Sunday, October 31, 2004

On Adding a New Blog

Well, my new blog site is up. You can find it at

One of the nice things about Blogger is the ease in which you can set up a completely new site. It didn't take any more than five minutes to select a template and add the AdSense and BlogExplosion banners (although it did take about 10 minutes to rework everything so that adding new banners didn't wreck the template layout). But I had it up and running a lot sooner than I expected.

For The Urban Possum, I opted for a more informal design than for my main blog. I think the green and the typeface make it more relaxed for the reader; it's the type of design that doesn't feel that need to intone Holy Writ. (Since the main blog tends to pontificate a bit on politics and culture, a more formal template seemed appropriate.) That's important because The Urban Possum is meant to give the sense of a guy puttering about in his kitchen. Flannel shirts are de rigueur there.

The other thing is that Possum is a subject-specific blog, meant to be run concurrently with the main one. It's one of the reasons why Blogger lets you have more than one blog; they know you have more than one interest, and a subject-specific blog can be more easily crafted to a specific audience.

So anyway, the Possum's up and with a fresh recipe (not a new one) to boot. Comments are welcome on both sites, of course.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Pierre Berton, The First Urban Peasant, and a New Blog

Being a bachelor means learning to cook for oneself, which means learning to use a cookbook. The first cookbook I ever bought--wasn't exactly a cookbook.

Pierre Berton is a legendary Canadian author, but back in the 1950s he was a columnist for the Toronto Star. One of his column collections from that era is called Just Add Water and Stir, which features a section called "Intemperate Recipes."

There were four of them" Tomato Soup, Klondike Baked Beans, Corned Beef Hash and Clam Chowder. Over the years I've made three of them (I haven't quite worked out the schedule for making the multi-hour-baking Baked Beans one) on a semi-regular basis. They're good--very good.

They were a response to the frozen-dinner and canned prepared foods that we take for granted today, before the gourmet boom of the 1980s. The 1950s was the era that TV exploded onto the market and the days of mass advertising started to boom in as well.

Part of the charm of these recipes is that, because they started out as newspaper columns, their directions are given as prose and not convention recipe directions.

For example, from the Tomato Soup recipe: Make sure you have whole stalks of celery and make sure the leaves are on and that these leaves are fresh, not brown or limp. If your grocer is the kind of man who cuts leaves off celery avoid him as you would a man who pulls legs off flies....

... Now get some parsley. Do not do what your wife does and get one sprig of parsley. Women are always putting tiny sprigs of parley into food. It does no good. Get two double handfuls of parsley, pressed tight, and chop it as fine as you can and gthrow it into the pot, now redolent of the pungent celery...

About that last paragraph: please bear in mind, they were written in the days before the women's movement. I'm sure Mrs. Berton must have said something to him after that particular column was published.

Also, measurements aren't given except in their roughest forms: "a bunch of tomatoes" depending on how big a feed you're planning, pork cut into cubes "the size of marshmallows".

And Mr. Berton, much like Rex Stout, likes to describe the process of cooking as well as the food: only careful and loving chopping will produce this effect, an attention to detail that is amply repaid also in the case of hash brown and Lyonnaise potatoes, which is almost mandatory with steak or ham and eggs.

I'd say these four are a precursor to the writings of James Barber, the Urban Peasant, who still has a considerable following in Canada. Mr. Barber's early essays on food read much the same way as these columns, with the advantage that they are still in print.

I may try to reproduce the Berton recipes -- but not here. Next week I'll be starting up a new blog called The Urban Possum, which will focus on food, the bachelors who cook it and the people who write about it. I hope you folks at Blog Explosion will find time to visit it.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Happy Birthday, Internet

Plus ça change, plus la même chose. It's comforting, in a cynical sort of way, to know they had computer glitches back then, too.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Wake Me Up When Election 2004's Over

It's awfully tempting to blog about the U.S. election. I fell prey to it when I wrote an entry for one of Hugh Hewitt's symposiums. But now that the Red Sox have broken Bambino's Curse, and more bloggers are hopping onto the Election 2004 bandwagon, I'm just going to hop off.

And wait until the morning after.

I know that half of Wired America is going to be screaming mad at the result--the passion of both sides is so high that it can't possibly heal after the results are known. (I'm going to use BlogExplosion to see how many bloggers will weep, wail, gnash teeth, and otherwise complain about the results around midnight or so--that is, assuming it's a clear result.)

I've been following a few of the more articulate political blogs, and I have a fairly strong idea about who's going to win. And if my idea pans out, I can promise a real humdinger of a blog entry. But even if I'm wrong, I'll be glad of the fact that the election campaign is over--at least until 2006, when the midterm elections start up.

So -- what else is there to write about? Or rather, write about easily?

Well, it's Halloween season for starters. At my age, it means going to costume parties rather than trick-or-treating. Last year I wore my "Robert Vaughan in The Magnificent Seven" outfit. This year my "Kurosawa Samurai" outfit is going to get a workout. If you've ever seen Yojimbo, then you know what I'm talking about. The only thing I lack is the topknot.

