Monday, August 31, 2009

All the Best Superheroes in the World, Defeated in One Fell Swoop

Disney Buys Marvel

Without emitting a single particle beam or firing a single nuclear blast, the greatest comic empire of all time has been sucked into the vortex of hell. In a day when "Disneyfication" is widely used to mean "turning something into crass, commercial crap," the entire roster of mighty Marvel superheroes has meekly succumbed to the greatest evil of all time: that bottom line-watching, focus group-obsessing, innovation-destroying, suit-wearing, glad-handing, gormless, cultureless, Essence of Big Corporation.

It would have been better if Nick Fury, Thor, Spidey, Wolverine et al. had just died and gone away. Instead, their copyright is now the exclusive property of Disney (along with thousands of other once-proud independent characters - Disney even owns the image of the RCMP). My heroes will be distorted and disgraced, exploited and over-exposed.

Marvel's edge was its edge: its superheroes were unhappy; they were failures; they were plagued by doubt and fear. At their best, the stories and drawings sprang from a deep well of geeky angst, and demonstrated that the strength of independence is sometimes the result of the weakness of loneliness. This wonderful art form was born because the audience was prepubescent and the writers connected with that time of frustrating powerless life on the cusp.

For the last few summer seasons, the cinematic extension of the superhero genre has got more and more interesting. The commercial potential is there for the genre to continue, but what form will it take now? The fear is that Disney will take it down the path of big budget pablum (X-Men, Transformers) vs the innovation of the very best (Watchmen, Iron Man, Hancock).


Sunday, August 30, 2009

The $9T US Deficit is All Bush

Interesting article in the New York Times today: Who Gets the Blame for the Deep Deficit?

The conclusion: all (or at least most) of the estimated $9 trillion US deficit was caused by George Bush. In particular, Obama's health care proposal and environmental proposals do not increase the deficit at all (as they are paid for by cost cutting and tax increases).

This may be the case where facts get in the way of conventional knowledge.


Thursday, August 27, 2009


It has long been my belief that the only way to make something good out of dying is to give your body to help others. I signed up as an organ donor ages ago, but that only uses part of the body, so today I called the Chief Coroner's Office to see how I can go about giving away my entire body.

It turns out it's not that easy, at least in Canada. There is no central registration: you have to register with a school of anatomy. Then after you die your family or estate has to pay to have your body shipped to the school, and it could be expensive if you die far away from the school you use.

In my case, I live in Waterloo, and have a few problems. The first is that the local anatomy school is not one I want to donate to; it's for kinesiology students and allows non-majors to work with cadavers, and I don't want to donate to it. The closest medical school that takes bodies is in Toronto. The second problem is that I can't rely on having any family alive when I die to follow my wishes, so to arrange for having my body shipped to a school, I need to change my will. Also, I travel a lot and work in different cities, so the shipping could be a real issue.

But the biggest problem with Ontario's body donation policy is that it can't be integrated with organ and tissue donation. Other than your eyes, if you donate your body to an anatomy school then you cannot donate any organs or tissues to help sick people.

Another problem is that you can't just register to donate your body - you have to contact a school and ask to be sent a package of information. I don't want to read about what they do with the bodies or how they treat them (and I am very sympathetic to medical students who may cope with the difficulty of learning to cut human flesh by making light of the bodies) - I just want to sign up, at a distance, impartially.

All this might explain why schools of anatomy don't get enough bodies. (They get about 300 donations a year, in total, at the ten schools that are looking for bodies.)

It's a shame. For example, a few years ago I read about research into female sexual organs and some breakthroughs in understanding how female orgasms work. The researcher said that very little was known about the subject because researchers virtually never had young female cadavers to examine, and the anatomy of elderly women is quite different.

More info
Ontario organ and tissue donation: Trillium Gift of Life Network
Office of the Chief Coroner (Toronto) 1-877-991-9959 or 416-314-4000


Wednesday, August 26, 2009


The scariest thing I ever read is an account (I read decades ago) of a torture training session in a Latin American country. Prisoners were used to demonstrate and practice methods of torture, which took the inhumanity of torture to an even higher level than the torture itself.

That level of inhumanity is almost matched in recent revelations about the Bush government's policies on torturing Muslims suspected of anti-American activities. Every act was scrupulously proscribed, monitored and reported. There was little random abuse. Every detail, down to the number of calories a day they were kept alive on, the temperature of the water used to torture them, and the number of hours they could be kept in various sized boxes, was detailed.

