Sunday, December 30, 2007

Embarrassed to be Canadian

MacLean's magazine, of all the middle-of-the-road media, is being subjected to a small siege. Andrew Coyne summarizes the current situation nicely in this column.

To most of us, however, the CIC [ed: Canadian Islamic Congress] has seemed little more than a nuisance. They do not speak for Islam, and they are not the last word on the subject. They are entitled to their views, of course, but so, in a free and democratic society, are those with whom they take issue.

Or were, until recently. For of late the CIC has found a new partner in its campaigns: the state. Not content with tossing around incendiary charges of religious bias, the CIC has enlisted the force of the law to press its case. It has done so, what is more, not through any of the traditional legal means by which freedom of speech may be limited, nor with any of the legal system’s usual requirements of due process, but through a new and seemingly open-ended mechanism: the human rights commission. To be specific: the organization has launched a complaint against Maclean’s before the federal, Ontario and British Columbia human rights commissions, alleging that an article the magazine published last year, excerpted from Mark Steyn’s book America Alone, “subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and Islamophobia.”

Coyne is far from believing that this Muslim organization is in any way unique in Canada in its hostility to free specch.

There are a great many people in this country who seem to have no clue about what freedom of speech means, or why it was invented. What is astonishing is to find so many of them in the employ of the human rights commissions.

With Coyne, I do not believe these organizations should have any role in regulating public speech. Our hate speech laws (which I also oppose) are bad enough, but this opens up yet another means of simply harassing those who say things you do not like. I very much hope that the outcome of these proceedings is that there are in the end none - the case is ridiculous on the face of it.

I am no major fan of Steyn, finding him often funny, but very superficial, and careless with facts and analyses. But he describes the situation extremely well here.

The most alarming part of his analysis is quite rightly how unusual it is even in Western democracies to maintain a proper commitment to free speech:

One of the critical differences between America and the rest of the west is that America has a First Amendment and the rest don't. And a lot of them are far too comfortable with the notion that in free societies it is right and proper for the state to regulate speech. The response of the EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security to the Danish cartoons was to propose a press charter that would oblige newspapers to exercise "prudence" on, ah, certain controversial subjects. The response of Tony Blair's ministry to the problems of "Londonistan" was to propose a sweeping law dramatically constraining free discussion of religion. At the end of her life, Oriana Fallaci was being sued in France, Italy, Switzerland and sundry other jurisdictions by groups who believed her opinions were not merely disagreeable but criminal. In France, Michel Houellebecq was sued by Muslim and other "anti-racist" groups who believed opinions held by a fictional character in one of his novels were not merely disagreeable but criminal.

Note the carelessness (if it is that) here - for example, Houellebecq himself, not just one of his characters, has frequently said Islam is a stupid religion.

Mr Houellebecq told the court: "I have never shown the slightest contempt for Muslims but I have always held Islam in contempt."

And he did prevail in the French courts. But Steyn's fundamental point is that he never should have been there at all, and I agree heartily. Personally I have yet to come across a religion that did not seem pretty stupid to me, and when I say so I expect people to agree or disagree, but not to reach for judicial constraints, surely the path of scoundrels.

Steyn was asked by Hugh Hewitt recently what to do to support MacLean's in this case, and he answered that we should subscribe to the magazine. I have done so, recognizing the perverse incentive the magazine gets here. :-)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Another reason to envy those Americans

Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log makes me hope BBC Canada will follow suit, though I know the two networks look surprisingly different (largely, I would guess, because so many other Canadian TV channels license BBC shows).

Friday, December 28, 2007

Silly Little City

The moderately amusing mockumentary "Toronto Sucks" (here's an interview with the film-makers) included a section I enjoyed centered on the canard that has been around the city for years, that at some point "the UN" (whatever that means) had declared Toronto the most diverse (or multi-ethnic, or multicultural) city on Earth.

Some of the funniest Millerbabble I have ever witnessed has included our Mayor intoning this ridiculous claim from his pulpitry, with the most self-satisfied seriousness. And the claim still occurs in our local media with stunning frequency.

When I first heard the claim, my initial reaction was "Huh, what about New York and London (whoever made the claim cannot have spent much time in either of those cities)? Maybe Sydney, Vancouver, Montreal, Chicago? What about some great Asian cities (though the authors of the claim may just conclude that all Asians are one group and so no Asian city can really be diverse)."

I know I once spent a lot of skeptic's energy looking for any assertion from any UN agency to such an effect, and failed. Though UN agencies are certainly capable of making ridiculous statements, this one seemed to me so much a howler that surely even they could not go so far. Now apparently Reuters is at least allowing that we might be catching up.

The discussions in the interview linked above and in the article are not bad; the claim itself is simply not measurable. But the reason for the claim is the ache of its politicians and elite to be tops at something other than just aching to be tops at something.


Misplaced confidence, I surmise

From the Toronto Globe and Mail:

More than half of the 218,000 new drivers in the province [ed. Ontario] take the voluntary Beginner Driver Education program every year.

The program, introduced in 1994 as part of the province's graduated licensing system, allows students to take their road test four months earlier after receiving a learner's permit.

