Saturday, December 31, 2005

I had the opportunity last week to read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, an entertaining little piece of pop sociology with a simple premise: Massive changes happen due to marginal changes. When a certain threshold is reached - not necessarily one that can be predicted beforehand, or even realized in retrospect - further change progresses rapidly and exponentially. Gladwell's analysis is a bit irritating in that it's mostly isolated (though impressive) examples offered in support of generalized 'laws,' without a useful, transferable conclusion, but the theory of the tipping point in itself is an interesting one to explore. While I think it's long been evident that the Canadian media as a whole tends to skew left, or at least anti-conservative - often expressed in support, with varying grades of subtlety, for Liberal policies and personalities - such an institutional bias remains a guarantee of nothing. Indeed, for whatever reason, the media as a whole - led by the Globe & Mail , Toronto Star and others - seems to be turning against Paul Martin at an ever-increasing rate, and giving uncannily positive or neutral coverage to the Conservative campaign. I'm inclined to think this might be rooted in some degree of cynical marketing groupthink, to be honest; attempting to demonstrate to the rubes, provincial and dull, that there are newspapers besides Quebecor's Sun chain that aren't entirely in the Liberals' back pocket. The evidence for this isn't much, I'll admit, but it's growing - and a good example is in the daily trickle of photojournalism. Yahoo! News' photo feed is a good example, collecting the most iconic of CP and others' work. The interesting thing here is that most shots of Martin are amazingly unflattering, making him seem old, tired, dazed, or choleric, and often including that charmless little grimace he seems to believe is similar to a genuine smile. Even that one shot of the PM looking unnervingly like a cornered, depressive skeleton that surfaced yesterday, in reporting the income trust probe and concurrent Liberal slippage in the polls, was dug up from AFP's archives of this past May. It's been hard to find a still photo of Paul Martin looking appealing lately, and it's not as though making him look Prime Ministerial is particularly difficult, with the right camera angle. Conversely, photos of Stephen Harper seem much more likely to be neutral or blandly flattering. I and many other have noted how he's suffered photogenically in the past, looking somewhere between unconvincingly cheerful and just plain creepy, but he's improved considerably of late; either that, or what unappealing photo ops he's had lately have been largely ignored. For instance, the Globe & Mail's story about the pre-emptive Tory strategy to deflect negative Liberal ads with an inoculatory one of their own is accompanied by a shot of...Harper climbing into a minivan. One might make the case that this was chosen to imply, with his reflection visible in the foreground window, some sort of two-faced personality, but I think that's a stretch; more than anything, it's just dull. I'm sure it wouldn't have been hard to find a photo of him in a vaguely sinister pose, if that was what the editor in question wanted. So do we have a case of selection bias here, in the choice of photos that make it out on the wires, and are subsequently run by a number of media outlets? I have no idea. Maybe it is just the old horse-race mentality, with no further calculation or connivances required. But I hope it's a real sea change, and a harbinger of popular opinion - and if that's true, maybe we can count on exponentially growing movement in the polls as we near E-Day.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

One of the things I dislike about the post-Christmas period is that I can never get anything useful done. The advertising business, while due to pick up in January, is still semi-comatose until after New Year's Day. I have plenty of time to finish designs right now, but unfortunately, not much of a backlog to occupy me, and no classes until about the same point. So, how can I best kill time? Inane statistical analysis based on impractical fantasy, of course! Here's John Ibbitson in a Q&A session on the Globe & Mail's site, in a semi-humourous aside on the matter of Canadian-American relations: It has been said that the greatest gift Canada could bestow on humankind would be to voluntarily accept annexation by the United States, thus ensuring Democrat administrations in perpetuity. That said, I do believe this goes beyond simply a clash of administrations. Both countries need to openly assess shared and differing values, working to accentuate the former and minimize the consequences of the latter. (Really? Who's said that, exactly?) On his point, though...well, you'd think so, wouldn't