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ARCHIVES for March 2005

Weaponization of the unborn: my old chum Chris Hammond-Thrasher invents an Easter tradition that's fun for the whole family, though probably a little more fun for the ones who've studied ballistics. -11:48 am, March 31
Eat, drink, and be merry

An interesting letter about Terri Schiavo arrives from David Cho, who comments pursuant to the conclusion of this entry:

Oh yeah, he [Michael Schiavo]'s precious. The guy marries another woman and fathers two children (hey, you were right about that polygamy!) but can't divorce Terri because that would deprive him of his "right" to kill her and open the way for the Schindlers to (God forbid) keep her alive. And being an atheist, what's it to you whether the communion is kosher or not? And does it strike you as odd that Mikey won't allow a proper burial and wants to cremate the body? I know, I know, he's just being compassionate just like you and we shouldn't ever look into his motives as he buries (er, burns) the evidence and your discomfort at seeing "AHHHHH! WAAAAA!" Terry goes away.

This missive perfectly crystallizes, I think, the utter obnoxiousness of Terri Schiavo's "defenders".

To deal first with the points that don't relate to me personally, it should be noted first that the husband has no relevant claim of "right" relating to the care and sustenance of Terri Schiavo. The question is, and has always been, which party best represents Terri's own potential claims of right. If, as Michael argues, she would have wanted food and water withdrawn in her current circumstances, then the right of withdrawal is her right, a right Michael argues he has the moral responsibility of exercising on her behalf. Similarly, the parents have no claim of "right" to prolong Terri's existence merely on account of their own preferences; their argument is that Michael's account of Terri's preferences is mistaken. The rights in question are all hers. It is, hence, no more fair to snipe at the husband for demanding a "right" to kill his wife than it is to attack the parents for wishing to trap her in an acephalic limbo of discomfort and humiliation.

In addition, the complaint that Michael does not wish to allow a "proper" burial has seemingly been rendered null, for the moment, by his stated intention to permit an autopsy. To anyone who regards the situation fairly and wonders if he has been hiding something, this must at least give pause. But it has been greeted with nothing but scorn by those for whom this situation has now, quite inappropriately, become a sheer conflict of political will.

Mr. Cho has also accused me of individual bad faith here; he suggests I am motivated by "discomfort" at Terri's plight, which is odd, since (a) I've stated that the trial judge should have ruled for continued feeding in the absence of a living will or other hard documentary proof, and (b) I've criticized others precisely for allowing "discomfort" to cloud their judgments of such situations. I can't, of course, expect every letter-writer to be aware of every part of my oeuvre--but Cho is familiar enough with it to know, at least, that I am an outspoken atheist.

Still, that's a venial sin, as argumentation goes. The part of his letter that bothers me most, and that should bother those of a religious persuasion the most, is this sentence: "[B]eing an atheist, what's it to you whether the communion is kosher or not?"

Quite honestly, that question brought me up short for a moment. The quick answer is that it is nothing at all to me if Roman Catholics wish to regard the tenets and practices of their religion as entirely mutable in the face of urgent political goals. But if Catholics are going to treat their own religion that way, they had better be prepared to have it regarded as a strictly political credo, rather than a faith. If I am to take Mr. Cho seriously as a spokesman for Catholicism, the conclusion urged upon me--and, by implication, urged upon the law--would seem to be that it is not for me to take the ancient cosmic claims and theology of Catholicism seriously at all. He is actually angry that I have taken them seriously, referred to their dignity, and demanded their application in this case.

Much follows from this. If Catholic doctrine is merely a fluid right-wing construct which can be altered to address the exigencies of populist panics, then those of us who are not Catholics ought to start asking certain questions more aggressively. If the Catholic church is a partisan political operation, then of course it ought to be subject to the same tax laws and operational limitations as others of the sort, shouldn't it? And the deference given by courts to the sacrament of confession can, by this standard, be thrown out, no? Let priests be compelled to testify about their conversations, like anyone else. If one cannot use Catholic arguments against Catholics, then any sort of historic distinction one might make between Catholicism and other fantasy ideologies can be dispensed with.

It's a liberating thought, really. I have always dealt relatively respectfully with the Church, believing that, though it was wrong in all metaphysical essentials, it was at least governed by enduring codes and hierarchies which held its worst impulses in check. A good example of "worst impulses" would be using an invented claim of spiritual need to circumvent the due process of law. Since Catholic doctrine suggests that Ms. Schiavo is ineligible for the Eucharist, we cannot regard the claim as anything but invented. Mr. Cho urges it upon me anyway, telling me to ignore the doctrine and defer to "Catholics" on the implied grounds that they are powerful, numerous, and angry. The only response possible to a conscientious atheist is to turn all the more firmly against such open social aggression. So, even though I still believe it was in society's secular interest for Terri Schiavo to be fed, I'd like to announce that in light of Mr. Cho's letter, I am setting aside a bottle of expensive champagne to be opened and consumed at the moment of the vegetable's expiry, when the majesty of the secular law and the sacred U.S. Constitution formally triumph over the hooliganism of the phony religious. Amen.

- 12:26 pm, March 29 (link)

The good poison

A lot of jokes are made about Botox, the muscle-paralyzing drug that uses one of the deadliest known neurotoxins to render faces wrinkle-free. But the discoverers of the cosmetic use for Botox--married Vancouver physicians Jean and Alistair Carruthers--are actually pretty significant benefactors to humankind. They've created a low-cost alternative to minor rhinoplastic surgeries, particularly brow- and facelifts, that is much less prone to morbidity, mortality, and permanent disfigurement. It's a wonder they aren't better known in their home country.

Today's National Post may help correct that; Jean Carruthers is on page A2, fighting a battle that was just beginning when I interviewed her in the summer of 2002. At that time Dr. Carruthers was already becoming concerned about careless non-clinical uses of the drug. As Sharon Kirkey reports today, she's rapidly losing patience with the irresponsibility of some colleagues--and you know doctors hate to lose patience (ba dump bump).

A staff assistant to Dr. Jean Carruthers... recently spotted a sign in a Vancouver physician's office offering "Botax" injections. "I mean, if they can't spell it, what's going on? Like, hello? Are you going to go and see a chartered accountant who is going to talk about a 'tox' return?" Dr. Carruthers asks. "It blows your mind."

One week after a fourth U.S. doctor was charged with distributing counterfeit Botox that left four people paralyzed and on ventilators, Dr. Carruthers is launching a Botox safety awareness campaign to encourage safe and effective use of the real botulism poison.

"He dosed these four people, one of which was himself, with 50,000 units. That's enough for 1,000 people," says Dr. Carruthers. "Because Botox has been so successful, there are about eight different other toxins that are being made in the world that are going to try to make their way into North America. You need to ask your physician who is injecting you, 'Is it Botox?'"

...In one spa she knows of that offers medically supervised shots, the medical oversight amounts to the fact an orthopedic surgeon owns the building.

Allergan, the lucky patentholder on a wildly popular therapy originally given only to blepharospasm patients, offers lists of certified Botox purchasers (including this one for Canada). On the web the Drs. Carruthers live here.

