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, August 31, 2009

Natural selection at work

Don't try this next time your neighbourhood is engulfed in flames:
While thousands have already fled the Station [Los Angeles] fire, two people who tried to ride out the firestorm in a backyard hot tub were critically burned. The pair in Big Tujunga Canyon, on the southwestern edge of the fire, "completely underestimated the fire" and the hot tub provided "no protection whatsoever," Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Sunday.

(HT: Towleroad)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Harper vs the Senate

All you Tories out there in the circular firing squad who have been complaining that the Prime Minister has abandoned his principles by appointing Conservative hacks to the Senate should read this editorial in today's National Post - In defence of Harper's senators:
We've heard more than enough from the critics who accuse Stephen Harper of "abandoning principle" by making Senate appointments from among Conservative party heavyweights and advisors who are close to him personally, exactly like every other prime minister in memory. The Prime Minister has had exactly one opportunity to select a Senator according to the provincial election procedure he advocates, and he used that opportunity. We ask, as we have asked before: what can be the possible objection to practically any manner, within reason, in which he might dispose of the rest of the seats?

Keep in mind that the PM has no constitutionally possible method of contracting with his appointees to leave office after his proposed eight-year sunset period expires; once a senator is in, nothing a prime minister does from the lower house can force him out. This obviously means that the only practical way Mr. Harper can carry out the one incremental reform open to him is to choose senators that he can trust and that are on board with his program. We don't really want him picking totally unqualified personal friends, or people with strong financial incentives to go back on their word. So who's left on the long list once it's winnowed down by these requirements?
Read the whole thing - please.

And another thing - amid the wailing about the appointment of Conservative Party insiders Doug Finley, Carolyn Stewart-Olsen and Don Plett I don't hear much in the way of praise from Conservatives for the choice of former St Eustache mayor and University of Quebec law professor Claude Carignan, past president of Acadia University Kevin Ogilvie, former Northwest Territories Premier Dennis Patterson, retired Montreal Canadiens coach Jacques Demers or journalist and author Linda Frum Sokolowski, all of whom have had distinguished careers in their respective fields and will undoubtedly represent Canadians well in the Red Chamber.

Absent any realistic timetable for reforming the Senate with a minority government, its time Tories realized that a majority of Liberal hacks in the Senate is an obstacle to meaningful change and Harper has to do what he has to do. Leave the sniping to the Liberals.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cuba: "the whole country is stagnating"

Email a link to this article from the Miami Herald to all your Canadian Cuba-phile friends planning their vacations this winter: Cuba faces toilet paper shortage. An excerpt:
There's good news and bad news in Cuba.

The bad news: There's a shortage of toilet paper, and officials in Havana say it will not ease until the end of the year.

The good news: Day-old copies of the Communist party's newspaper Granma, a traditional substitute, are available for less than a U.S. penny. And that's six to eight full, if rough, pages per day.

Cuban officials say the shortage is the result of the global financial crisis and three devastating hurricanes last summer, which forced cuts in imports as well as domestic production because of reductions in electricity and imports of raw materials.

But CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria says that ``at the bottom of this toilet paper shortage is Cuba's continuing commitment to its bizarro world of socialist economics.''

``Cuba's disastrous economy would be a joke were it not for the poverty it has perpetuated among millions of Cubans,'' Zakaria said in a video commentary posted last week. ``The whole country is stagnating. Fifty percent of its arable fields are going unfarmed. First and second year college students work one month out of the year in agriculture.''

``It's insane farm policies lead to frequent shortages of fruit, vegetables and other basic food needs, shortages even more serious than toilet paper,'' he added. ``And all those programs that they have held up for years as successes of the communist revolution -- free education for all through college, universal health care -- well, Raúl Castro just announced they're going to have to make cuts in all of these.''

``Meanwhile the average Cuban still earns less than . . . $20 per month,'' he concluded. ``Now, capitalism has its problems, as we have all seen. But at least we're not running out of toilet paper.''

(HT: Reason Online)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hideous Public Art (7)

The Toronto Transit Commission recently outlined plans to rebuild the subway platforms under Union Station. The renovations will "create more space for waiting passengers, wider stairwells and a seamless connection to the Queens Quay streetcar loop". That's fine, I suppose - the current station is horribly inadequate for the massive crowds of commuters that use it every day to access one of Toronto's busiest public transit hubs. However, here's the part that raises my eyebrows:

The redesign of the subway deck, to be completed by 2014, also calls for a much sleeker look and the introduction of public art.

