Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review of "Night Watch" by Terry Pratchett

"Night Watch" is the 29th of Terry Pratchett's book set in his Discworld and the 7th starring the Ankh-Morpork city watch. The main character is, of course, the capable and cynical Sir Samuel Vimes, commander of the watch and Duke of Ankh.

This time, Vimes is accidentally tossed back in time by a freak magic storm into his own history. Unfortunately, at the time of the storm, he was locked in mortal struggle with the heartless criminal Carcer, who appears in the same time and murders Vimes' former mentor and Sergeant-at-Arms, John Keel. Vimes is recruited by the History Monks, guardians of time, to play the role of John Keel, teach his younger-self how to be a good copper, and nab Carcer before he causes more damage. It's another great adventure which Vimes negotiates by scowling, improvising and outsmarting his opponents.

Unlike The Fifth Elephant, which I reviewed about a year ago, "Night Watch" handles its exposition brilliantly. Though Vimes appears in a different time, no exposition is offered except that which is absolutely necessary. Though the Time Monks had been active in previous Discworld novels, though the readers were unfamiliar with the time period, and though history was being repeated for Vimes, there are no long expository diatribes. I was able to navigate the tale perfectly and something interesting is always happening.

The climax of the story is very moving, and while comedy is always present in Discworld, "Night Watch" manages to negotiate the unsteady line that plagues every story that tries to tread between humour and drama. I loved this story.

4 1/2 lilac-honoured graves out of 5

This story, more than the others in the City Watch series, presents interesting ideas about policing. More such ideas were featured in HBO's series "The Wire", which also happens to be the best television show I've ever seen. Vimes' unconventional policing style works wonders in Ankh-Morpork. I wish it could be applied in the real world. Can it?

Vimes' watchmen are peace-keepers. It is achieved thusly:

1. Being a part of the community. Vimes and his best officers know everybody on their patrol. They know every street and alley. They know who is worth querying and how to negotiate with them. They are not uniforms, they are members of the city that everybody knows. In "Night Watch", when a riot brews outside the watch house, Vimes puts his most harmless-looking coppers in front of the station and serves the gathered crowd cocoa. When a troublemaker hurts himself by smashing a bottle, he gives the man medical treatment and allows people inside the station to make sure he's okay. Vimes' coppers do not cause confrontations or exacerbate them with fear or anger.
2. Ignoring mostly-harmless illegal stuff that you can't do anything about. From prostitution to slightly-illegal sales to public drunkenness to Corporal Nobbs' casual kleptomania, the City Watch ignores a wide variety of crimes. This allows them to concentrate on policing more serious crimes. A similar idea is expressed in "The Wire", when Howard "Bunny" Colvin discusses alcohol in public. A law prohibiting displays of alcohol on the street was turning people, for example, friends enjoying a beer on their front steps into criminals and distracting police resources. The solution: a paper bag. The bag allows police to look the other way and law-abiding citizens to continue to stay out of jail.
3. Arrests with as little violence as possible. The courts are supposed to be society's instrument of punishment. Furthermore, violent scuffles and fights can disturb the community and cause harm to innocent people. Vimes uses reason and intimidation to get criminals to surrender peacefully, and if this fails, uses quick and intelligent action to incapacitate. He routinely orders constables to leave their swords behind and instead carry clubs (like English bobbies) in order to prevent conflict escalation with criminal groups.

Think about your own local police force. Do they resemble Vimes' watch, or are they a faceless uniform that cruises downtown in a police cruiser and occasionally gets embroiled in some racist scandal? Just saying.

I'm sure greater minds have considered this stuff, so I'll shut up now.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Ten Worst Canadian Things... Ever!

Canada struggles for its identity. It hovers in the shadow of the United States, an economic and cultural powerhouse. Many seek to define Canada by what it isn't and produce a litany of cultural and historical characteristics that make us not the USA. Others point to Canadian victories in war (the reputation of fighting Canadians in the World Wars), victories in politics (Arts Boards, Medicare), victories in science and technology (insulin, the Canadarm, the telephone), or victories in sports (uh... there's probably some real-good sports victories out there to mention but I honestly don't give a fuck).