As details of the practices leaked, the public rose in angry protest, to no avail. The Bush administration even ignored a 2006 demand by the the US Supreme Court to stop torturing prisoners and follow the Geneva Convention.

It's a tricky political road for one president to preside over the prosecution of his predecessor (as we have found with our inability to prosecute Brian Mulroney), but Obama must bring justice to this case. As a New York Times editorial says today, "Only by making public officials accountable under the law can Americans be confident that future presidents will not feel free to break it the way Mr. Bush did."


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Driving Around Mennonites

There were two stories this month about Waterloo Mennonites being killed in their buggies by cars. (Here's one: Woman dies of head injuries after horse and buggy crash.)

I live in Mennonite country, and given the callous driving I see every day, it's a wonder that more buggy riders don't die.

Many, many people drive carelessly around horse-drawn buggies. There is simply no excuse for it. Part of the problem could be in a lack of public education.

When I went to driving school, I was taught that you pass a horse-drawn buggy you must give them wide berth, and only return to the right lane when you can see the entire buggy in your rearview mirror. I rarely see anyone else doing that these days. If there is oncoming traffic you just have to slow down and hang back. It's monstrous that many people seem to value a minute or two of their time more than the lives of other people.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Manufacturing Controversy

In a breathtaking display of bad taste, Niall Ferguson and the Financial Times have likened President Obama to a black cartoon cat. Ferguson recently wrote, "President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. ...Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky." Um, Niall? In North America in the 21st century, black cats are unlucky, not lucky; and Obama's starting his presidency saddled with a war, a world that is mad at hell at the US, a financial crisis, an impending depression and an unprecedented deficit is the opposite of lucky.

When there was some expression of dismay at the article, Ferguson shot back with Why My Comparing Obama to Felix the Cat Is Not Racist, an almost wholly irrational defence. But rational argument is obviously not the point for Ferguson: he seems to be aiming to (1) gain celebrity through shock-jock tactics, and (2) publicize as widely as possible the Obama/F-t-C comparison.

I grew up watching Felix the Cat every Saturday morning; this is an extremely disrespectful comparison, to say the least. And yes it is racist. Comparing an African American to a black animal is like saying a Chinese person is a yellow fish.

Paul Krugman thinks this was a mistake by Financial Times editorial staff. I disagree. This reeks of Republican strategy: I bet the goal is for Republicans to start playing the Felix the Cat theme song (the article quotes lyrics from the song and Ferguson refers to Obama as "Felix the Pres"). This could create a musical equivalent of the racist code words that southern Republicans have used for decades. The Republicans have apparently decided that instead of shying away from racism, they'll embrace it.

Ferguson is a right-wing libertarian nutter who wants to abolish income tax, social security and most social service spending. He is best known as a defender of colonialism. As a TV personality he has been able to popularize his extremist views in a series of picture books and media appearances. He is known as a contrarian. The only good side to this stunt is that people might wake up to what a sleazebag he is.

The insidious brilliance of the plan is that there's no real defence. Complaining about it only further publicizes the trick (I don't have enough readers to do any damage.) If Democrats fight back the Republicans will say that Obama is "polarizing". The only effective response might be, eventually, for both sides to drown out productive debate with insulting songs that can be reproduced as simple, catchy tunes. The Democrats could, for example, blast the Woody Woodpecker song at Republican candidates. That would be just another step away from substantive debate - a tactic that definitely favors the Republicans.


The High Price of Medicine

More money is spent in the pharmaceutical industry on advertising than is spent on research.

- Devra Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer.

So to reduce the price of medicine, why not restrict advertising? We used to restrict advertising on booze and cigarettes. It seems like a sensible solution to drug costs.

I was listening to Davis in a December 17, 2007 episode of The Current that I downloaded from the CBC podcast site. If I heard her correctly, the average cost of a new drug is $800 million, and half of that is marketing costs. If we want to control the cost of life-saving medicines, we could restrict the costs of the companies that make them.

A counter argument might be that the drug companies advertise because it increases their revenue. It also creates inefficiencies in the system. For example, when the patent runs out on a drug they make a minor change, re-patent it and advertise the hell out of it, trying to make it seem like something new.

I don't know enough about the pharmaceutical industry to argue this completely, but my thinking is... In labor law we have the concept of essential services; why not extend that concept to products? If I am unable to strike because I'm a nurse, why not say that there are also extra sorts of restrictions on the companies that make the drugs nurses hand out? Some life-saving drugs costs thousands of dollars a year, and not everyone has health insurance. In fact, it's a wonder that private health insurers aren't agitating to reduce drug costs. We in Canada have already reduced them by having better bargaining power with drug companies, but drugs are still arguably massively over-priced.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

How Americans Spend Their Stimulus Dollars

I'm all for fairness in free trade, and I know protectionism caused problems during the Great Depression, and I don't want to see a rise in protectionism, and I've criticized the Buy American program before, but...