Gaaacckkk!!! Please Commissioner Giambrone, spare us the "public art" so harried passengers on their way to their cubicles don't have to stare numbly at some artistic eyesore chosen by a suitably diverse TTC committee. Has nobody learned anything from the TTC's previous forays into the art world?

Exhibit A in this lesson is the Queen Street station, located at Yonge and Queen at the south end of the massive Eaton Centre. The walls of the subway platform are graced on both sides with murals by artist John Boyle. According to this biography, Boyle is

a figurative painter and strong Canadian nationalist [who] chooses both Canadian heroes such as Tom Thomson, William Lyon McKenzie, Marshall McLuhan, as well as ordinary Canadians and incorporates them in a background which holds reference to his own life in London, St. Catherine's [sic], Owen Sound, Europe and Japan. Strong colour, richly patterned areas, figures spaced randomly throughout the painting emphasize the direct response of the artist to his world.

Boyle's opus in the Queen Station, called Our Nell , "celebrates the history and architecture around Queen Station. [His] painted mural appears on the platforms on either side, starring Nellie McClung, New City Hall and the Eaton Centre."

Celebrates is one word for it - desecrates is another. The mural contains grotesquely distorted images of famous landmarks near the station like the Eaton Centre

the former Simpson's department store (now the downtown branch of The Bay)

and Toronto City Hall

as well as historical figures like William Lyon Mackenzie, whose house is nearby,

and the eponymous "Nell" (Nellie McClung) who, as far as I know, never lived in Toronto. She looks like she has the same disease that afflicted John Merrick, the "Elephant Man".

The whole spectacle has to be seen in its entirety to be believed:

It's hard to describe the effect this artwork has on an unsuspecting passenger disembarking to head upstairs to the street. Its subterranean setting and fluorescent lighting give it an extra layer of ghastliness. One is reminded of that weird period in the 14th century when artists reacted to the horrors of the Black Death by including images of decomposing corpses in their paintings. Having spent a few minutes in a cramped subway car in a dark underground tunnel, stepping onto the platform and gazing at the pictures of misshapen buildings and mutated human figures is like being in the lair of the Morlocks before fleeing in terror to the land of the Eloi on the surface. The radioactive orange face of Mackenzie and "Nell" with her deathly pallor and twisted leer look like some sick decomposing memento mori reminding you that life is short and death and rot are the fate of us all. Just step off the platform in front of that oncoming train and get it over with now - join us, it won't hurt a bit.

One wonders why Mr. Boyle was commissioned to produce this work that has been assaulting the eyes of Toronto commuters since the seventies. His technique is graceless and childish, like a preschool fingerpainting project. He has apparently deliberately forsaken such artistic techniques as proportion and perspective but without embracing abstract expressionism - the result just looks amateurish. The colours are hideous - nasty oranges and chemical greens complete the look of a petri dish culture - exactly what one wants to be reminded of in a stuffy underground tunnel shared with hundreds of sweaty coughing commuters.

I'm sure Boyle has his fans, and they are free to collect his work for their own private enjoyment. However, the grandees at the TTC once decided that "Our Nell" should be on public display in perpetuity in one of Toronto's busiest subway stations where no one has a choice whether to look at it or not. Please - if anyone has any influence with the TTC brain trust that is planning the renovation of the Union Station subway platform - try to convince them to leave the public art out of it so we don't have to stare at another "Our Nell" for decades.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ode to a carp

I'm a big fan of the obituaries in The Economist; they are witty, poignant, sometimes irreverent but always beautifully written. They are a reminder of how good journalism can be especially if a publication has high expectations of its readers.

The August 15 issue has an obituary for Benson, "England's best-loved fish", a 64 lb carp who lived in Kingfisher Lake near Peterborough. Benson floated belly-up to the surface on July 29th:

In her glory days she reminded some of Marilyn Monroe, others of Raquel Welch. She was lither than either as she cruised through the water-weed, a lazy twist of gold. Her gleaming scales, said one fan, were as perfect as if they had been painted on. Some wag had named her after a small black hole in her dorsal fin which looked, to him, like a cigarette burn. It was as beautiful and distinctive as a mole on an 18th-century belle. Her lips were full, sultry or sulking, her expression unblinking; she seldom smiled. Yet the reeds held fond memories of her friend Hedges, her companion in slinky swimming until she, or he, was carried away in 1998 by the waters of the River Nene.


