Sunday, May 29, 2005

A Perfect Sunday Discovery

Norm Geras pointed me today to this delight.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Golf and the Speed of Play

I am an enthusiastic and consistently pretty incompetent golfer (my best rounds are high 80s, low 90s, and they are punctuated by numerous much larger scores). I am also a fairly fast-moving golfer.

The Golf Channel is running a fascinating infomercial for something called the SkyCaddie, which seems to me to involve some rather odd marketing angles.

Now the product itself is right up my alley - it uses GPS to provde the golfer with an analysis of distances and options. A geek will love the idea of applying high technology to the knotty problem of bad golf scores.

The ad features appealing spokesfolk - Peter Jacobsen is always a delight and Natalie Gulbis is a very pleasant feature.

The product's features sound great - basically it will improve your play. Like all golf devices. But the ad also features the claim that it will speed your play! This I find remarkable. I have never met a golfer who thought his play should be faster. It is the group in front that needs to play faster. Is the idea then that we shoul buy four SkyCaddies and give them to the group ahead of us? I remain puzzled.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Everything bad is good

There is a wonderful sequence in Woody Allen's film 'Sleeper'. The dialogue is as follows (stolen from IMDB):

Dr. Melik: [puzzling over list of items sold at Miles' old health-food store] ... wheat germ, organic honey and... tiger's milk.
Dr. Aragon: Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or... hot fudge?
: [chuckling] Those were thought to be unhealthy... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible!

And now Dawson's Danube has discovered this turnabout in orthodoxy!

According to Dr. Mikhalev, a lot of children living in Chernobyl-affected areas started growing faster in comparison with other children. They have better reactions; their brain activity is more active as well. Such children have a more powerful immune system in comparison with their equals residing in other territories. The professor also said that he could apply such a conclusion to the settlements, where increased radiation was registered and where people were consuming pesticide-free food and water.


The Eclectic Econoclast has book-tagged me!

1. Total number of books I have owned.

This calls for a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Let's say I read 2 books a week (probably a slight overestimate) and have been doing so for 40 years (a slight underestimate). I do not use libraries much so we'll assume I owned all the books I read; I probably also own a few hundred books I have not yet read, so we're probably in the ballpark of 4000-4500.

2. Last book I bought

The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley. I have not yet read more than the introduction. I have long been fascinated by attempts to explain our mysterious if imperfect ability to work together on a grand scale.

3. Last book I read

Well, I just finished Ian McEwan's Saturday. I have already said a little bit about it here. And I have two books currently on the go. One is Irshad Manji's The Trouble with Islam. She hosts my favourite television show (Big Ideas on TV Ontario), used to annoy me completely when she was on City-TV, but what annoyed me was partly her relentless curiosity and openness and it shows through wonderfully in her timely book. The other is Paul Seabright's The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life. It is addressing the same question as Ridley's book above, but with more of a focus, I would guess from the titles, on the co-operation and willingness to trade that is key to economic progress.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me

  1. Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. I am not sure which of this very long and relentless book and the short and elegant The Blind Watchmaker is the most compelling pressentation of the subject, but I read Dennett's first.
  2. Flashman by George McDonald Fraser. The whole series is what I really mean. The humour drags you in, the cynicism of the narrator lets you relax, but along the way he teaches you an enormous amount of nineteenth-century history. The portrayal of Geronimo in 'Flashman and the Redskins' is utterly compelling. With these novels Fraser most subtly took apart my puerile anti-militarism and superficial pacifism.
  3. Ulysses yes, the one by James Joyce. In some ways despite the technical derring-do, the human story of the wonderful Leopold Bloom, his somewhat odd relationship with is wife, and the rather less pleasant Stephen Daedalus has a core of feeling that matters. And in the end the technical derring-do actually does help make this everyday story a little more universal.
  4. Poetry of W. B. Yeats The link is to one collection of his works. But it is his poetry that finally made me attentive to the charms of poetry.
  5. Men of Mathematics by E. T. Bell. I don't think anything would have changed my early commitment to mathematics, but this book was an early one in letting me know the history of the field.

5. Tag Five People and have them do this on their blogs.

Hmmm - still a neophyte so don't have quite the network of some others. I'll pick people I have communicated with so they won't view my mail immediately as spam.

