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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Cruel and unusual punishment


According to the Winnipeg Sun, the CIA reportedly used the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to torture a confession out of an al-Qaida terrorist.

Surely this warrants an investigation by the criminal court at the Hague - this has got to be worse than waterboarding. I suppose it could have been worse - they didn't use the thermonuclear device of music torture: Celine Dion.


(h/t: Right Side of the Rainbow)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

They don't make liberals like this anymore

I'm reading a great biography of Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt - No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin. In it, she describes a speech FDR gave to the Pan American Scientific Congress on May 10 1940 - the day Germany invaded Holland and Belgium:

"We come here tonight with heavy hearts," he began, looking out at the packed auditorium. "This very day, the tenth of May, three more independent nations have been cruelly invaded by forces of arms .... I am glad that we are shocked and angered by the tragic news." Declaring that it was no accident that this scientific meeting was taking place in the New World, since elsewhere war and politics had compelled teachers and scholars to leave their callings and become agents of destruction, Roosevelt warned against an undue sense of security based on the false teachings of geography: in terms of the moving of men and guns and planes and bombs, he argued, every acre of American territory was closer to Europe than was ever the case before. "In modern times it is a shorter distance from Europe to San Francisco, California, than it was for the ships and legions of Julius Caesar to move from Rome to Spain ..."


"I am a pacifist, " he concluded, winding up with a pledge that was greeted by a great burst of cheers and applause, "but I believe that by overwhelming majorities ... you and I, in the long run if it need be necessary, will act together to protect and defend by every means at our command our science, our culture, our American freedom and our civilization."

Compare and contrast with Howard Dean's 2004 "take back the White House" outburst, or John Kerry's "reporting for duty" address at the Democratic National Convention. Yikes.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The 4-way stop as Canadian metaphor

Twice a day, on my way to and from work, I pass through an intersection with a four-way stop. Invariably the experience leaves me dumbfounded at the behaviour of fellow motorists at the intersection - no one seems to know what to do when more than one car arrives. Then it dawned on me: the four-way stop is the perfect metaphor for the Canadian psyche. As evidenced by our often lamentable behaviour as a country, Canadians hate to go first.

David Brin used the four-way stop to illustrate human behaviour as it applies to dispute resolution:

If you want to see clues about our future, step away from your computer screen. Go outside and stand near a four-way intersection that’s regulated only by stop signs.

Watch for a while as drivers take turns, not-quite-stopping while they gauge each others’ intentions, negotiating rapid deals with nods and flashes of eye-contact. You’ll spot some rudeness, certainly. But exceptions seldom rattle this silent dance of brief courtesies and tacit bargains -- a strange mixture of competition and cooperation.

The four-way stop doesn’t work in some cultures, and it’s hard to picture anything like it functioning in times past, when mostly-illiterate humans lived in steep social hierarchies and “right-of-way” was a matter of status, not fair play. Nor would robots, adhering to rigid laws, handle traffic half so well as the drivers I see, dealing with a myriad fuzzy situations, making up micro-rules and exceptions on the spot, even as they talk on cell phones or quell squabbles among kids riding in the back seat. This phenomenon visibly illustrates how simple rules can be used by sophisticated autonomous systems (e.g. modern citizens) to solve intricate problems without any authority figures present to enforce obedience.

Since I've been paying attention to this, I've noticed that when I am at a four-way stop people ignore the rule that the first car at the intersection has the right of way, but instead wave at you to go first, or sit politely waiting to go last. In frustration I sometimes take the initiative and enter the intersection when it isn't my turn just to stop the insane politeness that seems to compel people to give up their right of way. According to Brin's theory, Canadians are apparently unable to "solve intricate problems without any authority figures to enforce obedience".

It isn't just in cars that Canadians exhibit this bizarre behaviour - our pathological politeness and deference is inevitably exhibited when we hold doors open for each other. We apparently believe it is a civic virtue to make a theatrical display of opening doors for others so that we can go last. I have been in situations where someone has seen me approaching from fifty yards away and has stood there holding the door open for what seems like minutes while I mosey on up to the entrance. People do acrobatic contortions to hold a door open behind them after they have already passed through it in order to let someone go through the door first. I was once at a coffee shop with a vestibule with two double doors. Two people, one leaving the shop and one entering at the same time, stood frozen holding the doors open for each other, neither one wanting to go through first. I came up from behind and walked past both of them, still standing there motionless.

I think this Four Way Stop Syndrome explains a lot about our country. It explains why we feel incapable of doing anything on the international stage unless it is already sanctioned by the UN, or France. It explains why we hate to put our troops in combat situations where we might have to take some strategic initiative and kill people instead of digging wells and sand-bagging swollen rivers. It explains why we have this knee-jerk distaste of the US: we hate people who just barge in and do things. An American would never be paralyzed with indecision at a four-way stop (well, maybe in Minnesota).