Greed probably undid her in the end. She was said to have taken a bait of uncooked tiger nuts, which swelled inside her until she floated upwards. Telltale empty paper bags were found on the bank of the river. Or she may have been pregnant, with 300,000 eggs causing complications, or stressed after so much catching and releasing, those constant brushes with extinction. On the line between life and death, at Kingfisher Lake, she breathed the fatal air and did not sink again. And there she lay, like Wisdom drawn up from the deep: as golden, and as quiet.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

General Amherst's Montreal legacy

Nicolas Montmorency, a Montreal city councillor, has introduced a resolution to "Frenchisize" English street names in his home town. Monsieur Montmorency is particularly agitated by Amherst Street, named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the British general who commanded the forces that captured Montreal in 1760:

Montreal's French identity is being eroded by the creeping influence of the English language, examples of which include street signs that are graced with the names of genocidal British conquerors, says a Montreal city councillor.

In order to curtail the invasion, Nicolas Montmorency, an independent councillor in Montreal's east end municipality of Riviere-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles, is proposing the city rename Amherst Street, named after the former commander and chief of the British army who captured Canada, Jeffrey Amherst.

He is also asking councillors to vote to cease using "non-francophone expressions" in public places and to "Frenchisize" existing English street names, such as McGill College Avenue and City Councillors Street.

The two motions will be proposed at the Aug. 24 city council meeting that he hopes will "bring back Montreal's French character," according to the Facebook group he has set up.

The first motion cites that Montreal's "essence and charter" make it a French city, and the French language is at the heart of the identity and culture of all Montrealers regardless of origin, therefore all public places should have French names and expressions.

The second motion claims that Jeffrey Amherst pioneered the practice of genocide in the Americas with the use of bacterial agents and also states that he had previously declared the native people a "vile race."

Amherst is a historical figure who conjures up strong emotions even 250 years later. At the end of the 18th century he was considered a great hero for concluding the conquest of New France; King George III rewarded him with a vast grant of land in New York and various towns & institutions were named in his honour (including the town of Amherst Nova Scotia, Amherstburg and Amherst Island in Ontario, Amherst New York, and Amherst College in Amherst Massachussetts). He was undoubtedly a figure of immense historical significance in North America; he was the Commander in Chief of the mighty British military machine that captured France's American colonies. He personally led the army that advanced north from Lake Champlain and captured Montreal in 1760, bringing an end to the North American phase of the Seven Years War. One could argue that by absorbing Quebec into the British Empire, Amherst helped make Montreal the great port and commercial metropolis that it is today. However, he had an unsavoury side and was undoubtedly in favour of practicing germ warfare against the Indians.

The germ warfare incident needs to be looked at in its historical context. It happened in 1763 during the so-called "Pontiac Rebellion" at the siege of Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh). The Indians in the "Old Northwest" under the leadership of Ottawa chief Pontiac and others had risen up against the British troops garrisoning the former French forts. Francis Jennings in his masterful book Empire of Fortune (1988) gives us some of the background:

In this war [Pontiac's Rebellion], civilians suffered greatest casualties. Rampaging warriors killed an estimated 2,000 colonial settlers (as compared to 400-odd soldiers), inflicting horrible tortures and forcing survivors to flee to refuge in the town and forts. This was something more than the satisfaction of bloodlust; though there was plenty of that, a Frenchman's blood presumably would have sated it as well as an Englishman's. The settler victims were mostly persons who had violated bans against invading Indian territory. If British officialdom would not or could not fulfill its pledges against such settlement, the Indians reasoned that they would have to use their own force to maintain their territorial integrity. Nation-states do the same thing. To say this does not explain the frightful cruelties of backwoods war, of course, and no effort will be made here to palliate or excuse them. Even so, distinctions must be made; among the Indians themselves the Delawares were disgusted by the cannibalism practiced by some other tribes. The Ottawa's ritual cannibalism was denounced to Pontiac's face by Chippewa chief Kinonchamek, and the chief of the Eries who spoke also for Delawares.

