Track of the Day: Careers in Science "Suri Cruise-Missile"

To the surprise of exactly no one, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes have decided to end their marriage. Normally, I wouldn't care about this, but it does give me a chance to post a song by a Toronto Hardcore band that I have been enjoying for the past few weeks. So please, enjoy Careers in Science's excellent "Suri Cruise-Missile" (get it?).

Track of the Day: Turisas "Broadsword"

Why? Because Turisas is a Finnish folk-metal band that dresses like a bunch of post-apocalytpic Braveheart clones:

And they are covering a tune originally by Jethro Tull, who dressed like a bunch of deranged medieval jesters with a thing for flutes and prog-rock:

For some reason, this all works for me. You can listen to the original here.

Count me in for "OneCity"

TTC Chairperson Karen Stintz By now you've probably heard about TTC Chair Karen Stintz (pictured) and Councilor Glenn DeBaeremaeker mega-plan for transity in Toronto- OneCity. Royson James has all the details over at the Star, so I won't rehash them here. But in short - subways, LRT, and a plan that actually works for Toronto. Not just Toronto today, but the Toronto my (hypothetical) kids will live in.

And the cost? Provided that the Feds and Province come to the table, an additional $180 per year (on average) for every Toronto household. Hell, I'll pay that up front.

There's a lot to like about this plan - like, say, the use of facts and evidence (take note, Mr. Ford) - but for me, the best thing about this is how it links a desirable outcome (Transit that works!) with a very specific cost. Over the past few decades, the link between public services and taxation has been eroded, largely by irresponsible politicians who continue to promise tax cuts while simultaneously guaranteeing that we can continue to have nice things like healthcare, education, and infrastructure. These things all cost money. If we want them, then we have to pay for them. Obscuring this connection makes it possible to have a real debate between those who believe that taxation is unacceptable and public services shouldn't exist, and those who see a role for government in our public lives. This is a case of tertium non datur - we either pay for our services, or we don't get them. This is in stark contrast to Rob Ford's subway 'plan', which basically promised a new subway line with exactly no money to pay for it, and no real idea of how that money could be found.

Nobody likes paying taxes. But if the case is made clearly that a $180 increase will build a transit system that works for the whole city, then maybe people will get on board. And if they don't, at least we'll know what the people of Toronto are prepared to pay for, and what kind of future they want. I know what I want Toronto to look like, and I'm willing to cough up the cash to make it happen. Photo by Beltzner on Flickr.

Track of the Day: Ty Segall Band "I Bought My Eyes"

If you think your summer needs a bit more fuzzed-out, pile-driver garage rock, then friend, have I got an album for you. Ty Segall's latest album (out today) is like a giant chainsaw annihilating a forest, as heard from inside a scary cave. Here's one of the standout tracks, "I Bought My Eyes".

For the casual listener, also check out "Wave Goodbye" which has one of the grimiest, punchiest guitar sounds I've heard this year.

Thanks to MN for the heads up on this.

My head is an evolutionary mystery

I'm a bald man. Aside from a greater-than-average yearly outlay on sunscreen, I like it all right. I can wear hats with impunity, people like touching my scalp for some reason ("It's like a baby's head!"), and I am gangbusters in a wind tunnel. But I would be lying if I said I hadn't gazed skyward on occasion and wondered, "Why me, universe? Why have you chosen me for this unique follicular condition, shared by approximately 25 per cent of men?" But before the universe can answer, my head usually gets to cold or hot and I have to go inside and put on a hat. But the questions remain.

As usual, science is no damn help at all. Over at the New Scientist (registration required), Rob Dunn ask a provocative question:

Baldness is extremely rare in nature. It remains unclear why, and when, our ancestors lost most of their fur but there is general agreement that the few hairy bits we retained serve particular purposes. The hair on our heads may protect us from the noonday sun, maintain body heat when it is cold, and even attract a mate. If so, men who lose their hair are at a disadvantage, and you would expect natural and sexual selection to have weeded them out. So why haven't bald men like me, or at least our versions of genes, gone extinct?

My glib response is that I'm awesome, and I can use the light reflected from my scalp to stun predators and escape. But it turns out that no one really knows why bald guys are still kicking around. It was thought for a long time that men inherit the male pattern baldness gene from their mothers. Since the mother wouldn't experience the evolutionary downsides of baldness, they would face no barrier in passing on their genetic material. But as Dunn notes:

But think about it carefully and the logic fails - mothers are just as likely to have sons as daughters and every time they do, if these males are less likely to procreate, these variants should become rarer. In any case, science has shown that this mother-based hypothesis is wrong. We now know that a tendency to baldness can be inherited from both parents, though it is not clear what genetic variants are involved. What is safe to say, is that multiple genes influence the probability that a son will one day have to perform a comb-over.

