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ARCHIVES for September 2005

And the benches clear

Your correspondent and some other distinguished Canadian guests are making predictions about the upcoming NHL season over at the Battle of Alberta weblog. It's an ongoing series that runs through Tuesday, and they have comment threads over there, so jump in if you feel like it. This kind of thing is one of the reasons I like sports in the first place.

I also want to put in a good word for Covered in Oil. I've been waiting--what's it been, three years?--for the Oilers to get the dedicated group blog they deserve. I'm hoping this one doesn't succumb too soon to weblog fatigue. And I'm still giggling roughly twice a day at Mike Winters' true-life cartoon vignette about cheering for the mid-'90s Oilers. I'm thinking "Gord Mark is beaten to the outside!" should be its own catchphrase.

- 3:01 pm, September 30 (link)

And then again, on the other hand,

I can't be the only one who's a little crestfallen--no pun intended--about the new Governor-General's personal coat of arms, a farrago of Haitian symbols with as little Canadian semiotic content as could decently be managed. It's handsome, to be sure, but even the aesthetic effect is ruined by a motto that does not bear up well to scrutiny.

"Briser les solitudes", it runs--literally, "to break [fracture, smash] solitudes," meaning the famous Two whose name is known to millions that have never read one byte of Hugh MacLennan. It's a pretty ambitious idea, even a revolutionary one. But aren't the "Two Solitudes" just another name for the respectful distance that allows the two founding cultures to live together? Isn't there in fact a pretty strong, if silent, constituency that favours their perpetuation? Couldn't both English Canada and Quebec take this motto as a typical piece of utopian hyperfederalism? (Though that is the one thing Mme. Jean has not been suspected of in the last ten weeks.)

And then there's the literary objection, for a motto is after all a small work of art. French will never be my strong suit, and perhaps there is an undetected idiomatic turn here that makes it passable, but "briser les solitudes" smells awfully like a mangled metaphor. You can break (or break down) a friendship, a spirit, a human heart; but a solitude? Surely the noun, in French or English, demands a verb like "interrupt" or "penetrate"? Or am I unwisely playing Edmund Wilson here to the G-G's Nabokov? (þ: Thor Burnham)

- 4:50 am, September 30 (link)

Now it can be told

The new Governor-General has successfully seduced Andrew Coyne by means of an installation speech that defined Canadianism, not as waiting patiently for a hip replacement or voting for the right political party at election time, but as a love of freedom. What do I make of the speech? Not nearly as much as Coyne does; his paean to the new Governor-General is an exercise in defining Coynism, rather than Michaelle-Jeanism.

But I have to admit that, in one sense, the new G-G had me at hello. A few weeks ago a reader sent me this article from the Canadian Jewish News, in which the new vicereine is said to have to offered what can only be called a conservative critique of Canadian multiculturalism and those community leaders who "butter their bread" with it.

On nous donne même des moyens financiers pour que nous restions chacun dans notre enclos. Il y a une espèce de proposition de ghettoïsation qui est là et qui est financée. Or, le "multiculturalisme" est proposé comme un modèle fondateur du Canada.

If she had said this in English--it is sufficiently controversial that I am too cowardly to translate it--she never would have made it to the swearing-in. Perhaps I'm reading in, but she appears concerned that Canada's failure to assert and apply a (non-racial but necessarily exclusive) concept of citizenship tends to create a class of outsiders who are culturally assimilated yet permanently groping for the last measure of acceptance. In short, she seems to recognize post-liberal identity politics as the truest enemy of a pluralist society. Or at least she's prepared to discuss the subject intelligently, which of course she won't be permitted to do as long as she is Governor-General. (þ: Inkless)

- 3:09 am, September 29 (link)

Was there something about Don Adams that subeditors didn't like?

I don't know how else to account for the borderline-tasteless headlines his death has been inspiring:

"Would you believe...? Comic Don Adams of Get Smart is dead" -Miami Herald
"Agent 86 makes 82 – missed it by that much" -The Courier-Mail, Brisbane
"We'll miss him by about that much" -The Daily Texan
"Cone of Silence descends on Smart" -The Australian
"Would you believe dead as a doornail?" -City Pages, Minneapolis-St. Paul

Dead as a doornail? Jeez--did the guy owe you money or something?

The saddest fact of all is that it took a UK comedy website to cut straight to the heart of the joke with "Dead Smart". If you're going to try on a gag, and you can't be as clever as that, you might as well just go all the way to "Inspector Gadget Sucks Cocks in Hell".

- 10:31 pm, September 27 (link)

Coleridge's heart, Diefenbaker's soul?

A recent excerpt from Monte Solberg's weblog:

We had a hard frost here last night but it seemed to touch the yard unevenly. Some of my little Manchurian elms were barely nipped, but one of them took it on the chin. So some are still green, one is turning color, and one has black curled leaves.
My poplars are tinged with black, the linden got bitten at its upper reaches and, as always, the willows seemed to sail through. They are the last to lose their leaves in these parts and might just be my favorite prairie tree. They are hardy, fast-growing and have an exotic look. Sometimes you'll see one alone on the prairie, and the way it spreads out kind of broad and low gives the impression that you are on the African savannah.

I don't wish to be accused of missing the point--I'm sure Monte's love of the Alberta landscape is not one inch short of genuine--but I think this guy could stay as an MP, if he wants to, until he turns 100. If this is mythmaking, it's mythmaking at an elite level. Is there any Liberal politician alive who could sound sincere expressing that acute sense of place so casually? The question answers itself. Our rulers love Canada as an idea, but very few ever display the first condition of legitimate patriotism--namely, passionate attachment to a particular part of one's nation. Stephen Harper, who pretty well spent the summer denying he'd even heard of any such place as Alberta, could stand to take notes.

- 10:10 pm, September 27 (link)

On the other hand, he chose not to use his personal jet-pack

Some striking random evidence in the case of the price elasticity of demand for gasoline: an old post from a Baltimore weblogger who says there is simply no room left for him to reduce his gas consumption.

I for one have not changed any of my driving habits with higher gas prices. ...Throw in commuting, which I have to do no matter how high gas prices get (sadly, I can't call out from work because gas prices are too high) and my grad classes (once again, profs expect me to be there no matter what the price of fuel) and there aren't many trips I can eliminate. I'm still going to make the drive up and back to N.J. Memorial Day weekend to visit my family, because I care about them more than I do gas prices. So there aren't really too many trips I can eliminate.

It would seem gas prices are still so low in the U.S. (or they were in May) that the MBA student who wrote this couldn't think of more than one way to get from Baltimore to New Jersey. And it would seem easy to prove that there's no inessential traveling in American life: simply define every trip as inherently essential, and the argument is made.

- 9:29 pm, September 27 (link)

Here's a link to "The Scandal of Prediction", a remarkable excerpt from a (forthcoming?) book by Nassim N. Taleb. Taleb, a science professor and options trader, was the subject of a memorable 2002 New Yorker profile by Malcolm Gladwell. It is decidedly embarrassing to encounter someone who is equipped with much the same anecdotal learning and the same hero-pantheon as oneself, but who has made such a superior success of his life. -7:20 pm, September 27
In high-ish rotation around the house

Sufjan Stevens, "Casimir Pulaski Day": it's Jackie Chan all over again! I mean the thing where you (a) discover an odd, little-known cultural figure and (b) he starts getting more ink than Britney Spears' twatfruit just at the moment that (c) a slight and ominous decline in quality arguably starts to appear in the work. Stevens' Illinoise is being proclaimed on all sides as Teh Gratest Ablum Since Abbey Road; for my money it walks the tightrope between ironic and earnest not quite so well as Greetings from Michigan!, toppling to one side with mickey-taking track names ("A Conjunction Of Drones Simulating The Way In Which Sufjan Stevens Has An Existential Crisis In The Great Godfrey Maze") and occasionally to the other with overprecious subject matter.

Still, Illinoise is consistently as exhilarating and startling as Jackie Chan himself; it's the work of a imaginative multi-instrumentalist who seems to have chewed and swallowed everything from Gershwin to David Bowie, and yet remains anything but protean. I have a lot of questions I want to ask Stevens. Like, do you suppose he ever just cuts loose in the studio in a weak moment and bellows into the microphone like James Hetfield? C'mon, he must do.

Ramones, "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" (from 1993's Acid Eaters): Joey Ramone bumps into John Fogerty, and a stunned fan suddenly recognizes the same soul in two bodies--master carpenters of the straight-ahead 150-second song format, each with his own not-really-meant-to-be-taken-seriously artistic pose (mournful bayou poet/solvent-sucking greaser cretin). Even the haircuts aren't too dissimilar. Were they ever photographed together?

The Arcade Fire, "Rebellion (Lies)": As in the case of Sufjan Stevens, this is a bandwagon I jumped on months ago. But I didn't put it on record soon enough to take credit for sniffing out the two critical überfavourites of the past 12 months. Even bop-immersed highbrow Paul Wells and full-time punk bore Warren Kinsella beat me to the punch, leaving me to echo their praise. Stevens and the Arcade Fire gang, taken together, demonstrate something I've always maintained--that a good starting point for making an interesting record is to drag a few unusual instruments into the studio. This isn't a question of money: even in a city with Edmonton's cultural resources it couldn't be super hard to rustle up someone who can play the oboe or the dulcimer. Even a piano cuts through the static pretty solidly on rock radio these days. Sure, if you're from Bella Coola or Calgary or someplace like that, you have every excuse for sticking close to the guitar-drums-bass formula. And it's a good 'un. But even Black Sabbath at its loudest and heaviest brought Rick Wakeman in to have the occasional bash--you could look it up. Widening the soundscape a little isn't going to make your testes shrivel, kiddies!

The White Stripes, "Hotel Yorba": For that matter, neither is narrowing it as a calculated act of minimalism.

Talking Heads, "The Book I Read" (live): It probably doesn't sound very impressive to hear a self-evidently earthshaking group like the Arcade Fire coming up the road, but you have to realize just how far I have my ear from the ground. To take a glaring example, I only just found out this week that they finally released The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads on CD in late 2004. A sarcastic slow clap to all concerned: it took only 20-odd years to squeeze out a digital version of the single most acclaimed record by a group that was still overwhelmingly popular when CDs were first mass-produced. The impression I get after trying to rustle up an explanation is that some bean counter thought releasing The Name of This Band on CD would vulture sales of the (inferior) movie soundtrack Stop Making Sense. This is roughly reminiscent of believing Thomas Watson's 1943 quote that "there is a world market for, maybe, five computers"¹--and continuing steadily to believe it until about 1985.

