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Parental advisory: explicit lyrics.

Ethically challenged?

It's kind of stunning, isn't it? This Randy Cohen controversy, I mean. For those who don't take Romenesko's Media News instead of breakfast, Randy Cohen is the "ethics columnist" for the New York Times Magazine. Basically he's Dear Abby with a fancy title. In October 27's column he ran this letter:

Q: The courteous and competent real-estate agent I'd just hired to rent my house shocked and offended me when, after we signed our contract, he refused to shake my hand, saying that as an Orthodox Jew, he did not touch women.
As a feminist, I oppose sex discrimination of all sorts. However, I also support freedom of religious expression.
How do I balance these conflicting values? Should I tear up our contract?

Cohen's advice--and I am shaking my head as I type--was that of course, of course she should tear up the contract. Not even a close call. For an ethicist, this is apparently a hanging curveball.

Though the agent dealt you only a petty slight, without ill intent, you're entitled to work with someone who will treat you with the dignity and respect he shows his male clients.
If this involved only his own person - adherence to laws concerning diet or dress, for example - you should of course be tolerant. But his actions directly affect you. And sexism is sexism, even when motivated by religious convictions.
I believe you should tear up your contract.

I do wish I had more to say about this than "what a politically correct assmunch." Well, all right, perhaps I do.

Some religions (and some civil societies) that assign men and women distinct spheres argue that while those two spheres are different, neither is inferior to the other. This sort of reasoning was rejected in 1954 in the great school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court declared that separate is by its very nature unequal.
That's a pretty good ethical guideline for ordinary life.

But Brown wasn't an ethical guideline. It was a legal "guideline". And, by extension, a political one--particularly political, as legal judgments go. Opposition to sexism, when it takes the form of a demand for "respect", is a political principle. It is a strange position for an "ethicist" to take, without showing signs of considerably more reflection than this, that one's political principles must invariably trump the principle--the fairly important principle, one would think, to a pluralist republic--of accommodating other people's religious beliefs, where they do no genuine harm.

You could argue that the cultural "offence" involved in not shaking hands is genuine harm, I suppose. Cohen makes a good deal indeed of the woman's "dignity" while airily proscribing Orthodox Jews from any sort of commerce involving face-to-face contact. Remember, he's an ethicist!

Does Cohen believe that Miss Q would be ethically culpable, acquiescing in an objectionable "sexism", if she failed to tear up the contract? Because I fear my own natural reaction to the situation would be to say "Oh, I had no idea you were Orthodox, I meant no offence", and proceed in my wholly mercantile relationship with the fellow. Are we now to believe that it is our job to impose all our treasured political principles on our fellow man in every transaction we enter upon? Maybe libertarians don't do this often enough.

"With sales tax that will be $6.50, and your change from a ten is $3.50. Have a nice day, sir."

"Hey, BITCH, taxation is theft. Don't tell me to have a nice day while you're seizing booty from me on behalf of Leviathan."

Actually, I have the distinct impression some libertarians do do this.

- 1:20 pm, October 31 (link)

Yeah, plus we won the Cup that year

I've been getting a lot of search-engine hits from requests for the notorious "Calgary Flames streaker". A LOT. More than I've been getting from Instapundit? It's close, damned close. Well, for those who like their stupidity high-octane, sports site has the definitive photo. Don't blame me if you click here.

I think this picture pretty much sums up the Calgary Flames, don't you? A deranged idiot getting his hoo-hoo mashed while a bunch of horrified sluts look on. In other words, it's sharply reminiscent of that time in the '88 playoffs when Marty McSorley got the red mist and speared Mike Bullard in the pubic bone and Bullard had to be taken away on a stretcher. History really does repeat itself as farce!

(I still replay Bullard's Koho vasectomy in my head when I'm feeling low. So sue me, the ref didn't even call it.)

- 8:40 am, October 31 (link)

Chess and genes

Two interviews that will provide some fibre for your brain. The Chess Café has a long chat with Mig Greengard, the man who changed chess journalism (or tried to anyway). Mig has some real interesting thoughts about the place of chess in American culture, what it's like to work for a moribund dot-com, what books intermediate chessplayers should be reading, what it feels like to be a mere expert playing over the board against a genius... stuff like that. You may like the interview even if you don't know much about chess.

In fact, if you are the human biodiversity scholar Steve Sailer, you definitely should not miss that Mig interview. And if you are not the human biodiversity scholar Steve Sailer, you should go read Steve's interview for UPI with cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. Together the Steves explore the middle ground between nature and nurture--or, to put it in the language Pinker borrows from Thomas Sowell, between the "tragic vision" of human nature and the "utopian vision".

According to the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in virtue, wisdom, and knowledge, and social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. According to the Utopian vision, these limits are "products" of our social arrangements, and we should strive to overcome them in a better society of the future. Out of this distinction come many right-left contrasts that would otherwise have no common denominator. Rightists tend to like tradition (because human nature does not change), small government (because no leader is wise enough to plan society), a strong police and military (because people will always be tempted by crime and conquest), and free markets (because they convert individual selfishness into collective wealth). Leftists believe that these positions are defeatist and cynical, because if we change parenting, education, the media, and social expectations, people could become wiser, nicer, and more peaceable and generous.

- 8:06 pm, October 30 (link)

Ashes to ashes

Very rarely, in news stories about the health hazards of smoking, do you get any indication that there is a dose-response relationship between the smoking and the hazards. This is also somewhat true of the science behind those stories: studies, since investigative resources are limited, will normally saw off the populace (rather unnaturally) between "smokers" and "non-smokers", or fit it into some equally reductionist schema. But any useful discussion of the current "social costs" or overall morbidity/mortality from smoking needs to take into account the amount people smoke. I believe that the younger "smokers" of today smoke a good deal less than their forebears, many of them using an almost medically negligible number of cigarettes. (I've talked to girls who max out at three or four smokes a day and are nonetheless peeing their panties about their "addiction". Some addiction.) These younger smokers are constantly being attacked using irrelevant statistics and images from an older generation of smokers that saw nothing unusual in a three-pack-a-day habit like the late Peter Gzowski's.

It's pretty simple really: given that you've accepted the risk of smoking at all, your body will help tell you what it can handle, and you should listen to it. I smoke 15 cigarettes on an average day, and my body lets me know it's not especially good for me. If I were to smoke 25 in a day, I probably couldn't get out of bed. But some people are just determined, it seems, to die. Check out this puff piece from the Edmonton Journal on an ex-model with brain cancer who's spreading the gospel to the schools.

She urged the students not to follow in her footsteps, which led to a two-pack-a-day habit.

Two packs a day? Alberta is the land of the flat pack, ladies and gents: two packs is fifty goddamn smokes. The ill and injured deserve our sympathy, but there's such a thing as stretching it too far.

- 5:16 pm, October 30 (link)

This sporting life

There's more on David Halberstam's column here, in the comment section at Baseball Primer's Clutch Hits. And for some Bonds-bashing that is ethically questionable rather than merely dumb, check out Jonah Keri's legwork at Baseball Prospectus.

I'm in deadline trouble, so posting may be light for the next little while. Or not!

- 4:53 pm, October 30 (link)

Make it witchy

You never know who you'll run into in the newspaper (or on Instapundit). Just in time for Halloween, today's National Post looks at a forthcoming book from Andrew Gow and Lara Apps entitled Male Witches in Early Modern Europe.

Two Canadian academics have set out to overturn the hoary stereotype of the female witch, arguing thousands of men who were executed for witchcraft in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries have been forgotten amid a tide of feminist research.
In a book to be published in January, historians Andrew Gow and Lara Apps say male witches have been marginalized as researchers focus almost exclusively on the persecution of women accused in Europe's notorious witch trials.

Dr. Gow was hired on at the University of Alberta history department while I was messing around with grad studies there, and I was his assistant for a semester. We were all rather discombobulated at the sudden appearance of a new white male hire, but he was just too brilliant for them to pass up. It's not especially surprising to see him blowing the feminist fog away from the popular imagination in this fashion. Nor is the existence of male witches especially startling to you if you've seen any of the source material.

Unfortunately, the revelation arrives too late for us to plan a new Halloween costume from scratch. Maybe next year...

- 7:56 am, October 30 (link)

Eh! Who needs it?

(Via MeFi) Behold! The United States of America according to Todd Levin's racist aunt. WARNING! May contain racism! Heck, there's no "may" about it, the woman's daffy! She's got a point about California though...

- 11:51 pm, October 29 (link)

Pardon me miss, but I've never been fisked by a real! Live! Squirrel!

Sasha Castel is using "Coshing" in place of "fisking". (Because of this.) I doubt it will catch on. As I've just told the dear girl, "fisking" isn't really my style, and I have yet to enjoy the honour of being on the wrong end of one.

The generosity of Instantman and dozens of other linkers has pushed this site over 10,000 hits for the month of October. Hooray!

- 10:48 pm, October 29 (link)


Matt Welch and his commenteers have more on the "best ballplayer never to make the All-Star team" debate--it's now a debate because other people besides me are talking about it. Somehow the filtering system I set up missed Kirk Gibson, and "Basileus" mentions Eric Karros. (Gibson missed the All-Star team in '88 when he ended up as National League MVP...) More recent players are more likely to crop up because of expansion--they have the "advantage" of facing greater difficulty in making a modern All-Star game.

I think we can drop Hal Trosky, if only for this reason (granting that it's tough to edge out Lou Gehrig as an 1930's AL first baseman), and the guy who brought up Karros may want to consider seeing a shrink... With due respect to Kirk Gibson's intensity, let's face it, he's a power hitter who never broke 30 home runs. ("He was gimpy all the time though!" Yeah, he was, wasn't he.)

The serious candidates are Phillips and Salmon. Just in time to help you decide, Baseball Prospectus has brought back its player cards! Phillips is here, Salmon is here. The final verdict of history will probably depend on how Salmon ages; if you prefer "peak value" to "career value" he's got a better case than Tony. On the other hand, if he has a big comeback season, he could make the All-Star Game and thereby remove himself from consideration.

I still like Phillips, who was consistently menacing at the top of the order from 1990-1996. I didn't want to run this into the ground, but here are the positions he logged the most time at in each of those seasons:

1990 - Third base
1991 - Third base
1992 - Second base
1993 - Left field
1994 - Left field
1995 - Third base
1996 - Left field

And then in '97 he was back playing second base for Matt's Angels. (And he still drew a hundred walks.) It is unique for a player to bounce around like that and not have his batting production suffer. Phillips moved in both directions, pinball-fashion, across the Jamesian "defensive spectrum": guys like Rod Carew and Pete Rose played more than one position too, but they always moved from harder to easier, as indeed all players generally do as they age. It's like baseball entropy. Or, put another way, watching Phillips was like seeing water flow uphill.

Granted, Phillips was never a defensive star, but he got the job done at all those positions. The sabermetrically-inclined often speak of a ballplayer's value above "replacement"--how much more valuable is he than the guy you can replace him with? Normally we use some default, conventional replacement setting: I won't bore you with details of how that's derived. But in a real market of ballplayers, the replacement value is the value of the actual replacement you can get your hands on. If you have a good right fielder already, Tim Salmon has zero, or near-zero, value to you: that's about the only place you can use him. The replacement value for Phillips was any weak spot in your roster--he could always replace your very weakest player, unless that was a catcher or a pitcher (and I'm sure he'd have given those jobs a go too).

So as a practical matter, you have to give Phillips a large-ish bonus, above his value as an offensive player (which was considerable) and his value as a pure, run-saving glove in the field. Do keep that in mind. I'll watch Matt's comments section for more candidates.

- 9:06 pm, October 29 (link)

Smug old prick

It is occasionally fun, I think, to behold journalism at its most self-involved and peevish: and if you agree you won't want to miss David Halberstam's takedown of Barry Bonds on ESPN's Page 2.

It's incredible, isn't it, the way you can start out writing about sports and end up blithering on about the grand old days of journalism with Scotty Reston (now there was a man!) and Tom Wicker and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and I was in Vietnam you know and BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. Halberstam's lede begins "I am sitting here at home watching The Great Narcissist at bat," which leads one to wonder if he was looking in the mirror at the time.

Here's a particular highlight:

Back when the communists still had an empire, one of the things they tried to specialize in was the re-education of people, and while I did not like what the communists did and who they did it to, I think the re-education of Bonds, accomplished at the hand of [Bob] Gibson and others like him, would be a very good thing.

Uh... holy shit! Did an editor even look at this? I wonder (pardon the Godwinism) if it would have got through if Halberstam had written "While I did not approve of Nazi methods, it does seem to me that Barry Bonds stands in need of a firm Zyklon B-ing..." And Halberstam wonders why Bonds is surly with journalists? Yes, he does, actually:

So it wasn't really surprising that a man shorn of so much a little irritated and suggested they [reporters who were asking him brilliant questions like "How does losing the Series feel?"] find another line of work [which they should -ed.]. I like that, telling them to find other work--it really sums up his value system, and what he's about, and it shows that he understands that what they do, all the free coverage they give baseball, day in and day out, has nothing to do with the size of his paycheck.

One might have thought newspapers cover sports in order to sell newspapers, but no--they do it to ensure that Barry Bonds gets paid. Barry, you owe these boys, dig? It is your moral duty to be infinitely patient with extreme asininity, even after you've lost World Series Game Seven despite an individual performance that would shame the Gods. See, when you don't smile, it calls your "value system" into question. David Halberstam™ is a licensed metaphysician.

Man, is it any wonder Americans hate the media? Reading this stuff make me hate it, and I'm in it.

[UPDATE, October 30: Hello Instapundroids! Go here for links to other sites that have joined the melée.]

- 10:58 am, October 29 (link)

One of these things is not like the other

Damian Penny has a response to the earlier post in which I used him as an example of the well-intended desire, still general amongst thinking people in the West, to believe the best of Islam.

As I think Damian understands, I didn't really mean to accuse him of consistent intellectual dishonesty. What I was pointing out was that his language, at one point, suggested a determined refusal under any circumstances to think of Islam as "less benevolent than Christianity". Further along in what he was saying, he took a different tack, and it's the vacillation, the wholly creditable uncertainty about the matter, that I wanted to call people's attention to. It's good, if not essential, to leave your generalizations tentative. I think most of us go back and forth like this, and we need to be prepared to. So I'm not saying Damian is a bad guy or an impoverished thinker by any means.

This time around, he clarifies thus:

But I still stand by my main point: that Christianity was able to reform (into a "thankfully neutered form," according to Cosh) despite its bloody history, as have many other faiths, and that I don't see anything inherent in Islam which will prevent it from doing the same. I know the Koran can be interpreted to justify all kinds of atrocities--but so can the Bible.

Now, this, I don't think I agree with. I'll tackle the substance rather than the approach this time, don't worry.

First of all, Damian is making an error I discussed quite a long time ago when John Derbyshire, of all people, made it in a column. The nature of the error is to equate Christianity and Islam with their holy scriptures. A religion is not equivalent to its book. And, as it happens, Islam has a very different attitude to its book than Christianity does.

Muslims believe that the Koran is perfect, an exact copy of the original spoken word of God. It is recited hypnotically and ritualistically by the gently swaying believer at prayer; its very sound is the object of orgiastic praise by exponents of Islam. Westerners may credit the Bible with a certain literary beauty, but by comparison the Muslim fetishizes his holy book, regarding it more the way one might a symphony. The original Arabic version is universally considered the only correct one (though translation is not forbidden). Indeed, all major Muslim sects regard the Koran as being uncreated, and eternal like God himself--almost a sort of co-deity, though, to be sure, God remains its author (perhaps in the same way that the Son proceeds from the Father in the Trinity).

The effects of these beliefs are well known. [An important related belief is the death penalty for apostasy.] It is often said that "Islam had no Reformation." This is one way of putting it, but it would be relevant to add that Islam also never had an Arian heresy or a Great Schism or a Jesus Seminar. Islam is prostrate before the monumental face of its own sacred text; it is the attitude to the book, and not the book itself, which has discouraged critical thinking and religious liberalism in the Islamic world.

You can't just put the Bible and the Koran together on the table and say, "Well, they're both violent nonsense, so these religions must have equal potential for bad and good." Islam's hostility to liberalizing reinterpretation and historical study of the Koran is part of the problem. This would still be a problem even if the Koran consisted of "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy" typed over and over on a ream of paper. In one important sense, the text of the Koran is irrelevant to this sort of discussion of Islam.

Leaving that aside, are the "inherent" differences between the founders of the religions worth considering? Christ was a man of peace who gave himself as a sacrifice for the world's sins--let himself be crucified rather than offer violence. Muhammad? Well, to put it as nicely as possible, Muhammad was a politician and an excellent general. Handy with a sword, the Prophet was. During his reign in Medina he was given to occasional "revelations" about the treachery of the local Jews, with whom he had made an alliance; after his last dream, a part of the city was beseiged and the hundreds of male Jewish occupants put to death in cold blood after their surrender. (The women and children were enslaved instead.) Christians have done this sort of thing often enough, to be sure; but Christians, acting under the influence of Christ, also put an end to it in the Christian world, and at any rate, it is not the sort of thing we can imagine Christ himself doing.

If your neighbour announced credibly that he would be hitherto devoted to the imitation of Christ, would you buy a shotgun? It would be good advice if he told you he'd begun behaving exactly like Muhammad.

I think that counts for something too--as does the fact, which may or may not be related, that the greater part of what we call the "Islamic world" consists of territory overrun, at one time or another, by Islamic armies. The survival of the Christian religion in Europe was decided, in the Roman era, by the victory of Christianity in a purely dialectical struggle (one in which the deck was stacked against the new faith) for the allegiance of the upper classes. There was no mass Christian revolt or terrorism, no Christian invasion; the Galilean conquered Rome by the strange expedient of having generations of his followers fed to the lions and the flames. Later the pagans of the North, despite having overturned Rome in arms, adopted Christianity, seeing in it a tie to the sophistication and order of the Empire.

Twice over, Christianity co-opted an uncontested ruling power bloodlessly, through sheer force of example and teaching. What in the record of Islam is there to compare? The power of Islam in present-day Indonesia is testimony to the fact that Islam has not always spread through force of arms, but it's a damned good approximation. Since Muhammad's conquet of Mecca, Islam has enjoyed, as Christianity never did, the luxury of a secure homeland. How may we suppose it would do if it did not?

I do not mean to paint a simplistic picture of Arabs, Mongols, and Turks terrorizing cowed populations into conversion. The reputation for toleration enjoyed by Old Islam is warranted; it is only the new model that seems to feel the need to render whole countries judenrein. Even so passionate an opponent of Islam as Hilaire Belloc was able to acknowledge that Islam's rapid spread was the result of the efficacy and laissez-faire approach of its political structure, compared to the usual alternatives. Islam could not have dominated the West in science and the useful arts until quite late in history if it were not so. Nonetheless, as a general rule Islam has followed the progress of the sword. As indeed why should it not, given the tumultuous political and military life of its superbly practical, charismatic founder?

Perhaps these differences between Islam and Christianity, however real--and they are real, as far as I know--mean nothing. Damian sees the pair as objects which are alike, or essentially alike, or objects which, perhaps, have a long-term tendency to become alike. He cites a few brave, desperate voices of dissension in the Muslim world, and I will not say they should not be applauded or helped with all our power. But this is only to say what is obvious: that in some respects we cannot hope to eradicate Islam even if that is our desire--that we must negotiate and cajole and encourage liberalizing influences. In other words, there is no sense applying the stick without holding out the carrot. But Islam must in the end do for itself, or to itself, what Christianity did. Our power to assist from without is limited, and we face a constant danger of doing more harm than good. It feels very much like having an enemy, doesn't it?

- 9:12 pm, October 28 (link)

Hot stove break

I'm afraid I couldn't resist. Wondering if Tim Salmon really is the best player to never make an All-Star Team, I did a search for some significant players who belong to the same set. I restricted it to guys who played mostly after 1933, when the first All-Star Game was played. They include:

· migratory National League waterfowl Todd Zeile;
· disappointing Indians phenom Hal Trosky;
· longtime Tigers/A's superscrub Tony Phillips;
· career .293 hitter Luis Polonia;
· knuckleballer Tom Candiotti;
· right-handed Texas Rangers prospect/project Bobby Witt.

Those are about the best of the lot, I think. One could add Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez to the list, but obviously Communism was what kept him out of the All-Star game for most of his career; I don't know how to account for that exactly--it would be like counting Negro Leaguers, which is beside the point of the exercise.

Whom can you make a case for taking over Salmon? Certainly Tony Phillips had an amazing career, amazing abilities. You probably know this if you've read this far, but he was the most versatile player who ever lived. He drew tons of walks, had a little power, ran well, played 100 games or more at five different positions (six if you count DH) and 97 more in center field. He scored 110 runs four times. Offensively he wasn't Tim Salmon, but he gave his managers tremendous roster flexibility, and that's a form of value too. I don't know who I'd take but it would probably be Phillips.

[UPDATE, October 29: More on this at Matt Welch's crib and here.]

- 1:09 pm, October 28 (link)

My Personal Rally Monkey™ won't use the toilet, dammit

Congratulations to the Anaheim Angels and their fans, winners of the 2002 World Series. Congratulations especially to Tim Salmon, who hit 105 RBI for the Edmonton Trappers in 1992. Aaron Cross argues briefly that Salmon is the best major leaguer to never make the All-Star Team (presumably he means "since they started picking 'em".) He could be right! That's an interesting example of a hot stove argument I've never heard.

Angel fans won't let anything dampen their enthusiasm, but for the rest of us, who only had a casual rooting interest in the Series, there's this despair-inducing truth: Barry Bonds may have lost his last reasonable chance to wear a ring, despite having one of the best Series performances in the century-long history of baseball's Mortal Kombat.

Which raises an important question that baseball and other sports need to face before they expand again, willy-nilly: how many teams is too many to leave fans and players outside the coastal metropolises with reasonable hopes of winning a title?

This question is not purely academic: it is absolutely crucial, and never explored at all, to my knowledge. In our own time we've seen it become standard for older free agents in all major pro sports to change teams in hopes of winning a championship. Recall the heartbreaking divorce between Ray Bourque and the Boston Bruins, for example. In the early days of free agency in baseball, to take the sport where there's been actual research on the subject, we have strong evidence that player movement was, by and large, not harmful to competitive balance. But this new attitude, this new trope of "I'm going to New York to get a ring," flies specifically in the face of competitive balance. It is in fact one reason why Barry is playing in high-tech San Francisco and not blue-collar Pittsburgh.

Although changing teams to get a championship is directly, overtly, and specifically subversive of parity, it's treated as a fact of nature already: no one, at least in the media, blamed Ray Bourque for switching towns. That's kind of odd, considering that when competitive balance is discussed, actual facts of nature like market size are often treated as annoying trivialities which can be overcome by digit-fiddling.

