banner photo:

"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

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

Monday, March 31, 2008

Critically acclaimed films that I hate

The folks over at Libertas had an interesting post up: "Top-Five Critically-Lauded Movies I Simply Detest". That got me thinking of the many times I've come out of a movie theatre after seeing a film that critics raved about, thinking "what the hell was that all about?" So, without further ado, here is my personal Top 10 List of critically-acclaimed films that I really didn't like, in no particular order:

2001 - A Space Odyssey
This was a great novel by the late Arthur C. Clarke, but the movie is a bloated monstrosity. Didn't anyone have the cojones to tell Stanley Kubrick, Famous Director - "Excuse me Mr. Kubrick but we think your movie is about an hour too long and unnecessarily obtuse"?

A Clockwork Orange
see above

Dances With Wolves
Critics gushed over how original & beautiful this film was, but I found it boring & patronizing. It's not enough anymore just to make a beautiful film - National Geographic does that every month - it's got to have something other than just a politically-correct lecture about white liberal guilt wrapped in beautiful photography. And excuse me, Kevin Costner is no David Lean - watch Lawrence of Arabia and then watch Dances With Wolves - I rest my case. And while we're on the subject of Kevin Costner - watching him act is like watching the Canadian Parliamentary Access Channel.

Forrest Gump
What can I say? This movie was a melodramatic tear-jerker, and watching Tom Hanks play the mentally-challenged lead character was like a trip to the dentist.

Good lord, what a mess this movie was. After about half an hour, I was praying for an iceberg. Titanic - the Love Story ? Give me a break. Why not Pearl Harbor - the Love Story? (Oops - it's been done.) And putting Leonardo di Caprio in a movie is the kiss of death for me.

Lost in Translation
Sorry, I just didn't get it. And talk about SLOW.

The English Patient
I just couldn't drag up an ounce of interest or sympathy for any of the characters in this movie, even though I liked the book. Ralph Fiennes just rubs me the wrong way anyway.

See above comments on politically-correct lectures about white liberal guilt.

Gosford Park
I've never been a big Robert Altman fan, but this movie was a disjointed disaster. Was it a murder mystery? A period drama about the English class system? Who knows.

Bram Stoker's Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola needs an editor. This movie was too long, and it couldn't decide whether it was a serious treatment of the classic novel or a parody. Gary Oldman was ridiculous as the lead character, and Wynona Rider & Keanu Reeves sucked the life out of every scene they were in.

There - I feel better now.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Toronto's ugliest building is also dangerous

A while ago I wrote a couple of posts on what I consider to be Toronto's ugliest building - the Michael Lee Chin Crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. The short version - I hate it.

A few weeks ago I was back in Toronto and stopped by the ROM to see the exhibit on Charles Darwin, and as I stood in line outside the Bloor St. entrance I noticed that the sidewalk under the crystal's protruding jagged bits was roped off to keep pedestrians away from the huge icicles that were hanging from the building's overhang, threatening to impale passers-by.

Surprise, surprise - World Famous Architect Daniel Libeskind has designed a building which is completely unsuited to the winter weather of Canada's World Class City and can actually kill people who visit it. Check out this story by the Toronto Star's Christopher Hume:

If architects were as cavalier about gravity as they are about weather, half the buildings in this city would have fallen down by now.

The most recent and spectacular example of contemporary architectural hubris is Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

Turns out its precariously angled aluminum and glass facades are the ideal icicle machine. If Libeskind had set out specifically to design a building that endangers passersby with falling ice, he couldn't have done better.

The exteriors protrude at just enough of an angle that snow can collect on them. They also happen to be made of materials that absorb heat from sunlight, melting the snow that then drips and freezes into large icy protrusions capable of seriously hurting anyone below.

Of course Hume & the rest of Toronto's intelligentsia don't see this as a problem. In fact, Hume makes good use of that uniquely Canadian talent - turning our shortcomings into virtues:

Architects are simply men (and women) of their time. Now that technology has liberated the profession from problems that kept their predecessors earthbound for millennia, the sky is the limit. Not only can they reach ever higher into the clouds, they are able to express themselves as never before.

