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There's some new local colour on my Flickr page. -9:25 pm, October 28
Dog bites man; idiots in charge at news network

This CNN story about the Iranian president's determination to erase Israel from the map is now headlined 'Iranian leader rebuts critics over Israel remarks'. This is a decided improvement over the version of the headline that originally appeared on the Web this morning: 'Iranian leader refutes critics over Israel remarks'.

There are few errors in editorial diction more pervasive or lamentable than the use of "refutes" to mean "rebuts". In this instance--because the question whether an argument has been successfully refuted involves a value judgment--the early mistake placed CNN in the awkward position of stating that President Ahmadinejad had successfully made a logically airtight case for the extinction of the Jewish state. Right now--six hours after the mistake first appeared--the front page of CNN's World section still has the erroneous version of the headline up. Is the network's endorsement of Holocaust 2.0 an illiteracy or a Freudian slip? I report, you decide.

- 4:01 pm, October 28 (link)

Tin-snips and a beer can

I'm a week late in reading Globe architecture reporter Lisa Rochon's piece on the winning design for the reimagined Edmonton Art Gallery. I've been meaning to write about the jury's choice for a while, but embarrassment caused me to avert my attention from the task every time. The building is sub-Gehrian junk peddled successfully to the yokels by a former senior associate of Gehry's firm. It says, and will go on saying from its completion to its destruction, that Edmonton is a second-rate city.

An informed person's experience of architecture in Alberta is already that it is uniformly bad, and certainly is made little better by the sheer datedness of its most ambitious manifestations. Even Douglas Cardinal, a brilliant and internationally recognized architect from Alberta, has generally reserved his most banal work for his home. There are a handful of hidden gems here at the laundromat-'n'-library level, a few attractive premodern sandstone buildings, and some edifices which acquire a contemptible sort of amicability after long acquaintance, but mostly the eye in this province is painfully starved. (I do have a sneaking fondness for Edmonton's city hall, but mostly because (a) I remember how the original design--dominated by a great glass cone instead of a pyramid--had to be changed hastily when the public began trading jokes about the "giant dunce cap", and (b) because a pyramid is pretty much the note-perfect symbol of government cruelty and stupidity.)

I think it is high time Alberta had one building of originality and significance; I realize they don't grow on trees, but wouldn't it be worth trying for one, rather than explicitly setting out to buy utterly conventional canned designs from the internationally hip architecture school of the moment? That's how we ended up with a drab, industrial-looking art gallery in the first place, one that we are essentially dismantling after just 30 years. The ribbons of metal with which Randall Stout's EAG is festooned are already a cliché; ten years from now, those who pass by it will have nothing more to say than "Hey, remember when they were putting these things up? Man, weird."

That's assuming, of course, that those passers-by aren't dodging giant blocks of ice cascading down around their heads. Edmonton has a long history of purchasing California designs without considering the local conditions; big buildings such as the Citadel Theatre, the "Butterdome" at the University of Alberta, and the hotel at West Edmonton Mall have all had to be modified to remove serious hazards to the public from falling snow. Stout's EAG looks like another classic winter-city man-killer.

Rochon is aware of some of this, and her analysis is brilliant in parts; she recognizes that the city's leading institutions are beholden to local creatives of only middling imagination, and mocks Stout's condescending crap about inukshuks and the Northern Lights. (How expert Gehry's friends must be at finding local visual analogues for large, stupid hunks of crumpled metal!) But her main conclusion appears to be that a trendy knockoff is exactly right for Edmonton. Hey, it's only Edmonton! She seems to approve of the way the city is striving and yet implicitly minding its place.

Who can blame Edmonton for wanting to keep up with the Joneses, and commissioning some badly needed plastic surgery for its nearly invisible art gallery? The choice was painfully clear: Either doll up the place or permanently genuflect to the rebranded institutions of elsewhere. ...There's little original thought behind the body wrap that Stout has imagined for the gallery, but that doesn't qualify as an indictment. Without this and more interventions that reach for the sublime, Edmonton dies.

The suggestion is that we Edmontonians should probably accept our own immediate, instinctive reaction to the EAG's announcement: "Wow, can you believe they didn't give it to Gene fucking Dub?"

- 9:12 pm, October 27 (link)

Battle of the pundits: the Post's "Beautiful Minds" series on Canada's greatest public intellectuals has now reached an even dozen with Marni Soupcoff's piece on Charles Krauthammer. You can read my Friday entry stumping for the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, who, alas, is not likely to win the upcoming vote that will follow the series. A good second choice, not yet profiled, would be Bank of Sweden Prize-winning economist Robert A. Mundell.

Send me your own selections using the e-mail link at top left, and I'll be happy to put them here where the Post editorial board will be, uh, more or less reasonably likely to see them. Be sure to keep the simple rules in mind:

All candidates must be living, have a strong connection to Canada, and be active in public life. Post employees and columnists are ineligible.

- 10:49 am, October 27 (link)

How to spot a true dork

He's the guy who, when he heard that there were to be no more tie games in the NHL, immediately thought "Awesome! I can break out the binomial distribution now!"

Which is a roundabout way of saying I've dropped some math bombs into a discussion of Edmonton Oiler ghastliness over at BoA.

- 10:05 am, October 26 (link)

Cool things you'll probably never be able to find

ESPN sporting humorist Bill Simmons has been doing an occasional series in which he recommends great overlooked books to aspiring writers. I have a high estimation of Simmons' comic gifts, but even so it has been a surprise to see him choose two of my 20 favourite books in his first four or five kicks at the can. Simmons' very first choice was Wait Till Next Year, a out-of-print 1988 compendium of pieces by columnist Mike Lupica and screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride). The book was a deliberately ephemeral review of 1987 in New York sports, with Lupica contributing the reporter's view and Goldman the fan's. The Lupica half is forgettable. But ever since I received a paperback copy as a gift in '89, I have returned to Goldman's contribution (call it the "good parts") every couple of years. Goldman writes with pure fire and incomparable wit about the fan's daily experience--about one's rage at inexplicable management decisions, about the superstitions that every fan shares whether he wants to or not, about historical memory and the fading images of the past, about what it's like to cheer for winners and losers. I can quote long portions of his pieces about Nagurski, Gooden, Hogan, and Sayers almost verbatim. I am reminded of the book almost every day, as I was last night when I accidentally killed the Oilers by switching to their game on the radio when they were leading Colorado 3-2. (Sorry, everybody.) Simmons, frankly, owes his entire schtick and the career it has fertilized to Goldman and to this slim, forgotten volume. And, to his credit, he is suitably grateful.

Now Simmons recommends Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, also out of print and also amazing. It's almost certainly the best book ever written about the TV business, and it's arguably funnier than the show has ever been. (You might have noticed that the early Chase-Aykroyd-Radner stuff hasn't really aged super well.) Its hero is the late "Reichsmarshall", Michael O'Donoghue. People say that Gilbert Gottfried told the funniest version of the "Aristocrats" joke on record, but O'Donoghue's 90-minute performance is the one I'd transport myself to hear if I had a time machine.

On a related note, Gottfried's official site has a brand-new weblog with a brief remembrance of Charles Rocket, also a major presence in Hill and Weingrad's book.

- 8:34 am, October 26 (link)

It's too popular, no one goes there anymore

Local correspondent Lars Ormberg checks in on the mysterious madness at the Strathcona Hotel.

As a semi-regular weekend Whyte Avenue patron for about eight years now (spending Fridays next door to the Princess at Funky Buddha), I've had a couple nights in the Strat (we've never tacked an "h" on the end, dunno why) over the years. This is mainly related to being able to spend $5 and completely blanket a table with draft beer glasses. We've noticed this sudden lineup issue, and it only started around mid-summer. The reasons aren't entirely clear. They may have something to do with the smoking ban clearing the thick smell of cheap cigs out of the air, a problem not as pronounced at other bars mainly because Strat clientele seemed only to smoke hand-rolled.

I'm also thinking that the crackdown on Whyte has something to do with it. As you may have heard, too many people are enjoying themselves on Whyte Ave, so the local bars have had their maximum occupancy reduced and are patrolled heavily for violations. Suite 69 was the worst hit from this, going from 170 to about 80. The Strat, being only a block away, was the natural choice, and having no dress code bullshit like the Armoury means it probably got the bulk of the spillover traffic. A few nights of the Strat having a bunch of hot girls and no credible male competition, and suddenly there's a lineup every weekend.

This seems the most likely to me, and it's oddly ironic, since Suite 69 was dead regularly until a rumour surfaced around '99 that it regularly had tons of scantily clad chicks and no guys. This was true the next night, but within a couple days the story caught on, and the place was packed until this summer, when the occupancy fines and smoking ban left it empty.