- 4:53 am, March 28 (link)

Saturday's National Post contained a piece by me on the Multi-Fibre Arrangement, the global protectionism pact for clothing and textiles that expired on January 1 and created a largely unremarked-upon swirl of jobs in the Third World. Those who missed that one can watch for it in this space on the weekend. In the meantime I have a fresh piece on Bobby Fischer in Monday morning's Post, reviewing recent events and pointing out that Fischer's stamp on the game is not limited to his play at the chessboard.
- 4:12 am, March 28 (link)

'A useless living dead'

The Ottawa Sun's irresistibly loony Earl McRae has held forth on Terri Schiavo, and the results are so awesome that like Chris Selley I feel some trepidation about responding. That the Nazis enter the text a mere 113 words in is merely the order of the day:

I'm not smart. I don't understand what they're doing to Terri Schiavo. There are people who would. The Nazis. The Nazis of the concentration camps.

Oh, those Nazis!

Believe it or not, the column actually proceeds to a much higher plane of awfulness. Having dragged in Hitler, there is not much Earl can do with him, so he proceeds to wax literary, with slapstick results:

I think of Joe Bonham. Joe Bonham in Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun. The most powerful anti-war novel of the 20th century. Joe Bonham, the young American soldier who was blown up by a landmine in World War I.
Joe Bonham with no legs. No arms. No nose. No mouth. No tongue. No speech. No sight. No hearing. No taste. No face. Joe Bonham, brain damaged. Joe Bonham, torso. Joe Bonham, vegetable.
Joe Bonham, who, for "experimental" purposes, was kept breathing in a military hospital for years, who was considered a useless living dead, who some wanted to kill, Joe Bonham who could think, who could remember, who could dream, who could feel the change in temperature, the welcoming smooth, clean sheets against what was left of him, the vibrations of footsteps approaching his bed, the gentle breezes from his window.
Joe Bonham who wanted to live, Joe Bonham, "vegetable," Joe Bonham who feared they'd end his life...

...Joe Bonham who was a character in a book and never actually existed.

Much of the horror of Johnny Got His Gun is drawn from the fact that Joe Bonham's reasoning capacity is unimpaired, so the attempted analogy to Terri Schiavo is, of course, horseshit. There's thus scarcely even any need to point out--though I'll do it anyway--that Trumbo's book ends with Joe begging over and over and over and over again to be put to death. Oh, and you probably noticed that McRae has the central defining event of the story wrong (Joe didn't step on a land mine; he was hit by a shell). To top everything off, it's worth recalling that Earl's favourite book was written in 1938 to prevent the United States from intervening in a European war against (wait for it!) the Nazis. You know, the ones with the concentration camps?

Friends, when a man shoots himself in the foot, that's journalism; but when he does it four or five times at once, from different angles, it can only be described as ballet.

- 12:32 am, March 28 (link)

Kill me instead

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - After another round of losses in the courts, Terri Schiavo’s parents kept watch over their dying daughter Saturday, seeking permission to give her Easter communion as their attorneys acknowledged the fight to reconnect the brain-damaged woman’s feeding tube was nearing an end.

...Earlier, Pinellas Circuit Judge George Greer rejected the family’s latest motion. The family claimed Schiavo tried to say "I want to live" hours before her tube was removed, saying "AHHHHH" and "WAAAAAAA" when asked to repeat the phrase.

Let me guess--she was then asked a question about Marbury vs. Madison, and her response of "BUUUHHHH" was taken to indicate her esteem for the administrative-supremacy doctrines of President Andrew Jackson?

I've defended the Schiavo family's position, but at this point, with calls for a populist overthrow of the U.S. Constitution becoming quite general, I've almost come around to believing that food and water should perhaps be given to Terri--as long as it's withdrawn from her entire family, several dozen lawyers, a couple hundred "pro-life" meddlers, and the bulk of the U.S. Congress.

As the Ambler pointed out to me the other day, absolutely everything about this case is sordid, from its origins in a self-inflicted trauma to its closing stages with their Meals on Wheels guerrillas. One of whom, I'll add, was ten years old. Evidently America is now a place where people send their pre-teen sons to be deliberately arrested--in the name of the principle that parents invariably make good, responsible, caring decisions for their children.

And let's not overlook the bizarre papist aspects of Terri's last days:

Paul O’Donnell, a Roman Catholic Franciscan monk, said the family is urging Schiavo’s husband to allow his wife to receive the sacrament of communion at sundown Saturday, when Catholics begin celebrating their holiest feast of the year. Schiavo, who cannot swallow, would have a minuscule piece of bread and a drop of wine placed in her mouth.

You could go blind trying to figure this one out. There are two problems for the Romish theologian here--Schiavo cannot ingest the Eucharist (which is sort of the whole idea), and she lacks the reasoning capacity to distinguish the sacred wafer from ordinary bread (assuming she would know she was being fed at all). As far as I can tell, the latter might conceivably be overlooked in deciding whether to administer viaticum. But in conjunction with the former it raises a danger of what was traditionally called "irreverence toward the sacred Host." Is some poor doctor going to reach in there and remove the holy cookie after it has resided long enough in her dessicated cakehole to infuse her with a little spare Body of Christ for the long road home? I'm not a Catholic, but even to suggest that Terri ("AHHHHH! WAAAAAAA!") should receive communion in her present condition strikes me as irreverent. Not to say about a thousand percent nasty and self-serving. The husband looks better every day here in contrast to the family: frankly, at this point, he arguably comes off relatively all right even if you accept that he's committing a self-interested murder by omission.

- 8:47 pm, March 26 (link)

The NHL announced this morning that June's entry draft, scheduled to be held in Ottawa, has been cancelled indefinitely. A recent installment of my Western Standard sports column touched on the logistical difficulties that the lockout is creating with respect to inbound 18-year-olds. Here's a timely excerpt:

[The 2005 draft] ...seems to have disappeared up the wazoo of some cosmic Uncertainty Principle. Because of the eligibility of Nova Scotia's Sidney Crosby, generally considered the most promising hockey prospect since Mario Lemieux, the event should have been a magnificent coronation--the most closely-watched in the history of the league. Now no one knows when it will take place. No one knows what will happen to the eligible players if the draft is cancelled in June and then the season is started at the last minute (or later). And no one knows what order the teams will choose in when the draft is eventually held, since there was no '04-'05 season.

It seems impossible to imagine a fair solution to the ordering problem. No helpful precedents exist. It would be unjust to use the standings from 2003-04 to sort the teams, because the lousy performers from that season have already been rewarded once for stinking up the ice. It's most likely that there will have to be a simple drawing of lots that gives every team an equal chance at the #1 pick. But in that scenario, Crosby might end up as the property of a powerhouse franchise like Detroit or Colorado. And that, in turn, would endanger competitive balance in the league--even though the whole point of the lockout was supposedly to enhance competitive balance.

Some Canadian fans are already conspiracy-theorizing: the lockout, they say, was deliberately designed to wipe out the draft and create a chance for Crosby to go to a large American market. This is crazy, but you can't blame the fans for responding to insanity with insanity. The theory ignores the rudimentary fact that some of the league's lamest franchises are already in fairly large U.S. markets. The god-awful Chicago Blackhawks would probably have had the best chance at Crosby if they had actually played the season, and the troubled New York Rangers might have been only a few strides behind.

