Saturday, December 5, 2009

Bill Bennett heads up Municipal Election Task Force

I'm stealing from Paying Attention again. At the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention this summer Gordon Campbell announced the formation of a task force examining civic election rules/laws. We currently have no restrictions on election spending, transparency, and so on. In a speech that offered little to anyone* and was largely bereft of substance, GC announced this task force as if it was a major policy move or something. Okay.

The other day the government announced the formation of the task force. Liberal MLA Bill Bennett (he of questionable judgment at the best of times) will co-chair with Harry Nyce, president of the UBCM. They are joined by two more Liberal MLAs, Donna Barnett from Cariboo-Chilcotin and Douglas Horne, Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, and Surrey Councillor Barbara Steele and Quesnel Mayor Mary Sjostrom, both vice-presidents at the UBCM.

Here is Paul Willcocks' take on it:

"The task force will have six members - three from the UBCM and three MLAs. All Liberals. No public interest representatives. No NDP MLAs, or independent Vicki Huntington. The fix appears to be in. Campbell has rejected any limits on corporate and union donations to provincial parties. Any recommendations on limits for municipal donations would be embarassing. Stacking the committee reduces the risk."

I'll have to take his word that the three UBCM officials are Liberals (his word is pretty solid, kids). This is ridiculous. No experienced experts from Elections BC or Elections Canada? No policy wonk professors? Nope, instead we get Bill Bennett. Our choice. He's one of us. What?
Thinly veiled racism? "You want someone who pays taxes and is concerned about how that money is spent."

Co-chair Bill Bennett is a horrible choice, given his chequered past (see link above). His campaign this spring was rocked by controversy, including the publication of the above ad, which pretty clearly asks East Kootenay residents to vote for him because he's white (his NDP opponent, Troy Sebastian, is a member of the Ktunaxa nation): "He's one of us... You want someone who pays taxes..." Um, who doesn't pay taxes, Bill? Do you mean Indians? They don't care about how money is spent, right, because they suck up government funds like nothin' else. Freeloaders...

This is the guy we have directing a body tasked with making ethical and policy decisions about election reform? Brutal.

*Usually he gives millions and millions to municipalities.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Your new BC NDP provincial executive

In the interests of transparency (because it's doubtful that this group will ever see the light of day on the BC NDP website), here is the full list of the new provincial executive, with my limited impression of each:

President: Moe Sihota - ex-NDP cabinet minister, businessman, pundit; wants to focus on our relationship with labour, environmentalists and ethnic communities.

: Bob Smits (acclaimed) - tons of experience at a large credit union.

Vice Presidents:

Marianne Alto - been on the exec for a while (urged the need for institutional memory); stickler for details; knows our constitution well.
Scott Lunny - United Steelworkers; keen, friendly.
Heather Harrison - Langara professor; affable; been on the exec for a while.
Spencer Herbert, MLA - all-around great guy; stands up for the homeless and artists; sharp dresser extraordinaire.
Lorraine Shore - not a clue.
David Zirnhelt - another ex-cabinet minister; small businessman (sustainable wood products); inspires trust (in me, anyway); great white beard.

Members at Large:

Jennifer Burgess - not a clue.
Debbie Lawrence - ex-candidate; HEU; wears sparkles; great smile.
Troy Sebastian - another ex-candidate; principled; wants to expand our relationship with First Nations (his campaign used material translated into the language of his nation, Ktunaxa).

Vice President, Labour (appointed by "labour"):
Lynn Bueckert - BC Fed; smart, funny, competent.

Member at Large, Labour (appointed by "labour"):
Summer McFadyen - BC Fed; a friend.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

How not to deal with an information security breach

Brought to you, of course, by our very own Liberal government. I just copied this straight from Paying Attention (see blog list on the right), who ganked it from Press Pass at the TC in Victoria, so you lazy types don't have to click through the link if you don't want to. It's amusing and scathing at the same time:

The Times Colonist runs a Sunday column called Press Pass, compiled mainly by the newspaper's press gallery reporters- currently Lindsay Kines and Rob Shaw - and legislative columnist Les Leyne. The reporters have broken all the stories on the government's bungled response to a major privacy breach.

On Sunday, Press Pass added this background.

"SUGGESTED READING: With all the hoopla around those missing government files, perhaps it's worth brushing up on the fundamentals. What's supposed to happen when government learns of a major privacy breach?

According to the Key Steps in Responding to Privacy Breaches guide, written by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner in June 2008, there are four key steps. Let's contrast them with what happened in this case:

1. Contain the breach and notify privacy/security officials.

If, by that, you mean don't tell the senior bosses or ministers until the Public Affairs Bureau hears about it seven months later, then done and done.

2. Evaluate the risk of the breach.

Let's see. Employee under criminal investigation for fraud has swiped sensitive personal information that could be used for fraud ... we'll go with "high" risk.

3. Notify people "as soon as possible" to warn them their privacy has been compromised.

In this case, wait more than half a year before writing letters to the wrong people.

4. Prevent a future reoccurrence by investigating the cause of the breach.

Or, repeatedly claim ignorance about when you found out or what you knew and bolt from the legislature to enjoy a four-month winter break.

When should you follow these four steps? According to the guide: Immediately.

Maybe someone in government should read this thing."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dune, the part two: politics and humanity

The first half of Dune has motored along. It's fast-paced, crisp, action-packed and completely intriguing. The Atreides are having a little trouble settling on their new home, the desert planet Arrakis. Everything is about the new planet: the desert, the weather, the Fremen, the worms. At the behest of the Emperor, they replaced their arch-enemies the Harkonnens as rulers of Arrakis, aka Dune, the source of the most valuable substance, spice, which allows for space-travel.

Betrayed by the Emperor, the Atreides are forced to flee, their forces defeated, the Duke captured by the evil Baron Harkonnen, only Jessica the beloved Bene Gesserit concubine, Paul the prodigy and a few loyal lieutenants surviving. They turn to the Fremen, the people of the desert, for help. Paul has been undergoing some changes with exposure to spice, able to absorb and compute infinite amounts of data and see infinite future possibilities.

The complexity of the later books is only hinted at so far. What is evident right away is the careful observation by the characters, the almost unimaginable ability to read people and situations, and the intrigue that accompanies every action. This is politics at its most intense at every level, from personal interactions between family members to galaxy-spanning plots. And everyone is so good at it. This, probably, is why I love the book so much. I want to be Paul Atreides, with the ability to read and process minutiae and predict actions based on the data. I want to be able to know what my opponents will do before they know it themselves. And I want to ride a sandworm.

The first idea addressed in the book is this: what defines our humanity? What separates us from animals? Paul, at the behest of his mother, undergoes a test administered by a Bene Gesserit, one of the school of specially trained female advisors. (and Jessica's superior and teacher at Bene Gesserit school). Holding a poisoned needle to his neck, she tells him that it is a gom jabbar:
"It kills only animals."
Pride overcame Paul's fear. "You dare to suggest a duke's son is an animal?" he demanded.
"Let us say I suggest that you may be human," she said.

She forces his hand into a box, saying she'll kill him if he removes it, telling him that animals will chew off their legs to escape a trap:
"A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he may kill the trapper and remove the threat to his kind."

His hand tingles, then itches, then burns, so much so that he imagines it crispy and blackened. Overcome with the intensity, the Bene Gesserit halts the test, exclaiming that no woman has ever endured so much (and internally wondering if he might be the Kwisatz Haderach, the chosen one).

