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Other shoe dept.

Don't expect to see a column by me in the Post on this coming Monday--or, for that matter, any other particular Monday henceforth. The phone call came from the comment editor this afternoon and contained the last words any human being wants to hear: "Effective immediately...". I think there was also a "Terribly sorry", and a "no reflection on your work" in there somewhere. The upshot is, the paper is being reorganized further, leaving me homeless as a newspaper columnist. There may be occasional guest appearances on the Post's comment page, so watch for those if you're still taking the paper.

- 8:16 pm, September 30 (link)

The MacArthur Foundation has announced its 2004 "genius grants": author Aleksandar Hemon has perhaps the most recognizable name on the list. My own losing streak, meanwhile, is extended another year... (þ: BoingBoing) -5:55 pm, September 29
Still in beta

Even though Canadians have other horses in the private space race, I share in the widespread happiness over the successful X-Prize flight today of Mike Melvill and Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne. The craft returned safely, but let's not be too certain that SS1 is going to take home the big cheque just yet. Space freaks should look at the extremely unnerving video of the flight. The craft suffered some rocking on its way aloft and went into an uncontrolled roll near the top of its arc, forcing a premature engine shutdown. The webcast commentators talked in choked tones of "unscripted manoeuvres" and the chatter between Melvill and mission control was immediately voir-dired. Despite an order from the ground to abort the flight, Melvill kept the craft on its axis for long enough to break the space barrier--barely--set down under the rules of the contest. There will have to be a careful post-mortem of the flight; it may take longer than the two weeks the team has to return the craft to space if it wants to win the prize. It ain't over until the fat lady sings.

- 5:27 pm, September 29 (link)

A city grieves the loss of its beloved Expos Esso

And then again, maybe I'm just a big hypocrite, but I have no problem at all with this kind of relocation...

- 4:35 pm, September 29 (link)


A visit to a referring thread at directs my attention to this PDF file, which purports to be a copy of the statement of claim in the RICO lawsuit by the former minority owners of the Expos against Loria, Selig, and others who connived at the asphyxiation of major league baseball in Montreal. The document appears authentic. (You can tell it's from 2002 because it looks just like those CBS memos from 1972--har har.) I haven't read the whole statement yet--I skipped around until I found the part I was looking for:

10. Plaintiffs seek redress for their injuries, including compensatory damages, which are tripled under RICO, and punitive damages in an amount no less than US$100 million. In addition, this action seeks a constructive trust over the Montreal Expos franchise, and injunctive relief prohibiting the contraction, relocation or sale of that team.

This makes it very, very hard indeed for me to imagine the judge permitting an Expos move to Washington in time for preparations to begin this off-season, for the reasons I outlined here. If the suit is somehow settled in the next couple of months, the move can, of course, happen at once. It could also happen if the arbitrator delivered a quick ruling strongly in favour of MLB that left no further avenue of appeal, or if the judge peremptorily closed off the "injunctive relief" part of the suit. But, all in all, Selig & Co. seem to have left their hardest problem for last here.

So is the all-but-meaningless "announcement" that Washington is the winning destination in the Steal Montreal's Team sweepstakes possibly just a desperation move? The municipal situation in Washington strongly suggests that it is so: a new city council, one opposed to letting sportsmen stick their grubby hands in the civic treasury, takes office in January, so any groundbreaking on a new stadium has to begin tout de suite if it is to happen at all. I remain baffled by the many forks now being plunged into the history of the Expos by the press. Check your heads, gentlemen: you may be pawns in a rather repellent publicity game here.

- 4:46 am, September 29 (link)

The circle of life

John Brattain on the latest report of the death of the Montreal Expos:

When Bud Selig dies I am going to go to his grave and dig up some worms. I am going to take those worms and go fishing. I am going to take the fish I catch and feed it to my cat. I am going to take the litter out of my cat’s litter box and take it to the dump. Then I am going to check back at the dump in two weeks and look where I dumped the cat litter so I can say that I watched maggots engage in cannibalism.

C'mon--tell us what you really think, guy! (þ: Baseball Primer)

- 3:54 am, September 29 (link)


In the runup to the first presidential debate Thursday night, James Fallows reminds us in the Atlantic that George W. Bush has an unbroken record of success in such showdowns. At one time Texas Gov. Ann Richards, one of the most celebrated orators in U.S. politics, joked about how Bush Sr. was "born with a silver foot in his mouth"; when it came time to debate the purportedly even less eloquent Bush Jr., she got her head handed to her and her keister chucked out of office. The underdog followed up with triumphs over straight-shootin' Johnny McCain and that noted journalist and author Al Gore. Fallows' analysis is good, even-handed stuff from a liberal journalist, so much so that one doesn't even mind him dragging in George Lakoff (!) as his non-partisan expert.

I have read and listened to speculations that there must be some organic basis for the President's peculiar mode of speech—a learning disability, a reading problem, dyslexia or some other disorder that makes him so uncomfortable when speaking off the cuff. The main problem with these theories is that through his forties Bush was perfectly articulate. George Lakoff tried to convince me that the change was intentional. As a way of showing deep-down NASCAR-type manliness, according to Lakoff, Bush has deliberately made himself sound as clipped and tough as John Wayne. Moreover, in Lakoff's view, the authenticity of this stance depends on Bush's consistency in presenting it. So even if he is still capable of speaking with easy eloquence, he can't afford to let the mask slip.

I've argued in the past that Bush's speaking style as president has worked in his favour, though I don't know that I'd go as far as Lakoff, either. Fallows also has some interesting background on Kerry's career as a debater, the details of which are less familiar to the public. He offers some hope--I'll believe it when I see it, myself--that Kerry may be able to reach through the screen and connect aggressively with Americans in their language.

Speaking of all this, I suggest keeping one eye on Steve Sailer's site for a possible campaign scoop. (But let's watch out for forgeries, people! Can't be too careful!)

Important Request for Help: I've found some interesting test scores on military entrance exams. (Sorry about being coy at present.) If you have any thoughts on how I can translate two-digit raw scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (from way back in the Sixties) or from the AFOQT into percentile terms, please email me.

The same request for help appeared on Steve's sideblog Monday night, but with different--and, let's say, decidedly more transparent--wording.

Once you get past the familiar math and verbal puzzles, this sample version of the modern AFOQT throws a few interesting curveballs you won't find on a conventional IQ test. Looks like I ain't necessarily officer material...

- 11:47 pm, September 28 (link)

Here's that Gazette op-ed about the latest ethical flap over surgical waiting lists. I linked to a background piece here. Real live economist Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution saw an excerpt from the column and added a germane comment. Most intriguingly, Andrew at This Magazine's weblog has endorsed my view in a comment thread about the Binfet affair. I imagine he'd have mentioned my Gazette column if he'd read it; the similarities between the arguments are, probably by chance, pretty spooky. (Ubiquitous Canadian journalist Andy Lamey also chips in unconvincingly.)

Can Bill Binfet save Canada's public health-care system? I wish we could give him a shot at it. Binfet, a resident of Penticton, B.C., placed a most unusual personal ad in a local paper this week. He needs both his knees replaced and is No. 290 on his orthopedic surgeon's waiting list. The whole region only does about 230 such operations a year; he's been told he can expect to wait two years or more. So he has made an offer of cash, in an undisclosed and presumably negotiable amount, to anyone with a higher placing on the list who wants to switch with him. It is, so far as anyone knows, a gesture without precedent.

Is there anything wrong with this?

A lot of people in B.C. seem to think so. The Liberal health services minister, Colin Hansen, says, "I believe that would be unethical for a medical doctor to trade places on a surgical wait list because of any exchange of money." A Penticton orthopedic surgeon, Justin Naude, expresses the same view: "Everyone has to have equal access, and it's probably not ethical." So does the medical director of the regional health authority.

It's true that the established bioethics of medicare - whether you approve of them in general, or not - forbid us from allowing patients to queue-jump using inducements to physicians. There is a theoretical hazard, the story goes, that too much of that sort of thing would cause the best doctors to abandon public-funded practice altogether. Fair enough. But Binfet's offer creates no such danger. He proposes a zero-sum, wholly voluntary exchange between patients for access to the rationed, public, monopoly service. Where's the ethical problem?

Such an offer is unethical, some doctors venture, because the waiting lists are already drawn up according to diagnostic criteria that take quality of life into account. But rationing access to surgical procedures fairly and consistently is an emerging science and simply isn't done, formally, by every specialty. In most cases doctors sort patients on a haphazard, intuitive basis, and they make mistakes. It is easy for doctors to overlook lifestyle considerations that make big quality-of-life differences. All knees are not created equal, and arthritic joint pain makes a much bigger difference to a passionate amateur golfer than it does to someone whose hobby is Scrabble or embroidery.

Either way, Binfet feels he's gotten a bad deal. It is intolerably arrogant for the guardians of the system to tell him that his No. 290 placing is somehow divinely appointed. It is downright authoritarian for them to say that someone with a No. 60 placing cannot take Binfet's money - which might make a great deal of difference to No. 60's lifestyle--in exchange for another year or two of waiting. Moreover, it is just plain evil for Naude to sort patients on a waiting list, assert that No. 290 somehow enjoys "equal access" with No. 60, and then suggest that "equal access" would somehow be violated if they willingly swapped. Are we living on Animal Farm?

If you ask me - or if you asked an economist - the smartest way to optimize regional waiting lists for specialist therapies would be to create an open, centralized market in waiting-list places. We can call it the Bill Binfet Health-Access Exchange. We would let the doctors sort patients according to perceived need, as a first approximation, as they do now. If someone is in such torment that he deserves the No. 10 spot on the list, let him start out at No. 10, in the name of justice. But if he is actually willing to suffer a little longer, why not let that suffering be recompensed by highly motivated patients lower down on the list?

Some such activity probably already takes place on an informal basis. And money wouldn't even have to be involved in every case. There are probably many patients close to their surgery dates whose joint pain has improved spontaneously, and who would be willing to move down a little bit without a cash incentive. Obviously such a system might not be acceptable for surgeries where a doctor's judgment of the danger from further morbidity and mortality comes into the accounting. We probably wouldn't like to let people auction off places on cancer or cardiac surgery lists. But when it comes to knees and hips, it's all about the pain and immobility, and the patients know their own lives and needs best.

Fans of socialized medicine can consider my idea a form of class warfare, if that will help them see its sense. If the affluent want to recompense their middle-class fellow arthritics so they can resume their expensive, sporty hobbies more quickly, why not squeeze the bastards for every penny we can get out of them? (September 18, 2004)

- 2:58 pm, September 27 (link)

New and devastating from Inkless: No, seriously, who speaks for Canada? -10:47 am, September 27
Today's National Post column is a dispatch from Canada's air-carrier war between WestJet and Air Canada. And, oh dear, here's last week's, which contains some stale-dated anti-CBS axe-grinding. Only a little, though.

As someone whose career has one foot in the Internet and another in the traditional press, it behooves me to address the big New Media story of last week. I think we were all a little shocked by the way doubts propagated so quickly on the Net about such a trusted and venerable institution. It was only a few days ago that the first questions were raised, but the facts couldn't be denied, and a respected company now finds itself scrambling to restore its reputation.

Eh? ...CBS? Hell, you call that news? We've known for 30 years that Dan Rather is all hat and no cattle. I'm talking about bike locks.

Eight days ago, a 25-year-old San Franciscan named Chris Brennan was complaining to a friend that the customized wheels on his expensive new bicycle had lasted only a week before being stolen. He had invested in a pricey U-shaped metal lock made by Ingersoll-Rand's Kryptonite division, the universally acknowledged industry leader in bike security. So when his friend told him that a Kryptonite lock could be opened with a part taken from an ordinary Bic ballpoint pen, he figured he was hearing an urban legend.

Until he got home and tried it. Click. "One half of a twist, and it opened right up," Mr. Brennan told the San Francisco Chronicle. He scampered to his computer and posted the horrifying news to an Internet forum for bicycle owners. Within days, others had tried the experiment and confirmed the results. Many posted video footage of themselves opening $90 locks with a 50 cents pen.

The story spread exponentially from there. It took until Friday to break into the papers, but damage control was already underway. Bike shops across North America have pulled U-shaped locks off the shelves, and Kryptonite has announced a wide-ranging recall of every affected product. Smaller rivals have acknowledged similar defects and are deciding whether to follow suit or simply go out of business. Millions of bike owners now realize that they are vulnerable, or will realize it after reading columns like this. For the moment, there is not much advice anyone can give them. (Unless it's "Buy a car, hippie.")

I can't speak for cyclists, but I suspect some of them are instinctively annoyed by the role the Internet has played here. Some punk shoots his mouth off about a security flaw, and now everybody has to replace his expensive bike lock.

Not so long ago, though, it could have taken years for a story like this to work its way into the papers. I can tell you as a former editor that my initial reaction would have been much like Brennan's: "Get outta here with your Bic-pen fairy stories." The criminals' lead over the bike owners could have lasted eons. For all we know, the news about Kryptonite locks might already have been whispered common currency amongst bike thieves. How many wheels could you have had stolen, like Mr. Brennan, while you were placing your trust in faulty equipment? And how long might it have been before public concern forced manufacturers to act?

There is a lesson here for CBS News, of course. It's in much the same position as Kryptonite, except that it hasn't -- at the time of this writing -- acknowledged making sophomoric mistakes about its phony Bush National Guard memos, or apologized, or done anything to fix the problem. The joke here is that CBS is the media company, and it's reacting more slowly to the changed conditions in the media universe than the guys who assemble bike locks.

In the early days of the forgery brouhaha, Dan Rather denounced his critics as "partisan political operatives" and former CBS News executive Jonathan Klein spluttered (on Fox) about how the typical Internet scribe was "a guy sitting in his living room in his pyjamas, writing." They will be dining on those words until death sets them free. But this isn't just a case of dinosaurs failing to adapt. Good writers and editors -- and good electronic journalists -- have always been aware that their readers are collectively much smarter than they are. Those of us bred to the discipline of the Internet can never, ever forget that we are outnumbered. The firings at CBS should start with the people who have. (September 20, 2004)

- 2:03 am, September 27 (link)

Touching from a distance

Incidentally, is there any chance some of you baseball followers who haven't been half-driven away from the sport by the deliberate homicide of your team can help me figure out when these "phantom tags" started coming in? Maybe it's just been particularly bad this week, but watching parts of nine or ten games I saw a number of occasions where the ball and the baserunner were converging and the guy was called out even though he seemed to have avoided the tag altogether. It's almost like the fielder just has to wave at the oncoming runner now. Hi! You're out! One pair of broadcasters even noted the phenomenon, soberly and acceptingly: "Well, of course, if the ball beats the runner, the umpire is usually going to call him out." Pardon me? When did this concept come in???