For the record, folks: the first car into a four-way stop is the first car to proceed through the intersection. If two or more cars arrive simultaneously, the one on the right goes first. If four cars arrive at the same time - God help us. The UN would have to sort it out.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A dilemma for left-wing greens

This will have the Suzuki Foundation's collective knickers in a twist: the World Health Organization is recommending that DDT be used to fight malaria in the third world. Left-wing greens will be chasing their tails trying to figure out which is more important: supporting the UN or fighting the use of the most political of industrial pesticides.
"We must take a position based on the science and the data," said Dr. Arata Kochi, the WHO's malaria chief. "One of the best tools we have against malaria is indoor residual house spraying. Of the dozen insecticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT." "It's a big change," said biologist Amir Attaran of Canada's University of Ottawa, who has long pushed for the guidelines and described a recent draft. "There has been a lot of resistance to using insecticides to control malaria, and one insecticide especially. … That will have to be re-evaluated by a lot of people."

That's putting it mildly. Malaria is one of the most serious obstacles to development in the Third World, and DDT is the most effective method of fighting it. In fact, the use of DDT has eradicated malaria in parts of the developed world like Singapore where it was once endemic. Unfortunately, ill-informed political opposition to DDT has prevented its use in the developing world, and has resulted in the deaths of millions of people and the consignment of millions of others to a life of misery. This short-sighted attitude continues in spite of the WHO's recommendation:
While some well-known environmental groups have signed on to WHO's decision, it has generated some concern from groups like the Pesticide Action Network, which says there are questions about its effects on developing children.
I would hazard a guess that it's also pretty hard for children to develop when they're dying of malaria. Somewhere Rachel Carson is turning over in her grave.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Did you have a "safe summer"?

School is back in session, Labour Day has come and gone, and finally the annoying messages on signs in front of schools, churches and some businesses reminding you to "Have a safe summer" have been replaced. Several local schools had "Have a safe summer" displayed out front for the entire months of July and August. One school went further and said "Have a safe summer and don't drink and drive." A church down the road told us to "Have a blessed and safe summer".

When did this become so common? What happened to "Have a fun summer", or an "enjoyable" or "relaxing" one? I don't like being reminded that, if I'm not constantly vigilant, my vacation might kill me. This is, to me, a manifestation of an unfortunate Canadian tendency to always see the dark lining in every silver cloud. We are always looking for reasons to not do things, not take risks, not to be different. And as for summer, just to be on the safe side, don't have fun. Stay out of that swimming pool - it's full of E. coli. By the way, do you know how many Canadians are maimed every year in drunk barbecuing accidents?

Our attitude to our government is a more complex example of this same phenomenon. Let's not get involved - we're Canadians, we don't want anyone hurt. Lets get the government to regulate all risky behaviour to save us from taking personal responsibility for our own safety. How many times have we been told by some level of government that we have to make sacrifices or do inconvenient or unpleasant things as a society because the alternative is not safe, and anyway, if it saves one life, it's worth it? Mandatory bicycle helmets are a good example, or banning perfume in public buildings, or prohibiting peanuts in schools.

We might as well put signs up that say "Don't get too cocky, it could all go to hell at any moment." If I had a sign in front of my house, every summer I'd say "It's only warm in this country for three months of the year - loosen your tie and have a beer, for crying out loud."

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Great road-trip songs

Now that summer is over and vacations road-trips are just dim memories, here's a nostalgia exercise: what are the greatest road-trip songs of all time? To me, road-trip songs are the kind that somehow insinuate themselves into the crocodilian part of the brain while you're driving down a highway with your arm out the window. They have some kind of primeval rhythm or some intangible quality that makes you bob your head in time with the music, and before you know it you're driving 30 mph over the speed limit. I grew up in the seventies, so my list reflects the music of my adolescence. The top road-trip song of all time for me is Radar Love, by Golden Earring. That song is indelibly marked in my mind as a summer camp anthem - we listened to it at YMCA camp on Georgian Bay on CHUM AM from a crappy transistor radio. Rounding out the top ten:

Sympathy for the Devil - the Rolling Stones
The Immigrant Song - Led Zeppelin
Oye Como Va - Santana
Young Americans - David Bowie
Play That Funky Music - Wild Cherry
American Woman - the Guess Who
Black Dog - Led Zeppelin
La Grange - ZZ Top
Locomotive Breath - Jethro Tull

So, to all ten of my readers: leave a comment and let me know your top road-trip song of all time. If there's a story behind it, all the better.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Poutine: Canada's Greatest Invention?