The Buy American program applies to US stimulus spending. That is money the US government is spending to stimulate the US economy. Why would they use it to stimulate other economies?

To put this in context, imagine not that the US stimulus was being spent on projects for Canadian firms... imagine it was being spent on Chinese imports.

Stimulus of the US economy will pull up everyone else, and Canada in particular, in any event.

At the least, I don't think this issue is as black and white as many are making out.


Thursday, August 06, 2009

Pseudo-Specialists Defining Policy

A culture of irresponsibility took root from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street...
- President Obama

The culture of irresponsibility wasn't restricted to greedy guts who were reeling in hundreds of millions in shady financial dealings. It extended to policy-makers, media, and the civil servants who worked in the regulatory agencies and bond-rating companies. It was born in universities. It was the direct result of the way Economics is taught. Economics, at least as I was taught it in Canada in the 80s, is an indoctrination into simplistic free-market ideology backed up by complicated math based on dubious assumptions.

A number of people have been writing lately about Sheila Bair, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, who repeatedly blew the whistle on subprime mortgages and other financial shenanigans prior to the financial industry collapse last year, but was shouted down and is still shut out by the powers that be who are planning America's financial industry reform.

A prevailing argument is that Bair was able to see beyond the paradigm of the day because she's female - not part of the old boy's club, wired differently, more caring, whatever. I don't know about that, but I can see one thing that Sheila Bair has that sets her apart from the rest: an undergraduate degree in philosophy with no formal economics training. (She's also a lawyer.)

Economists have taken over too much of the policy area. Social scientists should provide input, but not set policy. We live in a world dominated by pseudo-specialists, when what we need is pragmatic generalists.


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Bubonic Plague in China

The pandemic du jour, now that H1N1 has lost its ability to scare the pants off us, is bubonic plague, which has recently cropped up in a very small way in China. To read some news reports, you'd think it was the first case of bubonic plague since 1350.

Actually, it's not that uncommon. For example, bubonic plague is endemic in the Usambara Mountains (Lushoto District) of Tanzania. I have visited the area... there were no travel advisories against doing so, at least in the mid 90s. A recent study of the sparsely populated area found that in the period 1986-2002, "there were 6249 cases of plague of which 5302 (84.8%) were bubonic, 391 (6.3%) septicaemic, and 438 (7.0%) pneumonic forms." Plague has been there for decades and illness from it is a seasonal phenomenon, like flu (although it's more deadly).

I mention this only because media seems to get stuck on a topic and ends up distorting reality - like making it seem that crime is rising, when it's actually falling; or clobbering us with every instance of abductions of pretty white girls, which are actually pretty rare.


Monday, August 03, 2009

In Memory of Duane Allman

A few days after the October 29, 1971 motorcycle accident that killed guitarist Duane Allman, the Allman Brothers recorded the song Melissa for their upcoming album Eat a Peach.

The song, written by Gregg Allman in 1967, was a favorite of Duane's, and the band played it at his funeral. I don't know if they altered the lyrics when they recorded it, but the song is not at all about a woman named Melissa: it's about a man who dies. The Eat a Peach version is the saddest song ever recorded, it seems to me: not just the vocals, but even the guitar playing is the saddest guitar playing I've ever heard. While the song was written before he died and I've never seen it claimed that the song is about Duane, it seems to be, even to the Robert Johnson reference in the first line and the depiction of a musician who's always on the road...

Crossroads seem to come and go.
The gypsy flies from coast to coast
Knowing many, loving none,
Bearing sorrow, having fun,
But back home he'll always run
To sweet Melissa...

Freight train, each car looks the same.
No one knows the Gypsy's name
No one hears his lonely sighs,
There are no blankets where he lies.
In deepest dreams the Gypsy flies
With sweet Melissa...

Again the morning's come,
Again he's on the run,
Sunbeams shining through his hair,
Appearing not to have a care.
Well, pick up your gear and Gypsy roll on.

Crossroads, will you ever let him go?
Will you hide the dead man's ghost?
Will he lie beneath the clay,
Or will his spirit float away?
But I know that he won't stay without Melissa.