But you can't change the soul of an athlete, I suppose: if they didn't want to succeed they wouldn't be in pro sports. When it comes to encouraging anti-parity free-agent transfers, however, the difference between, say, the 21-team NHL I grew up with and the 30-team NHL we have now is significant. For the purposes of waiting out a career in a city, the number of teams in the league has an exponential effect. Your chance of winning a title in a town is basically 1 - (1-n)p, where 'n' is your chance of winning in any given year and 'p' is the number of years remaining in your career. From an economic standpoint, every expansion reduces 'n', and the expansion is spread out exponentially over 'p'. That would seem to me to imply that even a modest expansion can have big effects in encouraging free-agent movement to organizations that are already good.

In fact, if 'p' is fairly large--that is, if the player is especially young and promising--it will encourage free-agent movement not even to organizations that already happen to be good, but to organizations that happen to enjoy stable advantages which can be expected to survive over a period of years. The only one of these worth considering, really, is the natural revenue level of the club. No one's afraid to jump to the Mets even though the Mets sucked this year (by the way, thanks for noticing that the Expos finished second in the NL East this year, everybody).

So what's the right number of teams for a sports league to have? Well, the difference between 20 and 30 is huge. If you go on the assumption that every team starts every year with an equal shot at the title, you can expect Your Club to win one championship every 'x' years, where 'x' is the number of teams in the competition. A waiting time of 20 or 30 years is not a big deal to a serious fan--but if you know that the organization is basically cursed (like the Chicago Cubs) or the local revenue is small, your wait time might be doubled. Doubling 20 years gives you 40, which is daunting; but doubling 30 years gives you 60, and a lot of us just can't expect to live that long.

A fan has to have some hope. I have to be able to think, reasonably, that there's some kind of a shot, somewhere down the line, for my team. Cranking the number of teams in a pro league to 30 is pushing the limits quite seriously on the lower-revenue teams. My Edmonton Oilers are severely hampered by a smallish, spread-out metro area and by the monetary policy of a head-in-ass federal state. (They are helped, although the ownership and the media never admit to it, by being located in a place where hockey is a savage god commanding near-universal devotion.) All things being equal, the team does not have a 1-in-30 chance of winning the Stanley Cup; it's more like 1 in 60 or 90, and those odds are too long. I stick with the club because it's got a very thorough winning tradition, its scouting apparatus has awakened from a ten-year nap, and the front-office personnel know what they're doing. I'm hoping all that increases the odds to a more reasonable level. But if even one of those factors changes, I'm looking at a pretty desperate proposition. I may have to redirect my emotional investment. It won't be a conscious decision; I'll just lose heart. And this isn't really an issue with my rooting interest in the nine-team Canadian Football League.

So I want sports fans to start thinking in terms of "30 is too many"; it's something we will have to insist upon in the face of respectable but short-sighted greed. Perpetual expansion offers clear advantages to sports leagues; it's not even certain, really, that they can be economically viable without it. But they'll need to find creative solutions to the "1-in-n odds" problem. Professional soccer in the UK gets around this by giving fans many goals to focus their attention on. There is a table of ordered divisions, giving smaller-community fans a rooting interest in relegation and promotion. Clearly this would help baseball, which is selling minor-league cities a fake product right now. Louisville and Portland and Edmonton should have independently competitive ball clubs; the developmental work of baseball can take place anywhere, and it shouldn't pose as real competition. Moreover, soccer treats its regular season and its "playoffs" quite distinctly, according roughly equal status to League and Cup titleists. This is something North American sports fans are not habituated to, and it is hard to see how you could accomplish it--but then again, the idea of the "pennant" was once powerful in baseball, and perhaps it could be again. I'm really just thinking out loud, but I know this is important.

- 8:41 am, October 28 (link)

Divine Instavention

INSTAPOWER! Everybody thinks the amazing thing about Glenn Reynolds is the volume of posting he does, but when you compare it to the amount of reading he must be doing, the actual editing and posting look fairly trivial. My weblog isn't among the top thousand in traffic or hundred in quality, but somehow he finds out about it, fairly quickly, when I write something he thinks people might want to read. Incidentally, I apologize for a couple of jarring editorial infelicities in the post he linked to; I feel like I can't polish up that stuff anymore after several hundred people have crawled over it. Doesn't belong to me anymore.

My "rant" has been paired with this much more concise entry on Nick Denton's site. Try not to notice that, of the two of us, the magazine editor is the one who runs off at the mouth.

- 8:42 pm, October 27 (link)

96 tears

Hey... is it just me or is the Onion really starting to go stale? Eighteen months ago it was essential; nine months ago it was solid; now it's showing serious signs of jumping el sharko. Maybe I'm wrong, but the political pieces are starting to show less absurdist detachment than they did before. The Onion's basic approach has always been to run one joke into the ground (the stories are, after all, written around the headlines) but they're losing the vital texture. The tension between the staid AP-stylebook format and the actual material is being lost. Of the long pieces in this issue, only the physics-teacher one has that bam-bam rhythm of body blows (he runs the experiments himself to "save time") going for it.

Compare this gorgeously nasty, can't-believe-they-fucking-wrote-that piece from January 1999 to last week's cover story. Same topic, but the new stuff is agenda-driven and kind of leaden. Are we even supposed to laugh? Where's the joke exactly?--that Bush thinks stopping a dictator who's trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction is more important than the NASDAQ? Since when did the Onion care about the fucking NASDAQ? Since when did the Onion care about anything? Caring--up-front, in-your-face caring--doesn't make a good neighbour for comedy: they're enemies. This paper is turning into one of those really tight punk bands that starts writing songs about El Salvador. Fucking spare me.

- 8:17 pm, October 27 (link)

Santa and the Newfies

Now, on what possible grounds does Forbes magazine claim that Santa Claus is an American? He may have stopped over in New York City during a dozen centuries or so of travel, but I'm afraid he is ordinarily resident at a location over which Canada has made unchallenged claims of sovereignty. Is Santa an illegal alien? I think we should be told. Sure, he has a pretty cozy relationship with the Canadian government, but so do plenty of snakeheads and bombthrowers.

Incidentally, Canadians may wish to note that Newfoundland's postal abbreviation has been changed from NF to NL. This pain in the ass is brought to you by the government of Newfoundland, which changed the official name of the province to "Newfoundland and Labrador" last year. If you want to complain you can go visit the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador web site at

What's that you say? Their web site seems to still have "NF" in it? Why, so it does, so it does.

- 12:26 am, October 27 (link)


The site's been quiet because I've been watching and listening to sports. Now that I look back on it--wow! Last night the Eskimos stake Saskatchewan to an 18-0 lead in the first quarter... and they come back to win! That means the Western Final's in our crib again, dogg! Today the Oilers go down 3-1 after two periods against the Mighty Ducks... and they come back to win! Rapture! Then I switched over, sort of glumly, to the ball game, having heard that the Angels had fallen behind 5-0... and they come back to win! I'd run out and buy a lottery ticket, if I didn't, y'know, have any shame or common sense.

The Comedian has two funny media screwups on his site. The first one is a CNN graphic of the Tarot Sniper in his Chevy Caprice... notice that the sniper's weapon has the carrying handle bolted on instead of a scope. See, he was a superhuman killing genius after all! The second one is a hilarious, and hopefully harmless, WaPo screwup: on a PDF of one of the sniper communiqués they blocked out the name of the woman who had her credit card stolen, but unfortunately they did this by adding a black stripe to only the top layer of the PDF, with predictable results. Oops!

- 10:58 pm, October 26 (link)

Hell comes to Frogtown

Found quiz of the day: match the quote to the face. Difficulty rating: high. (Quite a few of these guys look like they've had the adrenaline sucked out of them.)

- 2:35 pm, October 26 (link)

The resurrection of the west

"Even the sniper turned out to be Muslim. This is getting ridiculous." That's what a Muslim-raised friend of mine told me a little while ago...

If there is a God and his name really is Allah, he must be quite angry about the evening newscasts. If well enough had been left alone from, say, September 10, 2001 on, Islam would have won. In terms of cultural confidence, our own Western civilization is well past its peak. Our countries were, and are, letting Muslims enter and dwell by the busload. Mosques get tax exemptions; Muslim schools get tax funding. Where Christendom's collective religious faith has been reduced to a paltry shadow of its former self, Islam retains the power to capture imaginations which have outrun their allotment of reason. Western welfare states and prison systems give Islam fertile ground in which to flower amidst the alien corn. Islam, we used to be told quite often, was growing by leaps and bounds. Perhaps it still is: they do say there's no such thing as bad publicity.

But the decentralized nature of Islam, which seemed such a strength not so long ago, has proven to be a weakness; it has allowed a transnational class of bored, intense, youngish men to attack the West at precisely the points at which it is least vulnerable. People like the convenience of air travel. They like being able to go to musicals. They like going to the craft store to choose from a couple thousand different colours of yarn. They like being able to visit Bali and hang out on the beach. Islam's true strategy for eventual world conquest was to conceal the fact that it would take these worldly things away from us, and to concentrate on its own strengths (egalitarianism, simplicity, and a magnificent ability to instill the satiated, narcotic feeling of true believerdom). Unfortunately, its followers seem determined to confirm, and then some, every sterotype in the book.

No faith, civic or theological, can compete directly with capitalism in the long run. Islam would have had to wait for capitalism to rot from within, which it was, and probably still is, doing. That wasn't going to be a quick process in any event--I'm thinking in centuries here, not years, in case that's not clear--but my sense is that Islam's self-appointed murder evangelists have slowed it by calling attention to how vulnerable the benefits of capitalism are. Every time blood runs in the street outside a supermarket or a theatre, people suddenly sit up and remember that peace and prosperity aren't unconditional. It takes effort to preserve them, effort and an understanding of the political and social foundations upon which they rely. Why do so many Muslims seem eager to supply that effort?

Admiral Yamamoto, I'm told, didn't really say "We have awakened a sleeping giant" after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But he should have. The Muslims have gone beyond that: they've awakened a sleeping giant and they keep kicking it in the balls.

And for all that, they still have friends. Here is a telling sample of typical Western opinion from Damian Penny, who, as you probably know, has spent hundreds of hours over the past year acquainting himself and others with the misdeeds of Islam's enfants terribles:

Here's what I say to any Muslims reading this: I want to respect your faith. I refuse to believe it's inherently less benevolent than Christianity, which has certainly had no shortage of atrocities committed in its name. Everyone is entitled to practice his or her faith in peace, and Muslims are certainly no exception.

Now, look carefully at what Damian's saying. He doesn't just happen to believe that Islam, on the evidence, is as "benevolent" as Christianity. (He couldn't, because where's the damn evidence? If "Christianity" is taken to mean its modern, thankfully neutered form, there isn't any.) He, in fact, refuses to believe the contrary. Despite having personally amassed the most powerful practical indictment of Islam you can imagine, he says he will not ever entertain the idea that Islam is incompatible with "peace".

Such a refusal is incompatible with intellectual honesty, but that's OK, because Damian's "refusal" turns out to be entirely conditional. The very next thing he says is

But you're going to have to meet us halfway on this. When Islamic extremists blow up a nightclub in Bali, I don't want to hear excuses about how we have to "understand their rage". When pro-Palestinian demonstrators chant slogans calling for the complete destruction of Israel--while ignoring the shocking human rights violations which occur throughout the Arab world--I don't want to hear some bullshit about being "anti-Zionist" rather than anti-Semitic. Muslims have prospered in the West--but something has gone horribly, terribly wrong in the predominantly Muslim states of the Middle East, and ultimately, Muslims have to take responsibility for what has gone wrong.

So there's really a contradiction there: he wants not to believe that Islam is basically a cheap, shitty, pretext for murder, mistreatment of women, and mob rule. But it's getting hard for him--harder every day, I expect: he wrote the foregoing on the 22nd, before the sniper named Muhammad (PBUH, to be sure) was caught and the Russians stormed the Chechen-held theatre. I cite him not to single him out, but because I believe that this is the standard intellectual position of the average, secular-minded person in Western society now. Nobody in this world wants to lie awake wondering what the hell's really going on in the mosque across the river. Nobody wants to look at a girl wearing a chador in a coffee shop and think that if she got raped, her brothers would probably kick the shit out of her. Nobody wants to wonder if his cab driver thinks that Jews are blood-drinking monkeys and his daughter should have a clitoridectomy.

Pure inertia is the most powerful thing in the world. Until September 11, Islam had the inertia of the West on its side. Not anymore.

[UPDATE, October 28: Damian's reply is here, the re-reply here.]

- 11:53 pm, October 25 (link)


It's a day of farewells, it appears. First we have Michael Bellesiles, the academic fraudster whose award-winning anti-gun Arming America was exposed as one of the most comprehensive shams in the record of the American historical profession. In arguing that guns were surprisingly scarce in British North America and the early United States, Bellesiles deliberately misinterpreted probate and militia records and in some cases appears to have cited records that no longer exist. (Critics trying to retrace his research on the West Coast found, for example, that Bellesiles had been counting guns in legal papers destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.)

In the face of a damning report by an academic committee assembled by Emory University, Bellesiles resigned today. "I will continue to research and report on the probate materials while also working on my next book, but cannot continue to teach in what I feel is a hostile environment," the acclaimed bullshitter said in a statement. That about sums it up, doesn't it? Emory will be glad to have it on the record that it is a "hostile environment" for those who fake their research.

Farewell, also, to Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN), whose campaign plane has crashed outside Eveleth, killing the senator, his wife and daughter, two pilots, and three of his campaign workers. I joked a while back that Minnesota was just a part of Canada that got lost and wandered south of the 49th parallel; Wellstone, who opposed war in Iraq and was on the extreme far left of American politics, was one of the elements I had in mind. Down there he was a crazy socialist. Up here he would have been a right-honourable Liberal cabinet minister from Manitoba, most likely. I'm thinking agriculture or external affairs.

Wellstone seems to be the last person anyone would pick for a fate like this, not to speak of the wife and daughter. Politics is a rough game, roughest of all for unsafe incumbents in icy northern states. The Republicans targeted Minnesota with plenty of soft money, and Wellstone couldn't afford to leave any of his markers outstanding. There is no suggestion I know of that he was playing the game to impress Daddy, to have his ego stroked constantly, or to build himself a post-political life sitting on corporate boards. He was just a guy with a certain idea of America. Don Quixote struck down by the windmill.

And so we turn to Richard Harris, who has lost out to Hodgkin's Disease, robbing us thereby of another link in the British stage tradition which keeps Hollywood movies lively. Harris, sadly, never had that Lawrence of Arabia role that would define him for American audiences. On the other hand, he did have possibly the most improbable pop music career of the 20th century. We'll never have that recipe again.

- 6:09 pm, October 25 (link)

Keystone, Md.

Headline: SERIAL SNIPERS CAUGHT, DESPITE POLICE. The best place I know of to keep up with the continuing sniper story is Jim Henley's weblog, but I thought I'd pick out this titbit--taken from a newscast and reported in Jim's words--and let you savour it.

The two men were arrested around 3:30 a.m. at a rest stop near Frederick, sleeping in the blue 1990 Chevy Caprice mentioned in last night's reports. A motorist identified the vehicle by its make and license number at 1 a.m. and called Frederick police on his cell phone. NBC reporter Greg Williams notes an irony: police complained a great deal about leaks in the case. In the event, they did not officially release the license numbers to the public. The motorist knew the license numbers because of a leak.

I'd have thought the Unabomber case would have taught police, I don't know, everywhere that it is better to be liberal than stingy in releasing information to the public. Remember the Unabomber--the serial killer who was caught because his prose style was recognized? Yeah, that guy. If Charles Moose and his merry men had actually succeeded in sitting on the information they wanted sat upon, Muhammad and Malvo might have been popping another D.C.-area shopper's head like a grape while you read this. Keep this in mind as you hear their police work praised in the days to follow.

- 2:04 am, October 25 (link)

You have bad taste

Why aren't you reading Mike Sugimoto's weblog instead of mine, jackass? Check this out:

In the wake of recent calls to eliminate the use of "fisking" by the blogging community, I'd like to propose a similar moratorium on the use of "sustainability" in public policy discourse, e.g., no more "sustainable development" or "sustainable growth" or "substainably produced products." This is a word that, like "paradigm", doesn't really mean anything -- at least, probably doesn't mean anything in the context that it is employed. I've yet to meet a single person who can tell me what, exactly, a sustainably produced product is and why it's different from any other random product.

...From the CBC this morning: "Consumers want sustainably produced products." I suppose that's true. I might. If I knew what those were.

Read the full entry here. What is perhaps most remarkable about this perceptive political observation is that it has been made by a practicing physician. Normally, when doctors venture upon political opinions, the result is (a) ill-informed, (b) quasi-fascist, or (c) both. But I digress! Mike's weblog is what weblogs should be: like a conversation with a very smart guy who has wide interests.

- 7:37 pm, October 24 (link)

Butter off dead

I wrote an Up Front item for the current Report magazine about a gentleman in Toronto who killed himself--barely--with a butter knife. The original CMAJ article is here for your perusal, although the X-ray photos are even more harrowing in print, I have to say. Kids, don't try this at home.

- 8:41 am, October 24 (link)

Beyond Lonnie

(Link via Joanne Jacobs) I occasionally express, in private at least, some fairly harsh views about public schoolteachers, so it gives me pleasure to link to a pro-teacher article by Joe Bob Briggs.

We've actually done the same thing to teachers that we long ago did to judges--we took all discretion and creativity out of the process. A judge is no longer allowed to say, "All things considered, we're gonna let this one slide," because he's not expected to JUDGE anymore. He just slaps down mandatory sentences that are set by a legislature that doesn't trust him.
In a similar way, teachers are assaulted daily with policies on diversity, multiculturalism, discipline, structure of teaching time, proper forms of address, all to make the classroom ever more formal and yet ever more "sensitive" at the same time.

This, I think, is unarguably true. Teachers everywhere suffer from having to work in a zero-tolerance environment full of political directives, educational fads, and plain foolish or arbitrary ideas. Unfortunately, there's a question Joe Bob doesn't engage: "Who's responsible for creating and implementing these policies?" I'm afraid the answer is "Teachers are, mostly."

Some of the finest human beings I've known were teachers. So were most of the worst. The public schools, as they exist now, create wonderful opportunities for the bad ones; if you went to a public school you probably had teachers who would have been fired, within a week, from the job you're doing now. They also create incentives for the good ones to keep quiet. If you're a teacher--even a very good teacher--are you really going to complain about the absurd restrictions on competitors entering your profession? Are you going to complain about your powerful union and your lavish benefits? Are you going to complain that public school teachers pretty much have to be caught sodomizing dead goats in the science lab to get fired? Are you going to complain that there's very little accountability involved in your job?

Sad truth: most of the things that could possibly improve public schools--standardized outcome testing, school choice, taking power away from the unions--are a pain in the ass for the teachers. We have to make up our minds whether we're going to run the system in their interests or in those of the children. Teachers have created an elaborate, monolithic intellectual superstructure--a mini-ideology--designed to eliminate or obfuscate that distinction. (Smaller classes good! Testing bad!) It's hard to blame them, but it makes it very hard to trust them, too.

- 8:26 am, October 24 (link)

C'est nouveau

Here's a BBC story that defines and delineates the current crop of Strokes/Hives/Stripes guitar bands/saviours of rock. Still no name for the "movement" though. I don't think we can call them the New New York New Wave, can we?

Personally, although the Beeb's Ian Young has tongue implanted in cheek, I think it's great that all these groups have names of the form The ______s. Friends of mine will remember that in the mid-'90s I got pretty sick of pretentious one-word band handles like "Moist" and "Tool". You could never keep the band name and the song name straight. "Oh, yeah, I know that one, it's 'Soft' by 'Fish'. Or maybe 'Fish' by 'Soft', I dunno." You're a goddamn band, guys, try to work the plural in there somewhere.

My favoured solution was for rock writers and DJs to adopt a convention whereby any group with a one-word name like "Nirvana" would simply be referred to, without their by-your-leave, as "The Nirvanas". This never caught on, but history has vindicated me!

- 7:33 am, October 24 (link)


I have some thank-yous for traffic to clear up. The Cato Institute's Julian Sanchez sent some my way. Julian has been noticing white vans with ladder racks ever since the, y'know, murder rampage in his part of the world started. Funnily enough, when I was 17 I had kind of a terrifying close encounter with just such a vehicle. I was en route to a school event with a friend, riding in the passenger seat of his car, when an aluminum ladder slipped out of its bungee cords on a white van just in front of us. The ladder remained attached on the rear, but somehow the front slid off and the ladder whipped around behind the van just like a baseball bat, passing, I don't know, three inches in front of our windshield? WHOOSH. I'm thinking maybe that was the sniper, performing early experiments on cheap killing methods.

Of course, if I start talking about the different ways I was nearly injured or killed in motor vehicles when I was 17, we'll be here all day. I was just reminiscing with a friend of mine about one particularly horrible beer-store run on a country road. He's only just realized, I guess, how close we came to needing to be scraped out of the ditch with spatulas. "OK, which body goes with this head? Looks like a fat guy, you'll have to pick the one that burned most efficiently."

The Weekly James has been sending just tons of hits my way. With a lot of weblogs--I've been studying this issue lately, as best I can--there's a certain spread between their influence, or profile, and their actual readership. The Weekly James appears to be one of those sites that's not talked about a lot but has just loads of readers. And I learn from James that there have been two fresh arrests in the sniper case and police are optimistic that they've got the right guys.

Steve Sailer has me pretty high on his blogroll and has been sending just tons of traffic my way. I suppose it's karmic payback, though, for the various times over the years I've steered people to his articles. Favourites include this one on the paradox of "diversity", this one on the tension between mass immigration and environmentalism, and this one on some astonishing asymmetries in interracial marriage. They all have that Sailerian quality of making you go "Hey, I didn't really think about that before."

- 7:10 am, October 24 (link)

This isn't heaven! This sucks!

Well, Strange Brew is now out on DVD but there's still no sign of the SCTV episodes. There's a petition you could sign for all the good that'll do, I dunno. The fans seem to abandoned hope for that "late fall" release we were promised by the New York Daily News. Son of a bitch.

- 10:55 pm, October 23 (link)

Too smart to be Canadian

Those who've been following the matter of Little Green Footballs v. Femia et al. may be interested in the sudden appearance of a distinguished Friend of the Court: Mark Steyn.