I dunno if this record contains a lesson, but it makes having a married rhythm section seem like a hell of a good idea. It so happens--just to tie everything together--that the Talking Heads are a heavy and acknowledged influence on the Arcade Fire, another group with married personnel. (I don't want to get anybody in trouble with the RIAA, but the band's twinkling cover of "This Must Be The Place" has become a piece of canonical musical samizdat.)

¹Or ten computers, or whatever he's supposed to have said, if he actually said it, which he probably didn't.

- 7:16 pm, September 27 (link)

San Luis Rey

The cream of world chess is accumulating in Argentina for the long-awaited double round-robin contest that will, depending on your perspective, crown a new "World Champion" or a candidate for the classical match-play title now held by Vladimir Kramnik. The showdown, which runs from September 27 to October 16, is generating tremendous excitement--particularly since it is the first super-elite event since Garry Kasparov retired, and because Kramnik's bizarre recent form has seen his rating drop to #6 in the world. Whoever wins is likely to be regarded, temporarily, as the true king (or queen) of chess.

You can bet on the tournament at (and no doubt elsewhere). A contract that pays $100 if you've chosen the right winner will cost $39 if you like Viswanathan Anand, $28 for Veselin Topalov, and $22 for Peter Leko. That latter figure strikes me as a bargain, although I would certainly make Anand the steady favourite. Yes, Top has been the world's best (and most esthetically satisfying) player for the past 12 months, but "buy low, sell high" applies to chess as to everything else. (Take note, Tyler Cowen.) Leko is knocked a great deal by chess fans, but when he played for the ultimate stakes in a title match against Kramnik last year, he was distinctly superior to the distracted champ, and Kramnik held the title only by virtue of a 7-7 split decision. Moreover, in a double round-robin, Leko's outstanding physical conditioning will count for a great deal.

It strikes me that almost all the possible outcomes are good for chess in one way or another. It would be a godsend to the prestige of the game if Judit Polgar won less than a year after having her first child, and having Mickey Adams as a blokey, articulate English "champion" would be almost as good. Anand is the game's supreme ambassador to a billion or so people on the subcontinent, and Leko speaks a whole passel of European languages well. Even the little-known Topalov has exhibited a flair for publicity recently, organizing (and winning) an innovative tournament in his native Bulgaria. The hardcore chess fan who cares most for excitement over the board could ask for nothing better than a win by the combative Topalov or his half-crazy Russian rival Morozevich.

- 5:11 pm, September 25 (link)

Crystal ballbuster?

Reader Ilya Hineyko sends along this inquiry:

I wonder if you feel like recanting your earlier prouncements on the NHL becoming less attractive some to Russian-born players who might choose to stay in Russian and play in the Superleague instead.

Well, Pasha Datsyuk has returned to Detroit after having stirred a turf war between Dynamo and Avangard over his contract.

I'm quite positive that the whole affair was no more than a bargaining trick to have a leverage with Detroit. Datsyuk and especially his agent were never serious about not coming back to the NHL.

From what I know Kovalchuk is asking too much in Atlanta but I too expect him to be back to the fold by December. And read that sappy interview with Nick Antropov in today's [Thursday's?] Post. The guy clearly states that money doesn't mean everything when it comes to choosing between the two leagues.

Thus, the ones who have opted not to return to the NHL are either unwilling to do it for personal reasons (the example of Avangard's Sushinsky comes to mind) or too washed up to start it all over again (like Nikolishin).

For better or worse the NHL remains the best hockey league in the world for the foreseeable future.

I probably haven't emphasized it strongly enough, but I do believe the NHL will remain the world's best hockey league. In the very short term it may even keep its near-total monopoly on all the best players. It's hard for me to feel the need for a retraction, though. I spent the lockout arguing that the Russian league was emerging as a credible alternative, one that the NHL would have to reckon with in setting salary levels. It seems to me that's exactly what's happening. Even if the threats are empty in many cases, the threats are still there. And someone's going to have to follow through eventually just to keep the threat in view.

I couldn't find the Antropov interview in question, but I never denied that there were considerations other than money when players decide where to play. (Are we to assume that Maxim Sushinsky is alone in finding North America a difficult and confusing place?) Heck, considering how badly he got roasted by the fans at the ACC on Thursday night, Antropov might already be wishing he could play somewhere else.

My argument is a long-view one, and maybe I didn't make this clear enough, either. Right now Russian club hockey is still something of a dodgy wild-west scene, but the NHL can't afford to remain complacent. The guy I keep thinking of is Denis Law, the '60s football magician who remains probably the greatest Scottish player of all time. In 1961 Law shocked British soccer--whose salaries were then still middle-class at best--by defecting from Manchester City to play for Turin in the Italian League. Law was following the money, and it turned out to be an unwise move. He wasn't suited to the defence-obsessed Italian game of the time; the club's business practices were bizarre, and player pay, while extravagant, was irregular; and Law narrowly escaped injury in a comical "which-side-do-we-drive on?" auto accident. In short, he couldn't adapt to the culture. Law came plodding back to the premiership the next summer, and an observer of British football might have said "Well, that'll be the end of British players going off to play club football in Europe; it's simply not practical." In the light of history, we know better. As a business enterprise, you can't expect your rivals to simply go away if left unchallenged.

- 11:37 am, September 24 (link)

Vaguely macabre search-engine referral of the day: "sell Louisiana back to the French". -2:45 pm, September 23
In today's National Post, you can find my discussion of the security fence/separation barrier/apartheid wall (choose your own preferred verbiage) between Israel and the West Bank. Its fantastic success at immuring the intifada may signal the start of a new international trend. And then again, maybe I just had a deadline to meet!

Here's last week's column about the awkward elopement of two ill-matched dotcom giants.

On Monday, eBay, the online auction giant, announced that it was buying the Luxembourg-based Internet-phone company Skype for cash and stock valued at US$2.6 billion. It's an amazing coup for Skype founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis. In 2003, amidst the smouldering wreckage of a thousand utopian dot-com startups, they started a business that gave away its main product for free. Within months it fetched a confoundingly high sale price--one that could reach US$4.1 billion with performance bonuses--even though eBay isn't especially interested in Skype's current business and the product has dozens of credible competitors. Any minute, Alan Greenspan will enter stage left, soliloquizing on "irrational exuberance."

By nerd standards, the Skypemen deserve every penny. Skype is, as its homepage says, "a little program for making free calls over the Internet to anyone else who also has Skype." But this description conceals more than it discloses. Zennstrom and Friis were the developers of KaZaA, a file-sharing application that was popular with music downloaders in the wake of Napster's death-by-lawsuit. Skype uses the same principles of distributed peer-to-peer file transmission; the result is high reliability and, even with a $3 computer microphone and $30 speakers like mine, mind-blowing sound quality. The first time a friend "phoned" me on Skype, I was swiveling my head around to see who was in the room with me.

Skype's founders also came up with a brilliant take on the old Gillette secret ("Give away the razor, sell the blades"). Skype calls are free to another Skype user, but for just a tiny, tempting fee, you can make Skype calls to a regular phone, rent a number and enable telephones to reach you on your computer, or install voicemail. The free calling enabled Skype's customer base to grow much faster than that of other providers of VoIP ("voice over Internet protocol"). The peer-to-peer nature of the software kept Skype's overhead low. And integration with the existing phone system created a revenue stream expected to total US$200 million in 2006.

So is $2.6 billion a bargain? EBay was persuaded to make the deal by Skype's potential to add value to its auctions. The theory goes that eBay isn't extracting enough lucre from expensive goods and services that require complicated discussions; when cars or guitars are on the block, e-mail is no substitute for talking. EBay thinks it can make Skype pay by facilitating voice conversations right on the auction page. But eBay says it doesn't want to get into the business of being a phone company, so some are asking why eBay didn't just license Skype technology, or develop its own VoIP in-house, instead of purchasing Skype outright. You don't need AT&T stock to phone your mother.

According to eBay's pitch to its own investors, it expects to be able to "monetize", or chisel users for, Skype calls made through eBay pages. But if the basic Skype service remains free, no one need pay, and if eBay kills the free functionality, it will destroy the user base overnight and open the door to competitors. Free voice calls through instant-messaging programs have been around for ages, and Google is just now throwing its intergalactic user reach, its impossible cleverness, and its inexhaustible cash into that market. EBay's valuation of Skype only makes sense if eBay really does want to be a phone company. Or, rather, a destroyer of phone companies.

If Skype doesn't make reliable long-distance voice communications free with the purchase of Internet access, somebody else is bound to borrow the business model and do it. The possibilities transcend mere economics. The free Skype program has a setting you can select that enables random calls from strangers. If you're a North American, and you turn on "Skype Me", you'll quickly hear from users all over the world looking to brush up their English and meet foreigners. I've talked to Skype users in Iran and China; imagine how thrilled their authoritarian governments must feel about that. According to sketchy Chinese press reports, Chinese telcos began interfering with internet customers' Skype usage on the day the eBay deal was announced. The zingy little phone gadget could be a poison pill for an e-commerce site hoping to do business with a dictatorship.

In the long term, though, the Chinese regime is caught in an impossible paradox: The country's affluence depends on cutting-edge digital communications to which its one-party government is inherently allergic. E-mail, sent both within Russia and outside it, played an important role in exposing and undoing the 1991 military coup there; Internet voice and video transmission will be even more destabilizing to authority. And it's worth noting that the Internet arguably proved more robust than the phone system in areas recently hit by Hurricane Katrina, defying common perceptions of VoIP as fragile and no substitute for "real" telephony.

The eBay deal may, in a way, be the end of Skype. But Skype's indirect influence on the world, as a harbinger of convergence between phone and net, is probably just beginning.

- 12:30 pm, September 23 (link)

Sausage-race for boffins

That's what Prospect magazine is running here, more or less; you are invited to choose today's top five intellectuals from a list of 100 and include a write-in vote. Don't take the exercise too seriously: looking at the GTA alone, the ballot includes Naomi Klein and leaves out Jane Jacobs, the foolishness of which I suspect even Ms. Klein would concede. I hesitated for a while over Christopher Hitchens' name, but then I realized I had to face the question: "Does Hitch actually, y'know, influence anybody?" We all love reading him, but his posturing as the modern avatar of Orwell grows tiresome quickly, and these days he's noisily destroying himself trying to convert his old red comrades to the cause of bourgeois compassion. For better or worse, the work being done by someone like Bernard Lewis (the Only Living Orientalist™) seems more relevant.