As to the quality [of the Strath] inside, I couldn't tell you. The lineups start around 8:30 pm and still are going strong at 1 am, and we have this aversion to waiting to get into a bar.

I had thought of the Strathcona as a likely victim of the smoking ban, rather than a beneficiary. In the past, bargoers in other cities where indoor smoking was outlawed have found that they were trading in that icky tobacco haze for the undisguised scent of burp gas, ill-monitored toilets, primates in estrus, and fresh vomit.

- 11:29 am, October 25 (link)

Canada dry

It's received wisdom in Canada that as political consumers we are more liberal, less uptight, and more forgiving than those in the United States--especially when it comes to certain issues like soft drugs. So I have to say that the Canadian Press really buried the lede on today's story about politicians and drug use.

More Canadian voters said they were more likely to reject a politician with an alcohol problem than one who had smoked a joint. Thirty-nine per cent said they would not vote for a former alcoholic.

That's pretty categorical, and if you look at the poll question in context, the collective sentiment is even harsher: 39% of respondents actually said that they would withdraw a vote for their favourite candidate if he admitted to having a drinking problem.

What's the right conclusion about the meaning of this poll? That George W. Bush, who confessed to a history of alcoholism and actually turned it into a political plus, would not even have been considered as a local candidate here? That Albertans somehow didn't know about Ralph Klein's booze issues when they elected him to three consecutive provincial majorities? Hogwash. It's merely further proof of a principle that should forever be borne in mind when reading the newspaper--people (about 39% of them, at least) tell pollsters what they think pollsters want to hear.

- 9:48 am, October 24 (link)

Memo to my colleagues in journalism

Until further notice, the institution hitherto known as McGill shall henceforth be referred to, in all instances, as No Evidence That Anyone Was Sodomized University. This style recommendation applies particularly to those reporters covering McGill's accomplishments in non-athletic fields of activity. Thank you for your attention.

- 11:42 pm, October 23 (link)

Lipstick & leather, wear & tear

I went to see The Constant Gardener at the Princess on Friday (short review: it's preachy, but visually exquisite). Afterwards we emerged, blinking, onto Whyte Avenue--and this is what things have come to in Edmonton: every bar on the Calgary Trail block had a long line of clubland nubiles and expensively tousled slicksters outside.

Those of you who are familiar with Edmonton are muttering, "Every bar? Dude, the Strathcona Hotel is on that block."

Yeah. The Strathcona Hotel is on that block. People were lining up to get into the Strath. In fact, I think it had the longest line of the lot.

I don't want to overemphasize the degree to which the Strath was, as recently as six months ago, a smelly refuge for rummies, unmedicated schizoids, and post-cougars with ovarian cancer. There have always been young people who visited the Strath to soak up the "local colour," and the 26% chance of being vomited on during any given visit was just part of the fun. Still, the Strath was always the kind of place where the carpet hadn't been vacuumed for so long that it was on the UN's shortlist to become a World Heritage Site. It's a place where Labatt Blue is considered a "classy imported brew." It's a place where you wish there were three restrooms: "Mens", "Womens", and "Herpes". And now people are queueing--women in miniskirts are queueing in five-degree cold--to get into the son of a bitch. What's happening to my city?

[UPDATE, October 25: Here's one answer.]

- 10:59 pm, October 23 (link)

Seen on an ETS bus poster this morning, written in one of those crumbly fonts denoting social decay

"The average age of a child involved in prostitution is 15.6."

Wait--you mean someone got paid to round up a bunch of people who were under 18 by definition and calculate that their mean age was significantly lower than 18? Ah, well, one supposes innumeracy in the defence of chastity is no vice.

- 10:31 pm, October 23 (link)


What I'll remember about World Series Game 1: the Sox get runners on first and second to lead off the home half of the 5th. Carl Everett, the Chicago DH, is up. And--yes, you guessed it--Ozzie Guillen orders him to bunt. Maybe there are one or two other managers crazy enough to issue such an order to Everett, but only Guillen would throw away his #5 hitter in order to (a) open up first base for Aaron Rowand and (b) set up the inning-ending double play with the slothlike Pierzynski coming up behind.

I suspect this whole postseason may be remembered for Guillen's reassertion of the expectation that starting pitchers will stay in the game past 80 pitches or three earned runs. Tactically, his boldness in this respect may overshadow any number of in-game busted hunches. But asking Everett to bunt with nobody out and the catcher in the hole--even if you like the bunt in general, that's just plain stupid, isn't it? Don't you know fifty people personally who would know better than to do this? I kept waiting for Jon Miller and Joe Morgan to say something about it on ESPN Radio, but they never got further than mentioning that it was Everett's first sacrifice hit of the year. (No kidding, was it really, guys?) How many innings can a manager afford to give away like this before it catches up with him?

- 9:49 pm, October 22 (link)

Going on record

I spent the past couple of days utterly convinced that Houston was going to succumb to Just-Glad-To-Be-There-itis in the World Series. And I still have trouble imagining them overcoming it; for some reason the disorder seems much worse in their case than it does for Chicago, the first team in 46 years to carry a pennant into battle for America's Second City. The Sox even have Thurman Munson's secret bastard son calling pitches for them.

But Thomas Boswell's argument on behalf of the Astros in Saturday's Washington Post is more than good enough for you to take to your bookie. The special formula for success in the World Series has just one known variable, and that's frontline pitching. Houston, Boswell points out, was much the better team over the last three months of the season. And in the ALDS,

the White Sox beat an exhausted Red Sox team that fought with the Yankees until the final day of the regular season then didn't get a single postseason pitch from Curt Schilling or Keith Foulke. Then the White Sox benefited from facing the Angels just as they were coming off three games in three cities in three days, including a coast-to-coast flight. The Angels didn't even have their injured 20-game winner, Bartolo Colon. [And their designated stud, Vladimir Guerrero, more or less ran away and hid. -ed.] Perhaps the proper question from the ALCS is how the White Sox came so close to falling into an 0-2 hole at home against the tired and wounded Angels.

I'm backing Houston, as both bettor and fan. Sure, the White Sox have served 86 years in purgatory for the Black Sox Scandal. I don't think it's long enough. This is not just the franchise that came close to destroying the sport; it's the franchise that somehow arranged to have the evidence in a criminal trial of its players stolen from the office of a prosecutor. Sox fans generally regard Shoeless Joe Jackson as a folk hero, and believe that he should be in the Hall of Fame. And if he were carelessly let in, you know they'd start beating the drum for Ed Cicotte the next morning. The baseball gods--who are hellenistic ones, with long memories and highly evolved punitive imaginations--have made their displeasure with these attitudes abundantly clear. Long may they do so.

- 5:53 pm, October 22 (link)

How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb: Sacamano has some useful tips for the sports fan who saves his pennies for a game only to be caught in the middle of a low point in franchise history. -10:22 am, October 22
Hey Cyclops, I'm from Hollywood

Firefly star and local boy Nathan Fillion has declared a jihad against leading Edmonton comic shop Warp One, whose Simpsonesque proprietor Darryl Minty allegedly tried to charge him $20--that's twenty, two-zero--for a copy of Dark Horse's Firefly comic. It hasn't escaped my attention that the "Browncoats" are kind of living up to their stormtrooperish name here, but you'd probably have to live here (and to have paid $75 for an Alan Moore trade paperback) to appreciate the pricelessness of Fillion's account of dealing with the "one-eyed crap-catcher."

Never have I tried to wield power in this way, but if being Malcolm Reynolds has taught me anything, it's to follow my overdeveloped sense of vengeance.

I will say that in the age of e-commerce, it is probably unreasonable to expect a bricks-and-mortar comic shop to be competing on price the way a supermarket does. To a large degree, they've become private clubs--venues for card and LAN games and anime screenings. The appearance of serving the public is strictly an obsolete social convention (and a means of underwriting the fun by bilking the unwary).