I'm on the side of LGF myself, although it's not because I've done some sort of CAT scan of Charles Johnson's motives in running the site. I don't believe in that bullshit: the consequences of the eternal hunt for "hatred" we're all engaged in are much worse than the occasional petit soupçon of the thing itself. It wouldn't be fair to deny that the comments section of the Little Green Footballs contains a smattering of Little Green Nutballs. But so what?

The real fun is in watching the LGF crowd, which has engaged in (partially justified) gang-tacklings of Canada in the past, desperately try to figure out Steyn's national origins. He's British, right? Hey, I heard a weird rumour... Naw, can't be.

- 10:09 pm, October 23 (link)

Unhappy ending

Rick Gleason, the Canadian injured in the Bali explosion, has died at the Royal Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. A former naval reservist with four university degrees, Gleason walked out of the blast with his lungs fried, his back carrying shrapnel, his hair burnt off, his scalp lacerated, and his heart physically torn from the shock. His friend Chris Kovacs has been providing updates for Rick's friends and delivered the bad news a few hours ago. The Australians, despite being busy with their own hundreds of dead and wounded, made sure the frightfully injured Gleason was on the first plane to Darwin; they're paying for his medical expenses, and those of other foreign nationals injured in the bombing.

- 8:05 pm, October 23 (link)

And ourselves all bellboys

Oh dear. It appears the winner of the 2002 Booker Prize is somebody named Yann Martel. They say he is Canadian, and since he gave his acceptance speech in both French and English, it must be so. Nobody but a Canadian would feel the need to show off in that way after they gave him the cheque. Well, good show, Yann: you've done us proud, I assume, and your comment that "Canada is one of the greatest hotels on earth" really says it all, whatever it might mean.

In the meantime, lest anybody begin to think that literary prizes are either important or good, here is a brief roster of Commonwealth authors who have never won the Booker Prize (though I think all of them have been shortlisted at least once):

Muriel Spark
Alice Munro
Anthony Burgess
Julian Barnes
Martin Amis
Peter Ackroyd
William Trevor
Mordecai Richler
Beryl Bainbridge
J.G. Ballard
Tibor Fischer

William Trevor, who is underappreciated, has been nominated a whole load of times and was on the shortlist this year. But he's just not the Booker Prize's sort of person, I suppose. The judges have sometimes shown foresight, giving awards to Midnight's Children and The Remains of the Day. But then even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

- 12:58 am, October 23 (link)

Damnably innocent

I'm afraid I can't join in the general rejoicing over the acquittal of Michel Houellebecq.

French writer Michel Houellebecq has been cleared of inciting racial hatred by saying Islam was "the stupidest religion".
A panel of three judges in Paris declared that the author was not guilty after he was sued by four Muslim groups.
He made the comments in an interview with the literary magazine Lire in 2001.
The case was seen as an important battle between free speech and religious conservatism.

This is a silly way to "see" the case. It is all to the good, I suppose, that Michel Houellebecq, the human person and literary artist, should not have to face a penalty for having insulted Muslims. (And much as we might like to pretend, as a legal convenience, that he didn't insult Muslims...) But he shouldn't have had to face a trial in the first place. It is not a good day for free speech when a court declares that an artist's intentions were simon-pure and socially harmonious and therefore permissible. It is a bad day for free speech when a magistrate makes any rulings whatsoever on such a matter.

Court-approved speech is, by definition, not free speech. Michel Houellebecq is not free, in France, just because France has chosen not to punish him this time. And Houellebecq, unfortunately, has not stood up for his sacred right to abuse and execrate whomever he likes. He knows only too well that he won't be allowed to exercise it.

- 4:41 pm, October 22 (link)

Voice of the agora

A correspondent writes:

i have a recommendation for your web page. take your ugly mug may actually get people to read what you have to write.

Not a bad idea! But it's one I've rejected reluctantly, for reasons discussed here and here. However, if more people vote for a anonymity-driven redesign, I'll definitely have to consider it.

- 11:58 am, October 22 (link)


David Sachs, author of the Toronto Star op-ed on the monarchy I discussed the other day, has very kindly sent a note! David insists that the audited circulation of Urban Male is "around 95,000", making his claim of "close to 500,000 readers" accurate if you're willing to assent to a multiplier of about five. I certainly won't quarrel with it, and I happily retract any suggestion of statistical obfuscation on his part.

He also says:

Look again at the Citizen quote. It says 'distance from... events'. [An] umpire certainly would not gain any greater accuracy in his calls with 'distance' from the plate. So I think my point stands.

Can't help you there, David. It's a very long leap from "The Queen is distant from current Canadian events and political factions" to "the Queen probably doesn't keep up with Canadian affairs." If you hadn't specifically put the second assertion in the mouth of the writer of the first ("I grant the point that..."), it could possibly be allowed. If you're going to attribute a belief to someone else, rather than yourself, you had better be prepared to show that it's a logical consequence of something they've said.

And in this case, that's just not so. The Queen is "distant" from Canadian parliamentary politics in the same obvious constitutional sense that she is "distant" from British parliamentary politics. Does that mean she doesn't keep up with Canadian affairs, or with British ones for that matter? Well, she's a constitutional monarch, so "keeping up with Canadian affairs" is part of her job. And if there is one single fact about the Queen that is universally acknowledged by people who have worked with her, it's that she stays on top of her portfolio.

- 11:37 am, October 22 (link)

Love story

October 21
Police Plead to Sniper: Call Again

October 22
Police to Sniper: Dammit, Why Aren't You Calling Us?

October 23
Sniper Seemed So Nice, Police Can't Understand Why He Doesn't Call

October 24
Sniper Calls Cops: Excitable Desk Sergeant Accidentally Hits '7', Deletes Message

October 25
Unconfirmed Reports Sniper Seen Dirty-Dancing At O'Malley's With That Whore Cyndi Myers: Police Take to Bed, Eat Whole Bag of Oreos

October 26
Sniper Phones Police, Admits to Getting Caught in "Heat of Moment" But Denies Getting Bone On With Local Skank

October 27
After Repeated Calls, Police Reluctantly Forgive Sniper, Make Date for Sunday Night

- 4:23 am, October 22 (link)

If 6 were 9

Now here's a story I missed. For nearly forty years, my alma mater, the University of Alberta, has graded students on a bizarre nine-point scale that no other university in the known world uses. While others have been able to approach employers with easily comprehended four-point GPAs or letter grades, U of A grads have been stuck trying to explain what, say, a 7.8-out-of-9 U of A grade-point average might possibly mean. The system is so outlandish that transcripts are sent out with a little guide to our Martian way of doing things.

Not that I've ever met a private-sector employer who gives a crap what someone's GPA was, you understand. Anyway, I see that the U of A is finally moving to the four-point system in the fall of 2003. And those of us who lived under the old regime will be left awash on the shores of history with our hard-earned 8s and 9s.

- 4:02 am, October 22 (link)

We are family

There's a lot of excitement over the ossuary recently discovered in Israel which bears the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." But where's the context? The WaPo reports on the finding without even touching on the continuing controversy over whether Jesus had brothers and sisters. A Roman Catholic scholar dismisses the importance of the ossuary:

The Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, a Bible professor at Catholic University who studied photos of the box, agrees with Lemaire that the writing style "fits perfectly" with other first century examples. The joint appearance of these three famous names is "striking," he said.
"But the big problem is, you have to show me the Jesus in this text is Jesus of Nazareth, and nobody can show that," Fitzmyer said.

Well, now, of course he'd say that, wouldn't he? As Cecil Adams explained in his "Straight Dope" column three years ago, Jesus having brothers and sisters doesn't quite fit with the Catholic doctrine that Mary died a virgin. The issue is how the Greek words adelphoi and adelphi should be understood: they mean "brothers" and "sisters", but it's possible the author of the Gospel of Matthew meant them metaphorically. He must have meant them that way, if Mary remained chaste her whole life. But if the ossuary is legitimately connected to the biblical James-the-"brother"-of-Jesus, then the "metaphorical" explanation for the wording of Matthew kind of flies out the window, doesn't it? You might refer to a cousin as a "brother" in telling a story, but it's much less likely you would do so in an ossuary engraving.

In other words, this discovery has the potential to be mildly explosive--or not: Fitzmyer, after all, does have a point. But couldn't the WaPo have fit that angle, which brings up the possibility of theological axe-grinding, into their story either way?

- 1:25 am, October 22 (link)

It's the talk of the town

Hey, Marc Weisblott added me to his blogroll. That's excellent. Weisblott, as a lot of you know, is another 31-year-old Canadian media person. But he's sort of the anti-Colby Cosh in a lot of ways too: good-looking, lives in Toronto, has cable TV...

He has no permalinks, at least at the moment, but for a representatively good entry you might go to the Weisblogg and scroll down to his collection of Ray Conniff album covers. I dig that solarized Bitches Brew-looking one about halfway down. The lesson for designers is that you can always be relevant by carefully copying breath-mint ads.

To be honest, I'm always kind of scared to read Weisblott. He has this habit, you see--I hope I'm not offending anybody--of using a whole lot of em-dashes in his writing--which isn't a bad thing necessarily, it makes your writing sound conversational--but it's a tendency I personally have to struggle against, or it does ascend to the level of an outright fault, and I'm such a pathetic absorber of other people's prose styles that--God help me--I have to be slightly careful. You should see me after I finish a David Foster Wallace book: I'm a basket case. Anyway, Marc seems to have turned down the em-dash temperature a little bit.

- 7:46 pm, October 21 (link)


Don't leave home without the Exile's chart of what Europe's tribes think of one another. Let's face it: the Dutch are offensively tall.

- 12:06 pm, October 21 (link)

Another view

Jeremy Lott has been at the Report for all of two weeks, so naturally Mr. Big Shot thinks he knows how to get the magazine running like clockwork and selling like hot cakes. Here are his ideas, alongside with a newly-won insider view of the magazine and its strange home city.

I kid, but (a) everybody's ideas are welcome and (b) Jeremy's are actually pretty insightful. He's grasped the magazine's main problem immediately--it's trying to do work that, in the U.S., is done by at least a dozen magazines--but he's understated it, because the magazine also has a lingering mandate to provide newsy material for a sizable audience that doesn't read newspapers.

To add some institutional-memory-type background that Jeremy is missing, "embracing culture" is something the magazine has done before. We used to feature reviews of new video releases. These were cut, presumably for being too inexpensive and informative. We also used to run a pop-culture column by Kevin Grace, "Galaxy 500", that was hilarious--conservative and learned without being the slightest bit starchy. Kevin liked doing it, and it was probably the best writing he's done. So it had to go too. I forget why, exactly. Culture always seems to be the first man out of the lifeboat, and it's because we can always think of a reason why we "have to" do some political or legal story, but there are very few books you "have to" review or movies you "have to" discuss. Culture-watching is more subtle and difficult than reacting to political changes. And, frankly, I suspect it's genuinely less urgent in a place like Canada, whose "culture" is largely imported but whose homegrown politics are going to hell faster than a Japanese bullet train. You could change Canadian politics pretty quickly by shooting a few of the right people (list available on request), but you could never move the "culture" an inch that way.

To give a concrete example, you're the editor of the Report and you have a choice between doing an extra page on the Kyoto Protocol or doing 750 words on traditional Celtic bands that spread the gospel throughout Nova Scotia in Gaelic. Which do you choose? It's obvious, isn't it?--the culture story waits while you try to save the country. And it'll wait forever, because with the country in the hands it's in, there's always some new goddamn thing we need saving from.

- 2:53 am, October 21 (link)

Fides et ratio

Razib at the Gene Expression weblog has an entry on who believes in Creationism. The basic answer is "Fewer and fewer people as you move rightward on the great bell curve of human intelligence." One of many highlights of the discussion is this:

I read once that someone contacted geologists who had received their undergraduate education at fundamentalist Christian colleges but now had careers in the oil industry. When asked if they still accepted the Creationist paradigm, they either said no, or refused to talk about it on the record.

Not long ago I took a phone call from a highly educated older reader of our magazine, a geological engineer who had attended Catholic universities long before John Paul II gave the high sign to Darwin. Fascinating guy--I talked to him for nearly an hour. He remains a Roman Catholic and raised his children in the faith. Since both his religion and his profession had come up in the discussion, I asked him whether he believed in Darwinian evolution.

His response was to laugh for about ten seconds. Then he said "Of course I do. It's as obvious at the nose on your face." If we didn't already know about evolution, working geologists and petrochemical engineers would now--with the data we have--be rediscovering it every day.

Well, that's just one data point. Razib offers an interesting caveat:

I know there are many brilliant people that reject evolution. The software that geologists use to model subsurface geological phenomena (magma convection in the mantle for instance) was designed by a geophysicist who rejects evolution and accepts Flood Geology. He is a Christian fundamentalist who freely admits that without guidance from the Bible, he too would be an evolutionist.

- 5:23 pm, October 20 (link)

Married, buried

There's an old saying about journalism: don't pick a fight with anyone who buys his ink by the barrel. Courtney Love refused to be interviewed for Newsweek's preview of the about-to-be-released Kurt Cobain diaries. Uh oh! When you refuse to cooperate, your publicist doesn't get to pick the art that runs with the story. So you may end up looking like this.

There's a curious sentence in this Newsweek story:

The book is already controversial among some fans, who worry that it's an invasion of Cobain's privacy, his suicide in April 1994 being tragic, irrefutable evidence of his desire to be left alone.

Just goes to show you how bad we are at thinking about "privacy". If Kurt Cobain wanted his personal notebooks to remain private, it was a simple question of him not shooting himself in the head. Failing that, he could have destroyed them, as many artists have. I take his suicide in April 1994 to be tragic, irrefutable evidence that Kurt Cobain didn't give a shit what anyone thought or said or read or knew.

If anyone's rights or social privileges are worth considering here, surely it is those of living people? If you kill yourself, you don't get a damn vote in these matters anymore, get it? I think it's perfectly outrageous that we tiptoe around suicide so much: we profess to care a good deal about it but the only incentives we have in place now are positive. Newspapers won't report a suicide anymore, unless you (a) are a celebrity or (b) jump off a tall building and land on a celebrity. If we really wanted to prevent suicide we'd have a full-colour section every day with pictures and sordid details of cowardly deaths.

- 4:44 pm, October 20 (link)

A better bed than mine

It has been a long night of poetry, and I thought I'd share with you some neat things I found, because what else do I have to share just at the moment? Nothing. And going all the way to the opposite pole, notionally, seems like a good strategy for bringing back readers who were driven away by the earlier burst of hockey angst.

This quite thorough selection of A.E. Housman was made by a young English astrophysicist named Martin Hardcastle. It is my experience that scientists are less likely to have bad taste in poetry than students of the arts and humanities. They, hard scientists, are not easily conned. Martin has exceedingly good taste: here is a list of everything he has put on the Web, enough perhaps to keep you up until 7 a.m. some night or other. Note the damage done to the collection by copyright extension.

He has singled out Housman and Yeats and Dorothy Parker, it seems, as modern poets especially worthy of attention. Whew! That's very close to the mark; if I were to choose, say, four, those might be three of them, all right. Housman is my own particular favourite. I know, it is easy to think of him as a poet who painted always in the one gloomy colour. And, indeed, reading too much Housman all at once is not to be recommended to the faint of heart. But he was so perfect--there are so few missed notes in him (few enough, I'm afraid, that they ring all the louder when struck). Housman seems to, all on his own, abduct the English poetic enterprise into a different realm. Beside him, most everyone sounds gaudy or noisy. Even returning to Shakespeare isn't easy after Housman--for those moments, Shakespeare seems more than ever like a gauche, smutty acquaintance who leans in far too close to talk to you.

But then, I always think of Housman's poetry as a very undergraddy sort of thing to like, and I keep expecting not to react to it anymore. He was so much the eternal adolescent himself... One day I'll wake up and I'll have outgrown it. Won't I? Or is it revealing that I haven't already outgrown it?

There is one omission from Martin's selection that is just plain shocking, almost unforgivable. He's left "Is my team ploughing" from A Shropshire Lad out. Notice, after you read it, that this frightfully sad poem--so sad it doesn't even bear thinking about, how sad it is--is a joke. I don't mean that the poem is trivial: I mean that it's got the same structure as a joke, it has a "punchline", it uses irony exactly the same way a joke does, and if you think about it long enough, it can conceivably make you laugh. What we have here, in eight square little quatrains, my friends, is a joke. But it's one that somehow encompasses sex, death, and friendship--human existence itself. Good poetry always makes you go "Now how the hell did he do that?" but I was never at more of a loss to answer the question than I am in the face of "Is my team ploughing".

- 7:26 am, October 20 (link)

Definitely does not contain hockey-like substance

What can I tell you? The big event of my Saturday night was watching the Bruins-Oilers game. I didn't want to talk about it because I'm afraid of turning off the people who don't like hockey. Also I don't want to talk about it because the game had me hunched over, staring at my hands and screaming incoherent, bile-strangulated screams. It's only been five games, I shouldn't get so upset. The game was actually very encouraging in some respects. The Oilers still have their gift for comebacks (they tied it from being down 2-0 and again from 3-2 before losing 4-3). Mike Comrie's offensive-zone magic gets more magical by the day (I swear I saw him do a Cruyff turn on skates at one point tonight) and Anson Carter played great. This team isn't going to be as bad as everyone had it pegged to be.

But it may not be as good as it should be, either. Tommy Salo, our netminder, stole 10-15 games for us single-handed last year; he hasn't done that yet, and he looked pretty feeble tonight. (Memo to MacTavish: get Markkanen in there, he'll throw up the goose egg we need.) Janne Niinimaa, who was the best defenceman in the division last year, was made to look like the monolith from 2001 by a rookie, Nick Boynton. In fact, all our problems this night were caused by rookies, nobodies, and Bryan "Cyclops" Berard. I mean, we keep Joe Thornton off the scoresheet, and Ivan Huml kills us? Are you kidding me? Who the heck is Ivan Huml? That's a Slovak automobile, right? A brand of smelly Bulgarian cigarette?

I don't like losing to teams coached by Robbie Ftorek. I know it's no longer okay to use "fag" as a term of derision, so I can't really go into any more detail about that: it appears to be an insurmountable semantic stumbling block. But what made it worse is that Ftorek started his third-string goalie against us. OK, I know I complained when the Oilers couldn't beat the Sharks' backup on the Sharks' ice. Forget that. This was a third-stringer, starting a game in our building, who had never played in the NHL before. What was his name--Tim Taylor, Tim Thompson, something like that? The announcers kept getting his name wrong, but they did report that he's been playing in Europe for the last three years. That was nice to know. Some data to savour after the loss.

What the hell, Oilers? Ftorek gives you free points by starting a third-string Euro-refugee in your building--your full-to-capacity building--and you don't take them? HELP ME. HELP ME TO UNDERSTAND YOUR BOUNDLESS PERFIDY.

- 2:30 am, October 20 (link)

Hollywood hermaphrodite

I was just reading the reviews of Swept Away, which is a cheery exercise (reading the reviews, that is, not watching the movie). It would be a shame if they stopped making movies bad enough to inspire such delightful wolfpack film criticism. Madonna accused the critics of getting personal, and that's certainly fair on one level, as a few examples will show:

Madonna is so spectacularly convincing as a hateful, self-absorbed, nouveau riche ogress that her character's third-act transformation is as preposterous as her overmuscled physique. - Michael Atkinson, Village Voice

To be frank, Madonna looks horrid here; her face is leathery and sour, and when she smiles it comes across as a grimace. - Jeffrey M. Anderson, San Francisco Examiner

Madonna has made herself over so often now, there's apparently nothing left to work with, sort of like Michael Jackson's nose. Here in Swept Away, a remake of Lina Wertmüller's 1974 Marxist, art-house hit comedy, Madonna's presence is like a big black hole. You know something's up there on the screen, but it's not registering as either human or alien, and you actually get afraid that if you get too close to the image, it will swallow you up and spit you out into some not very enticing new world... In one scene, she's riding an exercise bike. At first glance, you believe you're looking at a gym bunny in bad Madonna drag. Much as Angela Bassett's overly muscled body destroyed her believability in the rancid How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Madonna's biceps immediately maim any chance of us submitting to her characterization even her facial muscles moved. - Brandon Judell, PopcornQ

But then again, none of this is unfair at all: no one made Madonna transform herself, over a period of years, into an NFL wide receiver. It is no wonder critics have found evidence of surreptitious embarassment in the way Guy Ritchie handles his wife's naked body. It's become a ridiculous tangle of sinews and it's nobody's fault but hers. I think Madonna had such success leading Middle America into thickets of porn, fetishism, and blasphemous imagery that she actually thought she could snow heterosexuals (male and female) into revising their concepts of body image too. She figured we'd just tag along... We've been told, haven't we, that these things are culturally conditioned? Well, who better to do the cultural conditioning than the Queen of Sex herself?

Alas, the conditioning--the social construction, if you will--turns out to take place only within firm genetic limits. Women can have round, generous figures or slender, fragile ones, but they have to look like women. They have to have some secondary sex characteristics. At this point in her career no one would be terribly surprised if Maddie reached down into the front of her jeans and pulled out a big pink cock. If she's looking for a reason for all the ridicule, she might want to start there.

- 4:33 pm, October 19 (link)

In the neighbourhood

Humble thanks to Matt Welch for propping up the Friday traffic total hereabouts. Matt is surprised that anyone would praise his design skills, but for me Matt's site was imperative in driving home the "Keep it simple, stupid" design message. Of course, I'd have kept it simple anyway, precisely because I'm stupid (about HTML).

Aaron Haspel has come up with the brilliant idea of Series-Skipping™ Steven Den Beste. (Actually Mark Wickens had the idea, and Mickey Kaus invented Series-Skipping™, but Aaron's implementing it.) If you don't have any idea what I'm talking about, go here to see how "Den Beste Digeste" works (or here).

The Tumbleweed says she went to hear Arthur Kent speak today. That's Arthur Kent, the "Scud Stud", not to be confused with Arthur Dent, the hero of the Hitchhiker's Guide. Since his 15 minutes of Gulf War fame, Kent has settled into an early quiescence, bumming around Canada and doing independent documentary production. He's been popping up on the History Channel, I'm told. Maybe NBC will hire Kent back for Gulf War II: The Reckoning.

You won't know this--possibly even Kent's forgotten it--but he got his early Scud Stud training in the Alberta oilpatch. Anecdote time! Towards the end of 1977 a sour-gas well in Northern Alberta (near a place called Lodgepole) blew out and started venting freely into the air. "Sour gas", for those who don't live in Saudi Alberta, is natural gas that contains sulfur compounds which make it dangerous in high quantities and smelly in low ones. Really smelly. So smelly, in fact, that when the Lodgepole well went wild, the whole northern half of the province began to reek of rotten eggs. And I'm not exaggerating. I was going to school hundreds of miles south of the well and I still remember playing soccer at recess, befogged by the Lodgepole stench.