- 6:19 am, September 22 (link)

Ice chips

NHL fans might enjoy eyeballing the early Stanley Cup futures from; they reflect the general confusion, with only one team shorter than 10-to-1 (Philly, at 5) and only one longer than 60-to-1 (Washington, at a still-unattractive 200). 30 seems like a very tempting price for the Oilers, unless you truly believe, there being 30 teams in the league, that the Prongerized roster makes Edmonton no better than a league-average club (which it already basically was in '03-'04). Those who don't want to take a homer's advice might want to think about Minnesota at 40: personally I wouldn't give odds that long against a Jacques Lemaire-coached team in the NBA, never mind the NHL. (And you apparently could have had Pittsburgh at 75-1 if you'd been quick enough off the mark.)

- 12:48 pm, September 21 (link)

Plans! Big plans!

Just in case any Ontarians are wondering how I plan to spend my year-end "prosperity dividend" from the Alberta government--well, I have to be honest with you; it's already spoken for. Healthcare premiums aren't subject to marginal tax rates here, see, and at my income level it so happens I have to set aside a little more than an Ontarian would. And because you guys have that great cigarette-smuggling infrastructure out there, our government can get away with imposing extortionate taxes on smokers--about a dollar a pack more. All this is what's sometimes sarcastically known as the Alberta Advantage. I'm sure I'll have enough left over at the end of 2006 to afford a few beers, though.

[UPDATE, 10:55 am: Fenwick went to the trouble of actually doing some analysis. It goes without saying, I think, that Ralph Klein's "lack of vision" in simply mailing out cheques is far more defensible on every level--tactically, morally, economically, logically--than Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft's straightforward, bold notion to "provide free tuition for university and college students."]

- 10:06 am, September 21 (link)

Colby Cosh, union man?

Lorne Gunter is finally back at his weblog, breaking in with an entry about the CBC... the arguments are familiar, but a passage near the end reminded me of something I had already realized with a sudden shock on the weekend:

Nope, can't say I miss the CBC. Even though I have taken the corporation's appearance fees for the occasional "hit" on the National and CBC Morning, I would not be sad to see it disbanded.

What Lorne doesn't mention here is that union dues for the locked-out Canadian Media Guild were surely subtracted from his cheques for CBC freelance work. I've been unwittingly forced to contribute to the Guild's war chest myself once or twice in the last year. Maybe we should be making more of this--we're paid-up! We have a right to complain!

Not that I see all that much to complain about in the Guild's behaviour myself. Once you've accepted the principle of collective bargaining for government employees, you've accepted the certainty of periodic strikes and lockouts. If the weapon is not used occasionally, it ceases to be feared. Broadcasting employees and administrators customarily reach for it less than nurses and teachers because a permanent discrediting or dissolution of the propaganda ministry's "business" is possible. Every day of the lockout brings us closer to a selloff, now or later, of the CBC's infrastructure and bandwidth. But in this instance there is apparently so much at stake, and both sides are so convinced of the rightness of their cause, that they've decided to play chicken. (And we're still very far from the death of the CBC. When the Media Guild gets back to work, there is bound to be a certain amount of blind contrarian insistence, in the face of all evidence, that the lockout merely proved the corporation's inestimable value.)

The actual distance between management and the picketers seems... well, you could call it "incremental." Even if the corporation "wins", the CBC will remain one of the country's most heavily-unionized and -bureaucratized employers, public or private. And the Guild, which claims to care most about contracting-out, hasn't been afraid to throw a bunch of folderol about diversity-hiring policies into its bargaining platform.

The real point of the battle on both sides seems to be finding out which side has been left with more power and goodwill in the radically changing media environment. Or, to put it another way: is content truly king? Your answer will depend partly on whether you prefer news gathered by amateurs using professional resources or news gathered by professionals using amateur resources. Frankly, I kind of feel like the parts are greater than the original sum.

- 9:56 am, September 21 (link)

A study in scarlet

You know how, on Fridays, editors always throw a few quirky science stories into the print/broadcast mix to make up for the lack of political news? In mid-May there was an absolutely archetypal Friday story about a study by some British anthropologists who found that "competitors were more likely to win their contests if they wore red uniforms or red body armor."

"Across a range of sports, we find that wearing red is consistently associated with a higher probability of winning," report Russell A. Hill and Robert A. Barton of the University of Durham in England.

I never bothered scouring around for the study, since it seemed like such an obvious British leg-pull. I don't want to alarm anybody, but my ongoing use of coloured markers to track the pennant race has provided kind of a consciousness-raising. Take a look at the state of affairs in major league baseball as of today:

AL East: The Boston Red Sox are fighting off the pinstriped Yankees, so far successfully.
AL Central: The achromatic White Sox are in the midst of a historic collapse. The beneficiary: the Indian red-clad Tribe.
AL West: The Oakland A's, still burdened by the green and gold motif bestowed on them by Charles O. Finley, are slowly succumbing to the crimson-swaddled Angels.
NL East: The division is led by the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies, both teams which feature red prominently in their colour schemes.
NL Central: The Cardinals have had a hammerlock here since about mid-June.
NL West: This is a division where none of the teams are into the colour red. It's also a division where none of the teams are at .500 for the season.

The more you look, the more convincing this crazy idea gets. There are other teams that have red somewhere in their colour schemes--like Minnesota, a pretty decent team in a tough division, and Washington, which has surprised everybody and is still in the wild-card fight with an outside shot. The only really bad team that wears red is Cincinnati--and if you constructed a league consisting only of the Reds and the blue-clad teams, Cincinnati would still be in the top half.

This doesn't mean anything at all. Just a bizarre coincidence. Probably.

- 3:31 am, September 18 (link)

A thought experiment about the Pledge of Allegiance

Tomorrow morning, you, a good American, wake up to find that Congress has authorized a subtle symbolic change to the U.S. flag.

Some questions for you to consider over your Cheerios:

  • Does this change, in itself, constitute an "establishment of religion" under the Constitution? If so, in what regard?

  • Do you find the change objectionable? Is it consonant with what you regard as American traditions?

  • What course of action, if any, would you advise a patriotic atheist to undertake in response to this change?

  • Would you feel comfortable expecting non-Christian fellow-citizens to pledge allegiance to such a flag? Indeed, could their basic loyalty to the United States still be expected after such a change?

  • Would it be valid to reassure non-Christians on the Constitutional "establishment" issue by telling them that they don't have to personally fly, or even honour, the U.S. flag?--that they are free to opt out of ceremonies involving it, and that, if they like, they don't even really have to look at it? Do these "freedoms" suffice to make the change in the flag a non-establishment of religion?

  • More importantly, is altering the standardized public profession of loyalty to the flag so that it contains the phrase "Under God" different, in any relevant way, from a change to the flag itself?

  • If you were setting out to establish Christianity as the formal faith of the United States and its government, aren't places like the flag and the pledge of allegiance a natural starting point precisely because they are constitutionally ambiguous?

  • Would it be possible for any reasonable person to argue about the new flag, at one and the same time, that it was not meant to provoke unbelievers--but that it dare not be changed at their behest?

    Remember, "under God" was not originally in the text of the Pledge; it was added by virtue of an act of the Congress and the signature of the President, amidst a welter of federal novelties designed to curry favour with God. These bodies are similarly free to change the flag if they wish, and frankly I probably shouldn't be giving them the idea.¹

    If the new flag were adopted--and the Pledge perhaps changed to read "I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the shape in its canton"--we would soon find the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty arguing passionately for public-school students' right to start the day with the new oath, unless of course they happen to be godless little creeps who don't love their country. We would also find Jim Lindgren saying that the establishment clause "obviously" does nothing to outlaw the deliberate congressional crossbreeding of church symbols with state ones. (As far as I can tell, Lindgren's logic would require him, as an atheist, to be entirely comfortable with the imaginary new flag if it were adopted in accord with the usual democratic procedures.)

    ¹Though it's not exactly an original one.

    [UPDATE, September 18: Matt Barr runs the gauntlet, raising good points ("The hypothetical moves from vague invocations of God to Jesus..."), vastly overreaching itself at times (the elimination of prayer from public schools "creates a generation of recyclin', global warming hatin', self esteemin' kids"), and raising an entirely separate point of interest in mentioning the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln is supposed to have said that the nation would have a new birth of freedom "under God." Awkwardly enough, Lincoln is known to have stuck very closely to written texts in his speeches, and guess which little phrase is completely missing from the surviving manuscripts of the speech. Barr should probably have stuck to the unambivalently religious Second Inaugural.]

    - 11:43 pm, September 17 (link)

    You are now seven years older: that's right--Britain's ITV aired Michael Apted's 49 Up Thursday night. -10:49 am, September 17
    Crazy like a fox

    Over at EconLog, Bryan Caplan has some interesting thoughts about our bush-league energy crisis. Depending on how elastic you believe gasoline prices to be, a cut in gas taxes might end up flowing partly or even totally into the pockets of producers rather than customers. That's hardly the most desirable outcome. But imposing price controls is definitely the wrong thing to do, as it would create shortages and allocate the available gas inefficiently. This leads us, Caplan notes, to the "Cynic's Argument for Gas Tax Cuts":

    In an energy crisis, politicians propose all kinds of crazy policies: anti-gouging enforcement, price controls, rationing, you name it. It's a beautiful illustration of what Yes, Minister calls "Politicians' Logic": "Something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it."

    Bottom line: No one is going to listen to the politician who says "Do nothing." Under the circumstances, I can't think of a single politically viable policy that would be better than cutting the gas tax. Maybe it would mildly reduce the price of gas. But even if supply is so inelastic that 100% of the tax cut goes to suppliers, it is easy to overlook a big social benefit: Tax cuts have a good chance of politically crowding out price controls and worse.

    One wonders if something of the sort has occurred to Stephen Harper, M.A. (Econ.)

    (I couldn't pass up a chance to make the joke at Harper's expense, but I should point out that there appears to be plenty of elasticity in the price of gas. This won't surprise anyone except the Peak Oil maniacs, who constantly cite our energy wastefulness as proof that we are extremely dependent on the current supply of petroleum. They little realize that those same examples, viewed in another light, merely show how much room is left for people to nip in their expenditures on huge vehicles and frequent trips.)

    - 7:46 pm, September 16 (link)

    Transactions wire, mascot division

    The NHL's new CBA may be forcing a lot of the league's old-timers into retirement, but there's at least one out-of-work sports veteran who just made the Canadiens roster unexpectedly.

