Monday, August 30, 2010

The Maple Leaf Forever

It's not really my song; it's my dad's song. It's not a song of my generation.

The Maple Leaf Forever. It's extremely Canadian. Well, English Canadian. In much of English Canada, it was the de facto national anthem till about the middle of the 20th century. It's what my dad knew as 'the national anthem' when he was in school. But the nature of the original lyrics, written by Alexander Muir at Canada's confederation in 1867, are problematic: they speak of a dedication to a British identity that is faded and quaint today. Moreover, it's slighting to the francophone and native peoples who were also here from the beginning of the country. And there's little for anyone of any other heritage to plug into, particularly newcomers. As a result, it had all but vanished from the public eye by the time I came along, entirely supplanted by O Canada, which became the official national anthem in 1980 (though I'd been singing it daily in school for years by that point).

I discovered the tune on the flipside of a 45 of O Canada that I bought in my mid teens, after which I dug around a little and discovered the lyrics:

In days of yore, from Britain's shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia's flag
On Canada's fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast our pride
And, joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf forever!

The Maple Leaf, our emblem dear,
The Maple Leaf forever!
God save our Queen and Heaven bless
The Maple Leaf forever!

As you can see, the lyrics are imperialistic, ignore any tradition but that of the British Isles (though in a nod to the French Muir later changed the lyrics to include the lily with the rose, shamrock, and thistle), and get up the nose of French Canadians right off the bat by reminding them of the conquest of New France in the French and Indian War by James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham – a sure winner as a patriotic song if you're ethnically French. By the time I was born, most English Canadians were faintly embarrassed to sing these lyrics, and, as I indicated, the song faded from the public space of the nation.

Now, I don't mind the lyrics going by the board, though as a teenager with a strong streak of anglophilia, I found them personally stirring. But I'm older now and I get why this can't be a broadly-based Canadian song. It doesn't reflect Canada now, if it ever really did. But I confess, we lost something in letting the tune pass from the national hymnbook. I'd put it on a par with O Canada. It's a magnificent, soaring melody, and if it's rendered in the skirl of massed bagpipes, I don't think even Scotland the Brave can best it (proof of concept below: The Maple Leaf Forever performed by the 48th Highland Regiment of Toronto, medleyed with Gordon Lightfoot's Alberta Bound). I'll put it this way: if I were marching off to a necessary war and facing death, I'd want to march off to The Maple Leaf Forever. Coming home, with the country safe, that's when I'd want to march to O Canada.

I feel like we need a second song. The US has its official national anthem in The Star Spangled Banner (which even I find stirring, particularly this version), but also America the Beautiful (which I also like) and God Bless America (which I don't, much). Quebec has its own particular songs, particularly Gens du pays (literally "People of the Country", but probably better translated as "Countrymen".) But in English Canada, there's really only been O Canada since the 1950s or so. So I was pleased when I learned that The Maple Leaf Forever had been salvaged by an overhaul of its lyrics. Oddly enough, this was done as a part of a contest run by CBC Radio in the late 90s, which was won – surprisingly but somehow not surprisingly – by a new Canadian from Romania named Vladimir Radian. It was first performed in 1997 but I think it got its first real national exposure when Anne Murray sang it at the very last game the Toronto Maple Leafs played in Maple Leaf Gardens in 1999... the closing of the last Original Six stadium in the NHL; quite an occasion. Here is that performance... ironically, fronted not by the Maple Leaf flag but by the 1922-1957 version of the Canadian Red Ensign.

I think it's obvious that these are lyrics much more suited to a peaceful, multicultural immigrant nation of the 21st century, as well as one with longstanding interwoven threads from the 17th and 18th centuries, and beyond to time immemorial. They're entirely suitable to who we have become, and it's at last a song we could sing with pride without blushing and with the need apologize to no one. And so it has been now, before the world: a jazzy version of it was sung by performer Michael Bublé for the 2010 Winter Olympics closing ceremony. I was pleased by that. I bet a lot of people were. I really hope this song can make a comeback and take its rightful and needful place alongside O Canada, second only to it.

None of this is deny the power of the anthem I grew up with, of course... :) Take it away, you Oilers fans!

The words of The Maple Leaf Forever; 1867 version and 1997 version:

1867 lyrics, by Alexander Muir

1997 lyrics, by Vladimir Radian
In days of yore, from Britain's shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia's flag
On Canada's fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast our pride
And, joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf forever!

The Maple Leaf, our emblem dear,
The Maple Leaf forever!
God save our Queen and Heaven bless
The Maple Leaf forever!

At Queenston Heights and Lundy's Lane,
Our brave fathers, side by side,
For freedom, homes and loved ones dear,
Firmly stood and nobly died;
And those dear rights which they maintained,
We swear to yield them never!
Our watchword evermore shall be
"The Maple Leaf forever!"


Our fair Dominion now extends
From Cape Race to Nootka Sound;
May peace forever be our lot,
And plenteous store abound:
And may those ties of love be ours
Which discord cannot sever,
And flourish green o'er freedom's home
The Maple Leaf forever!


On merry England's far famed land
May kind heaven sweetly smile,
God bless old Scotland evermore
and Ireland's Em'rald
And swell the song both loud and long
Till rocks and forest quiver!
God save our Queen and Heaven bless
The Maple Leaf forever!

O, land of blue unending skies,
Mountains strong and sparkling snow,
A scent of freedom in the wind,
O'er the emerald fields below.
To thee we brought our hopes, our dreams,
For thee we stand together,
Our land of peace, where proudly flies,
The Maple Leaf forever.

Long may it wave, and grace our own,
Blue skies and stormy weather,
Within my heart, above my home,
The Maple Leaf forever!

From East and West, our heroes came,
Through icy fields and frozen bays,
Who conquered fear, and cold, and hate,
And their ancient wisdom says:
Protect the weak, defend your rights,
And build this land together,
Above which shine the Northern Lights,
And the Maple Leaf forever!