I suppose we all got used to it after a couple of weeks, and hopefully my children won't have six fingers per hand because of it, but the blowout, and Amoco's handling of it, was still the big story in the news most every day. Today Alberta has a homegrown industry that can deal with wellhead disasters, but back then there was only one guy to call--the legendary Texan Paul "Red" Adair. People my age will remember Adair from "That's Incredible", perhaps. Red flew in, took a look at the site, and put together a variant of his usual plan, which was to blast the crap out of the well with a couple hundred tons of high explosives.

Now this, you would think, was going to be the news picture of the decade in Alberta. Unfortunately the RCMP had cordoned off the well and imposed a "no-go" perimeter around it. They had no intention of lifting the perimeter for the day of the explosion, certainly: the hazardousness of all these goings-on was sort of the point of having the perimeter. But Arthur Kent--then just a punk kid working for the CBC affiliate in Calgary--was determined to get the footage. He pointed out to his bosses that the Mounties hadn't actually specified the limits of the "no-go" zone, so if you could somehow get around the roadblocks, you could reasonably claim that you didn't know you were doing anything wrong.

And that's what he did. On Explosion Day minus 1, he and a cameraman took a truck to within hiking distance of the perimeter, parked it, took as much equipment as they could carry, and set off for a suitable vantage point close to the well, striking through the bush so as to avoid the cops. They spent the night in a camouflaged tent, and in the morning they got themselves a nice duck-hunter's view of Red's (unsuccessful) explosion. CBC Calgary had the exclusive, and the Mounties had a conniption. They talked idly about locking Kent up, but he hadn't broken any laws--just risked his own neck to get the story. Aw, yeah, that's great stuff. That's Alberta, baby!

- 11:15 pm, October 18 (link)

Damn you, Kurt Gödel

One for the combinatorically inclined (via Sylloge). When you ask your travel agent or a website like Orbitz to give you the cheapest possible air fare from A to B, how do you know you're really getting the cheapest possible fare? You don't; and in fact, you can't; and in fact, no one can. Not for sure.

If you want to do a simple round-trip from BOS to LAX in two weeks, coming back in three, willing to entertain a 24-hour departure window for both parts, then limiting to "reasonable" routes (at most 3 flights and at most 10 hours or so) you have about 5,000 ways to get there and 5,000 ways to get back. Listing them is a mostly trivial graph-search (there are a few minor complications, but not many), that anybody could do in a fraction of a second.

The real challenge is that a single fixed itinerary (a fixed set of flights from BOS to LAX and a fixed set back) with only two flights in each direction may have more than 10,000 possible combinations of applicable "fares", each fare with complex restrictions that must be checked against the flights and the other fares. That means that the search space for this simple trip is of the order 5000 x 5000 x 10000, and a naive program would need to do a lot of computation just to validate each of these possibilities. Suitably formalized, it's not even clear that the problem of finding the cheapest flight is NP-complete, since it is difficult to put a bound on the size of the solution that will result in the cheapest price. If you're willing to dispense with restrictions on the energy in the universe, then it is actually possible to formalize the cheapest-price problem in a not-too-unreasonable way that leads to a proof of undecidability by reduction to the Post correspondence problem.

Wow, who knew?

- 10:14 pm, October 18 (link)

Sad Sachs

[UPDATE, October 22: Be sure to read David Sachs' response and my retraction of suggestions made herein.]

Now here's a pile of horseshit for you. David Sachs makes some ill-informed arguments against the monarchy in today's Star. His take:

To those of us in our 20s and 30s, the gushing reviews and pro-monarchy arguments made lately by pundits and politicians seem so antiquated they make reading the newspapers seem like walking through a museum.
Now, can I claim to speak for all of my generation? Sure, why not? I have at least as great a claim as the Queen does to representing Canada. Greater, as I actually come from that generation. I am senior editor for a Canadian magazine which reaches close to 500,000 readers, most of them men in their 20s and 30s.

Cue an Ellen Foley-style "Stop right naahhwww!"

As so often happens, a single word has set off my warning buzzer, and in this case it's "reaches". Reaches... reaches... hey, if he meant that 500,000 people read his magazine, why didn't he use "reads"?

Because it is unlikely in the extreme that the magazine Urban Male is read by 500,000 people. I for one have never heard of Urban Male, though I have dim memories of seeing, under a similar name, a knockoff of Maxim that looked like it was designed by 14-year-olds.

Let me put forward the best "counterclaim" I can make. I come from the same generation Sachs describes, too (I'm 31). And I'm a senior editor of a magazine, too. My magazine has a paid circulation of around 45,000. How many people read it? We haven't done research on our pass-along rate (the number of extra readers who read each copy) for years, but when we last checked, this rate was insanely high, perhaps above five. (Our readers mostly come from earlier generations which are annoyingly frugal. There are entire towns, I suspect, which share one copy of the Report.) I tend to think, and tell people, that we have about a quarter-million readers. That would be in the ballpark.

So how many people read Urban Male, as opposed to being "reached" by it (which could mean they frequent a 7-11 where it is sold)? I don't have paid-circ figures for Urban Male. I see from the Magazine Fund disbursements, though, that Urban Male receives about one-seventh what the various Report editions get. Sounds to me like they sell six, seven thousand copies of each issue. Combine that with a more usual pass-along rate... well, being very generous, we might calculate, albeit as an unreliable first approximation, that about 35,000 people read Urban Male.

It is unfortunate for Mr. Sachs that he chose to try to imply that his readership was about 14 times larger than it actually is. I don't think it's atypical, though: it's precisely the kind of self-deluded concern with prestige that breeds snotty republicanism. I just think it's a shame--although again, no surprise--that the Star printed an op-ed by an editor, an English-language editor, who doesn't know the difference between the words "disinterested" and "uninterested".

Finally, there is this argument from the Ottawa Citizen's pro-monarchy editorial of Oct. 8: "Queen Elizabeth's very distance from current events and political factions, especially in Canada, gives her a disinterested gravitas in the event of a crisis that also helps make such crises unlikely."
I grant the point that the Queen probably doesn't keep up with Canadian affairs.

Sure. And because baseball umpires are disinterested in the outcome of the game, they obviously don't keep up with the flight of the ball, either. Somebody here needs a good usage guide and a kick in the arse, and it's not Her Maj.

- 3:17 pm, October 18 (link)

More than words

Now, I want to ask you seriously, what kind of country is Canada? How exactly would you describe it to someone who'd never been here? Because I'm looking at the Friday morning National Post and the picture it presents, if you step back from it, is remarkable. Let's just do a quick rundown. I don't want to give you any preconceptions here, and I won't editorialize: let me just throw out a series of stories from today's paper.

· Page A1: An Ontario judge has awarded full custody of a four-year-old boy to his father because his mother was exposing him to second-hand smoke. "In a trial that featured surveillance video and hair samples presented as evidence against the mother, accusations of hypochondria levelled against the father, Stewart Miles, for his concern about the boy's suspected asthma, and a psychologist's failure to decide who is the better parent, the mother's smoking tipped the scales against her."

· A3: A private member's bill to ban motorists from using cell phones while driving passes second reading in the Ontario legislature. "Tory MPP John O'Toole said the goal of his bill... is to 'make drivers think twice before taking their hands off the wheel and arguably their mind off the job.'"

· A12: The Supreme Court of Canada announces it will hear a challenge to the section of the federal Criminal Code that allows parents to spank their children. "The Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law wants to overturn Section 43... which allows a teacher, parent or someone acting in a parent's place to use force to correct a child."

· A13: "Halifax is a by-law enforcement officer's dream, and a libertarian's nightmare." Describes zealous (some would say Draconian) health laws in the municipality, including perhaps the toughest pesticide regulations in Canada, cutting-edge anti-smoking laws, bike helmet laws, laws against the wearing of scents in schools and libraries, laws about unleashed dogs and open-air fires, etc., etc.

These, of course, are mere islands in a stream. In tomorrow's newspaper you'll see discussion of a whole new set of proscribed behaviours--perhaps a website shut down for "hate" here, an arrest for "improper" storage of a firearm there. The state, in Canada, recognizes no limit whatever on its ability to control an individual's actions. Now, I don't want to make a political argument, here, that this is right or wrong: maybe you think the state should have total freedom of action. I just want to get the point across that there is no limit which the state itself accepts--that unlimited, unconstrained government is, in fact, the true state of affairs.

Because if there is a limit, what is it? Have you ever heard anyone in a meaningful position of power in Canada say, about anything, "We can't do X because it would violate the sacred freedom of the individual"? Do you know of any level of government, any agency or institution, that thinks this way? They are awfully careful about "privacy" these days, and they are getting hip to "accountability", though at a snail's pace. But does the personal freedom of the "client", formerly known as the "subject", occupy a similar place of importance? The question answers itself.

- 6:59 am, October 18 (link)

Ayn Rand on copyright

Pursuant to my earlier discussion of the Ayn Rand Institute's position on the Lessig challenge to the Sonny Bono Act, here is what Ayn Rand herself actually said about the subject. This is an unedited excerpt from "Patents and Copyrights", which originally appeared in the Objectivist Newsletter in May 1964. I will highlight a couple of important passages without altering the text.

Since intellectual property rights cannot be exercised in perpetuity, the question of their time limit is an enormously complex issue. If they were restricted to the originator's lifespan, it would destroy their value by making long-term contractual agreements impossible; if an inventor died a month after his invention was placed on the market, it could ruin the manufacturer who may have invested a fortune in its production. Under such conditions, investors would be unable to take a long-range risk; the more revolutionary or important an invention, the less would be its chance of finding financial backers. Therefore, the law has to define a period of time which would protect the rights and interests of all those involved.

In the case of copyrights, the most rational solution is Great Britain's Copyright Act of 1911, which established the copyright of books, paintings, movies, etc., for the lifetime of the author and fifty years thereafter.

In the case of patents, the issue is much more complex. A patented invention often tends to hamper or restrict further research and development in a given area of science. The difficulty lies in defining the inventor's specific rights without including more than he can properly claim, in the form of indirect consequences or yet-undiscovered implications. A lifetime patent could become an unjustifiable barrier to the development of knowledge beyond the inventor's potential power or actual achievement. The legal problem is to set a time limit which would secure for the inventor the fullest possible benefit of his invention without infringing the right of others to pursue independent research. As in many other legal issues, that time limit has to be determined by the principle of defining and protecting all the individual rights involved.

Note that, when it came to scientific patents, Ayn Rand explicitly recognized a place in the law for the interests of end-users or "the public." Note also that with respect to IP generally, she is chiefly concerned with the rights of the inventor and artist himself--not those who happen to be in receipt of his bequest.

You may now compare Rand's position on copyright with that of institute that bears her name. The woman herself said that life plus 50 was "the most rational solution". The institute's spokesman says--without disclosing her own interest in the issue--that those who are trying to return to that most rational solution are the friends of intellectual vandalism.

Does anyone care to defend ARI's behaviour? I'd be interested to entertain arguments, if you have them.

- 1:26 am, October 18 (link)

Truth, Inc.

By now you've probably read the sanitized media report on the streaker at the Bruins-Flames game tonight.

A streaker scaled the glass near the penalty box during a stoppage in play with just over five minutes to play and went onto the ice.
Wearing only a pair of red socks, he slipped when his feet touched down and he landed hard on his back. He was apparently knocked unconscious when he banged his head on the ice and was motionless on his back beside the boards.
After a delay of six minutes, he was removed on a stretcher to a loud ovation from the crowd of 15,346. Having regained consciousness, he pumped his hands in the air, further delighting the other fans.
[Bruin Joe] Thornton was fairly confident that the fan was not rooting for the Bruins.
"He had red socks on. You guys can have him," he said.

How quintessentially Calgarian. Here's a photo of the chastened nudist being borne off the ice. But wait--the real incident is even funnier than all this. has unearthed a first-hand account of the fiasco from the Calgary Flames forum. It contains an important detail missing from the wire story. On this thread, user "Kryptonite" reports:

I was at the game too and saw the whole thing. Basically, he dropped his pants and attempted to climb the glass. caught between the glass (from my angle, that's what happened) and when he pulled it loose he fell a good eight feet down to the ice. Ouch.

On the plus side, the "streaker's" "manhood" apparently didn't stay wedged between the panes when he fell. So he's got that going for him.

- 12:58 am, October 18 (link)

Invitation to a butt-ending

Maybe I need to arrange my editorial cycle so I don't have the fortnightly nervous breakdown. I swear, if I was a woman you could take a big 2002 Dilbert calendar and sit down in front of my weblog archives and chart my menstrual period with a big red Sharpie. Sorry I didn't post all day but I was laid up with a Charles Whitman headache. The problem is, people really like my column, which is written at the very tail end of the two-week cycle, when the stress, rage, and exhaustion are at their peak.

They're interviewing Craig MacTavish on the radio now and he sounds just like me: enfeebled and owly. I hope he hasn't started drinking again. Oilers lost 4-3 in San Jose tonight. Yeah, it was a road game, but Evgeny Nabokov is holding out and the Sharks had some pimple-faced, Sterno-guzzling Estonian in goal. There's no excuse for giving those points away.

And yes, for those who are wondering, Nabokov is a butterfly-style goaltender. Which is itself kind of Nabokovian.

- 11:48 pm, October 17 (link)

Attention webloggers.

After you read this, you no longer have any excuse to use the verb "fisking", as in I fisk, you fisk, he/she/it fisks. It is "blogger" jargon, a twee little in-group signifier, for an activity which has many fine Anglo-Saxon names. If you want to take the piss out of some journalistic jackass, go ahead and do it. There is no need to "fisk" him, or to credit someone else with having "fisked" him. Yes, the joke at the expense of the extremely lamentable Robert Fisk was funny enough at first. But it would take a very funny joke indeed to hold up after a year of frontline warblogger deployment. The purpose is no longer to induce even a grin. The purpose is to preach, by means of semiprivate language, to the choir. Well, the choir gets damn sick of it after a while and starts thinking that maybe macramé would be a hobby which doesn't involve so much self-satisfied sniggering. Party lines, right or wrong, become abominable when they are enforced by reflexive phrasing implanted in the reptile brain. This, this, is Why Orwell Matters. Friends don't let friends "fisk", drunk or sober. Pass it on.

- 5:31 am, October 17 (link)

In the crosshairs

Bruce "Flit" Rolston, as I've pointed out before, has a great weblog. In a recent entry he explains why it's wrong to refer to the recent Washington shooting as "sniper attacks." Er, except he doesn't, really.

Just got back from my annual army rifle requalification, which when you boil it right down consists basically of putting 20 5.56 mm rounds through a stationary human-sized target at 200m while peering through a 4x scope.
Then, I yawned.
I'm an average shot, but that's not taxing in the least.

Feel the casually deadly power of Flit! The power, that is, of the argument from authority--which counts, sometimes, but if you have to be an expert shot to make rulings on English usage, I'll have to step down as an editor posthaste.

As it happens, I daresay I could hit a human being from 200 metres, given a suitable scope and good visibility, but that wouldn't make it not sniping, would it? I think it's fair to describe shooting human beings with a scoped rifle from a concealed vantage point by exactly that verb. Even if the shots taken are relatively easy for a military man. The only weakness in the description, unless I'm missing something, is that we don't really know if the D.C. shooter is concealing himself; but then, you don't shoot 11 people in a suburban area, and get away clean, without taking some precautions along those lines.

Now, obviously it would be wrong to suggest that this guy must be a trained military sniper by profession just because he can hit a human-shaped profile from a couple hundred yards. I don't think that implication is contained in a phrase like "sniper attacks." Yes, I know the press, on the whole, is as ignorant of guns as I am of conversational Uighur. But let's not get too pedantic.

- 11:49 pm, October 16 (link)

The book of Ezra

Never one to shirk my fraternal responsibilities to what passes for a conservative movement in Canada, I'll pass on the heads-up about Ezra Levant's forthcoming quickie book Fight Kyoto. It's just what it sounds like: an arsenal of intellectual ammunition for the Kyoto Protocol debate. It's supposed to be ready in time for Christmas.

- 1:25 pm, October 16 (link)

The new face of terror

Here's your left-wing over-the-top moral equation of the day, courtesy of an Anthony Gancarski piece in Counterpunch about the D.C. sniper:

Yet on the afternoon of Friday, October 11, the culmination of a week of what are being called sniper attacks at gas stations and other repositories of the public trust, I-95 was a route on which the travelers are beset by more than the sclerosis of afternoon traffic. These travelers were beset by state terror in one of the purer senses of the term, as "pro-active" law enforcement search "every white van within 100 miles", as reported by Cliff Van Zandt on MSNBC.

Searches of motor vehicles are rightly deemed delicate things, constitutionally, but... "state terror"? And "in one of the purer senses of the term," at that? Somebody needs to get a grip. And what's with this "what are being called sniper attacks" bullshit? What else would you call them?

- 12:03 pm, October 16 (link)

IP, freely

I tend to think the last thing people need is another view of the intellectual property wars--particularly one that, like my own, is not especially well-informed. Still, I might as well dive in, since in this post I outed myself as someone who monitors this stuff.

As you'll recall, I had been discussing the Ayn Rand Institute's hysterical op-ed piece against the Lessig challenge to the Sonny Bono Act. The author of the op-ed is Amy Peikoff, wife of Leonard Peikoff, who is the legal heir of Ayn Rand. As Steven Ehrbar has pointed out to me, this would seem to, one way or another, give her a significant financial interest in the matter, one not spelled out in the op-ed. (You can check the official text at ARI's site.) Would it be too strong to describe this as somewhat slimy?

On its own, perhaps not, but what if we take into account that Ayn Rand wrote, in her article on "Patents and Copyrights" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, that the Berne Convention's copyright duration of life-plus-50-years represented the "fairest possible" handling of works of the imagination? I intend to double-check the quote when I get back to my house Thursday and have some time to rummage through my books. Steven sent the exact quote but I promptly misplaced it.

The Institute has done what I would describe as a lot of good, but this kind of stinks. In the Institute's defence--and here I had better re-declare my own interest in its activities--the op-ed is chiefly concerned with the apparent philosophical pretexts of the Lessig challenge. There is no doubt a lot of knee-jerk anti-big-business sentiment among the "digital liberties" crowd. But Amy Peikoff should actually quote Lessig if she is going to ascribe a philosophical position to him. This is as close as she comes:

Lessig and his allies try to downplay what they are doing by making it an issue of finances. They say things like, "the copyright law used to restrict only big business, which is fine-but now it restricts anyone who has access to the Internet." "Only 2 percent of works protected by copyright," they go on, "create a regular stream of income for their creators."

"Things like"? "Things like"? I understand, having written many op-eds, that they're not footnoted: but "things like" is just not very good. Not unless Lessig is to be held responsible for everything any of his "allies" says, ever. If he said this stuff himself, why can't it be attributed to him?

On other fronts, my Report colleague Rick Hiebert wishes me to put in a word for Internet radio listeners like himself. He recommends

Many radio stations and shows are only available via the Internet. Most of them take no advertising, and charge little, or no fees. The advantage of this is that they can afford to cater to a niche audience and specialize in things that would never make it onto many regular radio stations. If's streams are back online, you will see what I mean.

["See"? He means "hear", surely? -ed.] My own complaint is that the legal battle over the pricing of webcasting royalties has taken most ordinary radio stations' webcasts off the air for the duration. I used to enjoy seeing what they were listening to down in Santa Monica or Cucamonga (although what one came away with, most often, was a sense of depressing uniformity). Losing a free good like this has not been especially heartbreaking, for me; but guys like Rick who like discovering weird shit are depending on non-commercial webcasters to be able to stay in "business". If a webcaster is not receiving a benefit or fee from his activity, it is analogous to playing a record for a roomful of buddies. But maybe the RIAA's against that now too.

And speaking of the RIAA, Dan Bricklin has a great essay on the economics of digital music. Don't know who Dan Bricklin is? Oh, only one of the greatest living benefactors of humanity: he invented the computer spreadsheet. Bricklin asks a particularly beguiling question: are cell phones killing music? Why are Walkmans seemingly so much less prevalent now than they were ten years ago?

People only have so many waking hours a day. Extra talking while you're walking will undoubtedly cut down on time when you can listen to music. With 500-1000 minutes a month to talk, that's enough to listen to 10 CDs. If we say that you listen to each CD you buy 20 times (1480 minutes) that means that the avid CD buyer would probably buy 1-6 fewer CDs per year once they start using a cell phone heavily. In addition, talking on the phone while walking or driving cuts down on time to listen to the radio and be exposed to new music. This could be having a huge effect on CD sales. This is in addition to the moving of limited discretionary spending from music to cell phone fees.

There's something to this, I suspect, though the shift may be more subtle and McLuhanite than he lets on. (Have cell phones and the Internet conditioned our nervous systems to prefer/expect interactivity? If so, this is more than merely a matter of adding up waking hours.) Go read the whole thing.

- 1:56 am, October 16 (link)

Actually, I think Modano's my favourite Ice Girl

I'm just listening to the Oilers put on a pretty clumsy display in Dallas vs. the Stars. I suspect it will end 3-0 [it eventually did - ed.], making the Oilers', what, 14th straight winless regular-season game in that city? Something like that. The shots on goal total will be pathetic for the Oilers, but they must have hit about six goalposts tonight, and they've squandered a ton of power plays, including at least two two-man advantages.

Hypothesis: the Oilers are a small, speedy team. Here at home, they play on the best ice surface in the world--which suits their style fine. They're like a Red Sox team structured around Fenway Park. But put them on lousy ice and they fall apart. And the ice in Dallas is always lousy. It was 21 degrees Celsius there during the day today. Of course, they do have the Ice Girls now, maybe that'll help.

It makes sense for the Oilers to tailor their game to the building where they play 41 games a year, so it may be that they will always suck, relatively, on sludgy ice surfaces. Thanks for bringing a bunch of Southern teams into the league, Bettman! Ron Maclean was totally right to tear into you, man.

By the way, what about these Goalie-Fellating Hosebeasts? Er, I mean Ice Girls. Totty-wise, it seems hockey has a long way to go before it catches up with football. Just when I feel ready to choose a favourite, something on the bio page always scares me off. Diana seems quite nice but she lists her fears and phobias as "The usual: drowning, burning, tight spaces, getting abducted." My dear, having all that stuff happen to you simultaneously would be decidedly unusual indeed.

- 9:16 pm, October 15 (link)

Googlemysteries and flies-with-sledgehammers

Time to catch up on some administrative-type matters and Old Business, but I'll try to make it entertaining. The way I do this is to use swear words, as you know.

