Tsunami Relief Posturing

I heard on the CBC News today of those criticizing the Canadian government for not acting quickly and decisively enough to provide relief to Tsunami victims. (Here's a helpful map giving a rundown of the damage) The devastation is truly staggering. On Day 5, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan cited estimates of the human toll of the tsunami: "At least 115,000 are dead in the region, half a million injured, one million displaced, and at least five million in need of immediate assistance."

The Organization for Economic Development points out that no nation has donated 1% of their "gross national income." Naturally, this is a completely arbitrary yardstick for appropriate aid levels. According to the CBC, "many opposition politicians and humanitarian aid experts have criticized the Canadian government" for failing to dispatch DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) immediately to the region, instead sending a reconnaissance team first.

Initially, $4m was pledged. The following day, $40m was pledged. The criticisms were levelled at the government despite clear challenges in assessing the extent of the damage, assessing the aid needed, and developing means to deliver assistance. The fact that the tsunami made landfall on a Sunday during the holiday season while several of the relevant Cabinet members were abroad, including the PM himself, further confounded a comprehensive and timely response. Nevertheless, here is how Paul Martin describes Canada's response on Day 3, December 29:

"I have [...] directed Minister of Defence Bill Graham and Minister of Health Ujjal Dosanjh to coordinate the federal government’s response, Ministers Pettigrew and Carroll are returning to Canada immediately. Foreign Affairs Canada, Canadian International Development Agency, Citizenship and Immigration as well as Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada are among the federal organizations providing support. In addition, the following additional measures will be taken by the federal government:

--In total, $40 million has been set aside for immediate emergency relief efforts: $4 million already announced, $20 million to be detailed later this week by Ministers Pettigrew and Carroll, with the balance of the available investment and possible additional funding to follow the relief assessment on the ground;
--A second National Defence plane of emergency supplies will be deployed to the region, carrying water purification supplies to Indonesia;
--A multi-disciplinary team is being sent to the region to assess the situation on the ground and make recommendations on additional Canadian assistance, including the possible deployment of the DART;
--Additional consular staff and resources have been assigned to the region to assist Canadians who may be affected;
--In response to needs identified by international humanitarian agencies, the Government will explore the possibility of public-private partnerships"

The criticisms appear to be more political posturing than valid cause for concern. I think it's disgusting that opposition party members would use this tragedy as the backdrop for their reflexive, decerebrate contrariness. The immediate response to the tsunami must come from within the nations affected and their neighbours. Their militaries must be mobilized in the effort, and their citizens must be relocated out of harm's way to avoid compounding the problem with disease and further burdens to a devastated infrastructure. To think that by pouring money indiscriminately onto these inundated shores will achieve any good is naive. It may fool some by giving the illusion of action. But I like to think that Canada's government suffers fools reluctantly rather than pandering to them. So far so good Mr Martin. We've only just begun to help, but we're off to a good start from where I sit.


Sequels Sell...Big

It occurred to me, amid the detritus of Christmas morning at my household, that I had purchased for my kids four sequels on DVD: Spider-Man 2 (Sometimes, Web Fluid Isn't Just Web Fluid), Shrek 2, LoTRIII: The Return of the King, and Harry Potter III: The Prisoner of Azkaban. Sequels sell, and sell big. These four films led the 2004 box office take, with The Day After Tomorrow the only non-sequel to crack the top-five.

I must confess a certain weakness for a good blockbuster, though I suffer through a KFC Effect after I watch them. You know how sometimes you walk past a KFC, you smell that fried chicken, and you start crave it? You might not satisfy the craving right then, but you start looking for a chance to. You down half a bucket at one sitting, picking the bones clean and licking your fingertips. Then you get that guilty, sinking feeling after the deed is done: 'How could I have enjoyed that? I just consumed over 2000 calories and a quarter pound of fat.' (KFC Nutritional Guide) You never want to see another bucket again, do you? Until you forget how disgusting and guilty you felt the last time.

That's the way it is with blockbusters. Star Wars has easily tapped me for about $500: The original trilogy released in theaters. The original trilogy remastered in THX on VHS. The special edition theatrical release. The prequel theatrical releases. The prequels on DVD. The original trilogy on DVD. Action figures and posters, ostensibly for my kids. I don't even like George Lucas. I respect his business acumen, but don't have much respect for him as a film-maker. I think the budgets and special effects of his prequels obscure and undermine his story, and that his stilted scripts make for better viewing of his films with the French soundtrack on and English subtitles. The words are too unnatural to be spoken. Yet I keep jamming money into the greedy prick's pockets. Make it stop.

Arguably the weakest of the sequels I purchased this Christmas, Shrek 2, earned $436m in US box office and a truly frightening $881m worldwide. This for a movie that was made for an estimated $75m. A movie that made use of the fiercely comic device of a farting half-submerged ogre during the title credits, just as in the original. Why not make a sequel for that kind of coin? Return of the King took in $1,129m worldwide, bested only by Titanic on the all-time chart with a, uh, titanic take of $1,835m.

If you look at the top-rated movies at IMDB--those rated highest by IMDB users--you will find three movies on which sequels were based and three sequels in the top ten.

Familiarity apparently breeds not contempt, but box office receipts and DVD sales. Judging from the tone of this post, perhaps familiarity breeds all three. One thing is certain: I will see the next Bond / Star Wars / Spider-Man and Potter films. I am part of the problem. I know. I can't help myself.

Good films I've seen recently with zero sequelization potential: Shattered Glass, Dogville, The Big Lebowski, City of God, House of Sand and Fog, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Haven't seen a truly great film in a while.


Beautiful Pseudo-Democratic Packages Tied Up With String

Mr Putin attacked American foreign policy this weekend:
Mr. Putin, who -- partly in reaction to events in Ukraine -- lashed out at the United States yesterday, accusing it of seeking a "dictatorship of international affairs," with policies packaged "in beautiful pseudo-democratic phraseology."

--appearing in the Washington Post

Kudos to Putin, a G8 leader, for calling a spade a spade, for criticizing the US on its interventionist strategies based on hegemony, not democracy.


Church And School

Even when they get it right, they get it wrong. You've heard me complain about God in public schools before (Intelligent Design And Its Unintelligent Proponents). The Smoking Gun posted court documents regarding a school which prohibited the use of documents referring to God. The problem: the documents include American historical texts such as the Declaration of Independence and a speech of sitting president George II proclaiming a National Day of Prayer.

School Bars Declaration of Independence

The court filings posted to the Smoking Gun are for a lawsuit launched by teacher Stephen J Williams against Stevens Creek School, the District, and the Board. Williams seeks "declaratory relief, injunctive relief, nominal damages, costs and attorneys' fees." Seems reasonable. No similar restrictions regarding supplementary handouts were imposed upon his colleagues.

Granted, Williams is a self-stated orthodox Christian (para 50), and his focus on the role of belief in God in the founding of the nation may be a bit skewed. But you can't deny the references to God in the lives of the founding fathers or the establishment of the United States. Nor does Williams' lesson plan seem exclusively concerned with such references. Paragraph 43 alleges that only "five percent of all Mr Williams' supplemental handouts [...] contain references to God or Christianity." He also explains religious holidays like Ramadan, Hanakah, Diwali, and Chinese New Year.

Does God have a place in schools? I think the California Education Code (sec 51511, quoted in para 60) states that role eloquently:
"Nothing in this code shall be construed to prevent, or exclude from the public schools, references to religion [...] when such references or uses do not constitute instruction in religious principles or aid to any religious sect [...] and when such references or uses are incidental to or illustrative of matters properly included in the course of study."

Sometimes principals are cowed by overzealous parents to curb appropriate educational content. To wit, the challenge to including evolution in the biology curriculum. The injunctions Williams experienced apparently stemmed from a single parent complaint (para 36). While God has no place in biology class, He does have a place in history. To deny that is just as narrow-minded as creationists denying evolution.