One thing worth remembering is that five of the six Canadian clubs made the playoffs in '03-'04, and with the continued strength of the dollar they might easily have gone six-for-six in '04-'05. Under those circumstances, it would have been impossible for Crosby to be drafted by a Canadian team. The cancellation of '04-'05 might just give Vancouver and Calgary and Montreal a chance to snap up the Next Great One. So there may be at least one good reason for Canadian fans to love the lockout.

It's a plus for the league that the very first order of business when the dispute is resolved will be to place Crosby somewhere. Play could not possibly be recommenced with a greater dramatic flourish. But the ambigious status of the suspended draft also means that more time will be needed to get the NHL players back onto the ice after a deal is cut, and it could mean that delays in signing newly-drafted players will extend well into the season. In any case, the Crosby Lottery will be a damp squib if the dispute is prolonged further and the players--or other interested parties--decide to assemble a rival league. If the NHL tries to impose restricted free-agency conditions on Crosby, and he has an alternative, he's bound to take it, as Wayne Gretzky did in 1978.

- 10:48 am, March 24 (link)

Here's my March 12 Post column, expanded slightly from the print version:

Increasing attention is being paid in the Canadian press to the possibility of an avian influenza pandemic -- a potential wave of new disease against which we have no existing immunological defence, and which could wash over the whole world like the Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people in 1918 and 1919. The World Health Organization is currently monitoring an outbreak in Asia, where 42 people have died from the H5N1 variety of influenza A in six weeks. There is no ironclad evidence yet that H5N1 is being transmitted between humans. But that hasn't prevented the media from painting lurid sketches of a Canadian apocalypse, with bodies stacked up on street corners and hockey rinks converted to morgues.

If H5N1 undergoes the fatal mutation into a human-transmissible form, pandemic is a real possibility. Just how likely that might be is an open question. It's somewhat suspicious that no epidemiologist who ends up quoted in a newspaper ever seems even mildly skeptical about the chances of a pandemic. The ones who get the column-inches are the professional alarmists, ever obsessed -- and rightly so -- with the worst-case scenario. But despite the perennial warnings, our species has enjoyed 35 years of intensifying population growth and international travel since the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968-69. And the swine flu scare of 1976 (when hundreds of thousands of Americans caught Guillan-Barré disease from being inoculated against an outbreak that never happened) taught us that disease anxiety sometimes has its own costs.

One daily warned us on Wednesday that a flu pandemic could "thrust the planet into unprecedented social and economic chaos." But what, I ask you, was the Spanish flu if not a precedent? Carried on the ebb tide of a world war, as soldiers surged across the globe from Spain to Siberia, it struck at the most vulnerable moment imaginable and targeted the young with special ferocity. Medicine had barely emerged from its scientific prehistory; the people of 1918 didn't have antiviral drugs, and indeed didn't even know whether a "virus" was an organism or a substance. The public health apparatus that existed at the time barely merits the name, by our standards.

But they got by. Their experience was nasty all right -- and I don't mean "nasty" the way SARS was nasty. Toronto had nearly 50 flu deaths a day in October, 1918, and Montreal suffered 150 a day over its worst fortnight. What's remarkable in retrospect is how smoothly life proceeded just the same.

The authorities in most cities and towns found it prudent, when the first wave of the epidemic hit not long before Armistice Day, to close schools and theatres. Church services were cancelled in some places. But shops, hotels, law courts, stockyards and most businesses remained open to serve the reduced traffic. The general availability of food and goods (straitened by the war economy) was largely unaffected, and stores encouraged housebound customers to adopt the novel practice of placing orders by telephone. Contemporary newspapers offer few signs of "economic chaos" arising from the epidemic; the classified ads, and even the society pages, remained the same size as ever. In the cities, the 1918 Victory Loan fundraising campaign continued apace without the customary mass meetings, collecting plenty of cash through advertisements and door-to-door canvassing. In the countryside, the wheat harvest, which then required the formation of threshing crews, was the biggest in Canada's history.

If the Spanish flu is relevant, we can expect a new pathogen to hit hardest wherever people are either extremely crowded or extremely isolated. We no longer have the cramped mining towns that were devastated by the 1918 pandemic, nor are our northern communities quite so immunologically vulnerable. But no one's saying we would get off easy. Canadian hospitals ran out of room almost instantly in 1918, and school buildings had to be turned into pesthouses. There were hundreds of ill people for every nurse and thousands for every doctor, and in this respect we may not be much better off now. Many patients, today as then, would probably have to take their chances being attended at home without significant professional help. And in light of the risk of secondary infection, that may not be such a bad thing for them.

One concern is that we have many more people living singly than the Canada of 1918 did. People without housemates to care for them were a crippling strain on the ad-hoc systems devised locally to meet the pandemic. But we have advantages, too. We will no longer need to help sick families and individuals gather wood and coal to heat their homes. Local authorities had chronic trouble in 1918 obtaining scarce motor transport for caregivers. And much time and effort were wasted on enterprises like disinfecting telephone receivers and making sure feet (yes, feet) were kept dry.*

Our one true weakness may be a general unfamiliarity with large-scale infectious disease -- our lifelong experience of medicine as virtually omnipotent. Our post-Victorian forebears could be killed anytime by an ear infection or an inflamed scratch; they possessed few illusions about death. And yet they were almost unnervingly cheerful in the face of pestilence. In Edmonton, one November 1918 flu circular from the authorities concluded with the words "Keep smiling." Even after four years of wartime slaughter and austerity -- years endured only to be punctuated by global disease -- no one thought this cretinous or trivial. The recriminations and carping that accompanied SARS, which took only 800 lives worldwide, suggest we may not bear up nearly so well if Big Flu really does emerge.

*This column ran with a famous photo of a group Alberta telephone operators in High River, standing on the steps of the government-owned local exchange and wearing cheesecloth masks. The wearing of such masks in public was generally enforced by local bylaws throughout the epidemic, at least in Canada. My reading suggests that there is still some debate over how worthwhile such a measure would be during a viral pandemic (as opposed to an outbreak like SARS, where the odds of becoming infected in an ordinary public place were vanishingly small). We now know that masks won't stop the passage of viruses, but one supposes that they might serve to limit the interchange of respiratory moisture and psychologically enforce the creation of a usefully wide "personal space." Informed correspondence concerning current medical wisdom on this subject would be appreciated.

- 7:44 am, March 23 (link)

Does anybody else have this going on?

I have a cellular phone, right?--it's an old Nokia the size and shape of a city bus, manufactured pretty much back in the days when that firm was a tiny Finnish paper manufacturer with a quirky electronics hobby. The thing is, I'm a heavy sleeper; when I was a kid I'd sometimes come to the breakfast table and be surprised to hear everybody talking about the big lightning strike down the street that happened at 3:40 a.m. The only alarm clock I own that is semi-reliable at waking me up is the high, keening one in my cell phone. So when I'm moving about in the house and there's any danger that I might want to nap on the spot--and believe me, there usually is--I tote my cell around with me. I also have a cordless I take with me from room to room; the ADSL microfilters on my phone line cause the handset to start ringing late when there's an incoming call, so I often don't have time to get from the bedroom to the living room if it starts ringing. In other words, I spend a great deal of my time carrying two portable phones from room to room, one in each hand like a Hollywood gunfighter. Does anyone else do this? I feel kind of self-conscious about it, especially since neither phone is really dialed by humans more than about twice a week. It's like wearing a belt and suspenders at the same time. And I've found that if I only bring one phone with me from room to room, it's axiomatic, under Murphy's Law, that the other one will ring if either does.