Amherst's order did not spring from nowhere - it was given in the context of a brutal uprising where horrible atrocities were being committed against English settlers. When news of the uprising reached Amherst in Britain he became almost unhinged. He already had a low opinion of the "savages" in America but this was something else. Jennings comments on Amherst's reaction:

The fallacy of homogenizing all Indians as indentical "savages" can be seen most clearly by turning the same sort of logic around to apply it to their British adversaries. Suppose that all Englishmen and English colonials were to be defined by the standard set by their highest authority in America, Commander in Chief Amherst. When the news of the rising reached Amherst, he raged without restraint. Demonstrating that he had attended closely to the methods of his former commander, "Butcher" Cumberland, Amherst ordered "extirpation" of the Indians and "no prisoners" to be taken. "Put to death all that fall into your hands," he ordered Captain Lieutenant Valentine Gardiner, and he asked Colonel Bouquet "to send small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians".

Bouquet passed Amherst's directive along to Captain Simeon Ecuyer commanding Fort Pitt. Ecuyer summoned besieging Delaware chiefs into the fort for parley - a common occurence in backwoods warfare - and presented them with tokens of his personal esteem: blankets infected with smallpox from the fort's hospital. "I hope it will have the desired effect," gloated Captain William Trent, who provided the blankets; and so it did by his standards. An epidemic raged among the Delawares, after which some familiar chiefs appear no more in any account: Great Chief Shingas, for example, and his brother Pisquetomen.

Should Pennsylvania's Quakers be homogenized with Amherst, Bouquet, Ecuyer, and Trent under one judgemental identifying epithet?

Thinking persons must constantly ask themselves what they admire and what they want to be, What, then, do they think about this matter of germ warfare that was unquestionably effective at Fort Pitt? If it is admired, or even merely accepted as superior to the "savage" way of hacking at bodies, is there not a dead certainty that military advantage will provide sufficient motive for practicing it again? And for overlaying the enormity with cant phrases about civilization triumphing over savagery, or something of the sort?

Amherst was undoubtedly a racist who favoured extirminating the rebellious tribes. However, it's easy to view his actions through the lens of our modern concepts of war crimes, racism and human rights. The 18th century wasn't like that, and Amherst's actions must be viewed in that context.

And as for the idea of sending Amherst Street down Montreal's memory hole - General Amherst was an important historical figure in the history of Montreal even if Quebec nationalists don't like or accept how it turned out. I'll support Nicolas Montmorency's motion to expunge the name of Jeffrey Amherst from Montreal's streets when he also champions a similar treatment of racist anti-semite Abbe Lionel Groulx whose name graces, among other Quebec landmarks, a theatre, a CEGEP college and a busy Montreal subway station.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Cuban agriculture: 50 yrs of failure

The Cuban government is promoting a bold new initiative to increase its agricultural production - using oxen instead of tractors:
President Raul Castro is promoting the beasts of burden as a way for the economically strapped communist country to ramp up food production while conserving energy.

He recently suggested expanding a pilot program that gives private farmers fallow government land to cultivate—but without the use of gas-guzzling machinery.

"For this program we should forget about tractors and fuel, even if we had enough. The idea is to work basically with oxen," Castro told parliament Aug. 1. "An increasing number of growers have been doing exactly this with excellent results."


The agricultural ministry in late June proposed increasing the use of oxen to save fuel, as Cubans have seen a summer of factories closing and air conditioners at government offices and businesses shutting off to save oil. The ministry said it had more than 265,000 oxen "capable of matching, and in some cases overtaking, machines in labor load and planting."
Well, at least they're reducing their carbon footprint.

(HT: Powerline)

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Remembering Hiroshima

The Boston Globe has a fascinating and thought-provoking collection of high resolution photos related to the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima 64 years ago today.