Halliburton et al again...

MoJo reports of a billion dollar loophole to circumvent the competitive bidding process for defense contracts: Little Big Companies, by Michael Scherer.

Here's the scam. Federal law provisions allow the awarding of no-bid contracts to tribal businesses. While the rules of this program stipulate that between 15 and 50% of the work must be done by employees of the tribal company, the tribe can form joint ventures with third party companies and designate the non-native companies' employees as their own. Enter Halliburton et al.

Since 1999, government contracts to tribal companies have risen from $250m ($200m in single bid contracts) to $1.70b ($1.35b single bid) in 2003.

Chart: Government Contracts to Tribal Companies

So, What's the big deal? you may ask. The big deal is that companies like Halliburton are circumventing free market conventions at every opportunity. For example, Halliburton set up a sham offshore company in the Cayman's to allow them to do business in Iran. Halliburton's former CEO, Dick Cheney, is now in the White House. He appointed an old buddy of his, whom he worked for as an intern in the Nixon administration, to Defense secretary: Donald Rumsfeld. In the last four years, Halliburton has enjoyed unprecedented profitability, owing much to the award of no-competition contracts. The bidder has neither to demonstrate the economy or superiority of their bid as there are no competitors to supersede.

You can see my other posts on Halliburton from July:
Halliburton -- Building an Unsustainable Future
Sometimes, I Hate It When I'm Right


WAL-MART: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Deep Discount

Wal-Mart and China are a joint venture, and both are determined to dominate the U.S. economy

--Gary Gereffi
Professor of Sociology, Duke University

Wal-Mart was the subject of two documentaries this week: The Age of Wal-Mart appearing on CNBC, and Is Wal-Mart Good For America? appearing on PBS's Frontline. The quote above is from the Frontline piece. You can read a transcript of the entire interview with Professor Gereffi here. [As an aside, I am awestruck by the wealth of resources Frontline brings to the web. Complete transcripts of the documentary, transcripts of their interviews, additional readings, historical documents, annotated timelines, and streaming video of the entire documentary, the works.]

I will point you toward some other interesting reading in this vein:
The Wal-Mart You Don't Know, FastCompany
With a small-town culture, Wal-Mart dominates, CNBC
Don't Blame Wal-Mart for the Wal-Mart Economy, Slate
How big can it grow?, The Economist

Happy reading.


Branding The Populace

I used to think that branding was an apt description for the way companies emblazon their products with distinctive logos, colors, and styles. But it isn't just the products that are being branded, it is us. When I wear my Adidas fleece top or my Eddie Bauer khakis, when I whip out my Nikon Coolpix or my Toshiba Satellite, when I drink from a Pepsi can or eat from a Burger King bag, the company has scored a success by tagging me as their consumer. I become more than their customer, more than their billboard, I become their spokesman, a virtual employee. When I drink from that Pepsi can, I am unambiguously not drinking from a Coke can. And everything I do while conspicuously consuming, everything I am, becomes an extension of the company's ad campaign.

American advertisers pioneered the notion of lifestyle branding, then went a step further to associate emotions and primal desires with products and services. Can your running shoes reflect your perseverance? Can your cola reflect your politics? Of course they can.

Watch the Persuaders online at frontline.org, or get a fuller perspective on how advertisers manipulate us from Persuaders co-author Douglas Rushkoff in his book Coercion: Why We Listen To What "They" Say.

In fact, as Mecca Cola is proving, foreign marketers are just as adept at exploiting consumers' desire to reflect more than their thirst in their choice of beverage. In a rambling masthead on the corporate web site, I found some of the marginally coherent reasons for why there is a Mecca Cola:
• we considered the idea of launching a new concept, amely [sic] that of putting the economy to work in the interest of ideology

• One of the perversions of capitalism lies in the generation within oneself of the most brutal and the most inhumane part of oneself.

• The spirit which governed the creation of Mecca-Cola was to create a profit-making business which would help to relieve human suffering where action is still possible.

Now, to its credit, Mecca Cola does seem to be involved in humanitarian activity. However, it is at its heart a business, and an increasingly threatening one to American competitors like Coca-Cola and Pepsi who saw dramatic decreases in consumption in Arab markets after the introduction of Mecca Cola and similar 'prinicpled' soft drinks like British Qibla Cola, Iranian Zamzam Cola, and French Muslim Up. I swear I'm not making this up.

The threat is looming large enough that some American businesses have banded together to form an organization called Business for Diplomatic Action, described as "a nonprofit organization that mobilizes multinational corporations to build lasting, enriching partnerships with local communities around the world." Keith Reinhard, President of BDA, Inc, notes in an interview with the US Chamber of Commerce staff at the Centre for Corporate Citizenship, that a survey of international attitudes toward Americans and their business practices revealed two sentiments:
"...while people around the world admired many things about America and Americans—our diversity, our openness, our innovation and creativity, and our
freedoms—there were pronounced and consistent negatives, most of them related to U.S. business expansion."
Then he states paradoxically, and presumably without any irony: "It seemed obvious that, if business was the cause of some of the problems, business could be mobilized to address the issue." Ooh boy. He doesn't quite get it, does he? It's statements like that which cause steam to whistle comically from Naomi Klein's ears.

The bottom line is that we will never escape the onslaught of advertising clutter. So be alert, and be principled in your consumption. You've already heard me suggest that you avoid CanWest Global media outlets. You can do the same with foreign national megastores, companies that use excessive packaging, blood diamonds, Nazi sympathizers, etc. Choose your allegiances well, and bear those brands proudly.


self immol8 4 freedom

Appearing in this month's Harper's Magazine:


From a list of blocked words and phrases discovered by hackers in China's most popular instant-message software. Translated from the Chinese by Christopher G. Rea.

betray the nation
children of high officials
commie dogs
create turmoil
credit crisis
foreign affairs and the general plan
hold different political views
human rights
literary inquisition
mass movement
old men's politics
public funds
public opinion is against the system
reading prohibited
real people and real events
real sentiments of the people
real situation
student unrest
whitewashed peace and tranquillity
will of the people

Rat Neurons Pilot Jet

At once fascinating and disquieting, this research marks, as Wired puts it, "a great day for science ... and a terrible day for human pilots. How would you feel knowing that your job could be outsourced to cortical tissue from a rodent?"

Dr Thomas DeMarse, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida, released the results of a study in which 25,000 rat neurons configured in a network in tissue culture overlying a grid of 60 electrodes were trained to fly a simulated F-22 jet.

The CNN report can be found here. I also managed to find this University of Florida Press Release, Dr DeMarse's CV and web page.


Voting With Their Feet

This is not a post on how amputees made their opinions known last week. This is about Americans so frustrated with their myopic, bloodthirsty, xenophobic countrymen, that they are contemplating cutting their losses and moving to Canada:

Disenchanted Americans flood immigration website

This is a best case scenario phenomenon if true. Skilled, affluent, principled, left-leaning immigrants are hard to come by. But this immigration approach leads to so much paperwork and lawyer-fleecing. I have an alternate suggestion.

All the states that voted for Kerry either border Canada or are contiguous with states that do (except Hawaii). I propose that Canada simply annexes these states, and become a super-state, known perhaps as New Canafornida.

Yes, Washington, Oregon, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsyvania, New York, Maryland, DC, Deleware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachussets, Maine, and New Hampshire--Hawaii, too--join our nation. Join a nation (unlike the UK or Australia) that refused to embark on an immoral war to secure oil, predicated on lies. Join a nation that elects centrist parties, not extremists. Join a nation where God's place is in the church, mosque, or temple, not the legislature. Join a nation of boundless beauty, and natural riches. Join a nation that understands that guns do kill people. Join a nation that cares for each of its citizens when they become ill. Join a nation that is a friend to the world. We welcome you with open arms.

Thinking about moving to Canada, the best country in the world? Check out Citizenship and Immigration Canada. And dress warmly.