Oh, Maple Leaf, around the world,
You speak as you rise high above,
Of courage, peace and quiet strength,
Of the Canada I love.
Remind us all our union bound,
By ties we cannot sever,
Bright flag revered on every ground,
The Maple Leaf forever!


Red, white, and natural blue

Addendum, Sept. 1: I've listened to the Anne Murray version of the new lyrics umpteen times now ans the chorus lyric "within my heart, above my home" nails me every time. I think it's far more effective than Muir's eulogizing in the abstract on events long ago. Far more visceral.

Also, now that I come to think about it, the third verse of the original version is anachronistic. Neither Cape Race nor Nootka Sound were in Canada in the autumn of 1867, when the song was penned. "Our fair dominion" at that time extended from (metaphorically) Cape Breton Island to somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Superior. Nootka Sound is in British Columbia, which joined Confederation in 1871; Cape Race is in Newfoundland and wasn't a part of Canada even when my parents were born: Newfoundland didn't confederate until 1949. So that lyric couldn't have been written before mid-century. It's a knock on the noggin for all these folks who complain that the changes made to O Canada when it became official mean it's impure, unlike The Maple Leaf Forever.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What caused the Civil War?

Of late, I've been engaging in a discussion of the cause of the US Civil War on the blog Ashes of Our Fathers, in various threads. I've undertaken to respond to the latest points. My response is too long to be presented there; moreover, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with persistently disagreeing with the owner in his own public space; beyond a certain point, it strikes me as discourteous. As a result, I would like to present my points here.

On revisionism

Revisionism as to the causes of the Civil War seems to have begun the moment the guns were stacked at Appomattox Court House. Prior to that, Southerners had no problem proclaiming slavery, slavery, and slavery were their abiding concerns in starting the war and the sustaining cause for waging it for four years. When slavery was discredited and the blades of several amendments protruded from its corpse, only then did the Lost Cause retcon begin. To illustrate:

Jefferson Davis, 1860

“The South now is confronted by a common foe. The South should, by the instinct of self-preservation, be united. The recent declarations of the candidate and leaders of the Black Republican Party must suffice to convince many who have formerly doubted the purpose to attack the institution of slavery in the states. The undying opposition to slavery in the United States means war upon it, where it is, not where it is not. And the time is at hand when the great battle is to be fought between the defenders of the constitutional government and the votaries of mob rule, fanaticism, and anarchy.”

Jefferson Davis, 1882 (from The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government)

“Slavery was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident. Generally, Africans were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and sold by heathen masters. They were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity... [Blacks had been] put to servitude, trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization. They increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toiled blessed the land of their bode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachments secured faithful service. Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. The tempter came, like the Serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word, freedom. He put arms in their hands and trained the humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors.”

So which Jefferson Davis is to be believed? The one in 1860 with the hopeful sword in his hand, preparing to use it and telling us why, or the disenfranchised, paroled leader of a lost cause, looking for a warmer place in history for his legacy? The same question must be asked of any such about-face on the matter. (Note: and the oddest thing of all here is that, having just said slavery wasn't the issue, Davis then goes on to explain why, at least from his point of view, it actually was the issue...)

Revisionism on the matter of slavery as the primary and sustaining cause of the Civil War is not limited to the South. It is a common American theme. This is easy to understand. Who in the modern age wants his nationality allied to slavery, perhaps the most fundamental injustice of which we can conceive? How can it be that a land that struck for its freedom insisting “all men are created equal” could have legally denied that for the first 90 years of its existence, and essentially for another century beyond that?

In truth, it’s not even a uniquely American thing. Virtually every Western (by which at the time, we all understand we mean “white”) nation with a coast was complicit. How could the storied British Empire, whose inheritors proudly boast to one another and the world brought the rule and law and parliamentary democracy to its furthest corners, have sustained the fire triangle of intercolonial slavery for a century? How could the French have declared the Rights of Man in their revolution, only to be fighting to keep Haiti in chains within a decade? The collective guilt of many white people causes them to have a stake in elevating the intentions of the Southerners in the Civil War. And so, revisionism... the quest for any thread, however unlikely, to make Western civilization look more reasonable, and hide its blemishes. Hence “states’s rights”—which, when the sweet water is boiled away, yields again the sticky molasses of slavery, because what “right” are these states so (literally) up in arms about? Hence sectionalist, religious,  and economic theories that do not bear close scrutiny, because if they were correct, they would imply virtual unceasing civil war in any federation. But some simply must be deaf to the shouts of the Jefferson Davises on the warpath; they insist they, and we, can only hear and must only listen to their humble whispers as all around Reconstruction did its work of erecting a lofty edifice with, sadly, a foundation that quickly subsided, not be righted for a hundred years.

The truth rests in simply listening. Southerners on the lead-up to the war, as they seceded, had no qualms about declaring slavery as their impetus, in their declarations of secession, in several of their ordinances, in their urges to one another to action. They did so plainly, and even proudly. In so many words, they told the world they were seceding, and ultimately, going to war, so that the ownership and control of black people, by white people, for white people, shall not perish from the Earth.

A statement of principle: the Confederate Constitution

Objectivity is called into question here. And while it's true that any argument must be based on a presentation of facts that, itself, might be deemed subjective, it's also true that such facts can be cherry-picked, such as the opinions of this president or that general, or broadly-based, such as the sentiments of thousands of soldiers, or the public statements of legislatures speaking in concert, or the constitutions of entire nations. With a few indulgent exceptions (used with foreknowledge but either to counter points made previously or for good effect), I'll be depending upon the broad strokes.

I've mentioned previously that all four Declarations of Secession that exist make plain their basis in the defence of slavery. I've also pointed out that several of the Ordinances of Secession, where they give cause at all, make reference to slavery and its defence from Northern antipathy. But above all of these is the constitution of the Confederacy itself. This is where we can fairly look for a statement of common cause, the principles of a fledgling nationality: those things proclaimed and held in common by, eventually, eleven states, pledged to their maintenance by war.

