Threat Advisory: Delusional

www.dhs.gov A friend of mine from the Pharos Book Club circulated a recent story about a student who was visited by agents of the Department of Homeland Security for his request to borrow Mao Tse Tung's Little Red Book.

There are a number of public services for which preservation of privacy is a fundamental aspect: think health care and taxation. Despite book loan transactions occurring through a public institution, I think that these lending institutions need to preserve privacy for the same reasons that we preserve it in other domains: to prevent secondary compromises to the individual; fear of those compromises may prevent an individual from pursuing those services at all. The free exchange of ideas would be curbed. Perhaps that is exactly what institutions like Homeland Security want.

www.dhs.govThere are exceptions to the preservation of privacy, instances when law enforcement can access information that may be linked to unlawful activity. Reporting of gunshot wounds, for example. What should the threshold be for lending information? I think the threshold has to be very high. It is intrusive, expensive, and unfruitful to have thresholds that are otherwise.

The interlibrary loan system is an international lending system. Presumably, Canadians who request flagged material through the system would also expose themselves to investigation by the DHS. I don't know whether such an international investigation has yet occurred, or how it would be handled. Canadian librarians are contemplating using anonymized borrower information to protect their identities.


Web Design Contest

Found this announcement (see end of article) in the NY Times for a design contest with a rather interesting payoff:

An [Iraqi] insurgent group, the Victorious Army Group, has extended a deadline for a Web design contest, according to an Internet posting. The group has set a Jan. 15 deadline for submissions of a design "worthy of the group's reputation and the reputation of the jihad and the mujahedeen," according to a translation provided by the SITE Institute, which monitors jihadist messages.

The winner is promised "God's blessings" and the opportunity to fire three long-range rockets at an American military base.

Get those entries in kids!


PM's Blog Boy

The man responsible for writing the clever things the Honourable Prime Minister says is also responsible for the PM's blog. Scott Feschuk, previously a Globe and Mail contributor who switched to the National Post at its inception, is now the PM's chief speechwriter. He is pictured reviewing a speech with PMpm in the Honourable Lavatory, wearing the PMO's off-duty uniform of blue pinpoint Oxford and khakis.

PMpm: Don't you think it's too long, Scott?
SF: Too long, sir? Ummmm...no. I think it's a, uh, a very nice length Mr Prime Minister.
PMpm: I could go on forever with this thing.
SF: I'm sure you can, sir. Mrs Martin must be very pleased.
PMpm: What? Who cares what she thinks. I need to impress the media enough to give me some airtime.
SF: ...oooo-kaay?
PMpm: Here. Cut out 200 words.
SF: From the speech! Oh, absolutely, sir.
PMpm: Of course from the speech. What'd you think I was talking about? [zzziiiip]
SF: Nothing at all, sir.

Scott Feschuk has authored the funniest movie reviews in the known universe, and for him to stodgify his writing with banal campaign fodder must be a terrific career move, though a terrible disappointment to his readership.

But there is a silver lining. Mr Feschuk is the PM's Blog Boy, and posts directly from his Blackberry to the PM's website. The blog is the only redeeming feature of the current election race. A typical Feschukism:

December 6, 6:56 AM - I didn't actually get a chance to watch Two and a Half Men last night, but darned if that's going to stop me from winning a vote by describing it:
The episode began with Charlie Sheen and that other guy, the one who didn't work between
Pretty in Pink and the year 2002, proving just how wacky a wacky odd couple they are by having profoundly conflicting views about a variety of matters. Then events conspired to place Charlie Sheen in a "situation." Mayhem and canned laughter ensued. Charlie ultimately triumphed over his "situation" by learning a valuable life lesson and making anywhere from three to seven sly references to his own real-life promiscuous and badboy ways. And then everyone died a little inside.

Here's the link.


Evolution, and nothing more

This is the title of an Issues & Ideas column by professor Jerry Coyne that recently appeared in the National Post (Friday, December 2, 2005). Dr Coyne presents a précis of Darwinian evolution, catching up his readership on what science has known for 150 years. He does little to update the concept of evolution, instead devoting the remainder of his column to undermining intelligent design. As a result, neither argument is especially compelling. That is unfortunate, as I have every confidence that Dr Coyne and I agree on the capacity of evolution and inadequacy of intelligent design to explain speciation.

It is tempting for me to rant about intelligent design. In fact, I think I did so last October (Intelligent Design and its unintelligent proponents). I don't know how constructive such rants are, but I have to confess it feels good to rail against ignorance. Even venerated evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has lapsed into a good rant or two (see "A Scientist's View" in the Guardian).

As far as I can tell, supporters of intelligent design fall mainly into two camps: scientists who are willing to abandon evolution because it cannot explain all phenomena, and creationists who seek to legitimize their faith by cloaking it in a mantle of pseudo-science. Both are dubious aims worthy of healthy skepticism. Intelligent design may have been a viable competing theory to explain speciation 200 years ago, when such explanations were being developed. There have been alternatives to Darwinian evolution, an explanation that was not immediately embraced. For example, Lamarck proposed speciation by the propagation of acquired characteristics to offspring.

The classic illustrative example is that of giraffes. Lamarck proposed that as giraffes consumed foliage on the lower branches of trees, they had to stretch their necks to reach foliage on the upper branches. The stretched neck trait would be transmitted to their offspring, and over successive generations, neck length increased.

Darwin offers a very different model. He contended that within a population of giraffes there are variations in neck length. In periods when low-lying foliage has been depleted, giraffes with longer necks will have a competitive advantage and be likelier to transmit their long-neck genes to their offspring. The long-neck trait would come to predominate in the population if the pressure on low-lying foliage continued, and over time, only increasingly long-necked giraffes would remain. There would still be variation, but around a lengthier mean.

What does intelligent design propose? That a creator designed the giraffe with a longer neck, despite fossil evidence to the contrary. Or that a creator designed the giraffe originally with a shorter neck but with a tendency to a longer neck. Or some ID proponents want to have their cake and eat it too claiming that the creator designed an initial deucedly complex form, then natural selection acted to refine it.

Intelligent design fails a number of scientific tests. Depending on its formulation, it may neglect the facts, commit fallacies of logic, or be sliced to shreds by Occam's Razor. It should not enjoy equal footing with current evolutionary theory, or even old school Darwinian evolution. I concede that evolution does not yet explain the emergence of all biological traits. But to dismiss such a powerful, predictive, explicative, and elegant theory because of some gaps would grind all scientific enquiry to a standstill if such a practice were more widely applied. Investigate, refine, enhance--don't dismiss.


An Ancient Child

[guest blogger SR posts a recap of our last book club session]

The Pharos Book Club assembled again this past week to share perspectives on J.D. Salinger’s compelling novel The Catcher in the Rye. Like the contradictions alive in Holden Caulfield, the book’s central character, the existence of Catcher itself is a study in contrasts--a work first vilified in some circles but later viewed as the narrative voice of a generation.
At first glance, Catcher is the account of a few tortured days in the life of a confused, cynical, and feckless teen. But sixteen-year-old Holden is not simply embroiled in typical adolescent turmoil: He recounts the details of this brief but eventful period in his life as he convalesces in a mental hospital after becoming “pretty run-down”. He manages to avoid revealing the precise nature of the psychological trauma which felled him.