I couldn't find a version of Melissa on YouTube that I liked, but here are Duane and the boys doing In Memory of Elizabeth Reed:

He's Gone

Rat in a drain ditch, caught on a limb,
You know better but I know him.
Like I told you, what I said,
Steal your face right off your head.

Now he's gone, Lord he's gone, he's gone.
Like a steam locomotive, rolling down the track
He's gone, he's gone, nothing's gonna bring him back...
He's gone.

Nine mile skid on a ten mile ride,
Hot as a pistol but cool inside.
Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile,
Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile!

Now he's gone, Lord he's gone, he's gone.
Like a steam locomotive, rolling down the track
He's gone, he's gone, nothing's gonna bring him back... He's gone.

Going where the wind don't blow so strange,
Maybe on some high cold mountain chain.
Lost one round but the price wasn't anything,
Knife in the back and more of the same.

Rat in a drain ditch, caught on a limb,
I know better but you know him.
Like I told you, what I said,
Steal your face right offa your head.

Now he's gone, Lord he's gone, he's gone.
Like a steam locomotive, rolling down the track
He's gone, gone, nothing's gonna bring him back... He's gone.

Ooh, nothing's gonna bring him back.

Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia
First recorded on the Grateful Dead's album Europe 72

They wrote it about Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart's father, who had been their money manager but stole from them and took off, but it could have been written for Karlheinz...


Sunday, August 02, 2009

We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us

A recent poll found that Canadians are feeling more positive about the US: 68% of Canadians view the US favorably, compared to 55% two years ago.

This surprises me, because our little country is taking a mighty drubbing in American political circles and media these days. They have decided that our approach to health care is shite. It's not just the health care lobby and Republicans who are describing Canadian health care as a failed system: even many pro-reform Democrats are saying ignorant, negative things about Canadian health care.

Americans aren't just critical of our health care system. They're not just disdainful. To hear some pundits, our health care system is the boogie man: the health care equivalent to the Axis of Evil. We're the North Korea of the health care debate - the Iran, the Sadaam Hussein, the Hitler. We're the Red Menace. Our health care mistakes must be avoided At All Cost.

If you believe US television, Canada is a hotbed of commie craziness where zombyized citizens sit in hospital hallways, desolate in cracked plastic chairs, waiting for death while government bureaucrats shuffle stacks of paper and discuss union action. And we have crap quality drugs, too. Even so-called balanced stories leave the impression that wait times for medical procedures are peculiar to Canada, while in reality there are wait times in both systems.

The only safe haven for sick Canadians, according to many pundits, is the free world's leader and beacon: the United States, where we flock by the million to buy the best health care in the world.

My second cousin Bubba in Memphis even called my mother to ask how we survive it.

There isn't any reasoning with the Canada-bashers...

But for the record: the World Health Organization has ranked Canada significantly higher on both the level of health care service and the overall health of citizens.

The life expectancy in Canada is 80.7 years, compared to 78.1 in the US. For every 1,000 live births in Canada, 5.0 infants die; in the US, it's 6.7. A recent study found that 92% of Canadians are happy with their primary health care.

Government-run health care is also much more cost efficient. Canada spends US$3,895 per person on health care; Americans spend US$7,290. Narrowing that down to government spending, the Canadian government spends US$2,120 and the US government spends US$2,724 per person. And no, the discrepancy is not due to malpractice, which accounts for less than half of one percent of US spending. Universal health care hasn't left us without doctors: there are roughly the same number of doctors per capita in Canada and the US (2.2 per thousand in Canada; 2.4 per thousand in the US).

Compared to Canada, "U.S. residents are one third less likely to have a regular medical doctor, one fourth more likely to have unmet health care needs, and are more than twice as likely to forgo needed medicines." The US has 45 million uninsured citizens and 16 million who are under-insured.

All indicators prove that Canada has better health care than the US. And yet Canada has nowhere near the best health care in the world: most European countries do a better job than we do.

The larger issue is the appalling level of public discourse in the United States. The odious health care debate is just one example. Another example: This deeply racist country elects its first black president, and when a distinguished black scholar who's a friend of his is roughed up by cops in his own home, Obama is pilloried for speaking up about it?!

But I'm not interested in that right now. What I'm steamed about is why Canadians aren't mad as hell about this relentless slagging of our health care system. Sure, we'll never convince them south of the border, but there should be a furious dialog in this country about being the target of ignorant and malicious defamation of our national character. We are damn lucky that most of the time Americans forget we exist; we can't let them redefine our reality. That American koolaid is something we don't want to drink.