Dunn offers some tantalizing alternative explanations: baldness is an 'authority signal' that denotes dominance and status; it conveys wisdom, maturity, and nurturance to potential mates, useful in producing successful offspring; and it may even prevent prostate cancer by promoting greater vitamin D production through increased sun absorption. I would like to think that all three are true, and that I am shining (pun intended) example of all of them. Then again, there is scant evidence to support these theories, either in the general population or in my day-to-day life.

It could be that baldness is not adaptive or maladaptive at all:

It could be due to genetic drift - the capriciousness by which some genes flourish by chance. Or maybe baldness is not adaptive itself but is instead genetically linked with some attribute of our ageing bodies that is adaptive. The genes that make men bald might also give them super powers of some yet-to-be-noticed variety.

This is a compelling idea, and one borne out by numerous cultural examples: Martian Manhunter, Professor X, and the Bruce Willis character from 'Unbreakable'. There's also Lex Luthor, so, you know, prepare to bow to your bald overlords.

Check out the whole article if you get a chance- it's a great summary of the state of bald science, which apparently is a hopping area of inquiry. We're so vain.

*Graeme may not appear as pictured.

The Ontario Coroner's Cycling Report: The good, the bad, and the takeaway

I bike in Toronto. I've been hit by a car (and walked away), slipped on street car tracks, cussed out and been cussed out. It's a great way to get around, but it can be tough out there.

So, I was interested to read the Ontario Coroner's morbidly titled "Cycling Death Review". I was concerned to learn that I am the right gender to get smoked on my bike (86 per cent of cycling fatalities were male), but slightly reassured that I'm not in the right age bracket (51 per cent were over 45). Happy that I didn't make the list, but horrified that 129 people had to die on their bikes since 2006.

We need to fix this. The Coroner has some thoughts on how to make the roads safer. Here's what I liked:

    • A 'complete streets' approach to cycling policy. Wait, an actual plan that emphasizes the safety of all road users? Take notes, Rob Ford.
    • An 'Ontario Cycling Plan'.We have a provincial highway act, so it only makes sense to take a provincial approach to making it work for cyclists.
    • Comprehensive public awareness and education strategy. Almost all of the near-misses, hits, and confrontations I've seen or been a part of are the result of people not knowing what to do when. Start young, and teach everyone how to behave when their on the road, no matter the vehicle.
    • Legislative change. I can has Idaho Stop?
    • One Meter Rule for Passing Cyclists. If you can't get around me safely, you can't get around me. I've been grazed by my share of side mirrors, and anybody who does that should be fined to Hell and back.
    • Mandatory side guards for trucks. I saw a girl get pulled under a dump truck once. I don't ever want to see that again.

What I didn't like:

  • Mandatory helmet laws. I wear a helmet every time I'm on a bike. I don't want a brain injury. But the whole mandatory helmet thing is a complete strawman. Whenever somebody gets hurt or killed on a bike, one of the first things any reporter will say is "The cyclist, who was/wasn't wearing a helmet...". The implication is always "it sucks that you got hit by that BMW SUV, but you weren't wearing a helmet, so it's your fault you're hurt." Bullshit. Accidents have operative causes. Helmets do nothing to prevent accidents or make people drive better. They only mitigate injury. The key to bicycle safety is everybody (cyclists, drivers and pedestrians) paying attention, being considerate, and knowing what they're doing. It has nothing to do with helmets. Stuff will always happen, so if you want some extra protection on your head, great. But it's none of the guvmint's damn business.

But here's the big thing for me: 44 per cent of the deaths were the fault of the cyclist, 33 per cent were the fault of cars, and 48 per cent were the fault of both the cyclist and the driver. What does that mean? No group is deserves all the blame, and everyone shares responsibility for making the roads safe. The whole "cars vs. bikes" narrative is nonsense. Jerks are jerks whether they are operating a car, a bike, or walking around. And everyone has the capacity to be a jerk. It's not about banning cars or bikes or separating the two forever. It's about not being a jerk, obeying the rules, and looking out for your own safety and the safety of your fellow road citizens. A few legal tweaks, a bit of education, and a lot of care will go a long way to safer streets. For everyone.