What pushed him over the edge? And why might the wording of the latter question not be clichéd? Consider one of the symbols we discussed, namely “the catcher in the rye”. This phrase comes from Holden’s misunderstanding of the Robert Burns ballad “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”:

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

The significance of Burns’ writing sparked some debate during our discussion (it wasn’t clear to us whether the ballad itself holds hidden meaning, or if Holden’s misinterpretation is revelatory). Holden remembers part of this verse as “if a body catch a body”, and imagines children playing in a field of rye on the edge of a cliff. He also imagines himself catching them if they venture too close to the edge of the cliff and start to fall. Is it possible that he wants to prevent them from falling from a carefree childhood into something more ominous? Into the adulthood which he appears to want to reject? If so, then one could also posit that Holden himself, with no one to catch him, has fallen over that cliff into an undesirable reality. The abrupt transition proves to be more than he can bear.
Exacerbating Holden’s existential malaise are his uneasy relationships, poisonous perceptions, and unmet expectations. Through these facets of his character, we uncover more themes as we witness Holden’s interactions with his social circle, society in a broader sense, and his family. Perhaps the most apparent theme is that of the difficulty of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, illustrated by Holden’s preoccupation with (or even fear of) change, contrasted with the reassurance he derives from states of permanence or predictability. We see evidence of this dichotomy in Holden’s musings on the Museum of Natural History:

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. […] Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. […] Not that you’d be so much older or anything. […] You’d just be different, that’s all. […] –I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”
Salinger also explores the concept of alienation or isolation. While Holden makes half-hearted attempts to socialize with his classmates, romance putative love interests, and engage people he meets in his wanderings, he seems happiest when he is alone. Alone, he doesn’t have to face the the hypocrisy, deception, and even cruelty of the real world. He can meditate on and try to preserve for himself its beauty and purity, safe in the delusion that he himself represents a sort of virtue or honesty (this despite his ready admission that “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life”). However, like all humans (and his opinions and actions aside), he needs human contact, and he needs the security that interpersonal relationships can bring. The struggle between his outward desire for isolation and inner yearning for friendship and love may be best demonstrated in his relationship with his sister Phoebe. He displays an almost aching tenderness towards her, and is nearly overwhelmed by her radiance and untainted simplicity, but still tries to tear himself away from her. In a less powerful but similarly telling encounter, he is lonely enough to ask Sally Hayes out for a date, but then pushes her away by insulting her to the point that she leaves.
Not unexpectedly, the superficiality of the real world is a recurring theme. Holden continually despairs over the unrelenting "phoniness" he observes in almost everyone he meets (with the obvious exceptions of his dead brother Allie and Phoebe). Of course, Holden practically invites disappointment by often choosing his companions poorly and contaminating his interactions with his own deceptive behavior. With each unsatisfactory exchange, he becomes more convinced that simplicity, beauty and honesty are slowly becoming unattainable. This flawed realization helps to drive him deeper into himself and irrationality.

What did Salinger intend by creating Holden Caulfield and writing Catcher? Did he want readers to accept that our world and society are really so toxic and unforgiving? Or did he want us to understand that beauty, purity, friendship and love can be had if only we take the time to recognize and appreciate these gifts when they are presented to us? If we contemplate the undisturbed snow, a half-frozen pond in Central Park, and the rare Phoebes of this world, we may come closer to an answer.


Dem Bones

Michael Paulus has posted a gallery of drawings in response to his gedanken experiment: what would the skeleton of a cartoon character look like? Below is the answer for Bubbles, my favorite Powerpuff Girl. Check out the rest at his online gallery.


The Folly of Princes

We discussed Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz (full-text at link) on Friday, September 30 at Kelowna's Bean Scene coffee house. The book is actually more an anthology than a novel. It collects three stories of consecutive eras in the American Southwest. Canticle is of a rarely mined genre in American literature, that of a post-apocalyptic future, a theme more often mined in American film or—for obvious reasons—Japanese literature, film, and graphic novels.

In recounting the stories of these future eras—Fiat Lux, Fiat Homo, and Fiat Voluntuas Tua—Miller naturally reveals much about the era in which he wrote his work and about himself. 1957: The Cold War is nearing the deep freeze of the early 1960's. The term Mutually Assured Destruction is coined to rationalize a massive nuclear arms buildup capable of eradicating humanity from the planet along with most life. In Canticle the terrible logic of MAD can no longer be sustained. Weapons that "contained the very fires of Hell" stood at the ready:

"...the princes, putting the words of their wise men to naught, thought each to himself, If I but strike quickly enough, and in secret, I shall destroy those others in their sleep, and there will be none to fight back; the Earth shall be mine.

"Such was the folly of princes, and there followed the Flame Deluge"
Along with the folly of princes, I found the complicit scientists to be culpable, but others in the group didn't see it that way. Specifically, passages such as the one below suggest Miller's explanation for the role of scientists in the nuclear build-up, but falls far short of forgiveness:

[Thon Thaddeo, a scholar]: "I can’t fight the prince who makes my work possible–no matter what I think of his policies or his politics. I appear to support him, superficially, or at least to overlook him–for the sake of the collegium. If he extends his lands, the collegium may incidentally profit. If the collegium prospers, mankind will profit from our work.”

[Dom Paulo, a cleric]: “The ones who survive, perhaps.”

The book centers around an abbey located near the site of a 20th century nuclear test facility in centuries following the Flame Deluge. The abbey has been charged by its founder, Isaac Leibowitz, a 20th century engineer, to hoard and stockpile documents from before the Deluge, a task that was especially difficult to achieve for two reasons: the thorough destruction of these documents caused directly by nuclear war, and the subsequent renunciation of science in a movement termed the Age of Simplification. This aspect of the book has prompted comparisons with Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

In the first era, a novice of the abbey, Brother Francis, uncovers a cache of documents from a fallout shelter, including some penned by the blessed Leibowitz himself, containing inscrutable messages like, "Pound pastrami, [...] can kraut, six bagels,–bring home for Emma." Brother Francis undertakes the creation of an illuminated manuscript reproducing a circuit design blueprint by Leibowitz. He spends years on the task, but doesn't mind:

"There was a tedium of repeated days and repeated seasons; then there were aches and pains, finally Extreme Unction, and a moment of blackness at the end–or at the beginning, rather. For then the small shivering soul who had endured the tedium, endured it badly or well, would find itself in a place of light, find itself absorbed in the burning gaze of infinitely compassionate eyes as it stood before the Just One. And then the King would say: “Come,” or the King would say: “Go,” and only for that moment had the tedium of years existed. It would be hard to believe differently during such an age as Francis

I interpreted this passage as implying that in an age such as ours, such beliefs would be unsupported. Again, some in the group disagreed: those who are certain of life beyond the blackness, I presume.

The tedium of our corporeal lives is echoed in the cyclic apocalypses depicted in the novel: "It never was any better. It never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day."

The story is filled with Latin and scripture, reflecting Miller's own adoption of Catolicism as an adult. He meditates on nuclear build-up, man's arrogance and persistence, anti-intellectualism, the afterlife, and euthanasia in the lead-up to the novel's climax. The destruction of the Leibowitz abbey is reminiscent of that of a Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino in World War II. Miller was involved in the bombing run and was deeply affected by this violence perpetrated against the Church.

As the book ends, the survivors of another holocaust leave behind a ruined planet, inherited by doomed sharks in the depths. Optimistic?--Man survives yet again. But the image isn't exactly heartwarming.

Next up: Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye.


The Life Aquatic, reviewed by my friend Carl

I couldn't resist sharing Carl's succinct review with you: "Let me tell you, they tried to make something unique and interesting with this movie. They did, and it sucked."

Carl furnished us with his review shortly after we exited another movie in which Bill Murray plays a man searching for his long lost son, Broken Flowers.

I can't vouch for the suckiness of The Life Aquatic, as I haven't seen it yet (and may now never see it). I can say that Broken Flowers is a departure for Jim Jarmusch, and not an altogether successful one. This film is decidedly more mainstream than anything Jarmusch has directed before. He inserts product from mapquest.com, Sharp, and Ford Taurus; shoots in color; and writes a character being admonished for smoking for starters. This isn't as radical a shift to mainstream as George Lucas going from THX-1138 to Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. It's more like the Cohen brothers going from Blood Simple to Intolerable Cruelty.

Broken Flowers is highly structured and deliberately paced (i.e. slow), with an episodic format. Murray's character, Don Johnston, tries to reveal the identity of the woman who alerts him to the existence of his son, awkwardly reuniting with a succession of old flames. Murray's portrayal is fun to watch, and Sharon Stone is still magically delicious. The film has interesting things to say about the suburbs, the path not taken, bachelorhood, and the banality of travel. But it says little and hardly engages. It is the Odyssey with no reason to return home.

