the field. One obvious example is the effect of the exemption for quarterbacks from the roster limits. We are now thirty years beyond the career of Russ Jackson, the last world-class Canadian QB. No successor has appeared--and why should one? For a CFL team, a Canadian quarterback would not add value beyond his talent by opening up an extra roster spot for an import, the way having a good Canadian kicker or running back does. It is therefore in the interests of CFL general managers to convert fast, savvy, strong Canadian kids to running backs or receivers; indeed, Canadian college QBs are sometimes drafted with this explicit intention.

And it is in the interest of the youth, in turn, to learn a position at which he can deliver added value. American fans: did you ever wonder why the NFL always seems to have a few good Canadian kickers hanging around, but no Canadian-born QBs? Yes, it's partly because soccer is more popular in our society, with its British roots and its large number of new immigrants; but the pass-happy three-down football we grow up playing certainly ought to compensate for that. The powerful top-down labour-market pressures created by the quota are the real reason.

- 3:31 pm, July 6 (link)

Gott ist tot?

So Barry White is dead... boy, that takes me back. At around the same time every afternoon, back in '73, '74, the local independent TV station would run short on commercial time and would have to pad out what was presumably some children's show (I've long forgotten which one) with a--to a two-year-old--spooky and compelling video clip of the Love Unlimited Orchestra playing "Love's Theme". I was old enough to read the name in lights behind the massed performers: BARRY WHITE. I still remember exactly how it looked. I was also old enough to be mystified at the fact that no one person actually seemed to be, technically speaking, singing anything. Who, or where, was "Barry White"? I'm not even sure, to this day, that he was present in the video.

Not that I would have formulated all this mentally in just that way, at two: but it made an indelible psychic impression (even without colour TV, which we didn't acquire until 1979 or thereabouts), and "Love's Theme" still regresses me instantly to infancy. And that one hit single was the common ancestor of the syrupy orchestral disco that would suffuse the next six or seven years of all our lives. (My only earlier, more powerful aural memory would be Sterling Holloway as the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh on the Disney LPs I listened to in my crib.) When I grew up, and found out that Barry White's fame had been founded on murmured basso recitals of date-rape poetry, I was a little bit unnerved. Inarticulately, I had experienced him as an invisible presence, a name written in fire, ringed by massed celebrants performing bright, soaring music: if the concept of God could have been introduced to me then, that is probably the image I would have associated with it.

- 4:05 am, July 5 (link)

Old business

A reader, inquiring about the criteria for the Popular Weblogs in Canada list, notes that Canadian webmistress Heather Champ is actually located in the Bay Area, that scenic, sucking singularity of Canadian-bred talent. My rule--the only practically applicable one, I think--is that you're on the list if you're a resident of Canada, and off if you're not. Ergo, the revised Top Ten:

1. Winds of Change
2. William Gibson
4. Seb's Open Research
7. Wood's Lot
8. Ongoing (Tim Bray)
9. Daimnation!
10. The Adventures of AccordionGuy in the 21st Century

The eligibility of Dave Shea (who has now followed through on the marrying-an-American thing) remains to be determined. Now in 11th place: the Relapsed Catholic. Huzzah! Further emendations, questions, additions, criticisms, and offers to bear my children remain abundantly welcome.

Sean Engemoen writes to point out that the sales figures on the "How Do They Sell?" chart exclude sales from high school and college bookstores, and thus may actually understate the explosive monetary effects of having your Great Novel shoved down the throats of bored children.

- 1:13 pm, July 3 (link)

No man but a blockhead

I followed the 2 Blowhards' link to a article entitled "Where Are They Now and How Do They Sell?". I can't decide what to make of the information that Harper Lee actually patronizes a restaurant called "Radley's Fountain Grille".

Pat Childs, a waitress at [the] Monroeville restaurant named after Lee's character Boo Radley, calls Lee "quiet and reserved." Childs says that Lee, a regular customer, usually orders the soup of the day and a chicken salad and tips generously, but, like Boo Radley, prefers to keep to herself. "If she was in here, you wouldn't even know," Childs says.

Tips generously... but does she actually have to pay for her food? Is Miz Lee drawn to the restaurant by the Imp of the Perverse, or by free chicken salad? Inquiring minds, etc.

There is a greater wealth of detail in the chart accompanying the article. Why, it's practically a charticle unto itself. It demonstrates the tremendous windfall that arrives upon having a book enter school curricula, although most authors will have to wait until they're dead to have this happen. [UPDATE, 1:18 pm: see further note here.] I know To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, and 1984 are classroom staples: all but the Steinbeck were taught at my own school. (Canada has its own abundant literature of the Depression: W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind, Hugh Garner's Cabbagetown, Max Braithwaite's Why Shoot the Teacher.)