- 12:00 am, March 18 (link)

Well, it finally happened...

...I've finally been cast as one of the grouchy, staid, supercilious oldsters of online media and implicitly marked down for superannuation. Awesome! As you know, it's every young white male's fondest dream to one day grow up to become The Man.

- 11:50 pm, March 17 (link)


The not-guilty verdicts in the Air India trial will send shockwaves through Canada tonight--or not; I've always felt that the case was relatively invisible in the wide public imagination. On one hand, it's connected with a remote political struggle for which most Canadians know or care little. And, on the other hand, it's a serious black eye for multiculturalism, assuming the word has any meaning at all. So those of us with no personal connection to this mass murder tend to regard it--and are encouraged to regard it--as something that had very little to do with Canada, and certainly nothing that had anything to do with Canada's reputation for peace and civility.

When four police officers were murdered in Alberta a couple of weeks ago, the RCMP's K Division spokesman--in contrast with his superiors and with the politicians--did as good a job as could be expected, and resisted the temptation to try selling the public a job-lot of bromide. I cannot say the same for Sgt. John Ward, who defended the force's handling of the Air India case today by saying "Police work is not easy. It is not done in 60 minutes as we see on television." With all due respect to the sacred cliches of police media flacks, let's try to remember that this act of terrorism occurred halfway through the Reagan administration. The CBC story quotes a guy who was 12 years old when his mother was killed aboard Flight 182; he's now a 32-year-old federal prosecutor. I would love to see what would happen if Sgt. Ward met this gentleman face-to-face and explained to him so carefully, so condescendingly, that the justice system doesn't wrap things up in an hour like Law & Order.

- 8:27 pm, March 16 (link)

You don't have to dislike rivers to build a bridge

I admit I gave an involuntary snicker when I saw the exchange about John Bolton between Tim Russert and Condoleezza Rice on this weekend's Meet the Press. Russert russerted Ms. Rice with a couple of outrageous Bolton quotes:

T.R. ...the appointment of Mr. Bolton has raised a lot of eyebrows in Europe and around the United States. Comments like these, an interview he gave with National Public Radio. Bolton: "If I were redoing the Security Council today, I'd have one permanent member because that's the real reflection of the distribution of power in the world." Question: "And that one member would be, John Bolton?" Bolton: "The United States."

And then this interview comment from Mr. Bolton... "There is no such thing as the United Nations. The secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Why are we sending him to the United Nations?

C.R. Because John is a very good diplomat.

Funny enough for a rimshot, but the truth is, there's no greater popular misunderstanding about international relations than the one contained in the colloquial English-language connotations of "diplomatic". A diplomat isn't someone who is unfailingly polite; he's merely someone who is never unintentionally rude.

- 8:24 pm, March 14 (link)

Note: the following might as well be written in Linear B if you are not Canadian

I've been professionally and personally preoccupied with curling this weekend, watching the closing stages of Randy Ferbey's successful march to a sixth Canadian championship. The final game, which Nova Scotia's Shawn Adams rink lost 5-4, was remarkably compelling. Down by one rock in the eighth end but holding the hammer, Adams let the house get full and missed an easy triple takeout on his next-to-last shot. Is there such a thing as an easy triple? Anyway, Adams was forced to take the singleton and gave last rock to Ferbey going into nine.

In that end, Ferbey, left with an open draw for two points, instead instructed Dave Nedohin to peel Alberta's shot stone and blank. This pretty much left the broadcast crew acting like their brains had been melted with some kind of brain-melt-o-tron, and it made Nedohin, who throws last rocks for the rink, a little jumpy himself. The other three guys had to practically hold him down, telling him "We'll keep the four[-foot ring] open for you [on the last rock in the 10th]." Which is just what they proceeded to do. Asked in front of the Edmonton audience why he made that choice, the pudgy skip just shrugged and said "It worked, didn't it?" I suspect that peeling--even if it's peeling your own rock--just feels right for a veteran Alberta curler like Ferbey, who remembers the pre-Free Guard Zone era when Pat Ryan and Kevin Martin would sit on a one-rock lead for days, zapping everything in sight out of the house. (Ferbey was, after all, the third on the Ryan Express.)

I've been tossing around this silly thought all weekend about the Ferbey rink--I'll be damned if they're not the Beatles of curling. Maybe all rinks conform to this stereotype to some degree, but you've got Marcel Rocque, the slightly offbeat, glassy-eyed Ringo figure laying the foundation; Scott Pfeiffer, the compelling, quiet, unflashy-but-somehow-deep George; Nedohin, the problem child--the mildly unstable and twitchy wizard in the John Lennon mould, who plays avant-garde shots no one else will try; and Ferbey, the accomplished McCartneyesque craftsman and leader who often gets overlooked as a mere talent next to "Lennon" but who is actually in a class by himself.

Nedohin is often called the best curler in the world, and throws last, but if your child's life is hanging on a draw to the four-foot, do you want Nedohin to throw it, or Ferbey? I'd take the fat man in a heartbeat, even if he wouldn't. Of course, you couldn't go too far wrong with any of 'em, probably. The surpassingly incredible factoid of Brier week was that the all-star team of the tournament was the Ferbey rink; all four were rated best in show at their particular positions before the final game. It's just as if they sent the New England Patriots en bloc to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl one year.

My next sports column for the Western Standard will have more about the Brier, but I have one last observation I won't have room for in the WS's slightly cramped confines. Did anybody else see what happened in the fifth end on what I think was Paul Flemming's first rock for Nova Scotia? He stepped into the hack, slid, and released, and as the rock crossed the hogline you could hear one of his sweepers suddenly bark "Are we tapping, or what??" I've never seen such a thing before, and I can hardly believe I'm typing this, but Flemming and Adams had forgotten to tell the sweepers what shot they'd decided to play (it was, indeed, the tap-back). Believe me, this is not the sort of thing that happens to Randy Ferbey's rink. Adams' crew had a great weekend, and the man is a past Junior World Champion, but that was a heck of a detail to overlook in a tight final game for the supreme championship of the Dominion. To borrow a cliché from Gregg Easterbrook, "at that point I pulled out my notebook and wrote GAME OVER". I was tempted to, anyway.

- 9:33 pm, March 13 (link)

The fatal precedent: what can the Spanish flu of 1918-19 teach us about the possible avian-flu pandemic of two-thousand-and-x? I have some thoughts in Saturday morning's National Post--and you can read the whole thing thanks to the magic of the Interwebs.

- 7:11 am, March 12 (link)

Paradise thwarted?

Anybody out there given Skype a try? There's considerable buzz about it in the old techie corners of the weblog world, but much less on the social-political side. If you're like me you've overlooked it as just another impractical VoIP venture that probably offers crummy sound and variable uptime. But my old friends Dave Stevens and Kevin Steel persuaded me to give it a shot when they were messing around with it the other day.