Posterity is fortunate in that the Confederate Constitution is, by and large, a word-for-word lifting of the US Constitution, because this enables us to very easily spot the few changes the Confederates saw fit to make in it, and draw conclusions based on them as to what was fundamentally important to them in difference from the Union. Clearly, they were almost entirely satisfied with the document of 1787, and saw fit to alter it only in a few particulars. Clearly, then, these would have been the matters of great importance to them. We're also lucky in that someone (oddly enough, a Canadian; a young British Columbian) has set those differences into high relief for our consideration. And thus, where they are unique, the principles of the Confederacy, as opposed to the Union, shine through, and speak eloquently.

Advocates of the "states' rights" theory are disappointed. Of the storied federal excesses against which the South supposedly took up arms (as opposed to doing so in the defence of slavery, that is), none of these were removed or even altered in the Confederate Constitution. Most telling of all, the supremacy clause, which South Carolina took issue with the Nullification Crisis a generation before the war and which is the lynchpin of any argument purporting to place the rights of sovereign states as the sine qua non of the war, survives in the CSA Constitution intact and essentially verbatim, as do the other supposedly provocative clauses. In the height of irony, the Confederacy even maintained the right of the national government to raise troops against insurrections!

Incredibly, the Confederate Constitution stripped three rights from its states that they had previously enjoyed under the US Constitution. It did add four minor ones; one of these enabled states to levy taxes against the commerce of one another whenever it travelled through their waterways (a strange right indeed to add to the constitution of a land some would have us believe rose up in anger over sectionalist tariffs).

A handful of cosmetic changes are added that change the term and forbid the re-election of the president, and give him a line-item veto; there are other nips and tucks here and there. But where the Confederate Constitution really speaks most clearly are the four additions to it that entrench slavery immovably. Among other things, they forbid any law to be passed against slavery or to limit the ability of any Confederate slave-owner to move freely with his slaves within the nation, or for any state to be added to the Confederacy that did not have slavery as one of its institutions—there would never be a free state in the Confederacy, ever. Given how little else was changed in adapting the US Constitution to the Confederate version, one is hard-pressed to imaged these as work of a people for whom slavery was "a minor issue", and an institution they hoped and expected would fade away. No, these are the clearly the work of a people for whom it was a central pillar of society, and who intended it to be perpetual. A third of Southern families – 400,000 – were slave-holding by 1860. And virtually all the rest aspired to be. By 1860, slaves as property alone, ignoring their productivity, were worth $3 billion... $75 billion in today’s terms. As an asset, they were worth more than all of the manufacturing, railroads, and productive capacity of the antebellum United States combined. Little wonder those who held slaves meant to keep them, and those who did not yet would fight for the opportunity to do so... or that they would overhaul the United States Constitution to make this “asset” permanent.

The Confederate Constitution was ratified on March 11, 1861, exactly one week after the inauguration of President Lincoln, and just four months after his election. Among its original adopters was South Carolina, who, thus constitutionally pledged to the perpetuity of slavery, fired on Fort Sumter one month later and initiated the Civil War.

General Lee

Which brings us to General Lee. That Lee personally disapproved of slavery and himself owned no slaves are standard hymns in the chorus of those who hold the war was not about slavery. Lee was, of course, just one man; he was not a politician and neither was his career beholden to anyone for whom his personal opinions might have been offensive. But what we can note about the man are his actions in light of his convictions.

As noted, on March 11, 1861, the Confederacy ratified a constitution in which it and its members pledged themselves to the perpetuation of slavery. On April 17, Virginia seceded from the United States and joined the Confederacy on April 24, taking up that pledge itself.  Lee resigned from the United States Army on April 18, and accepted the command of Virginia's military on April 23. Subsequent to Virginia's joining the CSA, Lee accepted a five-star commission in the army of a Confederacy whose constitution made perpetual the slavery he supposedly disdained. Six hundred thousand were to die as he defended that principle at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia for four years. Whatever he may have thought of slavery, his principles on that score were not so important as the rights of his fellow white Southerners to maintain it, as far as he knew, forever. And that is bottom line on Robert E. Lee where slavery is concerned; actions speak far louder than words, especially in war.

It was not impossible for a Southerner to have higher principles and to act in accord with them. George Henry Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, was a Virginian who opposed slavery and stayed in the Union army after his state seceded (in the height of irony, J.E.B. Stuart hoped to see the man hanged as a traitor...!). This cost him his extended family, but the principle was there, and he stood by it.

Abraham Lincoln

If Thomas was a man ahead of his time, Abe Lincoln was a man of his time, at least in regard to his views on blacks as people. Lincoln was probably sincere in his stated views that black people were not his social equals; in this, he was like most other white people of the day. But what mattered to the South was his views on the institution of slavery. The equality of blacks was a moot point in the 1850s; how could there even be an intelligent discussion on the matter when the vast majority of them living in the United States were slaves? In practical terms, that would be a matter for presidents named Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. In 1860, the discussion was about the preservation of slavery, and whatever he thought of blacks as people, Lincoln was on record, in the wake of the Dred Scott decision, as opposed to slavery in his “house divided” speech. What Southerners in 1860 remembered was his insistence that slavery would either one day soon be everywhere “lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South”, or else—and clearly, this was the alternative he favoured—“ the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction”. The man who said this, therefore, did not even appear on the ballots of ten Southern states in the election of 1860. He won anyway. A month later, South Carolina seceded.

