Tuesday, 27 March 2012

More Movies and TV Series

Lately I've been re-watching some of my favourites, such as "Four Brothers", and a couple of silly ones such as "Private Benjamin" and "Overboard", but these are making me think of movies I loved 100 times more, such as the original "Swept Away" (not the Madonna remake, but rather the original by Lena Vertmuller and starring Giancarlo Gianinni and Mariangela Melato). Aside from those, I have re-watched several other films numerous times, including:

1) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (my vote for Best Film Ever Made)
2) Godfather I and II (they must be seen together, back to back)
Bad Timing (director Nick Roeg, stars Teresa Russell and Art Garfunkel and Harvey Keitel).
4) Inception
5) School of Rock
6) Red, White and Blue (that's 3 movies not 1)

I'm due for another viewing of The Wire, in my opinion the finest series ever made for television. As CBC TV interviewer George (Strombo) Stroumboulopoulos said, The Wire ruined TV for him: five seasons and one uninterrupted story. It pales even Godfather I+II. As the network loves to say in its ads, "It's not TV. It's HBO." I hope that viewers in other countries can see this work of art.

The same people who made The Wire made Treme, a radical departure from The Wire: it's about what happened to the folks of New Orleans after Katrina, Lots of jazz, some of the same actors from The Wire, very excellent show. These film-makers are Good. The only "problem" with such a series is that it needs to be seen in chronological order, with no episodes omitted. The Wire is perhaps the strongest argument that screenwriting talent has moved away from movies and into HBO. 

Perhaps it began with The Sopranos. Other HBO series followed, lots of them! But there is something singular about The Wire and Breaking Bad. Both are quite simply Awesome!

The people behind The Wire date to Homicide, Life on the Streets, another terrific series, one of the finest ever made for commercial television. Given the environment of commercial TV, they had to pull punches, and so be it, but these creative people pushed on, and subsequently made series far superior to what they were allowed to create within the system. HBO gave them the outlet they needed.

I don't know a thing about who financed what, nor do I care. What I do know is that somehow, some way, The Wire and Treme and Breaking Bad made it through the system. And I would guess that the kudos belong to the producers of same. I don't have the slightest clue how they managed to get these works of art through the system, but I am glad that they did.

Perhaps this could not have been done without Steve Bochco, who led the way with "Hill Street Blues" and then later, "NYPD Blue". While we're on it, let me kneel and acknowledge Denis Franz, who was offered the finest role on TV and who stepped up to the plate and delivered Sipowitz as a character that shall live with me forever, like Raskalnikov. Salute to you, Guru Denis! You deserve a seat beside Sir Alex Guiness at the table of Greatest Actors!

What I found especially interesting in your trajectory, Denis,are the two roles you played in "Hill Street". That's when I concluded that I was in the tele-presence of a Great Actor. I've tracked you ever since then, not like a stalker, but simply as an admirer of a genius at work.

Maybe someday I'll get to meet you, Denis, and repeat all this face to face. I admire your work immensely, and when I see how nice you are on talk-shows, it only reinforces what a great actor you are!

A Great Photographer

For a couple of decades I have known an excellent man named Raymond LaFontaine, and just recently I met his brother, Jacques, by telephone. Raymond apparently told him that I had opinions about the art of photography that were worth reading. I have written on this subject, and have had the pleasure of knowing some great photographers, my favourite perhaps being Fletcher Starbuck, of whose prize takes I own but one. There's also Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus (how's that for opposites attract?) and several others.

Geology equals physiology. A face, taken correctly, reflects a life. That is what captured me about photography and why I love it so much. I just found this site, and I am drop-dead in love with it.


Be careful and grab the whole URL, and it's magnificent, but I want to focus your attention upon my new acquaintace Jacques LaFontaine. He has captured so much about this diverse country that we call Canada, and even though we only met so far by phone and Internet, I hope to meet this man and become his friend. His photos are technically brilliant, and that only describes their geometry and colour. He goes way beyond those simple maxims and into the adventure that is Art. Pay attention to this man! These achievements are (in the phrase of software developers) nonTrivial. This person has changed the landscape of the mind.