- 1:06 pm, October 21 (link)


At last, a digest of reader mail on education systems and cognitive styles in Alberta, Ontario, and elsewhere. My interlocutions and editing will be minimal. Our first missive comes from a senior engineer at Ballard Power Systems in Burnaby (one who graduated from the University of Alberta):

I've been living in BC for about five years now, and the school system out here also seems to be in the grips of fashionably liberal ideology. Just about any sort of innovation that might actually improve the school system is violently opposed by the teachers' union, the BCTF. The idea of open boundary school districts and charter schools have been proposed, only to have the BCTF claim they'd destroy the school system. I'm jarred by the knee-jerk reaction, given that both ideas have been implemented in Edmonton and seem to have worked very well.
A number of my in-laws are teachers around the Greater Vancouver region, and I'm stunned by the bureaucratic barriers to accountability in the teaching profession. For example, school principals in BC aren't allowed to evaluate the in-class performance of teachers. It's astonishing - the manager of the school has no effective tools to manage the employees!
Another problematic issue is the inclusion of special needs children into regular classrooms. The warm and fuzzy (and laudable) justification for this policy is to avoid warehousing these kids, to let them experience as normal a childhood as possible, and teach the other kids to interact with disabled people. In practice, the result is usually to create a classroom distraction for the majority of the kids and divert a lot of the teacher's time into dealing with one or two special needs children. In some cases, the special-needs kids are accompanied by teacher's aides, but the distraction factor often remains. There's also a question of what the kids are really getting out of the experience--some of them are apparently so disabled that they're capable of little or no real interaction, and I suspect the benefit might be more for their parents' egos.
All of these issues point to one conclusion: the people running the school system are ignoring practical issues and solutions to make the system work better in order to conform to ideology. It's sad, because there are so many good teachers out there working hard to provide a good education, and the system is set up in a way that makes their jobs harder.

Here's one from an undergraduate who has made the cross-country trek:

I am originally from Calgary and went to high school at Western Canada High School, which is undisputedly the best public school in the city and maybe second only to Old Scona in the province. I was certainly not a distinguished student in high school, marks in the mid-80s, and I was not involved in the International Baccalaureate program. Yet I decided to go to the University of Toronto, as it is certainly one of the top schools in Canada, and I assumed that the students there would be amongst the best in the country, and certainly the best in the province. Much to my surprise, many of the students from Ontario, especially those who got very good marks in high school, were drastically behind me in most of the areas that are fundamental to a good education. I am in the fourth year of my economics degree and I have found that students from Alberta are far and away superior to those from Ontario. I have yet to meet an Albertan who comes to U of T and does anything less than phenomenally in whatever program they are enrolled in.
So far, I have thought of a few reasons for this: 1. This is a self-selective group: students who decide to move all the way across the country to pursue their education are very serious about what they want to do and are more motivated to do well than does who simply take the subway to class. However, I have noticed that students that I know of who come from B.C. and the Maritimes do not do nearly as well as Albertans. Thus I was lead to conclusion number 2: that the Alberta education system as a whole is superior. This is certainly the case in mathematics where the Pure Math 10/20/30 system is leaps and bounds ahead of any system in North America. 3. As an economist I had to think of the role of the Alexander Rutherford scholarship. The Rutherford scholarship provides a phenomenal incentive to continue further education (up to $2500) and in my case it helped to make my first year of university essentially free. I hope that my anecdotal evidence is helpful in confirming your suspicions; alas, I fear that my liberal use of commas will not convince you of your theory of "tidiness" (but I am just an economist).

I'm not sure if Andy Grabia wanted his name used, but he had an interesting response that probably won't get him murdered or fired right away:

My experience in gaining an education degree at the U of A still leaves me confused. First off, it should be noted that I came into the program essentially as an after-degree student (too convoluted to explain). After studying philosophy and political science, certain things in the Education department were of great shock to me. The first thing I noticed was the lack of intellectual vigour. To be blunt, the program seemed much easier than the arts program. And I was in the secondary strain, with a major in English and a minor in Social Studies. From all that I have seen, and heard, the elementary program is even easier.
Secondly, the teaching was weak. This seems ironic, considering the program, but the department seems less focused on hiring academics than they do on hiring old public school teachers who have been through the system. As such, you get a lot of focus on "practicum experience" and even professors who will tell you that sitting in a class learning theory is a waste of time. That was a real eye-opener. There is theory being taught, but much of it seems outdated. I wouldn't go so far as to state that you are inundated with the Frankfurt School. Frankly, I think your old program [arts -ed.] forces that down the throat much more than the education faculty. And I wouldn't even go so far as to state that there is an ideological bent to any parts of the degree. Most teachers are very apolitical, in fact. But there is an emphasis on building the esteem and character of children that in a certain sense overrides the questions of outcomes and results. And that is political.
That was the third thing I noticed. I actually had a professor tell me once that I wasn't going to be a good teacher because I didn't believe in coddling 17-year-old kids. My belief is that I am not there to save anybody, nor am I there to raise anybody. I will leave that to the parents. That belief does not go over very well in the field, though. This is ironic, because there is also a very stong sense of the profession not being appreciated. I would agree, and say that for the most part people really have no sense of how difficult a job it is. But in so many ways it is the teachers' own fault, because they continue to take on roles that expand their responsibilities, and therefore their workload.
See, now this is where I am confused. I just said the program is intellectually weak, and full of awful professors. And yet, despite my belief that this should somehow create bad teachers, quite the opposite is true. It is a well acknowledged fact that the U of A has one of the three best education programs in the country, along with the University of Lethbridge and the University of Victoria. As well, results continue to indicate that Alberta has the best K-12 system in the country, if not the world. How can this be so? The only conclusions I have come up with is that either (a) my expectations of what should make an excellent education program are totally off-base, (b) I just had a bad experience and there are lots of intelligent, innovative professors in the program or (c) the education system in Alberta is working DESPITE what is going on at the province's largest and finest University.
After graduating, it was impossible for me to find a job. The bureaucracy that exists at Edmonton Public alone would make your head spin. I taught for a semester in Bonnyville, and then decided to move onto something else. It just wasn't worth it. The constant blows to your ego in just finding a job are daunting, let alone the blow you takes when you get in trouble because a 16 year old kid tells you to fuck off. I do miss teaching, but I don't miss all the bullshit.
In the end, what I told you is probably of little help. On the one hand, I think the program could be more vigorous, and I think it should be an absolute requirement that you complete a four-year degree in another faculty before getting a two-after degree in education. I think that the professors shouldn't just be old principals from Alberta's education system, but people engaged in deep academic study and research. I don't care if they ever taught in a K-12 school, frankly. And I think that, at least for those wishing to teach English, there be a required course in English grammar and usage. It is not offered, which is deadly considering these people have to go out and tell children what is wrong with their writing. I am only familar with grammar and usage due to the insane amount that I read. I have had no formal training in it, and as such I am not as clear about it as I should be. Even my own writing suffers as a consequence.
On the other hand, there is value in doing things differently than in a program like the Liberal Arts. Writing twenty-five essays a semester can only stretch the brain so much. "Constructing dioramas out of felt and cardboard," as you call it, does have value. Not only does it allow for me to present my knowledge in a way that is interesting and best suits my own skills, but it teaches me things that I can use in my classroom and pass on to my students. Sure, there is a value in making my English 30 students write X number of academic essays a year, with an introduction, conclusion, and three body paragraphs, but at the same time there is a value in making those same students keep a creative writing portfolio that is evaluated at the end of the year. My most enjoyable and developmental experiences as a student and as a teacher came not through writing a 15-page-essay on geopolitics in Southeast Asia, or in marking yet again another three-page-essay on Gatsby and the American Experience, but in the exploration of Antony and Cleopatra through a modernized script that I had to write, or in watching a student recite "Straight Outta Compton" in my classroom in front of twenty other stunned 18 year olds.
So, to sum it all up, I have no idea.

In defence of dioramas! But a worried Albertan writes:

I spent last night sending emails to my grade 8 son's teachers. In two years of junior high, he has written two math quizzes and one open-book science test. That's it. Lots of at-home group projects. Finally this year he has an english teacher that appears to know what she is doing (lots of paragraph writing, actually reading stories instead of movie-watching, etc.) and behold, she sends home a diorama assignment. I despair--I have three more kids and no other options than the public system, being non-French or Catholic of Albertan descent.

I don't suppose he means he's Cree. Euan Hart found this gem and chucked it at my head:

Here's an example of Albertan comma usage I saw recently and boggled at. I don't find it un-Albertan, alas.

Rick Glasel wrote:

I agree with you, Grade 13 didn't seem to accomplish much except make university freshmen a year older. Another peculiarity of Ontario's public education system is two years of public preschool compared to one for the other provinces that I'm familiar with.
I don't think you can blame it on Marxists and Greens holding teaching positions. Teachers in BC are more radical than those in Ontario, yet B.C. schools seem to generate good results. Maybe it's part of a different problem; in the seventies and early eighties, many bright and ambitious young Ontarians moved west, and nobody back home in the Golden Triangle noticed. Eventually you end up with the remaining native-born population trending towards mediocrity in all things. You could also ask why the various immigrant communities in the GTA don't seem to have prospered as much as their equivalents in the Lower Mainland.