But what’s important about Lincoln for us was how his views changed over time. Granted that his views on blacks probably never quite matched the general view today, but still, he went from a man who was grudgingly content to see millions of his fellow Americans living in bondage due to their race in order not to disrupt the Union, to a man who, ultimately, acted to make slavery untenable in the United States after the war. He was a man who learned to value blacks as warriors (and thus—how could it be denied?—as citizens) and refused any suggestion they should be returned to a condition of slavery after the war, observing that he “should be damned in time and eternity” if he did so. In this, Lincoln reflected the general change in attitude in Northern troops who met slavery and slaves head on, and had their ideas changed (how, when, and to what extent have been researched and laid out by Chandra Manning in What This Cruel War Was Over). Those ideas took root, and even if it took a century, they did finally bear fruit in the United States. Abraham Lincoln himself personifies the evolution of thought on the matter in the US, and elsewhere; and his flaws, far from being fatal, give hope to progressives everywhere because of his ability to overcome them.

The Dred Scott decision: implications

It’s arguable that the Dred Scott decision of the US Supreme Court in 1857 made the Civil War an inevitability. In truth, it gave the North, not the South, the moral high ground where it came to defending states rights. For, as Lincoln pointed out, not only did it deny blacks (free or slave) citizenship in the United States and the rights thereof; not only did it overturn the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act doctrine of “popular sovereignty” by denying neither Congress nor any territorial government the right to legislate on slavery; but in granting jurisdiction over the slave, as property, to the originating state (obviously, a slave state), it effectively meant that a master could take his slaves anywhere in the United States and no free state had legal remedy. If Dred Scott was not free in Illinois, where slavery was forbidden by state law, what, then, did it even mean to be a “free” state? In light of this, Lincoln was not simply being hyperbolic when he observed the Union must become either all one thing, or all the other, and both Southerners and Northerners knew it.

Which it was to be was the question that prompted Southerners to secede when that very same Abraham Lincoln was elected president on the basis of Northern votes in the very next presidential election in the wake of the Dred Scott decision.


In researching my points for this debate over the past several weeks, I’ve become even more firmly convinced that slavery was the issue that caused and sustained the Civil War.

  • Southerners met and seceded (some by popular vote across the state) in the immediate aftermath of the election of Abraham Lincoln, a “Black Republican” with avowed anti-slavery sentiments, and had formed a new nation by the time of his inauguration. It was that sudden.
  • Southerners gave slavery and its defence as their motivation for secession in public declarations to the world, and firmly fixed the institution, in perpetuity, in the constitution their army defended for four years.
  • In myriad letters home, editorials, diaries, resolutions, and camp newspapers, Southern soldiers by the thousands confirmed again and again that they were fighting to preserve slavery: to have the opportunity to one day be wealthy slave-owners themselves; to maintain their superior and separate status as members of the white race; to prevent the race war and miscegenation they were convinced would come if they lost the institution of slavery (and the backing threat of legal violence it entailed); and to maintain a property base worth more than any other collective asset in the United States at the time other than the land itself.
  • And, sadly, the evidence of the Klan, segregation, and Jim Crow laws that followed in the wake of the war as proof that while slavery might have been destroyed, the underlying sentiment that established it in the first place was not, particularly (but not exclusively) in the former slave states; a division that persists in muted tones right up to the presidential election of 2008.

While I understand the urge to want to see the Civil War as something more akin to Gone With the Wind than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I feel this is a disservice to the men of the day and the issues they really said they fought for an against (to cheapen the principles of some and to attempt to rehabilitate others who would probably be offended by the idea they need rehabilitation); I also think it serves to blunt our sense of justice today in forgetting how far we (and not just the United States) have come; what we might accomplish in the future, and what we stand to lose if we forget. I’ve said before that I’m an atheist... I don’t deny that there’s a God; I simply am not convinced of the existence of one. So the finest thing I can say about the United States Civil War is that it’s one of a very small handful of things that even give me pause to wonder. For if ever there were a moment in history I could think to glimpse the hand of God at work, it would be in the awful penance the US suffered in those four years, and the glorious redemption of liberating armies washing a land clean, at last, of slavery. That is the real worth, value, and measure of the United States Civil War.


I’d like to recommend the online Yale University Civil War course by Professor David W. Blight, which I have been studying with rapt fascination. In particular, I would highlight the following lectures:

8) Dred Scott, Bleeding Kansas, and the Impending Crisis of the Union, 1855-58
9) John Brown's Holy War: Terrorist or Heroic Revolutionary?
10) The Election of 1860 and the Secession Crisis
11) Slavery and State Rights, Economies and Ways of Life: What Caused the Civil War? (N.B.: quote from Jefferson Davis at beginning of post can be found at the start of this lecture.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The resurrection of Pierre Elliot Trudeau (et al.)

Wow, did I have a weird dream last night. I was middling member of the federal civil service (think Bernard from Yes, Minister) and Prime Minister Trudeau had just died (in truth, he died ten years ago next month), and had been buried under the boards in a room that looked very much like the one I slept in when I was ten. Something bothered us about it two days after his burial, and so we disinterred him. I remember the body had the stitch lines of an autopsy, but for all that, we were vindicated when Trudeau's eyes slowly opened and he rose from the coffin to move past us on his way to the bathroom. I remembered fearing his guts would fall out, but the resurrected prime minister flexed his stomach muscles and everything was back in place.

I remember running down the steps of Parliament Hill to a building where my grandmother, who herself has been dead for twenty years, lived (in the dream, but not in reality); a chic structure of steel and ultramarine glass. As it happened, she was near the lobby, so I was able to make her the first to hear the good news that the great man was with us still and it had all been a misunderstanding. She was pleased to hear it but rained sputtering Irish scorn on me and the rest of the bureaucracy for making such a stupid mistake before taking me up for tea and lunch.

A really weird dream, but a pleasing set of fulfilled wishes.

Friday, August 13, 2010

S80, one more time :)

It's kind of a crossover. As of last Monday, I now have my third Canon PowerShot S80, and my third infrared camera. They're one and the same. I don't know what it is; there's just something about the S80 I really like; no other camera I've had feels quite as natural. So while I've moved on to other cameras with better image and video quality since then, when I saw someone in China was selling a raft of PowerShots he reconditions to shoot IR, I had to see if a trusty S80 was among them. It was.