It seems you just have to keep beating on the goddamn umpires to get them to call anything like it says in the rulebook. The leagues haven't had much luck rectifying the absurd difference between the book strike zone (starts halfway between the pants and the shoulders) and the real-world strike zone (starts close to, or at, the belt). They never will fix that; the rulebook will bend before the umpiring mafia does. But other battles of this nature have been won in the past. In the '60s and '70s the umps began letting the phantom double play get way out of hand; you sometimes see still photos and film footage of twin-kills from that time, with second basemen like Julian Javier pivoting fifteen feet behind the bag, that make you bust a gut laughing. It's still a problem, but I don't sense that it's near as big a joke as it used to be. Somewhere along the line the umpires got whipped back into shape, more or less.

It was the same deal with catchers blocking the plate in the '70s and '80s. The umps got sloppy and abandoned their role to the players, and you had guys building entire careers on a "skill" specifically excluded by the laws of the game. Nowadays things are more reasonable: you see the inevitable collisions close to home, but no catcher moves into MVP contention on the strength of his tackling ability. I suspect it may be time to persuade the umpires to consult the definition of "tag" in the rulebook as an instance of physical contact between glove and runner.

Needless to say, there are plenty of other examples, ranging from the neglected rule that pitchers must deliver the ball every twenty seconds to the strange way batters are allowed timeouts apparently unlimited in number and duration. I suspect that the origin of the problem lies in the open subjectivity of certain rules that are in the book, notably the balk rule. Because what constitutes a balk depends strictly on the individual pitcher's delivery, the umpire must accustom and adapt himself to the style of each pitcher. Umpires' memoirs reveal their consequent habit of speaking about "working with" particular pitchers. "Working with Joe Firegas was always tricky, because you had to watch for that hard 12-to-6 curve." It seems to me that once such a mindset is ingrained, the road to hell becomes somewhat shorter.

- 12:43 am, September 27 (link)

Disharmonic convergence

This would ordinarily be that special time of year when baseball, hockey, and two kinds of football are all on the sporting menu. It would be a lot of fun with this year's chess for dessert. In recent years I've been able to assemble quite a gluttonous diet with my humble tools of broadcast TV, radio, and high-speed internet. It doesn't seem, though, as if I'll come away with good memories of 2004. The Eskimos dropped to .500 on Saturday in a grotesque display that elicited rare boos from a Commonwealth Stadium crowd. Hockey is available only in the crudest of ersatz forms, and Saturday has officially become Movie Night in Canada.

It looks like baseball is going to be the refuge, and I've signed up enthusiastically for MLB.TV's neat-o stretch-drive deal--all the games, at 350 kB/s, for the last nine days or so of the season: ten bucks. This will allow me to check out the West Coast division battles, the squabble in the NL central, the occasional Barry Bonds at-bat, Ichiro's pursuit of George Sisler, and, of course, the last days of the Montreal Expos.

Ha! Fooled you. I haven't really sipped the Kool-Aid, even though the consensus that the Expos will pack their bags in November is unusually powerful this time around. Fans in the Washington area are used to disappointment by now, and despite their present euphoria over being the last remaining suitor for the Expos franchise, I expect they'll need every emotional resource at their command in the coming months. The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell, for one, seems worried that Orioles owner Peter Angelos will continue to play dog-in-the-manger over the transfer of the Spos to the environs of Washington.

And what of that persistent fly in the ointment, the racketeering lawsuit brought against Major League Baseball by the former minority owners of the club (whose number includes BCE, the Bank of Montreal, and other Canadian corporate giants)? Bud Selig can announce his intention to move the team, and it may even happen this time. The judge in the case has imposed a requirement that MLB give notice before the club can be moved. The transfer to Washington seems certain now, to some, because that legal notice was given September 14. But as night follows day, a motion for an injunction followed the notice of intention. This brings things to the precise pass at which they have been destined to arrive ever since the suit was filed. The suit's central issue has not yet been ruled upon by the arbitrator that the U.S. federal judge handed it off to.

What is the likely fate of the motion? My instinct is to follow the media herd, which seems not to believe it will present a problem. But while I'm no lawyer, I know approximately one thing about injunctions: they're generally granted when proceeding with the enjoined action would rule out the possibility of a suitable remedy being applied, should the plaintiff win. Judges have this power because they must be able, in extreme circumstances, to stop things from happening that would make a civil case moot before it is decided. I don't know enough about how the suit was framed to know how close relocation comes to its heart. If the ex-minority owners are merely seeking monetary damages, the judge will probably take the view that moving the Expos would, if anything, enhance Major League Baseball's eventual ability to pay. My strong suspicion is that the suit was not framed in this limited way, because lawsuits never are, and because the plaintiffs' counsel Jeffrey Kessler has reiterated many times that relocation is the key issue. If that's true, and it's been implemented in the language of the claim, this seems like a textbook case for an injunction, as far as someone who hasn't looked at the textbooks can tell.

Team owners in other sports have learned not to underestimate Kessler, who is one of the hugest BSDs in sports law. He imposed free agency on the NFL pretty much single-handed by a deft use of antitrust, changing that racket in ways that are visible on the sports page every single day. His stature aside, it's hard for me to imagine the judge letting the trucks start south before we even get the decision of the arbitrator. And in fact, even if there's no injunction, the arbitrator might still rule against MLB and order it to spend x more months searching for a Montreal buyer. Bud Selig won't move the team while any chance exists that it might have to turn around and go back to Montreal. Selig has survived many fiascos, but even his defiance of Darwinism couldn't tolerate a sale of season tickets to D.C. fans under false pretences.

All things considered--I haven't even mentioned the municipal turmoil down on the prospective landing pad around D.C.--the wise move is probably to ignore the media and adopt an attitude of epistemological nihilism. Will the Expos start the 2005 season in Montreal? Or Washington? Or Northern Virginia? Or Wanham, Alberta? Or will they become a full-time road team like the 1899 Cleveland Spiders? Only a fool would dare to guess.

[UPDATE, September 29: For the record, a distinguished member of the bar who cannot be named--we'll call him "Thin Skull"--writes in to say:

Your recent description of what an interim injunction is and how they work is impeccable. Surprisingly few lawyers can get directly to the point and say that the purpose of a pre-trial injunction (or a stay of a judgment pending appeal) is to preserve a court's ability to give an effective remedy. Almost everything else there is to know about them flows naturally.

Hey, you get put in remand for public drunkenness often enough, you start to absorb some of the lingo... I have more on the wording of the lawsuit here.]

- 8:11 pm, September 26 (link)

'Dead meat'

Just to remind me of my ineptitude as a forecaster, World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik charged out of the gate today and beat Peter Leko's head in--with the black pieces, no less--in the first game of their title match. Chessbase has photos of the day in Brissago. After the game, the vegetarian fitness fanatic Leko seems upbeat and ready for another four hours at the board. It's the cigarette-smoking Russian Kramnik, having just played a game bound for the first-class repertory, who looks like a crateload of worn-out assholes. James Coleman and Malcolm Pein mark up the game here, noting that Kramnik seems to have invited Leko into a homebrewed middlegame trap that he closed shut with (formerly) typical Kramnikian inerrancy. Mig Greengard watched the whole thing with a distinguished friend.

- 1:35 am, September 26 (link)

Smoke signals

This isn't the first poll ever taken about an "offensive" sports team name, and its results aren't surprising. What's surprising is that white liberals who object to such names aren't immediately thought to be discredited for their persistence in an old-fashioned Marxist vanguard mentality. We just haven't raised their consciousness enough yet! Excuse the digression--I'm just storing up ammunition for the inevitable campaign against the Edmonton Eskimos.

- 8:18 pm, September 24 (link)

Appointment with destiny

The Kramnik-Leko world chess championship match starts tomorrow in Brissago, Switzerland. I had a little bit of background at the tail end of this entry. Bettors have been migrating toward the champion in the past week, even though Leko has a better-than-.500 score against him in head-to-head play at classical time controls. The chess world is united in its hope for an electrifying struggle; it is also united in its expectation of a draw-filled, technically obscure, uninspiring strategic contest. This is a little unfair, perhaps. It's true that recent "classical" supertournaments have been horribly draw-ridden, but on one side here you've got a champion whose technique has looked a little sloppy of late, and on the other you've got Leko, who is no longer synonymous with the glacial, cautious style that once made him one of chess's most disliked super-GMs. Moreover, not all draws are created equal: I rather enjoyed the nut-twisting tension of the "Berlin Wall" subplot in the 2000 championship match.

- 12:49 pm, September 24 (link)

Programming note: I'll be on CBC Alberta's Wild Rose Forum with Don Hill this afternoon. The show starts at 1:00 Mountain time, but my segment begins at 1:30... -12:50 pm, September 24
Great Slate piece today about the Che movie. I know some of you Americans are upset that an unapologetic fascist sympathizer like Robert Redford is influencing U.S. elections. -9:56 am, September 24
Advertising on NHL uniforms dept.: Rescorla responds... -12:32 am, September 24
From referrers to railroads

It's funny how often I still see search engines other than God in the ol' referrer logs. A lot of them. There is something almost poignant and Special Olympics-like about these hits. Or there would be, if some of the referring sites weren't dodgy front ends that combine someone else's results with the possibility of contracting venereal malware. Yuck. If people are really determined to hobble themselves by avoiding Google, they might try Amazon's A9, which seems to sort pages intelligently, has a fun multi-column interface, and captures some images that God misses.

I don't want to make it sound like I pry into my readers' habits too deeply, incidentally, but whoever searched for dumb things Kevin Taft said from an Alberta government-owned computer today might want to be careful. Sure, we're all interested in the dumb things Kevin Taft might have said, but I think there are laws against conducting opposition research on the taxpayer's dime, and anyway, there's always I'm more curious to see whether the newspapers will ever show signs of interest in adding detail to Taft's hilariously vague personal history. But then, Alberta papers have a horrible track record in this regard; it took them years to tell us that Ralph Klein hadn't graduated from high school, and the prevailing attitude about his time in the air force seems to be "Who could possibly be interested in a politician's military record?"

One hopes they will keep a closer eye on the proposed oilsands railroad between Ft. McMurray and Edmonton, which would require $300 million from the province. My share of that would be about $100; I'll consider voting for it if they'll let me ride free for life! The whole thing, however, reeks of the ripest bitumen for three reasons I can think of in ten seconds:

(a) the direct involvement of the premier's oldest advisor, Rod "MultiCorp" Love, who obviously used that big offspring-of-Lee-Atwater-and-Karl-Rove brain of his to think through the optics of his participation super carefully;
(b) the fact that the original McMurray-Edmonton railway (the Alberta & Great Waterways) was the subject of the second-greatest political scandal in Alberta history--in this province it's the approximate equivalent of saying "Hey, has anyone considered looking for oil on Teapot Dome?";
and (c), maybe I'm confused about this, but didn't private shortline operators buy the track on this stretch just last week, more or less, and start ripping large tracts of it up because the right-of-way was more valuable as real estate?

Oh, plus a whole bunch of people seem to think that the $2.6B overall cost of the thing is way out of line, and it's been observed that the existing shortlines, which reach partway to the sands, don't get much trade. And then there's that Golden Gate-sized bridge over the Athabasca. Or would it be OK just to start calling it the Ralph Klein Bridge To Excellence already?

- 12:09 am, September 24 (link)

Kevins and Tashas, surely?

Mods vs. rockers 2004: the emergent warring camps, and maybe I'm way behind the curve on this, now seem to be the "moshers" and the "townies". The BBC usefully explains that "The typical mosher wears hoodies, baggy jeans, tonnes of bracelets and loves alternative music. The townie girls have their hair scraped back with massive earrings, puffa jackets and tracksuit pants." Can't we all just get along? No--you're British. Might as well quit asking. (þ: the Stranraer & Wigtownshire Free Press.)

- 8:50 pm, September 23 (link)

Jeez. I've been so busy juggling freelance deadlines that I seem to have kind of lost track of the Post columns I'm supposed to be slapping up here... This de-centralizer's manifesto ran on Thursday, Sept. 9, as part of the Post's special series on the "Single-Tier Myth" and Canadian health care.

It's a funny thing: We Canadians have a Constitution that was patriated and radically updated within living memory, but it seems sometimes not to be a living thing. Not in the way, I mean, that the U.S. Constitution is. The American republic's founding debates and basic law never fade from view for long in the bustle of current affairs; the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments endlessly dissected and cited there, and the Fourteenth shows up, throwing wild haymakers, in every debate from affirmative action to the 2000 presidential election.

It isn't like that here, really, is it? We certainly talk about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms a lot, or our politicians do. But we don't have a political culture in which new laws are instinctively tested against the ambitions and intentions of our constitutional framers -- either the ones of 1982, who are rarely consulted or even considered in the capacity of founders, or the ones of 1867, whose ruling passions and federalist specifications are largely forgotten.

It's the latter group that is most relevant to a consideration of contemporary health policy. The problem is that none of them, for a second, would have considered the possibility that the state would one day be responsible for providing comprehensive, universal health care to the citizenry. If you could shake John A. Macdonald awake and explain medicare to him, he would wonder how and when the damned filthy Prussians had managed to take over the Dominion. And the same is true, I would warrant, of everyone else who had a hand in the events of 1867. They were Victorian gentlemen; they had no idea that the political "centre" would one day be located far to the left of their era's jelly-spined European socialists.

While they get less credit than they deserve from their descendants, Macdonald and Co. didn't exactly leave us with a division-of-powers doctrine written in lustrous fire. Section 91 of the British North America Act -- as those of a centralizing bent love to point out -- reserves unspecified residual powers to the federal government. But Section 92, which enumerates the powers from which that "residue" is left over, hands provincial legislatures authority for, "Generally[,] all Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province[s]."

With these two neighbouring sections of the Constitution, the founders of our country implanted sharp teeth in the mouth of rival dogs. This is why Canadian history, almost as soon as it began, degenerated into a sequence of arguments over which level of government was to be master in the several fields of legislation.

But, oddly enough, the position of health care in all this is quite clear. The power of a province over "The Establishment, Maintenance, and Management of Hospitals, Asylums, Charities, and Eleemosynary Institutions in and for the Province" is explicitly recognized in Section 92, and has been understood to indicate that the provinces are in charge of health provision by the state. I dare say your relationship with your proctologist qualifies as one of those Matters of a private Nature, anyhow.

This is the basic foundation of any debate over the federal government's participation in health care: The provinces are in charge, and, indeed, must remain in charge even if they don't especially want to be. But our constitutional awareness is hazy enough that Liberal governments can get away with talking about medicare as a "national accomplishment" or part of the "national soul," and thus claim ownership of it for political purposes. This sort of thing must be rather galling to Saskatchewan, which ran a public hospital-insurance program without Ottawa's help for 10 years (1947-57) and took the lead (1962) in expanding medicare to cover all physician services.