For Libeskind, among our most poetic practitioners, that means creating structures like the Crystal that defy traditional limitations, including that of gravity itself. Who says walls must rise perpendicular to the ground?

Thus the contemporary architect is freed from conventional constraints to deal with more artistic issues. In Libeskind's case, that means creating an aesthetic appropriate to an age characterized by anxiety, pain and provocation. The Crystal evokes all this brilliantly.

It is a magnificent accomplishment, though most Torontonians feel otherwise. We are, it seems, an overwhelmingly practical lot, not given to flights of poetic fancy, whether in two dimensions or three. We also derive satisfaction from hearing of the misfortunes of the Libeskinds of the world.

Oh, please. The building is butt-ugly, dangerous and uniquely inappropriate for its location. Let's call a spade a spade.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Turn on the lights for Earth Hour

I'm boycotting Earth Hour. In fact, between 8:00 pm and 9:00 pm on Saturday March 29, I'm turning on every light and appliance in my house so that it shines out as an act of defiance in the face of the latest loony act from the green movement.

Earth Hour started last year in Sydney, Australia, and according to the organizers' website :

Created to take a stand against the greatest threat our planet has ever faced, Earth Hour uses the simple action of turning off the lights for one hour to deliver a powerful message about the need for action on global warming.

On March 31 2007, for one hour, Sydney made a powerful statement about the greatest contributor to global warming – coal-fired electricity – by turning off its lights. Over 2.2 million Sydney residents and over 2,100 businesses switched off, leading to a 10.2% energy reduction across the city. What began as one city taking a stand against global warming caught the attention of the world.

In 2008, 24 global cities will participate in Earth Hour at 8pm on March 29. Earth Hour is the highlight of a major campaign to encourage businesses, communities and individuals to take the simple steps needed to cut their emissions on an ongoing basis. It is about simple changes that will collectively make a difference – from businesses turning off their lights when their offices are empty, to households turning off appliances rather than leaving them on standby.

Well, pardon my language, but that's bullshit. Earth Hour is not about simple changes that will collectively make a difference. I agree with Jason at Catallaxy:
Let’s face it, Earth Hour is fundamentally about Romanticist aesthetics - the thought of being able to see the stars because all artificial lights are turned off and the idea of a retreat to an idyllic past that never existed when cavemen and cavewomen sang kumbaya around a fire. It’s not about efficient energy use (which can be achieved simply by paying attention to your electricity bills and turning off unnecessary switches, something that has always been driled into my frugal self from a young age) or carbon dioxide reduction.
Australian blogger Tim Blair reports:
The advice on candles in the Earth Hour supplement may not be as green as you claim. Every standard-sized candle, when burnt completely, releases 15 grams of carbon dioxide whether it is beeswax, soy or paraffin-based. The lady depicted is burning 28 candles, creating more than four times the CO2 supplied by coal power to light one old-fashioned 100-watt bulb for an hour.

and this:

The whole stunt requires people to turn off efficiently made and distributed energy - electricity - and replace it with alternatives - candles and gas barbecues - that have to be transported by oil-burning ships, trucks and cars to the point where they are to be set fire to in the open air without any means of capturing emissions. It’s insanity if the aim is to reduce CO2.
Right on cue, the schools are gearing up the youngsters to hector their parents:
Schools and offices of the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board are invited to participate in Earth Hour on Friday, March 28 by turning off non-emergency lights for one hour. This simple action is one that helps make a difference and sends a powerful message about caring for the planet.

In my humble opinion, activities like Earth Hour are less about reducing energy use and more about making consumerism look uncool so that the hip alternative is seen to be an anti-capitalist communitarian political agenda of the kind put forward by the Green Party or the NDP. Here in Ontario, frightening the populace into reducing their electricity consumption has the added benefit of postponing the day of reckoning for years of inept management of the electricity generating system in the province.

So, join me on March 29 and power up the house at 8:00 pm. Your increased carbon emissions might just help warm up this unusually cold winter that doesn't seem to be ending any time soon.