And then, about sixty seconds later, I made damn sure none of my mutual funds were holding traditional telcos long... I exaggerate, of course; I'm paying the same telephone company, myself, for both my digital bandwidth and my land line. Still, Skype was an eye-opener. Your PC-to-PC results may vary, but I got (and gave) amazingly lifelike sound in a three-way conference call using only my cheesy out-of-the-box speakers and microphone. The learning curve is maybe a hundred seconds across. And the app consumes, for a broadband user, a trivial amount of the throughput--in my case, unless my math was off, about as much as an old dialup modem. Which makes it hard to understand Bob Cringely's fear that telcos will put the squeeze on "untagged" packets to prevent VoIP apps from vulturing long-distance custom.

I'd like to know exactly which Internet provider will have the titanium balls to abandon what I understand to be the holy dogma of substantive packet equality; that will be correctly regarded as an attack on the spirit of the Internet, even if the letter of the law allows for it. But even assuming some dying ISP has the mad courage to spit in the eye of the net, and even assuming it's my own, is it somehow going to squeeze so hard that broadband users like me are left with less than sixty kB/sec available for nonprivileged applications? It's not really broadband at that point anymore, is it?

- 11:14 am, March 11 (link)

Shock in Spain

Thursday, it seems, is likely to endure as a memorable day in the annals of chess. North American fans got up early to watch the netcast of the final round of the supertournament in Linares, Spain, with particular attention to the game between combative Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, the world's #3 player, and Garry Kasparov, its longtime #1. The tightly-wound Kasparov only loses about one game at long time controls every couple of years, and he rarely does it when there's a strong competitor across the board. But today Topalov, playing with the white pieces, got up a pawn in the middle game and watched as Kasparov passed up a draw and willingly simplified down to a lost king-and-pawn ending.

The international Internet crowd was stunned--but not as stunned as it must have been when Kasparov retired from professional chess at the evening press conference, despite having taken first place overall on a tie-break with Topalov.

I don't want to pressure anyone, or do anything wrong or pretentious. I just want to live my own life. I recognise that in the near future there will be no chance for a unified title, and frankly there is nothing else I can hope for in the world of chess. It became very difficult for me to keep finding reasons for determination, during these years. I succeeded because of my great passion for the game of chess. And I haven't lost my passion for the game. That is why from time to time I may play for fun, maybe in some rapid tournaments. But it will be only for fun.

It is hard to know how seriously to take this announcement from the mercurial Gazza, who created some exquisite art in the middle rounds at Linares. His retirement may be intended to jump-start the title unification process in chess, which he describes as hopeless and cites as his main reason for quitting. It may, so to speak, be a suicide threat. And with Kasparov on the sidelines, it may in fact be a little easier to reconstruct such a process than it would otherwise be.

But more than anything, the announcement clarifies the cost of chess's enduring organizational chaos. For all his questionable acquaintances and diva behaviour over the years, Kasparov is in his own league as an ambassador for the game. Most people probably cannot name one other professional chessplayer (with the sad exception, perhaps, of Bobby Fischer). Of late, Kasparov, like any pantheon-dweller, has had more detractors than fans amongst those who follow the play. But by running away now, he has suddenly challenged us to put his astonishing accomplishments in perspective. While the blow sinks in, he can continue quite happily to pursue his chief current avocations--writing about chess, and attacking Vladimir Putin. Kasparov chum and chess journalist Mig Greengard is following the story.

- 4:03 am, March 11 (link)


An excerpt from Bloomberg's Wednesday snippet on the continued upsurge in the Canadian dollar:

Canada's dollar rose against the U.S. dollar for a fourth day to its strongest in almost eight weeks as crude oil prices approached record highs.

Canada is a net exporter of oil, which is priced in U.S. dollars and converted to the local currency. Energy-related exports accounted for about a sixth of Canada's trade surplus in December. Record-high crude prices last year helped push Canada's dollar to 85.32 cents on Nov. 26, the highest since January 1992.

"The move in the Canadian dollar is justified by the rise in commodities" such as oil, said Douglas Porter, senior economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc. in Toronto. "Strengthening commodity prices can attract foreign investors to Canadian stocks and higher resource prices strengthen trade and current account data."

The same story appears in this morning's Post with new reporting by Jacqueline Thorpe. It leaves me slightly mystified, and I know there are economists lurking in the audience. I've always heard that when you're predicting the change in the Canadian dollar versus the U.S., you have to give energy prices the opposite sign. In the technical literature about exchange rates, the dollar is always said to swing upward and downward along with non-energy commodity prices, but in the opposite direction from oil, even though Canada is a net exporter. I remember having this explained to me by a Bank of Canada official some years back and trying, with difficulty, to believe it. ("But... but... we export it.") And, sure enough, there it is in the Lafrance-Norden paper that was supposedly the first better-than-chance effort at breaking down the components of the exchange rate.

The Canadian dollar also tends to appreciate in real terms following a rise in non-energy commodity prices, as would be expected for a country that is an important commodity exporter. In contrast, the Canadian dollar tends to depreciate in the wake of higher real energy prices. The result is surprising since Canada is a net exporter of energy products and one might therefore expect higher energy prices to lead to a real appreciation of the Canadian dollar. It is conceivable that changes in government regulations in the Canadian energy sector--such as the introduction of domestic price controls, export controls, import subsidies, and foreign ownership restrictions, and their subsequent repeal in 1985--have had important effects on the exchange rate that were confused with the effects of changes in energy prices. However, attempts to control for these additional factors did not change the conclusion that higher energy prices seemed to cause a real depreciation of the Canadian dollar. A possible explanation for this counterintuitive result is that Canadian manufacturing tends to be more concentrated in energy intensive industries than that of its foreign competitors. The benefits of higher energy prices accruing to energy exporters might be more than offset by the negative effects on other sectors of the economy of higher energy import costs, a relative decline in the international competitiveness (particularly for Canadian manufacturers), and weaker export markets.

Has this finding been discredited? If so, when? And did I already ask this once before?

- 2:33 am, March 10 (link)

The dream is over

Since June 22, 2002--the day 33-year-old Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile died of a heart attack in a Chicago hotel--the owner of baseball's most intimidating curve has probably been Kile's young teammate, Rick Ankiel. Earlier today, after a four-year struggle with what baseball folk call Steve Blass Disease, Ankiel announced that he will leave the mound for good. But he's not quitting the game. At 25, Ankiel has a somewhat promising track record in the minor leagues as a hitter, and will see if he can add a second act to his career as an outfielder. The Primates are discussing this odd and lamentable turn of a Card over at Baseball Think Factory.

- 4:31 pm, March 9 (link)

A Tuesday surprise

I don't know how many of you saw Monday's National Post, but I really let RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli have it in my column for that edition. I did not do so without some misgivings. In his Thursday encomium to the four slain Mounties, Commissioner Zaccardelli--with the best, no doubt, of intentions--had set the nation's politicians and talking heads flying off on one of the most incendiary and ignominous moral panics I have ever witnessed. Here's an excerpt from the original version of the column, which was edited to take a little (but only a little) of the sting out.