    - 4:03 pm, September 16 (link)

    Milblogging Canadian style: isn't it about time somebody founded a group hockey weblog devoted to trash talk between Calgary and Edmonton? Would that not be the best thing ever? This post has already given me a new Windows-startup audio file, and the pre-season schedule hasn't even begun. -10:43 am, September 16
    In this morning's National Post I dissect eBay's purchase of Skype. [Subscribers can read the column here.] These are both world-changing companies, but in case you don't want to spring for a paper, I'll say this much: $2.6 billion seems like a hell of a lot to pay for a cow when there's milk raining from the sky.

    - 4:18 am, September 16 (link)

    The Primates are unpacking the Favorite Toy over at BTF, the baseball discussion site for the lowbrow thinking man... -3:08 am, September 14
    Good for what ails you?

    The wind brings word that the Associated Press is creating a "younger audience service" called ASAP, a multimedia newswire experiment for what is universally known as The Prized 18-34 Demographic. (Praise God: the marketers of the world will still consider me viable for another seven months and 18 days.) The announcement follows the inauguration of Al Gore's Ritalin TV and, of course, Canada's own short-attention-span newspaper, Dose. (Suggested motto: "Like a full five-course meal in a pill, only instead of food, it's news.")

    Honestly I don't know what to make of it all. The conservative in me (nestled gently into the curve of my spleen) wants to stumble into the street, clad in the rags of a Hebrew prophet, and start raving about the demise of the Word. The journalist simply mourns, for if Dose is the future of printed news, it just might all be over (by which I mean, basically, my life). I've had perfectly literate people confess to me, quietly, that they like Dose; I want to like it, and I see some things it does right, but the French vintner probably feels the same way about those homogenous California wines that are fermented according to remorseless chemical formulas and sold for 10% of his production costs. The 22-year-olds producing Dose are, with the exception of the graphic artists, earning half a living but denying themselves the hope of establishing an individual voice. No one's blaming them, but they're accepting a future in which their role is to wind readers up to speed just enough so that they can follow along with The Daily Show. Current TV, which speaks to a demographic slice in the disjointed argot of a Social Studies class, isn't even as useful as that; it seems more like the venue or outlet for some kind of tedious exercise in generational solidarity. The network's web page is, right now, advertising "a look back at the terrible devastation of Hurricane Katrina set to Jars of Clay's 'Flood'." Damn, I guess the offspring of MTV really can turn anything into a music video.

    But if all McLuhan preached was true--if we are living in the global village, and lurching towards a post-alphabetic Dionysian society--then complaint is fruitless. And Hurricane Katrina, if nothing else, confirmed the existence of the global village. As if some button had been jabbed at the summit of a high cloud-bound mountain, the television news business, on the second day or so after the storm, finally accepted the psychological verities of its existence. It would no longer do for the on-camera personalities to serve as staid non-participatory conveyors of unfiltered information from one distinct part of the world to another; what became important was the stance, the display of sympathy, membership in the village. I have yet to hear any American but Michael Kinsley express the slightest misgiving about the new, cynically "angry" on-air reporter; the splutterings of Anderson Cooper and the sneers of Soledad O'Brien were met with absolutely universal approval. That these reactions were "justified" has nothing to do with the fact that, in context, they represent sheer savagery. I have a list of about fifty people I would love to sit down in front of a DVD of Broadcast News. Would they even know it was a comedy? Would they think William Hurt's character was the "hero"?

    As far as the weblogs go, there are elements in them both of rationalist rebellion against image-politics and of the mere dance-drum of the global village. There are a couple hundred of you who run sites that are genuine records of the adventuring human mind; I read them with real love. There are hundreds more--it is not necessary to name names--whose every utterance could be translated as "It's OK: everything you already know is right", stated over and over and over. In the end I don't need to visit these sites even if I happen to "agree" with them. They are effectively empty, and any similarity between their verbal forms and the content of my own imagination is, as they say in the movies, strictly coincidental.

    - 2:52 am, September 14 (link)

    Favourite themes: the innumeracy of journalists (plus bonus Katrina link)

    From CNN's Richard Quest early Tuesday:

    "After the 1953 floods we said 'never again,' but that's an absolute statement of course, so we had to translate that into an acceptable level of safety," he said. In Holland that meant raising the flood probability to one in 10,000 years -- by comparison the New Orleans standard was one in 250 years.

    Silly Dutchmen, deliberately raising the probability of flooding in their country! What are they smoking over there, eh?

    - 5:07 am, September 13 (link)

    Happy snap

    As I write these words, the Eastman Kodak Co. is still in danger of being wiped out by the advent of the digital camera, despite having embraced the technology and taken over certain digital-imaging market niches altogether. No doubt there are a few unhappy shareholders who are still wondering who came up with the damn thing. Who else but... Eastman Kodak? (þ: Ingram)

    - 11:14 pm, September 12 (link)

    The north wind blows on

    During the NHL offseason, Darryl Sutter, coach and GM of the Calgary Flames, took a fairly tough line on defence prospect Dion Phaneuf, saying that the 2003 draftee was going to have to "earn his place on the team." I've been hoping--pleading with the shade of Lord Stanley--that Sutter meant it, and that he might delay Phaneuf's arrival in the NHL. If all went well, I thought, the Flames might even actively screw with Phaneuf the way Ottawa did with Jason Spezza. But head coaches say a lot of things they don't mean in order to establish the principle that no job is 100% safe. A CP wire story pegged to the end of the Flames' rookie camp is full of quotes from within the Flames organization, and all suggest that Phaneuf is going to start the season in the big league. Damn and, also, blast.

    Anybody who's seen Phaneuf knows he is ready for the NHL; in fact, he's pretty well ready to be a tail-end Team Canada selection, though maybe only at one of those awkwardly-timed World Championship tournaments guys stay home for. It would actually be touching to see another Edmonton-area star product enter the league just as our very greatest player is leaving. But these Edmonton hockey players keep turning up in the wrong goddamned colours.

    Phun Phaneuf phact: did you know that the surname "Phaneuf" is an indigenous French-Canadian corruption of "Farnsworth"? (Warning: this page with more information contains annoying embedded music.)

    - 9:59 pm, September 12 (link)

    The Favorite Toy

    That's the name of a statistical algorithm Bill James invented back in the '70s. It's a method of estimating the chance an individual player has of reaching a certain quantitative goal: 500 home runs, 3,000 hits--it can be anything you like. I don't know what empirical foundations the Toy has, if any; it's mostly a way of expressing and summarizing knowledge one already has, i.e., "Dontrelle Willis is quite likely to win 15-20 games a year for most of the next 12 seasons." That said, when you look at old copies of the Baseball Abstract, it is eerie how well the Toy's overall performance shapes up.¹

    I was curious what the Toy would disclose if I asked it "Which current pitchers have established some genuine chance of getting 300 wins?" I hadn't intended to post the results, but if you spend four hours on something silly you almost feel like you have to FTP it up to the site, so here they are with their current win totals, ages, and estimated chances.

                       W  Age    %
    Dontrelle Willis  44   23  18.9%
    Mark Buehrle      84   26  13.7%
    Tom Glavine      272   39  11.3%     
    Roy Oswalt        80   28   9.7%
    Mark Mulder       96   28   9.6%
    Bartolo Colon    137   32   7.9%
    Carlos Zambrano   47   24   7.0%
    Pedro Martinez   196   33   6.5%
    Jon Garland       63   25   6.2%
    Johan Santana     56   26   5.8%
    Randy Johnson    260   42   2.7%
    Jake Peavy        45   24   2.5%
    C.C. Sabathia     67   25   1.6%

    Close but no cigar: Barry Zito, Jeremy Bonderman, Livan Hernandez.

    The sum of the probabilities in the column is 1.03, which suggests that ("on average"--or, if you like, in the mean of all possible worlds) only one active player will eventually get 300 wins. It is sometimes suggested that the era of the 300-win pitcher is ending, and the foregoing table sort of supports that, though we've seen Clemens and Maddux reach the plateau fairly recently. I don't know what advantages they had that this generation of pitchers lacks. A complicated question that demands close attention in coming years is how the altered playoff structure will affect lifetime win totals for pitchers. It is becoming common for contending teams to be asked whether they will switch to four-man rotations down the stretch, and a few have done so. But while a six-division MLB with wild-card slots puts more teams in contention overall, it can reduce the pressure on hyper-elite teams who might otherwise be facing a fight for playoff life down to the wire. For many 300-game winners of the past, a long spell spent in the rotation of such a team has been a key to amassing crucial win-fat seasons.

    What do I think about the table? One way to think about it is to imagine oneself as a bettor presented with these estimates as odds. Would you take 9-to-1 odds on Tom Glavine reaching 300 wins? He's healthy right now, but he's close to falling off the cliff for good, and he'd need two good years with solid run and bullpen support. (For $8M the Mets will certainly keep running him out there for as long as possible next season.) 11% seems a tad optimistic. The smart money would be on a young, intelligent, athletic power pitcher, especially since strikeout rates don't figure as a variable in the Favorite Toy model. Dontrelle fits the criteria as well as anyone, but there's probably an argument to be had about the effect of the high leg kick. Vida Blue and Juan Marichal would have been considered mortal locks for 300 when young, but both of them came apart too early. I guess I'd put my chips on Johan Santana, who should be able to win with his change-up through 2023. Check back then to see how that guess looks.

    ¹Technical note: The algorithm generates no falsifiable predictions for individuals, of course, since it only outputs probabilities. (Paging Dr. Popper... Dr. Popper to the epistemology desk...) But if you run the Toy for all active players as above, you can sum the positive probabilities to get a rough point estimate of the number of current players who will pass Goal x, and on that basis the output of the Toy did pretty well in the early '80s. N.B. for potential reproducers: using different figures for the "age" variable will alter the probabilistic estimates a bit; in the software I just subtracted the player's birth year from 2005. (Win totals were also adjusted to account for the three weeks or so left in 2005.)

    - 5:22 pm, September 12 (link)

    Katrina-ism 64 has a brief survival report from New Orleans chess author and personality Jude Acers. It occurred to Acers to tap open his water heater when he ran low on potables, which is perhaps worth making a mental note of for one's own emergency preparations (but should not substitute for the advance storage of clean drinking water). He also confirms reports of gunfire aimed at military helicopters.

    - 3:09 pm, September 12 (link)

    Katrina-ism squared: best thing yet written about the storm? Michael Kinsley's Sunday column for the Washington Post. Kinsley's 12-word diagnosis--"Far from being complacent about potential perils, we suffer from peril gridlock"--affirms his status as a national treasure. -9:45, September 12
    Not the least amazing thing about the 43-year-old Roger Clemens

    In just his second year as a National League starter, Clemens is actually batting .222; in 54 at-bats he has 10 singles, two doubles, and three RBIs as well as three walks. This may not sound impressive, but it makes him one of the top ten offensive threats amongst NL pitchers, who are hitting just .148 as a group in 2005. And it is pretty good form for a guy who spent 19 years in the DH league, essentially never coming to the plate at all.