Apparently the test sets humans free, to fully think, not reliant on machines as they once were:
"The Great Revolt took away a crutch," she said. "It forced human minds to develop. Schools were started to train human talents."
"Bene Gesserit schools?"
She nodded. "We have two chief survivors of those ancient schools: the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. The Guild, so we think, emphasizes almost pure mathematics. Bene Gesserit performs another function."
"Politics," he said.

Politics, indeed.

Future post ideas:

Spice as oil, the jihad of the Fremen, and the worms.
David Lynch's movie adaptation.
The Guild and the Bene Gesserit: gendered power-play to the nth degree.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dune, the part one.

I'm going to start the Dune series tonight. I read them years ago, and they blew me away. Despite how much they drag, despite the long, long, long (millennium-length), meandering storylines, despite the departure from story to the extended philosophizing on time, potential and power.

Over at Pajiba, Cannonball Reads is rolling along. A short while ago Blonde Savant reviewed (favourably, even) the original Dune, enough to consider continuing with the rest of the series. t inspired me to go back and try it again. This was my comment from the review:

It's an amazing book that needs to be given time, and it's not for everyone. Like was written above, it can be read as an adventure, or as a treatise on any number of issues. What keeps me coming back is the complexity and world-building the Herbert accomplishes without forcing anything. I'm never skeptical of the plot or characters' actions.

The Dune series is like The Lord of the Rings with far greater depth but far fewer likable characters, and less sense of wonder, to be sure. While the LotR is a simple allegory about war and the environment (and superficially a few other issues), Dune dives into philosophical issues that drive me bonkers with their complexity.

As a one-off, Dune is the most accessible of the series, Blonde Savant, so I admire your fortitude and drive to continue reading the series. It reaches a low-point in book 3 (and book 2 isn't exactly scintillating stuff either), but after that it... I'm not even sure what it does, but I found the second half of the series far easier to read. It could be that by that time one is used to the style, complexity and universe that it seems natural.

It will be interesting to find out how much of this rings true as I re-read it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Stephen Elliot-Buckley, potential BC NDP VP, imagines change at the party

If you haven't seen it yet, you should check out Politics, Re-Spun. Author Stephen Elliot-Buckley is an activist, democrat, scholar, blogger and BC NDP member who wants to re-organize how the party functions as a part of civil society. Not content to just re-work it at the riding level, he has launched a bid to become the party Vice-President at the upcoming convention, Nov. 27-29th.

I don't want to speak for Stephen, except to say that he sees the BC NDP moving forward as the electoral wing of a progressive social movement. What this means in practice is uncertain, especially given the cat-herding nature of organizing disparate groups, but I eagerly look forward to the discussion. It is clear that the party desperately needs some new blood, some new ideas, and some new approaches to organizing.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A proposed conversation about centralized campaigning (fascinating stuff, I know)

Last night I attended the COPE pub night, a lovely get-together at Original Joe's (I know, where?). A few beer, some nachos, a brief discussion of the soon-to-be demise of David Cadman (according to Jim Green, anyway), and everything was ticketyboo. Then, we started talking about the BC NDP campaign from the spring. At this point, alarm bells should have gone off, as it is a highly contentious issue on the left in BC, particularly among urbanites. An hour or so later, and they had to pull us away from each other to get us to pay our bill.

I would like to continue the discussion in a less chaotic forum, so have invited the participants to join me in a discussion that I will post on this blog as it unfolds. I'm not exactly sure of the format yet.


I have two enterprising individuals who will be taking part in the discussion that I hope to foster over the next short while. It really is a fascinating topic to us campaigners.

And a link to Jim Green's claims added above.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Barry Penner is AWESOME!

Barry Penner does, indeed, seem pretty awesome

Just saw this fun website: Barry Penner is AWESOME!, home to insight such as:
Barry Penner is the master of pointing at things in front of him. Sadly, however, he hasn’t quite mastered the art of pointing anywhere but straight ahead. One day he’ll be able to actually point at the fish… one day…
I can't claim to know Mr. Penner's career that well, but he's always seemed like a bit of a Mr. Rogers-type: bland, smiley, competent. Not much of an environmentalist, though, or at least well-muzzled by Gordon Campbell (remember Joyce Murray, everyone?). His Wikipedia page is short on details (but does include a link to BPiA!).

Things I didn't know about Mr. Penner but learned from the Wikipedia page:

1. He worked as a park ranger.
2. He is known as an advocate for alternative energy, like small-hydro (shock there), wind, and other.
3. He served as Deputy House Leader from 2005 to 2009.

Fascinating stuff, all.

Does everyone remember the sites that popped up during the last federal election? There was Draft John Baird (now defunct) and Conservatives for Prentice (still online, last post Dec. 2008). While different in tone than the amusing BPiA! site, the sites generated some serious coverage and a few difficult questions for the two federal Conservatives, as both have been suggested as possible replacements for Stephen Harper.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Somalia "shamed" in corruption table? Not likely

In a story on Transparency International's latest country corruption rankings, AFP attached this headline: "Somalia, Afghanistan shamed in corruption table" I'm no international affairs expert, and I'll leave Afghanistan out of this, but I find it laughable that someone would think Somalia, either as a country or a government, would feel shamed by this.

For starters: There is no Somalia. It is the very definition of a failed state. The closest thing to a working government is the Islamic Courts Union, but it's so difficult to try and get a relatively clear picture of what might be going on. Apparently, as of January the head of the ICU is the President of the Transitional National Government... but the government has no powers. Fractured doesn't begin to describe the area formerly known as Somalia.

Second: The Somali people probably (just guessing here) don't know or care about the corruption ranking. And if they did, they wouldn't have anyone to lobby for change anyway. Is there an influential elite that might know? If so, they are the corrupt ones, so...

Headline writers always try to play up the story, and don't have as good a grasp of the issue as the writer, whose story then gets saddled with an over-the-top headline.

Inside politics: CityCaucus stifling dissent?

The folks over at CityCaucus recently posted a review of Michael Geller's That Was The Year That Was event, held this Saturday, examining the first year of the Vision council's term in power. From a rather moderate description of the proceedings, this paragraph drew my attention:
Jonathon Ross took shots at, saying that we were "too personal" in our attacks. We've written over 1000 posts since last December. Perhaps I misunderstand the term "personal attacks," but to me it's something like Andrea Reimer did on her Twitter post about Rich Coleman. Yes, we focus on elected officials much of the time, and we put what they do and say under the microscope, but I wouldn't classify it as personal attacks. Writing smears that you must take down from your blog afterward, that I would consider personal. Thankfully, there's been none of that here.

My comment on the post:
It's interesting to read three different summaries of the event (yours, JR's and FB's). Mostly consensus on the discussions.

As for personal attacks, perhaps your definition is a bit more narrow than mine, but comments like: "In fact, the only person who couldn't seem to resist throwing political stink bombs was Jim Green. But for Green it's like a nervous tick – he simply cannot help himself." come across as unnecessary personal jabs, if not outright attacks. And that's just one small example from this post.

I should add, your example (Andrea Reimer re: Coleman) is obviously more direct, I don't mean to suggest that the two are equal.

Their response:
You'd have to be pretty thin-skinned to treat this as anything more than observing the obvious. Everyone knows that Green has been a dogged partisan his whole life, and I don't think there's any shame in that.

Give it a rest, Brenton.

My response:

Hmmm, can't find it in their comment section anymore. It was something about how snide remarks could be interpreted as personal attacks, it all depends on how one interprets the phrase. I then pointed out in response to a commenter above me that the NPA (from whence CityCaucus sprung) had taken honourable positions on a couple of issues.