The most surprising datum on the chart is the low position of Frank Herbert's twice-filmed Dune. Can almost two copies of The House on Mango Street really be sold in the U.S. for every one of Dune? At one time Dune was almost as big on campuses as that business with the hobbits and elves and whatnot, and has been almost as productive of annoying cultic offspring. For my money it is much more serious, as literature; and as my brother-in-law can tell you, I won't sit still for attempted comparisons with the current SF phenomenon of The Matrix. Freight the Matrix with as much bogus French pseudophilosophizing as you like, but its intellectual depth never descends below the pothead level. "Dude, what if reality wasn't, like, real? And we were all actually in some kind of computer-controlled pod?" Cue the classic Keanu Reeves "Whoa". Dune, by contrast, leaps between humanistic fields with arachnid elegance: if it weren't a genre book, more people would notice how well its author had absorbed economics and history, not to speak of its precognitive anticipation of the category of the "environmental". I don't really agree with everything Herbert has to say, but he has answers to all my questions. Few alternate worlds have been constructed with as much attention to credibility. The Matrix was created with almost none. I cannot dispute its visual originality--but even this, its chief claim to merit, has become a a plague on civilization though no fault of the Wachowskis.

- 3:51 am, July 3 (link)

Of marmots and men

The Ambler embarks on his 49th year of life today. Lovers of endangered species are urged to send him a birthday present.

- 5:09 am, July 2 (link)

Keeper of the flame

If you're looking for reflections on the late Katharine Hepburn, you could do a lot worse than Rick McGinnis's. That's Katharine Hepburn, mind. The local AM talk station here is, if you can believe it, reporting the demise of Audrey Hepburn every hour on the hour. Except for the surnames, it would be hard to imagine two more difficult actresses to confuse with one another.

Kate was born in the state of Connecticut, and died there, forty miles away but 96 years on. Probably no other part of the world but New England could have produced a Katharine Hepburn. The minute she appeared on the screen, you always immediately knew that this was a woman who had been bred--that she was the product of a brazen intellectual and genetic crucible, a peculiar world of class-bound, yet radical (and radicalizing), semi-believing Protestantism. She was the offspring of a forward-thinking medical doctor and a suffragette, and you didn't need to read her very entertaining autobiography to know it. She carried herself with the indignant ferocity of ancestors who had travelled to the equivalent of another planet rather than bear the rule of kings. She was, blatantly, the superior of everyone she ever played off of. Her beauty, harsher perhaps than that of any great female lead in Hollywood, was like a wound slashed into the screen. You sensed that she was bound by no known rules, certainly not those of fashion or politesse: a sudden eruption of violence never seemed too implausible, and Eleanor of Aquitaine was not the only Hepburn character who might be suspected of having a dagger concealed on her person.

In the Hollywood of the day, the chief utility for such a sexual persona was as a challenge to male leads, a something to be tamed for the thrill of the taming. Usually they succeeded, and one left the theatre pitying them their success. (Except for Tracy, whom you trusted to be big-hearted enough to slump back in his chair and enjoy the show. He seemed perfectly comfortable in the presence of a female superior.) The female stars nowadays are all pretty innocuous: we are too afraid of high-temperature intergender dynamics to really tolerate them in movies, and so we look back in wonder on the adult pleasures of older cinema. How long will it be before The African Queen, with its theme of the forbidding spinster in need of a good rough shag from smelly Bogie, is proscribed outright? How long before we decide that the female caprice which powers Bringing Up Baby offers a deadly insult to half the human race?

- 12:35 am, July 2 (link)


In celebration of Canada Day, I decided to inquire into the potentially touchy subject of which weblogs are Canada's most popular. There are a whole passel of website-ranking applications out there nowadays, some of them weblog-specific, some not. Different criteria are used: Alexa provides traffic estimates, other sites track and count inbound links. I decided to make a list of credible top-ten candidates and agglomerate their rankings according to these sites: the Myelin Ecosystem, the Truth Laid Bear's Ecosystem (same app, different numbers), Daypop's Blogstats, Technorati, Alexa, and Blogstreet. Because overall website traffic has been observed to be Zipf-distributed, and inbound links ought to be, I took the logarithms of all the rankings (dividing Alexa's into groups of 1,000 sites because they include the whole Web) before averaging them. Not every ranking method was relevant for each website: Alexa doesn't measure the traffic on subdomain pages, like Blogspot sites, for example, and DayPop's coverage is spotty. I used the data where it existed.