Just like the proverbial fellow who chose his parents wisely, B.C. was, I suspect, wise to make sure it was facing east Asia on the map.

Another contributor has some interesting things to add about the future of teacher training.

As a recent graduate from an Ontario university, I sadly have to agree with you. I went to Calgary schools, and to the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, along with many intelligent Saskatchewan folks. It did not prepare me for Ontario schooling. I should note that I am a Calgary native, born and raised, and went to Ontario because the school offered me the most credit for the program I was taking.
Don't get me wrong. The people of Ontario are as intelligent as you and I; it is their education system which is failing them. They do not have any sort of rigorous, standardized final exams like our Alberta diploma examinations. Instead, the final grade used to determine post-secondary entrance it decided entirely by the Grade 12 teachers, [placing individual students at the mercy of subjective grading and punishing those in rigorous schools that refuse to grade-inflate.] There is also a movement in Ontario to remove the requirement that all students pass a literacy exam in Grade 11 to get their diplomas. Apparently there is a strong movement in Ontario that feels it is unfair to require graduates to be literate to get a high school diploma...
And on a final note, I have a fair number of friends who took, and are taking teachers' college. And by the sounds of it, it is getting significantly harder as time progresses. I assure you, there are diorama classes, but the competition to get into the colleges now is getting fierce, and therefore the standards are increasing. (Don't forget, the Ontario teachers' union has the provincial government by the testicles, and being a teacher is not a bad career move--in fact, it is pretty darn good.) But the system as a whole is poor, and no amount of funds or reduction of class sizes will help until accountability, rigorous standards and the ability to measure those are put into place. It is grotesquely unfair for an Alberta student to be judged by a final grade that is subject to our diploma exams against an Ontario student whose teachers may have bumped up his average to give him a leg up on getting into the University of Calgary.
But many people in Ontario seem to feel the same about Alberta. Some people admitted to me that they were surprised a guy with my education could be from Alberta, the land of rednecks and hillbillies.

Finally, we have a letter from a wayward Albertan, "Joe Schmbox," who is working in a senior scientific position out East.

As someone schooled just outside of Edmonton who has resided in Ottawa for 4½ years, I can only provide you with a single vote in favour of your hypothesis. Certainly those who are born and bred in Ottawa, and raised in families funded by our federal coffers, do seem to lack--something. Fellow Albertans who have recently moved here are given to sharing guarded jokes about things like the Eloi and the Morlocks. We understand that we could have it wrong--every country has its regional biases. But I have not found a single example that refutes the supposition. In my 100-plus-employee research organization, none of the top-tier executives are from Ontario, and most are Westerners. We'd all like to come home, but I'm afraid we, the sighted, are all too successful here in the kingdom of the blind.

There were other letters along this line that I was simply asked not to reprint at all. C'est la guerre.

- 8:39 am, October 21 (link)

Three quick dispatches from a busy man

1 I was awfully sorry to hear of the death of Oakland A's broadcaster Bill King, who suffered a pulmonary embolism Tuesday after surgery to fix an artificial hip. It's a tough way to go out. I followed the A's on the radio for the later stages of this past season; the team uses a three-man rotation for its broadcasts, and I was aware that King had a health problem that was keeping him out of the booth for some road games.

As an Expos fan I am still wandering in the baseball wilderness, and I now expect to do so for the remainder of my life. The White Elephants were the closest thing I had to a rooting interest this year, now that Bill James has gotten his World Series ring with the Red Sox. King was a solid baseball man with a critical eye and, for me, he had quickly become emblematic of the overwhelming superiority of West Coast play-callers over East Coast ones. Unless you subscribe to audio (though I do not recommend trying to deal with MLB's customer service and software), you simply cannot believe how much more pleasant, understated, and intelligent the late broadcasts are compared with the homerism, corny jokes, self-aggrandizement, and phony pizzazz coming out of the northeast.

2 You can stop sending me camera recommendations (though tips and gifts wouldn't go amiss); I chose a faith yesterday (Canon) and received the sacraments. And I promptly became the proud owner of a new anecdote about my own schlemielism.

As the owner of point-and-shoot cameras I have often carried them with me on the off-chance that an opportunity for a good, timely photograph would arise. This is, of course, something that has never really happened. Yesterday, after spending the afternoon studying the manual for my new XT, I had plans to go for dinner to discuss some business. Should I take the camera with me? Naw--it would just be a cumbersome distraction, and I hadn't learned my way around it very far yet anyhow.

It goes without saying that somebody got hit by a car ten feet from the door of the restaurant just as we were leaving. The setup was there for a perfect Edmonton Sun photograph, right down to the cliché of the pedestrian's shoe lying forlornly in the road. This damn camera would have paid for 20% of its value instantly if I'd been on the ball.

3 The National Post, inspired by the recent exercise co-sponsored by Prospect and Foreign Policy, is undertaking a parallel search for Canada's most important public intellectual. The festivities are being kicked off with a series of op-eds on some of the more visible candidates. I'll be writing about my own pick overnight; watch for that in Friday's Post. (My favourite of the pieces filed so far is probably Tony Keller's, but calling Don Cherry an "intellectual" is too contrarian even for me, and frankly I'm not sure Grapes himself would sit still for it.)

- 10:26 am, October 19 (link)

Coffey notes

Three theses concerning Paul Coffey, in honour of the retirement of his Oilers jersey. And, by the way, it will probably be a while before I will write again about any Oiler who played before 1990. I'm finally fed up with Heritage Classics and living in the past...

1. The '80s Oilers obviously had a lot of remarkable individual attributes on hand--Gretzky's puck sense, Messier's viciousness, Fuhr's quickness, Semenko's brutality. Paul Coffey's speed--younger readers probably won't believe this, but he could go around almost anyone in the league on the glide--was the one that did the most to make the classic 400-goal attack different. On that logic, you can make a case that he was the most important player on those teams. The case falls apart when you consider that the Oilers won without him. But it's certainly true that when Gretzky had a 200-point season, he owed more to Coffey than Coffey did to Gretzky for his own 120-point years. If there had been five like him in the NHL between 1995 and 2004, there would be no such thing as the neutral-zone trap.

2. When Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson broke into baseball in 1979, they were the first players of a kind--godlike leadoff men, devastatingly elegant basestealers with huge on-base percentages--not seen for fifty years or more. There was a general assumption that they were merely prototypes, and that once people learned from them, they would be followed by dozens more of their kind, some of whom would probably be better. But when we look back from a quarter-century's distance, Raines and Henderson have no real successors. The two greatest leadoff men in the history of baseball just happened to arrive at the same moment in the life of the game.

It's sort of the same with Paul Coffey, isn't it? When he unleashed his amazing end-to-end speed and tape-to-tape passes, and put up those hallucinogenic numbers, I guess everybody thought "Well, here's the charter member of the Bobby Orr Club." But there has never been a Next Paul Coffey (though dozens have worn the label) either statistically or tactically. Nobody came close. Nobody today is the same kind of player. None of the few who played the game the same way has been remotely comparable. Who's the closest analogue with the same skill set?--Phil Housley? Phil Housley is to Paul Coffey exactly as Vince Coleman was to Rickey Henderson.

I think it is fair to say that Edmontonians assessed Gretzky and Messier at no less than their true value, and that we were admirably quick to do so. But we never realized that there wouldn't be another Paul Coffey.

3. In international play, there is only one Greatest Canadian Moment, which is impossible to equal by definition. And in terms of overall calibre of play and excitement, I think most observers would choose the 1987 Canada Cup and the 2002 Olympic Games as the country's greatest tournaments.

All this has led the 1984 Canada Cup to be somewhat overlooked. But consider the situation. There wasn't any of this glasnost nonsense floating around in '84; at that time, owing to events in Afghanistan, even the Decent People of the CBC and the Toronto Star had come to regard the Soviets as pure evil. An evil, mind you, that had pasted Canada 8-1 in the semifinal of the '81 series. Marcel Dionne had since retired, and Bryan Trottier (as long as we're speaking of evil) had switched allegiance to Team USA. In the round-robin, the USSR finished first and the USA second; Canada, going 2-2-1, barely held on to finish fourth and qualify for the medal round. They met the Soviets in the semi and were utterly outclassed in regulation, escaping into overtime with a 2-2 tie.