I've heard a lot of theories the last few days, most of them lousy, on why people are coming to my site from Google searches for "Colby Cosh". My sister thinks it's old classmates trying to find out what I'm up to: I doubt it. Most of the old classmates I've run into know perfectly well what I'm doing, and even if that weren't so, it could explain maybe one search a month, but scarcely one a day. Another blogger says she comes to my site deliberately through a Google search, because she doesn't want my URL to appear in the pulldown menu of her office's Internet computer. It's a long story which doesn't really apply to others, unless many work environments are as paranoid and underfunded as hers (unlikely).

The best theory yet is Sam Mikes'. He points out that while my URL is easy to remember, others in the "blogosphere" are not--they're Blogspot-hosted, or they're in a different top-level domain like .nu, or they simply make zero sense (Unqualified Offerings rules, but why does it live at He thinks people may just get in the habit of searching for their favourite weblogs.

Thanks to the Man Without Qualities for Tuesday traffic. Does linking to me make him the Man Without Quality Assurance? MWQ wonders if the Washington sniper killings may be intended to cover the murder of a single intended target. He mentions the 1993 Sudafed killings, but he might have added a couple of famous airline disasters, one of which is still remembered in Canada.

11/01/1955 c 19:00
LOCATION: Longmont, CO
CARRIER: United Air Lines FLIGHT: 629
REGISTRY: N37559 S/N: 43538
DETAILS: The aircraft crashed 11 minutes after taking off from Denver on a flight to Seattle. Detonation of a bomb in the No. 4 cargo hold, placed by John Graham in his mother's luggage in order to collect 37,500 dollars in insurance. A delayed flight caused the bomb to detonate over flat land rather than the mountains as planned. He was executed for the crime.

09/09/1949 10:45
LOCATION: Sault-aux-Cochons, PQ, Canada
CARRIER: Canadian Pacific Airlines
AIRCRAFT: Douglas DC-3
DETAILS: The aircraft disintegrated in flight 40 miles outside of Quebec. Detonation of a dynamite bomb in the forward baggage compartment. Planted by Albert Guay, a jeweler, in a plot to kill his wife, a passenger on the plane. Guay, who assembled the bomb, had his mistress Marguerite Pitre airmail the bomb on the aircraft. Ms. Pitre's brother, a clockmaker, helped make the timing mechanism. The insurance policy was for 10,000 dollars. All three were hanged for the crime.

Visit this page of unusual airline disasters if you need even more reasons to feel nervous about flying. Of course, now that pumping gas or shopping can get your head blown off, who worries about flying?

That'll do for the administrivia for the moment. Back later...

- 7:34 pm, October 15 (link)

May contain football-like substance

Slate has an intriguing article by Bryan Curtis about why wide receivers in the NFL are such jerks.

Not dirty players, mind you, or murderous off-field thugs-just your basic, run-of-the-mill jerks. At no other position will you find such a Rolodex of malcontents.

The position, Curtis figures, breeds ego; wide receivers are often former track stars, so they're often coming from an individual-sport context, and they're the only guys on the offensive unit who really need to speak up to get the ball. They don't have the leadership responsibilities of a quarterback.

What's interesting about this is that a receiver did something unusually distinguished in Monday's abominable CFL game between my Eskimos and the Montreal Alouettes. The Esks' performance in a 48-30 loss was appalling; I've commented before on how they're a winning team (now 12-4) that folds at the first sign of trouble. That 12-4 record, basically, is 12 narrow wins, some of them downright cheap, and four ugly blowout losses. The Thanksgiving game was widely considered a preview of the Grey Cup, and if so it is going to be a disaster.

However, in the midst of the haphazard offensive line play and the abject surrendering in the red zone, Terry Vaughn, the Esks' finest receiver, really came through. Not only did he have an outstanding night personally, but he agreed to return punts and kickoffs after the designated special-teams guy, Jason Tucker, got hurt in the second quarter. (Our usual pinball, whose name, I kid you not, is Winston October, was on the one-week injured list.) How often do you see the second-best receiver in the league pony up and say "Hey, let's run back some kicks?" Guy could get killed. Vaughn is a generous, polite, articulate guy in postgame interviews and is notable for not giving up, even on the frequent occasions that the rest of the team does. He's certainly got the talent to be an NFL receiver but at 5'8" I think he knows his future is in this league--and, if he stays healthy, its Hall of Fame.

So he doesn't fit Curtis's profile of the asshole receiver. But perhaps I should note that he's not technically a wide-out; the pass-happy CFL, with its huge field and end zones and its three downs, normally pretty much employs a one-man backfield and sends everyone else. Vaughn is nominally a slotback, and he'll take the occasional lateral and do some blocking, but he's really a "back" in name only.

- 2:34 pm, September 13 (link)

Saeva indignatio

These should be good times for movement Objectivism, with the collectivist scales dropping from so many people's eyes (see below) and a grassroots network of laissez-faire thought called the "blogosphere" suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Instead the reputation of orthodox Objectivism stands--well, if not as low as ever, then hardly any higher.

Here's one good reason. Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, as my American readers will already know, is spearheading a Supreme Court challenge to Congress's continual re-extensions of the term of federal copyright protection. The Sonny Bono Copyright Protection Law, the latest of the extensions, firewalls the duration of copyright to 70 years past the life of the author, for copyrights held and exercised by individuals, and 95 years, for those held by corporations. (Why should there be a difference? As Ayn Rand used to say herself when presented with such rhetorical questions: "Blank out.")

Ayn Rand specified that intellectual property cannot be held in perpetuity, so what great principle can possibly be at stake in an argument over how long federal protection should last? Apparently a very great one, of some sort. In the aforelinked op-ed, Amy Peikoff unleashes a positively demented attack on Lessig and the plaintiffs in the case, calling them "shameful and Marxist" and comparing them to defenders of cannibals and vandals.

If those in the "digital liberties set" plan to have a field day with others' works of creative genius--bastardizing them into whatever fragments they find appealing, adding any distorting content they choose, then blasting the results all over the internet--what is the point of trying to convey to the world one's own vital viewpoint?

It hardly needs pointing out that if "bastardizing" and "vandalizing" a work of the imagination is bad 60 years after the death of a creator, it will still be bad 80 or 100 years later. It should be obvious that this "vandalism" sometimes takes the form of, say, turning a novel into a screenplay or performing a piece of music--hardly a cause for hysteria. It is very confusing that opposition to such "vandalism" should be used to defend the interests of Disney, who lobbied for the Sonny Bono Law--which conveniently protects their own intellectual property while leaving them free to "bastardize" Notre Dame de Paris, fairy tales, Greek myths, and what have you.

Above all, it is mystifying that the Ayn Rand Institute cannot relent on its usual tone of jihad even in discussing an issue which is, at heart, procedural. This isn't an argument over whether copyrights are good or bad. It's an argument over how long they should last, and whether it is legislatively meaningful and fair to have a "limit" which Congress keeps moving forward every time it's about to run out.

In nearly every case, the replies to ARI's position are logically much more sound than the original screed. There's a full page of them, originally sent to the Politech mailing list, here. And Aaron Haspel has some interesting thoughts here; if you only follow one link out of this entry, make it that one.

- 9:01 pm, October 14 (link)

Out of sight, out of mind

Speaking of the New York Observer, here is yet another poison-pen farewell letter to the Left from an American intellectual. I note Rosenbaum's inadvertent slap to the consciences of those Canadians who can't resist Cuba's tooth-white beaches:

Remind me again, was it John Ashcroft or Fidel Castro who put H.I.V. sufferers in concentration camps?

Admirers of Castro's island paradise will tell you that the "concentration camps" are a right-wing canard: damned odd, I should say, to hear it from Ron "I am not any kind of conservative" Rosenbaum. Of course, no one actually denies that HIV-positive Cubans were rounded up and quarantined in appalling conditions. The usual excuse (see an example here) is that Cuba is poor and quality medical care is practically nonexistent and, well, really, what else could they do? Socialism takes time to build. We shouldn't be misled by Cuba's prior record on homosexuals: Fidel really means well.

- 8:29 pm, October 14 (link)

Daring to dream

Can you believe the New York Times let its web forum moderator go for telling a friend... well, here's what he said to the New York Observer's George Gurley:

I called up this same friend of mine, Hampton Stevens, now a freelance writer now living in Kansas City. He responded to Ann [Coulter] immediately. "I love it when she's unafraid to say that people are stupid and ignorant. She's written some stuff about liberal folly and it's so fantastic."
Did he find her attractive?
"Oh, I'd fuck the shit out of her."

Zing! The quote ended up in Gurley's Observer piece about Coulter, and Mr. Stevens' contract with the Times was not renewed.

Perhaps, as the Times insists, there was simply no further economic need for Stevens' services. The problem with this interpretation is that for the Times to not fire Stevens would be a signal failure of the modern system of reflexive institutional thought-policing. It's impossible to imagine that the Times would not fire him after he let such blatant evidence of male hormonal activity slip. I mean, can't they urine-test for this sort of thing? (If you take the test standing up, you fail.)

Clearly Stevens should have been given a fair chance to hang onto his job. The Times is a progressive place, so we wouldn't necessarily expect him to follow the example of the loyal Chinese general who, discovering that his enemies were planning to accuse him of an affair with the Empress, cut off his dingleberries and placed them in the Emperor's saddlebag, to be produced triumphantly when his opponents made their move. But we have humane chemical methods of castration for sex offenders now, and really, isn't "sex offender" just another way of saying "man"?

Richard Poe writes about the case:

I assume that Mr. Stevens is a liberal. Conservative men might think such things, and might even say them in bars, locker rooms and similar places, but only a liberal would consider it appropriate to emit such an utterance in an on-the-record interview with a newspaper. No doubt, he thought he was being adorably uninhibited or some such thing.

It is probable that Stevens forgot himself and was simply talking to a colleague after the fashion of the uninhibited, cynical, crusty journalists of old. You remember them, don't you, Mr. Poe? It's not so long ago that a newsroom was a "similar place" to a bar or a locker room, only more so. If there is a breach of protocol here, it could as easily be Gurley's--for printing the supposedly offensive statement--as it is Stevens' for uttering it.

It is understandable that Richard feels the need to come to the defence of a lady colleague, but does anybody need to feel bad for saying they'd bang Ann Coulter? She's done very well out of her bangability--which is not to say that it is her sole or even chief merit, just that you'd never have heard of her if she had a cleft palate and weighed 290 pounds. Richard is right to see his co-worker as a person rather than a persona, but Camille Paglia would tell you that Ann's frolicsome, athletic-but-feminine, slightly off-kilter carriage is designed, within micrometric tolerances, to induce the reaction "Holy cats, would I ever F. the living S. out of that girl." Whether the design is by her Creator, by blind Darwinian forces, or by Ann herself, I leave as an exercise for the reader. (Visual research materials are available here.)

- 7:21 pm, October 14 (link)

Roll the bones

Steven den Beste links to a Sydney Morning Herald article that gives more detail on Indonesia's complete failure to react to the presence of Islamist terror groups in the country. Even Time magazine knew that an act of terrorism was imminent:

But few Indonesian leaders were prepared to take this information too seriously. Instead of a considered response to a security threat, the issue degenerated into a debate where the US was flat out defending charges it was anti-Indonesian and anti-Muslim.

Instead of taking action, the Indonesian government chose to play a game of high-stakes poker, keeping the country packed with pink tourists and their greenbacks. They lost. The Indonesian stock exchange took a serious beating today and the rupiah is in the toilet. That's the Muslim world for you: a group of national economies just one Tim McVeigh away from financial chaos and poverty.

- 2:03 pm, October 14 (link)

Why? WHY?

My referrer logs contain about one Google search per day for "Colby Cosh". I really don't get this. These can't be people who want more Colby Cosh information but don't know about the site, can they? It's not like I had some past career where I filed corruscating first-hand reports from Chechnya or played the mischievous nephew on "The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo". Have I somehow failed to make the URL easy enough to remember? You've already got "Colby" and "Cosh", for Christ's sake.

- 5:26 am, October 14 (link)

Green curtain

I missed the terrorism in Bali until quite late in the day. Lesson: no Muslim country is safe for Westerners anymore. No one yet knows who is responsible for the atrocity. It will certainly be a Muslim extremist group. The purpose may have been solely to kill infidels, but it is far more likely that the terrorists meant to injure the Indonesian government and start the ball rolling towards a purer, more Islamic Indonesia. Tourism is a soft spot for Indonesia, easily hit. There are indications that the Indonesian government has not done enough to roust out the vipers in its midst--and indeed, why should they, when a government like, say, Canada's can't even be bothered to proscribe Hamas and Hezbollah?

Westerners travel rather thoughtlessly to a place with an idyllic reputation like Bali; they are assured that their hard currency will buy them safety. In fact, the security apparatus of every state with a Muslim majority must be deemed compromised, and terror attacks should be expected in countries with large Muslim minorities. The implications for the traveller are woeful. Consider the list of countries which must not now be visited without some serious second thoughts: Morocco. Tunisia. The Maldives. Bangladesh, and perhaps India itself. Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore.

Perhaps this attack is a one-off, but perhaps we're witnesses to the birth of another whole new method of terrorism--call it "Islamic self-purification by fire". Airplane hijackings and suicide bombings are substantially new to the world, and have brought with them onerous security requirements which have made the world smaller for all of us. It won't surprise me if it gets smaller still, very quickly.

[POSTSCRIPT, 12:55 am: A Balinese tourism website has a list of the dead and another of the injured. The poignancy is not only in the raw list of names and nationalities, but in the site itself providing this information as an unwitting valedictory. Who, when the bodies are finally counted, will have need of a Balinese tourism website for the immediate future? The poor sons of bitches.]

- 12:39 am, October 14 (link)

The literary madness continues!

Today is as good a time as any to discuss Adam Barken's objections to the peevish scribblings of B.R. Myers.

I don't know that Adam's letter lends itself to being tackled point-by-point. Here is what I think is perhaps the crux of it:

Try turning Myers argument away from the pseudo-populist rhetoric and imagine, say, he was aiming it at Pop culture.

"The reason people don't go see better movies is Hollywood (and their evil press machine) FORCES (or at least STRONGLY URGES) this stuff down the common man's throat -- and then the poor common man, so bewildered by the whirlygigs of MATRIX 5, why he can't help but get sucked in. But he doesn't really like it. Noooo."

Doesn't sound so good now. Sounds like and elitist pompous twit who doesn't want to accept that people vote with their wallets -- and yes, they do want MATRIX 5. And yes, E. Annie Proulx is a bestselling author. She really is, and so Myers only way to explain this horific state of affairs is to argue that She Shouldn't Be, and therefore Somebody Must Be Blamed. Since you can't blame the people who actually bought the book (as that would kind of undercut his whole Up With Readers mantra) he goes after...the evil critics who foisted her on the Unsuspecting Cows in Barnes and Noble!

I hate any argument that presumes huge numbers of people do things because they're fooled into it by a small cabal. I thought you would too. It's the argument of the crypto-socialist -- "the only reason things aren't the way I KNOW they should be is that A Small Group is fooling everybody into thinking the Wrong Way -- if we could just get rid of them, everything would be As It Should Be. And even if it doesn't, we have this 5 Year Plan to ensure it will be..."

The problem with this is that literary tastes (and political opinions) are formed by small elite groups. Myers and our friend Barken are painting opposite pictures of how a book becomes popular:

MYERS' PICTURE: A new book is seized upon by a small group of tastemakers--book reviewers, talk show hosts, academics, Oprah Winfrey--and praised. The reading public, or that part of it which is on the lookout for new highbrow fiction, takes its cue from this group and seeks out the book.

BARKEN'S PICTURE: The autonomous reading public, in its self-guided wisdom, makes a book popular irrespective of elite critical opinion, embracing authors like Annie Proulx without meaningful intermediation from tastemakers, who do not really exist.

Well, I know which picture I believe. It is impossible to avoid the "small cabal" argument if you believe reigning tastes are fundamentally wrong in some respect. Mass literary tastes are formed by a small cabal. They just are! You know, I think fiction authors would be very surprised to learn that Michiko Kakutani and Oprah don't, between the two of them, have an incredibly huge influence over their fate. I think this would come as really startling news to them, or to anybody.

So I don't think you can exclude, in principle, all arguments which contain some account of how taste is formed. You have to go back and fight on Myers' ground, which is the question whether there is something wrong with the pantheon of American contemporary literature--whether there really are deep and damaging flaws in the work of such lionized authors as McCarthy, Auster, and DeLillo. I think Myers has succeeded in showing this by means of very close readings of precisely those sentences and habits which are cited by critics as ringingly admirable. (I shall have to trust that Adam has read Myers' original Atlantic article, but I begin to suspect he hasn't.) It's not even that there is nothing good in DeLillo & co., but that it is precisely what is worst in them that is singled out for praise. If our tastes are formed by critics who can't tell a meaningless sentence from a meaningful one, can they possibly be good tastes?

Barken would wish to reply that he likes those authors even when they are repetitive, absurdly garrulous, or vague. Never mind applying some rational standard, he says: read first and foremost with your spine (as in, your senses, your nerves, the limbic system--with whatever part of your body makes you tingle with pleasure and pain).

This sentiment, expressed by Nabokov, is true enough; the problem with it is that it was expressed by Nabokov, who on the whole is one of the least "spinal" authors in the canon. I like Nabokov's cryptic, adventurous prose well enough, full as it is of anagrams and lexicographic posers and historical allusions and euphemisms, but what sane human can pretend that reading it is mostly a sensuous activity and hardly at all an intellectual one? Come, come, if I read "first and foremost" with my spine, then Vladimir Nabokov's books are the last ones I'd ever touch. By his own proposed standard, Nabokov is a pathetic failure, unfit to shine Dashiell Hammett's army boots.

In fact, we read with our brains, and we expect a good book to engage our brains on as many levels as possible. Prose is the medium which connects us to the thoughts of the author. The signal, ideally, should be easy (or at least fun) to decode and should contain something that is worth the decoding. If those conditions are met, we may demand that the medium have a musical beauty in its own right, as an undecoded signal. What Myers has shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that too many critics recognize only the musical beauty and have no sense at all of meaning and clarity. For them, language is not communication, it is merely a display of groovy rhythmic artistry akin to a John Bonham drum solo. It's just pretty sound.

Well, literature is not music, and literature does not want to be music. I don't think it's a coincidence that the worship of sound has given us a literary scene dominated by the likes of McCarthy and DeLillo. It's what they're good at--conjuring great gusts of swirling, symphonic, abstract prose that can't stand close interpretive questioning. Whether or not the "categorization" that Myers has done is "sloppy", it is true that the specific authors he has singled out are guilty of creating works which arouse a sterile technical admiration, but fail utterly to provoke any real thought.

- 4:28 pm, October 13 (link)

Tidings of turkey

Thanksgiving takes place this weekend in Canada, about a month earlier than in the U.S. Damian Penny unearthed a neat little York University page on why the date is different and how Canada came to celebrate a simulacrum of what is otherwise a distinctively American holiday.

In keeping with its Canadian origins as a proto-nationalistic sham, Thanksgiving is more low-key in Canada than it is the States. It's an ordinary long weekend, not a four-day orgy of gluttony. Yes, we eat turkey, and yes, we get together with our families if it's practical to do so, but life goes on, more or less: you wouldn't feel despair and alienation if you failed to observe Thanksgiving, as you would with Christmas. In the U.S. Thanksgiving seems to share almost equal status with Christmas--unless I'm mistaken (Americans should feel free to correct me on this), Americans seem more likely to head back to their hometowns for Thanksgiving than for Christmas. That just isn't the case here, because it's not a four-day weekend and we don't have enough money for cross-country travel anyway.

In Canada, Thanksgiving and Christmas don't act as the bookends of a "holiday season" of shopping and eating. I'd say we take our cues from the U.S. and start feeling holiday-ish when American Thanksgiving happens.

I'd like to add something to Peter Stevens' note on the origins and development of our October mutant. He (or whoever composed the press release) writes:

...few Canadians know that from 1921 to 1931, Armistice Day--now Remembrance Day--and Thanksgiving Day coincided, but the different emotions evoked by these two events proved incompatible. The two holidays were separated again in 1932.

It is true--I am speaking as a former researcher of 1920s culture--that there was a bit of strangeness in the combination of "remembrance" and "thanksgiving". However, the 1921-31 period was crucial in establishing the reality of Canadian Thanksgiving on a national scale. The holiday may have put down roots in Ontario long before then, but I think you'd find that in the West, the large numbers of American settlers would have continued to observe a November Thanksgiving until that time. Having a national festival of thanksgiving associated with the war made it socially essential to observe the holiday on the prescribed day: it gave it gravity and meaning. In Western Canada, "Thanksgiving" exploded out of nowhere as a concept after the war--and it was a distinctly Canadian Thanksgiving, at that, because the war experience cut much deeper into the national psyche here. (American readers may need reminding that Canada, as part of the Empire, participated for the full duration of both of the world wars.)

(Further detail for Damian Penny's fans: Newfoundland participated in the wars too--boy, did it ever--but did not join the Canadian Confederation until 1949. Newfoundland, like Canada, was still formally a British colony at the time of the Great War. It became a self-governing Dominion [equal to, and along with, Canada] under the 1931 Statute of Westminster. But the government went bankrupt in 1934 and Newfoundland abandoned its independence, allowing itself to revert to colonial status and to be placed in the charge of an appointed "Commission of Government". This unelected commission ruled until Newfoundland became the tenth Canadian province in 1949. There will be a pop quiz on this material later.)

- 3:48 pm, October 12 (link)

There is a minor update to the "legion" discussion below. And the ParaPundit has a bit more on the Canadian economy. -2:31 pm, October 12

Défense de fumer

Chris Hitchens was in Washington last night for a public screening of his new documentary The Crimes of Henry Kissinger. Jerry Brito has an on-the-scene report. It cries out to be noted that Hitchens' emphasis on the "theocratic" side of Saddam Hussein's regime is pretty self-interested. Someday Hitch will "journey" far enough from the left to admit that Saddam is a socialist revolutionary who piggybacked to power on a leftist movement. I mean, somebody get this guy a copy of The Road to Serfdom already.

I'm told that Hitch was breaking out a cigarette during the Q&A but somebody came from offstage and persuaded him not to light up. I'm surprised he played along. Hitchens is the last person I've seen smoke a cigarette during a television interview. That was during the CNN coverage of Mother Teresa's funeral. They had Hitchens doing colour commentary for about two hours, and there wasn't really much going on--one of those broadcasts where you keep expecting the anchor to give up and go "So what do you guys think of the Maple Leafs this year?". Hitchens cut a memorable figure, his cheeks, nose, and verbiage radiant with liquid health. He tried not to make it too obvious that there was a lit cigarette in the vicinity, but experienced viewers easily spotted the same fog that Letterman used to be sheathed in when Late Night came back from commercial breaks. (In later years Letterman got more careless and could actually be seen disposing of his cigars.)