But let's face it. If we're going to be a real culture like the United States, we need, NEED, a list of bad things to define us. The US has a history of slavery, a bizarre half-assed colonial thing, unbelievable poverty in the midst of immense wealth and a weird news-media culture that can only be called a triumph of the subjective. As Canadians, we can look at these things and say, "See? We didn't do that. We're better than those awful Yankees." If we ever want to be taken seriously, we need a list of faults, bungles and morons that any American can see and say, "Thank God, thank God I'm an American!"


Here are the rules by which the list is compiled. The things on this list must be Canadian icons, people or influences that reached beyond our borders and spread their cancerous filth like gangrene upon the world. Canadian politicians are off the list because they're too easy and, also, one man's hero is another's devil. So as much as I want him here, Stephen Harper is safe. I have also omitted serial killers like Robert Pickton and Col. Russell Williams because, once again, they're too easy, nor do they have much comic potential. Now begins the countdown:

10. Krantz Films, Inc.

Perhaps you've never heard of Krantz Films. No actually, you have, though you were very young when it scarred you. For it was Krantz films that was responsible for those awful, lazy Rocket Robin Hood cartoons and, more famously, the Spider-Man series of the 1960's. The cartoons produced by this animation house can scarcely be called animation. When movement occurs, it is choppy and sloppy. Footage is re-used shamelessly.

"Come on, J. Adrian," you might say if you were in-the-know, "Krantz didn't make anything lazier than any other two-bit animation house of that era. Remember The Fantastic Four, The Hulk and Mighty Hercules cartoons?" Yes. But even they did not sink to this low: plots were re-used. Remember Dementia 5? You should, because both Rocket Robin Hood and Spider-Man traveled to Dementia 5, had the same acid-inspired adventure and in the process terrified two generations of children. Lame lame lame! Canadians did that.

9. Lord Black of Crossharbour
What's better than a rich, criminal media-baron? A rich, criminal media-baron who also happens to be an arrogant windbag, that's who. And it's Canada's very own Conrad Black. Or, I should say, was Canada's own, because he's renounced his citizenship to become a British Lord.

Hating free-speech seems like a strange trait for a newspaperman, but that's our Conrad. He and his supervillain wife, Barbara Amiel, have been a pair of howler monkeys in Canada's tree, annoying Canadians with their right-wing views for over twenty years. Black was so widely-hated that when Queen Elizabeth II wanted to make him a Lord, then-Prime Minister Jean Chr├ętien intervened and argued that a Canadian cannot be made a Lord. That's when Black renounced his citizenship. Yay! Later, of course, he was convicted for fraud and obstruction of justice in the US. More good stuff. I hope you're enjoying Lord Black, Queen Elizabeth II. We don't want him back.

8. The Heavy Metal Movie
Have you ever wondered what would happen if a stupid glowing green ball called the Loc-nar was the cause of all evil in the universe? I didn't think so. And judging by the significance the Loc-nar plays in each of the short films in Heavy Metal, neither did the creators.

Yet the Loc-nar provides "unity" to the rambling tales that comprise Heavy Metal. It forces a little girl to watch scenes of ultimate evil which frighten her. Yet the ultimate evil she beholds include a bald barbarian congregating with topless chicks, some aliens getting high on a substance named Nyborg, a dastardly space captain and some more topless chicks. Scary stuff. Now, if the Loc-nar's evil plan was to bore us to death, I'd believe it.

No, really. Somehow the movie manages to make blood-spattered topless warrior chicks boring. The animation is painfully slow. The plot is constantly interrupted by "music-video" segments which might be appealing if you're stoned. SCTV alumni and Harold Ramis as voice talent could not save it. It's one of the most famous movies to be produced in Canada and it sucks Nyborg.

7. Apartheid
Bwah? Well, rumour has it that during a trip to Canada, visiting South Africans observed our system of Indian Reserves. "What a great idea!" they said, "We should do that to our black people!" They took it a step further. Several steps, in fact, leading to one of the most racist and evil policies of planet earth.