RELATED: Check out Peter Foster's commentary in the Mar. 26 Financial Post: Earth Hour's soft fascism . An excerpt:

The cause, masterminded by the World Wildlife Fund, WWF, is allegedly to raise awareness of climate change. But what needs raising is not so much awareness as knowledge. People are woefully ignorant both about the uncertainties of climate-change science and the implications of climate-change politics. However, the WWF has no interest in discussing or debating the issue. According to them, we should "stop talking and start acting." Check your brains at the door.

Far from being a harmless gesture of support for the environment, Earth Hour is symbolic of a spreading soft fascism, aided by well-meaning individuals and well-meaning and/or cynical and/ or scared corporations. Indeed, what is truly astonishing, and disturbing, about this turn-out-the-lights exercise is how many businesses and corporations have signed on to it. According to the WWF Canada, they haven't had one "no" from any company they've approached.


WWF Canada, supported by -- among others -- the Toronto Star, Virgin Mobile, the City of Toronto, Toronto Hydro and Canwest's Global TV (Canwest owns this newspaper), is using Earth Hour as an opportunity to take its environmental indoctrination deeper into schools. It suggests that schools hold an event this Friday, and perhaps turn their gyms into cinemas, where they might show films such as -- you guessed it --An Inconvenient Truth!

I would suggest that the biggest current threat to our planet is not either climate change or the financial "crisis," but the mindless conformist tendency to support ideas such as Earth Hour, which are aimed at the levers of both electrical and political power.

If you love civilization, freedom and the use of reason, keep on all the lights you need on Saturday. Take Back the Night.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Gay" now the top schoolyard insult

A study of schools in the UK has revealed that "gay" is now the leading term of abuse, with 83% of teachers reporting hearing it used regularly, compared to it's nearest rival, "bitch" at 59%. According to the BBC :

Every generation of schoolchildren has them, the playground put-downs that can leave a pupil's reputation in tatters among their peers. For the current generation, "gay", "bitch" and "slag" are the most frequently used terms of abuse, according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). They are used by children of all ages, from nursery school upwards. But the worst offenders are secondary school pupils, says the teaching union.


"Every generation grows up with a whole lexicon of homosexual insults, in my day it was 'poofter' or 'bender'," says slang lexicographer Tony Thorne. "They were used much more because they were considered more offensive than 'gay', which is more neutral.

"It's only in the last four years that I've documented it being used so much by young people. It's what we call a 'vogue' word, which is a fashionable word."

One reason for this increase in use could be because "gay" has partly lost its sexual connotations among young people, he says. While still pejorative, for the majority of youngsters it has replaced words such as "lame".

"I have interviewed scores of school kids about this and they are always emphatic that it has nothing at all to do with hostility to homosexuals," says Mr Thorne, compiler of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. "It is nearly always used in contexts where sexual orientation and sexuality are completely irrelevant."


"The word has what we call multiple coinage and that's the problem," says Mr Thorne. "While teenagers are generally using it to mean 'lame' it can separately be used as a homophobic term of abuse."

It's this ambiguity that prevents some teachers from tackling pupils who use it in a negative sense, says ATL. They are afraid of "blowing trivial matters out of proportion".

It's tricky because it's often a casually throwaway remark and said without any obvious malice," says Deborah, a teaching assistant from Essex. "Terms such as 'batty boy' are clear homophobic insults and much more straightforward to deal with."

Every generation has abusive words. But while "gay" may have changed for some, it is still being used as a means of bullying, as are many other homophobic insults (see table, above). Last year, the Westminster government announced the first guidelines for schools on how to deal with homophobic bullying.

Gay lobby group Stonewall says 65% of young gay people experience homophobic bullying. And many who aren't gay also get labelled as such.

"It's a form of peer group control," says psychologist Helen Cowie. "Boys have to be masculine and macho and anyone who isn't must go along with it or face being bullied. It's a form of bullying that domineering people seek out vulnerable people and school age is a time of emergent sexuality which is itself a vulnerable time."