- 1:29 pm, October 12 (link)

The Anderson Effect

Speaking of art and pornography, here's an oddly timely entry from Michael, one of the 2 Blowhards. Can cultural conservatives treat pornography as a form of folk art? Can and do, apparently! Unfortunately, self-inflicted physical destruction has taken all the fun out of the Jenna Jameson phenomenon, as it did with the Pamela Anderson phenomenon. Remember when Pammy used to look like this? Wa-hey, who's the cute chick with the facial expressions and the breasts made out of actual human fat? Pam used to be a girl who could bring a Canadian Football League crowd to its feet; now she's just a shambling wraith of Botox, collagen, and hepatitis. So too with Jenna, except the list of diseases may be longer...

- 8:11 pm, October 11 (link)

One good legion

A correspondent writes:

Reading your post about the Canadian snipers reminded me of Canada's response to them. The Americans nominated six of them for medals. We told the Americans they couldn't give them any, and then we decided to court-martial one of them. If we had one good legion, frankly, we wouldn't know what to do with it.

This is perhaps true. However, the Americans would know what to do with it, and do know. With time, they'll gradually take charge. We are engaged in "coordinating" our armed forces with theirs now, and we like to pretend that this isn't simply an outright concession of military sovereignty. But we all know better. We are conceding military sovereignty to the United States. We hope and trust that, in exchange, we will receive other kinds of freedom of action, and reward. If the survival of Canada as a distinct nation is important to Canadians in the end (a matter by no means decided), then it will be one of the poker chips on the table.

Conceding military sovereignty to the U.S. is not a bad deal: the people now negotiating the concession are not stupid or blind (in this respect). We have good reasons for our hope and trust in a fair quid pro quo. The U.S. is, by and large, a noble country of well-meaning people, a force for good rather than evil in international affairs. We have good ethical reasons, as well as purely tactical ones, for not wishing to be ranged with the Europeans in the emergent world order. Hell, we even have good esthetic reasons.

The surprising Canadian military skill in sniping has developed naturally, one supposes, along with other Canadian skills highly burnished on the cheap, like infantry reconnaissance. Canadian soldiers are, on the whole, very good soldiers. Hell, of course they're good soldiers: they're badly paid, they have little in the way of fancy equipment, only a few thousand of them are combat-ready, and there is no social prestige to tempt ambitious halfwits into the job. They ought to be skilled, and passionate: they're damned fools not to quit if they aren't.

Through government neglect, we've ended up with a small armed force, largely useless on its own, which has a different skill set from that of the Americans. At important moments--like when you're trying to shoot a terrorist right in the towel from a mile out--this skill set appears to be complementary to that of the Americans. This fits in perfectly with the idea of a legion of fœderati. Canada, as a geopolitical object, was born in an empire and may die in one.

[UPDATE, October 12: The author of the e-mail quoted above suggests that Canadian youths wishing to participate in imperialism should join the actual U.S. military. "Joining the Canadian military only exposes one to punishment for a job well done. Canadian self-hatred creates too big a risk," he writes.]

- 7:24 pm, October 11 (link)

The last conservative--or the first of their return?

I guess I kind of disappeared there for the whole day, didn't I? I was working through my magazine purchases, making phone calls for work, and having interesting conversations. I was talking to one friend about "art" and "pornography" and whether they are opposites. It was an easy argument to settle in the end, through simple recourse to the instant-classic David LaChapelle photo of Naomi Campbell entitled Have You Seen Me?. No one, really, can look at the photo and say it is not art. Not only art, but fairly witty art at that. But it was commissioned by a pornographic magazine, for prurient purposes. It's a self-conscious commentary on pornography, but does my limbic system care? Hell no. I'm sure yours doesn't either. Goya's Maja Desnuda wins the trick equally well.

Obviously not all nudes are pornographic per se--most aren't--but asking me to believe Goya didn't know what he was doing with that painting is asking an awful lot of me. Art and pornography aren't contradictories, they're just different kinds of categories which sometimes intersect and sometimes don't. Artists, being human, are sometimes interested in appealing to our lusts, just as they will sometimes appeal to our griefs, prejudices, fears, etc. If you say that art can't ever be pornographic you might as well say it can't ever be political or philosophical... well, I'm sure a lot of you know this already. I'm just babbling.

The Maja link above comes from this nifty little page of representative nudes in art taken, with one exception, from 1800 on. Closing with the Mapplethorpe is perfect. I think it will be confusing to people one day... how exactly did this man, Mapplethorpe, become a conservative hate figure by trying to summon Western art back to the altar of beauty? That's really going to knock them for a loop in the year 2100, I suspect. It seems pretty silly even now. Mapplethorpe should have been made the damn director of the NEA, poor fellow.

- 6:17 pm, October 11 (link)

Land of confusion

Just got an e-mail from Randall Parker, who runs ParaPundit, FuturePundit, StoryPundit, and TechiePundit. (You'll have to overlook his rather cynical exercise in brand coattailing for our purposes, and try not to realize that these "-Pundit" weblog names are going to look horribly dated... starting six weeks ago.) Randall calls the attention of a select clique of Canadian webloggers to an interesting entry he's written (in ParaPundit) on Canada's standard of living.

I have previous thoughts on the subject which may be of some relevance. Randall says:

I am curious to know whether Canada's economy is showing any signs of starting to close the gap in per capita GDP and productivity versus the US. One would expect NAFTA to allow Canada to achieve higher economies of scale and lower costs.

One would--but the United States is a signatory to NAFTA and gets the same theoretical benefits from it. So how would NAFTA, in particular, help Canada close the gap?

Randall is speaking here of the "gaps" I described in August. Enumerated briefly, they include a gap in marginal tax rates, a gap in personal disposable income (and overall GDP per capita), a gap in labour productivity, a gap in unemployment, and a gap in the stability of the currency. Basically, between the U.S. and Canada, there's a "gap" in any indicator of economic health or standard of living you can conceive. Randall adds a new gap to this list--namely, a gap in the regulatory cost of financial services.

He speaks of the gaps as a temporary phenomenon, but they are enduring, and in most cases they are directly attributable to obvious policy choices, unless you are (a) a Liberal or (b) some sort of contrarian jackanapes. Take the unemployment gap, for example. It's about thirty years old. In the 1960s U.S. and Canadian unemployment tracked one another quite closely. When unemployment insurance (now called "employment insurance", ho ho ho) was liberalized by the Trudeau government in the early 1970s, the "gap" appeared. It reached its current size very quickly and has been more or less stable since. Apparently, if you pay people to be unemployed for about forty weeks a year, they will do it, and gladly. Entire seasonal economies have been built up around UI eligibility, notably in the Maritime Provinces. Plants and service industries throw open the gates for a few weeks a year, just long enough to get a town full of adults eligible--and then work slows down mysteriously, tragically, as everyone goes home to await their pogey.

Here's a story about what generous "employment insurance" (ha ha hee hee) does at the micro level. For a long time, the conservative magazine I work for had an agriculture reporter and editor who was a Maoist. This guy was, by near-universal agreement, the most gifted writer ever to work here. The situation was a source of daily humour; despite pervasive rumours of the magazine's "bigotry", we didn't bother advertising that we had a Commie on staff, any more than the magazine now advertises the presence of a pro-choice atheist (yours truly) on the editorial board.

Over a period of years, the editor of whom I speak suffered a personal breakdown that, as his roommate, I had the privilege of witnessing up close. Moderately heavy imbibing coupled with quite massive marijuana use turned him into a low-functioning narcoleptic. He'd always been an eccentric, the kind of guy who'd come home from a bar wearing someone else's bowling shirt: but he usually got his copy in no more than about a day late, and back then that was good enough. Then the one day became two days, and finally he completely failed to file copy for a year-end issue. He just fell asleep in his favourite chair at home. Efforts to wake him up and get him writing (my efforts) proved fruitless.

He was called on the carpet and it was agreed that he and the magazine would part amicably. Anyone less brilliant in prose would have been sacked two years earlier. To aid in his pursuit of other employment, the boss agreed not to fire him outright, and he was given a letter stating that he hadn't been fired, but had chosen to leave voluntarily and would be greatly missed (and he was). In truth, he had been fired, and for damn good reason. But Christian charity ruled the day.

Did our hero move on and find a congenial leftist home, perhaps at This or the Daily Worker? He did not. In Canada, persons who leave unemployment voluntarily or are fired for cause are not eligible for unemployment insurance. But our friend had his eyes on the prize. He whipped round and filed a UI claim with the Canadian government. How could he accomplish this? In a closely argued and wholly bogus legal brief, he claimed that he had been "constructively dismissed." The increasing right-wing bigotry of the magazine, he said, had made it impossible for a man of his leanings to remain on staff in good conscience.

He holed up with his family on the West Coast to pursue his Quixote dream of forty weeks' pogey. If he could hold out for the full period and win his case, the money would be given him in a lump sum--an amount, I believe, then totalling over $20,000 Canadian. Incredibly, this is exactly what happened. But not without a fight, mind you! Initially, his claim was rejected, so he filed an appeal with a three-member local board which adjudicates such things. Two of the reviewers turned their thumbs down, but the third--an old-time New Democrat who might well have sung the Internationale in some Edmonton watering-hole with our protagonist a time or two--said that he found his claim to have considerable merit. This was enough to allow the appeal to be appealed, to another panel--which ruled in Lefty's favour. Bling bling.

Now, do you suppose something like this would ever happen in the United States? And, if not, do you suppose that might have something to do with the relative states of our economies?

- 1:26 am, October 11 (link)

The thin stupid line

Texan Alex Whitlock submits, for your approval, a short account of an encounter with Canada Customs. Warning: will induce vicarious frustration. Possible side effects include clenched bowels and grinding of teeth.

- 9:43 pm, October 10 (link)

Civis romanus sum

(Link from Instapundit, so you've probably seen it already) The StrategyPage has a brief Lessons Learned section on the war in Afghanistan. Learned, that is, by Al Qaeda. Who would have thought a year ago that one of the lessons would turn out to be "fear Canada"??

Al Qaeda have also learned to clear out of the area if they encounter enemy snipers. The Canadian snipers, equipped with 12.7mm McMillan sniper rifles, gave them a real hard time. The overall lesson al Qaeda has learned is that you better stick with ambushes and hit and run attacks if you want to survive against American or other professional Western troops.

The Canadian involvement in the Afghan War is an important historic reminder that participation in an imperial project is not incompatible with nationhood. (I believe the Latin word fœderati is past due for a return to currency in Canada. It's what we are.) When was the last time the reputation of Canadian troops stood so high, inside Canada or outside? I think I hold with Mishima that an army is much closer to being the "soul" of a nation-state than the civil government. May we begin to consider that it would be wiser to provide one good legion, with its own distinctive strengths, than a dozen phony armies?

- 1:25 pm, October 10 (link)

Blake babies

Andrea Harris was kind enough to send some traffic my way from Spleenville. Great redesign, A., but a good Blakean would know that they are "tygers of wrath", not "tigers".

Oddly enough, when I wrote my original post about Ozzy and Black Sabbath, I was thinking a lot about William Blake. In rock music Blake's name is probably used most often in connection with Jim Morrison. But in fact the most Blakean images in rock are found in the Ozzy-era Sabbath albums; their acrobats, architects, and iron men might have risen bodily from Blake's own illuminated plates. The words of "Hole in the Sky" could have been spoken by Blake himself in an particularly insomniac moment.

One good thumbnail test of a rock group's greatness is to look for distinct, recognizable musical personalities interacting in an interesting way. Black Sabbath, thanks to Ozzy and the gifted Bill Ward, pass this test with flying colours; the new live material emphasizes this.

(This is, incidentally, why the Who's records will always be compelling: contrary to popular belief, the Who was at least a five-piece during its heyday, counting the artistically hermaphroditic Pete Townshend as two. Try listening to the infinitely delicate, almost girlish "Blue, Red and Grey" off The Who By Numbers. Then remember that the man who wrote and sang it was the loudest guitarist who ever lived--the man who physically clubbed Abbie Hoffman off the stage at Woodstock with his guitar.)

- 11:18 pm, October 9 (link)

The seven minutes

Q: How do we know ballistic missile defence will work? A: The professional worriers at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the "Doomsday Clock" folks) are starting to wring their hands about its consequences. In the October issue security researcher Geoffrey Forden asks "Laser defenses: what if they work?" Meanwhile, physicist Joel Primack is concerned about the orbital pollution that would follow the disabling of a nuclear weapon in space.

Think about this for a moment. The world's single most famous voice of nuclear fearmongering is now worried about the consequences which would follow the successful prevention of a nuclear exchange.

Now, I'm not fool enough to say that a certain amount of nuclear fearmongering hasn't been justified (perhaps I shouldn't use the verb "to monger"). But I believe our mental images of nuclear weapons are distorted, so much so that you'd never know the species had practical experience with them. The public suffers from an almost total inability, for example, to distinguish between radiological "dirty" weapons and true nukes. In principle, I believe distortions of this sort never serve human interests: to take an example of one practical effect that Tom Bethell has pointed out in the American Spectator, our thinking about nukes became infected in the late '60s with a dogma that nuclear war cannot be survived or would not be worth surviving, and as a result we've completely failed to take any practical steps toward civil defence in the meantime. (The counter-ideology of mutually assured destruction probably had much to do with this too.)

That's really all right: we got out of the Cold War alive, and that's all any of us could have asked. But even excusing the Bulletin's traditional place in this debate, isn't it funny to see the redoubt the "Atomic Scientists" have ended up in?

THEY: Modern nuclear war is an inconceivable horror that would lead to the effacement of the human species. It must be prevented at any and all costs.
UNCLE SAM: Okey-doke. Unilateral disarmament isn't really practical, so we'll get right to work devising a missile defence.
THEY: Ha! You've got to be joking! Your little "Star Wars" plan is an asinine fantasy! It'll never happen, and all it will do is destabilize the nuclear balance of power in the meantime!
[Offstage, the Soviet Union is heard crumbling.]
UNCLE SAM: Have a look at these test results.
THEY: Oh my god! You irresponsible bastards! Can't you see that missile defence will fill earth orbit with deadly particles of space shrapnel?
UNCLE SAM: I thought you wanted to prevent nuclear war. You never said anything about space shrapnel.
THEY: Don't change the subject!

There is nothing incompatible with the Bulletin's honesty in raising the new concerns which enter the scene along with missile defence. The articles linked to above are super interesting, timely, and genuinely scientific. But advances toward practical, global-scale missile defence should not be accompanied only by complaints. If the Bulletin thinks missile defence is such an immediate practical possibility that it can start bitching about space shrapnel, why isn't it moving the hands of the Doomsday Clock backward? Say, by an hour or so for every successful interceptor test? They've done nothing but move the hands forward since 1991, but in 1991 few were seriously contemplating a near future in which a completed nuclear exchange was impossible. Now even the traditional enemies of "Star Wars" admit it's not just a movie anymore--but they're still in the same old business of selling terror.

- 10:41 pm, October 9 (link)

Sailing takes me away

Last night Florida put Aileen Wuornos, perhaps the only female serial killer to work without a man's goading or assistance, to death by lethal injection. Wuornos honestly never seemed to give a damn what happened to her, and the criminal justice system finally took her at her word, allowing her to fire her lawyers and pretty much say "Let's get it on." Her death-gurney statement was priceless:

"I'd just like to say I'm sailing with the Rock and I'll be back like `Independence Day' with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mother ship and all. I'll be back," Wuornos said.

You know, there used to be a vogue for pointing out that Jesus liked to hang with a pretty low class of person--working-class men, prostitutes, you name it. But surely it's carrying things a bit far to believe he'll have a psychopathic, serial-killing hitchhiker at His right hand? How's he gonna explain that one? "Aw, homies, I'm just keepin' it real, you know? Aileen's a riot once you get to know her."

- 1:18 pm, October 9 (link)

Window in time

A lot of bloggers have "What I'm Reading" and "What I'm Listening To" sections on their sidebar. I don't have those, because you'd all see how rarely they change and you'd be appalled by my sheer sloth. However, I must recommend the CD now rotating chez nous.

It's Past Lives, the newly available 2-CD set of live '70s Black Sabbath. The relative scarcity of live material from this version of Sabbath has been one of the vexing inadequacies of the catalogue for many, many years. (When they finally got around to putting out a live album at the time, it was called Live at Last. And it didn't get released in the United States!) The sound quality is largely horrible and occasionally ridiculous (I believe "N.I.B." was recorded on an Edison wax cylinder in a moving bus), but the rock is solid.

Also, as a friend points out, this record is essential listening if you hope to understand why the star of "The Osbournes" is such a basket case. (Possible alternate title for this set: Having Fun on Stage With Ozzy.) He misses cues, hurls imprecations at the crowd, switches octaves in mid-verse, you name it. Whatever Union Carbide cocktail he was on, however, they should order up a case for these nancies who fancy themselves singers nowadays (I'm looking at you, Liam Gallagher). When Ozzy screams aw no, no, please Gawd help meeeh in "Black Sabbath" it crawls from a very Stygian place. No band this loud even had a singer so committed or artful; I think I'll be mildly embarrassed the next time I go back to my Who records and listen to Roger Daltrey, who was fine but could really only drive in one gear.

It's a whole new Sabbath, and it's too bad if audiophile qualms were what kept these tracks suppressed for so long. Listen to Birmingham's best again for the first time.

- 3:17 am, October 9 (link)


Fairly busy day today. First I went to the newsstand to buy magazines, a pleasure I've denied myself for some weeks. When I was finished snapping up everything I'd let lapse, I was $120 poorer, not counting the cab ride. The scurrilous, filthy English comic magazine Viz is chiefly to blame. I don't need to read every issue of the New Yorker or Mojo necessarily, but I don't like to miss a Viz. Troubled Viz (circ losses of eight hundred thousand? Christ, and we think we've got problems) is trying to build readership by publishing twice as often, improving the paper quality, and having the characters shout "RATS' COCKS!" twice as often.

Then I went to the office, where ubiquitous Reason intern Jeremy Lott was getting installed in the desk next to mine. I think it can now be told that he is going to become the Report's production supremo while the incumbent, Carla Smithson, goes on medical leave. And, hey, it seems we can talk about that too! Carla is taking time off to receive treatment for a case of hepatitis C she acquired from a blood transfusion in the old Soviet Union. It's too good a story for me to ruin by telling it here; she probably wants to turn it into a book someday. I especially like the part where the Strategic Rocket Forces are threatening to shoot down her plane... Anyway, Carla's going to do that, and in her absence J-Lo gets to ride herd on the writers, make the pages look nice, probably do the odd bit of writing, and generally dwell in the bizarre, shabby crucible of Canadian conservatism. Lott should have enough free time to continue contributing to a farcically long list of other publications. Please don't tell him this, but we intend to be surreptitiously hostile and resentful towards him, making his life a hell of whispers and snubs, because he is replacing a beloved, infirm co-worker. The opportunistic little bastard...

After all that, there was whisky and roast beef at Ted Byfield's, an experience everyone should have once in their lifetime. Ted's family likes to take pity on bachelors from time to time and fill them full of home-cooked food. And I like to eat, so it works out great! As payment for the meal I must plug the multi-volume history of Christianity which Ted is overseeing. (When we assembled in his legendary study, materials for Volume Three of the series were scattered hither and thither.) A Time-Life-style history of the church, in durable and lavishly illustrated volumes, is one of those ideas that makes you slap your forehead and go "My God, it's brilliant." And it has been executed absolutely perfectly. Go have a look at what it's all about. You can order up a preview copy of Volume One, at no obligation, over the phone.

- 1:42 am, October 9 (link)

Barken up the right tree?

Class, we have a substitute teacher today... Adam Barken of Montreal was antagonized by my praise of B.R. Myers and sat down to write a rebuttal. 2,500 words or so later he hit "send". I'll talk about what Adam has to say later, but for now I'll just let him have the floor. Click here to read his letter.

- 4:09 pm, October 8 (link)

Iraq libre?

The march to war, for better or worse (notice I didn't say for right or wrong), continues. There were some strange little bomblets in Bush's speech tonight. Like this one:

Bush said a cornered Iraqi military may "attempt cruel and desperate measures," suggesting that biological and chemical weapons could be used against U.S. troops. He warned that Iraqi commanders would face war crimes charges if they followed such orders.

Eh? War crimes charges? In what court, Mr. President? It hardly seems credible that the United States would or could appeal to the International Criminal Court, of which it has rightly attempted to steer clear. That would be a recipe for farce, or at best for a permanent abandonment of American sovereignty. Nor does it seem credible that the United States could attempt to recreate the sort of ad hoc inter-allied exercise that was undertaken at Nuremberg; if such a thing were done outside the auspices of the ICC, which allies would participate? This would be another farce, as would be the purer victor's justice of an all-American tribunal. And why is Bush making such a frankly lame threat, anyway? I understood American doctrine on biological and chemical weapons in the field to be that they would be met with nuclear force--is that out the window now?

I profess myself, still, confused about the big picture. One can recognize some of the bullshit, though:

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. [short for "Massive Philandering Drunk"? - ed.], urged Bush to exercise the same restraint that Kennedy's brother, President Kennedy, did in refraining from an attack on Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis. A first-strike attack on Iraq "is impossible to justify," Kennedy told the Senate. "Might does not make right. It is unilateralism run amok."

Would the senator have us believe his brother was not prepared to launch a "unilateral" first strike against Cuba? Gosh, that whole Bay of Pigs thing seemed pretty unilateral, as was the CIA's Operation Mongoose, as was the naval blockade of the island. With respect to Cuba--and remember, the comparison to Iraq is not mine; it's being made by someone named Kennedy--the U.S. took advice from allies (one of whom, Charles de Gaulle, told the President "We would do exactly as you have done and you have our full support") and then proceeded to act unilaterally, at every turn, in its own interests. Perhaps the senator should reflect that the eventual deal to remove ballistic nuclear missiles from Turkey was "unilateral" too, so much so that it was carried off over the vigorous objections of the country where the missiles had been stationed. And if Cuba had succeeded in downing U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over its soil--something Saddam has tried to do, often, since the Gulf War--Kennedy was perfectly prepared to launch a "unilateral" first strike against Cuban anti-aircraft installations.