Every time I saw [his on-the-spot eulogy], Commissioner Zaccardelli grew a little more fatuous in retrospect. It was obvious, even on Thursday, that the young policemen hadn't been killed by anything resembling an "organized criminal", unless "organized" was meant to denote outstanding marksmanship. Then we learned that the discovery of the marijuana in the fatal quonset was purely accidental, [made in the course of helping a bailiff repossess a truck,] and had little to do with anyone's "vigilant effort" to suppress illegal substances.

But there was still one thing saving the commissioner from the appearance of total dissociation from the truth: whatever events had brought the martyred policemen to the Roszko farm, they did find a "grow-op" there, and they did, by their deaths, inadvertently bring Canada a little closer to being "drug-free." And on Saturday we learned exactly how much closer they brought us.

Twenty plants.

That's how many were found on the killer's property--twenty marijuana plants. Enough to generate about a half-ounce per day, given a three-month harvest and the RCMP's own standard yield figures. Some grow-op. At a rate of five plants per cop, I doubt we have enough Mounties to make Moose Jaw drug-free, let alone the whole country.

I went on to make the point that casting the dead constables as sacrificed pawns in a grand game of anti-drug chess really served to cheapen their deaths, and that Commissioner Zaccardelli should have had the courage to praise them as cops doing quintessential cop work, whatever its humble nature. We need guys who are willing to drive out to the local nutcase's farm and help a bailiff repossess a truck. In a free society, the list of illegal substances is politically negotiable; the sanctity of a man's name on a contract isn't.

I mention all this because the commissioner did a noble thing after the column (and some others not unlike it) ran on Monday: he owned up to his mistake, and he did it pretty aggressively. This put me in a bit of a fix, because I didn't want to give the impression of crowing about having backed someone into a corner at a difficult moment. But I didn't want to be unfair to the commissioner by letting the occasion pass without comment, either. From Tuesday's Ottawa Citizen:

Canada's top police officer said yesterday that he was too quick to condemn a marijuana grow operation as the root cause in the deaths of four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers last week.

RCMP Commissioner Guiliano Zaccardelli said in an interview that his condemnation of grow-ops just hours after the shootings may have been inappropriate because police and politicians did not have full details of the particular case and the background of the killer.

"I gave what I believed was the best information I had knowing full well that at that time I didn't have all the information," a contrite Commissioner Zaccardelli said. "Clearly, there's a lot of things in there that, in hindsight, we will have to look at in a different perspective."

The e-mail response to my Monday column, I have to say, was overwhelming--and it came from both cops and civilians. Like me, they had grown tired after long days of listening to a grotesque failure of the law excused by means of delusional yawping about "grow-ops". The commissioner's contrition is impressive, and restores dignity to his office and person. One hopes that it will be followed by some similar statement from the Minister of Public Safety, Anne McLellan, who freely poured gasoline on the kindling the commissioner now regrets lighting, and who thus revealed a broad authoritarian streak that must concern every Canadian who possesses the rudiments of a political conscience.

- 1:51 am, March 9 (link)

'Kicked upstairs into the museum': today's Guardian features an entire section on R. Crumb. Don't miss the brand-new interview with the artist and the exceedingly sound (what else would it be?) appreciation by Robert Hughes. -7:22 am, March 2
It plays such cute little airs, doesn't it

A surf through this morning's world press brings news of an interesting (and perhaps somewhat instructive) quarrel between Malaysia and Indonesia, South Asia's Muslim giants. The two countries have been on different courses for quite some time; Malaysia is a dollarized, orderly authoritarian monarchy with a stable ethnic hierarchy, while Indonesia is just a mess. But there's a complex interaction going on between the two neighbours. When the Thai baht sneezed in 1997 and Asia caught a cold, the ever-xenophobic Malay government started cracking down on foreigners who were "taking jobs" in the midst of rising unemployment. But after more than 30 years of relative prosperity, it turned out that there were some jobs--to use the classic formulation--that Malays just "wouldn't do" anymore. Without illegal guest workers, Malaysian employers claimed they were no longer in a position to harvest the country's oil, rubber, or wood--and, shortly, rich urban Malaysians found that the trash wasn't being picked up anymore and that no one seemed to know where to get hold of a decent domestic.

Recognizing the perceived need for cheap Indonesian labour, the Malay government decided to seek a middle course: give the workers an amnesty period to return to Indonesia, have their status regularized and documented, participate in classes that would instruct them in the distinctive cultural sensitivities of their Malay masters, and return to Malaysia to get back to the saw and the scrub-brush.

What the Malaysians didn't foresee was that once the workers had returned to Indonesia with their Malaysian savings, they might not be allowed back over the border so easily. Indonesian officials, it appears, have jumped at the chance to hold their rich neighbour's workforce hostage, or at least to squeeze it for every penny they can get.

[Malaysian] Home Affairs Minister Datuk Azmi Khalid, in Jakarta since Friday to expedite the return of workers, said Malaysian employers could not wait indefinitely for the workers as business was affected by their absence. "The Indonesian authorities are making it very difficult for the workers to return to Malaysia and this has upset numerous employers," he told the New Straits Times today in a telephone interview.

A clearly frustrated Azmi said Indonesia was charging workers three million rupiah (RM1,200) each to process and approve applications. This meant a total cost of RM420 million including fees for induction courses if even 300,000 workers were to return. Many had been stranded at one-stop centres set up by the Indonesian Government to process their applications as they could not raise the money. They were not supposed to pay for the induction courses, which are to acquaint workers with Malaysian culture and ethics.

Azmi, whose trip was prompted by employers’ complaints, described the fees as an unnecessary burden on workers and employers. He could not understand why Indonesia was charging workers when Malaysia had not imposed any such fees.

Golly, I'm over on the other side of the world, and I understand it well enough. I'm sure a lot of people in the Indonesian government are reading this Times story today and doing that "world's smallest violin" thing with their fingers.

- 6:31 am, March 7 (link)

The show that never ends

John Maynard Keynes said in his masterful General Theory: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” (Or, to put it in less elegant terms, lemmings as a class may be derided but never does an individual lemming get criticized.)

The 2004 installment of the Berkshire Hathaway annual report--perhaps the only periodical document in American business that possesses enduring philosophical and literary interest--is online.

- 12:47 am, March 7 (link)

Strange fruit

The action this weekend has been over at the Shotgun, where there's an ongoing debate about the policy implications of last week's Rochfort Bridge killings. I've contributed to a comment thread arising from a Kevin Libin post, as well as a new entry of my own reflecting weekend developments in the case. I'll have more in Monday's National Post on the same theme.

- 12:53 pm, March 6 (link)

How high to hang them?

Scenes from a national meltdown: with four junior Mounties dead in Canadian policing's greatest tactical clusterfuck, the collective wisdom that the officers in fact succumbed to a form of reefer madness is spreading fast. Edmonton news radio station 630 CHED makes up your mind for you in an online poll:

What should be the penalty for running a marijuana grow-up?
  • 7 years as it is now
  • 15 years
  • Life
  • Don't know

  • You could waste a day clicking around for the "None of the above" button. Roszko was running a chop-shop for stolen cars, but this has been completely forgotten in less than 24 hours; our Minister of Public Safety certainly isn't making a spectacle of herself yapping about how "dangerous" property crimes are and how the judiciary should be cracking down. (Maybe someone should ask the former Justice Minister just who picks these goddamn lenient judges?)