He had other, better models available too, for a lot more. But the S80 is pretty much the most compact PowerShot I've ever seen; they managed to pack just about everything into it and my hands never really stopped hungering to feel the thing again. As I said, I've had two before. One was my workhorse for nearly two years. The other was really just to slake the hankering, but it pretty much just sat around until I found a good home for it in Indiana, where it wouldn't just sit around but would do some real work again, as is this camera's due. Ah, but as an infrared camera, I have reason to start carrying one around again.

It was a little over two hundred dollars, and largely financed by the sale of my first infrared refurb, the G1, to a friend interested in getting into IR photograph himself. So, again, it served two happy purposes: I was getting a better camera for just a few dollars, and I was rescuing the sturdy G1 from sitting on the shelf and getting it into the hands of another amateur photographer.

The S80 has some significant advantages over even the S70 I've been using for IR work over the last couple of years. It's about a quarter smaller, it responds faster, it takes slightly larger pictures (8MP vs 7.1MP) of better quality (Digic II processor vs Digic I), and, best of all, its video abilities are significantly superior. The S70 is limited to recording, at best, 30 seconds of 15 frames-per-second 640x480 video snippets. The S80 can record a full 30 frames-per-second, and the only limit on it is a 1G ceiling on file size. At 640x480, that translates to, on average, about ten minutes (but about 40 minutes at 320x240). I'd prefer something longer (particularly for filming on the road), but ten minutes isn't bad, and it sure beats 30 seconds. Admittedly, the S80 doesn't shoot RAW like the S70, but that's a minor concern, since it's reasonably fast on AEB spreads (one of the reasons I bought my first S80, actually).

I've been putting it through its paces over the last couple of days, and yesterday, one of the Wednesdays P-Doug and I have booked off this year with an eye to hiking and nicely breaking the weeks up, I used it to reshoot the abandoned bridge abutment on 11th Concession (last visited at the end of April, but now with the trees nicely leafed out), and a recently-closed but gorgeous pony truss bridge in Bolton (I'll have to blog on that in particular).

Below: a shot of the lost bridge on 11th Concession location taken with the S70 in late April, and the S80 in early August. The S70 shot is also HDR, composed of three exposures. I like the moodiness and gloom of the first and the bright 'life goes on' solace of the second. :)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Wiley Bowstring bridge, Gorewood Road

Last Saturday for something to do I decided to get out and do an update shot of a 1966 photo I have from the city archives. It's of a concrete bow arch bridge over the Humber River just to the northwest of Toronto's borders, in what's now the Claireville Conservation Area in Brampton.

When the original photo was taken in 1966 (and, by the way, folks at the city archives: you're displaying it backwards; it appears corrected below), the bridge was on what was Peel County's Eighth Line East; as far as I know, it was still so-called at the time. Today, south of Steeles, it's renamed for Finch Avenue, which grew west out of Metro Toronto in the early 80s to turn north and take over the route; up to the bridge it's now called Gorewood Road (though it's closed to traffic about a quarter mile north of the 407); north of the bridge it's Claireville Conservation Road (poetic, that, huh?), and then, finally, north of Hwy 7, it's McVean Drive. Not bad for a little country road that's got so little traffic.

Anyway, I'd been to the bridge before. GoogleMaps is a boon to people looking for sad old closed roads and lost bridges. This one, I've discovered recently, was built in 1924, was referred to (for reasons that current elude me) as "Wiley Bowstring Bridge", and served into the 1960s when it was (I suppose) closed as the regional authority turned the place into conservation land. I was at the bridge a few summers ago and wandered a bit of the treed plain beyond. Discovering the 1966 photo was a jaw-dropper; there are nearly no trees immediately near the bridge or beyond it 1966. By the early years of this century, they had really closed in around it, as you'll see.


The bridge can be seen from the crest of the hill above it. But the 1966 shot was taken from beside the road (evident from the fact you can see the outside of the bridge), and from above (the top of the bridge is below the horizon line). As I approached the bridge, I began to despair of duplicating the shot. As with many others I've tried, the intervening years have filled the original photographer's perch with trees, brush, or sometimes new construction. In this case, it was trees. To match the shot, I had to leave the road and climb a slippery, grassy slope. I'm usually in sandals in summer and I learned long ago the best way to deal with this is to take them off. Even so, to match the shot, I had to stand on a slope that constantly threatened to send me sliding down into a ditch twenty feet below. I had to pick my way through a lot of underbrush but I finally reached a spot that approximated, but didn't exactly match, that of my predecessor... I was about a foot too low and a yard too far to the right, thanks to a tree that had grown up in the meantime and refused to make way for me even for a few seconds. Still, not a bad match, though I say so myself, especially given that I had no visual cues from the west side of the bridge to work with.

Getting down was about as tricky as getting up. At one point, I stepped onto something rather sharp that penetrated the sole of my right foot just back of the fourth and fifth toes. I made a face and gave a grunt; I've learned to manage this kind of thing (I remember well stepping on a thorn once on the Humber Valley Heritage Trail just as I was lining up a shot of a deer and stifling the yelp... still missed the shot). I put my sandals back on as I reached the gravel road again and I could feel the blood making my foot stick to the sandal as I wandered over the bridge a couple of minutes later. Ah, but it's like jellyfish stings if you live by the sea... it's part of the price of enjoying summer and you get used to it. Didn't bother me more than a minute or two.

Coming back up the hill from the bridge, I took a shot from the lip all the way down the road. Between a quarter and a half a mile away, you can see first the bridge of the 407 over Gorewood Road, and beyond that, the intersection of Finch and Steeles Avenues.