Lying With Statistics

My Dad used to teach a Statistics course. One of his lectures was called 'Lying With Statistics,' and the lecture covered misleading statistical representations to alert students to such deceptions.

This post is about a small point, but I think a telling one. In announcing Bush's victory last week, Andrew Card stated that:
In this election, President Bush received more votes than any presidential candidate in our nation's history.

This is true but misleading. The statement conceals the fact that John Kerry also received more votes than any other American President. It conceals the fact that Bush's margin of victory (3.5m) falls short of Clinton's (8.2m), Reagan's (16.9m), Nixon's (18.0m), Johnson's (16.0m), or Eisenhower's (9.6m) second-term victories in absolute votes, and represents an even narrower win in relative terms.

As far as I know, Bush II is the only presidential candidate to defeat his closest rival despite garnering fewer votes, as he did infamously in 2000 (Bush II: 50,456,002 to Gore: 50,999,897). I know nobody has since Dubya Dubya Two.

None of this alters the fact that Kerry lost and lost incontrovertibly. It does point out that political rhetoric must always be viewed skeptically. And so should the media. The fact that Kerry scored more votes this election than any previous President occurred to me immediately. Why has no journalist raised this refutation to Card's empty claim? Bush's victory has the illusion of a mandate, an illusion that is being strengthened by GOP disinformation and pleas from his challenger, during his concession speech, to rally behind the President. Astounding.

PS: My favorite electoral maps covering the election:
CBC Newsworld - the pop-ups on mouse-over are brilliant
BBC News - fascinating and detailed historical results
CNN - telling exit poll data

10x10: Cool Meets News

I love elegant design. The developers of 10x10 have created an elegant and useful interface to the latest news. This interface comes from way outside the box of traditional headline-plus-column, scrolling ticker, or precis list news presentation.

Every hour, 10x10 scans the RSS feeds of several leading international news sources, and performs an elaborate process of weighted linguistic analysis on the text contained in their top news stories. After this process, conclusions are automatically drawn about the hour's most important words. The top 100 words are chosen, along with 100 corresponding images, culled from the source news stories.

Move your mouse around the images and you'll see which words match which images. Move your mouse up and down the word list, and the corresponding images will light up. Click any word or image to zoom in and see the news headlines behind the word. Click the headline links to read the original news stories. Click the zoomed image a second time to see the image full screen.

Just check it out.

It'd be cool if you could customize the interface--My 10x10--selecting your favorite news sources from a list. I'd also like the images and text to be bigger, with an expandable matrix to maximize my screen res, or maybe a full screen mode. That would be cool.


An Election Haiku

Bush declared winner
Four more years of lies and war
Kerry, we lose too


Bush, Kerry, Nader
The choice is finally made
Democracy sucks, eh?


'What's it going to be then, eh?'

So begins Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, a disturbing look at the joy of the knife, penal reform, and aimless adolescent passions. We discussed the book for Pharos Book Club on Saturday in the screening room at the Cat's Meow in Kelowna, a sort of antithesis of the Korova milk bar being named for a cat not for milk, and being decked out in black with groovy accents rather than white.

Burgess arrests you immediately in his opening pages vividly describing the wanton ultraviolence perpetrated by the London youth of a not-too-distant future. And he relates the story as a memoir composed by Alexander--the most vicious of his small crew--in the language of Nadsat, a Slav-ified pidgin English with hints of rhyming slang thrown in. Burgess himself was an accomplished linguist and polyglot. Here's a taste, more than a mouthful, a passage describing some poor chelloveck's trip after imbibing 'a demi-litre of white [...] with a dollop of synthemesc', or similar milk-plus concoction:
The chelloveck sitting next to me [...] was well away with his glazzies glazed and sort of burbling slovos like ‘Aristotle wishy washy works outing cyclamen get forficu­late smartish’. He was in the land all right, well away, in orbit, and I knew what it was like, having tried it like everybody else had done, but at this time I’d got to think­ing it was a cowardly sort of a veshch, O my brothers. You’d lay there after you’d drunk the old moloko and then you got the messel that everything all round you was sort of in the past. You could viddy it all right, all of it, very clear—tables, the stereo, the lights, the sharps and the malchicks—but it was like some vesbch that used to be there but was not there not no more.
Each of the novel's three parts begins with the same phrase--'What's it going to be then, eh?'--communicating the ennui of the protagonist and youth in general. The book may have been inspired by an attack on Burgess and his wife, Lynne, in 1944, the book perhaps serving as a catharsis for the attack, and subsequent miscarriage and death his wife suffered.

Burgess becomes an apologist for the assailants, at least in his original version. Blake Morrison, in his introduction to the Penguin edition pictured above, describes the expurgated text as perhaps the only instance in which an artist was forced to alter his work to make it more pessimistic for an American audience. Burgess' original included a seventh and final chapter in Part Three; in the version I read for book club, I was blissfully unaware of this chapter, an epilogue that softens the despair of the American edition.

After Alex is finally captured during an ultimately fatal attack on a starry ptitsa, he is incarcerated in an unbearably overcrowded prison. To commute his sentence, he elects (a morally significant detail) to undergo Ludovico's treatment, a Pavlovian conditioning program in the same vein as Brave New World's hypnopaedia and 1984's Room 101. The procedure, horrifyingly and faithfully rendered in Kubrick's film adaptation, conditions its subject to associate the nausea and revulsion induced by an injected drug with the violent activity simultaneously portrayed on-screen in front of him. The subject is rendered harmless as his desire to halt his stomach-churning trumps his underlying desire to tolchock some starry veck, or get up to a little in-out-in-out with a horrorshow sharp.

Alex is released from prison and left to his own devices. He is the poster boy for the state, an embodiment of the solution to problems of overcrowded prisons and unsafe streets. Alex not only becomes a tool of the ruling rightist totalitarians, but the underground leftists, including the husband of one of his victims. He is induced by them to attempt suicide, deprogrammed, restored to his violent tendencies, and the American text ends with Alex declaring that he is cured.

Chapter 7, however, shows a subdued Alex, blunted as he attains the ripe age of 18. He has a paternal wistfulness as he chides his droogs and opts out of the night's fun. He muses on a future in which his son will be just as deaf to reason, and destined repeat the same folly of Alex's youth--perhaps even killing someone--and so on through the generations.

The seventh chapter transforms the book from a political diatribe, lashing out at leftists and rightists who treat their citizens as mere instruments of the State, to a coming of age story which explains and excuses violent teen passions as inevitable growing pains.

We had another wide-ranging discussion that exceeded our usual three-hour alotment. We observed the similarities between this book and two other dystopic visions we've encountered in book club: the aforementioned Brave New World and 1984. One of us anticipated that the story's vivid violence would be too much for her emotional constitution to bear, so she chose not to read the story but instead came for the discussion. We talked about the validity of Alex's choice to be programmed when the alternative was continued imprisonment, and about the concept of a 'Decision Tree': if Alex's decisions to that point were freely made, then he is ultimately responsible for the limited choices available to him and the choice is thus valid. We talked about parenting, corporate propaganda, public education, organized religion and the fuzzy distinction between programming and socializing youth.

A great book with a fresh voice and important things to say forty years after it was written, A Clockwork Orange however doesn't always hit the mark. The Slavic language influence would probably be more aptly replaced with a South Asian influence in the UK or Hispanic one in the US. I sometimes found myself trying to imagine just such a Hindglish or Spanglish bastard language. Burgess' dismissal of the hooligans' tendencies as a mere hormone-fueled phase misses the danger of true sociopaths who never grow up and demonstrate robust recidivism. The novel is nevertheless provocative, clever, direct, and succinct, and a winner in my books.