And of course there's life drawing. I missed it last week due to a cold, but I made it last night. I still don't know if I should post my efforts here, because they're nudes and they might offend some sensibilities. But I went last night, armed with a graphite pencil, and with 2 models (1 male, 1 female, both new) I think I creatively caught on fire. I hadn't been so hot in producing good sketches in nearly eight weeks of drawing. (I think it also helped that I met one of my old classmates there; nothing like a little competition to stir up the juices, right?)

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Joy of Jook

Sometimes on Sundays I make myself a Japanese-style breakfast: miso soup (Kikkoman instant), grilled salmon or trout, a bowl of rice, and green tea. I normally make about 4 to 5 cups of rice in my cooker, so of course there's leftovers. Occasionally I fry leftover rice, but for the fall and winter months I make jook.

Jook is the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese word congee, or rice porridge. It's what happens if, when making rice, you go overboard on the water and let it cook so long that the starches in the rice grains are leeched into the cooking water, resulting in a thick, lumpy sludge. Something like oatmeal.

The thing about jook is that it goes rather well around this time of year, as a way of keeping warm or feeding someone suffering a cold. Rice and water are bland, but most Asian-Americans (or indeed, Asian-Canadians) season it with bits of stuff -- chopped meat, pickles, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, etc. -- and the blandness of rice means almost anything will go well with it.

The way I make jook is to take a cup of cooked rice (either medium- or long-grain works well, but not Uncle Ben's) and add it to 2-3 cups of liquid in a saucepan, which is then heated to boiling. The liquid I like to use is chicken broth -- either Campbell's ready-made (I prefer the low-sodium blend) or water mixed with President's Choice chicken stock mix. I season with sesame oil, soy sauce, and pepper. I'll add in cubed Spam turkey, some minced hot peppers, and/or pickled mushrooms. I find that, once it gets to the boiling point and I reduce the heat to medium-low, a half hour covered is enough time to get the consistency I like. It's not typically Asian, but it works for me.

It's a comfort food, like Kraft Dinner, which gets me through a weekday evening. And the heat of jook does wonders for reducing the snuffliness of a cold.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

And the Press Wonders Why Its Freedom is Threatened

A columnist that I've never heard of, writing in a newspaper that I have heard of, pens a piece of commentary throwing insults at President Bush. Fair enough. His last words, however, move the column from the trashpile of political ephemera into the Casebook of Evidence for Press Irresponsibility:

On November 2, the entire civilised world will be praying, praying Bush loses. And Sod's law dictates he'll probably win, thereby disproving the existence of God once and for all. The world will endure four more years of idiocy, arrogance and unwarranted bloodshed, with no benevolent deity to watch over and save us. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr - where are you now that we need you?

Bear in mind: commentary is not journalism. Commentary expresses an opinion. Journalism presents facts or events and lets the reader draw an opinion. This is a commentary. A Guardian journalist will say so, and say (s)he doesn't write stuff like that. (Well, one hopes not.)

So, with that in mind, shall we fisk this paragraph?

"On November 2, the entire civilised world will be praying, praying Bush loses."

A rhetorical assumption, of course. The columnist has the implied definition of "civilised world" as "everyone who agrees with me, or at least respects my opinion." And it's somewhat ironic that a "civilized" (which by definition includes secular education) world should have an implicit belief in God.

However, it occurs to me that there are more important things to pray about than the election or defeat of George W. Bush. One's own health, for example. Or the health of a loved one. Or a mind that is capable of passing tomorrow's pop quiz. Or that the food in front of me isn't going to poison me. (This is especially true if I'm eating my own cooking.)

"And Sod's law dictates he'll probably win, thereby disproving the existence of God once and for all."

"Sod's law" is just the British term for Murphy's Law: "if it can go wrong, it will." Certainly the Democrats and their supporters, CBS News, and Senator Kerry can point to specific points in their campaign where Murphy's Law came into play. And George W. Bush can point to a number of points where Murphy's Law counted against him. Consequently, in a campaign run by professional politicians, whoever makes the least mistakes wins.

The last half of the sentence is a faulty conclusion, especially from a civilised Christian point of view. Readers ofThe Book of Job understand that God doesn't answer prayers by causing specific events to happen or not happen. What doubters (and most Christians) tend to forget is that sometimes, God's answer is "no."

"The world will endure four more years of idiocy, arrogance and unwarranted bloodshed, with no benevolent deity to watch over and save us."

Overblown rhetoric, of course. Politicized people, especially on the ideological Left, tend to write that way. Now, this leads up to something, a modest proposal:

"John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr - where are you now that we need you?"

This is where the line is crossed. The first three sentences, given their references to God or a deity, have the implication of prayer. Invoking the names of two well-known assassins and one would-be assassin (Hinckley only wounded Ronald Reagan) and addressing them directly with the phrase "we need you" -- this leads to the conclusion that the author is publicly praying for the murder of the sitting U.S. president.