Only #7, you say? Surely this is worse than Celine Dion? Yes, but Canada doesn't get full credit. Our exclusionist policies only inspired Apartheid, after all. Realistically, Canada need only feel guilty about confining our aboriginal peoples to the least-wanted farmlands available to teach them agriculture, stealing the food we promised them and refusing to give them jobs for a hundred years.

Nah, let's just ignore that issue. It's easier.

6. Tom Green
Okay. I'll admit it. I did not see the manifestation of Tom Green's true talent, a little film called "Freddy Got Fingered". By the time it was released, I knew better. Reports that it was one of the worst movies ever made confirmed my prejudgments.

I had previously watched the Tom Green Show. I knew his shtick. The usual show would go something like this: Awkward onstage banter. Tom drinks some kind of bodily fluid. Cut to Tom with something stupid on his head irritating people in a public place. I change the channel.

Don't get me wrong. From a comic perspective, there is nothing wrong with taboo humour, whereby social norms are broken. I've watched and enjoyed enough Sacha Baron Cohen and Kenny vs. Spenny and know what it looks like when it's done well. Tom's brand of taboo humour was limp, aimless and poorly executed. When he pretended to hump that roadkilled moose, he could have created no more potent a symbol. The moose represented Canada's reputation. Or perhaps comedy. I haven't decided yet.

5. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police
I will receive disagreement from many quarters for this one, but I fervently believe in my choice. Things have changed since the image of the dutiful Dudley Do-right were formed in the consciousness of the world. The RCMP has since forgotten that it is a national police force and not a political entity or a business.

Like most police forces, it has the usual array of brutalities against protesters, questionable taserings and invasions of privacy. What makes the RCMP special is that starting about 50 years ago, it has an odd history of being naughty with fire and explosives: stealing dynamite, burning down barns, and if Wiebo Ludwig is to be believed, staging an attack on a pipeline to frame him. Then there's the time that the RCMP let the Americans know that a muslim(!) Canadian, Maher Arar, was on board a flight in New York. The Yanks quickly bundled him off to Syria to get tortured. That's some nice treatment of our citizens abroad, boys.

Next, the RCMP has been forgetting that it is supposed to be an impartial police force and behaving like a partisan political entity. They used taxpayer money to pay individuals to write negative opinion pieces in newspapers attacking Vancouver's safe injection site in 2008. Then there was the RCMP researching people applying to appear at Prime Minister Stephen Harper's gatherings during the 2011 election, giving helpful tips on who he might not like, and assisting Conservative goons in escorting CITIZENS away from the PUBLIC gatherings! That is not helpful. That is some authoritarian bullshit.

And a final strike against them. We all know the redcoated image of the mountie smartly saluting with his black pants and boots. Did you know that the RCMP sold the rights for this image to the Walt Disney Company for five years? That's great, fellahs. While we're at it, let's license the Canadian flag to Time-Warner. All this adds up to an organization whose brass have forgotten the meaning of the symbolic Mountie: dutiful, friendly, helpful and ready to serve all citizens.

4. Celine Dion
She is one of the most popular Canadian musicians of all time. Of the top ten best selling albums of the 90's, two are hers and a third, the "Titanic" soundtrack, was popular only because of her featured Oscar-winning song.

Her music is the epitome of bland. The second her albums left the charts, we began to hear them piped over the sound system in supermarkets. I know I've heard her music a million times, but for all that, I couldn't name you a single tune except for the one about the big boat and it goes, "Ooooo".

Yet I know there is this invisible class of persons who love Celine Dion, subscribe to the National Enquirer, can be seen shuffling out of scrapbooking shops in sweat pants with weary eyes focused on the pavement, collect animals made out of glass crystal and have no greater joy than when Ellen DeGeneres dances. The following statement is made not on their behalf but from the rest of Canada to the world: We are sorry. We're so, so sorry for Celine Dion. If there's anything we can do, anything at all to atone, please call us when you stop being angry.