You've probably spotted fifteen problems with this technique already, but it yields combinations of the individual ranking figures that look reasonable, anyway. The flaw I'm worried about is that my initial list of candidate weblogs--which I only spent four or five hours generating--may have missed a potential top-tenner. If you think your site belongs in this list, e-mail me and I'll gladly crunch your numbers. Now, ignore all that fiffle and take this as the gospel: these are the ten most popular weblogs in Canada.

1. Winds of Change
2. William Gibson
5. Seb's Open Research
8. Wood's Lot
9. Ongoing (Tim Bray)
10. Daimnation!

Damian Penny is, of course, is rebuilding his network of inbound links after a domain switch, and would have been much higher (certainly higher than this site) six months ago. He will probably move up considerably if I re-do the rankings in a few months.

You may feel that Winds of Change, as a group blog edited in Canada, shouldn't be measured by the same criteria as personal sites; nonetheless it seems to be a pretty clear number one overall. (The number 11 site, right now, is the AccordionGuy's.) WoC is the top Canadian weblog in the TLB Ecosystem and the Alexa rankings and is close under all the others. Myelin considers Gibson to be #1, and he also has the most inbound links according to Technorati. Heather Champ's Harrumph! has the highest DayPop score, and Sébastien Paquet's site appears to have the highest Blogstreet ranking in Canada. As you can see, it's hard to find consensus on this issue.

Dave Shea's MezzoBlue may belong in the top ten. I saw on his site that he's gone south to marry an American, and I kinda assumed that was permanent, because who would be nuts enough to marry an American and then come back here? On a second inspection, though, it's not clear where he intends to reside after the honeymoon. If anyone can fill me in, I'd be obliged.

[UPDATE, July 3: the list has been updated slightly.]

- 6:39 pm, July 1 (link)

The ink is black, the page is white

Personally, I think the "White Blue Jays" scandal arrived just the right time to give the Canadian public a warning about getting the journalism it deserves. The Star, remember, has the largest circulation in the country, and that huge readership wasn't expected to balk, for one moment, at the bizarre original story by Geoff Baker. Hey, the Jays are playing winning ball, Baker admits, but that simply "raises the issue of whether the Jays truly need to be more representative of the city they play in at a time when they are satisfying fans by winning." The club reacted negatively to the story, but at least Baker stopped short of recommending that two or three of the Jays be deliberately infected with SARS to meet the goal of "representativeness".

It's Richard Griffin's fiery defence of the story that really leaves the Star adrift in the credibility gap. Griffin's editorial starts by praising the "research" and "documentation" in a story whose chief positive assertion was a count of white faces in a team photo. (Estimated research time required: eight seconds.) Then he celebrates the Canada Day long weekend by slandering his country:

There are always going to be issues of race in professional baseball which need to be monitored to ensure the continuing forward movement of the game. It's been that way since World War II when Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier and North American society started on the volatile road toward equal rights and equal opportunity.

Jackie Robinson came up to the majors in 1947, you'll recall, while the fires of war were still raging furiously in Europe. But what is this "North American society" of which Griffin speaks? I seem to remember, and stop me if I'm straying into hyper-obscure baseball-history territory here, that Branch Rickey placed Jackie Robinson with the Montreal Royals in 1946 precisely because Canada was a totally different society, one which could accept an integrated baseball team. Which it did, happily: fans caroused in the streets en masse, cheering Robinson to the skies, after he won Montreal the minor-league championship. The "colour line" was an American artifact in an American game. Canada had a role in helping to break it, and is surely entitled to the benefit of the moral distinction Griffin submerges here. (And the United States, incidentally, is entitled to have the pre-Jackie Robinson portions of its "road toward equal rights" recognized. Did this struggle really "start" with Jackie?)

Eric McErlain has done a good job of showing that Griffin doesn't understand sabermetric theory any better than he does history. While denying that the paper is accusing anybody of racism, Griffin actually writes:

Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi along with Oakland's Billy Beane and other new-wavers believe in building offence through patience at the plate and taking no chances on the bases. ...Under those criteria, Jackie Robinson could not have played in the majors.

It's a damn good thing nobody's being accused of racism or anything here, because if they were, the Star might stand to be acutely embarrassed by Griffin's implicit but clear suggestion that J.P. Ricciardi is opposed to the style of baseball that is the only one blacks know how to play. Why, with that nat'ral rhythm in their feet, you just can't stop 'em from stealin' a base or two!