(HT: Towleroad)

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Windsor's telephone terrorist

The Smoking Gun outs Tariq Malik, a 25 year old Windsor Ontario resident, as the ringleader of a group responsible for a year-long telephone crime spree:
At 4:15 AM on a recent Tuesday, on a quiet, darkened street in Windsor, Ontario, a man was wrapping up another long day tormenting and terrorizing strangers on the telephone. Working from a sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment in a ramshackle building a block from the Detroit River, the man, nicknamed "Dex", heads a network of so-called pranksters who have spent more than a year engaged in an orgy of criminal activity--vandalism, threats, harassment, impersonation, hacking, and other assorted felonies and misdemeanors--targeting U.S. businesses and residents.

Coalescing in an online chat room, members of the group, known as Pranknet, use the telephone to carry out cruel and outrageous hoaxes, which they broadcast live around-the-clock on the Internet. Masquerading as hotel employees, emergency service workers, and representatives of fire alarm companies, "Dex" and his cohorts have successfully prodded unwitting victims to destroy hotel rooms and lobbies, set off sprinkler systems, activate fire alarms, and damage assorted fast food restaurants.
(HT: The Weekly Standard)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Where's Lee Marvin when you need him?

Kurt Schlichter at Big Hollywood laments the sad state of current Hollywood tough guys, as evidenced by Quentin Tarantino's new movie Inglourious Basterds:
You’ve probably experienced the Basterds publicity blitz. Brad Pitt looks like he stepped out of a Calvin Klein underwear ad. Folks I know who have been around him say he really is a pleasant and laid-back guy, and these are hardly the characteristics of a beady-eyed killer. Creepy Eli Roth, taking some time off from directing his degenerate torture movies, is just a leering clown - he looks like he should be squatting in the back of his Ford panel van offering Tootsie Rolls to passing tweens. And B.J. Novak? The guy is a hilarious writer and is really funny in The Office , but I’m not buying this cat as the scourge of the Third Reich.

In contrast, Lee Marvin’s tough guy legacy lives on despite the fact that his body rests with thousands of other heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. He earned that right when he was wounded fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in the Pacific as a Marine private. His Purple Heart is 100% USDA certified proof positive of his prime badassery. Who is the Hollywood tough guy of today who can dare step up to the Lee Marvin plate and take a swing?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Tell that to the CBC

Former CBS anchor Dan Rather has issued a plea to the Obama administration to establish a "commission on public media":
“I personally encourage the president to establish a White House commission on public media,” the legendary newsman said.

Such a commission on media reform, Rather said, ought to make recommendations on saving journalism jobs and creating new business models to keep news organizations alive.

At stake, he argued, is the very survival of American democracy.

“A truly free and independent press is the red beating heart of democracy and freedom,” Rather said in an interview yesterday afternoon. “This is not something just for journalists to be concerned about, and the loss of jobs and the loss of newspapers, and the diminution of the American press’ traditional role of being the watchdog on power. This is something every citizen should be concerned about.”
In response, James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal has some thoughts on government support for journalists:
A press that is financially dependent on the government cannot be free. Even if it had formal protections against micromanaging by elected officials, socialized journalism would inevitably be compromised journalism. It would be no more independent than a subsidized farmer or a defense contractor.
One might add, as is the case with the CBC, that a press that is dependent on the government will have a vested interest in backing the political party that promises the greatest level of financial support.

(HT: John Stossel)

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Tragic coming-out in Tel Aviv

Saturday's shooting at a support centre for gay teenagers in Tel Aviv has an added level of tragedy: among the youth wounded in the attack, which killed two people, were some who were not out to their families:
Among the injured were teenagers who had not yet discussed their sexuality with their families. Some of their parents found out about their children's sexual identity only when they arrived at the hospital on Saturday night.

Rona Kenan, one of Israel's most popular singers and a lesbian, said: "Some of them were thrown out of their homes because they voiced their willingness to come out of the closet.

"They go there because it is a refuge of sorts for them. The very thought that a person might enter that protected space and simply spray them is shocking. I just want to cry."

Hear us, oh Bama

Janis Sharp, mother of Gary McKinnon - the British "computer nerd" who is fighting extradition to the U.S. for hacking into American military computers - is praying to the White House for divine intervention:
"I'm just praying, please hear us, Obama, because I know you would do the right thing," said Ms. Sharp. "I know you would have the strength to stand up and not have this."
Hallelujah, sister.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

John Stossel on Canadian health care

ABC's 20/20 takes a look at government-run health care, Canadian style:
People line up for care, some of them die, that's what happens.