    In fact, Roszko seems to have committed a nearly endless list of actual violent crimes against the person; a Globe report yesterday that he was convicted of sexual assault in 2000 seems to have been misplaced in the wash. Maybe if we had a seven-year minimum for sex crimes, Roszko wouldn't have been at home on Wednesday. Where do I go to vote in that poll?

    The relative sanity offered by Stephen Harper today is, amidst the howls for the heads of pot-growers, positively stunning--a sudden reminder to some of us of why we voted for the guy:

    Opposition Leader Stephen Harper said Friday that the deaths of four Mounties in a raid on an Alberta marijuana-growing operation is a reminder of the danger police face on the job but said it's too early to make links between this tragedy and public policy, he said.

    "Yesterday's deaths are, of course, a painful reminder that law enforcement is a dangerous business, that these people put their lives on the line every single day so that Canadians can live in a high degree of security and safety," Mr. Harper told a press conference in Ottawa on Friday...

    The truth is, he said, there is no real way to protect people from every possible situation if a dangerous or disturbed individual lashes out. "We can't just run out on the basis of a single tragedy and make up a bunch of laws."

    There's about one genuine liberal left in this country, in the original meaning of "liberal". He seems to be running the Conservative party.

    - 1:06 pm, March 4 (link)

    The opiate of the asses

    Methadone is an excellent analgesic, says Vancouver ER physician Maria Hugi. But to prescribe it for pain, a doctor basically has to walk through fire--even though there's a widespread consensus in the profession that physicians have probably been too cowardly about managing pain through opioids in recent decades. Meanwhile, methadone is being handed out like bad office coffee to substance addicts--who merely proceed to layer their other drugs of choice on top of it. Dr. Hugi wants to know whether all this makes sense. Anybody got an answer for her?

    - 6:27 am, March 4 (link) assignment desk appears to have the best grip on the Rochfort Bridge shootout story. The Globe is also putting through copy. CHED, Edmonton's news radio station, opened the lines this evening and heard from a number of Mayerthorpe-area residents who had background on the suspect, now identified (no thanks to the police, who were awfully cautious of the privacy of a slain murderer) as James Roszko. Roszko was known throughout the region as the Dangerous Lunatic You Didn't Mess With. He appears to have been involved in a minor shooting incident quite recently when he winged a teenaged trespasser on his property. He had constructed two gates between the road and his trailer--suggesting, in retrospect, that he had something of an imagination for establishing fields of fire. One caller, a former member of the local school board, said that Roszko had threatened his life once over a policy dispute and been fined.

    The only directly relevant news clip relating to Roszko that I can find ran in the Edmonton Journal on December 15, 1993. It contains a pretty eye-popping catalogue of criminal charges, but fails to fill in the story behind them thanks to a judge's authoritarian instincts:

    A Stony Plain provincial court judge denied the bail application of a Mayerthorpe man who was charged Tuesday with 12 offences, ranging from unlawful confinement to trespassing on school property.

    James Roszko, 35, has been in custody since Dec. 2.

    Roszko is charged with unlawful confinement, pointing a firearm, assault with a weapon, possession of a weapon dangerous to the public, impersonating a police officer, counselling a person to commit an indictable offence, obstruction of justice, failing to comply with bail conditions, careless driving and trespass in a school building.

    On Tuesday, Judge R.W. Bradley ordered Roszko to appear in Mayerthorpe provincial court Jan. 27 to set a date for preliminary inquiry. At the request of Roszko's lawyer, Guy Fontaine, there is a ban on publication of evidence heard in court during his bail application.

    Google obsessive-compulsives will already have discovered that the name "Roszko" is attached to a large farm-equipment dealership in the Mayerthorpe area. By a similar token, it was attached to a political scandal in 1994, when the now-retired local MLA, porkbarrel legend Peter Trynchy, was accused of making sure cousin Mike Roszko got in on the construction of the Paddle River Dam. Seems like a fairly safe bet that Alberta's most notorious mass killer is related to one of its most famous politicians.

    - 1:33 am, March 4 (link)

    Tomorrow's front page: The Mounties aren't saying much about the Battle of Rochfort Bridge, and reporters can't get through to the perimeter, but there are unconfirmed reports on Edmonton radio at 3:44 pm that four Mounties have been killed in this morning's rural grow-op raid, as has the suspect. -3:45 pm, March 3
    See? T.V. really does educate, sort of

    I'm still watching House, M.D., the Fox medical drama that has shot to the top of the ratings in its timeslot (with a little help from its lead-in, American Idol). It's become way less iconoclastic in the last few weeks as the writers turn from establishing the characters to moving their arcs forward, but I'm already hooked. In last night's episode [spoiler warning for Tivo users], a boy's mysterious symptom set turned out--in standard House last-five-minutes fashion--to be the result of leprosy. As the show raced toward the big emotional denouement between Jesse Spencer and his crusty, uncommunicative rheumatologist father (sniff), Doc House barked out an order for the team to order up some serum from "the last leper colony in the United States--it's in Louisiana."

    Too good to check, surely? I did anyway. The Gillis W. Long Hansen's Disease Center (Hansen's is the polite term for leprosy), originally founded in 1894, really was the U.S.'s last surviving leper colony. But it would take a bit of a fudge to make Hugh Laurie's throwaway line work in 2005. Lepers have long since been treated on an outpatient basis, and the clinical functions of the Center were transferred to a facility in Baton Rouge in 1999.

    America's national leprosarium in Carville, La., was actually where leprosy was finally cured using sulfones after luckless centuries of research. But when the Center was moved, the federal government was faced with a sticky problem: many permanent residents who had originally been forcibly isolated in Carville by law were no longer willing to take a payoff and go back to their "homes". The government decided to let the diehards remain in their apartments rent-free, and to this day, there really is still an intact "leper colony" of sorts there. It is also the site of America's national museum of leprosy, which you'd be nuts not to visit if you were in the area.

    As this old official history of the Carville leprosarium indicates, legal confinement on the banks of the Mississippi was perhaps not so terribly oppressive for some patients, compared with the treatment they got from municipal authorities before the hospital was established. Still, one notes with a shudder that the home of the first inmates was a set of old slave cabins on an antebellum plantation.

    (And yes, Gillis Long was a cousin of Huey.)

    - 2:14 am, March 3 (link)

    Here's an edited version of my Hunter S. Thompson obit from Feb. 22's National Post, in case anyone's still interested. This was mostly written very late on the Sunday night the news broke. And I suppose it shows.

    George Orwell wrote somewhere (in a piece on Kipling, I think,) that, for a poet, having large numbers of people be able to recite some piece of your work by heart is the ultimate literary honour in the modern world. This is a laurel which is still harder to win for prose writers. But there must be tens of thousands of writers who can recite the opening paragraph of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ("We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold..."). By this sign can one best recognize an immortal in one's own time.