you? I mean, of course a Greater United States including Canada would produce an overwhelming and perpetual liberal majority that would ensure Republicans to be unelectable for all time, right? But that got me thinking, and after doing some calculations*, in fact, the central premise of the joke turns out to be considerably less accurate than one might imagine. After 2000 and 2004 I'm sure everyone understands the Electoral College, and its indirect relationship to population weight. Each state receives a number of electoral votes equal to the sum of its representatives in the House, plus two Senators. However, the size of the House is currently fixed at 435**, and has been since 1913, after reapportionment conducted on the basis of the 1910 census. So, let's say for the sake of argument that Canadians were to suddenly rise as one tomorrow, and demand annexation by the United States. The size of the House might well be changed entirely, but let's say the proportionate weight of representation remained the same, with something like one representative per 645,000 people. (This is a slightly fudged average, as reapportionment is manually tweaked by Congress, but it's close enough.) If the size of the House were to remain the same in the enlarged United States, that ratio would drop to 1:725,000 or thereabouts. Remember, too, that this isn't a constant; each state, no matter the population, receives at least one representative in the House, as does DC. All of this means that existing states would see their share of the Electoral College's votes decrease, whether in absolute numbers or merely in proportion to the whole. Let's also assume that, of the former provinces, most would mimic voting patterns of their nearby counterparts, with Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes falling neatly into the Northeastern Democratic voting bloc, and the prairies and territories into the Midwestern Democrat-leaning group that includes Wisconsin and Minnesota. (Assuming Quebec to be still a part of the former Canada-slash-greater US at this point, something of a counterfactual quandary.) Only Alberta might be considered a conservative stronghold to the effect that presidential elections would semi-reliably trend Republican. BC is a remote possibility, I think, but would probably be safely Democratic. So, what do we have, then? This projection of electoral votes and probable affiliations: (The number of electoral votes I've allocated are based on, again, a slightly fudged formula for representation in the House, which means that this is necessarily even more of a blue-sky projection than the premise necessitates.) If we assume 2004-like voting patterns - probably the best conceivable showing for Republicans in the present context - this adds up to a 294-270 Democratic victory. That's a healthy margin, but not quite an Electoral College landslide à la 486-52 for LBJ in 1964, 520-17 for Nixon in 1972, or 489-49 for Reagan in 1980. In fact, it looks like nothing so much as a slightly skewed version of the status quo. If BC flipped, it'd be only 286-278. If the territories weren't given full representation as states, but only a single token representative (and possibly Senators) between the three of them, something akin to DC or Puerto Rico's oddball arrangements, that edges the math even further towards a complete tossup. Moreso, if Quebec is taken out of the equation. In short, Ibbitson's glib rejoinder falls prey to that all-too-Canadian delusion of significance that confuses geography with population; true, the State of Ontario would be ranked fifth in size behind California, Texas, New York, and Florida, but most of Canada would be in the bottom twenty. So, who's up for annexation now, then, after the myth of a permanently enshrined Democratic Party turns out to be only a statistically minor boost? A two or three-state gap wouldn't be so wide it couldn't be swung, y'know... * All population numbers from Wikipedia, because I'm too lazy to delve through the godawful layouts of StatsCan and the Census Bureau's respective sites. I did enough of that last term, thank you very much. ** There's a minor exception, I know, on the admission of Hawaii and Alaska. But only a minor one, designed to maintain the ~435 standard, which I think supports my point.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