The federal government's role, aside from overseeing portability between provinces, has been merely to replace provincial tax dollars with federal ones. This was originally done on the basis of a 50-50 funding split, but the Trudeau government abandoned that in 1977, switching from a mildly redistributive system to an intensely redistributive one. The Canada Health Act, passed in 1984, was the federal government's way of "demonstrating a commitment" to (and formally integrating) 10 existing public systems it had no ultimate responsibility for. The Liberals' practice is to talk about the CHA as though it somehow called Canadian medicare into being, Book of Genesis-fashion.

Which leaves history, and the Constitution, in the back seat. Even though it imposes conditions in an area of provincial jurisdiction, the CHA -- which, practically, relies upon the federal government's "emergency" takeover of the tax stream during the Second World War -- has passed constitutional muster. But Ottawa's freedom to beat up on the provinces by means of its spending power has limits. In B.C. Court of Appeal Justice Douglas Lambert's memorable 1990 phrasing, Ottawa's money power has a "fragile constitutionality"; it cannot be used to negate Section 92.

Yet it's from this creaky platform that the federal government and its henchmen mount outrageous raids of moralizing rhetoric on provinces that are pondering changes to preserve the future of their systems. (For "provinces" here, read "Alberta.") Roy Romanow says the federal government ought to make the provinces "accountable" for the money received under health transfers; it is considered a mere afterthought that "accountable" to Ottawa is precisely what the provinces cannot be made. Paul Martin makes grandiose campaign promises about health care, counting on us to overlook his impotence. The Fathers of Confederation, somewhere in the next world, wonder whose children these can possibly be.

It is not a mere technicality that we have inherited a federal state, but those who make a cult of bigness in all things -- it's so very efficient, don't you know -- would like us to forget it. The people who believe that the provinces should conduct their affairs with straitlaced uniformity are some of the same ones fond of reflecting on Canada's excess of geography. It's a big country, uneven in religious faith, racial composition, political beliefs, and interpretations of national history. What else could it be but a Confederation? -- what other form of government can last here for five consecutive minutes?

If you seek to understand the advantages of policy diversity, you need look no further than the origins of medicare. Saskatchewan brought in hospital insurance when the word "socialism" had unpleasant overtones everywhere else in the country. Soon enough, others adopted the scheme, because it was seen to work. When it was broadened, the Douglas government had to fight the doctors, who were foursquare against the socialization of their labour and went out on a hair-raising strike. Douglas won. A unitary state the size of Canada probably would not even have picked such a fight; it took a relatively small, homogenous polity to reach the necessary consensus and to chance the experiment.

It is puzzling that so many of the defenders of classic medicare now want to pull up the rope ladder of federalist diversity on which it originally ascended. (September 9, 2004)

This column about corrections policy was pegged to a controversial "spa day" held in a women's prison in Kitchener, Ont. CTV has the background.

Speaking from the only slightly disinterested position of a freelance columnist, I must say that the Post's uncovering of the "Spa Day" held for violent female offenders from the Grand Valley Institution for Women was the reporting coup of the summer. Over the years we have been presented with countless symbols of the wild experimental tendencies of our corrections establishment, from equine centres to porn-'n'-pizza parties to day passes for spree killers.

But the "Spa Day" is special. As an example, it speaks to women in a way none of these other outrages have. It should take a bigger-than-usual bite out of Corrections Canada's credibility.

I am sure most men regard "spa treatments" of the Grand Valley sort -- manicures, pedicures, soft music, fine china, having one's "colours" done -- as a con game against which the female half of the species mysteriously lacks any natural defence. How many of us have seen wives or girlfriends go in for a day's worth of "esthetic" folderol at some formidable-looking "clinic" and come out looking just the same under anything but the eye of an electron microscope? Women, when pressed, will admit that concrete results aren't really the point, and even that things like "aromatherapy" are balderdash. The great point is to be fussed over for a half-day or so. Fussed over, that is, by professionals in the art of fussing. "Esthetics" are merely a pretext; the magic of the thing is the way it immerses one in a warm unjudging free sea of tactile calm -- smoothing-out, patting, primping, stroking, compliments.

Strangely enough, when I type that out, it almost seems to be a perfect encapsulation of what Corrections Canada tries to accomplish for its prisoners. The promise of the spa is that you will get to feel good about yourself for a few hours, and our corrections people are guided by the theory that all crime is caused by the criminal's inability to feel good about herself. The CSC's defence of the "spa day" made this clear: as spokeswoman Diane Russon told the Post's Adrian Humphreys, the event "was basically to teach skills for women to cope with stress [and] low self-esteem." If that's all there is to it, we shall soon enough be able to replace all our women's prisons with spas.

And don't be fooled: Corrections Canada would try it, if we'd let them. The logic of the "spa day" is inescapable, given the analogous experiments already tried on the male side of the prison system. What else are the "sweat lodges" built for aboriginal prisoners at federal prisons except miniature saunas with a clever religious justification? Or ask yourself what the true male version of a spa would be. If you answered "a golf course," which would be a pretty good answer, remember that there's a rather nifty nine-holer at the Ferndale Institution in Abbotsford.

Our prisons, you see, are in the care of people who don't like the idea of prisons. According to the prevailing orthodoxy of penology, the process of "reintegrating" the criminal into the community is a jailer's most important task. The people trained in this orthodoxy chafe under the paradox of having to keep criminals separate from the community while reintegrating them. They do their best to evade the paradox -- by bringing the appurtenances of "the community" within the walls of the prison -- without incurring the anger, or as far as possible even the notice, of the public.

When they get caught arranging spa days and golf outings, it's invariably because some upper-class twit with a criminology degree has imposed a mistaken idea of characteristic middle-class life on lower-class people. ("A quick eighteen at Glen Abbey always did wonders for Papa's mood.") It is demeaning to the prisoners, whether they know it or not -- these people have problems that aren't going to be solved by potpourri and harp music. And it is insulting to the broad public, which must husband its money vigilantly to be able to afford a golf weekend or a half-day at a spa.

The CSC, conscious of no wrongdoing beyond creating the wrong appearances, is said to be "re-evaluating" the spa days. Remember, these are the people who have renamed our prisons "institutions" (and their inmates "clients") to avoid the suggestion that they are any different in nature from banks or hospitals. It is certain that the "spa days" will be given a less polarizing name -- "Hygiene Advisory Sessions"? -- and continued exactly as before. (September 10, 2004)

CSC, incidentally, has posted an online memoir by a deceased former warden of the golf-equipped facility at Ferndale. He made a case for the course that might convince you--he suggested, for instance, that a surprising number of former inmates have moved on to qualify for good careers in landscaping and golf-course maintenance. Ultimately, though, I think he undercut himself by striking an unusually bold "Who cares what the public thinks?" attitude:

Despite the criticism, I've made a point of not weaselling out. The easiest thing would be to back down and plough [the course] under and turn it into a cabbage patch, I suppose. But I just don't think that's appropriate... We have to be bold and take a stand. We must say "No — we're not going to succumb to that kind of criticism because it's inappropriate and it undermines what we should be doing about reforming individuals."

That's why things never seem to change in federal corrections. It's a bureaucracy armed with the most powerful weapon in the world: moral certainty.

- 10:58 am, September 23 (link)

We interrupt this uniform

I got this photo of Ziggy Palffy playing for the ExtraLiga club Slavia from the HockeyRodent, who, thanks to his abundant Czech and Slovak sources, hasn't slowed down a bit despite the hockey strike. Do you notice anything special about Ziggy here? That's right--

1. His uniform's covered in damn corporate logos; and
2. He's playing hockey.

And don't think these facts aren't connected. Because of their learned tolerance for intrusive sponsorship, Europeans are getting to watch NHL-class hockey while we do without, and as the Rodent points out elsewhere, the Czechoslovak clubs didn't even have to raise ticket prices to sign the world's best players. Granted, there's a global buyer's market for that labour, thanks to the NHL strike and the delights of home: Jaromir Jagr, for one, is playing for one Czech koruna this season. (The team's GM: Jaromir Jagr, Sr.) The windfall aside, the fact remains that European clubs are funded mostly by sponsors. The revenue is pretty transparent, and there is little risk that a dispute between players and owners over the take would lead to a strike.

Here in North America we have a horror of letting uniforms be despoiled by corporate emblems (though I think Ziggy looks pretty cool, myself). It seems like a curious inversion of the usual response to capitalism on the two sides of the ocean. Perhaps our eyes, over here, are in greater need of that ad-free expanse of space. But I'd say we are merely superstitious about this--we're letting lingering Victorian fantasies about sport interfere with what we know consciously about the brutally corporate nature of the thing. Uniforms and cars filled with ads don't stop race drivers from becoming adored heroes in the United States or Canada. They certainly don't seem to stop European football fans from developing attachments to their teams that make our own seem torpid in comparison.

The labour negotiations that have frozen the NHL have three sides, not two. We, the fans, are the third side. Any deal between the two sides actually at the table is inherently likely to be made at our expense. Corporate sponsorship on NHL uniforms seems like a relatively small concession to make for the existence of hockey. The sacred flannels of every team have already been brutalized repeatedly by redesigns and "third jerseys". I believe the word "exploitation" inherently defiles almost any sentence in which it appears, but even those whose comprehension of capitalism is severely impaired must be able to see that adopting the sponsorship norms of European sport would be less "exploitative", at this point, than keeping hockey addicts on a treadmill of new kits--not to mention the continual, embarrassing changes of address which are happening in every league city. If we are going to have advertising, let's go all the way. Let's have enough to keep ticket prices within the reach of the middle class.

[UPDATE, 2:27 pm: Chris Selley sends this comment:

I have no problem in principle with NHL teams selling ad space on their uniforms. I would have a problem, however, with making it mandatory, i.e., with the NHL selling ad space en masse for all of its component teams' uniforms. This is easy for me to say as a Leafs fan, but I think teams with a gazillion straight sellouts and soaring profits should have the right to opt out of any such proposals (though it seems hard to believe they would do so).

That's where it gets tricky. I'm sure companies would fall all over themselves to have their logos on the jerseys of all six Canadian teams, plus the Flyers, Red Wings, etc. — teams, in other words, that are on television. And there you have, to my mind, the central conundrum of the NHL's situation: if they go with naked capitalism, some strong markets (Buffalo, Calgary, Edmonton) will become weak simply because of their size; if they go with communism (i.e., the NFL model), the wealthy teams will be sharing revenue not just with those strong small markets (which I support), but also with the ten-or-so teams that have little hope of surviving another decade (which I do not support). Finding new sources of revenue is all well and good, but I see no point in forking a third of it over to no-hope franchises that shouldn't exist in the first place.

I never thought it was particularly "capitalistic" for individual teams in any sport to have unfettered rights to television revenues and corollary income; the visiting team has a claim to half that take on strict propertarian grounds. Those "no-hope" franchises were admitted to the league for an up-front price shared amongst the existing franchises with their permission. It's unlikely that they will be cut loose en masse and it wouldn't be terribly fair to do it. The league doesn't have a revenue problem, primarily, even in the small-but-strong markets; all the Canadian clubs signed high-priced veterans for the stretch drive last year. The league has a problem controlling salaries in the long term, because, like baseball, it was unwisely counting on arbitration to help control them.

That said, teams should obviously have control of their own uniforms, and if they want to forgo advertising revenue out of a sense of pride or indignation, I say let them. It would be just plain inefficient for the league to do the selling for everyone. The ad-coated opponent that's on Hockey Night in Canada against an ad-free Leafs team will be glad to gather up all the benefit of that particular game...]

- 6:41 am, September 22 (link)

An appeal to conscience

Just a few days ago the National Post's weblog was smelling as stale as week-old pumpernickel. Apparently someone in authority noticed, and while it's impossible for me to reconstruct subsequent events, it appears that the editorial board drew straws to have one of its members bricked up in a room with a T1 connection and a supply of Dexedrine-laced brownies. Lorne Gunter seems to have pulled the short one and is heroically trying to revive Across the Board almost single-handed. I hear he'll be permitted to look at a photograph of his wife and children after the next 10,000 page visits. Please, won't you help?

- 5:21 am, September 22 (link)

Grand theft edu

I was going to link to the new weblog of immigration-skeptic site, and to the scary-good latest issue of underground culture magazine Vice, but I'm temporarily having trouble telling the difference. Vice's Gavin McInnes was trying in rather poultry-like fashion to put some distance between himself and the paleoconservatives this time last year after some visible crossover between Vice and The American Conservative. Now he's having another pretty cool blown-gasket paleocon moment. Here he channels Peter Brimelow in an awesomely obscene and accurate tirade against the National Education Association. Here and here Vice meditates on the lamentable results. And even the Don'ts this month contain a near-subliminal nod to Theodore Dalrymple's reporting on the Islamicization of large parts of France. As for VDare's weblog, the real thing is here.

If none of this is to your taste you could try an American prisoner's unhappy first-person account for Vice of his quest for a college degree.

- 5:10 am, September 22 (link)

Three score and ten

The 71st thing you might not know about Leonard Cohen: he wrote the song "Sisters of Mercy" after being rescued from the meteorological and emotional horror of Edmonton, Alberta by two young girls in miniskirts.

I will say, on the occasion of Cohen's 70th birthday--not so big a deal, really; I expect that the Zen lifestyle will see him through a century--that he is just about what most people wrongly imagine Bob Dylan to be. Also I am quite surprised to see that "Marita" is a sadder poem when you are 33 than it is when you are 27.

- 5:23 pm, September 21 (link)

A death blow to the blogosphere? (þ: Nealenews) -1:28 pm, September 21
It's official: The Queen will visit Alberta and Saskatchewan in May. -1:26 pm, September 21
Life after hockey

Today's Edmonton Journal has an interesting piece [subscriber-only link] about Guo Hong, the 5'8" hockey goalie and longtime star of the Chinese women's team. Maybe I should put her names in the Western order so that they sound more like "Luongo": like her Panther counterpart, she generally gets shelled, facing anywhere from 40 to 80 shots in a typical game against high-level competition. She is nonetheless recognized as one of the finest female goalies on the planet. Acrobatic and tough, she once held the Canadian juggernaut to a 1-0 win (1996) and is a former MVP of the women's world championships. The news about Guo is that she is now living in Edmonton and starting an ESL program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology not far from my house. When she's finished sharpening up her English she intends to take a course in multimedia graphic design.

Unfortunately, one thing she can't do--yet--is play intercollegiate or club hockey here. "She would like to play with the NAIT women's Ooks, although there are legal roadblocks. [Edmonton Chimos] owner Dee Bateman tried to get her for the Chimos, but the Chinese national team wouldn't release her," writes Larry Johnsrude. Guo is, however, living in Chimo House on the west end, where her autographed photo of herself with Wayne Gretzky is said to be hanging on the wall.