Complains about "unilateralism" only discredit the speaker (in this case, one who comes conveniently pre-discredited). The U.S., in the end, will be judged by historians on whether it acts rationally in the interests of the United States. And it will be judged by non-aligned nations precisely that way now. Sometimes I think Bush would make it easier on himself if he would simply come out and say "Fuck international law and UN resolutions. This is personal: Saddam ordered a hit on my dad. Cheney, Rumsfeld and I intend to use his testicles as a hacky sack on the White House lawn." Not very republican, to be sure, but it would put the international situation on a crystal-clear basis, anyway.

- 12:54 am, October 8 (link)

I'd rather be outrighted

I joked yesterday that Minnesota was just part of Canada that somehow broke loose and drifted south. Steven Ehrbar's response:

We'll return Minnesota to Canada when Canada gives back Alberta, and not a moment sooner.

It's a deal! Ze prisoners to be exchanged vill meet at ze centre of ze bridge...

- 4:18 pm, October 7 (link)

Oh really, I thought he was the columnist

Seen on the front cover of the Globe's Saturday Books section, which just crossed my desk:


My, my, Mr. Salutin! I do hope that apostrophe means you've written a book...

- 4:09 pm, October 7 (link)

Sound the all-clear

Canada Customs has declared the notorious Ayn Rand Institute pamphlet on Israel to be safe reading for Canadians. Don't let that stop you from reading it! (Full disclosure: 13 years ago I won a US$1,000 second prize in ARI's famous Fountainhead essay competition for high-school brats.)

- 1:08 pm, October 7 (link)

The curse of the now

By god, sir, you WILL read Sage Stossel's Atlantic Monthly interview with B.R. "Reader's Manifesto" Myers. Here's his summary of the state of affairs in literature:

I just know from my own experience how much harder it is to meet a novel-reader now than it was twenty or even ten years ago. So many intelligent people seem to have given up on novels because they trusted the media to pick out the best ones for them. And of course it's the quality of contemporary fiction that's driving them away. The stuff is just dull. How often are we told to interpret our boredom or irritation with a new novel as a surefire indication that it's challenging, and therefore good? DeLillo "has earned a right to bore us for our own good," as Salon puts it. You've got to hand it to postmodernism; no other literary movement in history ever spread so much boredom in the name of playfulness! But it's precisely the intelligent people who wander off to art forms they can enjoy, like the movies. What you have left are the puritans, the grinds, the cachet-hunters, because it's never occurred to them that the arts can be fun.

And here's his account of how it is perpetuated:

Many people want to set themselves off from the Grisham-reading herd, but they don't want to read a classic because they're afraid someone will say "Bleak House? God, I did that back in college." And they know they'll get even less cachet from reading an old novel like Caleb Williams that no one's heard of. So they buy the latest prize-winner, which is easily recognized in the office and subway as the "better" kind of book, and then they read it, secure in the knowledge that thousands of the "better" people across the country are reading it at about the same time. I'm sure they genuinely enjoy this sense of intellectual community, even if they don't enjoy the actual book. But remember: they don't have to enjoy it. They're allowed to say that it isn't their cup of tea, or that they found it heavy going. What they mustn't do is differ with the "better" consensus and dismiss the book as bad. Only philistines like me do that.

Somebody had asked me to discuss literature on the site... who the hell was that? I can't really say what needs to be said better than B.R. Myers does, and my acquaintance with the literature of the English language probably isn't what it should be. I probably read ten non-fiction books for every novel I look at, but that's partly because, in my experience, the best actual writers aren't novelists anymore... I don't know of an actual novelist I'd recommend with the fervour I reserve for discussing Bill James or Oliver Sacks or Alan Moore.

Cormac McCarthy is one of Myers' targets... I actually read Suttree and found that it contained spasms of sweet near-greatness, but that's kind of the point, isn't it? These people make reading very much like coalmining.

The "postmodern" writer who is worth a damn is David Foster Wallace, but that may be a biased judgment... Wallace's stuff comes pre-insulated against one's instinctive contempt for pomo. He insinuinates himself immediately, somehow sort of saying "Here I am, David Foster Wallace, you probably all read me in Harper's and you've seen my bandana... yes, this is a fiction book in which the narrative is more complicated than the Hapsburg family tree, the metaphors are over the moon and halfway to Jupiter, I use more tmesis and anacoluthon than the city of Athens did in a century, and there are, not incidentally, 112 pages of in-jokey footnotes requiring you to have a postgraduate familiarity with calculus and pharmacokinetics. I'm sorry." Having apologized (I don't know how exactly he manages this), he knocks your socks off with his humour, intellect, and pathos. He engages your smugness as well as your ordinary human feeling, and you end up immersed in the Wallaceness of it all. But if you aren't a really overeducated, pasty, self-conscious smug wretch, the work may just be antagonizing. I don't know, let me know what you find out. I think his fiction is possibly the finest being made now, and hardly any of the nonfiction has failed to be monumental.

Aside from Wallace, as far as reasonably young guys go... William T. Vollmann has this notoriety, I'm afraid, that he'll have to shed by dying and being forgotten and being rediscovered, preferably in an age when people no longer recall what "crack cocaine" was. And Dave Eggers is hard not to like, although he certainly makes it as easy as possible. Those are maybe the three guys I watch among the ranks of the non-semi-retired, although Vollmann had been slowed by an excruciating degeneration of his writing hand when last heard from.

- 3:08 am, October 7 (link)

Twin killing

When Will Clark retired from baseball, he said one thing that stuck with me--"Every day I've played this game, I see some shit I've never seen before." And really, he's right: there's no other sport which matches it in that department. Now that Team Undead has beaten Team Stathead I'm pulling for the Twins to go all the way. Seems the most natural thing in the world now that I say it. I've seen guys like Lohse and Pierzynski play in my hometown with the Trappers, and Corey Koskie is, like me, from a flyspeck town on the Canadian Prairies. Plus, isn't Minnesota really just a part of Canada that somehow drifted loose? Admit it.

Moreover, this is the club baseball tried to murder along with my Expos--indeed, tried to murder only because it needed a "twin" to die with them. Before the season began the Twins fans and the Expos fans shared the horror of hearing the death sentence--and I mean "shared" literally; at the time I commiserated with Twin fan John Sickels in an e-mail exchange (partially reproduced here). Revenge for one marked-for-death team is revenge for both, as far as I'm concerned.

And yet, as matters stand, to pull for history's greatest Cinderella team, you have to root against what is perhaps history's second greatest Cinderella team. Tony Pierce and Matt Welch's Angels, whose fans, the old joke goes, aren't even supposed to exist. This is a team that had never won a playoff series in a history dating back to 1961--a team whose frustrations have taken human life. At the start of the year the Angels were supposed to finish third in the division, again; when they drew the Yankees in the first round you could have found bets against them at four, five, maybe six to one. All they did was beat the devil. Convincingly.

Throw in the Cardinals on the NL side, and you've got three of four surviving teams who have a whole bargeload to play for. Four of five, in fact, if you consider that Barry Bonds, the greatest player since Ted Williams and maybe the greatest since the Babe, has never been to a World Series. Damn, what sport does this stuff better than baseball?

- 11:52 pm, October 6 (link)

Halfway to oblivion

I didn't want to mention this on the site because I never did figure out who sponsored the ad, but I've been seething about it in the seething-about-bogus-stats part of my brain. Throughout the CBC's broadcast of The Shawshank Redemption Saturday they played a stylish commercial in which a man dies of a heart attack in reverse--it ends with him having a sheet pulled from over his head and begins with him playing frisbee in the park. Heart attacks are bad, you know. Anyway, the narrator throws this line at us:

1 in 2 Canadians are at greater risk from heart disease due to high cholesterol...

Try to ignore the grammar mistake they made (one Canadian are at risk?). 1 in 2, that's pretty scary, right? But what does "greater" risk mean?

Well, if it means "greater than average"--they don't tell us--all this claim actually means is that half the population has cholesterol levels higher than the mean. Which is, given a symmetrical distribution of cholesterol in the population, true by definition. And I'd be willing to bet on such a distribution, because cholesterol levels are highly heritable--as anyone who's tried to lower theirs with diet alone has learned.

You could invent claims like this all day in the comfort of your own home! 1 in 2 Canadians is at greater risk of bumping his head because of his height. 1 in 2 Canadians is at greater risk of crashing his car because of his poorer-than-average driving skills. 1 in 2 Canadians has an elevated risk of meteorite death because of variations in roof construction and time spent outdoors.

Like I say, I didn't catch the sponsor, but I assume it's somebody flogging an anti-cholesterol drug--either that, or the government. Why does anyone need extra help terrifying people about cholesterol? We already have a supine populace that agonizes over its "cholesterol number" the way farmers in Tornado Alley watch the barometer. There's no need or moral justification, if there ever could be, to hit them with ominous triusms that are worse than lies.

- 3:58 pm, October 6 (link)

No, some other Churchill

Let's talk while we're waiting for the pizza to arrive!

The six-week embargo has lapsed on the September 2 edition of my print column Up Front, whose two lead items may still be of general interest. Learn why "the Australians have defective Canadian engineering to thank for the fact that their country has never possessed indigenous nuclear weapons", and read a (basically ill-informed) guess as to how Afghanistan's near-term future will pan out. I'm hesitant to link to the Up Fronts, I must admit. The column's dog's-breakfast nature becomes too apparent without the glitz provided by art director Kevin Steel and designer Dave Stevens.

Michael Coren lobs an unintentionally funny anti-war column into today's Sunpapers. (Warning: link will rot fast.) Coren is known to readers of the old Literary Review as a biographer and columnist of distinction, but something broke inside him about four or five years ago: he converted to footwashing Protestantism and started writing mean-streets-of-Toronto stuff which invariably seemed to be written through a curtain of tears. It's almost exactly as if someone waved a wand over George F. Will and transformed him, in a trice, to Bob Greene.

Everyone, I think, can recognize the silliness of disclaiming pacifism ("Yes, there is a time to fight") while making pacifist arguments against all war. Don't invade Iraq--mommies might die! But I think the real laugh line is this one:

There is a bloodlust emanating from the new right that is, forgive me, positively obscene. They should look to one of the greatest conservatives of all time, Winston Churchill. He said, "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war."

Er... would that be the same Winston Churchill who proposed, ordered, and coordinated the aerial bombing of rebellious regions of colonial Iraq from 1921-23? Just asking.

- 5:59 pm, October 5 (link)

A case study

Here's an example of the kind of hockey analysis by Ouija board I was talking about earlier--CNNSI's preview of the Northwest Division. Darren Eliot has the Oilers finishing last in the Northwest. That's right--last year's 38-win team is mysteriously going to drop behind the expansion club.

Now, I'll grant you that the Avalanche should still be better than the Oilers, although, gosh, Patrick Roy has to fall apart sometime, doesn't he? And it seems to me we might just have seen that in Game Seven of the conference finals, when "the best money goalie in the history of the league" committed what can only be described as a Richie Tenenbaum-esque meltdown (to my orgasmic glee: Roy = overrated asshole who has benefited extravagantly from great supporting casts). Still, I'll give you the Avs: even without Roy they've got two of the five best players in the world.

OK, so who else do we have? We've got the Canucks, who finished, what, a point ahead of the Oilers last year? They've got the same terrific offensive cast that led the league in scoring--but they've also got the same back end that left them fighting for a playoff spot. Minus, uh, Cassels and Lachance. Not a problem, apparently. Coupled with the Canucks' standard musical-chairs game with goaltenders (Cloutier could improve, but Canuck goalies usually do this in other cities), I don't see how they figure to move ahead dramatically. Without Bertuzzi they'd be no better than the Calgary Flames.

To whom we turn next--and talk about your one-man teams. Eliot sort of acknowledges the Flames' reliance on Iginla, who seems not a terribly bad bet to go cold this year; but don't worry, he's apparently pretty high on Martin Gelinas (who is my dad's age), Rob Niedermayer (hot- and cold-running crap since he burst into the league), and some Hobey Baker Award winner (salvation!). A team whose best defenceman is Bob Boughner, and who has to rely on Euro-headcase Roman Turek to win games, has serious problems, right? Is it just me?

We'll dispense with the explanation of how the Wild are going to destroy the Oilers (Jesus!) and cut straight to Eliot's fantasyland version of Edmonton itself. Where to begin? He discusses the Oilers' defence without even mentioning Janne Niinimaa, who could easily have been a Norris Trophy finalist, and Eric Brewer, whom you may remember from Team Canada--remember them? Small matter of a gold medal? Eliot says there are "questions" about the forward lines. If you look close, the "questions" are which of the talented AHL youngsters who are long overdue for a shot at the league are going to play--play, that is, alongside new additions Jiri Dopita (universally considered the best player outside the NHL until Bob Clarke brought him to North America and fucked him in the ass on ice time) and Mike York (who was, within about two games of his arrival last year, performing the 'point guard' job on the power play like a Zen master). I won't even mention his despicable description of Tommy Salo, possibly the best European goalie not named "Hasek", as "solid."

How exactly does anybody figure the Oilers for a dramatic decline? What, Tom Poti's not around to turn over the puck four times a night anymore, is that the problem? The Oilers got into trouble last year by keeping the Henrichs, Ritas, and Swansons on ice in Hamilton while the big club struggled with an out-of-it Dan Cleary, a past-his-prime Todd Marchant, and an injured Mike Grier. Eliot appears confused about the team because (a) there might be some turnover amongst the personnel who ran cold for two months of last year and (b) he's never even heard of Niinimaa and Brewer, which suggests that he hasn't seen the Oilers play hockey in a good two years, which suggests that he does not know what the fuck he's talking about. Holy shit, this makes me mad. I mean, sure the Oilers could finish last, but give me a real reason. Give me an actual scenario under which this could conceivably happen! Don't pick them fifth because you're unfamiliar with the club! Assholes! Assholes!

- 4:55 am, October 5 (link)

The law is an ass

Lest it be thought that Canadians acquiesce in thought policing, I'd like to note that other Canadian webloggers are linking to the might-be-illegal, might-not-be-illegal Ayn Rand Institute pamphlet. (My discussion of it is here.) They include Damian Penny, Mark Wickens, Bruce Rolston, and probably many others that I'm not aware of. The link to Wickens also has the ARI's press release on the matter. You may enjoy Wickens' recent single-handed humiliation of the Toronto Star, which is also the lead item in the next installment of my Up Front column in the Report.

David Janes is too busy with family to strike a blow for media freedom, alas. But he's never too busy to make light of! Naturally, his permalink points to the wrong place, so I'll quote:

I think I'll spend the rest of my blogging time quoting Colby Cosh articles... Colby, BTW, is an absolute sucker for punishment. He hand codes his blog, he uses hotmail (is your penis of insufficient size or are you looking for toner cartridges?), and he's a non-religious right-winger in the land of religious right-wingers.

I hope you caught the irony here... David's permalinks are busted and he's making fun of me for hand-coding my site. Take a moment out of your busy day to let that sink in. Aaahhh.

- 1:29 am, October 5 (link)

How I spent my winter vacation

For the statheads out there (go A's!), here's a weird little exercise by Tom Tippett in baseball playoff forecasting. The main reason I say it's weird is because I used exactly the same method, devised independently, to handicap the NHL playoffs last year.

Like Tippett, I figured one-game winning chances using the Log5 method, corrected for home ice, and worked out the combinatorics of various series outcomes in just the fashion described herein.

However, my unpublished effort was superior in many respects (since it was unpublished, you'll have to trust me on that)... first of all, Tippett hasn't corrected for schedule strength, and I did. This was particularly important in the NHL last year, because during the season the Western Conference overall was something like .565 against Eastern teams, an essential fact pointed out, as far as I know, by no hockey pundit on the face of the planet. Secondly, I did day-by-day updates, recalculating individual teams' Stanley Cup chances based on the previous night's action. The model was subject to various failings like those Tippett describes, but in a sport without starting pitchers it's bound to be a little more reliable.

I didn't make a big deal out of it, because a model that spits out probabilities for a single playoff year is inherently unverifiable. It would have made an excellent betting tool though, and it taught me some neat stuff. At the start of the playoff year (I'm working from memory) the model showed that Detroit had about a 50% chance of walking off with the Cup. The other 50% of the probability space was divided amongst 15 teams. Unfortunately I couldn't find anyone to take the rest of the league at even money... not that I looked real hard.

The thing people perhaps didn't realize was that Detroit had the highest point total in the league (110) but was really even better than that because it played so many extra games against the other good teams in the West. Working through the league Tippett-style, you were forced to conclude that Vancouver, the 8th-place team in the West, or even Edmonton, which missed the playoffs in 9th, were as strong as all but one or two clubs in the East. Detroit wasn't in line to receive the "schedule advantage" until the last round, because it had to work its way through the West to get to the Cup. But you knew that if Detroit got to the final, it had to have about an 80% chance of winning, no matter whom it faced. For the purposes of the Final, Detroit had to be treated like a 120-point team in the standings. Only Colorado and San Jose were serious enemies and in the event they basically killed off each other.

Other lessons: over a seven-game series, it is very hard for a serious underdog to knock off to knock off a high-powered team. When Vancouver went up 2-0 against Detroit, my model showed that the Canucks' chances of winning the series from that point on were still just slightly better than 50-50. And this was probably, in fact, the most precarious situation the Wings faced in the whole playoff year: game seven against Colorado wasn't as dangerous, because Detroit had home ice and a 15-point advantage in the standings, and therefore a better than 50-50 chance of winning.

Perhaps my most important finding: the long NHL playoff tournament works in the interests of favourites, not underdogs. This may seem counterintuitive to those who have heard the argument that the long postseason gives good teams a lot of chances to be knocked off by scrappy dark horses, and creates randomness. This is true on its face: but a scrappy dark horse has to win four rounds to take home the Cup. Think of that "four" as an exponent and you'll see the problem underdogs face.

For simplicity's sake, imagine a powerhouse team that has a 65% chance of winning any given playoff series. Its chances of winning a Stanley Cup in the long playoff structure are just

.65 × .65 × .65 × .65

or 65% to the fourth power. The big team suffers from having the fourth round, but it only suffers by having its final victory chances divided by the reciprocal of the large single-series probability, .65. For a longshot, underdog team, the single-series chance might be .35, making a Stanley Cup chance of

.35 × .35 × .35 × .35

See the problem? Adding the fourth series has divided the chances of prevailing by the LARGE reciprocal of the SMALL single-series probability, .35. That extra, fourth series in the long playoff year can punish an underdog twice as much as it does the strong team--maybe more.

What this meant in the model was that real longshots like the Canadiens had no better than a 1% chance of winning the Stanley Cup, even when everybody started on an equal footing. (No playoff club in baseball faces odds of remotely that length, as Tippett's chart shows.) Early losses hurt those teams more, too: you'd see an underdog lose its first game, and its overall Cup chances would suddenly halve, boom. Whereas when Detroit lost the first game of a series (as it did against Vancouver), its overall Cup chances barely flinched. The model "knew" that one loss didn't mean much with a superhuman team like the Dead Things in the tournament.

There are more interesting things to learn from a model like this. I encourage you to build one and play around with the numbers, if such things are your inclination. But holy cripes is it time-consuming and difficult. Plus, remember, ultimately you're outputting untestable probabilistic statements. Unless you have an adventurous bookie, it's all just whistling.

- 12:05 am, October 5 (link)

Up is down, black is white

"Free speech for me, but not for thee," Nat Hentoff wrote, and the end result is free speech for nobody. So things have panned out in Canada. In the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which forms part of our Constitution, the following fundamental freedoms are enumerated:

a) freedom of conscience and religion;
b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
d) freedom of association.

Keep (b) in mind, and then read this story from today's National Post. The phrase "monstrous, execrable tissue of lies" comes to mind unbidden.

One can't help feeling, though, that they've messed with the wrong bunch this time... Previous uses of "hate laws", and human-rights statutes of similar practical import, have been fostered by Jewish individuals and groups as a means of stomping on noisy anti-Semites and Holocaust revisionists (and, at times, the entirely innocent). Canada's hate laws have, in essence, been the toy of a very foolish minority of Canadian Jews--the people who should stand as living symbols of classical liberal tolerance, who have provided the world with many of its finest exponents, and who should be defending it against the Devil himself.

Well, now the hate police are confiscating political pamphlets defending Israel's right to exist. I hope to see the silent majority of Canada's Jews standing up for their interests now, and getting vicious about it, because their interests in this case are the common interests of all Canadians. Free speech for thee is free speech for me.

Eugene Volokh warns that Canada Customs may yet proscribe the offending material, which is a pamphlet from the Ayn Rand Institute. Downloading, and linking to, the pamphlet may be illegal under Canadian law. They seized the pamphlet, I suppose, so they can perform the appropriate clinical tests on it, dissecting it for hate. Waving their hate-o-meters over it like Captain Kirk with a tricorder. Well, hate or not, is going to link to whatever it damn well pleases.

So: the pamphlet is here. [UPDATE, morning of October 5: Read about other webloggers who are subverting Customs Canada here.]

- 8:25 pm, October 4 (link)

Hollywood serial

In honour of the opening of Red Dragon, the unnecessary remake of 1986's Manhunter, I thought we could try to cast the Robert Pickton movie that will inevitably be made. Unfortunately the exercise is too easy to be interesting. With the head tilt and boyish expression that have already become famous, I think de Niro will have this one locked up. You might as well go ahead and do whatever it is you Method actors do, Bob. Get a job on a pig farm or something. Become the smell of hog poo. Oscar awaits.

Incidentally, if Red Dragon has one single image or moment to match the bit in Manhunter where Tom Noonan goes through the picture window to the sound of "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida", I promise to eat a prozzie-fed Pickton porkchop. Without applesauce.

A couple things could derail the confluence of de Niro and Canada's worst serial killer. For starters, maybe they'll just end up making a CBC movie of it, in which case they'll just cast Colm Feore like they always do. More likely, they'll find Pickton's character just too bland and take the whole thing in a different direction.

You won't remember it if you don't live here, but back in the early '80s there was a big uproar over a guy named Jim Keegstra, a schoolteacher in the Central Alberta town of Eckville who was teaching his social-studies students that the Holocaust never happened, or was just a big clerical error, or something to that effect. Keegstra was a former mayor of the town, and plenty of people apparently knew him and liked him, although I bet they were always super careful to steer the conversation away from his "favourite subject." Anyway, some Hollywood producer got the bright idea of turning the Keegstra case into a TV movie. But, frankly, there just wasn't a lot of mileage to be had in restaging a social studies class, so they turned the plot around, inventing a bosomy single-mom barmaid who learns of a popular teacher's poisonous doctrines and runs smack into death threats and ostracism when she tries to raise a stink. Cast Raquel Welch, put her in the tightest clothes you can find, pick a totally misleading title, and presto--instant movie! Chances are they'll do something similar with the Pickton case.