So I shall shortly inflict this task on:

  1. Bill Dawson of Dawson's Danube. We have yet to meet but I hope it will happen this year. We share an enthusiasm for specific coffee shops in Berkeley, and for Austria.
  2. David Kaspar of David's Medienkritik. Entertaining coverage of the German media.
  3. Scott Burgess of The Daily Ablution. This is a must for me every day and usually has me laughing (though if I lived in the UK my reactions might be different).
  4. Michael Stastny, Mahalanobis, of the alpha and the omega. More Austrian connections.
  5. The Amateur of That's Amateur. Eclectic and I have been pleased at his interest in the curling blog.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Eurovision Song Contest 2005

I have known for many years about this contest. I knew that Abba won for Sweden in 1974 with 'Waterloo". I knew that Celine Dion won singing for Switzerland in the late 1980s. I knew that pretty well nobody else of international note had ever won. You can learn much more here.
I now subscribe on Rogers cable to German TV. To my enormous surprise and delight they were doing a broadcast of this year's competition last Saturday, albeit delayed (though I had little difficulty not finding out the outcome before watching the broadcast). My wife and I started watching around 9pm, expecting to fall asleep early in the show. Were we surprised! - it was captivating.
Not entirely because of the great songs. In fact, the performances were surprising and curious. Almost every one of them featured music that was a strange combination of the basics of Euro-pop (synthesizers on fairly basic rhythms and smooth sounds), small regional variations, and, rather amazingly to me, dance moves that seemed to be based on 'Thriller', but performed uniformly much less competently. Most performances featured very beautiful women, attired in a way that made watching thoroughly delightful. But they were not very good at doing what likely hundred of American groups do dancing - and yet seemed to be trying hard.
There were a couple of exceptions - Malta featured a ballad, Latvia had two apparently teenage boys singing sappy lyrics, Croatia had some guy sort of growling through his song. But generally it was a great evening of women (and occasional men) jumping around, sort of singing, and shouting to a background of somewhat synchronized dancers apparently inspired by MTV.
But the structure of the show was captivating. First, all the teams that made the final performed. (Sadly, my wife's country was eliminated the day before. And I was unfair earlier - they actually contributed one truly competent winner - Udo Juergens in 1966, after several cracks at it - and he was worthy - if you wonder find a way to hear his 'Griechischer Wein' and I would hope you would be very impressed.)
And then came the voting. It turned out this was structured like American political conventions, back when you did not know the result before they started. One by one, the voting countries made their votes. And it was fascinating to see how it went. I was cheering for Croatia and terribly against Norway (where my mother was born - but their group was a bad AC/DC imitation - I should have mentioned them as off the mark too).
Each country as it comes in has 10 votes it can cast in order with scores of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-10-12; as these come in the rankings jump around. With 39 countries voting, it kept us locked awake for a good couple of hours.
The voting was very interesting. In each country it seems you dialled in on your cellphone to cast a ballot. The Balkan countries, engaged not long ago in vicious wars against one another, tended to vote for one another. In fact geographical proximity, however much animosity one might expect, seemed a major determininat of votes, with few exceptions. Everyone in Europe, where anti-Semitism is manifestly showing a large presence, was willing to vote for Israel (who finished very well). Another theme was that a country that hosted many guest workers from another country tended to cast votes for the home country of the guest workers. The countries that got the fewest votes were Germany and France. Neither of their performers were wildly worse than most of the others. I could not figure out what made the Greek performer better than the others. They all looked hot and sang about the same. (Well, with the European lip-synching commitment, one really has no idea how they sing.)
It left me wondering whether this was a subject that had been analyzed. And lo and behold - the glory of the blogosphere - Michael Stastny had an answer for me - it has been! Go read.
Right now I desperately hope GermanTV will survive on local cable. I need to see a couple more of these song contests.
And I have come to depend terribly on the German Krimis for entertainment (a later post, I hope).

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

My premiss undermined

I thought my country was silly. That is how I named the blog.
Legislatures intervening in drug use in professional sports seems a new level of silliness to me.
I must go off and lick my wounds.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Silly and Rich

My view is that if the government insists on subsidizing activities I do not feel should be subsidized, but that I like, I will take advantage of it. And partly as a result of excessive funding of the arts, I have just spent a very rich weekend. Between Thursday evening and this afternoon, I have been able to enjoy the following bits of live theatre in Toronto:

a) Imperatif Present (both the first e's should have acute accents) at the Toronto French Theatre
This play is a wonderful riff on the theme of mouthing off about the resentments built up over a lifetime, written by Michel Tremblay, Canada's dominant playwright of the last 40 years. This is a tricky theme. At the end of the first act both my wife and I felt we could not handle yeat another hour of the son's complaining about his father. And at that point Tremblay did something very smart and made the play not only easy to endure but very satisfying. At that point the best piece of theatre we had seen this year. The actors (Jacques Godin and Robert Lalonde) were wonderful.