- 11:40 am, September 21 (link)

A short-short story

Sarah and Leo put together a homebrewed RSS feed pointing to news stories from Sarah and Leo, meet the Corporation's intellectual property cop. [Sound of truncheon striking head--fade to black.] (þ: Sankey)

- 4:08 am, September 21 (link)

Englishmen don't die--they just go here

An emormous and slightly jarring occasion for anyone who's ever haunted the reference section of a library: the new 60-volume Dictionary of National Biography is being published this week. The Sunday Herald has some background. This is your last chance to order the print edition for the low, low price of US$11,000.

- 11:31 pm, September 20 (link)

Here's the subscriber link to today's National Post column (see below for details). Last week's column previewed and handicapped the imminent Alberta election; if you read it in the paper, you can skip to the update at the end.

EDMONTON - The provincial enumerators have just been by my hovel this week, and I must say it was pleasant to have two young women inquiring into my continued existence, if only for 40 seconds. The visit signifies, if one needed another sign, that an Alberta election is coming this icy fall. Last week Premier Ralph Klein narrowed the dates down to two late-November Mondays. The vote won't be close -- this is Alberta, after all -- but there are always sources of interest, for the experienced punter, aside from the overall outcome.

Edmonton, marooned in a sea of conservatism, always makes an unpredictable spectacle at ballot time. Like all cities, it contains an army of beneficiaries of the state -- health care workers, teachers, welfare recipients -- but when you throw in a corps of provincial bureaucrats, the balance between taxpayers and rent-seekers is decisively tipped. Edmonton is also much more blue-collar than white, and labour union loyalties count. In the rest of Alberta, you get Conservative blowouts, with the Liberals and NDP battling for silver against the Heavily Armed Anarchists for Jesus. In Edmonton, almost every constituency features a three-sided brawl.

Right now, there are eight non-Tory members of the legislature, and all are Edmontonians. (Lethbridge's soft-spoken Liberal MLA, Ken Nicol, injudiciously defected to Team Martin in January to seek a federal seat.) If there is any Opposition left in Alberta after the upcoming vote, or even if it grows, it is likely to retain its all-Edmonton character. But no one can foretell its makeup. Strong NDP candidates -- there is at least one, in the person of former Alberta Teachers' Association president Larry Booi -- often merely split the vote for Conservative functionaries. The Liberals, for their part, are a glum and undifferentiated lot struggling with $900,000 in debt.

Their new leader, Kevin Taft, is a bristling, hard-left, detail-oriented former civil servant who advances a view of Alberta as a wasteland of robber barons, crumbling hospitals and environmental toxins. In fairness to Mr. Taft, the newspapers -- by quoting him a sentence at a time -- encourage the view that he is only in politics to oppose, automaton-fashion, every single policy of the Conservatives. Then again, I cannot name one Conservative policy that Mr. Taft does endorse. If Mr. Klein announced publicly that "ice cream is yummy," Mr. Taft would denounce both Ben and Jerry with his next breath. He is everything you want in an Opposition legislator, and nothing you want in a premier.

Which is not to say there is much love left for Ralph Klein. Anger persists over auto insurance, energy deregulation, cigarette taxes and rising health premiums. In general, one can feel sand in the gears. Mr. Klein privatized provincial registry offices early in his administration, and soon you could replace a drivers' licence, miraculously, in about 20 minutes. This year, the system was made more "secure" and fortunes were wasted advertising the changes to a captive market. After the "Hooray for Big Brother" billboards came and went, the credentials required to obtain a licence were much as before, but now one's data must be sent to Ottawa for laser engraving. It takes two weeks.

Unfortunately for the disgruntled, Premier Klein stands all but unopposed. The right-wing protest parties remain disorganized, underfunded and uninspiring. Anti-Confederation sentiment is near an all-time high, and people remain irate with the Premier for dropping a Canada Health Act stink bomb at Stephen Harper's feet during the federal election. But there is no respectable, unified outlet for protest. Unless -- and this is the really intriguing subplot -- one appears in the Senate election being held concurrently with the legislature balloting.

There are three Alberta Senate seats open, and turnout should be low. 130,000 or so votes ought to win the trick. The odds are against Paul Martin accepting any of the Senate-election winners, but attention should be paid to the candidates as they declare. If prestigious Conservatives jump on to the ballot with the implied permission of the party, it may suggest that Mr. Klein has made a deal with Mr. Martin to have the "elected Senators" appointed if they're the right people, or that he thinks he can make such a deal. Mr. Klein insists that Mr. Martin has left the possibility open in private discussions. If partisan Conservatives stay out, as they did in both previous Senate elections, and they leave the field to the cranky independents, so much the more exciting. What will Canada say if Alberta chooses to elect a separatist Senator-in-Waiting? (September 13, 2004)

What have we learned since last Monday? PC MLA Ian McClelland, who authored the tepid summer "firewall report" but cares a great deal about the credibility of the senatorial elections, has talked about leaving his Legislative Assembly seat and running. He hasn't yet closed the door, but it is getting awfully close to November and Edmonton-Rutherford's constituency board would have to find another candidate. However, one must remember that the Senator-in-Waiting prize may never be as tempting as it is now, with a Stephen Harper-led federal Conservative party hovering within striking distance of the prime ministership (and the Liberals needing every populist weapon they can find). I still see a possibility of quasi-establishment candidates emerging at the behest of Reform elements in the provincial Conservative party. On the right flank, the Alberta Alliance party became, on the day this column was published, the first registered Alberta party ever to declare the intention of choosing a formal slate for the Senate race. The Alberta Liberals, being Alberta Liberals, are likely to overlook their one reasonable chance to get some encouraging news out of this election and sneak someone into the top three. Ken Nicol could probably turn the trick if he's not too shell-shocked.

Incidentally, I've met with widespread confusion amongst Albertans who don't quite understand why this vote is happening now. I didn't give it much thought until I sniffed around either. Most of us were not aware that the Senators-in-Waiting were elected to fixed, six-year terms which have been extended slightly to make balloting coincide comfortably with the general election. Under the Senatorial Selection Act, current S.I.W. Ted Morton is forbidden--as a candidate in the general election--from putting his name on the ballot again. The other incumbent S.I.W., Bert Brown, is stepping aside.

- 6:06 am, September 20 (link)

Has there been one single day since Danron/Rathergate broke that things haven't just gotten worse and worse and worse for CBS? I haven't seen anything this ugly since the Foley-Undertaker Hell in a Cell match: ordinarily I'd say today's Kurtz-Dobbs piece in the Washington Post would be the backbreaker--it would undersell this story to call it merely "damning"--but CBS appears to have an infinite capacity for pain. Even those of us who got the story right from the beginning must be tempted to turn away in mute, glassy-eyed horror by now. The more I watch, say, Crooked Timber back over its own credibility (papering over an embarrassing initial declaration with entries about how you just can't trust that damned Internet), the less fun I'm having. You expect a river of nonsense from some of these people...

Anyway, I'm breaking with precedent to preview Monday's National Post column for you on Sunday night, simply because the material is going to be awfully stale by next week and someone else might even get to it by tomorrow morning. I actually found--and I say this with a tinge of weird pride--a new angle on Danron. It came to me while I was reading an annoyingly defensive Ben Wasserstein op-ed from the L.A. Times.'s worth remembering how many other news stories--basically, er, all of them--have not been broken by the blogosphere. ...Newspapers and television programs moved the story along by cross-checking the memos against contemporaneous National Guard records, interviewing witnesses and family members, and again questioning the network's experts. The blogs picked up the story, but they couldn't carry it to the finish line alone. They were complemented by traditional media but never came close to supplanting it.

As far as this goes, it's true (or it's a truth denuded of a rich garment of important caveats). But it seems like a singularly smarmy stance to take on the same week that a national story of much greater practical significance was not only broken on the Internet but moved, essentially, to completion before the newspapers even got wind of it. Between Sunday and Friday it was demonstrated--almost entirely by the pyjama people--that Kryptonite bike locks, and the countless U-shaped knockoffs, are vulnerable to an absurdly simple security attack involving nothing more than a standard-issue Bic ballpoint pen. The makers of the Kryptonite lock have announced what must be one of the most significant non-automotive product recalls in North American history. And that's the subject of Monday's column:

There is a lesson here for CBS News, of course. It's in much the same position as Kryptonite--except that it hasn't acknowledged making sophomoric mistakes with its phony Bush National Guard memos, or apologized, or done anything to fix the problem. The joke here is that CBS is the media company, yet it's reacting more slowly to the changed conditions in the media universe than the guys who assemble bike locks for a living.

You can find the whole thing on the newsstand tomorrow morning.

- 5:54 am, September 19 (link)

The therapeutic state: not all bad, apparently!

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (Reuters) -- Miss Alabama Deidre Downs, an aspiring medical student, won the Miss America contest on Saturday and said she would work to regain public respect for the event. ...Downs, from Birmingham, Alabama, pledged to use her year as Miss America to reestablish the competition as a major cultural event amid criticism that it is a outdated forum and has little relevance to modern women. "I would like to be the Miss America that brings this organization back into the realm of popular culture," she said.

She also defended the scanty swimsuits that raised eyebrows in this year's competition, and said swimwear should remain a part of the event because it demonstrates a healthy lifestyle at a time when obesity has become an epidemic.

OK--but what do the high heels have to do with it, smartass? I wonder whether a guy who got caught sneaking out to the Spearmint Rhino with a roll of twenties could use this excuse. "Don't think of them as naked--think of them as setting a good example for our children!"

- 9:27 am, September 19 (link)

Prefab catblogging

I don't think this August story got very much traction in weblog world, despite the traffic-attracting awwwwwwpower of cat photos...these little guys are Tabouli and Baba Ganoush, clones of a Bengal cat named Tahini who belongs to the family of Genetic Savings & Clone CEO Lou Hawthorne. In 2002 GSC created the first cat clone, Cc, who is still alive and healthy. Cc didn't resemble her twin very closely, but Tabouli and Baba Ganoush are the first cats to be born using a new process said to radically reduce both the health hazards and the chromosomal differentation produced by the old nuclear-transfer method. GSC therefore believes its commercial cat-cloning process is ready for prime time. The company still hasn't, however, been able to crack the secrets of the dog's egg. (That's a little joke for you UK readers.) The BBC has more, and you can click on the image above to see further photos of the identical trio.

- 10:37 am, September 18 (link)

Gazetted! Montreal readers will want to look for my latest op-ed, which appears on page A31 of Saturday's Montreal Gazette. Housebound Gazoo subscribers can read the column here. It's about Bill Binfet, a Penticton, B.C. man who has made waves by offering cash to swap places with someone on the regional waiting list for orthopedic knee surgery. The concept has been denounced as "unethical". You won't be surprised to learn I think the denouncers are authoritarian fools.

...the established bioethics of medicare - whether you approve of them in general, or not - forbid us from allowing patients to queue-jump using inducements to physicians. There is a theoretical hazard, the story goes, that too much of that sort of thing would cause the best doctors to abandon public-funded practice altogether.
Fair enough. But Binfet's offer creates no such danger. He proposes a zero-sum, wholly voluntary exchange between patients for access to the rationed, public, monopoly service. Where's the ethical problem?

There's lots more on the ethics of rationing and "equal access" in the full column. Bonjour Montréal!

- 4:32 am, September 18 (link)


Since its earliest days, this site has always gotten a sizable number of hits from the newsroom of the Toronto Star, and I am happy to report that that august journal has decided to run with my Who Owns the Stanley Cup? story. Garth Woolsey pins down the current trustees of the Cup in a feature for Friday's Star. Scotty Morrison comes out swinging in the interview, noting that the travelling version of the Stanley Cup and the "original" in the display case at the Hall of Fame are both the physical property of the NHL. But the original original, the ten-guinea silver bowl that Lord Stanley gave us--that's a different story!

While the pair of iconic trophy clones may physically "belong" to the NHL, the original is what the trustees are charged with protecting — and, it belongs to all of us, in the purest sense. Surely the spirit of the Stanley Cup belongs to the people, to the hockey fans of Canada. In Lord Stanley's day, hockey was amateur in the best sense of the word — the NHL assumed control of the competition after 1926. Could the name, the old award, the original honour — if not the actual hardware, then some new spinoff — go to someone else this spring, if there is no functioning NHL?

Morrison acknowledged that he and O'Neill would have to consider the options, at least.

"Say this 'Original Six' league being organized out in Mississauga, or wherever, suppose that thing gets off the ground with current or former NHL players. I could see someone there saying, 'Hey, we'd like to challenge for the Stanley Cup. We're NHL players, former players.' I guess we'd have to get into it with the league, and the lawyers," said Morrison.

Most priceless is the quote from the OSHL's commissioner, who says "I had no clue," and adds "If only I'd thought of it earlier...". Can I use this to promote the site, do you think? Garth Woolsey reads; Randy Gumbley only wishes he did!

- 12:25 am, September 18 (link)


CHICAGO (AFP) -- General Motors Corp.'s uber-sport utility, the Hummer, has been the biggest and baddest passenger truck on the US market to date, but it may soon be getting some outsized competition in the form of the CXT.

The brainchild of International Truck and Engine Corp., a manufacturer of commercial trucks and mid-range diesel engines, the CXT has been conceived of as a industry-worthy truck with some of the consumer comforts of passenger pick-ups. The CXT combines towing, dumping and tilt bed capability with 220 hp and 540 lb.-ft. of torque. At six tons, its hauling capability is three times the payload of consumer pick-up trucks.

The company plans to build between 600 and 1,000 units next year at its plant in Garland, Texas and it's hoping that the vehicle will find customers among tradesmen like landscapers, carpenters, and brick or stone contractors, and home builders. "The International CXT is a truck for businesses that want to promote themselves as much as perform," said Rob Swim, a spokesman for International Truck and Engine Corporation. "If you brought this truck to the playground, you'd be king of the dirt pile." (þ: NullDev)

Pardon me, you sad little micropenis, but I believe that would depend on just which dirt pile you brought your truck to. Here in Alberta we prefer our toys a little larger. Actually, the way things are going in the automotive arms race, I fully expect to see family of four tooling around Edmonton in a Cat 797 anytime now. They'll treat apartment blocks as speed bumps. How long before there's a passenger version with captain's chairs and DVD for the tots in the crew cab?

- 3:23 pm, September 17 (link)

The blogroll here has been revitalized in the last couple of days: inactive sites have been ruthlessly culled, many stalwart referrers have been added, and a few non-referring favourites have been scattered around. Click around, you might find something you like. -The Management, 3:00 pm, September 17

Absolutely all I'll have to say about the outcome of the first ministers' meeting this week: nobody should be surprised that the Prime Minister yielded so precipitously to the premiers' demands for money. The key to this meeting, which was clear enough before it started, was not the personalities involved or the particular state of the federation. It was that it is Martin's first such conference. The premiers, in essence, always have a gun to a new prime minister's head. Any failure to get what they want from Ottawa only accrues to their political benefit. (Barely showing up at all, as Ralph Klein did, will be perceived by Albertans as the coolest stunt he's pulled in years, pace Adam Radwanski.) The incentives at such a conference all point in the same direction--towards abject surrender for the central government. It was thus with Mulroney, who ladled out so much no-strings cash at his first summit that even Rene Levesque came out of it singing his praises, and it was thus with Chretien, who shook hands, gave the premiers enough simoleons to pave the land surface of the entire country, and declared quick victory. It's imperative for a prime minister to emerge from that first meeting able to claim a triumph credibly--the more so because his relations with the premiers are only going to get worse as things go along.