While I was driving up Gorewood, I noticed that all the houses—every single one of them—seemed to be abandoned and boarded up. People were quite comfortably living there the last time I was at the bridge a few years ago. I don't have any idea why they would have sold out as a block. House listings suggest they're being sold as houses... but that doesn't explain why everyone left at the same time. That they seem to be being sold under power of sale suggests to me that maybe they were bought up en masse by someone with a plan for the whole strip (the houses are all on the west side; there are none now on the east, if there ever were), bought them all up, and then the project fell through, so the investors are left with about a dozen homes, priced in the $500K-600K range. Anyway, it occurred to me that they just might be on the way to consignment to history, so I thought I'd walk the length of the street and record what they looked like from the street. This time next year, these lots just might be scrub land again.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Movie review: Inception

This is a review of the movie Inception. It contains plot spoilers. If things like this can ruin your movie experience and you haven't seen the movie yet and intend to, please don't read any further.

I saw the movie Inception on Simcoe Day and my feelings about it are mixed, and, I confess, on the whole, negative. I'll start off by saying it's a tour de force, visually pleasing and even stunning without ever being over the top. It's well-acted and I had no problems with the cast (although I have to wonder why the inestimable Michael Cane appears for all of two minutes in the movie, only to essentially vanish utterly afterward... a cameo? Did Christopher Nolan owe someone a favour?). It's intricate and complicated and requires that you pay attention; despite that, it did not seem overly long, as such movies often do. It features a highly intriguing plot device: new technology that enables people to share a mutual dreamscape. But for me, the movie suffers from a forced premise and a moral vacuousness I found disturbing.

Roger Ebert calls it "a breathtaking juggling act", which I find apt because that's exactly how I was characterizing the plot to myself as I left the theatre. If that kind of thing in and of itself impresses you, this is definitely a movie for you. But I need more: I need for the plot devices and suspension of disbelief to hold together or I tend to bail. And in this "juggling act", I was seeing too many strings. A lot of the juggling was really yo-yo work masquerading as juggling. What I mean is, there was too much special pleading in the movie. I'll come back to this. But I've seen movies like this before that manage their precepts much more adroitly and don't require special pleading to move forward. It's been achieved by Guy Ritchie nigh-flawlessly in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and somewhat more sloppily in Snatch, and with a terrifyingly nightmarish reality by Scott Raimi in A Simple Plan. Inception falls short of those high water marks.

In some senses, it tells something of the same story as The Matrix, inasmuch as it's about making choices about what kind of reality you want to subscribe to and how dreams and waking states can influence each other in complicated ways, and to which it compares favourably because it does so in ways that aim higher than getting 12-year-old boys to croon "coooool!" from the front row; it's a far more mature and believable exploration of the idea. In other ways, it tells something of the same story as Brainstorm, in that it examines the ramifications of technologies that enable humanity to finally open and manipulate the black box of personality and experience. But here Inception compares unfavourably, because Brainstorm follows a narrative that's far more natural, believable, human, and—most distinctively of all—has a moral centre utterly lacking in Inception.

Special pleading

In discussions I've had with theists on the nature of things, I've become aware of a flawed process of logic often used in religious matters called special pleading. Essentially it's aimed at insisting that certain rules or preconditions crucial to other logical arguments can be ignored in cases where someone needs them not to apply. For example:

Theist: Where did everything come from, if God didn't create it? It couldn’t just have created itself.

Atheist: Well, then, where did God come from? Did he just create himself? If not, who created him? And who created that creator? And so on...?

Theist: God's different; he's just always existed.

Atheist: Why couldn't the universe just always have existed in some form then, and never required a creator?

Theist: Because everything that exists has a beginning.

Atheist: Well, you say God exists. Therefore, doesn't he have a beginning?

Theist: I told you; God's just always existed. which point, the argument typically circles back and becomes a loop of theistic illogic. This is special pleading: rules don't apply because some aspect of the argument fails if they do. This kind of thing happens in a number of places in Inception.
Nolan spends the first quarter of the movie layering on The Rules of How Dreams and Extraction Work (in spirals I found almost comically similar to Capt. Kirk explaining the rules of "fizbin" to the gangsters in the Star Trek episode A Piece of the Action), and then uses, abuses, or ignores them as required by the plot. You know when they spend the first couple acts of the movie just laying out the ground rules, concept is being sacrificed for the sake of Keen Plot Stuff to Come Later. Instances of special pleading that bothered me were:
    • Saito's imaginary wound and that awful imaginary French song are factors all the way down, from dream level to dream level, but the disturbances in gravity due to an imaginary van falling backwards into imaginary water only factor in one other level, where it was clearly set up to allow for a lot of visually cool zero-G fighting. But where the zero-G fighting would have been inconvenient (try shooting that outside a snow fortress), the effect somehow failed to trickle down. Special pleading.
    • Projections of Cobb's mind kept showing up in other people's dreams, with no explanation. We're just expected to accept that they're there because he's on screen. Shouldn't they have been the freaked out bugbears of whosever dream they were actually in, instead? Special pleading.
    • If getting Fischer to accept a little idea whispered in his ear was such a big deal, why was it no big thing at all to get him to accept as a natural part of his own dream an entire mountainside and a snow fortress  designed by doe-eyed co-ed? (Fischer even blames himself at one point for not dreaming of a beach instead!) Why didn't that set off this carefully-honed dream bullshit detector we've been assured that everyone has, upon which the whole premise hangs? And if it didn't, why wouldn't Cobb have been able to walk up to Fischer in the first dream and just go, "Wooo, I'm the ghost of your conscience, sell your companies off, woooooo!!"? Special pleading.
    • Everyone runs around the second half of the movie under threat of madness caused by apparent decades in the "limbo" of Cobb's mind (why his mind, particularly, especially if the dreamer changes at each level?) because the drug required to pull this off conveniently precludes simple waking. And yet, when Saito "dies" and quite obviously does spend the equivalent of decades growing old in the limbo of Cobb's subconscious (which turns out to be a well-appointed house with oaken rooms beside a beach; not quite the hellish purgatory we'd been led to expect), he wakes up none the worse for wear on the plane and reaches for his phone instead of clawing his eyes out and screeching in unimaginable madness as we'd been assured he would, with a brain turned to mush and all. I guess it would have strained his credibility when he called up the State Department or whoever to have Cobb's record expunged and demanded to talk to the Chief High Pink Elephant. So, special pleading.
    • The bête noire of the movie, Cobb's (frankly detestable) wife Mal, is not really Mal at all. She's nothing more than a figment of his imagination manifesting on the one hand his yearning for what he's lost, and on the other his guilt for what he did (this seems to be the only morally redeeming thing about the character of Cobb whatsoever, by the way; not that he learns a single thing from it). And yet "she" (and remember, "she" is really "him") is surprised to learn that Cobb implanted the idea in her head that proved fatal. But as a part of his mind, and one generated at least in part by a sense of guilt out to torture him, this projection of Mal would know that. She knows everything else about his motivations and desires, and even minutiae like the layouts of mazes he plans. It makes no sense at all that she would not know something that looms so large in Cobb's mind as the root cause of her suicide, since it's his guilt for causing it that gives rise to "her" in the first place. Special pleading.
    • It's given to us that Fischer is highly aware of the process of dream extraction (think freight train). And yet, that the guy on the plane sitting right behind him, and whom he sees in the airport after the dream, is also the one he sees in his dream conspicuously guiding and manipulating him doesn't seem to be an issue, either to him or to Cobb himself. How dumb is Fischer? How much does Cobb trust his luck? Special pleading.