This morning I went to see if CC had responded (they're usually fairly quick to defend themselves), and to my surprise I couldn't find my second comment and two others by a bit of a loony named Katzenberg who I had responded to who claimed the NPA had never done anything honourable. Ever. Using. Too many. Periods.

Blogs are not public media, no matter what some like to claim. Their owners can moderate, censor, block, or do anything they want with comments. I was under the impression, however, that CityCaucus was in this to stimulate debate, not stifle it. They don't appreciate any criticism, as far as I've seen, but they also have open, un-moderated comment sections. Or so I thought. Katzenberg's comments added nothing to the conversation, but then there really wasn't a conversation as such, just a few other comments agreeing with the post. Was my comment just collateral damage, because I made reference to Katzenberg's comment?

What's odd is that I defended CityCaucus' ex-boss and golden boy, ex-mayor Sam Sullivan. I'm not a big fan, but his stance on InSite was laudable, and I said as much. I think it also could have been the start of a debate on ethics/honour in politics, a subject that is often derided. When should politicians take principled stances and when should they seek compromise? Etc...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Adult fiction for kids? Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card

Or is it kids' fiction for adults? When my friend first recommended Ender's Game (VPL link), I thought it would be a normal sci-fi story: some technology, some aliens, some overarching theme about humanity. When I bought it, the cover was quite different than I expected (see below), and the jacket claims that it is an American Library Association "100 Best Books for Teens". It follows the main character, Andrew (Ender, no explanation why) Wiggins, from the age of 6 to 11, then wraps up the rest of his life in the final few chapters. So it's about a kid.

Which, with the cover I had and the "for Teens" claim, made it difficult not to think of the book as teen fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But the book didn't feel like teen fiction, and I'm not certain Orson Scott Card intended it to be received that way. It's dark, vicious and at times nihilistic. It also delights in the seemingly simplistic relationships between children without condescending, and delicately portrays the love between a brother and sister.

The normal cover

The cover of the edition I read

Ender Wiggin is a remarkable child, chosen as a possible saviour for humanity. Plucked from his family at the age of six, he goes through Battle School then Command School, pushed to the edge of his sanity by trainers in the hope that he will be able to lead an army in a pre-emptive strike against the "buggers", ant-like aliens that invaded several generations ago but were defeated at the last by the genius of one commander.

Published in 1985 but based on a short bit written in 1977, the story and the language don't feel dated at all, which is especially impressive given the subject matter: Ender uses a personal "desk", similar to a laptop, and jacks into life-like first-person adventure game that incorporates aspects of real life and fantasy, originally with challenges but eventually allowing him to wander around at will. A sub-plot (or rather sous-plot, because it is quite significant) follows Ender's brother and sister as they scheme to eventually take over the world through inventing personas on the nets and becoming influential enough to shape public opinion.

In contrast, I'm reading Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, written in 2002, and already it seems dated. His descriptions of using the internet is at times too prosaic and a bit off: "When she returns to the forum page, her post is there" and "Hotmail downloads four messages..." and "She goes alone to an Internet cafe every other day and checks the new hotmail account she's acquired with her new email address, a .uk one that Voytek arranged."

The book is a bit too much of a morality play, but it still resonates. Like District 9, Ender's Game takes a simple idea about how we treat the other and builds a compelling narrative around it. Done poorly, it could have come across as heavy-handed, but the light language and optimism (at first) contrasts nicely with the subject matter.

Ender's Game was compelling, enjoyable, and novel enough to leave me thoroughly satisfied. Thanks for the recommendation, Marco.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Democracy, information and public services in BC

I've been reading a book called Democracy: A History, by John Dunn, a British political theorist. It examines how the term (not the practice of) democracy has come to dominate the political landscape, invoked by almost every government as a basis for legitimacy, even if it's farcical (Saddam Hussein's 99% popular votes, for instance). In his conclusion, Dunn touches on an idea that is gaining a lot of ground lately: citizen access to information.

I follow two blogs that address open data and access to government information: and Andrea DiMaio. It's not my issue (hey, Summer?), but I find it interesting to follow. Anyway, John Dunn writes:
"The more governments control what their fellow citizens know the less they can claim the authority of those citizens for how they rule. The more governments withhold information from their fellow citizens the less accountable they are to those who give them their authority."

Recent moves by city and state governments to open their files to the public have been met with enthusiasm (perhaps more than is warranted), and while it's not a panacea to cure our democratic ills, I think it's a step in the right direction. Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation at all levels of government is still problematic, costly and not being addressed in the same fashion. Making trash delivery information accessible, while convenient and useful, is far less important than making important government business open to the citizenry. In that sense, I wonder if a case could be made that the open data movement is a distraction when more important reforms are necessary.

I recently researched how the Liberal government in BC has been supporting legal aid. In 1993 the BC NDP applied the PST to legal fees in order to help pay for the legal aid system. The government grant to legal aid increased to $88.5m in 2001, but was then slashed by about 40% by the Liberals when they formed government in 2002. This year they've cut the legal aid budget twice, forcing the closure of regional offices and staffing and service cuts. Meanwhile, the taxes on legal services in BC kept rolling in. Is there a discrepancy between the amount collected and the amount disbursed by the Liberal government?

To figure this out, I needed access to stats on how much British Columbians (and their businesses) spend on legal services. A study from 2004 put the figure at around $1.4bn; taxes on this were about $100m. About $61m of that made it to legal aid in BC, a pretty clear discrepancy. But I needed more recent stats if I wanted to make a strong case. However, I soon discovered that if I wanted information on money spent on legal services, I would have to pay Statscan a fee to get it. And here I thought that the information would be available to the public. Here is David Eaves on public access to information collected by the Canadian government:
Sovereignty in Canada does not lie with the people, indeed, it resides in King George the III's descendant, the present day Queen of England. The government's data isn't your, mine, or "our" data. It's hers. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared.

Why does she own our information?

This may seem quaint, but it addresses both the approach and the legality of information ownership. The crown literally owns the information. Contrast that with the US, where any information collected by the US government is owned by the people. As David writes: "any document created by the US government [must] be published in the public domain."

I can't get mad at Statscan, though, they're just trying to recoup their costs. I'm sure that they would love to provide access to all the information they have, but they don't have the budget or staff to do so. (I think this is probably true of FOI departments as well, though they have far more political interference in what they can and can't release.)

This is standard across the board (see TransLink, our health-care system, addiction services, affordable housing...). We are underfunding our public services, then complaining when they don't function properly. Hugh Mackenzie at the CCPA recently published an essay asking a simple question: Can we have an adult conversation on taxes?, suggesting that sustained or increasing demand for public services is incompatible with ever-decreasing taxation levels. I would add: Is having the highest child poverty rate in Canada a good trade-off for having the lowest personal taxes? Apparently enough British Columbians believe so (re: provincial general election in May).

I never figured out how much we spend on legal services in BC, but working from estimates and trends in the information I could find, I figure that the BC Liberals are profiting more than $30m every year from the tax on legal services. Meanwhile they slash the legal aid budget, hurting the poorest citizens in BC. I can afford to pay for the information from Statscan, but working families are having trouble housing and feeding themselves.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

New books from Pulp Fiction - light genre, two kids and a theorist

Just a few blocks from my house is one of the best (and my favourite) used-book stores in the city, Pulp Fiction (2422 Main St, between 8th and Broadway; there's a second store in Kits). They carry a great selection of used books, and now a great selection of new (and reduced price) books as well. Too often I end up walking out with two or three more books than I intended on buying. The staff are extremely knowledgeable, friendly and helpful. Their contemporary political commentary section could be better, but other than that it's pretty perfect. If they don't have what you are looking for right then they'll let you know when it comes in. And despite the huge number of books in store, they usually know if a book is in.