Former internet journalist Andrew Coyne blasted the new health accord in a column this morning (subscriber-only), denouncing it as an absurdity--and the numbers involved are unquestionably absurd:

At one go, the Prime Minister has surrendered control over much of the federal budget, vitiated any pretense of national standards in health care, and tilted the federation still further toward special status for Quebec. That he has also, by bailing out the provinces, removed any incentive for substantive reform of the health care system -- for a generation? -- is almost an afterthought.

...When the premiers say "give and take," they mean the federal government gives and they take. And so it has. Under the agreement the first ministers have just signed, Ottawa will give the provinces another $41-billion over 10 years: $18-billion over six, plus a 6% annual cost escalator, on top of the massive increases already in the pipeline. As it is, the federal government transfers one dollar to the provinces for every three it spends itself. Twenty years ago, the ratio was one to four. At this rate, before long it will be one to two. And in return?

And in return, the provinces agree to continue contenting themselves with an ad hoc system of financing the federation cobbled together to meet an emergency, viz., the Second World War. Within living memory, Ottawa was able to meet almost all its own fiscal needs with excise taxes alone. But Andrew Coyne is a 1970 conservative, not, say, a 1938 conservative. He finds it perfectly reasonable that the federal government should spend three times as much as it transfers to the provinces, even though it's the latter who have to budget for health, education, infrastructure, municipalities, and social services--nearly everything that government does for you, instead of merely to you. The absurdity he perceives embedded in our system of government is real, and tends to aggrandize the overall mechanism of the state. Where he's wrong is in suggesting that the absurdity only began yesterday, or even that it got significantly worse.

- 7:16 am, September 17 (link)

Business as unusual returns to the Helsingin Sanomat for the second time in as many days for a brief overview of the upcoming Finnish SM-Liiga hockey season. The Finns are about to launch the latest campaign for the ultimate prize in Finnish hockey, the Canada Cup. (Yes, really.) While the NHL players mope, Finnish league clubs are eyeballing the Finnish nationals among them to see which ones will come back and play at home. The SM-Liiga has also introduced two ideas the NHL could be considering if it weren't so busy with its civil war: a different point-scoring procedure for regular-season games, and a tiered system of clubs with relegation and promotion between divisions.

- 2:31 pm, September 16 (link)

But my city was gone

Another remote B.C. mining town goes on the block: U.S. copper company Phelps Dodge has put Kitsault, B.C. on the market for $7 million. Abandoned since 1982--I'm sure you all remember the great molybdenum crash--Kitsault has been kept in good condition and features a hospital, a shopping mall, and two recreation centres. It seems likely to be turned into a resort. In January of last year I wrote this Upfront item about an evacuated mining town not too far away that met a different fate.


...especially if they burn it down. Kemano, B.C., is 75 kilometres south of Kitimat on B.C.'s north coast; it was built between 1949 and 1954 by Alcan to house workers at a nearby hydroelectric generating station powered by the Nechako River. At its peak, it held a population of nearly 300 permanent residents. But in 1999 Alcan declared that the dam's on-site work could be handled by a skeleton staff of fly-in workers, and the remote company town was closed up. Throughout 2000 and 2001, trainee fire crews carefully immolated the houses where dozens of children had grown up and some even been born. Now all that is left of Kemano is a scenic but functional work camp.

But Kemano lives--and where else but on the Internet? A tourism and building consultant who works out of his Osoyoos, B.C., home, Grant Montgomery got the idea for a "Virtual Kemano" in 2001 and started his website in October of that year. Mr. Montgomery lived in Kemano from 1958, when he was born, until 1978, with a three-year spell in New Zealand to break up the monotony. He found another webmaster, Frank LaFrance, who has kept up a e-mail database of former Kemanoites. Their sites now contain photos, news, and links to articles and information about the vanished hometown. Over 150 ex-residents are now in touch through Virtual Kemano and the database; many have met offline to revive old friendships and swap news.

"Growing up in Kemano was a little bit different," says Mr. Montgomery, whose father repaired typewriters and business machines for Alcan. "Radios and TV sets didn't work in that valley, so I had no concept of those things. When I was six years old, I would see transistor radios and I noticed that they all seemed to be made in Japan...I thought that's why they didn't work, because we weren't in Japan--we didn't get Japanese radio stations." Social life, he says, revolved around the Kemano Rod and Gun Club. "Most of us could take a gun apart and reassemble it when we were still kids," he says. "If you're from Kemano, you can probably shoot a dime off a fence post at fifty paces. It was just a different way of life."

Another odd feature: eight or nine months of the year, the town would be almost entirely without teenagers. "After Grade 8, we had to go to school elsewhere," recalls Mr. Montgomery, remembering how Kemano's kids were dispersed to boarding schools, billets with friendly families, or aunts and uncles elsewhere in western Canada. Summers would be spent back in the valley, but few returned to take up permanent digs there.

In some respects it was a trying existence, but Mr. Montgomery suspects it may have made him more self-reliant than a typical member of his generation. "The isolation made me want to go see other parts of the world," he says, and he made good on the desire. After training as an engineering technologist, he worked at the Cluff Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan, then found his way to Australia, New Zealand (again), Saipan, the Philippines, Korea and Japan. Osoyoos offers the hot, dry climate he likes best, but he regrets not being able to go back to Kemano for a real-world visit.

"I imagine being out there playing shinny at Christmastime, sitting there and reminiscing, finding out that so-and-so's got married, so-and-so's had kids. It's strange not to have that." Virtual Kemano provides something of a substitute, but some things, it seems, just can't be replaced. (January 6, 2003)

- 11:10 pm, September 15 (link)

Out and about

A note on where you can find the latest in Colby Coshery if waiting for next Monday's Post is killing you. Subscribers to Ric Dolphin's eminent newsletter Provincial & Territorial Report will find an essay by me in this week's edition. It's a quick (but intensively researched) overview of first ministers' conferences since the beginning of the Mulroney era. Meanwhile, I have a cover story in the new Western Standard, now thumping into subscribers' mailboxes, about new Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella. Why, it asks, has our Charter-loving Prime Minister appointed a new SCC judge who actually has some rather nasty, poisonous things to say about the Charter--and about civil liberties in general? (And why, one might ask, has Abella's supposed "Charter fandom" not been subjected to a little closer scrutiny by the press at large?) If you like this page you'll love that article: look for it on the newsstand. I may also have an op-ed a little later this week in another Canadian newspaper--fingers crossed for that one. I'll let you know.

- 1:06 pm, September 15 (link)

A tall tale from America

A few years ago, a middle-aged Louisiana man committed what he considered a successful robbery: he slipped the teller at the local post office a robbery note and then waited outside for the police to arrive. He was arrested, convicted and sent to jail — where he was able to get the medical treatment he desperately needed for his colon cancer, but couldn't afford.

I read about this story in the National Post, where it seemed to be included mostly for its titillating value as a wacky little crime story. (The crazy things people do!) But it has always struck me as being a tale that should be emblazoned into the psyche of all Canadians.

This tale of horror comes from Linda McQuaig's September 11 Toronto Star column. You don't suppose McQ could be leaving anything out, do you? Let's roll the tape on that original Post story, an AP pickup which ran in the paper April 20, 2001.

NEW ORLEANS - Larry Causey figured he could not afford cancer treatment in a hospital, so he went to a place where it is free -- jail.

Causey, 57, called the FBI and told them he was about to rob the post office in West Monroe, La. At the post office, he handed a note to a teller demanding money, then left empty-handed and sat in his car until officers arrested him. "Larry's very sick, so getting arrested made him very happy," said Jay Nolen, Causey's lawyer.

Causey pleaded guilty to attempted robbery on March 21 and is now getting the care he needs -- compliments of the Ouachita Parish Jail. Doctors have put him on three types of medication and are planning to perform a colonoscopy to determine the extent of his cancer.

So far, so good. Other news stories reported that Causey had been waiting four years for cancer treatment--which seems a little puzzling if he was eligible for Medicaid benefits, like any other impoverished American. Assuming Causey had any warrant for his belief that he had intestinal cancer--keeping in mind that this belief is frequently a symptom of mental illness--the truth seems to have been, as far as any sense can be made of the various reports, that poor old Larry, that working-class victim of a heartless system, kept losing his Medicaid benefits because he couldn't stay out of chokey.

Medicaid benefits are automatically cancelled when a person is incarcerated, said Traci Billingley, spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Most insurance providers deny coverage when a policyholder is incarcerated, but numerous prisoners are not insured in the first place. Many of those who are deliberately arrested have been imprisoned before and they would rather do time than pay for dental treatment or other medical costs, Sheriff Houck said. "They know that if they get back in the system, they'll get their problems fixed," he said.

Causey is among those repeat offenders. When he was not drifting around the country, performing odd jobs or working in flea markets, he served prison time on felony convictions for wire and mail fraud. Mr. Nolen, his lawyer, said Causey felt he had no other option than to seek a doctor's care in jail. "He told me he felt that if he did not get medical attention, he was going to die."

What we have here is a story about long waiting lines on the public side of the U.S. system, or, at worst, about a man who fell between the cracks of a public bureaucracy; what we clearly do not have is the story of an ordinary person driven to strange behaviour by the high cost of private medicine and the lack of any alternative. If Larry Causey is representative of U.S. healthcare, how much more representative of Canadian healthcare are the dead stacked like cordwood from hospital infections like clostridium in Montreal or SARS in Toronto?

That won't stop McQuaig from rattling Larry's bones: in sneering at the Post she fails to mention that she wrote a column about him for that very newspaper's May 7, 2001 edition. In fact, you'll notice it's pretty much the same column, freshened up with a few new stats. Personal to G.G.: there are columnists out there who at least try to come up with new material, you know.

- 9:22 am, September 15 (link)

Barnstorming... or is it pondstorming

With less than a day to go in the life of the existing NHL collective bargaining agreement, media attention is turning to what could be the shiny plutonium sphere inside the players' nuclear warhead: their own league. A few of the agents have gotten together and formed something called the Original Stars Hockey League, which will, it is said, play games across Canada for sub-NHL ticket prices. The OSHL will hold a draft of some pretty impressive locked-out talent September 16: if only a quarter of these players have really committed (and probably only a quarter have), the OSHL is still miles ahead of the revived WHA in organization and recruiting. The choice to name the teams after Original Six hockey towns seems like a pretty broad warning from the agents: they're saying "Sure, for now we're just screwing around and staying fit, but we can move these 'franchises' into other hockey markets so fast it'll make your head spin."

And they're right. What do the owners bring to hockey but money, and what's more replaceable than money? You want to talk about management experience and marketing savvy? Here's a paragraph from the aforelinked TSN story that may make you hope the NHL never comes back:

Each [OSHL] team would have four skaters and a goalie on the ice at one time, periods would last 17 minutes, line changes would only be made on the fly, there would be no centre red-line, no-touch icing would be in effect and minor penalties would result in penalty shots.

The resulting product may be absurd from a purist's or conservative's standpoint, but there's a good chance it will be more exciting than what we've become used to. The press has treated the sudden appearance of the OSHL with scorn: if the labour dispute goes on as long as predicted, I foresee plenty of backtracking and "surprise" from reporters. At the very least, an experimental forum for radical rule changes seems like an awfully good way to spend the months lost from the NHL calendar. It's time for Canadian sportswriters to start boning up on the Brotherhood War of 1890. Not to mention what I've been saying for months about the Stanley Cup.

- 6:04 am, September 15 (link)

You don't need an English-Finnish dictionary to read the writing on the wall. Kanada kolme, Suomi kaksi... -11:25 pm, September 14
Honest, Gary, I was just, you know, having a religious moment

"We cannot fix health care for a generation without funding for a generation," Manitoba's Gary Doer insisted at the national health-care summit in Ottawa. That comment prompted one of the people around the table to exclaim "Jesus Christ!" in a disgusted tone into a microphone. (CBC)

Care to guess which of the first ministers was responsible? You think it might have been the one with the well-known rageaholism disorder? Prime Minister Martin's reaction to Doer's grandstanding isn't so bad: it's a lot more muted, certainly, than what I would have said about such cheap sloganeering. Still, it reminds one that emotional restraint is likely to be one of the themes of Martin's prime ministership. Martin's temper has been mentioned in the press, but its temperature has never quite been described in the scary clinical terms I've heard used privately, and there's always some bogus caveat attached about how quick the man is to forgive and forget--which is to say, how quickly he expects his underlings to forgive and forget. (He's a sweetheart, really! Five minutes after he called me a cocksucker, he let me put a fresh coat of wax on the Explorer!)

As federal Finance Minister, such a character flaw probably works to one's advantage: since you are accountable to just one person you encounter regularly, you can let your apoplexy have pretty free rein. As Prime Minister, you occasionally have to sit around a table with constitutional equals. Flying at their throats isn't considered good form, and even an offhand "Jesus Christ!" could needlessly earn you an extra enemy.

- 4:14 pm, September 14 (link)

Caesar on ice: Dr. Weevil spins a classicist counterfactual with a contemporary moral. -12:58 pm, September 14
Mass confusion

"I'm not a very important person and my particular beliefs are surely of no interest"--thus wrote one of Canada's most celebrated Catholic apostates in the Saturday Sun papers. Biographer and columnist Michael Coren has, in a startling turn of events, returned to Rome after ten years in the camp of evangelical Protestantism. As he ought to know, his particular beliefs are of considerable interest indeed; his original conversion was accompanied by a brow-hoisting change of literary and political style. Coren discusses the loss of income he now faces owing to his latest transit of Tiber (the third, for those keeping score at home):

I do a great deal of speaking in evangelical churches and I fear that some of them may now cancel me, or decide not to book me in the future.
In fact one major speech, booked long ago, has already been thus treated. Let me emphasize that the person who contacted me from this particular Protestant organization was embarrassed by the cancellation and could not have been kinder.
What hurt me was that none of what I had planned to say was in any way specifically Catholic and I had written the speech long before my conversion. I shall not say that the decision was sectarian, but I will say that it was highly regrettable.
As was the way it came about. A minister had written to the venue where I was to speak, "outing" me as a Catholic. He insisted on his name being kept secret and at no time wrote to me directly. Hardly a gracious act. Nor is he alone.
It appears that one or two other individuals have begun a campaign to inform people of my great sin.

With due respect, this smacks of self-pity: I'd say Protestant churches booking a prominent Protestant speaker in good faith are entitled to the information that he is no longer Protestant. That said, it doesn't reflect well on such an institution that it would bar the door to a Christian--not, mind you, that I have any right to an opinion. Perhaps Coren should throw in the towel and start his own church?