    The moral vacuum

    Inception is a movie utterly devoid of a moral compass. In a sense, it's a retelling of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers... where we're being asked to cheer for the Body Snatchers. At the heart of this movie is this: people gain the ability to hotwire and fundamentally change an aspect of the personality of another human being against his will, to their colossal benefit and against his own interests, and the movie rewards them for it.

    This is a monstrous idea. I wanted to see these people fail, suffer for attempting it, and learn from it. None of that happened. Jan Egelson got away with this kind of thing in A Shock to the System (starring Michael Cane, ironically) by making the protagonist a deeply sympathetic character; it was a rare instance of cheering for the bad guy because he wasn't really a bad guy. But the people in Inception have virtually no sympathy for others and essentially no deeper humanity about them, other than their own self-interests. Any reptile capable of speech could have carried this plot.
    • Early in the movie, Cobb, Arthur, and a man named Nash are working on Saito. It goes wrong, and they end up caught. But for some reason, Nash is hauled away to a fate unknown (but assumed to be death) while Cobb and Arthur are essentially free to walk away, supposedly thanks to Saito. (First of all, this strikes me as unlikely. Nash was just the guy who designed the mazes. Taking it out on him but not the masterminds is like bursting armed to the teeth into the offices of a newspaper that slandered you and blowing away the crossword puzzle guy, but tipping your hat the editor and publisher as they stroll out the door for a four-martini lunch.) Neither Cobb nor Arthur so much as raises an eyebrow about it, or even a tsk-tsk-tsk. I don't know about you, but if Saito were asking me for my singular skills, the first condition I would have made was, "Alright, but get on the phone right now and get our buddy off the hook." But no, not a word. They didn't even try. Even if the answer had been no, they were obliged as human beings to make some kind of effort, and they didn't. So right off the bat they started losing me. Why should I waste emotional capital investing it in these remorseless bloodsuckers?
    • Relatedly, when Ariande realized that Cobb had these demons that were a dire and direct threat to the team, two moral failings were revealed. First of all, that Cobb was, again, ready to put his friends through hell (remember, at the time, we were assured anyone who "died" in the dream was fated to torture unto madness in "limbo") in the hopes of getting what he wanted. Secondly, that Ariande, instead of being horrified and revealing this to the others so they could make an informed choice, kept it to herself and merely periodically badgered Cobb to tell them, like Ann Landers or some other agony aunt. Why would she do that? Why was respecting his right to privacy (the ultimate irony, given the nature of the movie) more important than the right to sanity of a half a dozen other, deliberately-deceived people?
    • It's also related to us that in real life, Cobb's wife Mal committed suicide to "wake up", believing even the real world to be a dream thanks to Cobb's interference with her fundamental character. Aware of how the dreaming world works, the logic of it would lead such a person to say to the other, "Alright, you don't believe it's a dream. That's fine; I'll simply jump off the ledge and wake myself up, and when I do, I'll just roll over and wake you up, too. See you in a minute...", and then jump. Mal would obviously know that. Instead, the movie tells us that, for no logical reason whatsoever, this soul vampire of a woman, thrice-pronounced sane, decides to frame the man she supposedly loves for murder, costing him his family and his freedom if he doesn't bend to her will and jump too. Why would a loving spouse mentally torture the other in the full knowledge that, if she's right, she'll be waking him up herself in ten seconds anyway? Again, the message is that the rights and considerations of others are utterly dispensable and you're right to use whatever means available to force others to do what you want.

    Worst of all is what's being done to Fischer. He is changed against his will, and becomes the tool of the will of another. That the movie gives him a cookie in the form of a fake catharsis (that is, after all, itself simply the sugar coating on a form of suicide pill) does not excuse what's being done to him. He goes to sleep on the plane a free man, and wakes up loving Big Brother. And we're meant to applaud this as a skillful accomplishment.

    Consider this. The act that ruins Cobb's life, costs him his wife, his children their mother, and his wife her discernment and finally her very existence, is the very same one he chooses to get his freedom back. Forcing his will on a person he loved, to expedite getting what he wanted, destroyed her. And yet, he's ready, willing, and able to do it to someone else, again, as a shortcut to getting what he wants. Despite the death of the woman he loved, other people remain tools to achieve his desires, even unto slavery. Epiphany: none; moral and spiritual growth of protagonist: none. How is it possible not to despise this man, and his all-too-willing cohorts?