Freedom, Religion, etc.

This began as a reply to Peter's post on Catholicism, but quickly grew too lengthy for a comment, and so I'm posting it with a new subject, but I encourage you, dear reader, to read Peter's post first, and then, if interested, to read this.

In the simple terms proposed by Philosophy 101 courses, there are two kinds of freedom:
  • 1.       Freedom From: from oppression, tyranny, unlawful incarceration, slavery, etc.
  • 2.       Freedom To: to express oneself, read anything one wishes, choose to be a monk or a lawyer or a physician or an alchemist or a political scientist (contradiction in terms, but let’s let that one pass anyway), leftist, rightist or centrist, etc.
We have to be careful with these definitions, and always remain aware of the blurred lines of gray between them, and also aware of, in to paraphrase Alan Borovoy and the title of his wonderful and provocative book, “When Freedoms Collide”. The problem that arises when Freedom To collides with Freedom From.

Freedom To does not include the freedom to enslave other people, since that alleged freedom denies those victims their right to freedom.  Nor does it include the freedom to impose one’s religious or political beliefs upon other citizens. Some nations and many people believe that Freedom To includes the right to acquire and hold unlimited wealth, for example.

Freedom From does not include the freedom from ethical and political and social responsibilities; c.f. freedom from one’s obligations to pay alimony, child-support, income taxes, etc.

The lines between these freedoms gray at their edges, to the point where the intelligent person must weigh individual cases rather than general examples. Given some fictional or factual state which permits the freedom to own slaves, are those slaves free to rise up in protest and if necessary, confiscate the lands owned by the slave-owners and redistribute the ownership of same? I say Yes. Some might say No. I acknowledge that.

Numerous nations face a serious problem of economic distribution of wealth. Classic cases include the Philippines, El Salvador, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Canada, the USA, the UK, the modern Russia, and numerous others, in which about 1% of the population either owns outright or at least controls 99% of the wealth in said jurisdiction. In such places, one might contest the right of that 1% to own or control the 99%, or alternatively, one might adopt the “laissez faire” position, and suggest instead that this is God's will, and/or that the market will ultimately sort out itself, just as it did in the age of the Robber Barons. To politicize Supertramp, “Right, right, you’re bloody well right, we know you’ve got a lot to save.”

Does freedom of speech include the right to deny the Holocaust, to say that 13 Sicilian rabbis control the planet, that either the Israelis or the Palestinians have a just cause (or worse, both)?