Today I went to browse (always a dangerous idea for me), starting with the discount ($1.00 plus GST) bin outside, which only rarely has something I want. Today I found Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. The edition is "Prepared for use in the Schools of BC by the Dept. of Education" probably in 1961, printed by Evergreen Press Limited on SE Marine, a publisher of books on British Columbia (latest reference is 1973). For $1.05, I'll take it. I haven't read it before, but I loved Treasure Island as a kid.

Next I grabbed Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card off the window display. My friend recommended it to me last year, and I've been looking for a used copy. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best sci-fi/fantasy novel of the year in 1986. I'm not sure what it's about, but my friend assures me that it's both very interesting and a good read.

UPDATE: It's excellent. Watch for a review soon.

Ian Rankin's Let It Bleed was next, #7 in the Inspector Rebus series. I'm a pretty big fan of long series, and this one has staying power. It's dark, gritty, clever, and realistic (I won't go so far as to say hard-boiled). Rebus is a fairly typical anti-hero police officer: divorced, slightly pathetic, a bit of a loose cannon, and not anywhere near promotion, but he's a damn good homicide detective. Ian Rankin's use of the city as backdrop for Rebus' casework is a strong feature of the series, as is his ability to keep readers interested in Rebus as a character.

(Ever since reading Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends I've been reading more "genre fiction", and finding it very enjoyable.)

I've been re-reading the books from my childhood over the last year and a half, with mixed results. Books four and five I found in the small children's section (small but jam-packed with classics). I grew up reading a series by Enid Blyton (the fifth most translated author ever, ahead of Lenin but behind Shakespeare) but I forget which series. Thinking it might be The Secret Seven I picked up their first two adventures in one book: The Secret Seven and Secret Seven Adventure. I'm interested to see if it has stood the test of time.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle was book five. I remember my mom and brother reading it when I was a kid but I don't think I ever read it myself, which is odd because we usually all read the same books, especially fantasy.

I'm in the middle of reading Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading (and here) and quite enjoying it, so I looked for and found The Library At Night, his examination of the role that libraries play in our civilization. I aspire to home library ownership (that is, I would love to have an entire room in my home dedicated to books), and I'm looking forward to exploring this book.

Last came William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, a book about which The Washington Post wrote "One of the first authentic and vital novels of the twenty-first century." It is extremely well reviewed (Neil Gaiman is quoted on the cover, and the Economist named it a Best Book of the Year), and I enjoyed his last offering, Spook Country (though it wasn't amazing). He will always enjoy some popularity for his masterful cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer, which, when read a few years ago for the second time, proved to still be relevant, interesting and gripping.

After purchasing these treasures, I remembered that I had meant to look for Walter Benjamin's Illuminations (that's him above, hard at work) after reading a mention of it in A History of Reading. So I asked, and they had just received a copy, which the clerk immediately retrieved from the shelf and handed to me. It's dense cultural theory, but I needed something to balance the sci-fi and kids' books. And it's a collection of essays, so won't be too daunting.

Phewf. Eight new books in one day. Thanks, Pulp Fiction.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Regulating page size: A History of Reading pt. 2

"In France, in 1527, Francois I decreed standard paper sizes throughout his kingdom; anyone breaking the rule was thrown in prison."

And I thought transit fines were stupid. I almost turned this into a post on silly or outrageous laws in history or even still on the books, but I'm sure that's been done to death.

What is interesting about laws such as the one above is the desire to control that which can't be controlled. I paid $40,000 for the following piece of insight, so please pay attention: the sanctioning of an activity does not necessarily mean that the state then controls said activity. In fact, it may be the exact opposite. Laws against illegal immigration don't stop it, and may only serve to indicate just how big the problem is. Continual passing of new legislation addressing the problem only reinforces (figuratively speaking, that is) the sad state of affairs a country (read: the US) is in regarding illegal immigration.

So, what was Francois thinking? Why did he feel the need to regulate the size of paper? Not the ownership or trade (though he may have tried that too), but the size. To control the trade? The publishing industry, which was taking off at the time? The latter, I assume. Regulate and tax.

Was he successful? Alberto Manguel doesn't say, nor does his note explain anything. The comment is made in the midst of an exposition on the development of books from painstakingly produced works of art to mass-produced flimsy pulp editions. Manguel touches on so many aspects of reading, and at times it's merely interesting. I've been a little disappointed in the last few chapters of A History of Reading. Were the 20 pages on reading in bed really necessary?

Right now (in my life) he's exploring metaphors for reading, and it is far more interesting than knowing that Romans read scrolls while relaxing on pseudo-beds. Nature is a book, Walt Whitman, and all that. I always find Walt Whitman far more interesting in books other than his. I fell in love with his poetry while reading quotes in a long piece in a National Geographic, but then couldn't bother to read Leaves of Grass after buying it. Reading bits in this Manguel book has me remembering why I love his poetry but I probably won't go searching for my copy of Leaves of Grass anytime soon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Liberal MLA Harry Bloy calls protestors "terrorists"

Yep, terrorists. Because they terrorize. Harry, it's an Olympic flame, not the Baghdad Hotel. Here is what he said in the legislature and afterward:

"You know, there was a disappointing factor about the Olympics. It was that 200-odd group of terrorists who came to Victoria from across Canada to interrupt the Games."


"They do not understand, these terrorists, the potential goodwill and economic benefits that come from these Games, because they have a limited intellect and do not understand how the world truly operates."

This from a guy who dresses up like a Boy Scout.

I know, that was a cheap shot. Also, I couldn't find an image of it on the web, which makes me wonder if it's true. Nor could I find an image of the horses that were terrorized or the marbles that were thrown under their hooves. If an image doesn't exist on the internet, did the event happen? Over at Brenton writes we're pretty doubtful.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

UNFINISHED DRAFT: More cuts to legal aid

The Liberal government, in all its mean-spirited wisdom, has cut more funding to legal aid in BC. The Legal Services Society is going to have to shut down all but one of its regional offices and lay off more than 50 staff. This is in addition to a similar round of cuts in the spring. If you're going to hit the poor while they're down, why not spit in their faces too?

Today Mike de Jong, Attorney General, said that they had actually increased the budget of the LSS this year. I'm not sure what numbers he's looking at, but I'm guessing not the same ones that I am. And he has the gall to claim that a shortfall in other funding sources is to blame. Mike, let me walk you through the LSS funding gallery, just so we can be clear:

In 1993, the BC NDP decided to tax legal services in BC in order to make them pay for themselves, a move still opposed by the legal profession in BC.* In 1996, after several years of tax collection, Liberal MLA Jeremy Dalton asked the Clark government, "Can the Attorney General tell us what the annual revenue produced by the legal services tax is? Is that money going to deal with the legal aid issue, or is it just falling into the great black hole of general revenue, and there's no accountability for it?" What a great question, Mr. Dalton (more on this below).

Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh answered that $73m was collected, but that even more was given out to LSS. In
2001, before the Liberals formed government, the LSS received about $88m from the province, probably about what they received in taxation revenue from legal services. The Liberals slashed the budget by about 35% when they came to power. Slight increases over the past 8 years have brought the government disbursement to $69m, a figure that was meant to remain this year despite huge increases in demand for their services (example?). This led to service and staffing cuts, but the head of the LSS was confident that the budgeted amount would stand. A few months later, they're cutting even more.