Civilized people don't call for the murder of political leaders. It's one of the reasons why Suddam Hussein is still alive. If the Iraqis kill him it will be after a trial and a guilty verdict, which is respective of the rule of law, in which case it isn't murder. People may call for the removal of people from power, but they usually mean legal removal--through an election, or termination after a proven display of incompetence. (Note the word "proven"; it is not yet been definitely proven that President Bush is completely incompetent.)

Assassination is an illegal removal that, more often than not, makes things worse instead of better. Killing Lincoln made it harder for the Northern and Southern states to reconcile after the American Civil War. Killing Kennedy hardened attitudes and dropped the temperature of the Cold War a number of degrees, leading to a less informed prosecution of the Vietnam War. Assassination is wrong, and it is wrong for the columnist to call for it.

The columnist's defenders will coyly point out that he does not explicitly state that he wants the President assassinated. In which case, I ask them, why then did he write what he did? All the column was supposed to be about was the performance of President Bush during the campaign debates. Why bring up the subject of assassins at all? There are other ways that he could have made his rhetorical point, that he thinks President Bush should be voted out of office.

We believe in freedom of expression, but we know from experience that expressing certain ideas, or allowing them to be published (or screened, or downloaded, or otherwise viewed publicly) can have disastrous consequences. We have anti-hate laws that ban literature denying the veracity of the Holocaust, because we don't want genocide repeated. We have laws banning child pornography because we don't want our kids traumatized by sexual exploitation. It is therefore reasonable to refer to a public call for assassination as an example of something that should be barred as a hate crime.

A slippery slope, some media critics may say. Which is why people hear calls for a responsible media. One that knows the power of its words, and exercises it carefully. One that throoughly and continually checks its own veracity and fairness, lest a higher authority do it for them. One, finally, that wouldn't allow that last paragraph to go public.

If our columnist is smart, he will put out a retraction of that paragraph. No doubt the Guardian's e-mail is filled to bursting with complaints or worse, but it will be a mistake if he reacts by digging in and "standing by" his comments.

And he'd better be praying about what could happen if President Bush wins ...

UPDATE (22h41 UTC): It seems our columnist--along with the Guardian editorial staff--have smartened up. The above link should now connect to an apology to readers. Interesting that he attempts to explain that paragraph as an ironic joke--that he thought people would find the idea of assassination funny. If so, it's proof positive that this liberal elitist has no sense of humor.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

BlogExplosion and the Blogging Experience

For those of you who got here through BlogExplosion, greetings. If you're interested in animation, sequential art like manga, and other topics, there's quite a few items here worthy of comment. (If you can get the Java to work in your BlogExplosion window, that is; I've found that I need to go directly to a site in Blogger if I want to post a comment. I'm not sure why this is so.)

As for myself, I'm taking advantage of BlogExplosion's surfing capacity, looking at the weblogs that are out there. It's actually a lot of fun, looking at weblogs and the people who write them. I'm already getting some ideas as to how to tweak this site (such as adding artworks and maybe a calendar), but I'm open to suggestions as well.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

No, No Astros : Not in an Election Year

Understand that I have nothing against the Houston Astros. I'm what you call a "casual" baseball fan; I haven't attended a Major League Baseball game since my student days in Montreal. (And given the status of Olympic Stadium as a concrete park with a garbage bag for a roof, I don't blame the Expos for leaving this year.)

But about the Astros. Now that the Boston Red Sox have gotten into the World Series (and I'll admit it was a pretty good comeback) I feel that, if Americans truly love Major League Baseball, they'll root for the St. Louis Cardinals instead.

Not because Houston cheats or has lousy players (or even super-spectacular players that it's fun to hate). But because it's an election year.

If Houston wins tonight, then the World Series boils down to a team from Texas (the home state of the Republican candidate for President) against a team from Massachusetts (the state represented in the Senate by the Democratic candidate).

Never mind that George W. Bush is likely to root for the Red Sox because he owned the other team from Texas. Never mind that John Kerry is believed by most people to be a casual sports fan at best.

If the Astros get in, I can think of at least 3 blogs (and six major news outlets) who are likely to drag the World Series into Campaign 2004, trying to link the election results to the World Series results. And you can certainly bet that party insiders on both sides would see such an outcome as yet another battleground to further their candidates' interests.

And that would be a shame.

The activity of baseball is a thing that unites Americans. They may not play it, but they understand it. It's a game that doesn't have the battle mentality that football or soccer or hockey has, and it encourages athletic activity without the anti-personal aggression (such as the tackle or body check) that characterizes the other sports.

Politicizing the World Series would further divide a population in need of unifying symbols after the harshness of this campaign. Which is why I'll be rooting for St. Louis tonight: to keep Baseball out of the hands of the political hacks and into the hearts of the American people.

UPDATE: St. Louis 5, Houston 2. Thank you, Lord.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Animator's DVD Library

As an aspiring animator, I naturally want to learn as much about my craft as I can. Which is why I am grateful for the invention of the DVD player and its ability to show a movie one frame at a time. It makes it a lot easier to study how images move.