The closer we examine these boundaries, the murkier they get. I have no clear-cut distinctions to profess, yet I try, despite the myriad difficulties and complications.
Recently I have begun to re-read Thucydides, and deem him perhaps the smartest, most incisive political journalist who ever lived.  In fact, I consider him the founder of political journalism. His "take no sides, just document what occurred, no matter whom might be offended" writings have stood the test of a couple of millennia, and stand up still. He describes the brutality of war in the most objective terms then, and perhaps now, possible.
In the age of propaganda, this standard is difficult if not impossible to meet. I venture that Noam Chomsky is about as close as we have come to the standard set by Thucydides. The thing about Chomsky is that he buttresses all his arguments with hundreds if not thousands of citations.
I could write about Freedom From and Freedom To for at least a book, and join the thousands of others who have addressed this topic, but I’ll let the subject go at this.
These are difficult questions, and as Alan Borovoy suggests in his brilliant book, When Freedoms Collide, these questions are not easily decided. Freedoms collide, and with them perspectives upon reality: not only what exists, but what ought to exist. And there lies the rub: how do you and I reconcile these opposite values? How do we accept or refute what exists versus what ought to exist?
I have no easy answers to this question. Despite that, I shall not let it go, nor to succumb to anarchic/relativist beliefs. Difficult as it may be to sort out, I remain steadfast in the belief that it can be done, that we can sort out the Freedoms From and the Freedoms To, and figure this out.
This started out about the alleged freedom of Roman Catholics to forbid/deny/condemn those who believe that the right to abortion ought to belong to the pregnant woman in question. Once I heard proposed an argument against the right to abort, expressed by a Roman Catholic nun; at best I can paraphrase her argument, as follows:
To focus upon individual rights is to negate both the path of God’s will and the path of evolution. In the former case, God had a plan, and even if a woman’s pregnancy was a result of rape, that was part of God’s plan. In the latter case, a focus upon the individual misses the point of evolution of the species, which is not concerned with the rights of any individual but rather on “The Selfish Gene,”  as propounded by Richard Dawkins.
If one is to take Mr. Dawkins seriously (and I do: guilty as charged), It is not about what you or I want, but rather what our genes want: we are the vehicles of our genes, and have little or no power over where our genes take us. To put it another way, we are the passengers on our genetic train, not the layers of those tracks. 
Who can predict the next thought one is likely to have? Despite my powers of concentration, in the middle of trying to create an algorithm, I’m suddenly in the throes of remembrance of something awful I said in a conversation 20 years ago – it only lasts a few moments, but I could neither predict this nor defend against it. Recall happens, and I am powerless to prevent it. I am the passenger on my thought-train, absolutely without the power to re-lay the tracks, left to follow the random sequence of stations, thence departing after a two-minute stop: something awful I said to a girlfriend when I was 14; some record I shoplifted when I was 17; some sexual indiscretion I committed when I was 31. 
I am powerless to prevent or invite the re-emergence of these painful memories, no matter how inappropriate they may be to the immediate problem: an algorithm, an argument with a girlfriend, a discussion with the police about an incident I witnessed. Extraneous faces impede, and I am not in control of what I am going to ponder in five seconds, even despite my attempts to concentrate upon the matter at hand: this or that algorithm, this violent event, the next line in the poem I am currently crafting. 
I am most definitely not the engineer who laid the tracks of my thought-train, nor do I have control over where they may lead. It could be to Bisbee, or London, or St. Petersburg, or Winnipeg. I don't know, and cannot know, until the train stops at some station.
I think that the whole idea of self-directed concentration is a myth. Or perhaps I am the only one so unable to re-channel the railroad upon which I am riding.

Expertise Will Get You Canned (in Toronto)

We citizens of Toronto have only now begun to realize our collective error in electing Rob Ford our mayor. (I didn't vote for him, but the majority of Torontonians felt otherwise, and I must live with that.)
The latest bout concerns Gary Webster, chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), who was fired on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, after a career spanning almost four decades.
Why? Because he objected to Mayor Ford's decidedly uninformed view that Toronto would be best served by an expansion of the underground subway system, when Mr. Webster (let's repeat that: chief general manager of TTC) and many others chose an overhead Light Rapid Transit (LRT) solution instead. The latter solution would have saved billions of dollars, but Mayor Ford and his cohorts chose the former. One must ask why, especially when said Mayor is so big on "cutting the fat", a rather ironic phrase from a man whose personal contribution to this cause has been to lose 20+ pounds in 6 weeks. He still tops 300 pounds; when he loses another 100 pounds, let's talk.
Mr. Webster has made his career over 37 years in the TTC, and offered his best opinion on the choices available. Perhaps he even thought that the most inexpensive method might fly best in the Ford winds, but if so he was incorrect. For standing up for his conclusions, he was summarily fired.
To say the least, this has caused tidal waves in the various bureaucracies over which Mayor Ford has muscle. Many careers are now at stake: Agree or Goodbye; even acquiescence is not good enough.
In short, Mayor Ford has created his own fiefdom, with his clutch of toadies that includes Cesar Pallacio, Denzil Minnan-Wong, Norm Kelly, Frank di Giorgio and Vincent Crisanti. The ultimate vote for Webster's firing was a narrow 5-4.
There is even more ugliness at stake here: the firing was declared "without cause" -- in other words, after 37 years of excellent service, Mr. Webster was fired for not kow-towing; even those in favour of his ouster could not come up with any excuse other than that.
The ironies abound. Mr. Ford, then 330 pounds, campaigned on a "trim the fat" soundbite. Since then, he is reported to have shed 20+ pounds. Another hundred and he'll attain some small shred of credibility. This erstwhile champion of public transit, who declared himself anti-transit not long ago, now has the gall to propose and mandate a solution far more expensive and disruptive than the LRT solution. By the way, Toronto City Council voted 25-18 in favour of the LRT plan, originally introduced by former mayor David Miller in his plan called Transit City; apparently their votes are inconsquential. Of course, in a fiefdom, expertise and votes are the costume jewelry of democracy.
The time for revolt has come. The time for a new mayor has come. The time for all free-thinking city bureacrats and city councillors to vote down Everything Mr. Ford proposes Has Come.