I'm a creature of habit. (To say the least.) Unfortunately, that means being forced out of my sleepwalk of comfortable routines, even for a few days, is very nearly traumatic. I spent Christmas through Boxing Day with family outside of Toronto, and I'm still in a semi-dazed state of recovery. That wouldn't be a problem, except that it tends to lead to lapses in awareness and judgment, such as managing to misplace bus tickets, celery, or ATM receipts, all of which I managed in a span of ten minutes while out grocery shopping today. Or, for instance, failing to notice amusing quasi-Engrish until the third time leafing through the manual for my new fuzzy logic rice cooker: Honestly, the third thing hadn't really occurred to me. All of which is to say, this probably isn't the best time to lay out my perceptions of the beta phase of Campaign 2006, but it's not as though they've changed much for the past few weeks. On the subject of the election, indeed, I'm afraid I'm not holding out much hope. To be sure, I can't endorse fits of cynicism like Jay Currie's, predicting a massive Tory collapse nationwide, but I'm afraid another Liberal minority (decreased, perhaps, to a true state of deadlock) seems all too probable. It would be wonderful to end up with a Conservative minority - which I think might be necessary, at this point, to demonstrate to the more easily-frightened parts of the country that the party is mostly centrist - even if that centrism is starting to look a bit like soft-socialism. (Especially when it looks that way to Toronto Star reporters.) Yes, I know that as a tough-on-crime hawkish-foreign-policy free-market mostly-socially-liberal weakly-agnostic Anglo misanthrope (whew), I'm never going to be completely satisfied with the policies of any party, but I'm feeling less upbeat about Tory campaign policies (skillfully triangulated works of domestic realpolitik though they may be) than usual right now. Still, if it takes squishy nationalism and hard-line federalism to win votes, I can put up with a little ideological discomfort. Half a loaf is better than none, and a PM forced to the centre by polling numbers only some of the time would be an improvement on a complete weathervane.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

So, I'm back. Sort of. At least for the duration of the election - but that can wait. It's not as though I've felt I had nothing to say for most of the past term - to that audience such as I have - but more that I've felt I haven't had enough to say. To that end, I'm going to try waxing Lileksian for a while, with regular, multifaceted updates; it might, I imagine, take some of the edge off of having to come up with a fully elaborated thesis (brief though it may be) in separate posts. That, and it'd become a pain to match appropriate lyrics for titles to blog content, so that what started as an innocent - if overly twee - gimmick eventually became an obstacle to casual expression. All that's neither here nor there, however; it's not what's been bothering me over Christmas. The first thing that has is a 1939 MGM animated short, which I caught on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday morning; this was first of all a surprise, because I didn't realize the channel was even available in Canada. I'd also never seen this particular short before, so I was also surprised by its stunning...well...something, be it amorality or naïveté. I'm speaking of "Peace on Earth," which seems to be uncannily well-regarded despite its very specific context. In a nutshell, a strangely secularized (and annoyingly repetitious) chorus of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is a leitmotif for depicting a charmingly crusty grandfather squirrel explaining to his grandchildren who the mysterious "men" of the lyric "Peace on Earth, goodwill to men" are. This is a post-apocalyptic world, you see, inherited by the innocent woodland creatures after the last humans destroyed each other in a massive (and strangely looking to be fought with arms of WWI vintage) war. Among other scenes hanging a lampshade on the simplistic message is one where the younger grandfather squirrel, in flashback, discovers a bible open to the Sixth Commandment, and by gum, not fixin' to cause no harm to other critters what one meets in this big ol' world seems like a jim-dandy idea to him. (I paraphrase, of course, but not much.) To be fair, there is a logical and excusable context for this kind of thinking - or would have been, about a decade prior. It was 1928, after all, that saw the exquisite diplomatic fantasy that was the Kellogg-Briand Pact, espousing the notion that it was, in fact, possible to end the practice of war by legal fiat. After the horrors of the Great War, and without the spectre of German militarism yet visibly back on the horizon, I don't think this was an unreasonable position to take, idealistic though it may have been. By "Peace on Earth's" release on the 9th of December 1939, however, and even by its time of production throughout 1939, well...let's just note that it was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, with all that implies after the invasions of Poland and Finland. The best that can be said about "Peace on Earth" is that it was an idealistic call to pacifism as a realistic foreign policy strategy, one which simply happened, in retrospect, to be very badly timed. I'm more