    What was done to Fischer was very much like deliberately passing someone a computer virus; the movie even points that out, but fails to follow that through to its moral conclusion: it exists simply as a means to explain the process to the audience, and in spite of it costing Mal her life, is never mapped out as territory that should not be trespassed, ever. Fischer's "Rosebud" moment with his father isn't even worthy of a comparison, because it's an illusion; it's nothing more than his own interpretation of a poisonous splinter pressed into his mind to fester; magic worked against his own free will. We have no idea what Fischer's father's opinion of him actually was, and neither does Fischer. Would the audience have been accepting of an outcome in which Fischer's conception of his father had, instead, compelled him to sell his companies off and then blow his brains out? Effectively, the results for the team would have been the same: Saito would have gotten what he wanted, Cobb would have gotten what he wanted, the other members would have gotten what they wanted (money, presumably). Again, Fischer was expendable; they didn't care what happened to him as long as he performed as programmed. The movie gives him a "happy" ending to assuage the consciences of the audience, and the protagonists (assuming they have any, which I doubt). In this, too, I think it lets us down.

    How is what was done to Fischer in any way different from locking a man in a room full of laughing gas, getting him to sign away everything he owns to you, and then leaving him there for the rest of his life? Why are we asked to endorse this, and cheer that people get away with it?

    I wanted them to fail. I wanted Fischer to smell a rat and have them arrested. I wanted Cobb to spend the rest of his life pining for the children whose mother his tinkering destroyed. I wanted Saito to wake up mad for daring to steal the mind of his legitimate competitor. I would have applauded the movie as a cautionary tale with an eye to the future if it had had the moral strength to do this. But no. The movie turns Fischer into a slave, and rewards his captors handsomely.

    To sum up

    In the end, overall, I was disappointed because the movie was a great concept hijacked by a James Bond movie. Instead of starting with an idea (a new ability to share a dreamscape) and seeing where it naturally leads, Nolan has taken that idea, married it to a preconceived end, and then hammered, sawed, and welded in into something awkward to suit that purpose. Extraneous characters and rules and exceptions to rules are larded on to fit the needs of an action flick—and not one that grew organically from the original concept, but was shoehorned in.

    It's worth seeing, but I don't think it's exceptional. But it could have been.

    Monday, August 02, 2010

    Pork, peanuts, plunges, and pique, Part II

    I got this response regarding my recent post, Pork, peanuts, plunges, and pique, in email from P-Doug mid-week. He's consented to let me post it as a follow-up and the other side of the story. :)

    * * * * *

    As for my return trip to Otterwa, you got the details right.  You were right to stay with the car.  I was totally ticked off at my own lack of focus in forgetting the keys that accompanying me would have been an exercise in Buddha-level tranquility.  I was almost grinding my teeth in frustration at myself but, since I was the one to screw up, it was only up to me to make the return trek and learn the life lesson involved.  The real problem was that the sun was setting just as we discovered what I had (not) done.  The other problem was that, by the time I got back to the curve in the road, I realized that I had no insect repellent on me (it was also in the fanny pack) so this was going to be a trip without long pauses.  I cinched the straps on my sandals tight and headed off.

    Once into the woods, my eyes adjusted to the gloom but it was pretty obvious that this trip was going to have to be done within the next 30 minutes or I was going to be in some trouble.  Slogging up the hill at full bore was no fun (barefoot, you’d never be able to keep up with me) but the decent on the other side was a matter of running downhill like some fat Heidi heading for a mud bath of warm chocolate while missing the patches of thistle.

    The situation really hit me when I got down to the ridge of pine trees between the field and the river.  It was so dark that I could see the trees but not the layout of the ground.  It took a moment before I gave up trying to find the route down and just went for the falling-from-tree-to-tree method.  That got me down to the riverbank swamp where I double-checked each foot fall so as to not suddenly sink up to my hips again.  By the time I was slip-sliding my way across the river rocks to the far side, I was swearing in entire paragraphs (Jonny Rotten is right, anger is an energy).  Finally found the fanny pack which was a black thing fallen into black bushes, double-checked I still had my keys and turned around to face the 400 foot climb of the return trip.  I knew at that point, staring at the now-dark woods, that I had to do this in one shot.

    The fields were not too bad.  There was plenty of glow in the sky to see the foliage and lay of the land.  It was just that, with the bugs gathering, I didn’t have time to be too fussy in my path.  If I ran into thistle, too bad.  Just deal with it.  The woods were different.  It took a while before your eyes adjusted to the gloom but the delay allowed me to half-catch my breath.  By the time I got to the top of the hill again. I was making wheezing noises like Jackie Gleason in a marathon and looked like I’d just skydived through a canopy of trees.  Needless to say, as I walked up the yellow line of Humber Station Road, I almost had spirals for eyes from the adrenalin.

    When I didn’t see you at the car, I was rather puzzled.  I know that you would not have wandered off but your absence made me instantly uneasy.  If you WERE gone, what could be the reason?  I can’t say I was thinking utterly rationally but I was looking around with almost feral intensity.  When you suddenly rose out of the grass, I almost leapt backwards into the road.

    As for flinging $3 out the window, I fully claim my Scottish heritage. It was a matter of priorities.  I needed to get home and swallow a handful of antihistamines before the adrenalin wore off.  When I sat down, my leaping back out again wasn’t an act.  The welts on me literally felt like I was sitting on barbwire.  I couldn’t tell with the lack of light but I figured I might be heading for a major immune reaction (thankfully, that wasn’t the case). Besides, no offence for your hunger, which was a real thing, but I figured it would be about 10:15pm before I got back to East York.  And, yeah, you’d still be there if you’d got out of the car.  8^)

    Back home, after grabbing a shower, I certainly caught G's eye.  My left side didn’t have a nick on it but my right side, especially my leg, was a map of scars.  I don’t remember it but I must have had a butt-kicking session with a patch of thistle because my one side was a patchwork of lacerations.  But not a single mosquito bite.  Nothing, not a single itch.  Strange.