But 6.8 per cent of these students were involved in collisions in 2005, compared with 4.2 per cent who had not taken the course, the report says.

Not quite the Peltzman effect, in that the program is not really a regulation, but another case where behavioral changes probably not considered in the policy analysis can produce unintended consequences.


When you already know they are evil,

... then, you can find the most astonishing explanations of remarkably moral behaviour.

Even worse, as the post shows, you can find others not laughing their heads off at the stupidity of it.


Thursday, December 27, 2007


Considering some of the recent history of Bethlehem, I'd have to say that this revival of excitement about Christian schisms and the selection of weapons represent a strange kind of progress.


Friday, December 21, 2007

He had not begun life as a rather eccentric, bitter old man

GrrlScientist links to a recent book by Bernd Heinrich. I have read a lot of his books, and there is not a single one I would not recommend (hey, I recommend them all!).

This latest book looks like a very interesting bit of research into his father's life. I wish that during the time I knew Bernd that I had ever talked about his research and interests (other than running). I am delighted he has written books to allow me to learn what I did not at the time.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Stand-Up Delight

You have to experience Doc's comments but I agree with him - this woman is VERY funny.

What a Family

Norm pointed me to this excellent interview - excellent in that Wynton Marsalis is clearly someone with standards and some amazing talent. I have a CD with Wynton Marsalis playing the Haydn trumpet concerto, a fine piece of toe-tapping derring-do. I have none of his jazz CDs and figure I am likely missing something.

So first his standards:

Now, I know what it's like to really be called a nigger for real, by black and white people. I'm not interested in presenting that to the world as my expression. And I have to make the point to the younger people in rap, we was black in the '60s, man. We were black in 1974. We wasn't waiting for y'all to tell us what it was to be black. You're a guy from the Something Housing Project with limited education and now you're going to tell me what it means to be a black person in America? Man, you must really think you're in a video.

And the talent:

Q: So in terms of your own talent, what do you think was more valuable to you — was it the physical tools or was it that mindset that you had to get better?

A: I think my greatest attribute was the ability to understand what was going on. I don't know why, I could deduce. Like, when I was 13, I could listen to a Beethoven symphony and I could understand, first theme, second, third theme, the development section, so it kind of made me advance, gave me more of an understanding than other kids.

Wow! I had to read books to get that - and still fight listening to the great classical composers trying to pick all these elements out. I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy.

Why my subject line? His family is delightfully contagious - check the Harry Connick, Jr. article here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


If Rondi, Doc and Phil Miller all do it, I guess I have to. says I'm a Cool High Nerd.  What are you?  Click here!


Monday, December 17, 2007

Some Days are Diamonds, Some Days are Snow

In Toronto we cannot match the impressive indirect report from Ottawa from Paul Kedrosky yesterday but it has been a pretty wild couple of days. It required lots of shoveling just to keep the walkways and sidewalk in front of the house reasonably clear. We are obliged to clear them within twelve hours of the end of snowfall but that strategy with yesterday's storm would have left us walking around waist deep when the time came.

And then the real drama, we also knew, was coming overnight, when the city plows finally reached our street. It's a street parking neighborhood, so the big shoveling job comes after that - as a wall of snow piled up from the whole width of the street is deposited as a wall between one's car and the drivable roadway. (For all the pictures, click to enlarge - you can then also see flakes are still coming down.)

You can't see that wall in this shot from my porch but you can see there was a little snowfall, and some shoveling when I finally started taking pictures. And I had removed most of the wall from my own car.

The owners of these cars had not started work on their vehicles.

By contrast this shows the neighborhood had been really good about clearing the sidewalk.

And hey! The City had finally reached our street as well. (To be fair the plow came through during the night.)

The snow on the walkway has to go somewhere!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Glad not to be Flying to London this Month

Via Aviation Nation, I learn of this post of Michelle Malkin's.

There is clearly a racist loose (OK, fortunately, not loose) on the plane.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Squirrel Personalities

My squirrel clients have proven to be quite identifiable, by fur color, fur quality, and finally by personality. There is only one of them who throws him/herself at my door and window screens, and tries to eat his way into the house to get at peanuts he is convinced are here in infinite supply. The others are generally willing to let him/her do the heavy lifting, and then, usually sneakily, try to profit from the peanut supply he/she generates.

Imagine my pleasure to discover last week as I was listening to the always entertaining "Quirks and Quarks" on the CBC that there is a graduate student trying to figure out WHY squirrels have personalities. Her answer is not completely surprising, but it was interesting to listen to and I recommend it. You can find various audio formats here (third item down).

Utterly Joyful

Go soak up the first video here! Just a delight.

(And besides, it is worth reading what else David Thompson has to say - in particular if you follow his link on the word triumph (there ironically - he believes, I suspect, like me that the Turner prize has lost any credibility), I think these words are very compelling):

That a posture so inexcusably selective, deluded and drearily commonplace should be deemed admirable by Wallinger is almost funny. That Wallinger’s copy of it should in turn be hailed by the art establishment as “bold”, “visceral” and “intense” is practically tragicomic.