Of course, I'd say that everyone who seriously studies animation should have a DVD player, and in an ideal world, every animated feature that comes out should be in the animator's DVD library. But the Real World (in the form of the bank account) intrudes. What I want to do here is talk about the DVDs that are essential for the animator to own. (I'm including the links because some of these may no longer be issued.)

Obviously any Disney animated DVD is a must have for the animator. They're the ones who pretty much pioneered the art form, after all. But it's not really practical to own every Disney DVD, so let's be selective.

The obvious one to own is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the one that started it all for Disney as a feature filmmaker. John Canemaker provides valuable insight, and the special features DVD contains an outline of the animation process, including concept art, storyboarding, and test footage. Serious Disney fans may find the historical timeline entertaining, if a little light on the details.

Another good one to have is The Fantasia Anthology, which features the original Fantasia as well as its 2000 IMAX sequel. The commentary for both movies describes the technical and historical aspects of the films even better than in Snow White. The bonus documentary for Fantasia 2000 is especially valuable for current animation students insofar as it shows how Disney's current technology is used to make a feature film. And the Legacy DVD contains a wealth of information, including pencil tests, concept art and storyboard information.

One would think that Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio would be a no-brainer for this collection. Certainly someone who is studying animation for the first time should view it at least once, especially the 2 Disneyland episodes featured: "The Story of the Animated Drawing" and "Tricks of Our Trade." The main feature, The Reluctant Dragon, is useful only insofar as one can get a sense of how a Leica reel should work, by watching its "Baby Weems" sequence. But I would be hesitant in suggesting that this is a library essential, because most of what is in here has been pirated as "bonus material" in so many other Disney DVDs, including the two mentioned above. But if you want something that's historical about Disney the animation studio, then this is a must-have.

My final Disney nomination is from the post-Walt era. Beauty and the Beast is certainly noteworthy because it's a Best Picture Oscar nominee. But this particular DVD also contains the New York Film Festival version, a "work in progress" with unfinished cells, storyboarding and pencil testing. This is essential viewing for the animation student, because it shows how important each part of the process (storyboard, Leica reel, roughs, pencil tests) is in making the complete feature.

I don't count the Toy Story movies as a Disney product because they're produced by Pixar Animation. I'd suggest that if you're going to deal with 3-D animation, you're going to want to study the Ultimate Toy Box set. You can see for yourself here that there's not all that much different in process between Disney 2-D and and Pixar 3-D. The complexities of 3D animation are something which are dealt with in detail here.

What about other studios besides Disney? There are 2 from Warner Brothers which warrant attention. The Looney Tunes Golden Collection is the priority item here. Not only do you have classic cartoons from the 1940s and early 1950s, you also have some excellent documentaries (including a historical documentary on the famed studio by John Canemaker) and interviewers with many of the great Warner Brothers animation directors such as Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones.

And speaking of Jones ... Chuck Jones : Extremes and In-betweens started out as a PBS Great Performances special. It's a classic documentary. A bonus feature includes many current Disney and Warners animators and film critics discussing the various principles of film animation that Chuck employs. There are also some good pencil tests thrown in that can really help out a budding animator.

Now, that's just seven titles. As you go further into the study of this art form, you may want to build this up more. If you have other recommendations or suggestions as a Library essential, please let me know by leaving a comment.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Why Vote Bush? What's Wrong With Kerry?

Hugh Hewitt has an interesting symposium going on, in which he challenges bloggers to answer in 250 words or less the above two questions.

I speak as a Canadian citizen with no right whatsoever to have a say in Election 2004 (somewhat akin to a Guardian reader). Nonetheless, I think that America would probably be better off continuing with George Bush than replacing him with John Kerry.

My reasoning has nothing to do with the character of the two candidates (which seems to play a big part of other bloggers' assessments), but rather with the way each party has conducted their campaigns. My theory is that if you run a stumbling campaign, odds are you'll run a stumbling administration.

The Democrats stumbled rather badly in nominating a candidate whose most noteworthy accomplishments are three decades behind him, and publicizing that rather than his more recent activities. They also failed to articulate a viable and reasonable alternative to Bush's policies on Iraq and the War on Terror. (This is not necessarily John Kerry's fault; presumably he does have foreign policy people to advise him. His subsequent incoherence is only a reflection of their own.)

They also pursued a faulty strategy in smearing President Bush by going after his National Guard record (something which didn't even work in 2000) and failed to abandon it in a timely manner when it failed (the Rathergate fiasco).

Bush was vulnerable; John Kerry and his people could not exploit that fact effectively; and that is why I don't believe Kerry could be any more than a mediocre president.

Friday, October 15, 2004

On Team America and a Liberal Lack of Laughter

No, I haven't seen Team America World Police yet. Quite frankly, this isn't very high on my list of "to-do" things for the weekend.

Now, I'll admit that I'm not a rabid South Park fan. Cutout animation, even when Maya-generated, is not my thing. That being said, however, I do appreciate their wit (although I could do without the scatological crudeness) and their ways of skewering their targets with humor.