- 12:16 pm, September 14 (link)

Just for a change from phony documents...

...Bob Harris, guestblogging for Tom Tomorrow, has a hilarious artifact from W's rugby career. Though, since I mentioned the CBS forgeries, let us note than Bob goes on to display the same armour-plated good sense as their defenders--and invite the snickers of every living adult in the British Commonwealth--by waxing lyrical about the non-violent, orderly, sportsmanlike ethos of rugby. Yes, you read that right!

[Update, 11:12 am: this paragraph has been corrected to attribute the entry to the guestblogger, rather than Tom himself. Thanks to Matt Fenwick for the quick catch.]

- 10:34 am, September 14 (link)

Orkneyinga saga

Today's Leader-Post has a cute story about a dozen Cree Indians from Saskatchewan who have just returned from visiting their ancestral home in the Orkney Islands. It doesn't seem to be online, but Grampian TV has some footage of the visit, accompanied by the highly amusing claim that 18th-century Orcadian Hudson's Bay Co. fur traders were "breaking the rules" by taking "country wives" amongst the natives. (The Empire would have found it very difficult indeed to get on without abundant horizontal reconnaissance.) As both the video clip and the news story note, the Cree cultural exchange was inspired by Kim Foden's trip from the Orkneys to Saskatchewan a few years ago. She came West looking for distant cousins and was startled to find Indian bands full of people with familiar names like Dreaver, Sutherland and Isbister. As the Leader-Post's aptly-named Randy Boswell notes: "Foden, whose maiden name was Twatt, learned that one of her fur-trading ancestors-- Magnus Twatt--had fathered a line of tribal chiefs in Saskatchewan. In fact, the Sturgeon Lake First Nation near Prince Albert had once been called the William Twatt Cree First Nation after one of his descendants."

- 7:49 am, September 14 (link)

Hot type

National public pharmacare--it's in a seriously huge crapload of trouble already, and it hasn't even been implemented! That's the topic of an entry I just left over at the Shotgun.

In other news, the Partisan Political Operatives in Pajamas™ are still waiting for CBS to offer a better defence of its conduct than "Shut up!" David Nishimura's entry from an art-history perspective is the best thing written on the subject in the last 48 hours or so. (þ: Instapundit)

[UPDATE, 8:58 am: In a late development, there is a new Best Thing Written On The Subject from Evan Kirchhoff. Hilarious--and I hadn't even noticed the lack of hyphenated line breaks.]

- 7:48 am, September 13 (link)

My Monday morning column for the Post about Alberta's upcoming election is behind the subscriber wall--but everyone can read the Post's amazing story of Scott Taylor's capture, abuse, and release by al-Qaeda. Like many other journalists I used to call Taylor for his take from time to time--almost always, really, on those rare occasions when I had a military story to report. Now he has a blood-curdling tale, not only about being a terrorist captive, but also about being on the wrong side of an American helicopter assault.

"The house must have been targeted as a leadership centre and hit with a smart bomb," Mr. Taylor said last night. "It was amazing. There must have been 1,200 mujahideen firing RPGs blind into the sky at the Apaches, all yelling 'Allah Akbar.' They've got guts. They actually cheer when they lose a guy -- another martyr."

The captives were passed along to another safe house and a new set of interrogators. "These guys, with the usual hoods, were really rough," said Mr. Taylor. "Here I am with no ID and an eagle tattoo on my arm, in a basement with 30 or 40 mujahideen, it's 40 degrees and we're choking on dust. And there's a woman with several sons herself who's cooking for them and telling them to go out and die like their brothers."

- 6:19 am, September 13 (link)

Stick a fork in it

Cast-iron sure-thing of the century: Imelda Staunton for this year's Best Actress Oscar. A respected British actress playing a persecuted abortionist in an undoubtedly dank and cheerless Mike Leigh film? It is theoretically impossible to beat that. (Unless someone else has made a movie similar in every respect except that the abortionist also has Down's Syndrome.) If anyone wants to bet the field against Imelda, you have my e-mail address...

- 5:10 pm, September 12 (link)

Siberia sighs with relief

"Maybe it was a fire--some kind of forest fire." I can't say I believe Ms. Rice, though she knows more about it than I do. Reports of an explosion near the Sino-Korean border, followed by the ascent of a mushroom-shaped cloud miles across, make for one of those "Is this it?" moments Cold War adolescents know so well. Kind of a "Russian tanks seen moving towards Afghanistan" thing. In fact, it is probable just on geographic grounds that the blast wasn't a deliberate nuclear test; irradiating the Chinese side of the Yalu valley seems like one of those pretty basic Don't-Go-Theres when it comes to running North Korea, and the Kim family, say what you like about it, has managed to stay in charge for 56 years. In any event, and I have to admit this is a fun sentence to type, the radiation levels are nominal in Vladivostok.

Accidental detonation of a nuke seems less probable than the theory advanced in the New York Times: a horrible accident with rocket fuel. Given the rumours about Ryongchon advanced by the North Korean underground--and the underlying political instability that incident suggested, even without help from rumours--"accident" should probably be in quotes.

My hope, unlikely though it is, is that some rogue missile jock found an occasion to toast Kim Jong-Il golden brown (Q: has he been seen in public since Sept. 9?). My fear is that something might have gone wrong during a public Commie parade of armaments. September 9 is the holiest day in the DPRK calendar, the day in 1948 on which the state was formally founded. No one need feel relieved that this was probably not a nuclear explosion: if you get enough high explosive together in one place you can mimic one pretty convincingly. The Ryongchon explosion was on the order of a kiloton-of-TNT equivalent; this blast is said to have been considerably fiercer.

The really strange twist here is that it's South Korea that has been getting international flak for nukes in the last week or so. The ROK has been caught making fissionable material, and a finger-wagging by the UN Security Council is said to be in the works. For a moment, the South's occupancy of the high ground on non-proliferation seemed to have hit a minor speed-bump. What effect the explosion in Ryanggang Province will have on this dispute is unclear. That's "unclear", not "nuclear"...

- 4:48 pm, September 12 (link)

A reminder to newsstand browsers of the National Post: I'll be back on the comment page bright and early Monday morning, so look for me there. -6:40 am, September 12
You humans are so... linear

The Calgary Herald--undeterred by the sloth that threatens to disintegrate the Post's pioneering Across the Board, or by the Hoffaesque disappearance of Andrew Coyne--has started its own group weblog. The yoof-themed site, manned by a veritable army of sub-30 Calgarians, is called Q: The Voice of a New Generation. Does John de Lancie have something to do with all this, and if so, what? (Hats off to whoever snuck in the coded pisstake in this headline...)

- 5:16 am, September 12 (link)

The Lynndie Summer Collection at Bad Gas just gets better every day. The kid zapping his mom is my new hero. (N.B.: He is the only one who has a good excuse for doing it without a proper cigarette.) -12:02 am, September 12
CYA later, Dan

I expected Dan Rather and CBS News to come out with a humiliating mea culpa sometime today concerning the network's presentation of an obvious forgery as part of a 60 Minutes segment about President Bush's National Guard service. Instead they have screwed their courage to the sticking-place. It seems important, under the circumstances, to show you exactly what they are defending (copied from Powerline). Word-processed or typewritten? You make the call!

All I can say is that if you dropped an MS Word artifact like this into a Vietnam War movie, Mark Simonson would eat you alive.

CBS is standing by the "typewritten" interpretation on technical grounds: Dan Rather is arguing that some typewriters in existence in the early 1970's might conceivably have offered non-proportional spacing, the Times New Roman face, and superscripts. Who knows?--maybe he owned one! If there is such a supertypewriter lurking in your grandmother's garage, you can make yourself $10,000 richer; Dan certainly doesn't need the cash.

Believe it or not, CBS also argues that the important thing is not the provenance of the document itself--what's a forgery between friends?--but the "preponderance of evidence" against Bush. I don't know if it's appropriate for a television network to take on the role of a judge, but I know what a real judge would think about such a cavalier attitude toward the offering of faked material as evidence. Kaus is right about the horrors to come: heads are going to roll. And Dan Rather, it seems, is content to play the role of Marie Antoinette.

(Bruce Rolston, who knows what a military memo looks like, has a couple of non-trivial observations.)

[UPDATE, Sept. 11: it turns out you can come surprisingly close to reconstructing the Killian document without anachronism, not on a typewriter, but on a typesetting machine called the IBM Selectric Composer. But not close enough!--alas for those intellectually intrepid individuals willing to believe that a lieutenant-colonel in the Texas Air National Guard used an extremely user-hostile typesetting machine to leave a memorandum to himself, going to far as to switch the type ball in mid-note in order to make the superscripted "th". (And even if you could swallow all that, CBS would still have to account, on Bayesian grounds, for Killian's contrarian choice of the not-yet-ubiquitous TNR face.) þ: Tim Blair.]

- 8:39 pm, September 10 (link)

Today's Post column (sub-only link) is about Corrections Canada's controversial "spa day" for violent female prisoners. Here's last week's column, filed on the last day of the Republican national convention in New York.

I don't know how much the major party political conventions really count for in an American presidential campaign; my default supposition is that they fall into the ocean-huge category of "staged events that the media chronicles obsessively and the public ignores." But the 2004 election is being fought on the margins, with tiny percentage swings in pivotal states creating shock waves in the Electoral College. And there is certainly a shift happening. A week ago, the state-by-state polling data pointed to something like a three-to-two advantage for John Kerry in the fight for electoral votes. Today, at the climax of the Republican convention in New York City, President Bush has gained the lead and is moving more states into the "don't even bother" column.

The Democrats had better hope that the conventions aren't a metaphor for what's left of the campaign, because in this theatre of battle, they're being eviscerated. Their event was surprisingly watchable, but the only Democratic speaker who really got anyone's blood pumping was Al Sharpton, an oratorical talent without a conscience who is loathed by two-thirds of his own party. By contrast, the Republicans -- supposedly the staid, complacent, white bread half of the electoral dynamic -- have created compelling moment after compelling moment on the podium.

Former NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani, still radiating the Zen aura that united a nation on Sept. 11, displayed a scary mastery of the art of televised speech-making, giving a chatty address that went on for what seemed, in a good way, like hours. John McCain virtually called Michael Moore out for a streetfront scrap, forming a tableau with the filmmaker -- who was present, perched on a balcony -- that seemed to symbolize middle America's rebel-slave hostility toward the media and the liberal northeast. (Both of which, it should be noted, have huge crushes on McCain.) Arnold Schwarzenegger used his star power to crash through the lens and frame the Republicans as the torchbearers of the American dream, the power of capitalism, and intellectual diversity. And Democratic Senator Zell Miller delivered a scarlet-faced Full Metal Jacket tirade against his own party, blaming it (pretty ballsily, under the circumstances) for the increasingly strident nature of U.S. politics and savaging Kerry for decades of votes against military weapons systems.

The overwhelming impression has been one of rambunctious, positive energy. Giuliani, McCain and Schwarzenegger are all criticized sometimes as "Republicans in name only," or RINOs, but for better or worse, they (and Miller) are just the sort of figures that undecided voters are likely to take cues from. After this week, it definitely seems better to have the RINO charging at the opponents than at you.

The most impressive catalyzing moment, though, might have been the appearance by Bush's twin daughters. Bush's family is his not-so-secret weapon; on the other side, Kerry has a disconcerting habit of marrying money, and his children seem unsettlingly awestruck by their action-figure father. Most commentators lamented the strained laugh lines that had been written for Jenna and Barbara, but their joke at the Kerry daughters' expense -- "Our hamster didn't make it" -- was irresistible and strategically brilliant. In an electoral race between Tim Allen and St. Francis of Assisi, the smart money isn't on the friar.

The Republicans hold the White House, both houses of Congress and a majority of state governors' mansions, but it's the Democrats who, at the end of convention season, seem afflicted with the torpor of the overdog. It seems to be the simple, stupid truth: the Democrats are out of touch with the changing ambitions and deep-seated expectations of the American public. I speak as someone who was often annoyed this week by the sleight-of-hand of Republican speakers: they should not really, to take the obvious example, be allowed to get away with the unmitigated, casual conflation of Saddam's regime and the Islamist terror behind 9/11. But the logical flaws or excessive subtleties of the administration's foreign policy position made it all the more crucial for the Democrats to have chosen a candidate America could trust -- one who understands that the age of class warfare is over, and that an American president must represent America to the world, not vice versa.

Instead, they ran a woeful creeps-vs.-weirdos primary contest, with the two chief creeps winning in a walkover. John Kerry seems to suffer intensified versions of all the defects of Al Gore, with new ones thrown into the bargain. Democrats acknowledge this, but add indignantly that "Gore actually won in 2000, you know." They might as well just say "Like fools throughout history, we have learned nothing from failure." (September 3, 2004)

- 8:02 pm, September 10 (link)

No trophy room big enough

Like some of you I caught the first whiffs of the forged-Bush-military-documents story yesterday by following Instapundit to Powerline and other sites. I've been busy with paying work: I wish I'd been one of the first to come out and say that it looks like CBS News and 60 Minutes have just swallowed a big bargeload of sewage. For those just joining us, they presented documents printed in a proportional face, complete with superscripts, as having emerged from a mid-level military officer's typewriter during the Vietnam War. They are, at this hour, still theoretically defending this judgment and claiming that the documents were properly authenticated. If the reports are accurate, CBS--estimated annual news budget: one squillion dollars--has been taken in by a fraud that, roughly speaking, anybody over the age of 30 in the industrialized world could have spotted.

This, I guess, explains just why traditional print and electronic journalists sometimes speak of the Internet as a large, frightening, amorphous, destructive force. Considering that the most respected journalistic entity in the world has been revealed at this hour to be sky-high on goofballs, it also explains why anyone who attempts to defend the exclusive privileges of "traditional media" is eligible for physical annihilation on the grounds of incurable virulent idiocy. Sorry: I know you've heard this before--there's even a lame term of art for it ("blogger triumphalism"). But I have, if you'll forgive me for pointing it out, blundered into a forefront-ish position in Internet journalism as practiced in a G7 country. And this 60 Minutes business is still making me go "Holy shit."

[UPDATE, 6:09 pm: The word "nonproportional" was here in place of the correct adjective, "proportional", all day. Reader Jonathan Sperling receives one ear of the bull for confirming the Internet's scary fact-checking powers...]

- 8:29 am, September 10 (link)

A gridiron classic

The National Football League's start date around Labour Day is exactly the time when the Canadian Football League kicks into high gear--which isn't a coincidence, as there are always a few players trudging back northward after chastening experiences at NFL training camps. On Monday I was devoting most of my attention to the annual Calgary-Edmonton clash in McMahon Stadium, a delightful 25-7 throttling by my Eskimos that featured no drama unless you count the male streaker. Fortunately, Calgary's Euro-class quarterbacks failed to challenge Edmonton's secondary, weakened by the recent stabbing of star defensive back Donny Brady.