Fellow psychologist Ian Rivers says the potency of such words is in the fact they "go to the very core of who we are". Yet sexual orientation is also invisible. "It's not about your heritage or your race, it's not about things which someone can see." So it can't even be challenged, he says. "How can children demonstrate that they are heterosexual. There's no effective recourse and this is what makes it so effective as a bullying tactic."

I encounter this on an almost daily basis - hearing people (usually teenagers) use the word "gay" as a synonym for "stupid" or "lame", as in "this movie is so gay". Most heterosexuals who use it in this context don't mean it as a homophobic slur, but take it from me - to a homosexual hearing the word used like this, it's like a daily slap in the face.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What the decline of civilization smells like

As is frequently the case, the French are at the forefront of social trends that make one wonder if we're living in the End Times. A story in the March 8 National Post informs us that the must-wear scents from Parisien perfumers resemble "dung, sweat and druggy sex":

"Bodies slick with sweat, hot with the odours of sexual favours" is how Hennessy describes his perfume in promotional material. Sounds swell to me; I'm lonely. But is it prostitution or perfume? Sweat, saliva, secretions of all description: Does anybody besides me want to smell of sexual favours? Does anybody want to pay by the ounce for sex? Mais oui!

In the world of perfume, sex is selling. Perfume counters at posh stores are crowded with the scents of coitus. There is French Lover by Editions du Parfum; Putain des Palaces (Hooker of the Hotels) by Etat Libre d'Orange; Querelle by Parfumerie Generale, named for the Jean Genet novel about a homicidal sailor in a seaside brothel. It was widely reported that Tom Ford wanted Black Orchid, his first fragrance, to smell "like a man's crotch."

Sex, drugs and druggy sex: These are the themes of L'Oeuvre Noir, or the Black Masterpiece, Kilian Hennessy's first collection of scents. The collection is an homage to the poetes maudits, the 19th century's foremost literary libertines: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud.


"It is a classic French way to make perfume," [Hennessy] says, referring to animalic scents, the basest base notes. Civet oil, which is drawn from the anal gland of the civet cat, and which is said to smell a bit like blood. Castoreum, the animalic note in Cruel Intentions by Kilian, which comes from a gland in the guts of a beaver. Perfume critic Chandler Burr has said that it smells of "leather, urine, smokey tar and of anus."

"American perfumes are so often what we call 'overdoses,' "Hennessy says. "They have a single strong sent, sometimes soapy. Americans like clean scents. I am creating something darker."

The French are fond of animal aromas. Christian Dior's perfumers called Dioressence (1969) le parfum barbare, the barbaric perfume. It smelled of animalic and fecal notes. Miss Dior (1947) smelled a bit like sweaty armpits. In Dior's day, perfumers and the ladies who purchased perfumes didn't discuss fecal and anal odours in public.
Perfumery was an art shrouded in secrecy. Today, a company could put out these same Dior scents and call them Feces and Armpits. Pourquoi pas?

Alan Cumming put out a critically praised perfume called Cumming. It smells like it sounds.

Cumming is only the beginning. Putain des Palaces smells sort of slutty: lipstick and face powder in an old leather purse. Secretions Magnifiques, also by L'Etat Libre d'Orange, comes in a box emblazoned with a cartoon penis that's squirting semen. Dzing! by L'Artisan Parfumeur (the scent has been discontinued, but is still for sale) is rich with circus smells: sawdust, gasoline and wild animal dung.

The great French perfumer Jacques Guerlain once said that perfumes should smell of "the underside of my mistress." The scents he created, such as Jicky (1889) and Shalimar (1925), were tinged with vaginal and anal smells. Perfumers today build perfumes around accords of saliva and sweat, and advertise ejaculation. What is advertisement without semen? Images of sex and death inundate us; perhaps their odours are becoming less taboo. Perhaps culture has convinced people to become so clean, so antiseptic, that the smells of dirt and decay are desirable. Perhaps it is a CSI effect: People are fascinated with the forensics of blood, semen, decomposition. Or perhaps it's all marketing.