I think my favorite episode is the one called "Rainforest, Shmainforest." It's memorable not only because perpetual fatal-victim Kenny McCormick is alive at the end (although he does get a near-death experience), but the story kicks the environmental movement in the nards. It's not so much that environmentalism deserves to be a target, but that Trey Parker and Matt Stone go after conventional pop-liberal thinking about the environment. To Parker and Stone, the Cultural Left pay only lip-service to the issues of saving the rainforest; it's the Left's ignorance of the deeper issues that will lead to their downfall.

I had a look at some of the left-bloggers' reactions to Team America, as well as some of the reaction from And sure enough, they're upset that the Cultural Left gets such a hammering, even though it's the gung-ho attitude of the Right that's being satirized. They are, in the words of Queen Victoria, not amused.

It strikes me that this is one of the reasons why the Democratic Party may not be getting a landslide victory after the current presidential campaign: a great many of them are so bent on defeating George Bush that they're no longer able to laugh at themselves. John Kerry certainly tries -- when he asked a waiter to choose something on the menu for him, he was trying to lampoon his supposed reputation for indecisiveness -- but for the most part the Liberal mien cannot guffaw at its own goofs.

It's one of George Bush's virtues that he can acknowledge, and laugh at, his own failings. He is not ashamed of his B average. He acknowledges for the most part his hell-raiser past. He seems to revel in the belief of duncehood. This is a rare trait in a politician, since most prefer to think of themselves as leaders without feet of clay.

The thing is, the ability to laugh at ourselves is an acknowledgement that we are not perfect, that we can be better. It's something we all recognize on an unconscious level -- and something which Parker and Stone are forcing the Liberal Left to face.

On Frank, Ollie, Woody, and Learning to Laugh

A couple of things came in the mail yesterday from Amazon, two long-standing orders that I'm looking forward to. They're DVDs of movies I've seen before, but wanted to add to my collection.

Frank and Ollie, which I saw in animation school, is particularly apt given Frank Thomas's death last month. He and Ollie Johnston were the last to surviving members of Walt Disney's legendary Nine Old Men, the supervising animation artists who worked on the animated shorts and features of the Classic Disney era (the period from Steamboat Wille to The Jungle Book, the last feature made while Walt was alive).

This documentary, made by Frank's son Theodore, is a sentimental look at two men in the twilight of their years, and it's a classic example of how wisdom can be passed to a new generation. The film shows clips from the classic Disney movies that they worked on, and both Frank and Ollie discuss their history together and the creative thought behind those clips.

DVDs have bonus features, and one I especially like involves Andreas Déja and Glen Keane, two of Disney's current animators, discussing Frank's and Ollie's rough drawings and animation from the Walt Disney Feature Archive. Déja and Keane are two of the best 2-D animation artists in the field today, and even now they believe they have things to learn from this old art.

The other DVD is What's Up Tiger Lily?, which is Woody Allen's first film. I've linked to the DVD Verdict review of the film, which explains its story history in detail. I'm not an especially big fan of Woody Allen's films (though I like his short fiction stuff from Getting Even, Without Feathers and Side Effects), but I can conceded that when his dialogue clicks, it clicks big.

The reason why I like the movie is animation-related -- or, to be precise, anime-related. See, one of the biggest pet peeves anime fans have is the eternal discussion over English-language dubbing (replacing the Japanese audio track with an English one). When it works, the show soars; when it doesn't, it klunks. Usually, bad dubbing is unintended, but humor can result if bad dubbing happens on purpose, because incongruity creates laughter. This is, however, something that far too many fans of anime get upset about.

Spike TV's MXC is a current example of overdubbing humor in incongruity, but I consider Tiger Lily a classic case of it in action. Whenever I talk to anime fans who complain about the practice of English dubbing, I tell them to see this film as a way of getting them to laugh. It's a more fun solution of exiting the argument than telling them to get a life.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Chicoutimi Incident, Revisited

Now that the crippled submarine HMCS Chicoutimi is back in port, the Canadian government has recalled its Victoria-class submarines pending an inquiry into this incident. This is of course a standard procedure; you'll recall that when the space shuttle Columbia exploded, the other shuttles were also grounded.

While there's a lot of political gas to be generated out of this, we have to remember that real people have to work onboard these subs, and the inquiry's first priority is to address the concerns of our submariners. From my standpoint, there are two things to look at: firefighting procedures, and casualty procedures. The first one is obvious; the second one is because from news reports, there was no medical personnel on board other than those trained in standard first aid.

So there are questions to be raised:

1. How and where did the fire start?

2. What equipment was available to fight it when it first broke out?

3. If the late Lt. Chris Saunders was the first to respond to it, what did he do?

4. Did he have access to a breathing apparatus such as a Chemox mask, to protect himself from possible toxic fumes?

4a. If yes, why didn't he use it?

4b. If no, what actions could he have taken to protect himself?

5. Is there a standard procedure for dealing with fires of this nature, on board this type of vessel?

5a. If yes, was this procedure followed?