When the Liberals slashed the LSS budget, what do you think they did with those taxes they were collecting on legal services? Yep, right into general revenue. The numbers aren't entirely clear (hopefully more on this soon), but it's clear that by cutting the LSS budget but maintaining the taxation level, the Liberals were benefiting by about $30m per year over the past 8 years, maybe more. When it was introduced by the BC NDP, the tax was meant to fund legal aid in BC. Instead, it goes straight into general revenue, unattached to the legal services it was meant to fund. Mike de Jong was a member of the Liberal caucus in 1996 (double-check) when Jeremy Dalton asked that question above, and it looks like he needs to answer it himself, 13 years later.

Mr. de Jong, as Attorney General, can you tell us what the annual revenue produced by the legal services tax is? Is that money going to deal with the legal aid issue, or is it just falling into the great black hole of general revenue?

* As recently as February of this year the head of the Canadian Bar Association BC Branch, in a submission to the Finance Committee, argued that the tax should be abolished.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reading, Memory and Review: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel pt. 1

I just started A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, a favourite author of mine after reading and listening to his 2007 Massey Lectures, The City of Words. Already there are so many things I find interesting, not sure where to start. Did you know that books were mostly read aloud until (not sure when and the book is not close at hand, but I think around 1000 CE)? This means that libraries were not quiet places of study, but noisy, bustling places of learning.

Manguel touches upon the power of books and writing to scare those in power, to scare them enough to censor, ban or even burn books. In Ray Bradbury's brilliant Fahrenheit 451 (which I'm going to go re-read now), people are left to memorize books after they are burned.

He then goes on to explore this phenomenon of people memorizing books, intertwined with ideas of re-reading for pleasure, recalling favourite passages and such. I found it challenging to recall even the author he had written about in the previous chapter, and I generally have an excellent memory. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend in a movie store (bear with me). The friend never watches movies twice, while I often watch favourite movies over and over. I do the same with books: I've read some maybe 20 times. Most of these, though, are not difficult or complex works, they are enjoyable fiction, and often fantasy. The friend was surprised to have me compare movies to paintings or music, art that you would never consider experiencing only once if you enjoyed it. For me it's the same with books.

But books are a different art-form than movies, paintings or music. While I would never claim that they are passively enjoyed, they are generally less... engaging? than books. However, my memory of books is far less How often does my enjoyment stem from being able to lose myself in a book that I don't remember that well? I've noticed that often I can't tell you the names of the principle characters in any work of fiction I'm reading. I rarely notice chapter names. Since I've become aware of this I now actively try to remember these and other details, and I've noticed an improvement, albeit a small one.

And just to take this post as far away from medieval reading practices as possible... I don't remember phone numbers anymore now that they're stored in my cell phone. Or rather I remember a select few. Books replaced our memory of stories, now computers (and Google and Wikipedia in particular) have replaced our memory of nearly everything else.

The other night I wanted to watch a movie but didn't have enough time to start a new one that I would want to finish, so I started Casablanca, my favourite movie ever. It is beautiful, clever, romantic, hard-boiled, almost every adjective. I've seen it probably 10-15 times. Every scene is familiar, no line is a surprise, but I couldn't tell you the names of more than a couple of characters. Is is because we don't see the names, we only hear them?

I would say that I have a very good memory; at times it feels photographic or eidetic. That extends to sounds on occasion: I will imagine exactly what I heard and let the sounds replay until they are clear. If it's not that, then, is it the mind skipping details that it doesn't find compelling or necessary to a narrative? Am I reading for plot more than character?

And finally (and I think more interestingly), what does this imply about our ability to comprehend and assimilate anything non-fiction that we read? What does it imply about societal memory?

PS: more to say on this book later.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Somaliland - The Rodney Dangerfield of the international community?

I recently bought a magazine called Monocle. It's a renaissance magazine, to say the least, dealing with architecture, household products, defence armaments, travel, and so on. In last month's issue there was a small piece on Somaliland. Somalia? Nope, Somaliland.

Somaliland, bordered by Ethiopia to the south, Djibouti to the northwest, and Somalia to the east.*

Now, most of us will have never heard of Somaliland. It's the northwestern portion of Somalia that declared independence in 1991 after the fall of the Barre dictatorship, but has never been recognized as a sovereign state**, even though it is far more stable in relation to the troubled Somalia to the south. And they're about to have a general election. How is this possible in the gun-totin', pirate-haven, Marine-killin', Blackhawk-Downin' ultra-dangerous Horn of Africa?

I first became interested in Somaliland while writing a paper on bottom-up state building in Somalia. This was before the Islamic courts were enforcing their authority to any great degree, when business, gang and religious interests were semi-cooperating to form and employ quasi-official groups to attempt to police the dangerous streets of Mogadishu, keep order at the port, and provide some stability for business. This piece here from the Economist, March 2004, should demonstrate that any success they were having was minimal and tenuous.

In contrast, their neighbours (and supposed subjects) to the north in Somaliland were holding elections, building hospitals and schools, establishing a central bank, and so on. The government has an official website,, on which you can find news of the soon-to-held election or how to apply for a visa.

So, please, check out Somaliland. Discover its treasures, its tribulations, its people and their culture. I originally planned for this to be a piece on Monocle, then on state-building, but it's just really interesting that Somaliland even exists. And maybe more interesting that it remains unrecognized by the international community. One would think that as a successful, self-made, post-colonial African state, Somaliland would be held up as an example of what can be accomplished. There are all sorts of cynical thoughts rolling around my brain right now.

* Somaliland shares (or rather contests) a border to the east with Puntland, another pseudo-independent state making up the northeast third of the old Somalia. It's interesting that Puntland is not mentioned on the Somaliland government website.

** Except, in a wonderful piece of political gamesmanship, by Wales, itself not a sovereign state.

Tourism in Somalia

This piece is originally from The Economist, March 2004, and is one of the funniest pieces of journalism I have ever read:

Tourism in Somalia

Far from the madding crowd

Mar 4th 2004 | MOGADISHU
From The Economist print edition

Well, far from other tourists, anyway

HE HAS perhaps the world's hardest job, but very little to do. Abdi Jimale Osman is Somalia's minister of tourism. His inbox is always empty; unsurprisingly, given that his anarchic homeland has not had a single officially acknowledged tourist in 14 years.

Somalia is not without attractions. The sun shines, the beaches are sandy and you can dine on lobster on the roof of the Sharmo Hotel, which commands a splendid view of the capital, Mogadishu. It is not safe, however. The Sharmo advises guests to hire at least ten armed guards to escort them from the airport.

Since civil war broke out in 1990, Somalia has been divided into some two dozen warring fiefs. But Mr Jimale is undaunted. “Tourists can still go and see the former beautiful sights,” he says. “The only problem is they're all totally destroyed.” Your correspondent admired what was left of the cathedral. Graffiti outside warned “Beware of landmines”.

Mr Jimale wants donors to help rebuild Somalia's national parks, though they mainly lie in areas the government does not control. “Most of the animals have disappeared too,” he concedes, “Because we have eaten them.”

Brave tourists can find unusual bargains in Mogadishu. In the market, a hand grenade sells for $10, a Howitzer for $20,000. For those who remain unconvinced, Mr Jimale is reassuring. “I'm sure tourists would leave Somalia alive and I'm hopeful they wouldn't be kidnapped,” he says. “At least, we would try to make sure they were not kidnapped, although it can happen.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dr. Fixed-love, or How I stopped worrying and learned not to rely on Mac Station

Those of you that have been following my trials and tribulations with my laptop will be please to know that there has been some resolution. I am happily typing this on my newly reconfigured computer, as functional as can be. I wasn't able to save my data, but I did back everything up a few months ago, so I should be fine. I probably lost some pictures, some random files, some music, but nothing too important.*

I'm going to call the manager of Mac Station tomorrow and see if he's even heard of my case and whether they've considered any sort of action. I'm not too optimistic. In the meantime I guess I'll start going through my back-up files and see what's worth keeping.