Flip-Flop Flim-Flam

Mother Jones is guilty of repeating Karl Rove's dirty spin by labelling Bush as a flip-flopper in an article by Professor Arthur Blaustein. The most important line in the essay is buried at the end, so I'll mention it first before the laundry list of flip-flops:

...the mass media, through incompetence and a herd mentality, have missed this defining and crucial story. Bush's flip-flopping had nothing to do with complexities or principle, and everything to do with political expediency. This is not a case of one or two isolated switches; it's a deliberate pattern of manipulation designed to deceive the American electorate. What we find behind the pattern, and the mask, is a candidate who lacks character, principles, and integrity.

Prescription drugs from Canada: For, then Against (Big campaign contributions from pharmaceutical corporations)
Assault weapons in our streets: Against, then For (Pandering to the NRA and gun manufacturers)
The creation of a homeland security agency: Against, then For (Public outcry and political expediency)
McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform: Against, then For (Unprincipled opportunism)
Nation-building: Against, then For (A double somersault to justify neocon invasion plans)
Steel tariffs: Against, then For, then Against (A free-trader becomes a protectionist to win votes in Pennsylvania and Ohio)
Arsenic in water: For, then Against (Public outcry...those darned scientists)
Mandatory caps on carbon dioxide: For, then Against (The power of the coal and power companies)
Outside investigation into WMD: Against, then For (Public outcry and world opinion)
WMD: We found them and then we didn't find them (Confusion, convenience and "flexibility")
Gay Marriage: First it's an issue for the states and then a federal issue (An opportunistic, red-meat, divisive wedge issue)
Osama bin Laden: In 2001 he was our No. 1 public enemy; in 2002, "I truly am not that concerned about him" (Failure to prosecute the real war against terror)
North Korea's nuclear threat: First it was extremely important; now it's not much of a threat (A parry to divert attention from misplaced priorities)
Cutting troops in Europe: Against, then For (Bad planning for the number of troops needed in Iraq and Afghanistan)
Immigration reform: For liberalization, then Against (A conflict between wooing the Hispanic vote and angering his nativist base)
AmeriCorps funding: For, then Against (A favorite target of congressional reactionaries)
Patriot Act II: For, then Against (The need to appear more moderate in the middle of an election; even angered Republican civil libertarians)
The 9/11 commission: Six flip-flops, Against and then For: 1) The creation of the commission; 2) the composition of the commission; 3) the extension to allow it to complete its work; 4) his testifying; 5) the testimony of his national security advisor; and finally 6) the implementation of the findings (Public outcry, particularly from the families of 9/11 victims and then commision members -- Republicans and Democrats)
The war in Iraq: At least nine different rationales as to why the U.S. invaded, and still counting (Reality catching up with fantasy)
The war in Iraq: "It will be a cakewalk," then, "It will be long and difficult." (Talking out of both sides of the mouth; depending upon audience)

It would have been nice if Blaustein supported all these allegations with objective evidence and not just sound-bite quotes. Naturally, you shouldn't believe everything you read. But you shouldn't believe anything a Republican wearing a seven-foot high sandal costume says (I love this picture).

Other reports in this vein with more quotes:
Bush rivals Kerry in 'flip-flop' decision-making
President Flip-Flop?


Canadian Muslim Cleric Stirs Hatred

I was disgusted when I heard the remarks of Sheik Younus Kathrada broadcast on CBC last night. You can see a report here.

His remarks came to prominence because a 26-year-old Vancouverite, Rudwan Khalil Abubaker, was killed in Chechnya reportedly engaging in terrorist activity there. Investigations into what may have led Abubaker to be found there discovered that he had attended the Dar Al-Madinah mosque in Vancouver.

The CBC claims that the lecture in question was posted to the mosque's website shortly after Hamas leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated. I visited the mosque's site and could not find a lecture of that date, roughly March or April 2004. I could therefore not verify for myself the accuracy of CBC's report:
In his lecture, Kathrada also said the enmity between Muslims and Jews will never go away. He lashed out at Muslims who say bridges should be built between the two religious communities.

He said there will never be peace, instead there will be an apocalyptic war.

"Then what will happen? Listen to the good news after that. The prophet ... says that the stone and the tree will say, 'Oh Muslim, oh slave of Allah, that verily behind me is a Jew. Then come and kill him.'"
These remarks are inexcusable. I hope Kathrada is formally investigated for crimes described in the Criminal Code of Canada, sections 318 (Advocating Genocide) and 319 (Public Incitement to Hatred). If evidence of wrongdoing is found, may justice be served--not by wanton state-sponsored assassination as 'justice' is meted out in the Middle East, but by stopping the activity and incarcerating the perpetrator.

Jewison's Unabashed Bashing

Saw The Statement last night. A very tidy fictional account of a Nazi collaborator during the Vichy France regime coming to justice five decades after the fact. The premise: Brossard (Michael Caine) is being hunted by a Jewish group avenging his execution of seven innocent jews during the second world war. The movie is based on the book of the same name by Brian Moore.

In the course of the movie, we learn that Brossard has been haunted by the incident for the past fifty years, and has been living in fear and hiding. He was supported financially and given sanctuary by the mysterious Chevaliers de Ste Marie, an order of the Catholic Church. He was also helped along by various members of the French police. Now sought on charges of crimes against humanity and pursued by contract killers, Brossard's supports crumble from beneath him. Tilda Swinton plays the leggy, impulsive judge out for justice, whose character coincidentally shares a surname with one of Brossard's victims. She is assisted by an army colonel charmingly played by Jeremy Northam, as the police cannot be trusted.

In the end, a desperate, remorseful and panic-stricken Brossard is gunned down. The avenging Jewish organization is revealed to be a sham created by police officials covering their tracks. They, too, are exposed. Justice is served with minimal intervention of the law. The Catholic Church is tarred as well. Jewish people in the film are either victims of the war crime or pursuers in high office, but none of them muss their coattails in the gutter with the Nazis, Vichy collaborators, French police, or the prototypical anti-semites, the Catholic Church. Hm. Pretty tidy.

Michael Caine is great in this film. Through much of it, he is a snivelling and hysterical fugitive. But there are moments of quiet cruelty that reveal the essence of the man. I was not sorry when he died, except for regretting that I had sat through such a slanted and retaliatory film. It is as if Jewison is saying, "Let us not forget that six decades ago, the Nazis were not the only culprits. Here are a bunch of other people we should blame and never forgive." How healthy and constructive that must be for the Jewish community.



Read, Seen, or Attended Lately

The Minnesota Twins at the New York Yankees
Yankee Stadium, Thursday, September 30
My friend and colleague, David, invited me out to a ball game while we were briefly in New York recently, and what a game. The Yankees broke two records that night—the single-season attendance record and the franchise home runs in a season record—as well as clinching their division in dramatic style with a Bernie Williams dinger in the bottom of the ninth to break a 4-4 tie. Best spectator moments: fan in front of us hollering 'Konichi-wa!' at every Matsui at bat for five innings before learning it simply meant 'hello.' He switched to 'Banzai!' Best moment happened after Olerud homered in his third at bat to wild adulation, then grounded out in his fourth. He was rewarded immediately with 'You're a bum!' from an especially fickle fan a few seats back.

Brad Mehldau Quartet
Live at the Village Vanguard, Friday, Oct 1
Mehldau adds Mark Turner's saxophone to his familiar trio. I thought the ensemble played with mixed results. Larry Grenadier (b) had the most enjoyable solo of the night, but both Mehldau and Turner displayed flares of virtuosic brilliance. Somehow, Turner's solos seemed more self-indulgent than the others'.


The Bell Tolls For Thee

In September, the Pharos Book Club met to discuss Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls. The book begins with an epigram from a sermon by John Donne:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Hemingway's story is set in central Spain during the Spanish Civil War and follows the role of an American fighter with the International Brigades as he carries out a seemingly futile mission. In the span of three days, Robert learns of horrific atrocities committed by Loyalists, develops a close affinity with the rebel fighters assisting him, and falls in love with a young woman who was victimized by the Nationalists. Robert reflects on his reasons for fighting, and how the fighting transforms him:

It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with those who were engaged in it [...] But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling [....] You could fight.