5b. If no, did the subsequent actions to combat the fire make sense? And why were they effective or ineffective?

6. Were professional medical personnel (i.e. a doctor or medical aide) available to be put on the crew?

6a. If yes, why were they not taken?

7. Were the crew trained to deal with a smoke inhalation injury?

8. Were there physical barriers (i.e. equipment layout, access to extinguishers) that impeded effective firefighting?

9. Did the available equipment function as required?

I could go on, and so could a whole lot of other sailors, but as you can see, we're not even near a point where political decisions at a higher level should come into question.

It's awfully tempting to view the Chicoutimi fire through the lens of partisan interests, given the federal government's historical neglect of our military and military matters; but in this case I'd argue that politics has to be put aside. Ultimately, it is up to our sailors to figure out how to use these submarines, and who have to learn how to maintain and live with them.

Happy Birthday, Fraser Institute

American conventional wisdom suggests that Canadians would be Democrats, should they ever choose to become American. The implication is that there is nothing resembling the American Right up here.

Of course, that's not completely true. The Canadian Right is pretty strong in the Western part, especially Alberta (with a premier named Ralph) and B.C. We may not have anything on the scale of the National Review, but we do have (if you'll pardon the pun) Right-thinking thinkers, such as the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation and the Fraser Institute, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

One thing to remember about the Canadian right is that the focus is on economic conservatism; that is, keeping government intervention in society as small as possible. Social conservatism, while significant in the West, doesn't have the power that it does down South. With that in mind, though, the Fraser Institute has come a long way in 30 years, becoming a significant voice of the Right and a major player in economic policy.

Part of its power derived from its influenced during the years when Brian Mulroney was prime minister. The Institute was one of the prime defenders of what would become NAFTA, and it made its arguments in language that governments -- and the Canadian media -- paid attention to. Free trade was an incredibly big issue in the late 1980's and 1990's, a policy that Mulroney spent a lot of political capital convincing Canadians to sign up for. And the Fraser Institute helped Mulroney by giving him the data to boost his arguments.

Among its virtues is the media event known as Tax Freedom Day. It's the day, calculated by the Institute, when the average Canadian has worked enough to pay all his annual taxes, federal, provincial and municipal. The day varies from province to province, and usually happens in mid-June to early July. It's a useful shortcut for the media because it draws attention to the levels of high taxation that governments try to whistle past.

Some of its positions are controversial -- its call to legalize and tax marijuana sales, for example -- but in a social environment of liberal mediocrity, the Fraser Institute is a welcome voice on the right side of the Canadian political spectrum. Happy Birthday.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Christopher Reeve, R.I.P. : Remembering a Super Man

There's an old saying out there: you eventually become what you pretend to be. And that truism certainly holds true in Christopher Reeve's case.

Anyone who's seen Superman (1978) and its immediate sequel (we can gloss over 3 and 4 for these purposes) knows and understands. Christopher Reeve is Superman. He embodied the comic book hero far better than George Reeves did in the 1950's, setting a standard that Dean Cain, for all his TV hipness, could never meet.

When Reeve was paralyzed in 1995, his determination to heal himself made him unique among the string of celebrity advocates that haunt our media landscape today. There were other stars who suffered from debilitations -- John Wayne with cancer, Yul Brynner with emphysema. But they usually confined their activities to public service ads. But Reeve offered himself as a living experiment for ground-breaking treatments, used his name recognition to lobby for cutting-edge research, and achieved a success both personally and professionally than no one could have foreseen.

Why? He probably would have denied the idea, but I say because of Superman.

Understand something about the character: created in the middle of the Great Depression by two teenagers in Cleveland; given powers to do things that men could only dream of, protecting the public by catching bad guys and rendering their superior firepower useless. Clark Kent didn't use his powers to make himself a ruler or king; he used them to help the victims of injustice, fought on behalf of the little guy, John Q. Public. The writers and artists who handled him for DC Comics over the next 70 years may have stumbled a bit along the way, but none of them have ever forgotten: Superman is a symbol of hope.

And Christopher Reeve understood this.

If Reeve had given in to his initial despair, believing that his life was over, it would have meant that Superman was just a movie role, the way it was for George Reeves before his tragic death. But Reeve embodied Superman for his generation, and his children's. And he understood that Superman's battle would always be never-ending; Superman might lose a skirmish because of kryptonite, but he'd never give up.

And neither did Reeve.

Would Reeve's post-paralysis activity have been as meaningful if his breakout role were, say, Indiana Jones? or Forrest Gump? Or the new James Bond? Or even Rambo? I seriously doubt it. Reeve's activity had meaning precisely because his most famous role was that of a being with powers beyond those of mortal men. Reeve's determination, his open-mindedness to new theories and treatments, his drive to advocacy, are exactly the virtues the American public expects of a classic super-hero.

Reeve's personal battle ended October 9th. But I think everyone agrees, he did the cape honor while he wore it -- and after he hung it up.