    It's unfortunate that HST is likely to be remembered in some quarters as a drug-crazed clown, even though he invited people to view him that way. This was a complicated act of self-encoding, an posture of anarchist bravado whose effect was to ruin a lot of young journalists (and, not coincidentally, to thin out the competition a little). You don't get to where Thompson was as a writer without thousands of hours of solitary, self-flagellating, clear-headed effort. HST, addressing himself to those who saw through the comedy routine, opened a window into this phase of his life when he issued The Proud Highway, a journal of the painful years he spent shaping and polishing his instrument in the United States Air Force and in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Utterly unsuited to any work but the creation of English sentences, HST was a true graduate of the school of crap-or-bust; if he hadn't gotten a passing grade, he'd have turned up stone dead on a beach, of literal starvation, forty years ago. Anyone who falls for the mythology--the image of the slouching, bleary-eyed addict desperately force-feeding hand-scrawled notes into the maw of a primitive fax machine--deserves the swift, sharp crack on the skull that's coming to him.

    The Encarta encyclopedia notes witlessly that HST "wrote the second half of [Hells Angels] in four days." It took ten years of unrelieved wretchedness to make those four days possible. Which is why "gonzo journalism" died on Sunday with its creator; it's much too hard to be able to write that easily.

    Fear and Loathing is said to have changed journalism by putting the author firmly at the centre of the narrative and confessing up-front that its perceptions were subjective, even deliberately altered. But, of course, the "Hunter S. Thompson" in the pages of "Fear and Loathing" is a rather unconvincing marionette. And yet the narrative holds up pretty well to factual tests, despite all the drug use that supposedly went into its creation. The whole thing's about as "gonzo" as Aristotle's Metaphysics. (The phrase "fear and loathing", remember, was a corrupted borrowing from the austere pages of Kierkegaard.) And time has only confirmed the lurid Hieronymus Bosch picture of politics painted so memorably in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and The Great Shark Hunt.

    For my part, I find Thompson's earlier work--like the 1966 book about the Hells Angels--equally attractive if not more so. The attention lavished on HST's '70s stuff has served to make us forget that he started out as a genuine muckraker in the American tradition, taking real physical risks instead of purely chemical ones. HST was never a bore, but we didn't really need him to confirm for us over and over, as he spent most of my lifetime doing, that all politicians are crooks with itchy truncheon fingers and puny little coal-black souls. Or did we? He forgot this lesson himself when he fell for John Kerry with the ardency of a teenage lover, which now seems like a symptom of the final crisis. You can feel, in his recent columns for ESPN, his heartbreaking suspicion that the divorce between himself and America was really final after all. The "fortified compound" in Colorado turned out, not surprisingly, to be a place of internal exile.

    The corpus delicti isn't cold yet as I write this, but the night editors have turned to the black-trimmed files and loosed the canned obits on the world like a cloud of invisible bats. One hopes to see at least one valedictory that doesn't implicitly consign HST to the Sixties trashpile of freaks, leftists, flower children, and drug messiahs. From Angels all the way to his last bilious denunciations of the Bush family, he remained a remorseless moralist. He always professed semi-affable cynicism about the great vortex of greed and power, and even claimed that its whirlings were fun to watch. But he remained compulsively vulnerable; you noticed he was never, in fifty-some years of confrontations with authority, able to get beyond surprise and indignation about its sinister machinations. For all the pills and guns, he was a true innocent--or, to use his own words, a "fifteen-year-old girl in the body of a 65-year-old junkie." (February 22, 2004)

    - 11:28 pm, March 2 (link)

    Strange but, apparently, true

    Sure, you know all about Jackie Robinson. But have you met Jerry Craft? In 1959 Jerry, a resident of Jacksboro, Texas, got a call to swing by the ballpark and pitch for a team called the Wichita Falls Stars.

    "We were playing the Abilene Blues. I came up to a ballpark full of black people. I thought 'wrong address,'" Craft said.

    In still-segregated Texas, it took Craft a while to realize the weird truth. He was about to integrate the West Texas Colored League. (þ: Primer)

    - 3:30 pm, March 2 (link)


    So I have a few questions relating to the Oscars.

    First of all, what exactly do I have to do to avoid coming back to Earth as Chad Lowe? I had no idea Hilary Swank was married to this guy. Talk about repeated blows to the self-esteem. It must be super uncomfortable at Hollywood parties when people are chatting up his wife and they ask him what he's been in lately. "Oh... well, I was John Denver in Take Me Home: The John Denver Story. It was actually a really great part."

    The other question I have is, if you were Chad Lowe, would you want to have your 1993 Q Award from Viewers for Quality Television on the mantel next to your wife's Oscars? Or would you not want to have it there? Tough call. Maybe the toughest.

    Wasn't Morgan Freeman finally winning an Oscar a nice moment? Wouldn't it have been even cooler if there had been an actual Morgan Freeman voiceover to go with it? I wonder if he knows ventriloquism. "If only my sharecroppin' grandpappy could see me up here on stage, holding this statuette... he'd finally know the American dream was no lie. Not a word of a lie."

    Finally, isn't it kind of obvious what Eastwood's saying to Tim Robbins here? That's right. "I crap bigger'n you." I bet he totally does, too.

    - 12:43 am, March 2 (link)

    Consider the source

    Les Sayer is an Edmonton biology teacher who has been living on nothing but McDonald's food for the last month. Unlike anti-corporate polemicist Morgan Spurlock, Sayer isn't suffering any ill effects from the diet--quite the contrary. That's because he has continued to exercise and has been careful to make informed use of healthier options on the McD's menu. He's thereby making an important point about both propaganda and personal responsibility--but try finding anyone who supports his odd little project. Michael Traikos of the National Post, whose Tuesday morning article about Sayer is on the free side of the subscriber wall, didn't have much luck.

    "Just because he's saying there's weight loss doesn't mean it's healthy weight loss. It may not be sustainable," said Megan McCrory, an associate professor at the School of Nutrition and Exercise Science in Kenmore, Wash. "He's probably losing weight because he's burning more calories than he's eating."

    Gee, ya think? Clearly this is the kind of trenchant analysis you can only get from an internationally respected establishment like Bastyr University. Why McCrory's academic affiliation is mangled almost to the point of concealment in the Post piece, I can't imagine; it would have been preferable to give the reader a decent shot at checking up on it and finding out that the college is a small private institution with a heavy predisposition to "naturopathic"/"holistic" health research (and a presumptive intellectual allergy to fast food).

    McCrory seems to have a strong academic background, and she is right, I suppose, when she says that "McDonald's doesn't have a wide selection of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, which is the cornerstone of a healthy diet." But it seems to me that Sayer's experiment emphasizes the opportunity-cost considerations involved in practical nutritional choice; by going through the drive-through window and taking away fruit-and-yogurt parfaits and salads, he's gaining a lot healthwise without sacrificing anything in convenience. Is it some kind of heresy to suggest that McDonald's may not necessarily be a temple of doom for people who want to eat right, and are prepared to go about it armed with common sense?

    - 9:03 am, March 1 (link)

    Mysteries of the female mind dept.

    Crikey. This thread about "mother drive-bys" should create a nice little boomlet in tubal ligations and vasectomies. (þ: Belle Waring)

    - 6:28 am, March 1 (link)