7 of 10.


apple Gives Two Cents on Katrina Relief

Not Apple Computers, but apple as in the blogger at Veritas, gives her take on Katrina relief ("This great nation..."; there's no permalink to the post). I don't agree with everything she says, but agree with her absolutely on her assessment of the President's response and her social safety net rant:
"Bush's first glimpse was from his airplane (not helicopter) and I cannot think of a better metaphor to illustrate his level of concern. Then he has the nerve to ask people to donate money. What the hell? [...] Fuck that, I didn't tell them to squader billions in Iraq. [...] Should have thought about home first, don't you think? Donate my ass.

"End of the day, my friends, you can understand a society by observing how it treats its weakest members. For a week we watched as tens of thousands of poor, black Americans suffered, slept, lived in their own waste. One week. [...] This is the system we want to distribute to the rest of the world? [...] who would want this? Is this risk worth it? When crisis hits, why would anyone want a government inept and incapbale [sic] of responding? [...] This is the same democracy that protects your freedom to wear halter tops and mini skirts with thongs hanging out and to carry guns. We are so free that the government just doesn't care."

She also makes an interesting point about corporate response to the disaster. Companies like Wal-Mart and FedEx stepped into the yawning breach left by FEMA's relief efforts to offer their own. Is that a good thing? I think so. But it highlights the impressive failure of a government that cuts revenues and domestic expenditures, pulling back from commitments on its own shores to consolidate its power abroad. Probably the only domestic program that in recent years has enjoyed significant funding increases is Homeland Security.


The Aristocrats: or How To Get An R Rating Without Sex Or Violence

The set-up: a documentary about one dirty joke told by comedians to one another, "as a sort of secret handshake" as Ken Tucker puts it.
The middle section: incest, homicide, coprophagia, necrophilia, felching, bestiality, rape, and...what do you call humping an eye socket?
The payoff: comics tell the joke, talk comedy, and reveal their skill and failings in a dizzying eighty minutes of head-to-head one-upmanship.

The Aristocrats is first a documentary. I was asked by a friend afterward whether I "enjoyed" the movie. I guess so. I laughed often, but certainly not at everyone. I didn't "enjoy" The Corporation but thought it was an excellent documentary. Jillette and Provenza do a great job intercutting short segments from the hours of film they shot. Impossibly, after 81 minutes, the joke didn't get old.

As an expose of the craft and crass of comedy, I think The Aristocrats is a must see. There will be audience members who walk out. And it's best they do it early if the film's opening gambit, George Carlin's ode to gargling chunky diarrhea flowing out a geezer's polyped anus, gets them worked up. There's much worse to come.

I have a renewed respect for Drew Carey, Taylor Negron, and Gilbert Gottfried. And that ventriloquist, what's-his name. When he bailed on the joke and tried his "hand" at Seinfeldian observational humor, that was even funnier. And Cartman's version was so coo':

——===] LANGUAGE WARNING [===——
I mean it!
[watch Cartman's version here]

Though Penn Jillette's telling of the joke didn't impress in this company, I admire and envy him for making this film. In an interview reported by my brother-in-law in See Magazine, Jillette riffs on the parallels between comedy and jazz:

"The rhythms of the movie are jazz, the feelings are jazz: the subject is comedy.
"What I love is that the movie goes directly to playing bebop, y’know? In the early evening, everybody is playing big band jazz for suits but after hours, when there’s only three or four guys sitting around, they would play this kind of jazz that you had to know a little bit more about melody and harmonics and chord structures to really understand.
"In comedy, we sit backstage, and everybody knows that everyone else can structure a joke, and we know what we do, but now we do this other thing for one another."

Nice to be invited into the green room.

Not for everyone, but works for me.
7 of 10


Rice: "Look How Freakin' Small This Thing Is!"

I can't believe it either, Condie. I finally broke down and decided to get an iPod, the new iPod nano, pictured above. Read more about it at apple's official site, and read the exhaustive review of its durability and innards at ars technica. Thanks for the link rygar. Mine will be black and 4GB.


This Jesus Guy

I love this editorial cartoon by David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Rightly portrays Jesus as a populist social revolutionary, and where Robertson's allegiances truly lie.


Pat Robertson: "Take Him Out"

I will add my voice to the chorus of those denouncing Pat Robertson's vile comments about Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. On the 700 Club Monday, Robertson encouraged the US government to assassinate Chavez:

"If he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it"
"We have the ability to take him out and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another 200 billion dollar war to get rid of one, you know, strong arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and get it over with."

Donald Rumsfeld weakly dismissed Robertson's hateful incitement: "Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time." But Pat Robertson is no mere private citizen. He was a candidate for the position of Republican Presidential Nominee in 1988. He is a vocal religious leader and broadcaster. He has access to both the electorate and government, and his comments should be held to a higher standard of scrutiny.

I wonder if Rumsfeld would be similarly dismissive of an American broadcast by a Moslem cleric waxing homicidally about the British Prime Minister. Incidentally, Tony Blair outlined his government's response to those "fostering hatred, advocating violence to further a person's beliefs, or justifying or validating such violence": deportation and exclusion, imprisonment for British nationals, or even stripping citizenship.

Whether it is Pat Robertson or my hypothetical Moslem cleric who calls for the assassination of a head of state, he should be unambiguously reprimanded and distanced by the Administration; his telecast, as Jesse Jackson has suggested, should be investigated by the FCC; and his comments should be reviewed by the authorities to determine whether they are criminal. Anything less would be transparently hypocritical.

Take another look at Robertson's comments, and you will see a couple of implicit assumptions that no one has yet commented on. First, that the $200b invasion of Iraq was mounted to depose a strong arm dictator. Second, that the US has the capacity to assassinate a head of state with covert operatives, suggesting it may have exercised that capacity in the past.


Dick Dearlove

I always thought that those names given to women in the James Bond canon were implausibly risque, and only marginally comical. That is until I learned of the Downing Street memo which cites a report by "C", a shorthand for the head of British Intelligence or MI6: Richard Dearlove.

So, to the pantheon of fictional MI6 names like Honey Ryder, Plenty O'Toole, Xenia Onatopp, and Pussy Galore, add the real-life risque moniker of Dick Dearlove.

By the way, I know it's old news, but you should read the memo in its entirety to see how deliberately the US and UK manufactured a pre-text for invasion.


Softheaded Lumber Dispute

Gallingly, but unsurprisingly, the United States has yet again demonstrated contempt for international law in its response to the latest ruling in the softwood lumber dispute.

The US has repeatedly shown that international law applies only to other nations, not to itself. Got a problem with holding and interrogating prisoners illegally in Guantanamo? Too bad. Maybe you expect an apology for the killing of hundreds of thousands of non-comabatants 60 years ago this week in Japan? Not likely.

In a monopolar world with a lone superpower, only other nations must trade freely. Only other nations can be held to account for war crimes. Only other nations can be prevented from acquiring, testing, stockpiling, and tactically using weapons of mass destruction. Only other nations are thieving, or wrong, or menacing, or evil.

If you're not with the US, you're irrelevant. Or worse: you're fodder.


Foreign Exchange

Fareed Zakaria's opinions have given me pause on a couple of occasions now. His oversimple, naively idealistic countermeasure to terrorism is "to discredit, delegitimize and dismantle barbaric ideas" (in Newsweek, "How to stop the contagion"). Does he really believe that'll work? Kind of like telling people that smoking will give them lung cancer, bad teeth, impotence, and stunted babies. Problem solved, right?

And Friday on Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria, Zakaria asks whether "in all fairness" to the Bush II administration, that Bush's "standing up" to regional strongmen in the name of democracy ought to be viewed positively by Arabs. At the other extreme, reported by journalist Yaroslav Trofimov, are those Arabs who perceive American incursions into the region as genocide against Moslems.

I was surprised at the tone of the conversation. It seems apparent that the US's designs are neither the dissemination of democracy, nor the eradication of Moslems, but the extension of its empire: securing the resources needed to fill its gaping maw, and securing leadership compliant to its needs. Any resemblances to democracy or accumulating corpses that occur as a consequence are purely incidental.