    (Seamheads looking to break the Cy Young "tie" between Clemens and Chris Carpenter take note: Carpenter is batting .029. I'm not certain a pitcher's hitting should count towards Cy Young voting, but in a world where NL starters still come to the plate two or three times a night unless they got shelled anyway, it's the most under-mentioned aspect of the game.)

    - 11:35 pm, September 10 (link)

    Katrina-ism 6.0: the triumph of government?

    I've been ducking Katrina coverage this week after saturating myself in it (didn't want to say "swimming" or "drowning") for the week before. I gather from the squealing at Hit & Run that some people are proclaiming the occasion to be a pretty sharp blow to laissez-faire, libertarianism, minarchism, anarcho-capitalism, classical liberalism, or whatever you want to call the general idea of less bloated, less intrusive, less grasping, less powerful government.

    So let's just recap briefly, shall we? We've got a million or so human beings living in a low-lying area created in the first place by government engineers. The local government of New Orleans, apprised of an approaching storm, summarily orders everybody out of the city about 36 hours too late without lifting a finger to provide the means to do so. At the last minute it occurs to somebody to herd those left behind into a large government-built structure, the Superdome; no supplies are on hand for its inhabitants, and the structure itself is rendered--according to the government's assessment--permanently useless. Even though the storm misses the city, government-built levees fail in unforeseen and catastrophic ways. Many of the New Orleans cops opportunistically quit their jobs, many more simply fail to show up for work, others take the lead in looting supplies from storm-stricken neighbourhoods, and just a few have the notable good grace to shoot themselves in the head. The federal government announces that assistance is on its way, sometime; local and state authorities--who have the clear-cut burden of "first response" under federal guidelines nobody seems to have read--beg for the feds to hurry up while (a) engaging in bureaucratic pissing-matches behind the scenes and (b) making life difficult for the private agencies who are beating the feds to the scene. Eventually the federal government shows up with the National Guard, and to the uniform indignation and surprise of those who have been screaming for it, the Guard turns out to have a troubling tendency to point weapons in the general direction of civilians and reporters. I'm not real clear on who starts doing what around mid-week, but the various hydra-heads of government start developing amusing hobbies; confiscating guns from civilians, demanding that photographers stop documenting the aftermath of America's worst natural disaster in a century, enforcing this demand by seizing cameras at gunpoint, shutting down low-power broadcasting stations in shelters, and stealing supplies from relief agencies and private citizens. In the wake of all this, there is probably no single provision of the U.S. Constitution left untrampled, the Posse Comitatus Act appears destined for a necktie party, and the 49% of Americans who have been complaining for five years about George W. Bush being a dictator are now vexed to the point of utter incoherence because for the last fortnight he has failed to do a sufficiently convincing impression of a dictator.

    It's been said that Hurricane Katrina has confirmed pretty much everybody in his pre-existing political beliefs. I can't say the record gives me any reason to change mine. But if I can't have a libertarian paradise where state power defers to social power, or use recent events to urge others to the wisdom of such a state of affairs, I'm willing to propose a second-best for America: replace the three branches of republican government with permanent joint rule by Wal-Mart and the Salvation Army. Go on, tell me you could honestly do worse.

    - 9:58 pm, September 10 (link)

    Economics: it's all in the family

    I've been preoccupied lately by a particular observation related to the somewhat technical column I wrote last week for the National Post:

    As an economist, [Thomas Courchene] knows that labour mobility is important to the overall economic efficiency of the country. People should be passively encouraged to move from places where their labour is less productive to places where it's worth more. But he's worried that Alberta's revenues from oil and gas will be ploughed into lavish social services, making it profitable for workers to flee genuine jobs in Saskatchewan (and other provinces) in order to go on the dole in Edmonton.

    However, the popular perception in Alberta -- right or wrong -- is that labour mobility is still very far from being what his profession calls "utility-maximizing." Fort McMurray's tarsands need every hand that can grip a wrench, yet rapid wage increases aren't attracting enough help. Even the recipients of these increases are complaining about the "labour shortage" that is sweetening their paycheques but emptying their shops.

    Some of you may have noticed that "shortage" is in quotes there, for the sake of good economic form. In an imaginary, perfect labour market with low-to-nil transaction costs, the phrase "labour shortage" is shorthand for "cheap-ass employers." The theoretical answer to a labour shortage (and very often the real answer) is simple: offer better wages. In Fort McMurray the real world's nonzero transaction costs and the sticky-fying effects of labour regulation and trade barriers create what can be called a genuine labour shortage. But there's another issue here that was especially interesting to me, with my clumsy, hand-knit economic education.

    Consider a hypothetical Worker 'D' who is already ensconced in Fort McMurray's tarpatch. D, like most of us, has some theoretical point at which his personal wealth will grow large enough that he prefers to either go do something less difficult or to simply retire. The necessary amount of personal wealth is different for everyone--in the novel Heat one of William Goldman's characters calls it "fuck-you money"--but if D is a member of the baby-boom generation (as, statistically, he is likely to be) he may already have considerable pre-existing savings from a lifetime's work. Moreover, if he owns real estate in Fort McMurray, he possesses a huge asset whose value has been growing at 20% a year, pushing him closer to the exit.

    A side effect of wage increases designed to attract new workers is to contribute faster to D's walk-away fund. At a particular, narrowly regarded time and place--and Fort McMurray in 2005 might be one such, though I don't really know--wage increases might drive more workers out of the available workforce than it drags in. To represent this graphically, we would expect on first principles that increasing wages would always (and only) grow the available (and capable) workforce, creating a smooth, constantly rising curve.

    Over a whole economy, or a whole industrial sector considered on an international scale, the curve probably really is smooth and rising. And the large-scale shape should be quasi-sigmoidal¹ like this. But in a small geographic area or a particular business, a tangle of clashing incentives may cause the curve to turn downward in spots, creating what the mathematous among us call "local minima." If you zoomed in on the curve--put it under a microscope, which I guess means we're doing microeconomics--a particular segment might look like the second figure:

    I suspect this is all too obvious to a real economist to be a subject of particular interest (and also so "obvious" that it is probably often overlooked). But of course if you're an employer it's the kind of thing that is calculated to drive you bananas. The declining parts of the curve are times of trouble you just have to power through, by throwing more and more money after people; they're the rare moments in history when the working class has the whip hand. (And they can be exacerbated by excessive regulation and trade barriers that are inherently damaging to society as a whole, which is why labour unions often find themselves supporting such policies.) The especially quantitative-minded will notice that the curve, being a sort of path upon which the actual state of affairs moves about like a ball in a track, actually has the power to double back on itself; workers of the D type will obviously not be brought back into the workforce later by a decrease in wages, so the same wage level can, with a slight time delay, produce two different workforce levels.²

    The punch line to all this is that I have a real Worker D in mind: my father. (You didn't think the initial was a coincidence?) Over the summer--this is another weird bend in the curve, so to speak--my parents became a little panicky, and justifiably so, about the continued potential for growth in the value of their McMurray property. For a long time, it seemed as though McMurray's civic establishment--consisting mostly of property owners and old-timers--seemed reluctant to kill the golden goose of rising house prices by permitting fast permanent growth and improving the city's infrastructure. But now housing starts are finally increasing in the area and starting to bear some real-world relationship to the wild-west influx of labour. My parents got out as quickly as they could, barely pausing to take their possessions; they are, in fact, going to spend the winter in a trailer hastily purchased for the purpose. Even at that, they may have gotten just a little less for the property than they could have from a better-timed escape. And I think you'd find that there are many members of their generation doing the same thing.

    It is amazing to think of the old man putting down his tools for good (give or take the occasional John Deere with a knock in the engine) after four decades as a heavy-duty mechanic. Nobody ever earned retirement more, or was better-disposed by his nature to enjoy it; tinkering, putzing about, hunting, camping, and farm work will keep him exactly as occupied as he cares to be, and no more. He has been restored, in moving back to our family seat³ in northwest Saskatchewan, to the country of childhood friends and familiar faces. For the last ten or fifteen years he was a model of conventional "economic man". With his work attracting more money than ever before, he responded to the incentives, putting in seven-day weeks and 12-hour days over the corvine protests of my mother and, no doubt, over the increasing complaints from his own joints. As his wealth grew to the point of secure, modest lifelong comfort, the incentives changed. The temptation to quit caught up and passed the benefits of an increasing income almost on one specifiable day, and he gave notice with an impressive lack of regret or fanfare. You could put him in a textbook. Though, Lord, don't try getting him to read one.

    ¹It's "quasi" because over time, the workforce level can be made "infinitely" high in principle--though ultimately it would reach some sort of asymptote once you had the entire population of the world on the payroll.

    ²N.B.: Each local minimum created by the "retirement effect" must also be paired with a region higher up the curve where the gain in workforce from offering new dollars becomes unexpectedly steep, blorps upward a little, because of returning retirees. At some truly insane and lavish wage level--make it ten thousand dollars an hour, or whatever--the retirees must be lured back into the workforce no matter how comfortable they are in retirement.

    ³Some fun for the non-quantitative: here's a relevant page of data from the 1911 Canadian census, detailing the Coshes' arrival. The cell marked "Man" next to my great-grandmother's and great-uncle's names doesn't refer to Manitoba. Many of the names in the left-hand column are still found in that part of Saskatchewan, on the periphery of the original Cosh farm. I'll award a No-Prize to the first reader who can decode William Cosh Sr.'s scribble-obscured, slightly misspelled "Employment other than at chief occupation or trade, if any" (Column 18). Actual members of the family are not eligible for said No-Prize.

    [UPDATE, 10:01 am: Devin McCullen receives the gong for being the first to figure out that gramps was a blacksmith.]

    [UPDATE, 11:30 am: Here comes the science! UBC economist Kevin Milligan sends a link with the right name for what I was trying to describe: the "backward-bending supply of labour curve." Cornell mathematician John Thacker does the same and adds these notes.

    Overtime pay is one way that companies can deal with a backward-bending labor supply curve. By offering a higher wage at only a high amount of hours worked, the company can increase the substitution effect at high amount of labor offered while decreasing the income effect associated with such a high marginal wage rate. The net effect, with a well-chosen overtime pay scheme, can be to cause workers to work more hours than they would under any flat wage rate.