- 4:17 pm, October 4 (link)

The greatest brand ever sold

Here's Christopher Hitchens, with his atheist hat on for Free Inquiry, writing about the disgraceful Houellebecq trial. (Matt Welch gets the linkfinder's fee.)

I would not want the job of deciding which monotheism, let alone which faith, was "the stupidest." For one thing, one becomes lost in an Aladdin's cave of multiple choice. I do not think that Islam is dumber than, for example, the output of the Jehovah's Witnesses. But I was taken aback in a recent public debate on the aftermath of September 11 when, in answer to a question from the floor, I said that, if the Qur'an was the word of God, it had been dictated on a very bad day. An audible shock passed through a distinctly "Left" and "liberal" audience. And I was promptly accused of "insulting a billion and a half Muslims": a charge as absurd as it was flattering.

It is hard for me to consider Islam "stupid", because, in fact, if you sat down and designed a religion, you'd give it many of the features of Islam. You would take great pains to cast a holy aura over your Scripture, in order to discourage the liberalizing interpretations that would begin immediately and would serve to drain all the vis viva out of it. You would make it ridiculously simple, to encourage conversions, and you would make it radically egalitarian, so as to allow it to spread on the back of ethnic and class tensions. Yet you would ensure that it was connected to older religious traditions too. Seeds don't always find fertile ground, but a new branch, ah, that has a source of health and life right from the start.

Finally, you would throw in a few arbitrary-seeming religious duties: dietary laws, funerary procedures, cultural rules about beards, that sort of thing. It is a great help to a faith for its members to (a) have ways of identifying themselves with the distinctive community, (b) remember their separateness continually, and (c) feel superior, which follows upon (a) and (b) as night doth day. Remember what keyed Malcolm X's conversion experience in prison. This was a brilliant man, one who must have sensed his own brilliance keenly, locked up for rather petty crimes. He had already encountered Islam, casually, outside the prison walls. But it was his brother roped him in by means of a simple message, delivered by letter: "Don't eat any pork, and don't smoke cigarettes." Malcolm thought it was part of some kind of plan for faking insanity and played along. The first time he refused swineflesh in the mess, he immediately had everyone's attention. Hey, what's up with Malcolm? The experience of apartness reverberates with the man who privately regards himself as superior in some respect--which is to say, with any man. It allows the feeling of community to endure and grow in times of solitude, too. From a marketing standpoint, Islam can hardly be beat.

- 4:09 am, October 4 (link)

It never happened

I see where the hockey season starts in a week. If I say so myself, I've done an outstanding job of simply dumping last season down the memory hole. What's that you say? The 2001-02 Oilers didn't make the playoffs? That's crazy talk--they went 38-28-12, how the hell could they not make the playoffs? This is the NHL, everybody makes the playoffs. I just don't happen to remember what actually took place is all. No, don't keep talking. [covers ears with hands] LA LA LA, I CAN'T HEAR YOU. LA LA LA.

The hockey pundits I've seen so far are predicting another playoff miss for the Oilers. Yeah, obviously they're going to suck, because they were the 2nd best defensive club in the league last year, they re-signed everybody they needed to, they have a huge backlog of talent on the AHL roster, they've got at least three goalies who can play, they stole Mike York from the Rangers with a month to go in the season, and they addressed their one glaring hole by signing Czech C/golem Jiri Dopita from the Flyers. So I can see why anyone in their right mind would think this team--which finished 38-28-12 last year, I remind you all again--is going to stink. That's what I call GOOD SENSE.

The demented craftsmanship of Jeff Johnson's NFL picks are my only meaningful interaction with the National Football League, other than the Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, and maybe sometimes I'll catch a quarter or two of a game on the TV. But, you know, it seems like the only teams which ever actually appear on TV are essentially fake ones like the Seahawks or the Ravens. I need the comforting presence of the Bears or the Packers, somebody like that, to feel like I'm really watching NFL football. With a lot of the teams in that league, it's like, "What, are they rebroadcasting footage of the USFL now?"

Plus, in any other real sport, the Vikings would have cut Randy Moss by now. C-U-T him. But apparently there are "salary cap implications" to this decision. Salary cap implications? And people want this kind of bullcrap in baseball? Yikes.

- 3:13 am, October 4 (link)

More protanopiana

Some random person writes:

You should have mentioned the [...] story Mom tells about how she discovered your colour-blindness: You always insisted on colouring the inside of your rainbow drawings with a brown crayon.
I've had two professions where colour-blindness would get you kicked out of school, lab technician and machinist.
And lastly, I always used to wonder if your perception of green blunted your enjoyment of nature and landscapes. If you could see the green, man!

Another family surprise! It's my sister and sole sibling, Carolyn. As I remember it, the discovery of my colour-blindness was actually facilitated by Lite-Brite. This is a toy in which glass pegs are inserted into a honeycomb backed by a paper pattern to form a mesmerizing illuminated image. No doubt it's a very clever apparatus, but it's humiliating to children with undiagnosed colour-blindness. "Why oh why does young master Cosh insist on putting blue pegs in the holes marked 'Violet', and vice versa? Is he witless or merely stubborn?"

- 12:32 am, October 4 (link)

Shooting Starr?

Just woke up. That's October 3, 2002, down the tubes mostly, I guess. Oh, October 3, what I might have made of you. If I hadn't slept you away, would you have been the day I met my bride or had the idea that made my fortune? We'll never know.

I just cruised the headlines on Canoe. "Shots fired outside United Nations", eh? Too bad about that "outside" part. And "Paul, Ringo to headline Harrison tribute". This kind of calls attention to the interesting fact that the Type B Beatles outlived the Type A ones. I think Ringo's relaxed enough to live to be 100, don't you? No stroke risk with that guy. Plus, he would seem to have less to fear from the transglobal undercurrent of crazy-o's who killed John and stabbed George in the lungs. Realistically, murder has to be Paul's most significant day-to-day health fear--the Beatles replaced Napoleon somewhere in there as the preferred object of obsession for lunatics, it seems. But even Charles Manson would be hard-pressed to find cryptic meaning in Ringo's songs. "Charlie, we were listening to the White Album, and we were wondering, what is the significance of 'Don't Pass Me By' to this whole race-war thing?" "Jeez, get a grip, man. It's just a tossed-off little country tune. I can write five of those babies before my morning coffee. What are you, sick in the head or something?"

One more item: it has been confirmed that Canadians possess the world's most exacting standard of humour. Now you know how we produced Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Alanis Morrisette, AND Avril Lavigne. Duh, you're not supposed to actually like them, WORLD. Please stop turning our hilarious novelty musicians into actual superstars!

- 5:23 pm, October 3 (link)

The emperor's new diapers

Wooooo! I beat my deadline for the magazine ("beat", in this special context, meaning I missed it by only about an hour). Now I suppose I can get some sleep, but I figured I'd better put something here for the punters first. I'll be back later today.

Up Front, my "notebook"-type feature in the magazine, isn't a humour column per se, but it contains about the only humour of any description in the book, and that puts a lot of pressure on a fellow. The nature of this pressure is this: if something is bothering you physically, you can still squeeze out copy that is bleakly pessimistic or stonily factual or even cheerful. But it is hard to be comic under such conditions. Like, say, just for example, if you had a painful case of diarrhea all night and you felt like all four of the states of matter, including plasma, were vying for supremacy in your bowels. That's just a minor little hypothetical for ya.

Recently seen in my Inbox: an ignorant Calgary Herald column (October 1) from Naomi Lakritz, who uses an especially cheap columnist's trick to assail the Alberta government over the Kyoto Protocol. You'll have noticed that Premier Ralph Klein's attitude, when western separation is brought up in connection with the Protocol, is "No way, absolutely not, never ever ever EVER will we consider EVER EVER EVER remotely thinking about leaving Confederation." Lakritz, naturally, treats this as a "threat" of separation.

It...makes Alberta look like a province of crybabies. Give us that toy or we'll hold our breath till we turn purple. Or maybe we'll run away from home and take our oil and our equalization payments with us.

Since Klein has categorically ruled out "running away from home", he scarcely deserves the honour of a fatuous attack like this. It sometimes seems that women columnists particularly relish making crypto-sexist accusations of immaturity: aside from the quoted matter above, Lakritz calls Klein a "bully boy" and refers to "his little tantrum." Men, eh? They just never grow up and get past trifling concerns--like the economy.

- 10:38 am, October 3 (link)

La rage

The CMAJ has a clinical practice review on rabies, which recently claimed its 22nd victim in Canada since 1925. Some poor kid in Quebec was sleeping in a cabin, didn't even know he'd been bitten by a bat until the symptoms set in. And when the symptoms set in, you're already fucked. There is still no cure for rabies. Of all diseases, it may be the closest to 100% fatal. Surprisingly, it is still the 11th most common cause of infectious disease death in the world.

I learn from this article that the presymptomatic prophylaxis for rabies is just what schoolyard legend held it to be, too--a series of intramuscular injections in the deltoid. Sometimes the bullshit you pick up in grade 2 is accurate!

I thought the headline of the article was a nice touch. "Putting the bite on rabies". See, we can joke about this stuff now, we've pretty much got rabies licked. Someday all diseases will be this funny. "Don't be a crab about cancer". "Having a gay old time with AIDS".

I saw a headline earlier today which said the Onion may start charging for online content. Aw, go ahead, you 16-months-past-your-peak pricks. For the moment, David Cross's column in Vice magazine is still free.

- 4:31 pm, October 2 (link)

Oh, to be stupidity-deaf instead

Well, we've finally come to the head of the list of Silly Things I Am Capable Of Talking Your Ass Off About. Every blogger seems to want you to Pornolize something at the moment, so I thought I might launch a countermeme and ask you to Vischeck something instead.

Vischeck is a way of showing you what things look like to someone who is color blind. You can try Vischeck online--either run Vischeck on your own image files or run Vischeck on a web page. ...Many pictures, documents and web pages are hard for color blind people to read because the people who designed them didn't think about the problem. Vischeck lets them check their work for color blind visibility. It is also interesting to anyone who is just plain curious about what the world looks like if you're color blind.

In my experience, which is a lifetime's worth, everyone is curious about what the world looks like if you're colour-blind.

About 8% of the population, mostly men, suffer from at least a trivial degree of colour-blindness. I have quite a severe case of it: when I selected the orange used in the sidebar on the left, for example, I could not have told you for certain that it was actually orange.

There is great confusion abroad about the concept of colour-blindness. Colour-blindness does not imply that there are blank spaces in one's visual field where certain colours are supposed to turn up. It also does not imply monochromatic, gray-scale vision, except in very rare cases. Red-green colour-blindness does not necessarily mean one confuses red with green, either, nor does it ever suggest that one "cannot" see red or green. It means that the perception of red and green are weakened. To me, a very strong, flat red is identifiable as red, and a clear, bright green looks green. But any intruding factor--slightly confusing illumination, a mix of hues, a small field of a particular colour--will threaten this identification. So, to take the obvious examples from my own perceptual matrix:

· I can't tell blue and purple apart most of the time. It's a total crapshoot.
· Red type, if it is small, is indistinguishable from black type.
· Light green? It looks gray. Dark green? It looks gray too. In fact, I sometimes identify grays as greens when asked to guess at colours, just because I have a feeling that some particular thing should be green and probably is green.
· Green traffic lights are largely indistinguishable from streetlights...
· ...which is OK, because red and yellow traffic lights don't look like streetlights. However, red and yellow traffic lights look like each other...
· ...which is OK too because the positioning of red and yellow lights on a row of traffic signals is standardized, and yellow lights turn to red ones in a few seconds. Don't worry, I'm a bad driver for entirely different reasons than colour-blindness.
· Also, I didn't discover that auto taillights were red until I was about 16 years old.

These are mere hints at the strange universe of the colour-blind man. This interview with an ophthalmologist has more interesting details and mentions several professions which are off-limits to the colour-blind. (An obvious one which goes unmentioned is "painter.") Readers who are themselves colour-blind may wish to try WhatColor, a Windows application you may find you can't live without.

- 2:34 am, October 2 (link)

The contender

(Link from Kelly Torrance) Interesting little piece in the TorStar about Naxos, the budget classical record label.

As the pioneering budget-priced CD label, Naxos secured a market foothold it has never lost. With the release of 500 CDs annually and sales of 10 million, it is now the largest classical label in the world.
"Making a CD today costs not even one dollar," its founder admits. "So we can even sell in China, where CDs sell for $2 or $3, and make a small profit.
"We want to record all the standard repertory, of course, but we also record for specific markets and because artists and publishers with pet projects come to us with sponsorship money."

You might remember this the next time you hear a swollen record company explain to you that God intends for a CD to cost $15 and file-sharing should be a crime punishable by commitment to the galleys. Naxos offers customers the pleasure of adventurous record-buying--of discovering new artists, composers in its case, for nickels and dimes. This is a pleasure the majors have denied the pop public for about 20 years now. They're locked into a revenue model that simply is not going to work in the long term. Of course there are differences between the markets, but understand what Naxos is doing. Its catalogue is full of crazy otaku items like the complete Busoni hurdy-gurdy études, but it makes money and it's growing. The future must look something quite like it.

- 9:43 pm, October 1 (link)

Time to let smarter people talk

Some mailbag backlog to get through.

· Bene Diction discusses my previous entry on his weblog. Yes, I am an atheist, or I see no sense in not calling myself one.

· Lyndon Epp, one of the many Saskatchewan transplants to Alberta, offers an explanation for the schism between socialist Saskatchewan and conservative Alberta:

Alberta got more Americans, particularly in the southern part of the province, while Saskatchewan got more Europeans (especially British) who had a much more positive outlook for the glorious promises of socialism. I'm not sure how far into the future you want to extend this, but even today I think the prevailing attitude of Saskatchewan is one that is much more collective in nature.

I don't know the exact figures, anyway, but there was certainly no shortage of Eastern Europeans or potentially Fabian Brits here. This theory still suffers from the nexus problem: at the exact moment Saskatchewan was adopting socialism, Alberta was adopting a monetary heresy, Social Credit, that was practically indistinguishable from socialism. It seems to me that at that moment either province could have gone either way, whatever the preexisting immigration patterns. The real mystery, perhaps, is the journey of E.C. Manning, who steered Social Credit away from the left, purging the party of the true believers. To what degree did he ever actually believe in Social Credit? And just to add confusion to the issue, guess where Manning was actually from? Right--Saskatchewan.

· David Janes proposes an attractive theory: Alberta is simply better (well duh)!

The problem with Saskatchewan may be simply that it's boring. Alberta has mountains, which means there is a means for young people to actually entertain themselves, making it a much more attractive place to go or to stay.

I don't know that many people come specifically to get away from Saskatchewan's landscape, although I could hardly blame them. I think a part of the primordial schism is in fact related to this: the first colonized parts of Alberta were ranchland, while Saskatchewan attracted ordinary homesteaders. Cattlemen, as you'll know if you've met them, are a ferociously independent bunch. They don't learn to rely on neighbours they hardly ever see, and since their wealth is portable they are hyper-aware of property rights.

· Kevin Grace points out that Hockey Night in Canada has a fabulous blonde insurance policy up its sleeve. Ron who...?

· Capt. J.M. Heinrichs (I've forgotten what sort of captain he is, if I ever knew) speaks in defence of Lieutenant-Colonel Stogran:

His reference to "strange irony" is probably directed toward popular public perceptions of a soldier's role in the Canadian Army. He does not misunderstand the attitude of a soldier towards the various roles demanded of him; rather he is pointing out the fact that, in general, a soldier sees his primary role as fighting for Canada (per se) rather than (for example) acting as a disinterested keeper of the peace between warring factions.

There's more in the mailbag but eventually you have to take the asylum back from the inmates, don't you? Correspondence is always welcomed.

- 1:04 pm, October 1 (link)

The failure

There's always something new over at, and occasionally something worthwhile. I fear Frank Wustner's article about the comportment of atheists falls a bit short on the latter score. The title is extremely intriguing: "Counter-Punching Before the Fight Starts: The Plight of Irrational Atheism in the United States." Unfortunately, most of the actual piece is taken up with tendentious explanations of how atheists suffer "harassment" and "violence" in the U.S. Talk about counterpunching before the fight starts! In attempting to explain why atheists are someimes aggressive and nasty people, Frank writes that it's very simple: they live in a swelling sea of venomous hatred.

Maybe things are different in the U.S., but in Canada I'm "bombarded" with the same media messages Frank is, and I've never had any problems, as an atheist. You'll feel just as much hatred as you are prepared to attribute to your fellow citizens, I suppose. I believe that Christians regard atheists, above all, as potential converts--how else can they reasonably regard us? I have never understood why I am supposed to feel threatened or abused by this. "Father Flaherty thinks of me as a unique human person with a distinctive, precious soul! WHY, THAT SON OF A BITCH!"

In fact, what strikes me is how little effort is normally made to engage the atheist in his nonbelief. I've worked at the Report for eight years, and I can count the number of challenges I've had on that particular subject on one hand, with digits left over to scratch my rear. Very often we will have disputes on religio-political issues (i.e., abortion) or on points of Christian doctrine, but as far as anyone actually telling me "You're an atheist, and you shouldn't be one: please stop now"... it's never happened. Never, ever. Not ever.

Now, I could take this as evidence that my believing co-workers don't give a crap whether I go to Hell. But it would be closer to the truth, I think, to say that they suspect a soft-sell, applied over a number of years, has a better chance of success. Still, this can't quite be right either: would you let your neighbour smoke in bed or drive home drunk for eight years, gently trying to convince him that maybe he should change his tune? Even if you didn't like him much? Tomorrow, as Walter Payton said, is promised to no one. I could get mangled by a truck every time I leave the office, and yet they let me go, in a state of polymorphous unshriven mortal sin.

I think the actual explanation is the one Orwell offered for a related phenomenon. Why, Orwell asked, does any Christian sin, ever? Yes, yes, no doubt we're all bent that way by the Fall--but think what the doctrine of Hell actually implies. If it chanced to be a sin to, say, touch pennies, a sin that meant you would suffer pain, fire, and torture for all time (or miss out on infinite bliss), could you organize your life so as to not touch pennies? And would you? If you really believed it, you would. You'd be pretty damn serious about penny-free-dom--you'd write pleading letters to the Mint, switch your economic life to a barter basis, even move to a country that uses dinars if it came to that. Not for a moment would you risk fondling a penny.

The actual sins enumerated in the Decalogue or the Catechism are certainly more seductive--but does anyone make any serious effort to avoid them? Praying a lot does not count. The solutions are in fact well known, and the lives of the saints offer examples in abundance: asceticism, self-torture, eremitic withdrawal from society. The way to Heaven is by no means easy, it appears, but it is evident--and it's Heaven, right? Put down that secretary, we are talking about HEAVEN. Here's your hair shirt, hope it fits.

Orwell concluded from observing the way Christians acted that even the ones who said they believed in Heaven and Hell didn't really believe in Heaven and Hell. Not in their bones. I conclude the same thing from the fact that my Christian friends and co-workers treat me in a civilized fashion. I certainly don't want it any other way, mind you--and it's far too late for them to put on a convincing show anyway.

[Thanks to Eve Tushnet for steering much traffic Coshward Monday.]

- 3:50 am, October 1 (link)

Armchair quarterbacking

By the time you read this (OK, there are about fifty of you who will read this sooner) there will be another of Gregg Easterbrook's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" columns available on's "Page 2". Yes, I'd like to link to it, but even though it is 2:31 a.m. Tuesday morning on the Eastern seaboard, there is no sign of the new column. Last week's is here, and you can probably find a link to the brand-new one somewhere on this page. Happy hunting!

TMQ, which formerly appeared in Slate [you can type into your browser's address window without my help, can't you?], is what sportswriting should be--it's sportswriting without the sportswriter pose. Yes, hell, by all means let a public policy analyst (one who happens to be an extremely intelligent and close observer of American football) write about sports! Aren't you tired of the same old chummy-yet-condescending cookie-cutter crap in the sports pages? Death to the culture of the expert, especially in a field where it's self-evident that "expertise" is often a hindrance! And while we're at it, I'm just radical enough to want to know what Mike Ditka thinks about the god-damned Federal Reserve!

TMQ's move to ESPN raises an issue near and dear to my life: the journalistic mug shot. In the Slate days the column ran with no mug shot. ESPN, however, is teevee for your computer, so now Easterbrook's face leers out at you while you read. Not that that's a bad thing necessarily! In fact, it's a good face--maybe it's the monochrome image, but it strikes me as a throwback face, the kind of face you'd see holding a clipboard next to Vince Lombardi. Er, well, the face wouldn't actually be holding the... OK, let's just move on.

Anyway, the magazine I work for recently decided to add mug shots to the four or five "digest" features which run in every issue. I was informed by my superiors that a new photo of yours truly would be required. I should add that I was advised, in perfectly reasonable and polite fashion, that I might wish to have my coif retracted to a less bounteous state, so as to not horrify elderly readers who still think the Beatles are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (and who still think that all four Beatles are still alive). In case that sentence is a bit too tortured, it means I was asked to get a damn haircut.

I didn't mind, either! It always grows back, doesn't it? (I can hear 40-year-old guys muttering "Sure, kid. Sure it always grows back.") But the more I thought about the actual validity of having a mug shot run with my column, the less I liked it. Subliminal anonymity is not always a disadvantageous thing. If the reader can choose to imagine the writer, he is free to choose an image that is congenial to his sensibilities. Up Front is written in an aggressively personal style, but one that eschews first-person pronouns; this lends it, I infer from reading similar columns in other magazines, an air of being delivered from some lofty, mysterious mountaintop of data and wit. It enables the voice of the speaker to change identities even from paragraph to paragraph. And I think a mugshot may give the reader the vague subconscious sensation of being watched, as it does in TMQ. The author is peering at you, anticipating your approval. This, I think, may serve to interrupt the conversational dynamic of a newspaper or magazine column--at least, in the case of one that is meant to be conversational. With a mug shot, you are accosted by the author in two forms: you are psychically outnumbered.

So my counterfiat was, no mug shot. This was accepted when I gave, more or less, the explanation above. My face does not intrude on your enjoyment of the fortnightly Up Front. (To be candid, I believe it is the sort of face that could well intrude on your enjoyment of nearly anything which was otherwise enjoyable.)

With this website, I made the opposite choice; as I wrote here many weeks ago, the site exists for self-promotion, and I think you've pretty much got to suck it up and get your photo out there if you intend to do that. I loathe self-promotion, and persist in a naive faith that talent, generally, is recognized and rewarded in our meritocratic society. However, with the ongoing struggles of the magazine, I may, sooner or later, be in a position to die of starvation for lack of self-promotion. So uh... here I am! This is me! I'm great, and stuff! Uh... yeah. Jesus. I'm going to go take a shower.

- 1:14 am, October 1 (link)