So you fight [....] And in the fighting soon there was no purity of feeling for those who survived the fighting and were good at it.

We talked about Americans fighting on foreign soil, and about the parallels of such fighting with the current conflict in Iraq. We spoke about Robert Jordan as a Christ figure, with conspicuous references to a three-day span of the story's action like the resurrection, and of Maria washing Jordan's feet with tears and drying them with her hair, etc. We talked about hares in the story as generally being symbolic of the rebels and their vulnerability, and specifically of two hares shot copulating in the snow as foreshadowing the demise of Robert and Maria's relationship.

It was a wide-ranging discussion that also broached the background surrounding the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism, and the tragedy of suicide in the novel, Hemingway's life, and Hemingway's death. We talked about where the Loyalists in a Catholic nation like Spain sought solace for their consciences after renouncing the Church.

Then we returned to the epigram and its message regarding the connectedness of humanity, specifically as it relates to war. Deaths on both sides of the battle lines diminish us. Having a hand in those deaths alters and ultimately corrupts us.

Intelligent Design And Its Unintelligent Proponents

I've just read The Crusade Against Evolution in this month's issue of Wired and am stunned that the myth of Intelligent Design can actually stand shoulder-to-shoulder with evolution in the public arena.

ID supporters seek to distort facts, misquote their opponents, and propose dubious ethnocentric alternatives--hmmm, who does that remind you of--to undermine evolution as the explanation of life's diversity. Darwinian evolution has come a long way. Darwin's original theories were based on observations limited by the tools and scientific context of his time. He was unaware of the mechanism of transmitting heritable characteristics to offspring, elucidated by Gregor Mendel at the turn of the century. Darwin also felt that evolution operated at the level of the individual organism. Today, most biologists believe that the selective pressures act at the level of the gene in its milieu within the genome and the environment beyond its "gene machine", the organism in which it resides. This latter revision of evolution is eloquently and engagingly discussed in Richard Dawkins' book, The Selfish Gene, published nearly three decades ago.

You can read Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in its entirety online at bartleby.com. I also suggest you read anything by Richard Dawkins, especially The Blind Watchmaker, and Climbing Mount Improbable.

A novel like Robert J Sawyer's Calculating God is a wonderful and provocative fiction. Some have misinterpreted this work as support for ID. I have no doubt that the author intended to introduce or promote the notion to his readership. But a reader cannot be so credulous as to read a book that begins with an alien demanding, "Take me to your paleontologist," as a legitimate refuation of evolution or proof of a designer intervening in life's pageant on our planet. It is a gedanken experiment.

Any thoughtful examination of today's evidence would conclude that creationism, intelligent design, and darwinism are all incorrect. Reductionist evolutionary theory based on genetic selection is the best fit to the data.

The trouble with America begins in its schools, with a pledge that invokes allegiance to a nation under God every day. The smug chauvinism this engenders, the belief that the nation's pre-eminence is a consequence of divine providence, that God has a hand in anything America does, is the surest path to a self-righteous and self-serving foreign policy that respects others as long as Americans can prosper as a result. It is also a path to ignorance and conflict. If Americans wish to confuse and confound their educational system with theology cloaked in scientific rhetoric, that's bad for everyone.


Who Watches The Watchmen

Control Room is not (as I have read here) the movie that Fahrenheit 9/11 should have been. Hijacking Catastrophe is. Control Room is an excellent behind the scenes look at an international news organization under threat politically and under fire. It is focused on the role of Al Jazeera in the Iraq invasion. See an excellent complement to the documentary here, at CBC.

The cleverly titled documentary takes a look at the news factory that was CENTCOM, Central Command for the Department of Defense's Office of Public Affairs, a barracks for the world's news organizations 700 miles from Baghdad. This was the control room, the clearing house for the images and spin spewing out of Iraq during the conflict.

The hypocrisy of Rumsfeld, decrying Al Jazeera as liars while rattling off strings of his own lies, is at once comic and chilling. The engineering of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue photo-op was something I had not been aware of. This iconic image suggesting a jubilant and liberated Iraq was a sham.

By constructing simulacra of truth, the US breeds skepticism about any other assertion it makes. And that's in the West. Imagine how they feel about the US in the Middle East.

Back to Al Jazeera. I wholeheartedly support the availability of an Arab news network beyond the jurisdiction of the region's dictators, and beyond the reach of American advertisers. Al Jazeera will be made available to Canadians, with some modifications. It is interesting that Control Room appeared on the season premiere of The Passionate Eye, on the eve of the news network's rollout to the Canadian market. Al Jazeera senior producer Samir Khader offered up some feel good platitudes about Al Jazeera's noble cause, all the while chain-smoking like Nathan Thurm. More power to AJ, but I've been duped enough times to be skeptical of any news organization, a sad truth.

Just so we get this straight: lies, damned lies, statistics, and press releases of the US Department of Defense. Just kidding. I'm sure some of these statements are true. I just can't tell which ones, and therein lies the problem.


Denounce the Peacemakers

“Naturally the common people don’t want war… But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along....the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

-- Nazi Reich Marshall Herman Goering at his Nuremberg War Crimes Trial

Thanks, apple head, for suggesting I watch Hijacking Catastrophe.


CanWest 'Terrorist' Tangle

CanWest has modified Reuters news wire stories, inserting the word 'terrorist' for 'militant', 'insurgent' or 'extremist'. CanWest states it is striving to strip the news wire stories of "misleading gloss" as a duty to its readership. Here's an example of their helpfulness:

[A National Post] article, filed from Jerusalem and carrying the byline "Jeffrey Heller, Reuters, with files from Agence France-Presse," described the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades of the West Bank as "a terrorist group that has been involved in a four-year-old campaign of violence against Israel." The Reuters original story referred to "the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, which has
been involved in a four-year revolt against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank."

Don't get me wrong: I do not support Al-Aqsa's tactics, and they certainly appear to be responsible for numerous civilian casualties. However, while the alteration is substantial, the article is attributed to Reuters without qualification.

CanWest's policy is to apply the term 'terrorist' to "someone who deliberately targets civilians." Hmmm. Would they paint the US with this brush? After all, the US is responsible for the deliberate attacks on civilian populations in Japan, at Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. The Allies were also responsible for attacks on civilians notoriously in Dresden. Israel routinely targets civilians with its violence. So is CanWest merely calling a spade a spade? Is their readership too unsophisticated to draw distinctions between militants, insurgents, terrorists, fugitives, protesters, fanatics, etc? Wouldn't life be simpler if you could tar any ululating, gun-toting brownie with the same brush?

Reuters does not want to be seen holding that brush. I don't want to buy a newspaper, read a magazine, or watch broadcasts from a company that does. Here is a list of the major media properties owned by CanWest. Be sure they do not profit from your patronage.

Major Metropolitan Newspapers
• National Post
Montreal Gazette
• Ottawa Citizen
• Windsor Star
• Regina Leader-Post
• Saskatoon StarPhoenix
• Calgary Herald
• Edmonton Journal
Vancouver Sun
Vancouver Province
Victoria Times-Colonist

Television Networks
• Global Television
• CH Hamilton
• CH Vancouver Island
• CH Montreal
• CHBC Kelowna
• CKRD Red Deer
• Men TV
• Mystery
• DejaView
• Lonestar
• Fox Sportsworld Canada
• Xtreme Sports

Broadcast Radio
CKBT 91.5 The BEAT
• Channel Z
• Solid Gold FM
The Rock FM Network
The Edge

Net Portal
• canada.com

This begs the question: What is a terrorist? How should a terrorist be defined? Are insurgents or rebels resisting the invasion of their country terrorists? According to the Criminal Code of Canada, terrorist activity is defined very broadly indeed. Terrorist attacks need not harm civilians. Property damage or a disruption of service is sufficient to qualify as terrorist activity if it is committed "for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause" and "with the intention of intimidating the public...with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act." So if you blockade a road to protest clear-cuts, is that a terrorist activity?