This point is probably best illustrated by the strangest of bedfellows: the US and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These countries have enjoyed a healthy political, economic, and military intimacy for decades that was only briefly interrupted by a spat in 1973. Each country harbours, nurtures, and manipulates religious fundamentalists. Each country tolerates the moral excesses of the other. Each country funds terror abroad while publicly denouncing it, in turn making itself a target of terror.

These contradictions are a consequence of 20th century imperialism, and the concordance of the interests of statesmen with those of the corporations they serve.

Further reading:
- "Briefing Depicted Saudis as Enemies," washingtonpost.com, August 6, 2002
- "It's Imperialism Stupid," Noam Chomsky, July 5, 2005


BCN5: Old Favourites

[The BCN series of posts is an edited transcript of my journal entries during my recent trip to Barcelona, June 26 - July 9]

We woke up at 1230h; bit of a late start. We had to rush to get to Cal Pep's in time for opening. Arriving at 1325h, before the metal roll shutter goes up, you are virtually guaranteed a seat at the counter. Ten minutes later, and you're out of luck.

We sat at Paco's station again and had vi blanc with our gamba fritas, pulpitos (shown), baby clams, artichoke hearts, garbanzos with spinach and jamon, and finally botifarra blanc with liver and port sauce. Crema catalana to finish. What a heady, delicious meal.

Pep wasn't mannning the fryer and griddle today, he was working the room. Not much hissing. Just great food.

When we returned to the flat, we noticed that the corner of Carrer del Rec and Passeig del Born is more lively at 3 in the morning than 3 in the afternoon.

Off to Park Guell, another Gaudi joint. The Park amply displays Gaudi's flair for naturalism despite his careful attention to design. His creations here are inspired by, adapted from, and complementary to nature. The Seussian swirls topping some of his columns, the heaps of stone loosely forming others, everywhere were rough and irregular surfaces begging to be touched. Many people--myself included--did just that, feeling their way through the park.

We made a short, somewhat unrewarding visit to the Palau de la Musica Catalanya as it was closed to touring visitors and cameras, and as the light was failing by the time we arrived. We'll return in a few days for a chamber music recital.


Digital Art

Much is said about the enhancement of our capabilities through digital living. The gradual digitization of our analog lives brings with it less enrichment, not more. Recorded performances instead of live ones. eBooks instead of paper ones. Handheld music collections heard through earbuds, instead of banks of analog LPs lovingly spun on a HiFi. Megapixel photographs instead of film.

I came across an artist's site that intrigued me. Jason Salavon uses his digital tools to render striking commentaries on our culture. He applies statistical analysis to pop culture images and produces works that average multiple images into a single composite, average a single image into a single color, display data points as three-dimensional bursts of color, and other manipulations.

The result is an elegant display of the monotony of our culture, as in 100 Special Moments, described here by the artist:
Each of these works utilizes 100 unique commemorative photographs culled from the internet. The final compositions are arrived at using both the mean and the median, splitting the difference between a specific norm and an ideal one.

The four panels of this work show 4 archetypal commemorative photos: Newlyweds, Little Leaguer, Kids With Santa, and The Graduate (shown). It strikes me as profoundly sad that so many of us follow the same path depicted in these photos, a well-trodden path that must constrain and limit those who take it. And yet, as a father, I fear my children straying from this path into the unknown.

In The Grand Unification Theory (Part One: Every Second of Star Wars), Salavon captures one frame per second of Star Wars and arranges them on a grid by luminosity. The series of images ceases to be a narrative and is merely an abstraction, but relies on the iconic imagery of one of the most popular movies of all time for its elements. Shown below are overall views and deatil views. Snow White, It's a Wonderful Life, and Deep Throat are given the same treatment.

Salavon does not use his digital tools to present dubious simulacra of the real. Rather he presents us with the banality of the digital, pixelating and deconstructing these images from popular culture, then rearranging them into haunting abstractions.

Here's a link to the bibliography at Salavon's site for further reading, including a selected blogospherography



Wired magazine ran a blurb caled the Digital Devolution about the trend toward decreasing music quality with the imposition of digital limitations on analog sound. The devolution starts in the studio and continues on through recording media, compact discs, mp3s, sound cards, and speakers to render sound that is an approximation rather than a reproduction of the original.

SACD and DVD-A formats will never be broadly embraced in a marketplace where portability trumps fidelity. Why would anyone upgrade their music collection from CDs to these or other hifi formats when they rip them with lossy compression and listen to them on earbuds?

I have no mp3 player. It is no great loss. My car or home stereo puts any portable listening device to shame. I never watch movies on airplanes because the sound and picture are too crappy for me to enjoy the experience. I'll take a book--an ink and paper analog book, mind you--over any other portable media.


Selling Sickness

In an article posted to Mother Jones on July 25, Bradford Plummer wrote of big pharma marketing not only drugs, but disease:

In 1998, Lilly, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, was on the verge of losing its patent on fluoxetine (more commonly known as Prozac) worth over $2 billion annually. However, if Lilly could find a new use for the drug, the patent could be extended. That year, Lilly helped fund a "roundtable" of researchers to gather in Washington D.C., along with staff from the Food and Drug Administration to discuss a scientifically controversial condition called "premenstrual dysphoric disorder" (PMDD), which had only recently, and after much controversy, been included in the appendix of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—the bible of psychiatric disorders—as a disorder "under evaluation." But the Lilly-funded researchers soon published an article in a small medical journal suggesting, falsely, that the debate was over and that PMDD could now be considered a "distinct clinical entity," distinct from the stress and tension that can accompany ordinary PMS.

Lilly has not said what role it played in turning the "roundtable" into a journal article, but by 1999, the article helped convince the FDA to approve the use of fluoxetine to treat PMDD—and extended the patent until 2007. Lilly simply repackaged the drug in lavender pill-form, renamed it Serafem, and began marketing it to women. Never mind that independent researchers questioned whether PMDD even existed as a condition. Never mind that Europe's drug regulators raised serious questions about PMDD and criticized Lilly's clinical trials that purported to show the benefits of Serafem. Never mind that even the industry-friendly FDA was appalled at Lilly's television ads, with their too-vague tagline: "Think it's PMS? It could be PMDD."

Further reading:
• Marcia Angell's The Truth About Drug Companies


BCN4: El Dia Perdido

[The BCN series of posts is an edited transcript of my journal entries during my recent trip to Barcelona, June 26 - July 9]

Suffered a bout of bulimia vi roja last night. Could've been L'Estevet's old pollo, could've been the wine. Last night's cava was from Recaredo, and the vi tinto was Domino de Tares “Cepas Viejas". I thought it might've been one of the four cheeses we sampled at ABAC. Who knows.

S. took some Gravol and suffered restlessly all night and all day today. I decided to make the best of it and visit some Modernisme landmarks.

The helpful guide at Casa Amatller yesterday suggested I check out Domenech i Montaner's works. I went to the Hotel Espanya where I discovered a beautiful dining hall decorated with undersea frescoes: bipedal mermaids cavorting with colorful sea creatures beneath a towering japonais surf (photo above).

Next, after a brief stop at the flat for lunch and to check S.'s pulse, I went to the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, another DiM joint. His design for the Hospital, bankrolled by banker Pau Gil, incorporated his patron's fondness of French therapeutic hospital designs. The Hospital complex covers nine huge Eixample blocks. In this space, DiM created an environment that was pleasing to the eye and the spirit: a series of ornately decorated pavillions connected by underground service corridors and lined by intimate plazas and landscaped beds. The buildings were abundantly inscribed with Pau Gil's initials, so the convalescing would never forget the identity of their benefactor. The Hospital's chapel, though mostly brick and not stone, was magnificent. The crucifix was a moving tribute to His passion, and that of Domenech i Montaner.

I headed to Montjuic to see Caixa Forum (by DiM) and the Mies van der Rohe pavillion. A function was being hosted at the pavillion that evening, so my access was limited. Nevertheless, the clean lines and austerity of this building were a striking contrast to Modernisme ornamentation. Perhaps most striking is that the pavillion was built in 1929, within three decades of most of Barcelona's Modernisme masterpieces.