But I digress. It turns out the real barnburner of the weekend was the same day's 30-30 tie between the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Hamilton's Ivor Wynne Stadium. I had seen the score but I hadn't realized what a bizarre series of spectacles greeted the crowd--largest in recent memory--at Never Wynne. As Sean Fitz-Gerald reported in Tuesday's Post:

The circus began 20 minutes before kickoff, when 10 Canadian Armed Forces personnel tried to parachute onto midfield from a plane high above. A persistent breeze pushed them off course. One jumper brushed a tree across the street, narrowly missing a set of power lines. Another seemed destined to hit Hamilton's new $2-million scoreboard, but veered right and grazed a line of parked school buses. More landed in a corner parking lot, buzzing arriving fans. Only one met his mark and none seemed badly hurt, save for their pride.

A brawl-filled first half followed (CFL games, it seems, are becoming rowdier on and off the field). Toronto QB Michael Bishop started punching a Ti-Cat defensive lineman after a hit, and three players were ejected in the ensuing affray, nor were they the last. "A camera," writes Fitz-Gerald, "caught Toronto coach Michael Clemons slapping Bishop on the side of the head with a handful of rolled paper."

The ejections forced both head coaches to juggle their lineups, and Canada got its first close-up glimpse of NFL legend Andre Rison, playing with the Argos for $500 a week in a development that is in no way related to his child-support issues in the state of Georgia. Shortly before the game Rison was quoted as saying "Where's the dressing room at?"; afterwards he seemed nonplussed about his introduction to three-down ball.

Aside from all that, all you had was a franchise-record 233-yard rushing day from the Ti-Cats' Troy Davis, a 74-yard TD run by Toronto's John Avery, a game-tying Hamilton TD with 87 seconds left on the clock, a missed Hamilton figgie with zero seconds left, and a see-saw overtime which saw the teams trade field goals and then major scores. The last, naturally, coming off a 1-yard plunge by the guy who started all the trouble and somehow failed to get ejected--Michael Bishop. All this and a $21,000 fifty-fifty draw too.

- 12:29 am, September 10 (link)

Extra innings: newsstand grazers can find my contribution to the National Post's five-part series on "The Single-Tier Myth" in today's issue. The online version is subscriber-only. My theme is that for a country which is in a permanent state of low-temperature civil war concerning its constitution, we seem to pay awfully little attention to the constitution's actual content--at least when it comes to the formally nonexistent "federal role" in health-care policy.

- 8:47 am, September 9 (link)


Two new links for you to bookmark. Gerry Nicholls of the National Citizens Coalition has started a page of newslinks that, I think, needs to be recontorted into a more traditional weblog layout (not that I'm advising anybody to follow my lousy example). Rather glitzier--owing to the graphic talents of Brett Lamb--is Marc Weisblott's long-awaited Trantor Project, now open to the public as the Better Living Centre.

I shouldn't overlook Steve Sailer's site, which you should be reading anyway but which is experiencing more than the usual synergy with this page. His sidebar includes an excerpt from his own print review of Hero, a startling (and yet not startling at all) neocon angle to the Akhmadov story, and plenty more.

- 9:28 pm, September 8 (link)

Revisionist Heroism: what can the summer's surprise hit movie tell us about the new China? Or, perhaps more to the point, what's with that weird, aggressive political plot twist about two-thirds of the way through the damn thing? Us right-wing types are legendary for seeing Communism where it isn't present, but in this case the reviewers missed it where it was sticking out like a sore thumb--or so I argue in Wednesday's edition of The American Spectator Online.

- 11:20 pm, September 7 (link)

Bored dilettante nerd assignment desk

Who, I wonder, will be the first Western reporter to deliver a proper profile of Ilyas Akhmadov? There are two things about this man which are exceedingly interesting, taken together:

  • He is the foreign minister-in-exile of the secessionist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and a former military adjutant to Chechnaya's generalissimo, Shamil Basayev.

  • Just one month ago, he was granted political asylum in the United States.

    I put bullets on these sentences so that their full effect can be absolutely clear to the reader. Early reports about the Beslan massacre suggest that it was ordered, in person, by Basayev. CNN mentions this in its main Beslan story this hour, but only brings up Vladimir Putin's complaint about the U.S. government's red-carpet treatment of Akhmadov on another page. When Akhmadov was granted asylum in Boston--a request that the courts granted, independent of the executive, but that required final approval by the Department of Homeland Security--Akhmadov proudly announced the news to the world press. The Russians were livid, and half-hearted efforts were made to placate them.

    "I learned (on Monday) that they had granted [asylum] to me," Akhmadov said by telephone from the United States.
    Russia, which accuses Akhmadov of terrorism and of links to an armed incursion in the Russian republic of Dagestan in 1999, has been seeking his extradition since he arrived in the United States in 2002.
    "I am happy to have succeeded in convincing the American authorities that the accusations were unfounded," Akhmadov said. He is considering a post in the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy.
    A US official in Moscow refused to confirm that Akhmadov was indeed in the United States but said granting him asylum status should not reflect on Washington’s relations with Moscow. "The US government is not allowed to interfere on decisions on asylum cases," the US embassy official said. "No decision on asylum should be misinterpreted as a statement of foreign policy," the official said.
    But Moscow was not convinced. A Russian foreign ministry statement said the decision showed that Washington was "setting double standards in the fight against terrorism." "These sort of actions contradict the spirit of Russia-US relations and do not correspond our joint goals of fighting international terrorism," the statement said.

    Russia has accused the U.S. of such "double standards" in the past, but as rage rises over the child murders in Beslan, one wonders how this sick little joke will play in the oblasts. You would have to be a lunatic to think Putin won't milk it for all it's worth and more. Akhmadov, who backed the Bush administration on Iraq--that's a morsel for you truly ingenious conspiracist confectioners out there--may be devoted to the cause of antiterrorism. But if so, half-apologizing for the perpetrators of "Russia's 9/11" in the pages of the New York Times isn't exactly helping his credentials.

    Ilyas Akhmadov, who has the role of the exiled separatists' foreign minister, said in a telephone interview that those in Chechnya who turn to terrorism have been "surrounded by the industry of death" and have "lost any illusion of a civilized solution."

    "You must agree that the elimination of one-fourth of the population is not the struggle against terrorism," said Mr. Akhmadov, who recently won the right to asylum in the United States, referring to some estimates that 200,000 or more Chechens have died since the fighting began in 1994. "On the contrary, it is something that leads to the growth of terrorism."

    Like all sophisticated democrats, it seems Mr. Akhmadov is a great believer in--and, more significantly, expounder of--"blowback" theory.

    - 3:05 am, September 7 (link)

    How confused I am. It's my habit to post my columns here seven days after they appear in the Post, but on Friday I reproduced my column from Monday, August 30, a few days early. My apologies to the paper for the mistake. Non-subscribers still haven't seen the column which should have gone up at that time--August 27's, which went like this:

    David Frum made a fertile point in these pages on Tuesday about the Swift Boat Veterans attack ad that has, depending on how you take your spin, either harried John Kerry like a poltergeist or blown up in the Bush campaign's face. The former comrades-in-arms of Senator Kerry have redefined the American campaign. Mr. Frum observes that there are a whole lot of organizations spending a whole lot more money than the Swifties and accomplishing a whole lot less.

    The Internet outfit, for example, has raised and spent at least an order of magnitude more than the Swift Boat Veterans. It has attracted a lot of attention for its grassroots funding techniques, and rightly so -- but one notices that the hype has mostly been about the money itself. When it comes to practical effects, you'd have trouble showing that MoveOn had changed the preferences of a single voter. It failed to deliver a true-blue Democratic candidate, allowing an "electable" establishment favourite to waltz to the nomination, and it has continued to fail in convincing the American public that President Bush intends to build the Fourth Reich atop the bleached bones of Iraqi children.

    You can't prove that the Swifties' thesis ("Kerry: unfit for command") has changed any minds, either, but at the very least it has set the agenda, forcing newspapers and even official biographers to fact-check Sen. Kerry's record carefully. It has been a "teaching moment" for people born in the '70s who couldn't have distinguished a Swift boat from a Lincoln log, or found Cambodia on a map. It has led to a wide-ranging debate on the nature of memory, the relevance of war experience to a candidacy, and Vietnam revisionism.

    Needless to say, it would all be illegal here. Our new electioneering law leaves no loopholes, unlike the Americans'. If a private group had something important to assert about a candidate's past during a campaign, it would have to cozy up to an editor (or columnist!), buy the microsecond or two of airtime permitted under Canadian law, or content itself with gloomy silence.

    The Swift Boat Vets campaign should permanently explode the premise of campaign spending limits -- our draconian ones, and even the American ones, which barely allow for such an ad campaign to proceed. Those spending limits are meant to keep "money" out of politics because money is thought to have some sort of mystical, sinister power to compel votes. The poorer voices, in theory, are "drowned out" by the richer ones. How, then, have a handful of ex-Navy schlubs managed to elbow aside two million MoveOn supporters?

    And when the fear is expressed that Canadian elections will degenerate into rowdy "American-style" contests, is it the power of moneyed interests we fear, or is it honest, unfettered debate? I ask this in light of the ridiculous "confirmation hearings" we have just held for our new Supreme Court nominees. Despite our best legal efforts, our elections continually get more "American" in media form, tactics and presidential-style focus; what we lack is the animating spirit of free inquiry, the sense that something more is being fought over than the managerial competence of the brutes in power.

    Justice Minister Irwin Cotler's controversial candidates for the court wouldn't deign to appear before the review committee this week; he spoke in their place, to preserve "judicial integrity." One does wonder why that integrity requires protection from Parliamentary scrutiny, but not the Prime Minister or the Justice Minister. (The Canadian Bar Association, for one, appears to take the formal view that only non-Liberal MPs are a threat to judicial independence.) The parliamentarians wanted the judges to appear to defend their past decisions and explain their political philosophies, but Mr. Cotler insisted that only a naked recitation of their curriculum-vitaes was necessary. Any exploration of their background, biases and character would have been too -- American.

    Demonstrating a dismaying contempt for Parliament, Cotler suggested that "When did you stop beating your wife?" might have been a characteristic inquiry under an American-style open review process. One would be justified in concluding that Cotler, a belaurelled internationalist, knows as much about the U.S. judicial confirmation process as a Rottweiler does about an abacus. In fact, he knows perfectly well how it works, but finds it convenient to tell stories to a country that is afraid of the nebulously "American," smug about its one-party establishment, and uncritical of the phony etiquette that sustains it. (August 27, 2004)

    - 8:35 pm, September 6 (link)

    Electric blue

    The New Scientist has an unprecedented English-language interview with Alexander Yuvchenko, one of the more interesting figures to survive the April 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. (þ: MeFi.) After the initial explosion Yuvchenko and colleague Yuri Tregub entered the damaged area around the reactor and tried to open valves that would flood the pile with coolant. I suspect Yuvchenko might be the only living person to have looked into the core of a functioning nuclear reactor (situated on Earth, that is) with unshielded eyes.

    From where I stood I could see a huge beam of projected light flooding up into infinity from the reactor. It was like a laser light, caused by the ionisation of the air. It was light-bluish, and it was very beautiful. I watched it for several seconds. If I'd stood there for just a few minutes I would probably have died on the spot because of gamma rays and neutrons and everything else that was spewing out. But Tregub yanked me around the corner to get me out the way.

    - 10:12 pm, September 4 (link)


    Once, on the first hole of a practice round--a 230-yard par 3--the media members assembled around Moe began teasing him about his putting. Moe promptly pulled a club out of his bag, smacked the ball, then turned to the reporters and announced, "I'm not putting today." The ball went in for a hole-in-one, one of 17 he has recorded...

    Golf's autistic Canadian genius, Moe Norman, has died at the age of 75.

    - 9:58 pm, September 4 (link)

    Death of a republic

    Nauru is the world's third smallest independent state; it might also be the world's first most screwed-up, if only on a per-capita basis. Not so long ago, the Pacific islet--independent since 1968--was rich from phospate-mining revenues. Guided by dodgy financial advisers, it spent lavishly in the world real-estate markets and built its own airline. Now, with the island scraped utterly clean of its one marketable physical resource, Nauru is bankrupt and is watching the symbols of its former affluence be sold off by an Australian receiver. (So the Sydney Morning Herald reports, er, "tomorrow".)

    In recent years the desperate Nauruans have taken to merchandising their penultimate asset: their national sovereignty. But they soon found themselves on the U.S. government's "rogue states" list because of a penchant for selling passports and allowing foreign banks to form shell companies on Nauruan soil. (It's a fact of life in our age that "national sovereignty" has a mildly vaporous quality for all but a very few states.) Nauru may, in the end, have to sell off the very last asset of all--its physical self. The background can all be found in a fascinating comparative study of Nauru co-written for Australia's Policy magazine by the country's former senior financial advisor. (Apparently things went pear-shaped the first time they rejected one of her suggestions--fancy that. I believe her, though...)

    - 11:20 pm, September 3 (link)

    Tim Allen vs. Francis of Assisi: today's Post column gives the definitive view-from-the-tundra of the presidential race. (I wasn't yet armed with the Time poll released today, but I saw it coming.)

    Here's last week's pre-emptively misinterpreted culture column--my absolute worst ever, according to Kelly Nestruck. (That's right--kick a freelancer when he's down!) Truthfully, I can't deny having made a conscious decision to indulge in some of the gumflap meandering that gets middle-aged tenured star columnists through the sunset years; still, I think I was onto something. There will be no Post column from me on Monday, and in fact no physical paper at all (though an electronic edition will be assembled, as usual, for subscribers). My next column will appear Friday, September 10; then there'll be one on Monday the 13th and every Monday therafter, or so goes the current theory. All, as Heraclitus reminded us, is flux.

    I was watching the surprise art house hit Napoleon Dynamite the other day. It's a meticulous, detached kind of Wes Anderson-y comedy about a teenage social outcast's difficult life in a small Idaho town. It's very quiet, and it doesn't try to knock you flat or win you over with belly laughs. It's the kind of meditative, understated thing that appeals, more and more with each passing year, to those of us who can't stand how just plain loud Hollywood movies have gotten. And by "loud" I don't mean only in the aural sense. If it's the kind of thing you're into, you've probably already reacted to the murmured hipster grapevinings and gone to see it.

    The moment in Napoleon Dynamite that got me to thinking was a cleverly staged school-dance sequence, just as impossibly awkward as I remember the real thing being. Like much of non-metropolitan North America, the movie is sort of stranded outside of time, replete with the same fashions and hair and buildings you could have seen anytime after about 1965. And at one point the 1984 hit "Forever Young", by Alphaville, starts playing in the background. "Let's dance in style, let's dance for a while..."