This is a pretty boring post, sorry. Lesson learned, though. When taking a computer in for service, find a store with a good reputation, get some sort of guarantee of service, i.e. "We'll look at it and call you Monday.", and get it in writing if possible.

Pre-posting update:

Oct. 22nd - I called and left another message for the manager, didn't hear back. Guess I'll try again tomorrow.

* What I really wanted to save was six months of Football Manager.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Never, ever, ever go to Mac Station. Ever.*

* Unless I get a phone call from the manager in the next few days and he offers me a new laptop at half price, that is.


Six weeks ago a movie-watching program on my iBook G4 froze up, and didn't respond to the Force Quit function. So I restarted my computer (I was in the middle of an episode of Weeds, I believe, and wanted to continue right then).

A funny thing happened on the way to the... whatever is analogous to the Coliseum, I guess. I was asked to log in to my user account, something that has never happened to me in four years of using it. So I did. And nothing happened. I tried again, and again, nothing. So I restarted it again, only to be faced with the same log-in screen.

Several days later (Friday, September 4th, to be exact), after some internet searches for problem-solving tips (all failed, and one leaving me worse off than before (mistake #1)), I took my putey into Mac Station in Vancouver (mistake #2). I left thinking it was a hard-drive issue, fine, may take a bit to rescue the data and order in a new one, etc.

Six weeks later (yes, you read that right, SIX WEEKS later), on October the 16th, I went and got my laptop from Mac Station, and not only was nothing fixed, but the keyboard and mouse button were also broken. What? How did this happen, you ask? I'm confused myself, but this is what I know:

Timeline of events (some dates are estimates):

Sept. 4th - dropped laptop off.
Sept. 9th - called to ask what was wrong (note: they didn't call me to tell me); unfortunately technician C (who was dealing with my computer) had left for the day, I should call back tomorrow.
Sept. 10th - technician C told me my OS wasn't working so good, he could do a data back-up and re-install for $127; seemed a bit steep, I thought I would ask a friend, who counseled spending the money.
Sept 11th - I called back, said go for it, and while they were at it why not change the hard-drive to something a little bigger, as had been suggested to me by them (that was mistake #3).
Sept. 16th - According to someone in sales (service wasn't answering their phone), the hard-drive was ordered and should be in in the next two days (note: again, I had to call; repeatedly.)
Sept. 19th - left message on answering machine.
Sept. 21st - left message on answering machine.
Sept. 23rd - left message on answering machine.
Sept. 25th - talked to manager A, who apologized for the delay, he would ensure that it was looked at right away, etc etc, he would make sure I would see a discount; I felt very reassured (mistake #4).
Sept. 29th - emailed manager A t0 follow up; never heard back.
Oct. 2nd (a Friday, four weeks in) - talked again to manager A, who apologized again, said he would get the technician on it right away; technician M called me in the evening to say his goal was to get me my computer the next day, but that there may be an issue with something, but at the very least he would call to tell me how it went; felt optimistic (mistake #5).
Oct. 3rd - not a word.
Oct. 4th - nothing.
Oct. 5th (may have been 6th) - I called; technician M apologized for forgetting to call; he would do his best to get my computer fixed as soon as he could.
Oct. 10th - called and talked to technician M, told him that the situation was absurd; he gave me tons of reasons why the work wasn't done, some entirely valid, I'm sure, and that he would try to get to it soon but he was really busy (would TRY to get to it? really?); I told him that I would come and get my computer the following Friday regardless of whether it was fixed.
Oct. 15th - phoned to ask if it had been fixed, told no, they couldn't, they were going to wrap it up so I could pick it up.
Oct. 16th - picked it up in worse shape than I left it (see above); left message with store manager asking him to call about the service I had received; haven't heard back.

So, what do I do now? What do I say to the manager if I ever get in touch with him?

Friend R is coming by tomorrow and we're going to try to rescue the data, then wipe the hard-drive and re-install the OS. If that doesn't work, I'll take it to someone that will actually try to fix it (I know, what an odd approach). In the meantime, tell all your Mac-using friends: Never, ever, ever take your computer to Mac Station. Ever.

UPDATE, Oct. 19th:

A Mac Station employee posted a comment below at 12:58pm on Oct. 18th. Here is some of it:

Hello Brenton,

I work for Mac Station (in another department)...

I don't even know the complete details of your work order, but there is no reason a job like this should take that long...

I have forwarded this post to the people that can make decisions at that level...

I expect that a course of resolution will be presented to you very shortly.

It will be interesting to see if anyone does contact me. Thanks for the comment, anonymous employee.

Oct. 20th - nothing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Vision Vancouver fundraiser

I attended the Vision Vancouver fundraiser on Tuesday as a volunteer (with student loans like this, who needs enemies?) and was treated to a lovely evening of good food, entertainment, and some good old fashion politicking. A wonderful evening, all in all. I'll leave a more full and entertaining description of the event to Jonathan Ross over at; I just have a few notes.

I've heard some grumbling about its location at the Wall Centre, but as far as I can tell it was there because the Walls (are they ever called the Walls?) donated some serious cash and the use of the room (Gregor thanked them personally), and when you're holding a fundraiser you probably don't turn that down. Especially when you know who your audience is.

I attended a similar function last year during the nomination campaign as a guest of a candidate, when no one really knew what Vision stood for, when ex-Parks Board Commissioner Allan De Genova was a real contender for the mayoral nomination. There was some money there (apparently De Genova sold half the tables), but there were also quite a few union tables, and candidate supporters tables.

The big difference this year (apart from the presence of contortionists), and it wasn't that big but enough so that it was quite evident, was the amount of money in suits that came through the door. I'm not sure what the guest list looked like, but the event was sold out and it seemed to me that most tables were corporate buys. Simple conclusion: now that Vision are in power, there are more people interested in making nice with them. I don't mean to imply that there is anything wrong with this, just an observation, and I was surprised that Jonathan Ross didn't make note of it, in his otherwise excellent and entertaining post on the fundraiser.

Aside: former NDP premiers Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark were in attendance, as was former COPE/Vision city councilor Jim Green; all were recognized by Gregor in his speech. As was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and I think Premier Gordon Campbell and BC Housing Minister Rich Coleman were as well.

City of Vancouver budget update

From CKNW News:

City Hall shortfall dwindles
Janet Brown | Email news tips to Janet

"What a difference two weeks makes.

At the end of september the City of Vancouver announced it was facing a 61-million-dollar shortfall.
The preliminary budget numbers are now in for 2010 and the budget shortfall is now pegged at 28-million-dollars, down from the 61-million just two weeks ago.

At 28-million homeowners would face a property tax hike of five-per cent.

However staff say they're aiming for a tax hike of two percent at the most.

They say there are more cuts to be made.

A service review underway by the city has been looking for ways to save money and make the entire organization more efficient."