We closed the evening with unremarkable tapas at Barcelona landmark El Xampanyet. Then a walk on the beach promenade to Port Olimpic and an absurdly large seafood grill platter at Marina Moncho's. The grilled sardines were delicious. The platter also featured whitefish (the catch of the day), giant prawns, lobster prawns, mussels, squid tubes, razor clams, scallops...tasty, but too much! Go only if you want a lot of seafood and aren't too particular about its preparation.

We hung out outside the flat on Passeig del Born til about 0330h. The beer-wallahs made their rounds with perpetually cold six-packs at a euro a can. The people watching was good, especially Italian groin sandwich chick. You had to be there.


GTA: Profitable Deceit

A word on the GTA:SA controversy. I wholeheartedly agree with Republican congressman [I never imagined I would start a sentence with these words] Fred Upton of Michigan: A company cannot be allowed to profit from deceit.

To wit, the game developers of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas surreptitiously embedded gameplay with explicit sex scenes. Routine play would not reveal the scenes, but the scenes could be unlocked with appropriate software. This is not a mod, a fan-developed modification of a game introducing new elements. This is a crack, an applet unlocking restricted software features. See details on the Hot Coffee crack and "sex minigame" at the GAMESPOT.

The deceit practiced by Rockstar games is to market this game with hidden sexual content at an M rating to ensure higher market penetration. The developers must have known it would only be a matter of time before the explicit gameplay would be unlocked, and may have even facilitated the crack release. When the Entertainment Software Ratings Board changed the game's designation to adults-only, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, and Circuit City promptly yanked the game from their shelves. And Rockstar promptly stopped production and has now begun issuing scrubbed versions of the game.

But back to the congressman's bold and unassailably right-thinking proclamation: A company cannot be allowed to profit from deceit. I wonder if the congressman would have supported as exuberant an investigation of Halliburton for the deceit it has practised under the guidance of the standing Vice President (see Halliburton—Building an Unsustainable Future)?

What lessons are children taught by self-interested entrepeneurs masquerading as statesmen, bent on securing an American Empire that straddles every oil field on the globe? Isn't that more morally corrupt than virtual fellatio, Congressman Upton?


BCN3: Feasts for the Eyes and Palate

[The BCN series of posts is an edited transcript of my journal entries during my recent trip to Barcelona, June 26 - July 9]

Breakfast in the flat: lattes, paraguayos, nectarinas, pa, fourme d'ambert, y jamón. First stop: Manzana de la Discordia (the Apple of Discord). This 80m stretch of Passeig de Gracia features Modernisme architectural works by three of Barcelona's most renowned practitioners: Gaudi, Puig i Cadafalch, and Domenech i Montaner. Casa Lleo Morena by DiM is unfortunately closed to the public.

Cadafalch's Casa Amatller is open, however. The style is a kind of gothic revival, with a cobblestone entry to the inner courtyard, and gorgeous little esculpturas everywhere you look.

Carved figure, Casa Amatller

The stained glass roof of the inner courtyard is spectacular. S. and I spent much time photographing the details of the facade and courtyard.

We repeated the exercise next door at Gaudi's Casa Batllo. I found the most striking feature of Casa Batllo was the attic storeroom. Gaudi ingeniously contrived to make this level both weatherproof and open air, ringing the inner courtyard with a covered arcade of whitewashed parabolic archways, and using gill-like apertures on the courtyard wall to allow air in. The play of light on these graceful lines was mesmerizing.

We headed to the University district to L'Estevet for a late lunch. Too late, I'm afraid. Many items from the menu del dia were already unavailable. S. will attest to the perils of selecting chicken just before closing time (see the upcoming BCN4: El Dia Perdido). I had the gaspatxo, breaded chicken with mushrooms, crema caramel flan, and Moritz beer. I'd go back to L'Estevet's hundred-year-old tiled walls; its ceiling plastered with bizarrely juxtaposed poster images of surfing, BMX biking, and gymnastics; its Mom and Pop feel. The restaurant is also close to some great graffiti and Barcelona's CCCB (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona).

I went to the beach again, this time Platje de la Barceloneta near Rebecca Horn's sculpture, Homage to Barceloneta (see photo by Julie Woodhouse). A much younger, foxier scene at this beach. The sun was going down; in the evening's glow, everyone looked good. Time for dinner soon.

A B A C www.restaurantabac.com (empty page)
Chef: Xavier Pellicer. Abac is a gem in the renascent El Born district, about a block from our rented flat. The bright, elegant dining room is not showy in its chic. The staff here are a perfect complement to Pellicer's culinary genius: attentive, knowledgeable, and mannered. Again, a menu loaded with both invention and homage, every course on the tasting menu was strong. After amuse bouche came seven courses, a cheese plate, two desserts, and an assortment of dolci. I have to say that my favorite course was the lobster broth poured over raw verat (mackerel), roe, corn kernels, a lobster nugget, and pea-sized watermelon balls, served cold. Other highlights: seafood ravioli with butter foam; ginger chicken broth served with lettuce wrapped foie gras and caramelized pear; baby monkfish served with a salsa del mar of sweet onion, heirloom tomato, and sea asparagus. S. and I exited the restaurant at o130h, walked off the wonderful meal, and returned to the flat around 0300h.


BCN2: Eros And Sandy

[The BCN series of posts is an edited transcript of my journal entries during my recent trip to Barcelona, June 26 - July 9]

I decided to visit one of Barcelona's nude beaches, though I was too modest to follow suit. Platja de Sant Miguel lies just south of Platja de la Barceloneta. As you continue to walk along the beach, further from the warren that is Barceloneta, sunbathers shed more and more clothing til they wear nothing at all.

I discovered that nudism is decidedly unerotic, that the little swatches of fabric we usually clad ourselves with at the beach do more than cover our naughty bits--they impart fashion, modesty, and--well--neatness. They also produce eros by denying access to what they conceal. As they should.

Hm. I managed to write about the experience without once mentioning the abundance of pendulous man-sacs swaying along the beach--Ooops!

Two good restaurants today:

Cal Pep www.calpep.net
Not much time to write; things move pretty fast here. I asked Paco to keep the dishes coming: Three Canya Estrella lagers, pa amb tomaquet, sardinetas (tiny fried sardines), carxofes (artichoke hearts), tallarines (penne loaded with olive oil, butter, and garlic), gambeta blanca fregida (fried whole shrimp), and filet carne (seared beef with potatoes). Even though there were a lot of fried items, they were surprisingly light. The shrimp, sardinetas, and artichoke hearts were simply dusted in flour, salted and shown the high heat of the fryer briefly, by Pep himself (grey blur). Pep summoned his servers to clear the dishes he prepared by hissing at them. My espresso shot was presented with a tiny biscotti bite. Despite the lunch counter set-up, Cal Pep is a class act, serving a large assortment of wines, brandy, cigars, as well as delicious local dishes.

comerc24 www.carlesabellan.com
S., colleague and Barcelonaphile, arrived this evening as I arrived in Barcelona: sans valises. We celebrated his arrival by ordering the Super Festival Taster Menu, an absurd name for a delicious assortment of local dishes and playful novelties. The meal included an opening course of four amuses bouches, four middle courses, each with two to four dishes, a cheese plate (four cheeses and a fig fruit jelly), then dessert (four desserts). The food was very good, at times excellent, and the presentation ranged from elegant to fanciful. Highlights included the arroz negra with an herb aioli and adorable whole baby squid; and a chocolate ganache garnished with sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, and a bread crisp. And, of course, I must mention the kinder egg. A frothy meringue conceals the surprise: a soft boiled yolk infused with truffle (see photo). Service was sorely lacking for an establishment with food of this calibre. I frequently refilled my own glass, waited for forgotten espressos, and was generally challenged getting the attention of my server.


BCN1: Gaudi 101

[The BCN series of posts is an edited transcript of my journal entries during my recent trip to Barcelona, June 26 - July 9]

My first full day in Barcelona begins with breakfast in the flat, then taking the Metro to the Temple de la Sagrada Familia. The edifice--under construction since 1882--is as spectacular as it is audacious. I was awestruck as I walked within its soaring nave, climbed its towers, and attempted to absorb the wealth of sculpted detail throughout. The experience also nearly made me reverential. As a completed church, it may never serve its primary purpose as a place of worship, mobbed as it forever shall be by curious throngs from all over the world. That would be a terrible shame. In its conception, in every detail, it is clearly conceived as a tribute to Christ and Nature, yet it shall instead stand as a tribute to Gaudi--an eventuality that must surely cause him great anguish if he looks on in the afterlife.