Yes - "selective, deluded and drearily commonplace" - and the "commonplace" is surely the saddest thing. How can people be such fools?

UPDATE: See 'the making of' video as well on that site. I would never have guessed that how they did it is how they did it. We humans seem to thrive on large projects and are pretty good at it. It is one of the privileges of my career choices to have been part of several of them, perhaps a bit less complicated than the one in the video.

Grant's Mischief

I can always count on Grant McCracken to produce an entertaining blog post. This one, on his favourite Martian, is a nice bit of background on someone I certainly took note of in the broadcasts from space.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

More Squirrels

Not mine - but a video via Grrlscientist.

Go check the amazing little devils out. I think the second squirrel has the easier approach.


Tim Harford's Cappuccino

I think Tim Harford has it dead right in this column about how we might end up controlling our behaviours.

Or we could put Gordon Brown and David Cameron in charge of telling us what light bulbs we can use, how many flights we can take, or whether our cappuccinos should be made with UHT milk. That bureaucratic approach is not appealing when you add up all the flights and light bulbs and cappuccinos in the country, reflect on the intricacies of their production and the subtle trade-offs that inform our choices to do this or buy that. Gordon Brown and David Cameron just don’t have the information to make our choices for us.

Or the government could set a price for carbon – using taxes or a workable permit trading scheme – and see what happens. The carbon price would influence every decision we make, nudging us towards consuming less and consuming in less carbon-intensive ways. That seems to be the only sensible way to ask the astonishing sophistication of the market to work around the environmental challenge we appear to be facing today. If society must change, so must the cappuccino.

Of course in Canada it is not Gordon Brown or David Cameron. Sadder, nor is it Stephane Dion nor Jack Layton, who surely think of themselves as great leadres on the environmental front. Is there one with the courage to agree to a carbon tax of some significant force? I'll bet not, and in my province the discourse is still ridiculously how the problem with energy prices is that they might rise; it is pretty clear that the problem is that they are not rising fast enough today.

GrrlScientist strikes again

I have often wondered whether the cats chatted in my absence. I think I know now from this post.

But please watch BOTH videos!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

A Refreshing Marxist Outburst

It's not often that someone identifying himself as a Marxist can write something so entertaining. In fact, this essay is a joy partly because its tone is so representative in ways of the parts of The Communist Manifesto that I can remember. The whole thing is worth a read. A couple of teasers:

On anti-globalization:

Marx quite admired the internationalising tendencies of the capitalist system. He argued that, ‘to the chagrin of reactionists’, capitalism dislodges local and national industries and turns production into a global phenomenon. ‘The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation’, he and Engels wrote. Now, if you will forgive their 19th-century language, ‘inappropriate’ and un-PC, I know, their point is clear: globalisation at least has the benefit of smashing down silly local practices and ‘civilising’ formerly backward societies.

(I am especially gratified to see the adjective 'silly' appear!)

On consumerism:

Marx loved the consumer society. Indeed he described it as a ‘civilising moment’ of capital. In the Grundrisse, he wrote: ‘In spite of all his “pious” speeches, [the capitalist] searches for means to spur [the workers] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire them with new needs by constant chatter, etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilising moment.’ It is striking that what a bearded communist described as ‘civilising’ 150 years ago — the chatter and charms of consumerism — is now written off by anti-capitalists as dangerous and corrupting.

(h/t Division of Labour)


Cat Blogging Saturday

Boing Boing points to a somewhat specialized web site whose existence is almost enough to tempt to me to have a cat again simply to observe the reaction. (See the Boing Boing link for what looks like one cat's response.)

The site has as a base commitment to post recordings of cats purring!


Another Reason to Shop for Groceries at Wal-Mart

The express lane for checkout is single-queue-multiple-server!


Garrison Keillor and the Crusades

Keillor has the typical bien-pensant Westerner's view of these historical events, it seems. Robert Spencer demolishes his ignorance. A small example:

(Keillor)But Urban II had noticed that Europe was becoming an increasingly violent place, with low-level knights killing each other over their land rights, and he thought that he could bring peace to the Christian world by directing all that violence against an outside enemy. So he made up stories of how Turks in Jerusalem were torturing and killing Christians, and anyone who was willing to join the fight against them would go to heaven.

(Spencer)These stories were not made up. The persecution of Christians had been going on in the Holy Land for a long time. In 1004, the sixth Fatimid Caliph, al-Hakim (985-1021), ordered the destruction of churches, the burning of crosses, and the seizure of church property. He moved against the Jews with similar ferocity. Over the next ten years thirty thousand churches were destroyed, and untold numbers of Christians converted to Islam simply to save their lives. In 1009, al-Hakim gave his most spectacular anti-Christian order: he commanded that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem be destroyed, along with several other churches (including the Church of the Resurrection). Al-Hakim commanded that the tomb inside be cut down to the bedrock. He ordered Christians to wear heavy crosses around their necks (and Jews heavy blocks of wood in the shape of a calf). He piled on other humiliating decrees, culminating in the order that they accept Islam or leave his dominions.