And it came down to Paul Coffey--who, at 23, had still never made the First All-Star team or won the Norris. It was Coffey who found himself the unlikely hindmost man as the Soviets gunned down the wings unchallenged on a two-on-one. It was Coffey who read the play perfectly and reached out impossibly far to break up the pass; Coffey who put on a burst of speed and left the Soviet wingers behind like two red-clad menhirs; Coffey who broke into the Soviet zone, dumped the puck behind the net for John Tonelli, took Tonelli's feed at the point, and fired the slapshot that Mike Bossy deflected past poor Vladimir Myshkin. Say what you like about '72, '87, and '02, but Coffey's takeaway, rush, and shot unquestionably constitute the most breathtaking single play ever made in a Canadian uniform.

- 12:22 pm, October 18 (link)

New in weblog world: say hello to John Weissenberger and George Koch, high-ranking members of Western Canada's conservative braintrust. If you don't care for politics but you do enjoy the occasional controlled fall down a snow-covered hill, bookmark this one: Koch is a leading travel writer and promises some skiing content. -6:54 am, October 17
The rebel angel

My column about Wayne Gretzky's prospects as an NHL coach is now winging its way to subscribers of the Western Standard. The piece is mostly designed to deflect mainstream critiques of Gretzky's chances for success, while raising some omitted ones that might be more meaningful. It doesn't take too firm a position on the issue itself.

But it's worth noting that the unexpected retirement of Brett Hull gives us an important data point concerning Gretzky's approach to coaching. I don't know that anybody has yet made this observation. A coach who leaps straight behind the bench while many of his contemporaries are still in the game might be expected to defer ostentatiously to veterans. And when he was filling in the '02 Canadian Olympic lineup, Gretzky was criticized for leaving Joe Thornton off the roster in favour of older guys like Theoren Fleury. But as the Coyotes' coach, Gretzky was tough on Hull, who played just eight minutes in his final NHL game. It's clear that, at some point, Hull expected to be able to skate back into something resembling his old form. It is natural to assume he thought he'd be given some time to accomplish this. He has been granted the dignity of a voluntary retirement, but the evidence suggests that an even less pleasant end to his career was right around the corner. And that's to say nothing of the sheer oddity of quitting five games into the season.

Did Gretzky present Hull with an ultimatum? If it did happen, surely it won't be more than a couple months before Hull opens his yap about it. It's worth recalling that before he became the earthly personification of hockey, Gretzky spent much of his life challenging its establishment. Those of us outside Sault Ste. Marie tend to forget it, but Gretzky pulled both an Eli Manning and a Maurice Clarett before the age of 17, throwing in a dash of Terrell Owens showmanship (by means of an attention-getting uniform number and a famous pair of white gloves) for good measure. He was the teenaged owner of one of the century's most dizzying arrays of pejorative labels--hotdog, greedhead, crybaby. When the NHL swallowed the WHA, Gretzky was uniformly expected to be bullied into mediocrity by bigger, faster, better players: in effect, the media and management guardians of the game openly contemplated his destruction, and relished the thought of it, for a solid year or more. Later, he opposed fighting in the game at a time when it was universally accepted as a component of the sport's entertainment value--and just as soon as his own views became orthodoxy, he changed his mind and endorsed NHL fisticuffs. Within hockey's matrix of superstitions and expectations, Gretzky has been an iconoclast, not a traditionalist--far more Curt Flood than Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

I don't imagine Gretzky has much respect, deep down, for anyone else's judgment when it comes to hockey. Whether he succeeds or fails as the Coyotes' boss, it should be noted that he has good reason for this attitude.

- 6:07 am, October 17 (link)

Fat Linus and 3-D Snoopy

In its long march through Charles Schultz's oeuvre, Fantagraphics Books is occasionally discovering Peanuts strips that were never again reprinted after their first syndicated appearance. Here are seven "lost" strips from Volume Five of The Complete Peanuts.

- 4:42 am, October 17 (link)

Random unnerving fact of the day

Number of male babies born in Quebec in 2004 who were given the name "Anakin", according to the provincial Régie des rentes: 3.

- 3:23 pm, October 16 (link)

I'll start with you--God told me to

So what's your theory about the Canadian Tire guy? Obviously Ted Simonett's character isn't your garden-variety Baby Boomer. The amount of household income he spends on weird gadgetry speaks to a strong self-reliant, almost survivalist streak. He seems particularly preoccupied with various means of providing electric power to the home in the event of a catastrophic failure of the grid. His smooth but strained friendliness suggests that he's a hardcore evangelical--but obviously he doesn't belong to one of those mainstream churches that expects the good guys to be raptured out of danger before the star named Wormwood arrives to defecate poison into the seas.

Put the pieces together and what you get is a dedicated member of some bizarre Christian cult--perhaps one that, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, expects to inherit our planet and its resources from a conveniently slaughtered infidel citizenry. The disturbing question: will Canadian Tire Guy's facade of helpfulness snap one day as he attempts to hasten along the Great Cleansing? You'll notice he never seems to try selling his neighbours anything they might use for self-defence, like a big knife.

- 11:57 am, October 15 (link)

My name is Legion

I'm a layman when it comes to medicine, and indeed I probably lay flatter than most. But on October 2 or 3, when I first heard about the "mysterious" respiratory-disease outbreak at the Seven Oaks Home for the Aged in Toronto, I distinctly remember the first thing I thought:

"Sounds like they've got a Legionnaires' Disease problem or something."

I also remember the second thing I thought:

"But, jeez, if it's Legionnaires', surely they'd know by now?"

So I was kind of floored on October 6--eleven days after the outbreak began--when David McKeown appeared at a press conference to announce that the mystery pathogen was, ta-daaah, our old pal legionella.

In this morning's Star there is a welcome WTF story by reporters John Goddard, Elaine Carey, and Tanya Talaga. Why did the gang that brought you SARS miss the obvious for so long? Because they tested for Legionnaires' early on and ruled it out.

Ontario's health lab was warned five years ago that the test they were using for detecting legionnaires' was flawed, says an American expert on the disease.

"We stumbled onto the fact that it wasn't very good, and we told them," Dr. Victor Yu told the Star last night. Yu, of the University of Pittsburgh, was a visiting professor at an Ontario medical school at the time.

The urine test used in Canada did not detect the disease in patients from a Scarborough nursing home two weeks ago. Seventeen died from the outbreak.

"The test failed us," admitted Dr. Donald Low, medical director of the Ontario Public Health Laboratories, in an interview yesterday.

I love that. "The test failed us"; it's a "mistakes were made" for the 21st century!

The Star piece notes that the initial false-negative test did not keep doctors from bombarding the patients at Seven Oaks with antibiotics; there were probably no lives lost as a result of the problem. It might have added that it is only natural for epidemiologists confronting a mystery outbreak in Toronto to work on excluding SARS and avian flu first. If a disease killing old folks in a nursing home is Legionnaires', general public safety doesn't depend on knowing about it right away.

I suppose it would be otiose to observe (the Star certainly didn't) that when Ontario's pace-setting healthcare system runs into problems, it turns for help to a private-public partnership (gasp!) in the land of the Klein Kare Kuts (double gasp! Dizziness and panic!)

After the positive results for legionnaires' came back, Low began trying to get a newer, more sensitive Binax test, which is not approved yet in Canada.

Twenty-two kits were shipped here from Calgary Laboratory Services last Saturday but because of the Thanksgiving holiday, there was a shipping delay and they arrived Tuesday, he said.

- 6:38 am, October 14 (link)

A thousand Canadians were asked 'Why do you read blogs?'

Some of the funnier answers:

"For the same reason I go to the circus: to laugh at the clowns."
"To see what the fuss is about. So far - its no big deal. Just opinionated people who think journalists are out to lie to them."
"...many main steam [sic!] newspapers and TV outlets are clearly biased..."
"Stalking enemies" has Aaron Braaten's full "snapshot of the Canadian blogosphere", complete with anonymized dataset.

- 5:08 am, October 14 (link)

I don't really care whether Harriet Miers admires Warren Burger or Earl Warren, but it bugs the hell out of me that she's so fond of that mustachioed fascist Oliver Wendell Holmes... -1:24 pm, October 13
Steyn on Serenity: the sage touches on one point I missed, which is that the movie has a meaningful (almost Szaszian) central metaphor in place of Star Wars' spiritualist Baby Boomer cotton-candy and Star Trek's blind, cheesy one-worldism. -1:22 pm, October 13
I have a column today's National Post explaining new Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling's complex and controversial ideas on climate change. It's apparently not online anywhere at the Post site (but that's OK, there's plenty of interesting stuff there).