The Coronation of Mary, Nativity Facade

Visited another Gaudi masterpiece: La Pedrera or Casa Mila. I learned much about Gaudi's design principles in the museum tucked below the rooftop. I learned about Gaudi's preoccupation with parabolic forms. I learned how he incorporated this form into his designs employing an elegant solution, the inverted suspended model, depicted in photo. This is a primitive but ingenious method to model the form without aid of calculation.

He was also thoroughly attentive to natural light in his designs, whether reforming Palau Guell or creating Casa Mila. The courtyards of La Pedrera are bound by sloped rooflines sporting porthole windows, with a geometric expansion of the 'windowprint' the deeper into the courtyard you go. In this manner, Gaudi regulates light entering flats lining the courtyard.

Again, the details here in Casa Mila are spectacular, though I confess a certain distaste for his works when trying to take them in whole. The naturalistic curves, textured surfaces and fanciful flourishes conceal an exhaustive preoccupation with design. This is a theme I find repeated throughout Gaudi's work: the meticulous design of seemingly natural forms.


Cmon I Lied, So Scampish

According to Stephen Colbert of The Daily Show, the true meaning of the banner aboard that aircraft carrier marking the end of hostilities in Iraq in 2003 could not be appreciated by those thinking in a "linear, left to right, letters in consecutive order, syllable-based way." The meaning was embedded in anagram form: Cmon I lied, so scampish.

Added Colbert: "George W Bush will go down in history as this nation's scampiest Commander in Chief."

Deficit Improvement

In dramatic contradistinction to the track record of his office to date, the Bush II Administration is projected to post a small improvement in the size of its budget deficit for the 2005 fiscal year. The source of the improvement is, according to the New York Times, "an unexpected leap in tax revenue."

Recall that the Bush II Adminstration has produced an increasingly negative budget balance every year since taking over from Clinton (Update: New Canafornida). I think the captions in the table are misleading. The projected reversal of this trend is attributed by the NYT to a sharp increase in corporate tax revenues (accounting only for an additional $58b). More significant, in my opinion, is an increase in individual income tax revenues, accounting for an additional $105b. To wit: "the increase in individual tax receipts appears to have come from higher stock market gains and the business income of relatively wealthy taxpayers. The biggest jump was not from taxes withheld from salaries but from quarterly payments on investment gains and business earnings, which were up 20 percent this year."


BCN0: Barcelona Bound

[The BCN series of posts is an edited transcript of my journal entries during my recent trip to Barcelona, June 26 - July 9]

Day 0
The trip begins inauspiciously. As I feverishly pack the morning of my departure, I have a premonition of a final journey being made.

I arrive at the Kelowna International Airport and am told that a ticket has not been issued for my itinerary and that I would be unable to fly. The owner of my travel agency leaves his cottage to check on my itinerary at his office in Edmonton. I also marshal the hospital security guards to check my itinerary--which I left in my office--containing my ticketing information. Ultimately, I make it aboard my YLW-YVR flight because its arrival is delayed by a security breach in Vancouver.

I invoke a prayer as we taxi: "B'ism Allah ar Rahman w'il Raheem." Anyone who knows me, an avowed atheist who never practised Islam, knows how unlike me this is.

The flight delay forces a tight connection in YVR. I walk briskly from C38 to D70, trotting the last 50m. My bags couldn't have made the flight. I'm on my way to Frankfurt.

Perhaps my prayer worked. Perhaps I only lost my baggage rather than my life. Annoyingly, the thought comforts me.

Over Iceland, I'm summoned to respond to a passenger suffering chest pain. I'm the second responder, the first being a male nurse from Germany. We get some oxygen on him. I get him to chew on an aspirin tablet. I give him some nitrolingual. The automated defibrillator cardiogram doesn't show any ST segment elevation or T wave changes suggesting no heart attack is underway. He's tachycardic, his heart racing along at 130, with pretty good pressures despite the two doses of nitro. I decide to give him a beta blocker, but could find none in the med kit on the plane, so I canvass the passengers and get five to choose from. I give him a dose of bisoprolol. I don't have to scuttle the flight. The chest pain subsides, and we complete the flight.

I finally get to Barcelona, though my bags don't. I go to the flat I've rented and am duly impressed. I go for a walkabout in my neighborhood and discover hip clothing stores, a produce stand, a couple of grocery stores, some promising looking restaurants, and a pretty tree-lined boulevard starting a couple of doors down from my building. A cheese shop: Tot Formatge. A sausage and cured meat shop: Botafareria. Very promising. And my very own kitchen. I stay up til 2300h to try to synch myself on Barcelona time.


Intense Public Debate

A more than usually absurd post from me. I'm sorry; I couldn't resist.

Who could have guessed that after "intense public debate" [dead news link], such a bizarre solution could win acceptance: "After intense public debate, the [goose extermination] plan was dropped in favor of non-lethal alternatives: including deployment of a border collie in a life jacket, yapping from aboard a kayak"

[dead photo link]

I wonder which ideas never made it off the flip-chart.


$25,000 Per Month

I'm going to go off on a bit of a rant here on a subject I have not broached on this blog but encounter nearly every day in my practice: the rapidly escalating costs of medical care, cancer care in particular.

At this year's annual scientific meeting for the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), investigators reported the findings of a trial conducted in lung cancer patients with incurable disease. Here's the snappy title of their report: Randomized phase II/III Trial of paclitaxel (P) plus carboplatin (C) with or without bevacizumab (NSC # 704865) in patients with advanced non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC): An Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG) Trial - E4599. The investigators compared the outcomes of treating patients with combination chemotherapy using paclitaxel and carboplatin to those of patients also receiving bevacizumab. The earth-shattering conclusion of the study: "The addition of B to PC in pts with NSCLC (non-squamous) provides a statistically & clinically significant survival advantage with tolerable toxicity. PCB [an unfortunate acronym] is ECOG's new treatment standard in this patient population."

How much advantage did treating with bevacizumab confer? On average, patients went an additional 8 weeks without their disease progressing, and survived 10 weeks longer than those receiving chemotherapy alone. Well, I suppose that's progress.

In an editorial regarding the costs of bevacizumab therapy appearing in the American Journal of Health System Pharmacists by Dr Jill Kolesar, the author notes that adding bevacizumab to chemotherapy increases the risk of vascular complications by a small amount. Perhaps more significantly, bevacizumab costs USD$50,000 for a typical course of treatment.

Does it make sense for a cash-strapped health care system to dispense such an expensive drug for a survival benefit that is measured in weeks? ECOG, a group of cancer treatment facilities in the Northeastern US, has adopted this drug as its standard of care. In the US, once the drug has obtained regulatory approval for its use following a demonstration of its relative safety and effectiveness, it can be prescribed with impunity as long as a payer can be found. For the latest innovations on the market these payers are typically private health insurers or individuals themselves .

The situation in Canada is different. The payer is the government agency overseeing cancer care. Before an anti-cancer drug can be given in this system, it must not only satisfy similar federal regulatory requirements as in the US, it must also be added to the provincial drug formualry if its cost is to be covered. This usually follows an evaluation of its efficacy, toxicity, and clinical and fiscal impact. On some occasions, third party payers can be found for patients who are veterans, in law enforcement, covered by Workers' Compensation, or the like. For the most part, there are no private insurers to foot the bill.

This is probably a good thing from a public health perspective. The third party payers who were pressured in the mid-1990's to cover the costs of high-dose chemotherapy and bone marrow transplantation for breast cancer wound up doing more harm than good. Such a treatment approach has been infamously discredited, with one of the main proponents of the approach--Dr Werner Bezwoda--charged with fraud and dismissed ignominiously. By being late adopters of new treatments, Canadians benefit from a longer experience and more accurate picture of the potential pitfalls of the new treatment. In the meantime, patients are sometimes deprived of the benefits of those treatments.