"Perhaps culture has convinced people to become so clean, so antiseptic, that the smells of dirt and decay are desirable." Perhaps. Or perhaps we should stop following trends coming from a country where pissing in the streets is considered a human right.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Is this any way to run a railway?

I have a friend in Fredericton, New Brunswick, who is at this moment trapped on a VIA Rail passenger train somewhere east of Quebec City, ostensibly on his way to Montreal. He is corresponding with me by e-mail from his Blackberry, and he sounds increasingly desperate. He was supposed to catch a connecting train to Belleville Ontario this morning for a scheduled arrival at 1:13 pm today. His train has been motionless on the tracks since 8:00 this morning, and he will be unable to make the last connection out of Montreal tonight.

Conditions on the train must be very unpleasant - passengers (including many small children) haven't showered or changed clothes for over 24 hours, and VIA has provided them with exactly one meal since the train stopped. No one can tell the passengers why the train is stopped, when it will start moving again, or what will happen to them when they arrive in Montreal having missed their connections, although they did inform my friend that there is an eastbound passenger train stuck in similar circumstances on the other side of Quebec City.

All this would be bad enough, but my friend was in almost the same situation on December 16 on a VIA train from Montreal to Moncton, NB. That weekend's snow storm apparently did something to switches on the line, and he was trapped on a motionless train for fourteen hours somewhere near Quebec City. He arrived home a day late and missed a day of work as a result.

Is this any way to run a passenger rail service? I understand that inclement winter weather can wreak havoc on transportation schedules, but come on - people take trains in the winter because they're supposed to be able to operate in heavy snow. And it's not like bad winter weather is unusual - this is Canada, for crying out loud. Are you telling me that VIA has no contingency plans for these situations? Why haven't the passengers been unloaded and taken by bus to Quebec City? Why isn't VIA prepared to handle passenger service in inclement weather?

This is almost laughable when you read VIA's corporate mission statement :
Our Vision :
At VIA, we will be the Canadian leader of service excellence in passenger transportation.
Our Mission :
We will work together to efficiently provide travel experiences that anticipate the needs and exceed the expectations of our customers.
Our Values :
Customer Focus
We appreciate and listen to our customers, and we innovate to provide the best passenger transportation experience at the best value for money.
We are human - people who respond with integrity to the needs of our customers, to each other and to the people and communities we serve.
We are dedicated to and passionate about our business, as well as the role we play in Canada's development, and we will go the extra mile to ensure that VIA Rail continues to be successful.

OK then - when you're not happy with VIA's service, you take your business to a competitor. OOPS - VIA is a Crown Corporation which has a monopoly on passenger rail service in Canada. One wonders if VIA's lack of competition and dependence on heavy subsidies from Ottawa has anything to do with the fact that it treats its passengers like freight. It's pretty easy to be "the Canadian leader of service excellence in passenger transportation" when you're the only rail passenger service available. My friend has had it with VIA - from now on, he's flying WestJet.

UPDATE: My friend finally arrived in Belleville, after an overnight stay in Montreal, THIRTY HOURS LATE. Case closed.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Amazing McCain TV ad

This is a stunning political commercial - if it's a taste of things to come, I'm looking forward to watching John McCain tear into his opponent once the Democrats pick a candidate.

Ann Althouse agrees:
I think this is a brilliant ad. It seems to be speeding into the future, with flashy visuals that remind me a little of the last episode of "6 Feet Under," when Claire drives off into the desert toward her future and the whole future of all the characters unfolds. But we aren't shown things that will happen in the future, even as futuristic music seems to tantalize us and make us a little anxious about things to come. We see images from the past (intercut with views of the galaxy). Images of Churchill and Roosevelt seem to embody a mystical sense of tradition. Even though I was trying to look at this ad with a critical eye, I kept getting chills. At one point — TR looking out onto a crowd — I thought: This is the feeling of being conservative — it is a deep emotional sense that the past matters and flows into the present and makes sense out of the future.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Avalanches on Mars

This is cool:

A Mars-orbiting spacecraft has captured the first images of avalanches happening on the Red Planet. A camera called the High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured the events occurring near the Red Planet's north pole on 19 February.