Rest in peace, Superman.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

On Genre Manga

My buying habits on comics have changed over the past few decades. When I was in high school and college, I was into superheroes. Nowadays, I find myself buying manga. Specifically, "domestic" or "historical" manga.

Now by "domestic" I don't mean "made in North America" -- apart from MegaTokyo and Ben Dunn's Ninja High School I generally regard the idea of "North American manga" as a contradiction in terms. No, by "domestic" I mean taking place in a domestic setting.

A good example of this is Rumiko Takahashi's Maison Ikkoku, about a college student wannabe who falls in love with his widowed landlady. Sounds pretty melodramatic, until one opens up the book and realizes that it's an honest-to-goodness situation comedy. I collected all of Viz Comic's initial paperback volumes (they're doing a second "original art" edition now) and I still get a kick out of Takahashi's portrayal of contemporary Tokyo.

Other titles that I'd put in this category include Tokyopop's Love Hina series by Ken Akamatsu and Comic Party by Sekihiko Inui, based on a videogame franchise of the same name. And of course there's Iron Wok Jan.

What I like about these titles is their artwork -- cartoony without being too overdone -- and I like the fact that these comics professionals understand the clichés of manga and don't take them too seriously.

As for historical manga, naturally one thinks of Lone Wolf and Cub, as published by Dark Horse. Of course I've started picking up their Samurai Executioner series as well. The artwork here more closely resembles Western-style comics art, reminiscent of John Buscema, but the story and pacing are pretty much on a par with any Kurosawa flick.

I'm also recommending Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki, which combines the cartoony artwork style of Akamatsu with a more serious exploration of the transition period between the samurai period and the modern era.

Some people are fans of the sci-fi "giant robo" manga like Macross or Gundam or Evangelion. Needless to say I'm not one of them. I find contemporary and historical Japan to be exotic enough for graphic documentation; why go further?

Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Chicoutimi Incident

For those non-Canadians not in the know: HMCS Chicoutimi, the latest of Canada's four submarines, suffered an electrical fire a few days ago on its maiden voyage. One officer is dead, two are hospitalized with smoke inhalation injuries, 6 others were hurt fighting the blaze and the sub itself is powerless but under control, awaiting a tow back to England.

Some observations:

First: yes, Canada does have a submarine fleet, and yes, we do need one for marine security purposes. We leased them from the Brits in 1998 to replace the 30-year-old Oberon-class submarines which were approaching the end of their service life. The problems with the Upholder class (now called the Victoria class) are well documented, which means it's a good thing we leased them rather than flat-out bought them; we can at least take advantage of British expertise in figuring out how to make them work for our purposes.

Second: The fact that the sub is still afloat, with the majority of the crew intact and onboard, is a tribute to Canadian and British seamanship. Anyone who's read up on the history of submarines will know that this type of vessel can easily turn into a death trap.

Third: Don't be surprised if the sub's commanding officer comes up for disciplinary action. once the Chicoutimi gets back in port. Incidents involving loss of life and crippling of a sea asset almost always result in inquiries and investigations, up to and including courts-martial. This is a normal procedure in modern navies; a ship's commanding officer is ultimately responsible for whatever happens on his/her vessel, and this incident is serious enough that action cannot be avoided. Also, remember that a court-martial does not imply that the defendant is already guilty of the charge; what would be examined is whether the actions taken were a) appropriate; b) within prescribed procedure; and c) the best course available at the time. There will also be a question as to whether the fire and/or its consequences were preventable; was the fire-fighting gear appropriate? Were the crew properly equipped to fight the fire? Was medical treatment available? All of these questions need to be dealt with.

Finally: some of the newspapers are already pointing to this as an example of DND procurement failures. I think it's a little too soon for this to become a political issue; I'd be more concerned about getting the Chicoutimi back to port, and making sure the injured personnel are taken care of, before starting to point fingers.

Monday, October 04, 2004

On Bowling

This afternoon, as part of an effort to build staff morale, my organization had us go bowling.

I used to do five-pin bowling in my early teens. I got my game up from awful to above-average, but I had to give it up when my mom scheduled piano lessons and decided piano-playing was a better hobby than bowling. (I don't think she took piano teachers into account, but let that pass.)

What we did this afternoon was 10-pin bowling. 2 balls per frame instead of 3, and balls with holes in them. I bowled my expected score (not quite the bottom, but close enough) and came away with a few observations:

  • It's a lot easier to toss the ball when your thumb doesn't get stuck in the hole.
  • This is one of those games where you're not competing against other people, but against yourself. You're trying to control your arm, wrist, grip, and shoulder enough to throw the ball in the right direction and keep it straight.
  • 10-pin bowling demands customization if you want to do well, unlike 5-pin. In 5-pin, the ball doesn't care if you're left-handed, or how big your grip is, or your arm strength.
  • Hot pink is not a normal color for a bowling ball. Ditto Day-Glo orange.

I could go on about this, but I need to go soak my thumb in something.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Thoughts on Keeping a Living Blog

People keep blogs for millions of reasons. They also abandon them for the same number of reasons, loss of interest being one of them.