- 4:15 pm, July 1 (link)

MOST secret

There's good news from on high--no, don't worry, I'm still a brutish atheist: the good news is that the Canadian-conceived and -built MOST satellite has been successfully placed in orbit by a Russian ICBM. You can follow MOST's progress at the site of the UBC astronomy department, home of principal investigator Jaymie Matthews. There's more than you could possibly want to know at the official MOST website.

"But why should we give a damn?" I hear you asking, or maybe that's just one of my drunken neighbours yelling at the missus out front, but still--good question. The answer is, this isn't just about Canada. As a brilliant and handsome journalist wrote in September, the suitcase-sized MOST will deliver some pretty neat data--at the low construction cost of about $10 million Canadian--if it works:

Once in orbit, the MOST satellite will be capable of pointing at the same star for 60 days without moving more than 10 seconds of arc out of kilter. The telescope contains a sophisticated array of microlenses and a digital camera which can detect changes in brightness of 1 part per million in stars.

...Earthbound astronomers traditionally had to study stars as twinkling pinpoints, building a sophisticated body of knowledge about stellar behaviour and life cycles from only their light spectra. The MOST satellite offers the chance to view the disks of extrasolar stars without atmospheric interference or the troublesome rotation of the earth. Watching sound waves propagate in the gaseous atmospheres of these stars, we can get good seismic data about their composition. That will let astronomers calibrate the existing theoretical models of stellar behaviour, and possibly help resolve the paradox that the oldest observed stars seem to be older than the universe itself. Furthermore, MOST could give ironclad final confirmation of the existence of extrasolar planets by observing the tidal wobbling of stars suspected to possess them.

- 5:01 am, July 1 (link)

The "Greatest Hits" page, whose name is increasingly unsuitable (it should probably be the "Stuff That Hasn't Disappeared From Cyberspace Yet" page), has been updated with some out-of-date articles you may not have read. For addicts, stalkers, nostalgia freaks, and potential employers only. -4:06 am, July 1
Guided by voices

The market exists really--and always has existed--through public policy, through political policy. We would not have a CBC today if it were not for political policy. We would have just a chain of private stations and probably all of them American-owned. The whole purpose of the media is frankly, in a real sense, to be liberal. In order for it to have any kind of credibility in a democracy, it has to represent other voices at some level. And so the question then is, are you doing an adequate job of it?

Emphasis mine. This gem from Council of Canadians executive director John Urquhart is quoted in the latest Hill Times by Molly Shinhat. The piece is about a round of futile media-concentration hearings currently occupying the attention of the Senate Transport and Communications Committee. I say "futile" because elected politicians, unlike Senators, are rightly afraid of those who buy their ink by the barrel or their videotape by the mile.

It's a confusing statement, is Mr. Urquhart's--a loopy attempt at building some sort of historical-logical hierarchy of events. More context would be welcome. I think we can safely posit that he's not proposing a market test for "credibility"; otherwise we could assume he was comfortable with American media owners stampeding in and taking bread from the mouths of the Thomsons and the Southams and the like. Moreover, he seems to feel that the Canadian public is not by its inherent nature any more liberal than that in the U.S.; otherwise, he'd be content with a market free-for-all that naturally elevated liberal organs above conservative ones in popularity. The argument seems to be that government policy framers have a dual responsibility to keep American money out of Canadian media markets and ensure that the domestic populace is propagandized according to the correct agenda.

It's refreshing, I suppose, to have a liberal move beyond questions of "liberal media bias" and come right out and say that the media is to be judged solely by how liberal it is. And it's refreshing to have one of our supposed "cultural nationalists" admit that his cultural nationalism will go so far as necessary to keep the country liberal, and no further. The reader will have to judge for himself how widely Urquhart's sentiments are shared within the ranks of working journalists. Personally, I wonder about the internal contradictions. Are there no conservatives amongst this country's underrepresented "other voices"? Jailed pro-life protesters? Christian printers fined for refusing to work for gay-rights organizations? Unreformed Mormon polygamists cowering in the British Columbia bush? Western farmers sent to prison for selling a single bushel of grain in Montana without the leave of the Wheat Board? Old-fashioned bar owners put out of business by new smoking by-laws? One could go on.

If it truly is the role of the media to stick up for the little man against powerful interests, then there is certainly nothing stopping a newspaper, magazine, or television station from doing so by means of a conservative approach--unless you believe conservatives are never, ever victims or underdogs in our great, Liberal-governed country. Urquhart seems to be implying that if the state commits an injustice against a conservative group or individual, it ought to remain beneath the notice of the media. Or maybe that the state can do no wrong at all, if it is in nominally liberal hands. Oddly, this strikes me as an exceedingly illiberal way of thinking.

- 2:47 am, July 1 (link)