Well, maybe. But "This definition of “terrorist activity” expressly excludes ordinary acts of advocacy, protest, dissent, work stoppage, or the expression of political, religious or ideological thoughts, beliefs or opinions per se." (see here)

Confused yet?

Perhaps because it is so challenging to define, and because of the fear that grips the West, terrorism constitutes a charged, dangerous and potentially misleading label. It should be used judiciously, and more precise terms should be used in its place where possible. This appears to be what Reuters is doing. Not only is CanWest changing Reuters' copy, it is falsely attributing that copy to Reuters. Who knows what other misrepresentations are routinely intoroduced into CanWest's reporting as a matter of policy, or tolerated at the whim of their editors.

A news organization's most valuable asset is its reliability. Look at CBS's recent woes when it undermined the public's trust. CanWest has lost mine.


OSO Concert: Take the Fifth

I enjoyed the Okanagan Symphony's most recent concert on Saturday, September 11, primarily because of the finale on the program, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The concert, mysteriously titled Date With Destiny, included Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Roccoco Theme featuring cellist Paul Marleyn. The concert also featured Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus, not Murphy's Colour of My Dreams as listed on the program.

Rautavaara's piece opened the concert. The composition is notable for its combination of recorded birdsong of migratory Arctic Circle birds in Finland, along with live orchestral accompaniment. The recorded passages have a haunting quality. Accompanying woodwind and brass play complements the birdsong. The lush strings play to create the landscape underlying the cacophony. The piece is a bit self-indulgent, lean on melody, but heavy on mood and colour. The performance was marred, not by the live performers, but by the sound engineers who could not eliminate a distracting hum from their playback of the recording. This was especially annoying during the piece's quiet passages.

Tchaikovsky's Variations were a disappointment. Marleyn performed capably, with only a couple of small misstrokes. The demanding passages requiring Marleyn's left hand to shoot down the finger board nearly to the bridge were performed cleanly and skillfully. But the piece did not move me, and for this I blame Tchaikovsky, not Marleyn and the orchestra.

After the intermission, the orchestra roared back with Symphony No. 5. Introduced by the familiar four note Fate motif, the first movement did not let up in intensity or pace. Following Beethoven's weak second movement, the symphony resumes its verve in the third, then proceeds directly into the fourth movement without a break. Midway through the fourth movement, the trombones make their first appearance, not only in this symphony but in any symphony. Their round, full sound announces their presence dramatically. Beethoven also introduced the piccolo and the double bassoon in this work.

Beethoven was a relentless innovator. As we learned during Maestro Sanford's pre-concert lecture, Beethoven's--and possibly all of classical music's--most familiar symphony overwhelmed his contemporaries. The piece, however, was not dismissed as Sanford suggested. Critic ETA Hoffman was effusive with his praise:
Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing -- a longing in which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs. Only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with a full-voiced general cry from all the passions, do we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.

Beethoven's contemporary Jean Francois Le Sueur was also overwhelmed: "It's incredible! Marvelous! It has so upset and bewildered me that when I wanted to put on my hat, I could not find my head."

Maestro Sanford also commented on "new music" and the importance of integrating challenging, modern pieces into an orchestra's program. Beethoven's innovative symphony would have been shut out of the concert hall if today's attitudes about new music prevailed at the time. Sanford raised a caution about integrating technology into orchestral performances as in Cantus Arcticus, saying that sometimes such attempts can distract from and undermine the classical players. Indeed, we saw that on Saturday as a technical gaffe spoiled a performance. The Kansas City Symphony is experimenting with a PDA called a Concert Companion that provides real time information about a piece as it's performed. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has also integrated video screens into its performances, showing close-ups of conductor Bramwell Tovey, members of the orchestra, or soloists. Speaking of his friend and technology in the concert hall, Maestro Sanford quipped, "I don't think it's bringing people closer to classical music. I think it's bringing classical music closer to football."


One Nation Under God

I was reading over the Democratic Party Platform, and was arrested by this passage:
That is the America we believe in. That is the America we are fighting for. That is the America we will build together – one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
It perplexed me that the platform would iterate this highly contested phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance. Especially in light of their policies regarding abortion...
we stand proudly for a woman's right to choose, consistent with
Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that right. At the same time, we strongly support family planning and adoption incentives. Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.
...same sex relationships...
We support full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the
life of our nation and seek equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections for these families.
...embryonic stem cell research...
President Bush has rejected the calls from Nancy Reagan,
Christopher Reeve and Americans across the land for assistance with embryonic stem cell research. We will reverse his wrongheaded policy.
...and financial support of faith-based programs.
we will honor First Amendment protections and not allow public funds to be used to proselytize or discriminate.


Finally, A Word On Men's Gymnastics

I know you have probably been waiting for men's gymnastics to make it to this blog. Wait no longer.

This is about the FIG (Federation Internationale de Gymnastique), the US Olympic Committee, Paul Hamm, and Yang Tae Young.

Here's the story: In the All-Around Men's Gymnastics Competition at the Olympic Games on August 18, Yang Tae Young's parallel bars routine was incorrectly assessed by the FIG's technical panel as having a maximum point value of 9.9. As a result, Tae Young scored one-tenth of a point less than he deserved, winding up finishing in third place for a bronze medal. Paul Hamm amassed the highest point total in the All-Around and was awarded a gold medal, edging out the second place Korean gymnast Kim Dae Eun. Their point totals were: Hamm, 57.823; Eun, 57.811; and Young, 57.774. If not for the error, Yang Tae Young would have won the gold.

In a statement issued by the FIG on August 21, the FIG announced they made a "judging mistake" and suspended three officials. The FIG also announced that there is no mechanism for protest:
The judges’ marks have to be accepted as a final decision and cannot be changed.
In statements reported in the American press, Hamm has revealed the poor lines of communication with the FIG:

A lot of the time I did not know what the FIG [International Gymnastics Federation] had decided ... and what I was doing was basically looking on the Internet to see what reporters had been saying because no one had contacted me. Not a single person.
Fair enough. But Hamm also said, "If the FIG will decide that I have to give it back, I’ll do it."

Bruno Grandi wrote a letter to Paul Hamm and asked the USOC to pass it along to Hamm. You can read the letter here. In it, Grandi congratulates Paul on his performance, quotes Hamm's statement regarding returning the medal, concedes that the error lay with the FIG, and states "the true winner of the All-Around competition is Yang Tae Young." Bafflingly, the letter falls short of asking Hamm to return his medal: "you are the only one who can make this decision."

The USOC refused to relay the letter to Hamm, further undermining the lines of communication that Hamm complained about. The chair, Peter Ueberroth notes, "To put an athlete on the field of play [in position] to make a decision [on a contest] just doesn't make any sense." I have to agree.

How should this have unfolded?

  • Scenario 1: FIG concedes the error, says there is no mechanism for protest, that the review is for internal purposes only, and states clearly that the competition results should stand as awarded.

  • Scenario 2: FIG concedes the error, states that the competition results are invalid, reissues corrected results, and instructs the medalists to return the medals for redistribution.

  • Scenario 3: FIG concedes the error, states that the competition results are invalid, reissues corrected results, and petitions the IOC to award a second gold medal to Young.

Before I wrote this post, I thought Hamm was being obtuse and splitting hairs. After reading the FIG's statement and letter to Hamm, I have to confess that I am starting to agree with Hamm, and feel that the FIG has bungled the matter.


Sometimes, Web Fluid Isn't Just Web Fluid

I was pleasantly surprised on Saturday when I took my eight-year-old to see Spider-Man 2 as a treat for participating in a recent provincial swim meet. I expected the usual comic books for film fare. Something in the neighborhood of the X-Men rather than like the graphic novel adaptation From Hell. What I got was a film in the tradition of the comic book, but with some sophisticated flourishes.