It is a delicate balance. As a physician, I see my role as an advocate for my patient, seeking to optimize their care. If I am constrained by wait times to tests or operations, the availability of appropriate expertise in my region, the availaility of a drug, etc, then at least I have sought to obtain these things for my patient. Should the system fall short of delivering what I seek, I have to accept these limits or petition to alter them by admittedly byzantine channels.

Practicing in this environment makes physicians in Canada more sanguine than their US counterparts. We cannot gleefully embrace the latest and greatest devices and drugs simply because they exist. We must investigate their effectiveness and pitfalls ourselves, or otherwise prove their advantage before they can routinely be adopted.


Blast From The Past: Deflating Lucas

While cleaning out my mailbox I discovered an old message from April, 2002, that is of interest today. It addresses a Salon.com article criticizing the overblown mythos of the Star Wars saga, subtly titled "Galactic Gasbag". Here's my reply to the friend who pointed the article out to me:

Even my five-year-old son finds interviews with Lucas tiresome. I agree that his ingenuine inflation of the Star Wars mythos is as overwrought as when the camera lingered on the death of a single ewok at the Battle of Endor while stormtroopers died in scores. However, not all the points of the salon article are valid. I think that the archetypal story arc that Campbell describes *is* a pervasive one, *does* reflect some aspects of the Star Wars story arc, and is one that repeats in nearly every heroic epic, whether the writer was conscious of the fact or not:

1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
5. The Belly of the Whale

1. The Road of Trials
2. The Meeting with the Goddess
3. Woman as the Temptress
4. Atonement with the Father
5. Apotheosis
6. The Ultimate Boon

1. Refusal of the Return
2. The Magic Flight
3. Rescue from Without
4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
5. Master of the Two Worlds
6. Freedom to Live

The pattern repeats in myths, literature, pulp, and film because it offers a compelling heroic journey. And while the trash-compactor-as-whale analogy is admittedly ludicrous, I think it would be erroneous to try to fit every story to every component of the pattern.

Lucas is a huckster, and his high-brow claims don't delude me. Ths [sic] might surprise you: I can't wait until May 2005 when Anakin falls, the Jedi are exterminated, the saga is over, the DVDs are all bought, the LEGO kits are all on the shelf, and nothing more will be heard from the Skywalker Ranch but a faint chuckle and riffling of bills as George Lucas counts his great wads of cash.


Laura Bush Clipped

Frank Rich of the New York Times recently blasted the American media for its gleeful coverage of Laura Bush's address at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner:

Yes, Mrs. Bush was funny, but the mere sight of her "interrupting" her husband in an obviously scripted routine prompted a ballroom full of reporters to leap to their feet and erupt in a roar of sycophancy like partisan hacks at a political convention. The same throng's morning-after rave reviews acknowledged that the entire exercise was at some level P.R. but nonetheless bought into the artifice. We were seeing the real Laura Bush, we kept being told. Maybe. While some acknowledged that her script was written by a speechwriter (the genuinely gifted Landon Parvin), very few noted that the routine's most humanizing populist riff, Mrs. Bush's proclaimed affection for the hit TV show "Desperate Housewives," was fiction; her press secretary told The New York Times's Elisabeth Bumiller that the first lady had yet to watch it.

Mrs. Bush's act was a harmless piece of burlesque, but it paid political dividends, upstaging the ho-hum presidential news conference of two days earlier in which few of the same reporters successfully challenged administration spin on Social Security and other matters. (One notable exception: David Gregory of NBC News, whose sharply focused follow-ups pushed Mr. Bush off script and got him to disown some of the faith-based demagoguery of the Family Research Council.) Watching the Washington press not only swoon en masse for Mrs. Bush's show but also sponsor and promote it inevitably recalls its unwitting collaboration in other, far more consequential Bush pageants. From the White House's faux "town hall meetings" to the hiring of Armstrong Williams to shill for its policies in journalistic forums, this administration has been a master of erecting propagandistic virtual realities that the news media have often been either tardy or ineffectual at unmasking.

Indeed. So who can you trust for your news? The networks? Ha! Public broadcasting. Maybe. It's too laborious to cull the blogosphere for news. And what's at stake for bloggers? Their journalistic credibility? Page views? Click-throughs? Hm. Not much of a check to dsitortions or fabrications.

See my news source links on the sidebar at the right of this page. I trust them to get the story right ultimately. But by the time a story's fictions begin to unravel, the faux story has already entered the nation's consciousness. Those same media outlets that broke the story are far more reticent about breaking the story of their error.

So those who make the story do little or nothing to unmake it.

Vigilance and skepticism is soooo taxing. No wonder most people don't bother (present company excepted, of course).


"Finish Your Homework"

Just read an interview Wired did with Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times and author of The World Is Flat. The book comments on the ready accessibility of supply chains globally, and the effects of that interconnectedness on foreign policy, prosperity, and your job security.

The statement that stimulated me to post a link to the interview was Friedman's answer to Wired's question, "[W]hat should we be doing?...what advice should we give our kids?":
When I was growing up, my parents told me, "Finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving." I tell my daughters, "Finish your homework. People in India and China are starving for your job."

He continues in this vein in his column of May 13, "Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?" wherein he cites results of a recent international computer programming competition. The University of Illinois, the US's top-ranked performer in the competition, tied for 17th, the lowest rank in the 29-year history of the competition. (For your interest, the top-performing Canadian school was the University of Waterloo, achieving a fourth place ranking).

I have no doubt that Friedman's thesis has much truth. The threat to the domestic workforce posed by developing nations had been largely limited to manufacturing. At the start of the Information Age, the innovators and the workforce behind them came out of the US: IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, etc. And the plum white collar sectors--financial services, accounting, business management--were firmly rooted on American soil.

For more than a decade now, jobs in all these sectors have been under continuing and accelerating threat from abroad. If the knowledge capital of the emerging megapowers--India and China--is not just cheaper, but also more skilled, what chance does our labor force have? How can it compete against a younger, talented, more recently trained and upwardly mobile horde of hundreds of millions?

So, to my four boys I'll say: Finish your homework, boys. There are children in India and China who've already finished theirs.


True North, Strong and Debt Free

I found an interesting statistic recently: of all the G8 nations, Canada has the strongest fiscal balance. Canada had the largest surplus as a proportion of GDP in 2004, and is projected to do so again in 2005 and 2006:

Fiscal Balance in 2004 for G8 Nations
United Kingdom-3.2
United States-4.4

In fact, of all the nations that the OECD publishes this statistic for, only Finland (+2.3) and Norway (+8.2!) surpass Canada's fiscal vigor.

I am concerned that an election to test Canada's current minority Liberal Party government will result in a jaded electorate ousting the scandal-marred Liberals in favor of the Conservatives. Conservative leader Stephen Harper is trading on a dubious moral authority platform; even more dubious is his fiscal platform which promises more military, less taxation, and a laxity in the Canada Health Act. Compare this with Bush's conservative fiscal platform which plunged his nation further into debt than it's ever been, and converted long-running surpluses under Clinton into record budget shortfalls (see Update: New Canafornida).

Be very afraid.


Nifty Device

The DVX-POD. A 20 gig portable media player that can rip to its drive directly from a video source, playback photos, mp3s, and video, and does so elegantly on a 7", 720x480 display. I'm in techno-luv.


Homo economicus

In the pages of the Economist (April 9, 2005), I learned of an interesting theory which posits that the success of early Homo sapiens versus competing hominids, notably Homo neandertalensis, may be a consequence of economic superiority.

www.techcentralstation.comThe article refers to a paper appearing in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organization, a journal I must confess I have never read before or even heard of. In the paper, Jason Shogren and his colleagues contend that trade and specialization helped early modern humans (their oxymoron, not mine) "overcome potential biological deficiencies." Shogren cites the discovery of complex living quarters--suggesting specialization--and imported materials in early Homo sapiens settlements as evidence.