    Pay raises for seniority work on a similar principle, though as you noted they only work so far. Once someone has more in the bank, you have to offer them more money in order to get them to work as much.

    If the problem is with getting additional bodies working rather than the number of hours performed by those already working, things like bonuses for new workers or subsidized training and the like can be another way to coax reluctant workers into working without causing the income effect to make those already working work less.]

    - 2:34 am, September 9 (link)

    Katrina-ism 5.0--dead-tree Katrina-ism: I'm in today's "Issues & Ideas" section of the National Post with a column about the sudden mysterious popularity of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Electronic subscribers can read it here.

    - 11:27 am, September 7 (link)

    Katrina-ism 4.0: Just what you wanted--more bad news

    It appears that Hurricane Katrina is going to become the most expensive natural disaster (in nominal dollars) of all time, passing the existing title-holder--the Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. The quake that wiped out the city of Kobe was, like Katrina, a foreseeable blow to a vulnerable city; at a rough guess, the death toll from Katrina will end up in the neighbourhood of the Kobe figure of 6,433. Many have observed that New Orleans' destruction was accompanied by considerably worse social disorder than that which followed the Hanshin event--let's face it; it's a lot to expect that Americans facing calamity will conduct themselves like the Japanese--but the hostility being flung at every level of government over Katrina mimics the precedent closely.

    Some may be wondering how long it took for the Port of Kobe to recover from its annihilation. The short answer is that 11 years later, it hasn't happened yet. At the time of the disaster Kobe was Asia's largest port by shipped volume and the world's second largest overall. Today, even though no expense was spared in its reconstruction, it ranks #43 in the world. Yokohoma has taken over the domestic trade, and Singapore much of Asia's. It is presumably pretty easy for the civic rivals of a wiped-out port town to collect windfall profits in the short term and eventually reinvest them in throughput upgrades and price-cutting measures.

    In other depressing news, it appears that the Louisiana Superdome will be torn down. Supposedly it's because of hurricane damage--and if you believe that the engineers have had the free time to conduct the analysis behind such a decision, I've got some real estate in the French Quarter to sell you. The New Orleans Saints had already convinced every relevant interest group that the facility was obsolete after a mere thirty years of life (which, as far as I'm concerned, should lead to a few architects being executed publicly on the fifty-yard line, but there you go: they don't build 'em like they did at Epidaurus anymore). In light of that, the dome makes an easy sacrifice to wholly understandable fears that it would become a haunted monument to the city's most terrible and least dignified moments. There is nothing else Governor Blanco can do, but she might as well come clean about the rationale. A whole nation will cheer, quietly, when the wrecking ball hits.

    - 2:30 am, September 7 (link)

    PATRIOTism and virtue

    Last week humour site tried to raise funds for Red Cross efforts in the Gulf using PayPal. The fund drive ended up getting caught in a bureaucratic nightmare; when the site's donor account swelled to $30,000 in just nine hours, PayPal freaked out and shut it down pending an "investigation" of SA's bona fides. SA owner Richard Kyanka, enraged at "Paypal's outlook... that every single one of their customers is a liar, a cheat, and a thief," is now bitching about how the company isn't covered by federal banking rules and needs to be regulated more closely. But the truth is that SA's Paypal problems are largely due to hysterical regulators, specifically including those in... drum roll please... Louisiana. Radley Balko has the background:

    The first shots came from the media, which were skeptical of the new economy after the NASDAQ bust and agitated at having been duped into hyping so many failed dot-coms. Industry publications hinted that the IPO was PayPal’s way of shopping for a savior, while one Silicon Valley lawyer wrote in the California legal publication The Recorder that PayPal was an ideal money laundering mechanism for “drug dealers and domestic terrorists,” despite the successful anti-fraud devices concocted by Levchin’s tech team. ...[Later,] New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer cited PayPal for posting a user agreement that “wasn’t clear enough.” He also subpoenaed all documents pertaining to PayPal’s use in online gaming sites, suggesting the company was in violation of New York gambling laws. Spitzer’s investigation was followed by a U.S. Justice Department determination that PayPal’s use by gaming sites was a violation of the USA PATRIOT Act.

    ...Just hours before PayPal was set to go public, the state of Louisiana ordered it to terminate all business in that state, asserting that the company had failed to obtain a “money transfer license,” which many states require from anyone in the businesses of cashing checks, transmitting money, or exchanging currency. New York threatened a similar order. The Louisiana decree was issued under the pretense of “protecting consumers,” though terminating service in that state would have left all of Louisiana’s PayPal-using auctioneers in the lurch.

    The litany of similar threats listed by Balko is nigh endless, and that's the main reason that dealing with PayPal is now rather like trying to get your grandmother to bankroll a keg party. Paypal's customer service is bad beyond mere indefensibility, and the company's hurricane response fund allows users to donate only to the United Way without the usual skimming. These facts attest to Paypal's genuine crappiness. But when it comes to the company's paranoia about "suspicious account activity," SA is blaming the victim. Contemporary U.S. laws like the PATRIOT Act pretty much require such institutions to presume that their customers are, indeed, liars, cheats, and thieves. (I was born in the wagon of a travellin' showww! Mama used to dance for the money they'd throwww!...)

    If there were more alternative online financial institutions--if there was so much as one other company we could, practically speaking, switch away from Paypal to--Paypal would undoubtedly be better-managed. (Why didn't Something Awful use some American bank's efficient, simple online donation system to raise money for Katrina? The question answers itself.) The basic lesson of Paypal's history is that any new financial service is doomed in the contemporary U.S.; Paypal half-survived the predations of legal showmen like Eliot Spitzer only because the existing banking business was a little late in organizing opposition to it.

    - 11:05 pm, September 6 (link)

    Leaving Babylon: Pavel Datsyuk has carried out his threat to bolt from the Red Wings and sign with Avangard Omsk. (This development was foreseen and discussed in this recent entry.) -7:46 am, September 6
    Watch the sunrise: New Orleans' most notable MIA musician, Alex Chilton, was apparently rescued by helicopter on the weekend. (þ: Selley) -7:39 am, September 6
    Cui bono?

    Don Martin has an excellent piece in today's Post--in many ways, the piece I've been waiting for--about the steady emigration from Newfoundland to Alberta. It's truly a modern gold rush, the kind of thing you don't expect to see happening in the 21st century; a whole nation is arguably being transplanted to the other side of a continent. The 21st-century twist is that it's being transplanted intact, with retail inventories, broadcasting, education, and culture all adapting to the norms of the invader. By 2020 there should be a distinct Newfoundland-flavoured "McMurray accent" emerging from the school playgrounds up there. (Not kidding, not exaggerating.)

    I sympathize with the Newfie diehards back home who have to deal with the breakup of families and the depopulation of 300-year-old communities; Martin's piece is, at times, heartrending. But no one points out the irony that Newfoundland exists as a quasi-national entity in the first place because a whole bunch of Irishmen got on their bikes and followed a resource boom.

    [UPDATE, 8:13 am: This passage from the piece seemed puzzling and even slightly outrageous to me at first:

    Economic development office secretary Mary Greene calls the economic breakup of her family with its one dozen siblings "a great sadness." The most recent to leave was her ailing father, who sought to take advantage of Alberta's superior health system and the recuperation care offered by his relocated children.

    "We basically had to find the greatest concentration of family members to look after him and that was in Alberta," Ms. Greene shrugs. "As much as he'll say he'd love to come back here to smell the ocean, he's content and has so many offspring out there he's got an entourage to care for him."

    There is no seething resentment against Alberta's energy bonanza here. "My family would love to be back home, but you have to go where the opportunities lie," Ms. Greene says. "But I think Newfoundlanders must wonder when they're going to see the same benefits Alberta enjoys from the oil industry."

    I thought Ms. Greene was referring to Alberta's oil industry in this last line, but as a reader points out, she presumably means she's waiting for the benefits of Newfoundland's offshore oil. Makes a lot more sense that way.]

    - 7:27 am, September 6 (link)

    Labour Day special

    This is the time of year when I traditionally check in with a Canadian football vignette, which is always popular with Americans who think our three-down football is an adorable national affectation on the order of our weird raised vowels or the Ookpik. To be honest, I haven't had much stomach to write about football. My Eskimos, the league's perennial Evil Empire, were 6-3 going into the Labour Day Classic against Calgary (4-5). As a fan it is hard to be disappointed or upset about this. But I'm not going to lie to you. This Eskimo team is a hard team to love, the hardest I've ever seen.

    The head coach is no better than his predecessor at managing the clock or the score. The scouting staff can't find a running back--come home, Lawrence Phillips! All is forgiven!--and there's no indication that the offensive line could open lanes even if the young Bo Jackson turned up at City Hall with his bones new-covered in flesh. Civic idol Ricky Ray came back from the Jets' taxi squad to start at QB, and while he is leading the league in passing, he has also acquired frustrating tendencies to chuck into double coverage and fumble the ball twice a night. (The o-line bears some responsibility for the bad passing decisions, but the dropsy appears to be strictly individual.) As far as the standings go, all this is nicely covered for by two all-Canadian receivers (Jason Tucker and Mookie Mitchell) and by the league's most professional-looking and vicious defence. And defence, as they say, wins football games. But what the proverb-spouting old-timers don't tell you is that the defence can't pour touchdowns into the end zone to finish off an opponent who's on the ropes. If you try to win that way, you're going to spend entire lifetimes protecting thin leads.

    In general, these Eskimos strike me as a gutless collection of overconfident pure talent; they believe, and correctly, that they can stroll to 12-6 in this league while spending more time working on sack dances than game films. I don't have any choice but to cheer for them, yet I harbour a secret loathing, and I can't even imagine how much I'd despise them if I were from one of those places where they take in Eskimo-hatred with their breakfast crumpet.

    All that said, this year's Labour Day joust did not disappoint one bit; however much I detach emotionally from the Eskies, I'm always going to love watching Calgary blow up. Yesterday the Esks built a 25-1 lead and (of course) let the Stampeders back in; with about two minutes left the score was 25-17, and Calgary QB Henry Burris had marched the bad guys to the Eskimo 3. There followed an amusing show of general incompetence that is typical of the quality of modern CFL football.

    On first-and-goal, Burris shovels left to Joffrey Reynolds, who finds himself in world-class trouble before he can take a step. Big cornerback Davis Sanchez has had the play figured out for about an hour, and is bearing down on Reynolds like a Peterbilt with its brake lines cut. Reynolds panics and basically lights out for his own end zone: Sanchez crushes him at the 15-yard line. "Loss of 12" is not what you want to hear over the stadium loudspeaker when you're trying to make up an eight-point deficit from the goal line.