3. The Alberta Oil Sands
As the world's oil supply burns into oblivion and prices rise to levels undreamed, you'd think that Canada would be trying to find an alternate fuel source for the future that doesn't cause global warming. Nope. Instead, Canada has encouraged a more expensive, more filthy, more inefficient, more environmentally damaging way of extracting oil from the earth. It requires large amounts of natural gas and alarming amounts of water to do so. Sadly, from a price perspective, it's totally worth it.

It's almost impossible to describe an oilsands development area unless you've been. I haven't visited, but my wife has and it horrified her. I've only seen pictures: vast expanses of sand, filth, machinery and tailings ponds. They dump their industrial waste into these open water pits and position sound cannons around the perimeter to scare waterfowl away. But sometimes mistakes happen and northern Alberta has been witness to many dead, tar-covered ducks and workers.

Oilsand extraction is big business. It makes billions of dollars per year, yet for some reason the Harper government keeps giving them more than a billion dollars a year. They don't need the money, dumbasses! They were going to develop those oil sands anyway because it's extremely lucrative. Quit it!

And lastly, Fort McMurray, which was an awful town to begin with, has grown into a sprawling, poorly-planned blight upon the forest with ONE ROAD connecting all the neighborhoods. Ever seen a traffic jam in the forest? Young people are drawn to the oil sands for the money, find expensive homes in Fort McMurray, get depressed because they're separated from their families and working twelve-hour days, spend their money on abundant booze, drugs and hookers, then get fed up and move home just in time for their partners to ask for a divorce. Fort McMurray, by all rights, should have its own entry on this list, but I've chosen to amalgamate it into the oilsands entry because it is merely a symptom of the oilsands problem.

People are people and we only change during crises, so we will not be rid of oilsand development until the last drop of oil is extracted and civilization is left scratching its head and wondering, "Now whadd'r we gunna doo?" Cheer up! Canadian scientists are busy, busy working on ways to extract oil from oil clay, a method that promises to be even more expensive and harmful than oilsand extraction! Yay!

2. Usage-Based Internet Billing
Netflix has shaken media as we know them. One day it shifted its focus from mail-order rentals to streaming videos on the internet. It offered this service to Canadians for a low price of $8.00 a month. And Canadians were very happy.

They were so happy that they stopped paying stupid amounts of money for on-demand movie and television with their local service providers. Rather than lowering their prices and "competing", as it's called by capitalists, the big internet and television companies whined to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (a government body which would deserve its own entry if it wasn't a local Canadian thing) and asked it to allow them to charge the small companies who rent their internet lines according to how much data they use. Streaming video, such as that offered by Netflix, uses a lot of downloading capacity.

This has opened the door for an idea called UBB, or Usage Based Billing. Basically, internet companies have put an arbitrary cap on the amount of data Canadians can download. If they go over, they get charged large amounts of money. This led to a storm of complaints toward the the CRTC and the big internet companies. Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to open an inquiry into the CRTC decision and the Minister of industry threatened them, but so far nothing has happened. Bell and Shaw are planning to make the switch to UBB and have hired their propegandists to turn the Canadian public against itself, claiming there are "problem users" who download massive amounts of data and raise the price for everybody, trying to convince us that people should pay for the amount that they use.

Here's the thing. Let's put aside issues like the facts that UBB is an obvious ploy by monopolists to destroy their enemies and a cheap grab for more money without doing any work. Usage Based Billing is contrary to the vaunted ideas of our Information Age. It might even be contrary to civilization. The internet has always been exalted as a repository of information and entertainment accessable to everbody. With caps on data usage, it means that people will use the internet less to save money. That means that we will be less informed and less entertained. It means that market innovators like Netflix are being punished. But it's not just Netflix that will be affected. The video game industry is relying more heavily than ever on online components to their games and having to worry about download limits will simply make Canada less fun. As computer technology expands, our downloading needs too will expand and I am skeptical that UBB providers will be nice about raising the caps. Also, none of the internet providers have been able to provide a reliable meter that shows exactly how much we've been downloading. In other words, there is no accountability. If Bell says you've downloaded a certain amount, you have to trust them.