The CBC is currently in production for a series called The Greatest Canadian Inventions. Brought to you by the same team that gave us Tommy Douglas: the Greatest Canadian, the producers have narrowed Canada's contribution to the world of technological innovation to 50 "great inventions.", and audience votes will determine the winner. I can't help but cringe when I read the list. The ardox nail? The caulking gun? How about the green plastic garbage bag, or the retractable beer carton handle? The paint roller? There are the obligatory sports contributions: lacrosse, basketball, five-pin bowling and the hockey goalie mask (although to be contrarian, basketball was actually invented in Boston, Mass. by Canadian James Naismith, and lacrosse existed before Canada did as a nation). There are a couple of entries to the culinary world that raise eyebrows: instant mashed potatoes, for instance, or poutine - both of which I think should be banned by the Geneva Conventions.

Granted, there are some significant inventions that we can be truly proud of: insulin, the electron microscope, the snowmobile, or my personal favourite - the Robertson screwdriver. Of course the Canadarm on the U.S. space shuttle is included, as it is everytime NASA does something spectacular, as if the entire U.S. space program wouldn't exist without this piece of Canadian hardware.

But compare our list to one compiled by the Encylopaedia Britannica : there, the monolithic domination by American inventors is apparent. Of over 320 inventions listed, 157 are American and only four are Canadian (the quartz clock, the personal watercraft, the snowmobile, and insulin). America's contibutions include the engine-powered airplane, the motion picture, the atomic bomb, the personal computer, genetic engineering, the electric motor, the microwave oven, the skyscraper, the steamboat, the transistor, Prozac and Viagra.

Yes, yes, the U.S. has ten times our population. But if Canada has four entries on this list, shouldn't the U.S. then have around 40, not 157? The imbalance is startling. America has a culture that encourages innovation and entrepeneurship, and the rewards are potentially immense. Canada's culture smothers innovation in its crib. Canadian inventors depend on government coddling and handouts, and real innovators depart quickly for the promised land south of the border. Name three famous Canadian inventors (and I don't mean guys like James Naismith or Alexander Graham Bell, who did most of their work in the US) - Frederick Banting, maybe? Can you think of two more? Now do a similar exercise for American inventors: Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Eli Whitney, Robert Fulton, Jonas Salk, Enrico Fermi, Henry Ford, Bill Gates - I could go on and on.

This isn't just a matter of Canadians not knowing their own history. When the CBC has to pad its list with bogus inventions like the birchbark canoe, the Wonderbra or the Bloody Caesar just to come up with fifty contributions, one can safely say that this country is not a fertile breeding ground for inventors. By the way, if you feel inclined, PLEASE vote for the electron microscope on the CBC's website so we don't have to listen to Rick Mercer extolling the virtues of the zipper.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Katie Couric stops the rot

The BBC World News' Katty Kay did a story today about the debut of Katie Couric, the "first solo female" anchor of a network newscast. It must have been galling for Kay, herself apparently a female, to deliver this news. The (male) BBC reporter covering this non-event said that CBS hoped Couric would "stop the rot" at CBS and bring in new, younger viewers while keeping the advertisers happy. Although I don't normally watch CBS news, I tuned in tonight to see the new improved version.
The lead story was about the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Reporter Laura Logan went behind enemy lines complete with cool night-vision cameras - her escorts insisted that she be covered head to toe Taliban-style with only her eyes showing. At one point she asked her guide "Am I allowed to smile?". Back at the US army base, she appeared looking like something from a GAP commercial in an ultra-tight T-shirt and equally tight cargo pants. Aside from anything she reported, Logan's behaviour alone was a lesson in why NATO needs to be there.
Other stories included an interview with Tom Friedman of the New York Times discussing the war on terror, a piece on health problems of first-responders at the World Trade Center attack, the death of Steve Irwin, a rant by Morgan Spurlock (director of Supersize Me) about civil discourse in America, exlusive pictures of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' new baby, and a story about a Wisconsin artist who paints portraits of orphans in third-world countries. You know, basically all the hard-hitting reportage and insightful analysis that was previously lacking at CBS.
As for keeping the advertisers happy - I kept track of the commercials in the half-hour broadcast to try to figure out who their target audience was. From what I can gather, the typical viewer of the CBS Evening News is a middle-aged man with high cholesterol, high blood-pressure, an enlarged prostate, has difficulty sleeping at night and uses an automatic shower cleaner while buttering his bagels with low trans-fat non-dairy spread and wearing gel insoles. Is this the newer, younger, hipper audience that CBS is trying to reach out to?
The conclusion? CBS is still producing the same lame news broadcast aimed at middle-aged middle-class viewers. Younger, hipper consumers will continue to seek alternative sources of news like blogs while the big networks compete for an ever-shrinking slice of the market. Plus, CBS now has Katie Couric's intensely annoying perkiness. If you own shares in CBS - sell now.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Alexander the Great in Lebanon