- 1:06 pm, October 13 (link)

Best to remain a cranky unbeliever for now

At 34, I have never owned a nice camera (or, really, anything else nice). Lately I've been thinking that it may be time to throw caution and creditors to the wind and rectify this, so I've been doing research into the "prosumer" digital SLRs. I have spent enough time with photographers to know that Canon and Nikon are really the only options for the neophyte seeking a camera religion. So the choice with the entry-level cameras seems to boil down to:

Canon: A flimsy, ergonomically offensive body that comes with a subpar starter lens.
Nikon: A sturdier, better-designed body with a versatile first-class starter lens PLUS catastrophic hardware problems and customer support imagineered by Lavrenti Beria.

Have I pretty much got this right? The overall message I get is that nobody really wants my money yet.

- 6:33 pm, October 12 (link)

Over there

"I'd always thought that the whole 'the teaching profession is guided by left-wing/unclassifiable lunatics and their insane ideas' line was a little overblown, but brother, I don't think that any more." This from Chris Selley, who normally finds when he dissects conservative pieties that he ends up with a pile of hokum in the left hand and bunkum in the right. I'm afraid he'll find that OISE only gets worse as he learns more about it.

Judging from my encounters with teacher training in Alberta, it seems to involve a lot of browsing through the works of discredited mid-century Teutons--your Adornos, your Frankls, your Bettelheims. But at least there are, you know, books involved, and with a little luck you might read a few photocopied pages of Piaget, or someone like that, and actually learn something. I have the impression, right or wrong, that one could obtain a teaching certificate in Ontario without ever doing anything more intellectually rigorous than constructing dioramas out of felt and cardboard. (Just see to it that they celebrate diversity.)

I hesitate to add this, but I believe that intelligent Albertans who move to Ontario tend to notice a slight but observable cognitive gap, ceteris paribus, between the two populations. I can't produce evidence for this; it's a vague sense, one of those hypotheses you hoard up, mark "NOT TO BE DISCUSSED IN POLITE COMPANY", and finger in an intrigued manner every time you meet with some confirming instance. Still, it is an honest suspicion. The distinction is not so much a matter of general intelligence as it is a subtle difference in tidiness, if that makes sense; it turns up in things like comma usage. Probably it's just plain chauvinism. I can say that Edmonton's public schools, in particular, are the most widely admired on the continent; and I can attest, at the very least, that my own rural public education seems to have been excellent by overall Canadian public standards. I would also note that as an undergraduate I could never see any proof that students from Ontario derived a head-start from that extra year of high school. Responses (and self-coital suggestions) are invited.

[UPDATE, October 21: Readers fire back.]

- 1:59 pm, October 11 (link)

"Unmarried" doesn't tell the whole story...

about U.S. Supreme Court candidate Harriet Miers. Or so it turns out. Having seen repeated references to Miers' spinster status, I had come to assume--as many of you perhaps have--that she was simply a modern woman who had put work first and romance second, or one who didn't even have much interest in men. But a Sunday L.A. Times article reveals a more complicated and interesting picture. Miers is "close friends" with Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht; it was Hecht who introduced her to George W. Bush before he became governor of Texas. They appear to have been in love at one time, but to have found marriage impractical, at least partly because of their careers. Yet in some obvious sense they remain "together."

Rena Pederson, a longtime friend of Miers', called the relationship with Hecht "Shakespearean," more tragic than romantic.
"People always want to know why they didn't marry. But they just missed their wave," she said. "It was one of those things that happens sometimes to couples. They really care about each other, but the timing just doesn't work out."

Pederson's is just one perspective on a relationship that seems different to every observer. I don't want to sit here and express my generation's usual sly contempt for the institution of matrimony, but it's certainly true that two people who share a mutual passion--even a lifelong passion--will not always find it easy to form a household or to join their economic and social fates together. It may be that Miers' friend has misunderstood her. And then again, maybe she has the thing exactly right, and Miers and Hecht are two slightly broken people whose every interaction is fraught with regret. (Maybe only one of them wanted not to be married?) Either way it is hard not to be moved by Hecht's aw-shucks quote at the end of the Times article.

- 8:53 am, October 11 (link)

Big deal, Don Cherry says the same thing every week

What was the finest moment of tonight's 4-3 Oiler victory over the Canucks, you ask? Sure, some would argue for Raffi Torres' last-minute tying goal, and some would say it was the creamy goodness of Aleš Hemský's shootout-winning marker. (The goal was so pretty, and so humiliating to Dan Cloutier, that I am giving Aleš his diacritics by way of tribute.) Some fellow Cory Cross defenders might even say it was the brief beauty that was Cross's third-period slapshot goal--which was called back, alas, because Georges Laraque, away from the play, was tripping balls on gamma rays and trying to pound a fishing hole into the ice with somebody's head. Nice work, big guy. The whole Northwest Division thanks you for letting the Canucks have the extra point.

For me, though, the most priceless moment came about 20 minutes after the game, during HNIC's "After Hours" broadcast hosted in the tunnel by Scott Oake and Kelly Hrudey. It was a Very Special "After Hours" all around--it was the first post-lockout edition, and the crew had snagged new Edmonton sporting deity Chris Pronger to serve as the guest. To make things doubly special, they had the set packed three deep with nine-year-old minor-hockey players from Beaumont, who did a good job suppressing their awe at Pronger's unearthly 6'6" frame and asking cute questions ("What's the most number of goals you ever scoreded in a season?" Awwwwww).

You Eastern Standard Time types won't have seen much of "After Hours." The key here is that the setup can be a little intimidating for the player guest. Oake and Hrudey sit on either side of the guy, creating a back-and-forth dynamic that must create difficulties even for people used to the camera. The hosts aren't afraid to ask tough questions, either: Oake mindraped Prongs early in the interview by bringing up his pre-lockout claim that he would never, ever be willing to play hockey under a salary cap. So I guess what happened next is sort of understandable. Pronger basically forgot where he was, and when he was given a question about the obstruction crackdown, he ended up telling a roomful of cherubim and their zero-tolerance teachers: "If you're going to draw a penalty, make sure you hurt someone." I swear this is pretty much a direct quote. I laughed so hard I think milk came out of my nose, and I wasn't even drinking milk.

- 1:23 am, October 9 (link)

Adventures in spam, part two

Subtitle: a cautionary tale for professional writers.

The National Post is ordinarily a freelancer's dream: the paper's rates are an oasis of dignity in today's straitened writing market, and CanWest normally sends cheques fast, which is almost as good as paying twice. But in the last six weeks or so I'd had a frustrating series of encounters with the system, continually querying my editors about a June invoice that seemed to have gone astray. After a while, the editorial desk noticed that when it forwarded the inquiries to the company's accounting bureaucracy, it never got the yes-or-no answer it expected--merely "Can you please send it again?". Who was to blame for the screwup? Why were we having such a hard time prying loose my money?

A little detective work by deputy comment editor John Turley-Ewart finally yielded the answer this morning. One of the columns covered by the invoice was this May piece about sex offenders and erectile-dysfunction drugs. The corresponding line-item in my invoice had described it, along with the date of filing and publication, as simply the "Viagra column." And because of that offending V-word, CanWest's spam filtering kept swallowing the electronic copy of the invoice as it passed from the editorial department to the bean counters.

One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.

- 1:48 am, October 8 (link)

Adventures in spam, part one

Five months ago, a web pro named Joshua Cyr grew tired of receiving unsolicited e-mail pitches for penny stocks and decided to see exactly how much money a person would lose by buying hot slices of boiler-room spam. This week Cyr's Spam Stock Tracker is one of the most popular humour viroids on the Web. So far his fake portfolio has lost $7,865 on an investment of $17,405. This is just about the performance you'd expect--but what I find funny and a little surprising is that one of his spam-driven purchases, SNFX.PK, has earned him a nice little 126% return.

SNFX would be the ticker handle for Sniffex, Inc., a company based in Irving, TX that is marketing a hand-held explosives detector devised by "noted Bulgarian engineer Yuri Markov." The stock appears to have enjoyed a bounce a couple of weeks ago when the company sold ten units to a contractor in India. I don't suppose many of the buyers have examined the patent for the Sniffex device, which claims to be able to use E-M interference patterns for low-power detection and triangulation of particular substances at distances potentially reaching thousands of metres. It is pretty startling that a product of this heroic description--a product testable, surely, with relative ease--would require an outdoor spam-fry to get the attention of the world's defence agencies. (Surely they'd come looking for you?) But if a noted Bulgarian engineer thinks it's possible, who am I to call it pseudoscientific codswallop?

- 1:48 am, October 8 (link)

Thank God they were playing on the West Coast, eh?