Wow. How did that happen? $32m in savings found in two weeks?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gentlemen of the Road, or Swashbuckle this, Brian

"All adventure happens in that damned and magical space, wherever it may be found or chanced upon, which least resembles one's home"

Rather than write a book review, I'm simply going to track the words that I have to look up as I read Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road. It's a playful book, and Chabon's vocabulary might come across as pretentious except for that. I've skipped some words that are clearly singular items with little relevance beyond their place as a noun (though I've included some of the same).

p. 4 - bambakion - "In his quilted grey bambakion with its frayed hood" - A padded leather or cotton under-garment; Byzantine.

p. 17 - perspicacity - "Perhaps the span of breath remained to the intruder for the enjoyment of his perspicacity" - having a ready insight into and understanding of things; from Latin perspicac- seeing clearly.

p. 19 - fleam - "with their scalpels and bloodletting fleams" - a kind of lancet, as for opening veins; late Middle English fleme from the Greek phlebo meaning vein.

p. 20 - contumelious - "He was nearly as gifted at languages as the contumelious myna." - scornful and insulting; from Latin contumelia, perhaps from con- ‘with’ + tumere ‘to swell.’

p. 28 - mezair - "With a mezair and a cut to the left" - a movement in which the horse makes a series of short jumps forward while standing on its hind legs; from Italian mezzaria, middle gait.

p. 28 - caprioles - "and a cut to the left and a pair of caprioles" - a movement performed in classical riding, in which the horse leaps from the ground and kicks out with its hind legs; from Latin capreolus, diminutive of caper, capr- goat.

p. 38 - impasto - "squelching through mud that was an impasto of dirt and blood" - The process of laying on paint thickly, from the Italian for paste.

p. 42 - maunderings - "I would rather... than suffer through a month or more of listening to your maunderings." - talk in a dreamy or rambling manner, perhaps from the obsolete maunder, to beg.

p. 43 - affiant - " and affiant now to that failure and to the ruin of his gods" - a person who swears to an affidavit, from the Latin fidus, meaning trusty.

p. 57 - plangent - "and with it the plangent cry of a soldier-muezzin calling his saddle-weary brothers" - loud, reverberating, and often melancholy, from the Latin verb plangere, meaning to lament.

p. 108 - caviling - "though Joseph would hardly miss the Venetian's caviling or tendency to whistle tuneless tunes all day and night" - to raise irritating and trivial objections; find fault with unnecessarily, from L deriv. of cavilla: jesting, banter.

p. 112 - integument - "scrutinizing the elephant as if seeing through its rough integument to its giant organs" - a natural covering, as a skin, shell, or rind; from the Latin teg(ere) to cover

p. 113 - arrant - "he often finds himself in receipt of the most arrant gossip imaginable." - thorough; unmitigated; notorious; from Middle English, variant of errant.

p. 126 - gonfalon - "revealing a gonfalon of russet hair" - a banner or pennant, esp. one with streamers; from Italian gonfalone, from a Germanic compound whose second element is related to vane.

p. 126 - bartizans - "along the battlements and bartizans of the walls of Atil" - an overhanging corner turret at the top of a castle; from 17th-cent. bertisene, Scots variant of bratticing [temporary breastwork or parapet,] from brattice ; revived and reinterpreted by Sir Walter Scott.

p. 128 - caparisoned - "caparisoned in purple silk and cloth of gold" - be decked out in rich decorative coverings; from obsolete French caparasson, from Spanish caparazón ‘saddlecloth,’ from capa hood.

p. 147 - chiromancy - "a wandering eastern people skilled at chiromancy" - the prediction of a person's future from the lines on the palms of his or her hands; from Greek kheir hand.

p. 161 - dolmen - "Imposing and forlorn, a grave marker, a dolmen, the eyrie of some august raptor." - a megalithic tomb with a large flat stone laid on upright ones; from French, perhaps via Breton from Cornish tolmen hole of a stone.

p. 170 - attar - "a faint ribbon of some rank attar in the air." - a fragrant essential oil, typically made from rose petals; Persian from Arabic 'aṭir fragrant.

p. 171 - asphodel - "whose smell of bitter asphodel" - a Eurasian plant of the lily family, typically having long slender leaves and flowers borne on a spike; from Greek asphodelos.

p. 177 - tenoned - "a monstrous thing of heavy timber and tenoned wheels" - join by means of a tenon (a projecting piece of wood made for insertion into a mortise in another piece); from Latin tenere.

p. 182 - termagant - "whether the Northmen were better endowed by their greedy and termagant gods for commerce or slaughter" - a harsh-tempered or overbearing woman, also historical, an imaginary deity of violent and turbulent character; taken to be from Latin tri- ‘three’ + vagant- wandering, and to refer to the moon “wandering” between heaven, earth, and hell under the three names Selene, Artemis, and Persephone.

p. 186 - carillon - "chiming over and over like some kind of bellicose carillon" - a set of bells in a tower, played using a keyboard; from Old French quarregnon peal of four bells, based on Latin quattuor four.

p. 192 - vinous - "his breath vinous and his emotion nettlesome" - of, resembling, or associated with wine (I guessed that but wanted to be sure); from Latin vinum wine.

So there you have it. He knows his words, he does.

Chabon tells a fantastic tale, but it's nothing particularly special. I had high expectations after Kavalier & Clay, but I think maybe I initially missed the point. It's "genre fiction", as he hates to say, and it is a swashbuckling adventure told well. He relies on some stock characters that tend to populate the genre, but with sufficient differences to keep them interesting (the big dumb warrior isn't so dumb and plays a mean game of chess-ish).

As usual (and as demonstrated above), Chabon demonstrates a playful attitude towards language. If he's not making up words he's mining history books and old dictionaries. His two merry men reminded me at first of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, verbose and too clever, but thankfully their wordplay is toned down after their introduction.

This novel was fun to read, whereas Kavalier & Clay was inspiring and touching and fun and huge. Well worth it for fantasy fans, probably worth a go for all readers. I can't help but fall into the (I hope) old paradigm of genre fiction, and I hope this book inspires all readers to give fantasy fiction a go.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

Politics, schmolitics, I'm writing what I want to write.

I just finished reading a few books and watching some movies, so I think I'll get started on a few reviews.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

This is the best book I've read in a while. I quickly followed it up with a collection of essays by Chabon called Maps and Legends, about growing up, the creative impulse, boundaries, adventure, comics, writing, reading, and so on. Both are brilliant.

Chabon begins his collection of essays, Maps and Legends, with a bitter-ish treatise on the state of genre fiction. He believes all writing is for entertainment: “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period.” Fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc. All genres offer entertainment and insight, in varying degrees, and literature proper shouldn't have a monopoly on literary respect. He has stuck to his guns, producing a hard-boiled mystery (The Yiddish Policemen's Union) and a swashbuckling adventure in serial (Gentlemen of the Road) after his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

The amazing* Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an epic American novel, spanning 16 years (1939-1955), in the lives of two Jewish cousins who meet in pre-war New York. Joe Kavalier escapes from the Nazis in Prague, makes his way to America, and with his cousin Sam Clay (anglicized from Klayman) collaborates on a brilliant Golden Age comic book, The Escapist. They also make small fortunes, fall in love, lose loved ones, then ostensibly fight more Nazis, and raise a family and fall in love all over again.

The origin of the Batman, from 1939. For a great intro to Batman, or any comic, check out this site.

I grew up reading comics, though none from the Golden Age**. First old Jonah Hex, ROM and Sgt. Rock comics that a family friend had; then the hero variety: X-Men, Wolverine, Spiderman and Batman; and finally darker, character-driven "adult"-oriented comics like John Constantine: Hellblazer, the Sandman, Preacher, and so on.

And while the subject matter is fairly dear to my heart (I still regularly read comics, but I don't buy many anymore), Kavalier & Clay is by no means a book about comics. Michael Chabon has done an amazing job of taking a childhood obsession for many of us and using it as a backdrop for a very human tale of heartache, loss, hope, amazement and love.

Chabon's writing fits everything in the book perfectly. There are sentences that are reminiscent of comic writing, Bam-Powing across the page. I wanted it to be a true story; indeed, Chabon has had people writing to him asking for information on the K&C's creation, the Escapist.