A blog, by definition, is not and cannot ever be a private document. Bloggers put their thoughts on the Net for all the world to see. If you want privacy, use a journal or paper diary.

Dead blogs -- blogs that have not been updated in an infernally long time, say a year -- are a nuisance for ISPs and blogging services. (Note: a nuisance, not a pain. Virus infections and system crashes are a pain, compared to which deleting a dead blog is just a chore.)

Some ideas about keeping a blog alive:

  1. Don't worry about readership. Here I'm talking about numbers, not who you think reading the blog. If you try to write something to attract a wider readership you may wind up getting stuck in a rut, pandering to a perceived reader instead of your own interest.
  2. Write what you know. If politics isn't your big thing, don't write about politics all the time. (The political blogs always get traffic during an election year.) If you like cooking, write about your favorite recipes and experiments. If you like TV, write about your favorite programs. And so on and so forth. It's how specialty blogs get started.
  3. Write as regularly as you can. I go to life drawing workshops on Wednesday nights. I won't post my results here (the life models are female -- it's a slippery slope thing) but they became a habit for me. (If only I could do the same with flossing.) Same with writing blog entries; if you turn it into a habit you'll keep your blog alive.
  4. Writer's block can be overcome. If you don't think you have anything to write about, think again. Books you've read, news stories that got you angry, the view outside your bedroom window -- they're all fodder for your blog entries.
My point: A blog can be a living document, a testimony to the existence of a unique human being -- if the blogger cares enough to keep it going.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Joys of Cooking from the Comics

My spare time (such as it is) is being sucked away by a Game Boy Advance game called "Yu-Gi-Oh! Reshef of Destruction," but I plan to tear myself away from the game long enough tomorrow to make something called Green Pepper Beef.

Sounds easy, no? Except that this particular recipe for Green Pepper Beef comes from a comic book -- a Japanese manga called Iron Wok Jan.

I've made recipes from the comics before. A couple of years ago DC Comics published "Ollie's Stupendous Chili Recipe" in Green Arrow Secret Files & Origins #1 (later reprinted in the paperback collection Green Arrow: Straight Shooter). I won't reproduce the text here, but I'll admit I had to adapt it a little; apart from mail order you can't get Gebhardt Chili Powder in Canada, so I wound up substituting. It turned out surprisingly well, though I'll conceded I haven't tried feeding it to anyone else. (I have a pretty high tolerance for hot peppers.)

Anyway, this particular recipe is from Vol. 6, in which the title character Jan attempts to teach his clueless assistant how to cook a restaurant-quality stir-fry. I say "restaurant-quality" because artist-creator Shinji Saijyo illustrated as the first step a pre-oiling of the wok -- something I've never seen in any Chinese cookbook. Saijyo's explanation of the process looks reasonable enough, but I still have my doubts.

The recipe calls for beef in a marinade of salt, pepper, water, baking soda, egg, cornstarch and oil. Vegetables include shredded mushrooms (I'll assume it's oyster mushrooms) and green peppers, and the sauce includes soy sauce, scallions (green onions), broth and cornstarch. Saijyo's illustrations of the steps look promising enough, so we'll see how things go.

I remember back in elementary school that Scholastic published a cookbook featuring the Peanuts characters. And there's a couple of recipes for soup in Anne Guisewaite's Motherly Advice from Cathy's Mom. So many kids these days, especially boys, aren't really motivated to use the kitchen beyond the microwave. I think cooking from the comics would make a good starting point to show kids around a kitchen -- before they do the home ec course.

And before you ask: my mouth isn't big enough to attempt to eat a Dagwood sandwich.

On Understanding the Presidential Debates

I work on Thursday nights, so I missed last night's Presidential debate. Mind you, as a Canadian citizen I don't have as much invested in this campaign as people south of the border. But as an observer of American society I can offer a few thoughts.

Pundits are calling this either a tie or a victory for John Kerry. Having heard a radio excerpt this morning, I tend towards the latter (Kerry has a better voice for radio than George Bush), but rendering judgement is a little premature. I'd argue that unless there's a real major gaffe -- and apparently there were none last night -- the winner of the election isn't the one who wins the debate. It's the one who learns from the previous debate and acts accordingly.

Al Gore never learned, in 2000. He blew the debates -- and his lead in the polls -- because he ignored the advice people were giving him about his style. Ignoring advisors can sometimes work when the advice is all over the spectrum, but when most of them said the same thing ("Don't exaggerate!") he should have realized he was doing something wrong.

Now the upcoming debate is on domestic issues. It's an area where Bush is weak, and Kerry has ammunition (how big is the deficit again?). Bush knows this. He also knows he needs to improve his debate performance (don't pause too long, don't look tongue-tied).

Prediction? Bush should do better than normal expectations. He should hold his own.

Another observation: Kerry shouldn't get too complacent. He did well enough, and the circumstances are such that he will feel confident about going on the attack in round 2. But these are the right sort of circumstances in which mistakes are made. And with the Senator's luck lately, if he makes a gaffe, it'll be just the type that will cost him the election.