    Burris follows with two incomplete passes, but the gods smile; on third-and-15, Eskimo defensive back Donny Brady is flagged for pass interference. There had been no receivers within five yards of Brady, so I assume he must have decked somebody at the line of scrimmage; the CBC's silent amateur camera coverage was unenlightening, but as an Esk fan I'm pretty confident Brady actually did something dumb. Given first-and-goal on the 1, Burris keeps the ball himself and makes it 25-23 with about a minute left.

    Calgary's offence assembles in the huddle to discuss the two-point convert, but CFL weirdness strikes again. Canadian fans, you see, have never mastered the trick of deafening the visiting team's offence and keeping quiet when their team has the ball. And Burris's touchdown has induced a frenzy at sold-out McMahon Stadium. As Burris throws up his hands helplessly, defenders on the Calgary sideline are seen gesticulating at the crowd to quiet down.¹ It has no effect, and Calgary, unable to communicate and settle on a game-deciding play, has to take a time-count violation. The ball is marched back to the 10-yard line.

    The final drama is stranger still. Burris drops back, looking for an open man in the end zone. The Eskimos stunt with both ends, freeing DT Cedric Scott to bust through the Calgary line and hunt for the mobile Burris in an open field. Scott, at 6'5" and 281 pounds, is not exactly the guy you would choose to send on this mission. (And as a native of Gulfport, Mississippi, he's had a lot on his mind this week.) Moreover, Burris hasn't been sacked all day. But with the play starting from the 10, the Eskimos can afford to flood the end zone with pass coverage. As the Calgary QB scrambles right and searches in vain for an uncovered receiver--one second, two seconds, three--Scott catches up with him from behind, halfway to the sideline, and drops him to the McMahon turf. One botched onside kickoff later, the Eskimos have officially survived another colon-churning Labour Day, moving to a dominant 26-16-1 in the annals of the big game.

    ¹[UPDATE, 12:06 pm: This morning's Sun papers make out that, on the two-point convert, there was also a personnel problem; none of the Stampeders knew exactly who was supposed to be out there for the play. And the same damn thing apparently happened last week, complete with crippling time-count penalty. Profound thanks go out to cast-off Eskimos head coach Tom Higgins, now running the Stamps, for handing us Monday's victory on a plate.]

    - 6:14 am, September 6 (link)

    The fun never ends

    This article may help casual baseball fans understand what a singular, wonderful figure Ichiro is. In 2005, with his team many fathoms below the surface of the playoff chase, the Japanese genius broke out a tactic that the players around him had never seen or imagined; that his manager only knew about because Ichiro had discussed it with him in spring training; that his baserunning coach apparently didn't know about ("In theory, it sounds great"); and that I have never seen executed or heard of a historical precedent for.

    - 2:22 pm, September 5 (link)

    Unauthorized screencap of Tuesday's Onion? Or just a tone-deaf, bush-league ripoff? I'll never tell. Until Tuesday, anyway. -4:06 am, September 5
    A few sports notes from Saturday

    Am I the only Canadian who's been watching hockey for 30 years and didn't know what the "A" stitched on a vice-captain's uniform stood for? It's "alternate", not "assistant". Go figure.

    Soccer fans were treated to one of the single most moving spectacles in sport before Saturday's England-Wales World Cup qualifier as the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff resounded to 50,000 or so Welshmen spontaneously singing "Men of Harlech". And I do mean singing. The magnificent effect was rather ruined shortly thereafter, when the same crowd booed the hell out of an excellent tenor rendition of "God Save the Queen". Maybe it's too much to expect Wales not to abuse the national pride of its next-door neighbours, but it's the last country in the world you would expect to torture a lone (Welsh) singer doing his best in an acoustic environment that's nightmarish anyhow. The practice of pre-game anthems is obviously just untenable on that side of the Atlantic, and it's increasingly a source of ill-feeling here, too.

    I have a persistent fantasy of organizing ear-blasting soccer-style singing by the Oilers fans at the Coliseum. How hard do you think this would be? I figure you'd have to get about a thousand very loud people on-side and organize it both inside and outside the stadium. Even with pre-trained plants, it would be a tough sell to Canadians. (The Edmonton Eskimos have been trying to teach fans the old Esks fight song for years now, with only modest success. But that's making the task as hard as humanly possible. The song's tonal difficulties make it nearly impossible for a crowd to sing--after hearing it dozens of times I can still never remember what key the current line is supposed to end in--and suggest that it was written either by a European avant-gardist or a drunk.) Any hockey city that developed the ability to deafen an opponent or rally the troops with the sonic arsenal of an English soccer fan would have an instant and powerful morale advantage. But the only tune most NHL fans can chant together is the chorus to "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)".

    England's slender one-nil victory over a side with one star (the defiantly patriotic Ryan Giggs) isn't likely to frighten the trousers off of any of its finals opponents. Certainly not the Americans, who may have silenced widespread doubts about their FIFA no. 6 ranking on Saturday by thumping Mexico 2-0 in Columbus, Ohio. After the game--I repeat: after the game--Mexico's coach, Ricardo Lavolpe, was quoted as saying "The U.S. is a small team. They play like my sister, my aunt and my grandmother." The Mexican side he coaches has now been shut out seven consecutive times on U.S. soil; I realize things are different in Latin countries, but if I were a national selector, I'd be out for the blood, head, and entrails of any coach who badmouthed a team he couldn't beat on the road.

    A last note: I warned fans repeatedly during the NHL lockout that while a salary cap might make the league more secure in the short term, it would also threaten our long-term front-row access to a monopoly of world hockey talent. This effect has, frankly, been less visible in the off-season than I would have expected--but the cases of Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk appear to be at least worth watching from this perspective. And I have a new question: if the Detroit Red Wings can't afford to sign someone like Datsyuk, isn't it possible that the second-best outcome for them is to make sure he does go back to Europe? The Wings have a lot of revenue they cannot give Datsyuk under the salary cap. But what's to stop them from making a disguised informal deal with his agent that tops up his European contract and keeps him away from the other 29 NHL clubs? You could hand over the money under the table, or disguise the bargain as a "sponsorship" arrangement. ("The Detroit Red Wings proudly present Moscow Dynamo hockey!") Cash, like water, will find its own level: I would be shocked to learn that Detroit is not looking for ways to improve its relative standing in the league without incurring expenditures that count toward the cap. Discuss.

    - 2:24 am, September 4 (link)

    Damn straight

    Jonathan Gewirtz of ChicagoBoyz has absolutely nailed one of my pet peeves with American newspaper websites. It's not restricted merely to jerkwater newspapers, either. Most famous offender: the Star-Tribune. The Star-Tribune of where, you ask? Minneapolis, Minnesota, but please keep that secret to yourself. With the Star-Telegram, the main clue to where you are geographically is in the title bar of your browser window--not exactly the first place the eye settles. makes a vague mention of "Inland Southern California" in tiny type, and fails almost completely to mention the newspaper it exists to advertise (the Riverside Press-Enterprise). The Providence Journal has a pioneering website that baffled millions trying to decode "" before they scattered around a few small-type references to Rhode Island.

    Then again, maybe these newspapers don't want to attract non-local readers. Such readers eat bandwidth, but most are unlikely to patronize the local businesses that are a newspaper's (and especially a small newspaper's) bread and butter. (þ: Beck)

    - 4:20 am, September 3 (link)

    Katrina-ism 3.1: Looks like rioters have taken over the end zone again, Bob

    I've seen a lot of responses to Hurricane Katrina, but Sports Illustrated's Michael Silver must be the first guy to have watched the week's events and concluded that New Orleans is such a well-run city that the Super Bowl should be held there every year until the end of time.

    And that's not even the crazy part! Silver acknowledges that the Superdome will never be a suitable locale for football again; he wants the Super Bowl to be played every year, in New Orleans, in a brand-new and specifically "state-of-the-art" stadium. (The cost recently paid to merely upgrade an existing stadium, Chicago's Soldier Field, to the "state of the art": $567 million.) Silver suggests that the new facility should be built at the expense of the NFL. All in all, I'm kinda surprised he didn't suggest taking out a loan from the leprechauns in his underwear.

    - 3:47 am, September 3 (link)

    Katrina-ism 3.0: who got out and how?

    There has been considerable media attention to the predicament of Antoine "Fats" Domino, the 77-year old rock-and-roll legend who waited out Katrina in his native New Orleans. Fats was reported alive on Thursday after a day of uncertainty; the Washington Post reports Saturday that he's now in Baton Rouge, staying in an apartment belonging to LSU's starting quarterback.

    Is it too early to start compiling a list of other notable Americans whose fates might be of interest? The official website of the Rebirth Brass Band is keeping track of some of the city's resident jazz, soul, and funk musicians.

    N.O. songwriting legend Allen Toussaint, originally missing, has turned up alive in New York.
    Author Poppy Z. Brite is safe inside the city, 12 pounds lighter and worrying about her abandoned cats.
    David Duke was out of town, and is now making predictable hay about "white genocide" at the hands of black mobs.
    The whereabouts of Big Star's Alex Chilton are apparently unknown, and he was thought to have stayed in the city during the storm. [UPDATE, September 6: Add Chilton to the survivor list.]
    The members of the Neville family are all safe, as the Marsalises. Marsales? Marsalises.
    NPR poet-in-residence Andrei Codrescu is alive and filing dispatches about the demise of his city.
    Better Than Ezra--remember them?--were on tour and have started organizing benefits.
    The Food Network has officially announced that Emeril Lagasse is alive.
    This St. Pete Times page rounds up a few NOLA celebrities. Jazz composer Terence Blanchard evacuated to Atlanta Sunday morning, and Dr. John, perhaps the archetypal New Orleans figure, was on tour in Minneapolis. Rapper Master P is said to have dispatched helicopters to New Orleans to search for some of his relatives. Better late than never, one supposes.
    Mr. Bill creator Walter Williams hails from New Orleans. The "Hurricane Sluggo" video on his site may seem tasteless, but Williams was actually trying to call attention to the city's geographic situation years ago.
    I'd be interested in news of Humberto Fontova, the Cuban-American paleoconservative author who lives in New Orleans. I haven't seen any so far, and he may be the one living human being least likely to comply with a "mandatory evacuation" order. I'm also a little curious about comics editor and occult expert Cat Yronwode. reports that libertarian economist and controversialist Walter Block, who teaches at Loyola University New Orleans, is safe and dry. Feel free to send along additions to this list, relevant links, or (this would be best) the URL of a more comprehensive accounting.