inclined to call it an ugly little piece of deluded, head-in-the-sand isolationism - the steadfast belief, too common in Americans before Pearl Harbor, that what happens over there is none of our business. While technically superb, especially in effect animation and rotoscoping techniques, it's a sad artifact of the period. The whole thing is a reminder of the smug sense of superiority felt by a certain type of person, on the possibility of simply opting out of dealing with unreasonable men - the same sort who would embrace such vapid statements as "War is over, if you want it," two generations later - and how terribly misplaced that belief must necessarily be. The second thing is Doctor Who, and specifically the Christmas special-cum-stealth Season 28 premiere that aired last night on CBC. The Doctor has just regenerated from a painful death in last season's finale, leaving him more or less helplessly comatose (and considerably more David Tennant-shaped) for most of the episode - and inconveniently so, given an invasion of Earth by the barbaric Sycorax, who threaten from their huge city-ship to variously kill or enslave all of humanity merely because they can. Prime Minister Harriet Marsh (who won in a landslide majority after the Doctor's last significant visit to contemporary Earth, where he removed a number of alien conspirators from Number Ten, leaving backbencher Marsh the political heroine of the day) is teleported to the Sycorax vessel, along with her advisors from the government command centre attempting countermeasures against the incipient invasion, and given an ultimatum: Surrender. Fortunately, the Doctor wakes up in time to handily beat the invading leader in a duel and entreat the remaining Sycorax to leave, demanding in their travels that they speak of Earth not as a target ripe for pillage - but as a planet ably defended. As the ship leaves, Marsh orders her aide to initiate the countermeasures they'd been preparing, which turn out to be a Death Star-like convergent energy beam weapon that vaporizes the Sycorax. The Doctor is outraged, of course, as any pacifist of convenience might be. How could humanity be so cruel, he demands? Should he instead be warning the rest of the galaxy of the monsters coming from Earth? Marsh coolly points out that the Doctor, while always the saviour of Earth (and particularly Britain) when around, often isn't, and that she has a duty to protect her constituents from vicious alien invaders of unproven reliability. In retaliation, the Doctor initiates a whispering campaign which is implied to end her political career shortly thereafter. Doctor Who has never been particularly subtle in its politics. The projected future of the late 1970s imagined, in the Doctor's universe, the first female British PM being Labourite Shirley Williams. The Seventh Doctor story "The Happiness Patrol", though brilliantly absurdist at points, was largely a juvenile fit of Thatcher-bashing. However, by comparison, that was a masterpiece of restraint and good taste. What I see in this is another instance of isolationism, but in that oddly post-9/11 European passive-aggressive manner: We liked you better as victims. Come wallow in self-pity with us, and we might help. The French felt "We are all Americans now" when the United States was wounded and laid low; the Doctor can only allow sympathy for helpless primitives he can rely on to require his help. When the hurt or threatened dare to proactively defend themselves - as the Doctor himself could not or would not when his own race was all but exterminated by the Daleks - well, that's beyond the pale. But - and this is key - the destruction of the Sycorax is obviously meant to echo the destruction of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War, as a purported instance of vindictiveness on the part of victorious Britain. I think Wikipedia's analysis thereof is fairly balanced in explaining just what kind of petty moral equivocation this belief is. The other political allusions therein are so inane I shouldn't even try to reply, but for offering a sentiment I hope should be self-evident: Naked pyramids of prisoners, however reprehensible, != summary execution by painful disintegration. I am pretty sure there's some kind of gap between those two concepts. What is my point, then? I'm not sure. But I do know I'm disappointed by the short-sighted petty politics that the BBC sees fit to endorse today, no less than that selfish and cowardly endorsement of pacifism by the Hollywood of 1939. Not only are the inferable accusations of "The Christmas Invasion" unfair and ridiculous, they're not all that consistent with the character of the Doctor, as malleable as that concept is. I came to love Doctor Who after being introduced to it last season, and I'd hate to have to give up on new episodes for the sake of pervasive ideological foolishness.