    It's not a song you'd hear at a real school dance now, if they even still have them. But it certainly captures a mood. For a Gen-X audience, it's a blinding pepper-spray blast of forgotten adolescent angst. I felt almost threatened, as though the spare, reverb-laced German synths could grab me and crush me down physically to my 1984 dimensions.

    Hearing that song, possibly for the first time in two decades, made me look around for signs of the tragic sensibility that pervaded the popular music of my youth, and I can't say I see much of it around, with very occasional doomed-gangsta exceptions in hip-hop. The Cure, which was always the distilled essence of that sort of brittle gloom, is still touring -- they were in Toronto a couple of weeks ago -- but they are being treated as a sort of retro animal act. What young artist would now go on a stage and sing in the keening, lugubrious tenor of Alphaville's Marian Gold? Somewhere along the line, the Metallica growl replaced the Bryan Ferry moan as the expressive mode of choice for male singers. Even our mopey "emo" acts, so-called, are pretty aggressive.

    And there's really no mystery about it: Marian gives the game away when he asks, in phrasing not too different from a hundred other '80s singers, "Are you gonna drop the bomb on us?" Something in the pulse of pop culture changed when the Cold War ended and the constant threat of instant annihilation receded. Now that '80s music, or at least a particular strain of it, feels like it was made a billion years ago by a civilization of depressed, odd-customed aliens.

    Yet it seems to remain ferociously popular, too much so to be purely a subject of irony or nostalgia. The "Eighties Weekend" seems to be the favourite item in every radio programmer's toolbox, and it's not just people who grew up in the '80s who watch VH1's I Love The '80s. A weird economic law has transformed those old Ultravox and Smiths records. It seems that at the moment a cultural style becomes impossible to reproduce with a straight face, the original artifacts of it become precious. My childhood, while my back was turned, crossed that mystical barrier that divides the old from the antique.

    What I'm curious to see, speaking as a grizzled old fart, is whether that nihilistic, spectral edge -- the vaguely doom-flavoured sound once purveyed by Berlin or A Flock of Seagulls -- creeps back in, now that we've become entangled in a new Cold War against Islamism, or Islamicism, or whatever you want to call it. The pop establishment has always been a hard ship to turn in a new direction, but the lack of any visible response to Sept. 11 (I don't count phoned-in insta-tributes by the likes of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen) is getting downright ridiculous.

    For my generation, the nuclear threat was omnipresent and deeply felt, but it never came close to being actualized. Kids growing up now, by contrast, have already been vouchsafed a horrific preview of the Decline of the West. I suspect, on this basis, that we are getting close to the time when a group like Nirvana or the Sex Pistols comes along and blasts apart the old verities, offering new tunes to suit a new tone. (August 30, 2004)

    - 4:33 pm, September 3 (link)

    Frenemies, a love story

    The latest on Fischer: has an exclusive interview with Fischer's fiancée of convenience, Japanese Chess Association acting president Miyoko Watai.

    Why did you and Fischer decide to marry legally?

    We had been satisfied with our life [before Fischer was detained]. But the arrest messed up it. To take back the previous environment, I want to get a strong position. Marrying him legally may be helpful to avoid the possible deportation and enable him to a permanent visa in Japan.

    Did he propose to you?

    Yes, he did.

    Did you try to marry him legally if the incident had not happened?

    I don't know. But one thing for sure is that we want to live together forever. He told me I'm the most reliable person for him and the closest to him.

    It sounds as though Watai and Fischer have a genuinely warm, companionate relationship. But given Fischer's boyish proclivities, it's hard to imagine him letting himself be cornered into a marriage with a 59-year-old woman unless his freedom were at stake. Boris Spassky recently wrote an open letter to President Bush, challenging him to impose the same penalty upon him as the State Department proposes to visit upon Fischer:

    In 1992, twenty years after Reykjavik, there was a miracle. Bobby resuscitated and we played a match in Yugoslavia. But at that time there were sanctions against Yugoslavia forbidding American citizens any sort of activity on the territory of Yugoslavia. Bobby violated the instructions of the State Department. He became the subject of a warrant for arrest issued on December 15, 1992 by the US District Court. As for me, as a French citizen since 1978, I did not get any sanctions from the French government.

    I would not like to defend or justify Bobby Fischer. He is what he is. I am asking only for one thing. For mercy, charity. If for some reason it is impossible, I would like to ask you the following: Please correct the mistake of President François Mitterand in 1992. Bobby and myself committed the same crime. Put sanctions against me also. Arrest me. And put me in the same cell with Bobby Fischer. And give us a chess set.

    A noble sentiment, memorably expressed. But what was Fischer's reaction to this remarkable (if slighty empty) gesture?

    I don’t want him in my cell. I want a chick. How about that Russian chick, what’s her name, Kosteniuk?

    The crassness of the comment notwithstanding, I can't say I disagree with the preference. In other chess news, World Champion Vladimir Kramnik now has his own website, just in time for his title defense against Peter Leko later this month. The site features fellatial sponsor profiles of the "cosmopolitan" Russian champ and the "ascetic" Hungarian challenger. The former piece rather glosses over Kramnik's lacklustre play as champion (he stumbled, it seems, into a "motivational trough" after beating Kasparov). In July, at the Dortmund supertournament, 14-year-old Sergey Karjakin narrowly missed converting a theoretically won endgame against Kramnik at classical time controls.

    Nevertheless, Kramnik is a heavy favourite in this month's match, with the market at giving Leko no better than a 3-to-1 shot of seizing the title. (Kramnik will remain champ if the 14 games are split 7-7, although the million-Swiss-franc prize fund will be divided evenly between them.)

    - 10:31 pm, September 2 (link)

    It's not theirs

    I never did archive my August 20 Post column here, and I don't really want to revisit it now, but part of that piece has become more relevant in the meantime, and a reader suggests I may not want to let it fall down the memory hole. I refer to a suggestion I made for a practical task that the next Governor-General of Canada can take on:

    It concerns a matter of surpassing importance in Canadian life -- namely, the labour squabble that is likely to doom the upcoming National Hockey League season. The Stanley Cup, it so happens, was originally the permanent gift to Canada of an outgoing governor-general. The means by which it came into the NHL's possession were extremely dubious. Lord Stanley's deed specified that the Cup "should be held from year to year by the champion hockey team in the Dominion," and two trustees were appointed to control it in perpetuity for this purpose. The trustees signed the cup over to the NHL in 1947, but they had no genuine authority to abandon their job or to alter Lord Stanley's will.

    It is only right that the NHL's connection with the Cup should be recognized, under ordinary circumstances, and that its champion should retain possession of it, under ordinary circumstances. These ain't ordinary circumstances. A trophy which was originally to be played for by Canadian teams at least once a year has become hostage to an incompetent professional organization. I don't see that we have to tolerate that organization's failure to play for the Cup, if it should come to that.

    The current Governor-General might use moral suasion -- and perhaps even constitutional power? -- to arrange a grand competition amongst Canadian amateur teams next May, with the real Stanley Cup as the ultimate prize, in the event that the owners and players of the NHL are still arguing and loafing.

    Set aside, for a moment, the involvement of the Governor-General: that part of the idea is too brilliant to ever actually be adopted (although it will be interesting to see if Martin appoints one of the old hockey players sometimes touted for the job; Jean Beliveau's name comes up nearly every time it becomes vacant). The fact remains that the legal status of the Stanley Cup may be about to become a live issue.

    The NHL owners have already floated a trial balloon (using the Ottawa Citizen as their medium) about dissolving the league and trying to resume play with the collective-bargaining clock reset to zero. The idea is frank nonsense--far and away the cheesiest labour-bullying tactic in the history of negotiation-by-ink in sport. The existing NHL brands are the only asset that is within the ultimate possession of the owners, and if they were to dissolve and renew the league, they would have to give up both their trademarks and any hope of signing current league stars. But the Citizen ploy reveals the apocalyptic nature of the current owner-player dispute. And in this dispute, the Stanley Cup is the wild card.

    It would not surprise me if locked-out players, at some point in a very long hiatus, demanded the legal or moral right to play for the Cup under separate, non-NHL auspices. There is apparently no legal pretext which could be used to stop them, if Lord Stanley's testament is to be taken seriously at all, as a Canadian court would surely be obliged to. It would not surprise me, either, if fans deprived of league hockey for a full season took up the point I am raising mischievously now. I ask only that whatever full-time sportswriter annexes this developing story to the cause of his own reputation give me as much credit as possible.

    - 7:25 pm, September 2 (link)

    The title says it all, really

    Direct from Rancho Cucamonga: A Mannitol-Based Perfusate for Reversible 5-Hour Asanguineous Ultraprofound Hypothermia in Canines. (þ: Pickover's Reality Carnival.) Mannitol, which sometimes turns up as an artificial sweetener in familiar consumer products, has to be one of the more intriguing molecules in the pharmacopoeia.

    - 6:41 pm, September 2 (link)

    Dumb luck theory, revisited, again, some more

    You can tell there's an election coming up in Alberta: the provincial Tories are playing hardball with Ottawa. First Ralph Klein cocks an asteroid-sized snook at Paul Martin's Healthcare Summit and Travelling Medicare Show, saying he'd rather be in Lloydminster than attend. This has generally caused the federal ministry to start kowtowing like mad, and, speaking as someone who's spent time in Lloyd, it's no wonder: the shock must have been grievous. Then, yesterday, outgoing Treasurer Pat Nelson played Alberta's best-loved national hymn of rage:

    Alberta's finance minister warned Ottawa to keep its fingers out of the province's resource revenue pie Tuesday as she forecast a budget surplus of nearly $3 billion.

    Pat Nelson said the Tories will be watching for any attempt by the federal government to introduce measures such as the national energy program, which led to a massive shutdown in Alberta's oilpatch in the 1980s. "If they come after us like they did in the early '80s... that hurts the whole country," said Nelson as she released the government's first-quarter fiscal update.

    ..."Are we cautious? You bet. Because some of us have memories and we haven't forgotten what they did to us."

    And for those who don't have personal memories, there is the urgent, murmured intergenerational instruction of the sort that must have preceded the Night of the Sicilian Vespers. (I know one distinguished gentleman who taught his children to chant "The oil belongs to the people of Alberta" whenever they drove past an oil donkey.) Nelson's evocation of the NEP provided a natural opportunity for the opposition leaders to demonstrate why they will never come within a parsec of becoming premiers of Alberta.

    Nelson said eliminating the debt will provide a lasting benefit to Albertans and all Canadians, who share in Alberta wealth through a national equalization program.

    Liberal Opposition Leader Kevin Taft, however, said the Tories should stop patting themselves on the back for paying off the debt. "The Tories didn't put the oil in the ground. None of us put the oil in the ground. It's a gift."

    Alberta's NDP said that even though the government is rolling in money, the plight of average Albertans has not improved greatly. "With oil and gas wealth we should be the envy of the country and we're not," said the NDP's Raj Pannu. "Alberta has amongst the longest health-care waiting lists and among the largest class sizes in the country."

    Pannu's statement is simply idiotic: if he cannot be called upon to reconcile his statement with the, you know, envy openly expressed on all sides for Alberta, then at least he could explain why Canadians are stumbling over themselves to migrate to the land of long waiting lists and jumbo classes. (And where, one wonders, does Raj Against the Machine get his waiting-list data?... surely not from the corporate whores at the Fraser Institute?)

    It's Taft's statement that is more interesting from the standpoint of this website's perennial obsession with the Dumb Luck Hypothesis. Though, in actuality, it's not very interesting at all: Taft utters this exact line just as often as the Klein government sends some minister into a scrum to repeat a fiscal announcement already made eleven separate times. Which is about once a week (seasonally adjusted).

    Do you suppose Taft ever wonders why the Conservatives feel obliged to engage him in this dreary, unending minuet? Could it be that... they somehow consider it politically advantageous when Taft squares himself up to the cameras and tells Albertans that nobody here deserves any credit for our relative prosperity? Doesn't this remind you of when you were a kid and your older brother, or a larger neighbour boy, would hold you down and grab your wrists and steer your hands into your face over and over again while saying Stop hitting yourself! Why are you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself, stupid! Stop it!

    Usually, the Dumb Luck Hypothesis is inflicted on Albertans by people from outside Alberta. Perhaps Taft is satisfied that his ordained role in political life is to aggressively represent the fundamental attitudes of non-Albertans to Albertans. If he ever wants to actually win, he will have to work out which end of that shotgun is supposed to point at the enemy. But I digress. Before I read Nelson's war cry I had already been reminded, this week, of the DLH. It happened when I called my mother on her birthday a few days ago and she mentioned something about Saskatchewan diamonds.

    Saskatchewan diamonds? Did I hear that right?

    Yeah, Saskatchewan diamonds. It so happens that the Fort à la Corne area, east of Prince Albert--which has an intriguing history already--contains what is thought to be the world's largest accretion of kimberlite, the characteristic geological marker for the presence of diamonds. This seems to have been known since the 1960s--magnetic surveys of the province conducted from the air make it blindingly obvious--and now de Beers is working with Canadian mining companies to begin preliminary exploration in the area.

    FALC's productive capacity is suspected, or hoped, to ultimately be much larger than that of the mines in the Northwest Territories which are already flooding premium-priced Canadian diamonds onto world markets. By "much larger", I mean "an order of magnitude larger". But any profitable extraction of the glittery stuff is still years away--five to eight, at least. Why did it take so long for serious exploration to get underway, when the financing for it has only been a matter of a few million dollars? One could propose many reasons (an obvious one being that de Beers only recently has lost its monopoly on the diamond trade), but it has been pointed out that Saskatchewan layers a delightful and unique resource surcharge on top of its corporate tax. The surcharge is levied on resource producers' gross annual sales, irrespective of profits; from what I can decipher from the news clippings, the phrase "they get you coming and going" would seem to apply here, as would certain terms of art from the pornography business. Relief arrived only in 2001, in the form of a Mineral Exploration Tax Credit. And suddenly the cry went up: Saskatchewan gots diamonds!

    The Dumb Luck Hypothesis, as it applies to Alberta, is terribly popular with people in Saskatchewan. They love to tell me, personally, how lucky Alberta has been to find itself sitting on top of all that oil. (They are generally unfazed when I explain that my parents and an army of kinfolk took the trouble to move here from Saskatchewan, many years ago, precisely because hardworking people were needed to help locate and extract all that oil.) Now I can simply point out that those who stayed behind have suddenly been revealed to be, almost literally, sitting on an assload of gems that has been left unprobed for decades. Luck ain't something you get: it's something you make.

    - 4:41 am, September 1 (link)

    Such a cold schläger (wa waaaa wa)

    How much gold is inside a bottle of weird cinnamon schnapps treat Goldschläger? And what other potential schlägers (schlägern?) have its unimaginative Swiss manufacturers left unplumbed? has the answers.

    - 2:49 am, September 1 (link)