Stop your cognitive shenanigans, Carly Rae Jepson

I apologize for posting this, but I'm making a point. So bear with me.

I finally watched Carly Rae Jepson's video for "Call Me Maybe". I did this because I've seen approximately 80 gabillion YouTube parodies of the song (this one is particularly inspired), and they all felt strangely out of context without seeing the original. And now I have a complaint.

I'm not going to beat up Ms. Jepson about this song. It's not great, but as inoffensive pop fluff goes, it's no worse or better than anything else on the radio. And I'm sure Carly is collecting massive piles of filthy cash for her trouble. We should all be so terrible. No, I would like to complain about the video itself.

Throughout the video, CRJ appears to be backed by a full band. Drums, bass, keys, and guitar. Listening to this song, it is clear that it has never existed outside of a computer hard drive. No session guys were brought in. Her backing band did not record this track. It's total artifice.

So what's the problem? Lot's of videos do this. But say you're eight years old and you're getting interesting in music. "Call Me Maybe" is exactly the thing you're going to encounter first, because it's bloody everywhere. You see the video for "Call Me Maybe", and you see see the instruments, and you hear the sounds the instruments are supposed to be making. As an eight year old, YOU NOW HAVE NO IDEA WHAT A GUITAR ACTUALLY SOUNDS LIKE. And you think that a keyboard sounds like a string quartet.

In this sense, Jepson has actually cognitively impaired her audience's ability to understand music. This isn't a crime, and I'm probably the only one in the world worried about this, but I think this kind of cognitive sleight of hand is irresponsible. I'm not expecting the prepubescent 'guitarist' to bust out some massive Zeppelin lick, but we should try to keep the connection between the sounds that instruments make and the sounds we hear. Throw the drummer in there, sure. But you should also have a guy rocking out in front of a Mac Pro. That way, kids might actually get interested in real music, and somehow find their way to Slayer or the Beatles or Coltrane or something.

Also, that part where she falls off the car and has a sexy dream? She was unconscious for like 23 seconds. Don't laugh about it. Go to the damn hospital.

Henry Rollins: Class Act

henry rollins

If you know me, you know I'm a Henry Rollins superfan. I dig the music (SOA, Black Flag, Rollins Band), and I always enjoy it when Henry turns up in a movie (Heat, Bad Boys II, The Chase). But for me, Henry's spoken word and writing are the main event. I've seen him live* like nine times, and he gets better every show.

There's a lot to admire about Henry- the work ethic, the intensity, the talent - but you've got to respect his commitment to his fans. I offer two examples. When he was last in Toronto (March 24, 2011), I guess he received a few emails complaining about the high ticket price. He checked it out, and the promoter was indeed charging more than his usual price. So, he personally handed out $10 bills to everyone in the crowd. It took twenty minutes, but by god, the audience was ready to die for him at that point.

The second example is more personal. Henry recently found a forgotten box of hardcover, first edition copies of his Black Flag tour diary, Get in the Van. He signed and numbered each one, and put them up for sale. I, being a superfan, bought one. When it arrived, it was indeed numbered (#59 of 75), but not signed. So I emailed him. And

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he emailed me back, very apologetic: "I was so busy trying to get the numbers right I screwed up the easy part." And to make it right, he put me on the list for his next show close to Toronto (Kitchener, June 11, 2012). So I went, and we met up afterwards, and he signed my book. He apologized again, and I told him that this was way cooler than just getting a book in the mail.

The book is awesome, by the way. I recommend it to anyone.

I've read a few articles over the years bagging on Henry, and I've never understand why people do that. They call him a macho asshole, or the guy who ruined Black Flag**. But the Henry Rollins I've seen and met is a thoughtful guy who gives many damns about his fans. And probably one of the hardest working guys going.

*Live spoken word, that is. To my eternal regret, I was five when Black Flag played their last show.
** I've got nothing against Keith Morris or Dez Cadena, but the Flag had it's most productive and expansive period with Rollins on vox.

Photo by Catchetism on Flickr.

Shorter Levant, Coren & Levy: breaking the law is OK when we say it is.

We live in a society of laws. Everybody knows it, and everybody agrees that this is a good thing. Even Ayn Rand, fire-breathing she-dragon of the libertarian right, conceded that government had a small role to play in enforcing laws and contracts. And what are laws? They are codified rules that spell out what is right and wrong in a given situation. If you break the rule, you've done wrong and you should be punished. Laws may not always be correct, but they're always the law.