Otherwise the Phoenix Coyotes' game last night would have ended early enough for Canada's morning papers to get the scoop on Wayne Gretzky's brutal pregame coaching error. 99 listed Fredrik Sjostrom as a scratch, but carelessly allowed him to dress for the game while sitting out Petr Nedved. Opposing coach Andy Murray of the Kings dismissed Gretzky's mistake as a minor one, but (a) have you ever heard of this happening before, because I sure haven't, and (b) by Murray's own account, he had to "double-check the rulebook" to figure out the correct strategy.

Alert sports fans will notice an interesting historical parallel here. Murray concluded that he should remain silent about the error until a goal was scored with Sjostrom on the ice, at which point he could demand under Rule 15 that it be disallowed. Murray was, perhaps unwittingly, walking in the pell-mell path of baseball's Billy Martin, who noticed one day long ago that George Brett had an awful lot of pine-tar on his bat and waited months (perhaps years) for the chance to have a big hit disallowed. Sadly, the Kings' statistical crew was not thinking so clearly last night, and they alerted the referees to the anomaly.

[UPDATE, 10:04 am: Eric McErlain's readers have dredged up a precedent: Pat Quinn apparently signed a bum lineup card during the '02 playoffs. Al Strachan roasted the piss out of Quinn at the time: let's see what Strachan has to say about Gretzky's goof.]

- 8:58 am, October 7 (link)

It's official:

Marc Weisblott's new weblog for the Star, Paved, has officially justified its existence. Well, except for those of you who already knew about Rick Moranis's country album, that is.

It's pretty mind-boggling, incidentally, to contemplate the way Rick Moranis fell off the face of the earth. Over the years I've been following the SCTV cast members as if they were stock-market shares I had invested in pre-IPO. The one blue-chip property in the lot was John Candy, who always made the biggest impression with U.S. audiences and remained a big star until a few years before his death. Some of the SCTV veterans never amounted to much, as these things are conventionally measured; Andrea Martin pursued the craft of the live monologue, Joe Flaherty has stuck to eccentric material and various forms of boreal woodshedding, and Dave Thomas has had detestable luck--he probably not been in one single good movie, ever. Many of the others have had brief bursts of stardom, like Martin Short's period of heat after Father of the Bride or Eugene Levy's current reign as America's favourite middle-aged nerd. And Harold Ramis, never comfortable in front of the camera, is now recognized as one of our greatest comic directors.

But Moranis--who had Spaceballs, Ghostbusters II, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and Parenthood come out consecutively--was as big a comedy star around 1989 or 1990 as any of them has ever been. Then his wife died, and about all we've seen of him since has been half-hearted turns in Honey, I Did Something Amusing But Horrible To The Kids sequels. Just thinking about it makes me sad--but as Weisblott notes, mainstream renown was perhaps always an improbable proposition for a hyperkinetic little DJ who practically stumbled into the gold mine that was SCTV.

- 8:44 am, October 7 (link)

Another moment of Google Desktop zen

"Spain expels migrants from enclave". I have no idea what the headline refers to (Andorra?), and it's more fun if I don't find out. What I realized, with a shiver, was that if a literate man of ancient Rome were sitting next to me at the computer, he would probably understand the headline no less well than I do--without knowing any English. He wouldn't need the aid of the sentence's one Saxonism; the "ex-" in "expels" duplicates the work done by "from." He would probably be able to connect "Spain" with "Hispania" after a moment's thought or less. His metaphorical sense of "enclave" would probably be stronger than the average English speaker's.

In short, he'd know in one pass at the headline that some people in Iberia had forced out travellers from a walled or enclosed place. Which is as much as I know about the matter.

- 7:41 am, october 7 (link)

Hockey's back, but does anybody in the U.S. care?

Looks like they do! In East Rutherford, Sidney Crosby made his NHL debut and had to endure chants of "overrated" as his Pens were stoned 5-1 by Martin Brodeur. In Boston, the Canadiens' Michael Ryder scored the gamewinner with 11 seconds left, prompting Bruins fans to deluge the ice with garbage. In the Flyers debut of consensus-world's-best-player Peter Forsberg, the Rangers' Jaromir Jagr asserted his rival claim with two goals in a 5-3 win that had Philadelphia fans filling the building with boos for the home team. And in Minnesota, the Wild's fifth marker off of the Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff had the building rocking with chants of "Sieve! Sieve! Sieve!" I do so love this game.

- 1:29 pm, October 6 (link)

Surely some editor's mistake? Or perhaps an east-European hockey player I hadn't heard of?

That's what I thought when the BBC headline "Injured Azertyuiop out for season" turned up on the Google Toolbar. But the hed is legit.

- 3:13 am, October 5 (link)

The new black?

I admit it: the whole Joss Whedon mob leaves me cold, and it always will. The other night I was listening to the Internet audio feed of a famous Chicago radio station which shall remain nameless. The hosts were a man and a woman--one of those inexhaustibly cheery Regis & Kelly couples who perpetually behave on the air as though they're out on their first date. Whedon phoned in to do one of the ten thousand or so interviews he gave last week, and at one point he had an, ummm, awkward exchange with the chirpy couple--it went something like this:

"We just want to tell you, Joss, that we are huge fans of the Firefly series and we can't wait to see Serenity."

"Is that right?"

"Oh yeah. We're total Brownshirts."

Serenity fans, of course, more usually describe themselves as "Browncoats". But could it have been a Freudian slip after all? In 2002 the Fox network bought Firefly from Whedon, who was riding high on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". Firefly suffered from awkward marketing, and although it was an immediate critical success, only 11 of the 14 episodes were aired. Even these 11 were--in a memorable display of network bungling--presented out of order. When the show was cancelled, the science-fiction fans of the world, confronted with a near-perfect replay of the history of Star Trek, summoned up their dreadful power of spontaneous self-organization and adopted a familiar posture of martyrdom. A word-of-mouth crusade followed, and made the DVD set a huge hit. For a while there, I was positively worried I'd leave the house one day and hear an oily voice saying "Tell me, friend, have you heard the good news about Firefly?"

As I write this, the Firefly set is's number-three bestseller on DVD, running ahead of Star Wars Episode III, Martin Scorsese's new Bob Dylan documentary, and Batman Begins. The failure of the show didn't just prevent this from happening; it may, quite conceivably, have made it possible. The "Browncoats" joke openly about their fanaticism. Serenity, the Firefly movie, earned about $10 million in its opening weekend--a remarkable figure for a spinoff from a flop. Not that the box-office gross matters much, because the "Serenity" DVD is certain to be a blockbuster. And the franchise will hobble onward as a sequel or a mini-series or a comic book or a computer game, or all of the above.

I went to see Serenity on Saturday in a mall whose movie theatre was, rather pitifully, overlooked during a recent round of renovations. The shabby, understaffed state of the place seemed to symbolize the decline of the big-screen, night-out cinema. Everywhere you look, movie theatres are either glitzy new installations with Taco Bell kiosks and stadium seating, or they are utterly neglected. Home cinema is the future. And somehow I suspect that this is not just because we will all soon have 50-inch high-definition TVs, but also because we can no longer stand to sit quietly near each other with our cell phones, our wireless laptops, and our iPods switched off.

But that's not to say people like on-screen stories less. Hell, if anything, the people who like Firefly are offensively passionate about it. Whedon and Universal organized the fan base with the Duke of Wellington's own attention to detail; Serenity was screened months ago, in many cities, as a Pavlovian reward for "Firefly's" most aggressive online promoters. The Browncoats have been cajoled--not by means of money (probably), but by gentle urgings from their pope--into deluging message boards, weblogs, and media executives' inboxes with the gospel. This is the apotheosis of the "viral marketing" that has become a shibboleth of the media business.

Why does all this make me uneasy? Let me digress for a minute. Have you ever been interested in a member of the opposite sex (assuming the opposite one is to your taste) and had her recommend a book to you? "You simply have to read The Man With The Technicolor Trousers. Here, I'll lend you my copy." I believe I can expect near-universal agreement that there is nothing more terrifying. If you like the book, it's all very well--though you had better like it an awful lot. If you don't like the book, you must either tell the truth, and implicitly insult the recommender, or you must brazen it out, thus instantly despising yourself and/or her. On the whole, psoriasis is distinctly less unpleasant.