UBB is not just one of the worst Canadian things ever, it is one of the worst ideas ever. It is lame beyond imagining. It represents everything that is wrong when monopolism gets confused with capitalism and our own damn government is helping the bastards. I get the sense that the rich and powerful are watching Canada right now, testing UBB on an alternate market like its ketchup-flavoured potato chips before they unleash it on the United States. For the good of civilization, crush, annihilate, destroy UBB before it gets there.

1. "Mister Tambourine Man" as performed by William Shatner
It starts with a classical opening with harpsichord and flute, pizzicatto in the strings. Then the brass and trap set join, transforming the performance into jazz. Then, relentless thumping... a glorious chorus of tambourines! A quiet, tentative voice almost whispers, "Mister tambourine man?" It's Canada's own Bill Shatner, chanting the musical performance that would define him.

It's so bad it's good, then it's awful, then good again and then sublime when Shatner howls the final words, snuffing the music. Shatner's protagonist is a deranged lunatic in the midst of a psychotic break with reality, obsessed with an unfortunate tambourine man, longing to hear the sweet instrument's rattle and clatter. He is rebuffed. He is driven to madness.

Mister Tambourine Man stands as the absolute worst thing any Canadian has ever done, conceived or been.

there stands the list. I may come back and edit it if I think of anything else in the future. As it stands it is a fine example of the worst Canada has to offer. May foreigners look upon it in anger and fear, may we view it with shame. For within it lies the secret to our identity. I'd rise and sing O Canada at this point, but to be honest it's a pretty crappy national anthem.

Friday, May 6, 2011

My Daughter's Eyes

As I drive home a new moon hangs unseen in the sky. The highway is dark, save for my feeble headlamps and distant farm lights twinkling in the blackness. Road noise and the voice of a victorious Prime Minister fill my cabin.

I cannot bear to listen anymore. I depress the power knob on my radio. Again I am alone. But not for long. My old companion, Despair, flits into the passenger seat.

There are many things that Despair could tell me. He could remind me that once again I backed the losing team. He could explain again how every time I dare to hope the universe punishes me. He could tell me I didn't do enough. But this time he shows me an image. He shows me my daughter's eyes.

Those round, staring blue-grey eyes watch and wonder. The lids crinkle when she smiles and bulge in surprise. They hide nothing and betray every emotion. So innocent, so unknowing.

Despair shows me those eyes aged and worn with hardship. He shows them narrow with cynicism. He shows them downcast and red-rimmed, weary with disappointment like her father's.

I see her fretting because she can't pay a medical bill. I see her exhausted, working two jobs. I see her begging. I see her huddled in a locked van with other terrified people, driven to a fate unguessed. I see her treading through unknown, barely-imagined burning landscapes where trees once grew.

Tonight her elders edged her toward one of those futures. They traded her health for lower taxes. They rewarded contempt for democracy. They chose to leave vast sandy expanses of waste and black tailings ponds for her generation to clean. They cared more about unregistered long guns than her. They sold her fate to Lockheed Martin. Tears blur the highway.

I wipe my eyes. Still Despair lurks next to me. There are two ways to banish him. I can battle him or I can ignore him.

If I choose to battle Despair, it will mean patience, vigilance and dedication. It will mean that I must lend my voice, my time and my life to prepare for the next campaign. I will speak, I will protest, I will write, I will persuade. And maybe, after voters see four years of the true, brutal agenda of these cynical opportunists they will hunger for change.

But I tire of yearning for change. Change will happen, regardless of my actions. Canada has survived worse debt and greater tyranny. Canada can wait for me in four years. If I ignore despair and live my life as a happy and free man, my daughter will see my example and learn the same. I love my family and joy lies in nurturing them, not righteous anger.

The decision of action versus inaction, yin versus yang, Confucius versus Tao weighs, but it can wait for tomorrow. Thirty-two kilometres away, my family slumbers in my soft bed. My daughter's eyes are relaxed in sleep. I want to embrace my wife and feel my baby's hand grip my finger. If peace and love cannot be found in government, at least I know they await me at home.