The Middle East has a history of strife dating back thousands of years, and the current violence and instability is only the most recent episode. When one reads the history of the region in ancient times, one realizes that in many ways the political situation there has not changed much - only the technology of violence has. Alexander the Great invaded the Middle East in the fourth century B.C. and subdued the inhabitants after a relentless and often vicious campaign. Brutal battles at Tyre and Gaza, names infamous today, gave the best army in the world tenuous control over the area at a huge cost in human life. Sound familiar?
Alexander crossed the Hellespont from Macedonia in 336 BC and invaded the Persian Empire in what is now modern Turkey. He met and defeated the Persian army under Darius at the battles of the Granicus River in the spring of 334 and at Issos in November 333. At that point, rather than pursue Darius into Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) leaving a hostile Persian fleet and its mainland allies behind him, he turned south and entered what is now modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. The ensuing Macedonian victories at the sieges of Tyre and Gaza resulted in complete Macedonian domination of the region. By the time of his death at the age of 32 in 323, Alexander ruled most of the known world.
After the surrender of the northern cities of Byblos and Sidon, the king of Tyre, Azemilcus, met Alexander in January 332 and offered to obey his instructions. Alexander told him that he wished to sacrifice to Herakles in the main city temple during the feast of Melqart, the chief city god. The rulers of Tyre considered this an intolerable affront and declined - Alexander then commenced a lengthy siege. The Macedonians built an enormous causeway 200 ft wide from the mainland to the island fortress in the harbour, and rolled out enormous siege engines to batter down the 150 ft thick walls. At the same time the Macedonian fleet blockaded the harbour. At one point in the siege, the Tyrians hauled some Macedonian prisoners onto the battlements and in view of the attacking Macedonian army, cut their throats and threw their bodies into the sea. Eventually the Macedonian army gained control of a section of the wall and the defenders retreated to the shrine of Agenor, the city’s founder. Most of the defenders were slain at the shrine, and the Macedonian army then sacked the city, killing some 8 000 residents. Alexander then had about 2 000 others crucified on the beach as a warning to the inhabitants of the area against further resistance. Another 30 000, including most of the women and children, were sold into slavery.
After the victory at Tyre, Alexander moved down the coast to Gaza. The city was heavily fortified and garrisoned by an army of mercenary Arabs who were well supplied for a lengthy siege. The ruler, Batis, believed that the town was impregnable and refused to surrender. Alexander invested the city in a siege that lasted from September to November 332. The Macedonians used tunnels to undermine the walls and brought the siege engines from Tyre to batter down the fortifications. Alexander was the object of an assassination attempt by a Gazan deserter who surrendered and then attacked him with a concealed sword - an attack which he successfully dodged. Later he suffered a serious wound to the shoulder from a Gazan catapult. After three unsuccessful attempts to force a breach in the wall, the Macedonians entered the city on their fourth try. Every Gazan under arms was slain and the women and children were sold into slavery. Alexander had Batis dragged around the walls behind a chariot in retaliation for the attempted assassination.
From Gaza, Alexander then went on to conquer Egypt, and then turned east to finish off Darius at the battle of Gaugamela in October 331. This victory left Alexander as the ruler of the entire Persian empire - a kingdom which did not survive his death in 323.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The NDP doesn't want us to fight this?

I shake my head when I hear leftists like Jack Layton and the NDP calling for our immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. The mission there is tailor-made for left-wing support: all the NDP shibboleths like women's equality and gay rights are front and centre, and Canadians are the good guys! Why can't leftists get behind this? The NDP believes that all we have to do is sit down with the Taliban and work out our differences. Doesn't anyone in that party remember what Afghanistan was like under the Taliban? Remember this?

Barely two weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the New York Post and Court TV both ran items about the Afghanistan Taliban regime's punishment of two men convicted of homosexuality.
According to those stories, the Taliban's Islamic jurists knew that homosexuality was reprehensible and the sentence should be execution, but they were genuinely puzzled by conflicting Islamic opinion on exactly how the execution should be carried out. "We have a dilemma on this," one Taliban leader explained. "One group of scholars believes you should take these people to the top of the highest building in the city, and hurl them to their deaths. (The other) believes in a different approach. They recommend you dig a pit near a wall somewhere, put these people in it, then topple the wall so that they are buried alive."

So, if the NDP gets its way, Canadian diplomats will be negotiating with a new Taliban government on whether Afghan gays should be crushed to death or thrown off tall buildings. Jack Layton needs to pull his head out of his ass.