I am a little reluctant to recommend this to people that didn't grow up reading superhero comics, but if given half a chance it wraps you up in a world that you want to learn more about.

* I meant this first one. It is amazing.
** The late 1930s to late 1940s. From Wikipedia: "The period saw the arrival of the comic book as a mainstream art form, and the defining of the medium's artistic vocabulary and creative conventions by its first generation of writers, artists, and editors."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Spanish adventures #2

Our time in lovely San Sebastian is coming to an end. What a gorgeous city. Ruined only by our stay in a dirty hostel, the only place under 100 euros a night we could find.

Arwen, you were right, they do throw garbage on the floor of tapas bars. And they stub their cigarettes out on the floor. It´s really weird.

I got a little sunburned, true to form. Then it clouded over, sparing me the embarrassment of being the sunburned tourist on the beach.

The tapas (pintxos) here are amazing. Ridiculously rich. Barcelona was quite a disappointment on the food front, but while San Sebastian does have its fair share of low quality eateries, there are some absolutely amazing places.

Yesterday we climbed the small hill/park to the castle. There are cannons in it from the early 16th century. And there´s a graveyard dedicated to English soldiers who gave their lives to defend the town in a war in the 1830´s, against the Carlists. Something I´d like to look into. Putting a damper on the walk were the swastikas everywhere, looked to be the work of one person, but on almost every bench and sign.

Today we´re going for a morning swim (the beach is a few blocks away), then coffee and croissants for breakfast, shopping for supplies and off to the train station for a trip to the Mediterranean coast of France. Au revoir!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Spanish adventures

Hey all. I may try to write some travel stuff here, depending on how often Nina and I make it to an internet place. So far:

Travel was 24 hours from door to door. Ugh. The Seattle airport is dreadful: crap food, crap appearance. Amsterdam airport, on the other hand, was quite pleasant. I had a beer on the flight from Amsterdam to Barcelona, 10am local time. Free. Nice work, KLM.

Barcelona is hot and sweaty. If you know what I mean, and I think you do. Wine is cheap, food isn´t. Our room is tall and small and has a balcony overlooking a pretty street. There are Bar Cafeterias on almost every corner that sell coffee, booze, pastry and sandwiches.

So far we´ve seen only a few homeless people, and only been asked for money twice. Maybe they all stayed away after being moved out for the Olympics in 1992?

Every building here is interesting. Every single one, for real. And the beach is right downtown. We went swimming in the Mediterranean last night, and it was warm and cleaner than Kits Beach. The benefits of not being a major port, I guess.

My Spanish is so weak, I couldn´t even remember how to say ´bed´.

Until next time.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Extended absence

Hi everyone (if there is anyone left),

I just wanted to apologize for the lack of notice about the extended absence. Work and stuff got in the way of blogging. I will remain away until after May 12th (election day in BC!).


Friday, January 9, 2009

Olympic Village update

City of Vancouver

January 9, 2009


In the last election, I made a commitment to Vancouver taxpayers to make public the previous council's business decisions on the development of the Olympic Village. Today, I am delivering on that commitment.

The Olympic Village is a billion-dollar project, and the City's on the hook for all of it.

To my great frustration, we can't turn back the clock on the actions of the last Mayor and Council. We are financially and legally committed to complete this project.

The 2010 Olympic Winter Games will be held here in Vancouver. We will meet this challenge, and we will excel as proud hosts to the world's greatest athletes.

And we'll be doing it in the most difficult economic environment we've seen in more than a generation. As Mayor, my job is to protect the interests of Vancouver taxpayers. I'm focused on making the best business decisions possible as we move forward, and to do it openly.

We now know why the previous city government didn't want to talk about the deal they'd made. The arrangements were not in the public's interest.

The decisions taken by the previous city government have put the city at enormous financial risk, even as we were told in 2006 by our elected leaders that the Olympic Village would be developed at no risk to the taxpayers.

I campaigned on the promise that I would provide to the public as much information about the Olympic Village finances as possible.

Here is what we have learned about how the city got to this point today.

We've learned that in 2007, as part of a complex three-way agreement, the previous council provided not only a financial guarantee for $190 million between the City, Fortress Investment Group, and Millennium Development, but more significantly, voted to provide a completion guarantee to Fortress Investment Group.

With that action, they effectively made the City of Vancouver the project developer from that point forward. This decision was only disclosed in the city's 2007 financial statement, released in April 2008.

Fortress, acting within their rights under that deal, stopped advancing funds to the developer for Olympic Village construction in September 2008. As you know from media reports, city council decided in camera on October 14th to approve payments to the contractors to allow construction to continue.

Upon taking office, it became clear that immediate action had to be taken. The current arrangement was not sustainable.

Confronted with the difficult situation, council has directed city staff to negotiate a financial arrangement that will best protect the taxpayers of Vancouver.

These negotiations are ongoing.

We know we've been dealt a very tough hand, but I believe we can meet our obligations. We're working very closely with our partners - VANOC, the province and the federal government - to maintain the financing for the Olympic Village project and deliver it in time for the Games. The work we are doing with our partners will get us there. And I commit today to Vancouver taxpayers that they will be informed of the decisions that we have to take in the weeks and months ahead.

Right now, we're in the middle of urgent and delicate negotiations. The information we are sharing today does not compromise those negotiations, and is important for clarifying the status of the project and dispelling ongoing rumours and speculation.

I will also be following through on one of my other key campaign promises, by holding a special meeting of council on Monday to share what we've learned with the people of Vancouver.

Media Contact: Kevin Quinlan
Executive Assistant to the Mayor
City of Vancouver

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Homelessness debate - what blogs are for

There is a great debate on homelessness and housing in Vancouver going on on France Bula's blog. Check out these posts and the comments sections, mostly the first two:

Solving homelessness — beyond spin

Solving homelessness, beyond spin 2: David C’s response

Pennsylvania Hotel opens supportive housing

A new light in the Downtown Eastside

Homeless shelter numbers from new emergency effort

This is what blogs are meant to do, I think. Good, constructive, reasoned, impassioned debate. Thanks, Frances et al.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Is Canada the new Somalia?

I wrote an undergrad paper about failed states, examining how Somalia seemed to be building itself from the bottom up. That was until the US decided the Islamic courts were the next Taliban and encouraged Ethiopia to invade at the behest of Somalia's pseudo-government, which radicalized the country and may have pushed the somewhat moderate Islamic courts further towards fundamentalism. Well done, gang.

In his last post, Paul Wells at Macleans compares Canada to Somalia. Yes, you read that right. He argues that we don't have a coherent government, and uses the listeriosis outbreak to support his theory. (I personally love the talk-show host reference.) The short version:

Capital Read, Inkless Wells - By Paul Wells - Sun, Jan 4 2009 at 4:31 PM - 49 Comments

So. Let us review the options.

  • Coherent government: (a) announce an inquiry; (b) hold the inquiry.
  • Alternative, conservative coherent government: (a) explain why no inquiry is necessary; (b) do not hold an inquiry.
  • Incoherent government — failing-state government: (a) announce an inquiry; (b) attempt to ban public-sector strikes while appointing talk-show hosts to the Senate.

And this is his response to some decent criticism of his post:
Actually I was trying for a kind of a Mark Steyn thing, albeit to make a point Mark would not like or agree with. But of course I take your point. To be clear: I do not actually think Canada is much like Somalia. In Somalia, for instance, you can buy private health care without going to jail. There! That’s the effect I was trying for!

That is the funniest thing I've read in Canadian political commentary in a while. Thanks, Mr. Wells.