My point is that recommending a work of art to somebody, on the premise that they'll respond the same way you do, is a profoundly intimate act. One's enjoyment of a book or a movie is a private, idiosyncratic thing. Even the goofiest sitcom or the junkiest paperback communicates with us as individuals, often in accidental ways we may not be able to articulate. And in this sense, amped-up evangelists for some particular show or movie or album are like creepy hippies peddling free love. They don't want to sleep with you--it's all about their universalist message for the species. The Browncoats want everyone to like "Firefly". (Or, rather cynically, they want just enough people to like it so that studios will go on bankrolling it.) In the end it's not clear that the show matters as much as being part of the group that watches the show.

And I suspect this will get worse before it gets better. Whedon is part of a generation of TV writers--including Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing, David Chase of The Sopranos, Chris Carter of The X-Files--who have established themselves as superstars of the imagination, rivalling their own actors in name recognition. (Remember how obnoxious some of your friends were about Sopranos or X-Files? How many people watched these shows and ended up saying "Well, it was okay, but...?") Respect for the writer is a welcome development in media that have mostly treated him like an interchangeable and highly unreliable part for a hundred years. But because Whedon makes a show of caring about his viewers, works to communicate with them, and displays his human credentials as a fan so often, he has built perhaps the strongest public brand of any screenwriter yet. He may actually be better-known than any individual cast member of Firefly, which would be unprecedented in television. (Unless you count Rod Serling, who didn't have his own repertory group.) Kevin Smith is another creator who does this effectively, connecting directly with his people through his website and his college tours. Every Kevin Smith movie is a Kevin Smith movie first, at least for the inexplicably large number of Kevin Smith addicts.

Yeah, auteur theory has been around for a long time, but the communal-ness and quasi-religiosity are new, or at most perhaps some Wagnerian revival. Before the internet, auteurs were expected to speak through their art, rather than personally leading pressure groups. This technique will, with time, be imitated and perfected. And I'm not sure the effects are positive. Whedon talks unblushingly of having created the "Buffyverse", and while all creators implicitly imitate God, his hubris and his fanboy sensibilities made Buffy The Vampire Slayer a stunted, stale realm furnished with cheesy metaphors, wooden characters, indecipherable in-jokes, and over-cute experiments. Smith grew so drunk on the positive feedback from his fans that he plunged into the bottomless waters of religion with the sophomoric Dogma, and his movies have only gotten more dire since. But however badly they fail artistically, cult writers like these can always rely on truly loyal, and inevitably somewhat undiscriminating, fans.

Of course, this premise would work much better if Serenity had stunk. Honesty obliges me to report that it's actually terrific. Joss Whedon, like many writers, is usually praised for his chief weakness; in his case, it's dialogue. Of the few lines that his characters deliver straight, about half are mortifyingly hokey or downright meaningless. But it turns out he's a gifted director. He knows how to excite, rather than oppress or confuse, with special effects. His fist- and firefight scenes are jarring and convincing, rather than noisy and antiseptic. And because there are no stars, Whedon is free to kill off any of his characters. This endows the movie with a suspense you never feel watching Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger imperviously slaughtering the baddies. So, yeah, I enjoyed Serenity in defiance of the lowest expectations any moviegoer ever carried into a theatre. But don't expect me to go buy a goddamn brown coat. (You Whedon guys out there... you might want to look into finding a cult name that doesn't make you sound like a militant group defending the rights of the fecally incontinent.)

- 4:01 am, october 4 (link)

Here's my September 23 column from the National Post...

Are the world's leaders putting the "fence" back in "defence"? On September 9, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made an extraordinary suggestion: that a physical barrier could be constructed along his country's porous, anarchic border with Afghanistan in order to stem the continual two-way flow of terrorist money, resources, and personnel there. Musharraf repeated the offer in New York on September 12, at the outset of a North American visit designed to reassure the Bush administration of his antiterror credentials and to promote his brand of moderate Islam.

Much of the Canadian press has since lost interest in the pure geopolitics of Musharraf's tour. Not long after his talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the president made some ill-considered remarks when asked about his country's record on women's rights, claiming that crying rape had become, amongst Pakistanis, a quick ticket to a Canadian visa and prosperity. The journalistic pack's rush to condemn was justifiable--but then again, rapes and honour killings in Pakistan are not likely to explode any New York subway trains or Toronto streetcars. Musharraf's control over his lawless northwest, the world's top terrorism factory, might arguably be a matter of more compelling interest to us.

It was jarring to hear an Islamic national leader proposing an international security fence in such a context. It seems Musharraf, who is masterminding a careful thaw in his country's relations with Israel, has decided to borrow from the Israeli playbook. The debate over the justice of Israel's famous security fence in the West Bank is endless, but judged strictly by what it was meant to achieve, the barrier has been an astonishing success. It has virtually eliminated suicide-bombing attacks originating from the Palestinian territories across from it, and all but ended the second intifada.

Along his country's 2,400-km Afghan border, Musharraf faces a problem analogous to Israel's, if less tractable. Pakistan never has quite succeeded in imposing the rule of law on its mountain tribes, and the border zone provides a convenient redoubt for Taliban irregulars and Muslim travellers fighting Westerners and moderates in Afghanistan. Barbed wire alone isn't likely to suppress this activity in a place the Pakistani state can't police anyhow. Moreover, the actual border is technically in dispute. The line currently observed was drawn at the British Colonial Office in the 19th century by one of those clever imperial cartographers whose legacy has been so vexing.

But Pakistan and Afghanistan have had nearly six decades to settle the boundary issue, and perhaps they could be persuaded, in their mutual interest, to fence the old Durand Line without formally calling it a border. After all, Israel's security barrier hugs the "Green Line," which has much the same nebulous diplomatic status. The real question is whether a better deterrent than barbed wire could be contemplated. Given the terrain, even an ineffective fence is likely to be a ten-digit undertaking, far more than Pakistan can afford. But this is perhaps the sort of foreign aid that the industrial democracies might spend in the name of keeping their own cities safe, to say nothing of securing Afghanistan's emerging democracy.

The United States, in particular, has the necessary treasury and engineering know-how. Which brings up another little-noted world-news story. Last week the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, signed a waiver that will allow the completion of the Border Infrastructure System south of San Diego County, along the American border with Mexico. The "System", leaving aside some fancy lighting and a few filled-in canyons, is basically a tall corrugated-steel fence 14 miles long. Congress had ordered the construction of the barrier in 1996, and it crawled westward to within three and a half miles of the sea before lawsuits and environmentalists held up the project. Even with the existing gap, the fence is said to have reduced arrests of illegal immigrants in the region by 80 percent.

The REAL I.D. Act, passed earlier this year, gave Chertoff the executive authority to override the outstanding legal requirements on security grounds and proceed with construction. The Bush administration insists that the San Diego area is a special case, and emphasizes that the U.S. cannot hope to wall out ambitious Mexicans all along its southern border. But ever since the Israelis made a tactical success of sealing off the West Bank, immigration reformers have been able to cite a powerful real-world example of a small, beleaguered country's ability to take charge of its frontiers. One could almost call it the new muralism--a hard-headed recognition that there are limits to globalization's power to efface borders, or to erase the hatreds and yearnings they symbolize. (September 23, 2005)

Incidentally, after this column appeared, I got some letters (not for the first time) of a familiar type: the common crux of these was "I'm not anti-Semitic or anything, but why must you Jew-y writers for the Jew-run National Jew Post always write such Jewistic columns in praise of Israel?" My request to these people is simple: don't write to me until you learn to read. The column describes the Israeli security wall as a success "judged strictly by what it was meant to achieve." There is no moral endorsement of the fence in the text. The whole point is that, whether its purpose is good or bad, the fence has worked, and the world has taken note of the fact.

My own actual view is that the fence's existence, and Israel's, are both completely justified. But that was not the subject of this column, which could have been written with equal ease and in the same language by an identical twin of Edward Said. When I want to write in defence of Israel, I'll do it, and then you can send me your ignorant, smirking, delusional little missives.

- 3:59 am, October 4 (link)

Bang a gong

It is a pleasure to hear that Barry Marshall, the Australian researcher who proved that most ulcers are caused by bacteria, has won this year's Nobel Prize for medicine along with his colleague Robin Warren. Rarely does progress in medicine follow the Hollywood model of the lone man fighting--to the point of openly risking his health--against the cherished myths held by an entire profession. Marshall more or less lived the movie. And so, as if by magic, a painful common disorder has become treatable with almost absurd ease. Moreover, H. pylori has been linked to other diseases, and Marshall's work has opened the door to the possibility that other chronic conditions are caused by unsuspected pathogens. It would, frankly, have been a little absurd if the man hadn't eventually gotten a Nobel.

- 4:46 pm, October 3 (link)

As predicted herein, it looks as though the Two Solitudes have a posse! -4:13 pm, October 3