    - 10:05 pm, September 2 (link)

    Katrina-ism 2.0: high noon

    On 9/11, and in the days afterward, the New York police indelibly stamped their nickname--the "Finest"--on the pages of history. It appears that the New Orleans Police Department, in its most difficult hour, has also confirmed the truth of its traditional nickname: "North America's Sleaziest Bastards." Reports of New Orleans cops turning in their badges, and of others participating in pre-emptive looting (not just mere "commandeering" of necessities), have been widespread over the last few days. Blogger Michael Barnett, who has remained in the city, reports that police successfully cleared out looters near the 858-apartment Iberville Housing Development, but came under gunfire from the neighbourhood when they began to "shop" in leisurely fashion for themselves. (After they fled, the tragedy of the commons took over in double-quick time.)

    According to Barnett, "Over 30 officers have quit over the last three days" in just one police district: "Out of 160 officers... maybe 55 or 60 are working." Again the comparison with the NYPD comes to the mind unbidden: those who read the recently-released transcripts of 9/11 telephone and radio traffic know how dispatchers phoned off-duty New York officers at home, only to be told again and again by terrified wives and family members that "Lt. So-and-So is already on his way in." The slow reaction of the federal authorities to the disaster can probably be attributed, in part, to a perfectly natural but mistaken assumption that New Orleans itself thought New Orleans was worth saving, and would take initial steps to do so.

    Meanwhile, the Associated Press is reporting that "civilian looters" have been helping people in places authority was unable to reach until today. And does anybody want to tell me all about how this guy should be shot dead on the grounds of "broken windows" theory? (I'm a convinced believer in the "broken windows" idea myself, but not so much that I think it applies underwater.)

    - 3:23 pm, September 2 (link)

    Katrina-ism 1.3: And the special Web prize for crummy performance in the face of a disaster goes to..., ordinarily one of my favourite websites and one that does a lot of good, too. Within the last 24 hours or so, BoingBoing has posted a number-mangling paragraph on the economic effects of Katrina that confuses the U.S. balance of trade with the U.S. gross domestic product; slandered PayPal and then backtracked; used the occasion to praise Cuban social values Walter Duranty-fashion; and joined in the opportunistic trashing of a four-star charity that Pat Robertson happens to have ties to. Maybe you guys should just stick to posting the latest kewl pixx from Burning Man.

    - 2:45 am, September 2 (link)

    Katrina-ism 1.2: stupid idea of the hour

    Maybe it's my fault. I mentioned polders in relation to New Orleans a while ago, and now at least one blogger of the left is denouncing the Bush administration for failing to adopt Dutch solutions to the problems of sustaining civilization below sea level. In general, it's almost certainly no mistake to look for Dutch expertise on this subject. (It's no mistake to look for Dutch expertise on any subject, up to and including sex toys and upholstery.) I have no doubt that the Louisiana and federal governments will be doing just that. But in how many different ways is the specific accusation stupid?

  • Holland is a northwest-facing country in the upper reaches of the temperate zone, and it's on the east side of the Atlantic. New Orleans faces south in an area where Atlantic hurricanes are prone to turn north. There's a difference between living with trouble and looking for trouble.

  • Lambert Strether makes much of the fact that his interlocutors apparently haven't heard of Holland. Is he aware that Holland has a natural advantage Louisiana doesn't, in the form of a little barrier island called Great Britain?

  • Despite these factors, Holland has, of course, suffered occasional history-altering storms that changed its coastline and snuffed out staggering numbers of lives. After the most recent, which killed nearly 2,000 people in 1953, it devised a visionary plan to eliminate the storm threat to low-lying parts of the country. It's called the Delta Project. It's a true wonder of the modern world. And it took fifty years to complete. If any American administration should be blamed for failing to implement something similar, perhaps it ought to be Eisenhower's? [Damned Republicans! -ed.] At that, the engineering value of the Delta Project is technically unproven--by nature, unprovable for centuries--and there are bound to be hundreds of reasons it's simply not adaptable willy-nilly to the Gulf of Mexico.

  • But even assuming that a trillion-dollar megaproject to protect New Orleans (on top of the billions already spent on levee and barrier management) would have been desirable in the past, is it still proper to blame American politicians of the past for not having undertaken it? In monocultural, monoethnic Holland, flood mitigation is a project in the national interest--in fact, it's a non-negotiable condition of the country's existence. This doesn't apply to storm protection for New Orleans--or, if it does, it would have been hard to make the argument before this week, when the strategic importance of southeast Louisiana was underlined in the most terrible way.

  • And even then, distributing U.S. trade capacity in the Gulf more evenly may still be a cheaper or more appropriate solution than building remote-controlled superlevees of the Dutch sort. Holland has 280 miles of coastline--much less, say, than Texas has by itself. The Dutch don't have any choice but to protect what they've got from the elements. The U.S. does.

    - 2:07 am, September 2 (link)

    No exit

    When it comes to New Orleans, the hanging judges of the media--including the weblog world--are currently fitting up pretty much everyone in the United States for a noose. Here's something for your bill of indictment, kids! The mayor's mandatory evacuation order for the city was issued on Sunday, and those of us on the outside are now getting belated answers to why so many people failed to follow it. Airline flights out of New Orleans had, of course, already ceased because of high surface winds. Amtrak wasn't running either: its excuse, again, is pretty good--its lines run directly through the levees that were then being frantically shored up. Non-car-owners in the city had pretty much one place left to go--but Greyhound had stopped bus service to and from New Orleans late Saturday, pleading "safety." That's more than 24 hours before the rain even started. You've all seen the photos of drivers leaving the city en masse on Sunday; conditions were clear--but apparently not clear enough for Greyhound.

    This leaves FEMA director Michael Brown on pretty shaky ground when he suggests that "those who ignored the city's mandatory evacuation order bore some responsibility." How were non-drivers supposed to comply with the order--yogic flying? One visiting New York couple was almost frogmarched to the Superdome by authorities before deciding to hitchhike on Interstate 10. That's what nerds call a "non-scalable solution," particularly for families, older people, and, yes, blacks, who have enough trouble getting cab drivers to take money for a ride in normal times.

    - 1:20 am, September 2 (link)

    The Equalizer: Tom Courchene says that Alberta must voluntarily share its oil wealth or else Confederation will be destroyed. In today's National Post, I respond with a 750-word expansion of that "world's tiniest violin" gesture you do with your thumb and index finger. Read it online now at

    Here's a question you might ask Dr. C even if you agree with the spirit of his idea. He believes Alberta should set aside petro royalties and hand them over to the Council of the Federation, a talk shop of provincial premiers, so that the money can be used to improve the condition of the "have-not" [and never-will] provinces. Why do we need the Council to do this for us? Alberta could establish and administer its own fund, to be distributed voluntarily by Alberta under made-in-Alberta formulae. Why is it necessary for us to have help in this enterprise? Are we too stupid to engage in competent philanthropy, or does Courchene just implicitly regard Alberta's oil money as the natural property of the whole federation ab initio?

    I think the shrewdest response Ralph Klein could make to Courchene's idea is to announce the establishment of a $1.5 billion fund whose interest would be used to mitigate calamities or temporary economic emergencies elsewhere in Canada. And in the next sentence he should state that the fund will be endowed exactly 24 hours after the Conservative Party is elected to a majority government in Parliament. (It's not that the Conservatives are something Ralph Klein or Colby Cosh particularly care for, you understand--but if the Liberals are allowed to tweak equalization in openly unjust ways to buy Liberal votes in Atlantic Canada, why shouldn't something be done for the Opposition?)

    The IRPP web page has the full text of Courchene's latest study. It makes exceedingly difficult reading, but is full of interesting observations, not all of which are Alberta-related.

    [UUPDATE, 11:47 pm: Norman Spector writes:

    Interesting piece... However, the objective of equalization is stated clearly in s. 36 [of the Constitution Act]--it’s there to support or criticize as a principle, but it's there.

    Specifically (as Fr. Raymond de Souza also discusses in Thursday's Post) it says:

    Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

    This stipulation is universally regarded as non-justiciable, and I think I could get most everyone to agree that it is just this side of incoherent. Spector is, nonetheless, right to bring it up.

    It is hard for a policy critic to stand on this text unless there is some agreement, or existing general sense, that s. 36(2) truly represents the sole objective and limit of equalization. If no one shares the belief, then it might just as well be written on an outhouse wall as in the Constitution. Interprovincial equalization as currently designed is swallowing up Saskatchewan's petroleum and potash revenues; in one recent year, Saskatchewan lost about twice as much in equalization from an increase in oilpatch activity than it gained in royalties. These revenues aren't the product of "taxation"; if Saskatchewan's tax rates aren't changing significantly, there is no pretext within s. 36(2) for its resource revenues to be touched. But they were, and are. Courchene also points out in his paper that it is more expensive for some provinces to provide the same public services because they possess higher labour costs. If s. 36(2) were taken seriously, we would be transferring cash not on a dollar basis but on an hours-of-labour basis. (His suggestion, if I understood it correctly, was that Ontario might be a "have-not" right now under this form of accounting.)

    Courchene could have raised another point: what is the right definition of "reasonably comparable levels of of public services?" As far as I know, equalization isn't adjusted for geography, yet the most basic services--transport and communications, health care, education, almost anything you could name--are going to be inherently more expensive per-capita in geographically larger jurisdictions. If it is only the level of public service available to the client of government that counts, perhaps tiny P.E.I., which could almost educate and medicate its citizenry in one building, should be sending cash to huge, mountainous B.C.? (And should provinces that have to provide "public services" to resource industries be rewarded with bonuses, or punished by being forced to pay for those services out of an "equalized" tax take?)

    I don't think s. 36(2) can be treated rigorously, though I can't very well quarrel with the text of the Constitution as such. Under a strict definition of "reasonable", the clause would involve counterfactual questions of the same insane, destructive sort that justiciable pay equity involves--the kind that would destroy "reason" in order to save it. Under a very strict definition, 36(2) would considerably worsen the existing moral hazard of equalization, completely taking away "have-not" governments' incentives for not preying on their own tax bases. And then again, it could always be pleaded by "haves" that provincial revenues, in the long run, depend on policy choices made within individual provinces, and that the constitutionally correct amount of equalization is thus inherently near-nil. Insofar as s. 36(2) should be treated as having force, though, it would seem--no matter what interpretation you select--to rubbish Courchene's whole idea of dragging Alberta's direct resource revenues into equalization.]

    - 6:22 am, September 1 (link)