Rules and laws are also immutable in the face of intention. You may break a law with good intent - say burning down your local community centre after trying to get rid of the rats in the basement - but you're still on hook for arson. Some laws are designed to take intent into account, or are modified by other laws. But if those modifications don't exist, you're out of luck.

Lest you think I'm wasting your time with a rudimentary civics lesson, I'm bringing this up because some people (often but not always employees of the Quebecor owned media outlets) appear to have a little trouble with the basics.

We're in the midst of two significant cases of alleged public rule-breaking: the much ballyhooed 'robocalls' scandal currently spilling blood and ink all over Parliament Hill, and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's violation of conflict of interest legislation. In both, it is clear that something unsavory was done - voter supression in one, and using public office to pursue personal interests in the other. But we don't know how bad it was, or who was responsible. Elections Canada is investigating the robocalls, and an upcoming court case will decide if Ford broke the law. The prudent thing to do is wait for the investigations to conclude, evaluate the results, and apply corrective action as needed. But prudence is not the name of the game in the current political discourse.

Ezra Levant wrote an editorial about the supposed media "manufacturing" of the robocalls scandal. But he doesn't argue that rules weren't broken. He argues that nobody cares except the media, and therefore it's not an issue (he also takes a distasteful shot at 'foreign citizens', but I'll leave that for another day). That's not how rules work. If a political party in Canada perverted the course of democracy, they need to be held to account regardless of how many people show up to protest. That's the nice thing about laws: they work whether we're interested or not, doing the work of good governance even when we can't be bothered.

Another Sun columnist, Michael Coren, goes even further. He suggests that the whole robocalls scandal is actually a conspiracy led by the paranoid right's favorite bogeyman, George Soros. Despite there being not one scrap of evidence to support this claim, he makes the following statement:

What we now know is that the moaning calls were being encouraged and orchestrated, often by radical organizations based in the United States.

No, Michael. We don't know that. You only think that, because Glen Beck said so:

Aside: what the Hell is Glen Beck wearing in that clip? I mean, I know he webcasts from his basement now, but why the pajamas?

Anyway, Coren isn't prepared to wait for the investigation, or even admit that a rule has been broken. His tact is to discredit and inflame, which get no one closer to the truth.

Turning to Rob Ford's latest legal troubles, Sue-Anne Levy writes today that the court case brought against the Mayor is absurd because of who is making the accusations. In her view, it's all a plot by desperate 'Silk Stocking Socialists' and 'lefties', her code words for people who disagree with her. But surpisingly, Levy gives the game away and admits that Ford is at fault:

He should have declared a conflict of interest at the Feb. 7 council meeting and not spoken or voted on whether he had to repay the $3,150 in donations made by lobbyists to his Football Foundation.

She freely admits that Ford broke the law, but that doesn't matter because the accusations were made by her - and the mayor's - political opponents. If this were the basis for jurisprudence in Canada, we'd  all be in a lot of trouble. The court case against Ford may well prove spurious and inane, but only on legal merits, not personal preference.

We need to know the truth about the robocalls and Rob Ford's ethics. Nobody likes it when their choice of party or leader is accused of cheating, lying, and breaking the rules. But the only vindication that counts is proof that no wrong-doing occurred. Levant, Coren, and Levy's tactics of deflecting, disparaging and diminishing demonstrate little interest in the rule of law, or even in determining what's right and wrong. It is shallow partisan nonsense, and we should all - no matter our personal politics - demand better from our pundits.


Goodbye, Mr. Hitchens

I've spent the better part of my morning reading Christopher Hitchens' obituaries. Fitting that such a great writer should draw so much articulate praise. I admired him greatly, and I will miss his work very much.

I also indulged in a little Twitter trolling around Hitch's death, and was disgusted by the reactions of those who took exception to his anti-theism. These people adopt some permutation of three basic arguments: 'God killed him with Cancer', 'Only now does Hitchens know the truth', and 'He died, so that means there is a god'. The last one is particularly weird, since I have never know an atheist anywhere to claim he was immortal.

These reactions made me think of an idea that was at the core of Hitchens' work - when you challenge a powerful idea or person, you become as powerful as they are thought to be. Hitchens' targets - Reagan, Clinton, Mother Theresa, Henry Kissinger, Princess Diana, God, among others - are powerful because we agree that they are. When that agreement is confronted, a crack forms in the mantle of  their authority. Put another way, when you fight 'God', you become as mighty as God because you dare to fight him on his own terms. Hitchens dared, and dared, and then dared some more.  This, I think, is why he drives religious people crazy.

So, thank you. We'll try to keep up the good work.