[some spoilers here]

So, we get Peter Parker's familiar guilt about the death of his Uncle Ben, and we revisit his decision to use his supernatural arachnid powers to bring evil-doers to justice. We also get Peter's now familiar regret about sacrificing his relationship with Mary Jane to protect her from the enemies he creates.

However, Peter begins to suffer from impotence--as a superhero. He discovers a startling loss of powers, including the inability to produce web fluid. He is counseled by his physician who sees through Peter's awkward admission of his dysfunction. He tells Peter he is physically sound and that it's probably "all in his head." Peter vows to give up his Spider-Man persona and reclaim control of his life. Easier said than done.

A more controversial accent in the movie depicts Spider-Man's rescue of the passengers of a runaway subway train. Spidey stands at the nose of the train, fires webs at the buildings he shoots past, then restrains the train, arms outstretched, until it at last comes to rest. He assumes the crucifixion position, suffering for those he safeguards, then collapses and is brought into the train by the passengers. He is gently laid to rest in a kind of Subway Pieta (cf. Michgelangelo's Pieta; note wound). He bears lacerations to his lower chest in further homage to Christ's suffering.

I assume that the symbolism in these passages owes its presence to Michael Chabon, who co-wrote the story. Chabon also wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay. The novel was set in Manhattan of the 1930's and 40's during the rise of the comic book industry. Two young cousins, Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, develop a character called the Escapist, a hero who releases the oppressed from their overlords. The book overflows with symbolism about escape, and also uses the Judaic story of the Golem as a metaphor for the boys' creation of their comic book character. The origin story and subsequent Escapist escapades described in the novel have now been adapted into comic books in their own right, by Dark Horse Comics and the full collaboration of Michael Chabon.


Hyped Hybrid Vehicles

With skyrocketing oil prices, and legislation promoting the manufacture and purchase of energy efficient vehicles, automakers have been scrambling to introduce hybrid vehicles that are still saleable to a large market. This has resulted in laudable products, like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, achieving a gas mileage of 60mpg and 57mpg in the city respectively. The push has also resulted in the introduction of laughable hybrid vehicles achieving sub-20mpg fuel efficiency, like the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, boasting a 5-13% improvement on their non-hybrid counterparts. Do not be fooled by the hype, and take a close look at the numbers before assuaging your conscience by buying a hybrid vehicle.

Consumers are generally not prepared to sacrifice the security, size, versatility, and performance of powerful gas-guzzling vehicles. I myself purchased a 6-cylinder sport sedan when, in truth, a 4-cylinder family sedan would have sufficed, sacrificing a 10% poorer fuel economy.

Artificially insulating consumers from genuine escalations in fuel prices is hazardous for governments in terms of financial liability, and undermines the ability of the market economy to respond to the increasing pressures on the energy supply. Governments may instead need to modify manufacturing, purchasing, or consumption patterns by artificially increasing energy prices. They're planning on doing it in Ontario. It works for cigarettes. It works for Europeans and their gas prices. Europeans consume 30-60% less oil per capita than we do here in Canada or the US. Their gas prices are 2-4 times higher than those here or in the US.

So I don't envision an invisible hand guiding energy consumption, I see a benevolent hand, one interested in the long-term health of the planet, and the sustainability of the energy supply for as long as it lasts. Easily extractable crude oil reserves will run dry. We are ingenuous, but not ingenuous enough to create oil when it no longer can be found. Hubbert accurately predicted the peak of US oil production back in the 1950's as occurring sometime around 1970. This roughly coincided with the US requiring oil imports to keep pace with its consumption (see slide 10) for the first time. OPEC suddenly became relevant. Here's how the US Energy Information Administration describes the onset of the 1973 Energy Crisis:

In 1973, several Arab nations, angered at U.S. support of Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, instituted an oil embargo against the United States and Holland. The Arab oil embargo came at a time of declining domestic crude oil production, rising demand, and increasing imports.
The US has done much since to limit its vulnerability to external price pressures, but this can only last so long. Eventually, world oil production will peak and then decline, while global consumption continues to spiral out of control. This is especially true of the massive developing economies of India and China.

I hope an enlightened leadership can steer the right course. Personally, I have not done all I can, but I have moved to within two blocks of work, eight blocks of my grocery store and other shopping, and 3km of most of my destinations in town. This is making a dramatic impact on my fuel consumption, more than any vehicle aside from a moped or bicycle could, both pretty impractical for a family of four.

For energy saving ideas, check out the David Suzuki Foundation.


Secular Sunday School

The question: what if secularists--atheists, agnostics, humanists, rationalists--had an analog to a community church, a venue where they could congregate on a weekly basis, learn of philosophy, religion, history, and science from community leaders, direct concurrent programs of instruction for their children, and support community initiatives or charitable organizations in accord with their values? What if secularists could call upon one another when in need? What if they were able to strengthen their beliefs through a communal elevation of rationalism, and strengthen their communities by their leadership and coordinated action?

I have had this idea for only a short while. I have a great deal of respect for organized religion as a social institution. It provides counseling, sanctuary, charity, and community. When properly implemented, it stabilizes families and helps socialize children and adults to act responsibly and honorably. It educates, enlightens, and imparts wisdom to its congregation. It connects people to a shared past and provides identity. If not for the egregious flaw of relying on the invocation of a fictitious omnipotent being, through whose agents are His will, edicts, and knowledge imparted, I might almost be persuaded to join a religion.

There are also a multitude of pitfalls to asserting that a church's position is backed up by an incontrovertible authority; I need not enunciate these here. Much blood has been spilt in His name.

What we secularists need is a Secular Forum. Maybe a Secular Sunday School, a place for our children to be imbued with a sense of wonder for the world, and equipped with curiosity, knowledge, and skepticism so they may better understand its wonder. A place where tolerance, respect, responsibility, health, scholarliness, and love are promoted. We have too much xenophobia and hate in our world. Too much credulity and ignorance.

My son recently attended a summer camp sponsored by a church. In addition to the watersports, campouts, and sing-songs, the kids were also treated to about one hour of religious instruction a day. My son was taught that "Only fools don't believe in God," a sentiment he disagreed with but did not dispute. I know that my son is too well supported at home to believe that atheists are fools. I expect that most other children there are not, and accepted this truth without reservation.

Such is the danger and the promise of educating children.


The Village Idiots

I saw Shyamalan's The Village last week. I think the filmmaker is quite adept at packaging big, existential questions into thrillers. I know I'm in the minority, but I really enjoyed Signs. In a classic bait-and-switch, Shyamalan lures you into the theatre to watch a creature feature, but winds up exploring the nature of faith, and how a man wounded by love's loss, a man of the cloth, recaptures his faith in God. The creatures were a significant letdown, and could quite possibly have been avoided entirely, but that's another story.

[spoiler alert--some giveaways coming]

Back to The Village. I enjoyed this film too. I kept searching for allegorical correlation with contemporary politics. I thought in the early part of the film that the villagers were meant to represent Americans. I thought that their illusory boundary with the forest, and the menace beyond it, was meant to represent the illusory secure perimeter of the nation, and the terrorist threat beyond. That the 'warnings'--small, shaved and gutted animals--corresponded to terrorist incursions on American soil. The allegory was holding up pretty well. But as the story continued to unfold, the symbols started to fall apart and the true themes began to emerge. The film is a meditation on courage and love. There's a line in the movie that goes something like, "We sometimes avoid doing that which we most wish to do so others may not know our desires." The line is spoken by Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) to Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) and addresses Lucius' reserve and withdrawal from Ivy at the moment his love for her began to swell. The remark opens Lucius' eyes to the unspoken love between his widowed mother (Sigourney Weaver) and Ivy's wedded father (William Hurt). Lucius interposes himself between the invaders and Ivy, and is spurred to confess his love to Ivy and propose. Ultimately, Ivy is called upon to face the menace in the woods in a similar show of love.