b) Chekhov's Heartaches
This was yet another Chekhov-themed performance by Theatre Smith-Gilmour at the Factory Theatre. This team puts on wonderfully idiosyncratic performances based on Chekhov's stories. They capture the tone of the stories for me, and part of how they do it is with wonderfully mischievous staging, part of the purpose of which is to allow four actors to play many more roles, as they (almost literally) roll back and forth between the characters they play. They are a complete treat and I go out of my way to watch them whenever I can. This was no disappointment and the couple my wife and I dragged along really enjoyed it as well.

c) Trying
Canadian Stage Company is the current dominant theatre company in the city. Overall I have found their season this year disappointing, but this play was a treasure. It was about people of very different sorts connecting through work (and about a lot more), and featured stunning performances by Caroline Cave (I do not know much about her) and Paul Soles (who performed through my childhood on the CBC, and impressed me here more than ever before).

d) The End of Civilization
A George F Walker play. He is the dominant English-Canadian playwright of the last 20 years. I do not know how to say more - he has a glorious hand with low-life comedies. And this was another one, brilliantly performed at Factory Theatre in Toronto. I never know what to think as I leave his plays, and I think that is as it should be.

OK that was one weekend!

But let me tell you about another show from the last few weeks.

Charpentier's Acteon followed by Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, put on by Opera Atelier. This company is amazing! I have avoided 17-18th century opera with few exceptions studiously and they have broken that foolish prejudice. Their Mozarts are the best I have ever seen. See everything they do!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Dick Francis

My mother and I share this literary enthusiasm.
From every one of his books I learn something. The writing style I find very attractive. To get a vague idea what I mean, Dan Brown writes appallingly, but produces in some of his books such compelling plots and such pseudo-education that it becomes irresistible. (Not all of his books - the cryptography one was very unfortunate.)
Francis' plots are not so energetic. But one believes them, and the characters. They invite me into a world I do not know (I am a geek). They convey an emotional distance I find comforting.


I mentioned Ian McEwan's novel in an earlier post.
I cannot recommend it too highly. Most of us in Western societies must feel greatly privileged to have the oppotunity to have lived our lives here and to have enjoyed the enormous fruits of progress. And at the same time to know it does not exist in a world of perfect justice, and that its edges at least are being nibbled at by forces of destruction, in forms we do not always understand and recognize.
I have not ever read a novel where I felt so completely at one intellectually, and mostly emotionally, with its protagonist.
McEwan is not afraid of allowing that character to be challenged, especially by his children, but he is always aware of the great richness of his life; the oppositions with his children actually enrich him greatly, because he delights in new experiences.
And if this sounds too intellectual, I say read it nonetheless. It is to a degree a potboiler. The climactic scene involes a nubile naked young woman reciting Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (My current vote is for Miranda Otto to play this character in the movie, though I know she is too old - but she was the only good thing in the Lord of the Rings.). I am not sure the poem is taught in high school routinely any more, but the oblique references to that rather moody work hit home with me.
In the end though Perowne (the protagonist) does a great job of conveying, at least to me, who already believes in it, the meaning of Darwin's great line "there is grandeur in that view".
Such a delightful and surprising thing to find in literature.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Watching the UK Election Results

It is hard to imagine the privileges of our lives today in the West. I keep thinking, as I exploit the Internet, if only this had been here when I was twelve. I am long past that.
But it is no reason not to enjoy all the capabilities new technologies bring; and one is to watch the British election results come in on BBC World. It is actually stunning what poor theatre the home of Shakespeare offers.
I was in the UK, even England, for the US Elections, and it was a delight to watch those from that perspective, though very destructive of sleep that night. This was sleep happily sacrificed for the Schadenfreude of watching the locals adjust to Bush's win.
And now, it seems, I may lose as much sleep getting the results in the UK, while I am now 5 hours ahead of the count, rather than 5 hours behind! For show I think I prefer our (North American) reporting procedures to what appears to prevail in the UK.

UPDATE: Labor 153, Con 17 LD 13
Reporters seem to think things are looking bad for Blair.