The paper is provocative because, as its authors note, "Our paper shows explicitly how culture may be a part of evolutionary and extinction processes." It also makes the interesting point that specialization is observed in other animals, such as the extreme examples of specialization in insects like ants, termites, and bees. While this specialization may confer little advantage to the survival of the indivdual worker bee or soldier ant, the success of the collective--and therefore of the specialist's genetically identical sibs--is promoted. The analogy to early humans is that by contributing to his tribe's success, the specialist reaps an evolutionary advantage because his genetic material is propagated by relations in his tribe.

Unfortunately, I could find links to the full-text of neither the Economist article, nor the JEBO article. But the links to the abstracts of these articles are enclosed below:

I have located a draft version of this paper posted online at Michigan State University's site, the institution where co-author Richard Horan teaches.

Here's a great post on the topic at Tech Central Station. And a blurb from the New Scientist.


Bridging Spermists and Ovists

I read an essay by Richard Dawkins recently that gave me pause ("An early flowering of genetics"). Dawkins, the most gifted and persuasive proponent of natural selection since Charles Darwin, reports of Darwin's nascent notions of heredity revealed in his correspondence. The essay by Dawkins appeared as the foreword of Darwin's Descent of Man, and again in an anthology of essays titled A Devil's Chaplain.

Darwin recognized the biggest shortcoming of his theory was that it failed to provide a mechanism for the transmission of heritable traits. But in Dawkins' essay, we learn that Darwin indeed had some insights about that mechanism. He understood that heredity must preserve the variation in traits expressed by progenitors of the next generation. If not, his theory of natural selection would fail. More importantly, competing "blending" theories of heredity contradicted the observation that successive generations of organisms do not become monotonous intermediate forms of the varied ancestral population.

Coincidentally, Darwin at one point argued for a "particulate" theory of heredity citing his experiments with pea plants as evidence. Again, this anticipates Gregor Mendel, the cleric-botanist (only in the Victorian era!) who elucidated the particulate theory of heredity decades later in classic, exhaustive experiments on pea plants in his monastery.

The essay is a wonderful illustration of the depth of Darwin's insight. Dawkins points out that Darwin was nevertheless a product of his time, and revisits some of Darwin's jarring biases and pronouncements on race, as if to expose Darwin's fallibility. Perhaps to set himself apart from darwin's bias, Dawkins curiously advocates for the abolition of the concept of race, arguing that more variation exists within races than between them.

The point was also made in Scientific American a couple of years ago in an article entitled "Does Race Exist?". The argument strikes me as dubious since the physical traits which evolve in certain areas function to confer a selective advantage in some cases (skin color, eyelash length, body habitus), or are culturally selected (lip shape, rump size) and these must co-segregate with other medically important genetic loci. I concede that race is getting tougher to accurately identify in places like Europe, North Africa, and North America, where racial blending has been fairly extensive. I also concede that except for some genetically uniform populations, the concept of race is not useful medically. In more stable populations, such as North Korea, Sri Lanka, or Mongolia for example, the genetic traits that account for race are not mere illusions.

You do not have to claim that race does not exist to passionately defend freedom from prejudice.



Yes, after a long hiatus, I have returned to the blogosphere. It's been difficult to return. You know how it is: you want to return with something worthwhile, earth-shattering; a fitting culmination of your pensive absence. A Life-Altering Post. Perhaps only your life, but preferably everyone else's.

And as the dust continues to gather on your blog, your next post must be all the more cosmic.

I've decided, "Screw that," and have posted just this little message to say I'm back.

Good to be back.


Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

I ordered this provocatively titled book from amazon.ca today after listening to an extended interview with its author, John Perkins. The interview was conducted by Amy Goodman and posted to the Democracy Now! website. Here's a taste:

[My job] was giving loans to other countries, huge loans, much bigger than they could possibly repay. One of the conditions of the loan–let's say a $1 billion to a country like Indonesia or Ecuador–and this country would then have to give ninety percent of that loan back to a U.S. company, or U.S. companies, to build the infrastructure–a Halliburton or a Bechtel. These were big ones. Those companies would then go in and build an electrical system or ports or highways, and these would basically serve just a few of the very wealthiest families in those countries. The poor people in those countries would be stuck ultimately with this amazing debt that they couldn’t possibly repay.

A country today like Ecuador owes over fifty percent of its national budget just to pay down its debt. And it really can’t do it. So, we literally have them over a barrel. So, when we want more oil, we go to Ecuador and say, “Look, you're not able to repay your debts, therefore give our oil companies your Amazon rain forest, which are filled with oil.” And today we're going in and destroying Amazonian rain forests, forcing Ecuador to give them to us because they’ve accumulated all this debt. So we make this big loan, most of it comes back to the United States, the country is left with the debt plus lots of interest, and they basically become our servants, our slaves. It's an empire. There's no two ways about it. It’s a huge empire. It's been extremely successful.

I'm not sure why any of this surprises me anymore. The only thing that should surprise me is that the US could "literally" have Ecuador over a barrel. Perhaps Perkins means a few billion barrels. Of oil. 4.63 billion to be exact. After decades of being seduced by "sex, money, and power," Perkins finally had a crisis of conscience prompting him to publish the book he long contemplated writing. I can't wait to read Confessions, despite the fact that it was written by an economist.

Odious Debts

I heard an essay on CBC radio yesterday read by its author, Patricia Adams. Adams describes the phenomenon of odious debts, a subject she expands at some length in her book posted online. Briefly, the principle of odious debts was first enunciated by Alexander Sack in 1927, a minister in Tsarist Russia and later a legal scholar in Paris:

If a despotic power incurs a debt not for the needs or in the interest of the State, but to strengthen its despotic regime, to repress the population that fights against it, etc., this debt is odious for the population of all the State.

This debt is not an obligation for the nation; it is a regime's debt, a personal debt of the power that has incurred it, consequently it falls with the fall of this power.

Adams' essay yesterday focused on Iraq and the debt relief offered by Western governments, an informal collective known as the Paris Club. She details the specific issue of Iraq's debt in a report published in a CATO Institute's Policy Analysis paper.

US-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi negotiated the Paris Club's dubious offer to relieve Iraq of 80% of its debt owed to Western governments in November 2004. The offer came with strings attached, courtesy of the IMF, with 30% of the debt canceled immediately, 30% canceled on implementation of IMF economic programs, and 20% canceled upon the IMF adjudging the programs a success. Iraq's Letter of Intent to the IMF indicates that debt sustainability would only be possible with a 90-95% debt reduction. Moreover, the IMF has been criticized for undermining the authority of local governments and for imposing economic policies which coincide more with Western interests than with the prosperity of local citizens.

The Paris Club agreement would relieve Iraq of US$31.1b of its public debt. However, Iraq owes over US$120b to external creditors, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait holding most of the remaining debt. It also owes another US$15b to private creditors.

These closed door agreements circumvent an examination of the debt, and of the appropriateness of the Iraqi people footing the bill for Saddam Hussein's mismanagement and opperession. Why should Hussein's victims also be saddled with the obligation to repay his excess? Why should Western governments and financial institutions be allowed to couch their debt relief as generosity to Iraqis when the money was lent to a brutal dictator to prop up his detestable regime?

Iraq's National Assembly rejected the Paris Club agreement in a resolution announced November 22, 2004 and passed unanimously on November 30. The resolution states:
(1) The debt is almost entirely odious.
(2) The Paris Club has no right to impose IMF conditions on Iraq.
(3) Iraq should repudiate the debt but offer creditors the opportunity of a fair legal arbitration to prove if their loans to Saddam were actually beneficial to the Iraqi people.

Iraq's creditors were complicit with Hussein, and if they are not to be repaid, let that be a lesson to would-be creditors of other tyrants. We, the taxpayers of the Western democracies, are footing the bill for supporting Hussein's regime. Debt relief to Iraq represents an abrogation of culpability rather than an act of charity. Let arbitrators--not falsely magnanimous states--decide which debts the Iraqis should repay. And let us hold our nations accountable for morally questionable loans of our capital.

In addition to the links in the text above, I also suggest the following:
Odious Debts – Odious Creditors? International Claims on Iraq (erlassjahr.de)
Jubilee Iraq
Iraq's Odious Debt Must be Eliminated, Not Rescheduled (KAIROS)