The maddening thing about the story is the Elder Council, the aforementioned idiots. We learn the true nature of the threat to the community, and it comes from within. It is the elders' fear and disengagement--a sentiment paralleled in the relationship between Lucius' and Ivy's parents, members of the Council--that leads to the Village's vulnerability. And the really maddening thing is that the prevaricators prevail, turning tragedy to their ends.

A Hollywood movie without a happy ending. How refreshing.

I liked Shyamalan's clever insertion of himself into the movie, a la Hitchcock, via over the shoulder shots and a reflection in a glass cabinet door. The film production if beautiful. The dialog is sometimes stilted, especially when uttered almost robotically by William Hurt. The mediocre dialog and creature design are internally consistent deficiencies in the film. You'll know what I mean once you've seen it. Mostly, the film works. Eight of ten.


Kids Dig Dinosaurs

I recently returned from a family trip to Drumheller, Alberta. We did some day hikes in the badlands at Horseshoe and Horsethief Canyons. We also toured the Royal Tyrrell Museum and picnicked at the feet of the World's Largest Dinosaur. Good, wholesome, nerdy family fun. My boys, aged 5 and 8, enjoyed the otherworldly terrain of the place. They scrambled over the sandstone and clay and didn't mind getting their hands dirty in their excitement. They acquired some rocks of no scientific value, but of immense interest to them.

The museum exhibit was fantastic. It held the attention of my five-year-old for about three hours, and my eight-year-old's for six. I especially liked being walked through the excavation of a fossil find, the Extreme Therapod Gallery, and the Burgess Shale Diorama. Creatures found in Burgess Shale deposits were rendered in their bioluminescent splendor at twelve-times scale in a creepy seascape diorama with a glass floor that allows you to glide through the scene as the seafloor creatures appear to scuttle beneath your feet.

Most of the exhibit is displayed chronologically, each period being preceded with a globe illustrating the break-up of pangaea, the location of modern day Alberta in the primordial geography, and the position of the period on a timeline.

It is a long way to go for such a display unless you're really dinosaur crazy. But if you're ever in the region, it's worth a day's drive to reach Drumheller and enjoy these simple pleasures: commune with nature, learn about life's pageant on this planet, and support the ongoing pursuit of such knowledge.


A Word On My Sources

You may have noticed many links peppering my posts. I always try to link to the most reliable source material possible. That frequently means linking to original documents on corporate or government websites, transcripts of interviews or speeches, or complete periodical articles or book excerpts published online. I take great pains to avoid transcribing hearsay posted on partisan websites, and I try to corroborate all facts with reliable sources.

This achieves a few objectives. It presents you with the opportunity to read the original source material so you can draw your own conclusions. It safeguards the quality and accuracy of the information I present. And it affords me an opportunity to do my own reading of the source material and draw conclusions which may be different from those appearing in the publications which initiated my search.

I am continually amazed at the breadth of documents accessible while sitting on my ass in front of my computer. It can be a challenge sometimes to find reliable information on the web, but some dilligence with a search engine usually pays dividends quickly. Finding these needles among the acres of haystacks is an art in itself, and an absurd source of pride. But that's what I'm like.


Sometimes, I Hate It When I'm Right

I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them American. Iraqis will write their own history, and find their own way. As they do, Iraqis can be certain, a free Iraq will always have a friend in the United States of America.
--George II in a speech at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 24 May 2004

I want to believe this. I really do. And yesterday I spoke to a friend who does believe this is the rationale of the Iraq invasion. I didn't think anyone believed that anymore, what with the Project for the New American Century begging President Clinton to invade Iraq as early as January, 1998 in a letter co-signed by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. And the flimsy pretext for war that was discredited by the 9/11 Commission...

Responding to a presidential tasking, Clarke’s office sent a memo to Rice on September 18, titled “Survey of Intelligence Information on Any Iraq Involvement in the September 11 Attacks.” Rice’s chief staffer on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, concurred in its conclusion that only some anecdotal evidence linked Iraq to al Qaeda.The memo found no “compelling case” that Iraq had either planned or perpetrated the attacks.

Secretary Powell recalled that Wolfowitz—not Rumsfeld—argued that Iraq was ultimately the source of the terrorist problem and should therefore be attacked. Powell said that Wolfowitz was not able to justify his belief that Iraq was behind 9/11. “Paul was always of the view that Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with,” Powell told us.“And he saw this as one way of using this event as a way to deal with the Iraq problem.”

...and UN Weapons Inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei.

In preparing this post, I discovered that there are more bits of evidence of a fledgling WMD program in Iraq than the press generally leads us to believe. So although Iraq failed to constitute an imminent threat to the US or demonstrate direct ties to Al Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks, it certainly contravened a number of UN resolutions and did appear to be fostering a WMD program.

Nevertheless, such an embryonic program merits continued and intensifying international pressure, not invasion of the country, destruction of the Presidential Residence, ejection of the President from power, assassination of his sons, and long-term occupation.

Try to imagine the reaction of Americans and the international community to China invading the US, razing the White House, capturing George I, assassinating George II and Jeb, occupying the country, killing a few thousand civilians in the process, then installing a provisional government which would facilitate Chinese corporate development in the US. Unthinkable? Not for Oval Office Hawks.

Back to my conversation last night. I said that instead of a nationalized oil industry, with the potential to return substantial profits to the citizenry of Iraq, American companies are treating Iraq--home of 11% of the world's oil reserves--like a land rush, and will siphon off as much profit from the country as they can. He said that now the free market will reign in Iraq. Of course, that's true only if your companies originate in a member state of the Coalition of the Willing. That doesn't sound like any free market I know. He conceded that, but said that among these eligible companies, a legitimate bid competition process will be in force.

Not so fast. Mother Jones reported that this process is routinely circumvented ($71.6b in non-competitive defense contracts awarded in 2002):

Defense Department [...] awarded a contract -- behind closed doors and without any competitive bidding -- to a subsidiary of Halliburton, the construction and oil services company where Vice President Dick Cheney formerly served as chief executive officer.[...] Although Halliburton had little experience buying fuel, it did have a broad logistical support contract with the Pentagon -- which Cheney, as secretary of Defense in 1991, had asked Halliburton to design. "Only the contractor that developed these complex plans," stated a Pentagon briefing document last year, "could commence implementing them on extremely short notice."
Halliburton didn't do a better job than [Jeffrey] Jones and his agency [the Pentagon's Defense Energy Support Center]. The military soon was paying $2.64 for a gallon of gas, double the price that Jones says he would have paid. Although Halliburton subcontracted much of the work to Kuwaiti buyers with minimal competition, it still earned as much as $100 million from the deal. A Pentagon audit has reported that Halliburton may have overcharged taxpayers about $61 million, prompting the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation.

Wow. The Operation is circumventing competition with a government agency on Halliburton's behalf. What hope do Italian, Japanese, or Australian companies have of getting in on the action? Let alone German, Canadian, or French companies from outside the Coalition? This is a case of an entirely too visible hand guiding commerce. Too bad there's nobody bigger out there to slap it when it gets out of line. We have to rely on the American Public to do that.


Why "Pharos"?

Pharos is not a misspelling of Pharaohs.  It is the name of the lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

I selected the name first for our book club, then adopted it for this here blog.  Of the remaining six Wonders, only the Pyramids at Giza outlived it.  The lighthouse is symbolic of the Torch of Learning, and recalls the famed Library of Alexandria.  The ancient world’s greatest repository of knowledge, the Library was founded by Ptolemy I in 283 BC and destroyed in the 2nd century AD.  The name also suggested the scope of our book club:  reaching back to antiquity and embracing the world’s great literature, as well as contemporary fare. 

That's why I chose Pharos.