UPDATE: Earlier this evening the CBC reported on this before any results were known and the reportress focussed mostly on the question of when Blair would step down because of the repudiation this election expressed. Of course Blair's commitment to liberate Iraqis of Saddam Hussein is the reason the voters will 'bloody his nose' (rough quote from reportress). Oddly the CBC at the same time is reporting on hysteria in Holland celebrating the Canadian soldiers who liberated Holland 60 years ago. The idea tha there might be any connection here seems alien to these folk.
Ah the complexities of this election. Claire Short won her seat. The analysts are saying that a swing away from voting for her repudiates the Blair position on the Iraq war. It turns out that is the biggest swing so far against Labour. I think none of them know what they are talking about. We voters make mischief.

Labour 168 Con 22 LD 19

UPDATE: We are getting past my bedtime so I should stop.

From what the reporters say it must be major anti-Labour seats that for some odd reason report most slowly; since my last update Labour gained 32 seats and the other parties 13. Somehow there is a major anti-Blair trend going on. I am perplexed.

UPDATE: The UK is as silly as Canada. BBC is asking a Time reporter what Bush will be thinking of this. My guess, from what Laura said at the White House correspondents' dinner, is that he is asleep! To be honest, his coverage makes me think I should be. Maybe Condi and Laura are up, but not likely following the results here.

Heavens what a great line - "in the US election last November, when Iraq was not a factor in the election, except for support for the President". Now what could the poor anchor have meant by that? I thought the President won.

OK let me check now

Labour 210
Con 36
LD 22

There must be something very weird about scheduling of counting if the hopes I am hearing will be fulfilled.

UPDATE: Aaarrggghhh! The inevitable discussion of proportional representation. Guess from which party!


Labour 221
Con 38
LD 23

The story is that there are many constituencies out in the country and we may not hear from them before tomorrow morning. These guys have no sense of drama.

UPDATE: Looks like sad news - Galloway wins Bethnal Green (still speculative). This is remarkable - a man who cheered Saddam Hussein actually wins a seat in a civilized country. This will give the chattering classes chattering material.

I do wish the English would learn to pronounce a word like 'issue' correctly. Their hissing is quite annoying.

Why do I watch this stuff? Why do these elections matter? It is no perfect solution. But it is one vital thing - a defined peaceful way to have one potential government replace another; this is very very special. How many countries have such a thing? More than many years ago, thanks to the dissolution of so many tyrannies. But it is a spectacular thing, and a special thing, and this country is one of the longer-running instances.

Labour 244
Con 54
LD 29

Gains flattening out a bit.

BBC now examining the tea-leaf trends. I remain baffled - as decided seats get added, the Labour lead seems to increase. They still know something more. It is not clear what.

Labour 259 up 15
Con 61 up 7
LD 29 flat

Jack Straw on-screen, challenging the media's knee-jerk view that the Muslim community should be against removing SaddamHussein from power. This assumption has long baffled me.
In any case he has been re-elected, and I am pleased to see that.

Labour 275 up 16
Con up 76 up 15
LD 32 up 3

Hmm slight shift now.

Blair - hmm for the first time one could combine compassionate policies with tough economics (roughly what he said). For all the other stuff, he has managed to combine the Left's 'compassion' with some economic pragmatism. Funny - in the first term, renowned for a lack of principles; my own view is that the Iraq choice was one of principle on his part (however poorly he sold it). It would be nice to see other elements of the western left learn from this.

Labour 280 up 6
Con 89 up 13
LD 32

Yup some gain on Con side

Some humour in BBC commentary - supposedly US Democratic guys helped Labour (why would they ask those losers?) and the Conservatives got some help (from Karl Rove - I think I doubt that). Coverage has become too inane for me. Wonder how it will look in the morning.

Labour 284 up 4
Con 90 up 1
LD 33 up 1

hmm dubious trends at best


No not London, England. London, Ontario, one of the two cities where I would claim to live.

TV Ontario (a publicly funded TV station here in Ontario - I will have much more to say to continue my thoughts on how people subsidize my tastes) is running a short feature on the movie 'Crash' being released this week. It looks very interesting; I rarely see a movie in a movie theatre, and this tempts me - perhaps to the point of displacing my plan to see 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' on Saturday.

The writer-director, Paul Haggis, is from London, Ontario. He wrote the screenplay for 'Million Dollar Baby'. He says he went to Hollywood because the plays he put on in London were disasters, received terrible reviews, and he could see no other way out of his problems than to go to LA, send a screenplay he wanted to act in to Clint Eastwood, and hope for some redemption. He did not get the role he wanted in 'Million Dollar Baby' but other rewards ensued.

I think this says a lot about the world.

Do not get me wrong about London. Kate Nelligan, as I understand, comes from there (I am in Toronto now, or it would be 'here'). And Michelle Wright from not far away.