Classes in Access

For some curious reason, creating objects in Microsoft Access has lately become a popular topic, in various newsgroups devoted to Microsoft Access. As one who has invested  I feel compelled to contribute something on this topic.

1. In the purest sense, Access is NOT an Object-Oriented Language, and not quite an Object-Based Language. It falls somewhere in between. You can create classes, and declare both methods and properties of said classes. However, you cannot do some things that are crucial to a true O-O language, including inheritance and polymorphism. Nor can you create abstract classes.
2. That said, there remain lots of very useful things an Access developer can do. In subsequent comments to this thread, I shall post a few examples, and post links to various Access files.
Before we get to that, however, let's review some of the advantages to classes.
a) Reusability: In a subsequent blog, I'll show you how to create a custom form control that behaves like a textbox but is more intelligent. When it acquires the focus, it changes colour, and when it loses the focus, it restores the original colour. You could code that behaviour by hand of course, using the GotFocus and LostFocus events, but you'd have to do that for every textbox control on a form. By creating a custom class that implements this behaviour, you only have to do it once, and then declare all your textboxes as instances of this custom class.
b) Encapsulation: Think of this as code-hiding. Staying with the current example, all the code that implements this custom behaviour is hidden from view, unless and until you want to examine it in detail. For example, suppose you discover a bug in the implementation. You fix it once and all your instances are automatically corrected. Perhaps more important, your form's code is not cluttered with repeated instances of this code.

1K Views Achieved

Wow! I am impressed. I don't know to what these views are due, but 1030 views have occurred at this writing, and that impresses and flatters me. Perhaps it's due to Keywords. Or something else. I don't know. But I do appreciate that some citizens of the world choose at least occasionally to visit my blog.

I've got a lot to say, and promise to submit something almost every day, and possibly more than one missive per day. Stay tuned!


Monday, 26 March 2012

Reflections on Thomas Mulcair, new leader of the NDP

This weekend (March 25-26), the New Democratic Party (NDP) elected its new leader, who instantly becomes Leader of the Opposition. For those unacquainted with Canadian-style federal politics, several important qualities distinguish it from both the American and the British schemes. In some senses, it is a mix of both those forerunners. In Canada, we elect parties rather than the individuals who lead them. Any party is entitled to replace its leader simply by holding a leadership convention.  Canada, unlike the United States, has several political parties, not just two.
In the case of the NDP, the leadership convention was held because its former leader, Jack Layton, died of cancer last August. Before he died, when he was too sick to continue, he appointed Ms. Nycole Turmel as interim leader. She held the reins until this weekend, when Thomas Mulcair was elected after four rounds of voting and several hours’ delay thanks to some cyber-attacks on the voting software. (This has been traced to two IP addresses, but so far no fingers have been pointed.)
Jack (everyone calls him Jack, not Mr. Layton) achieved something historic in Canadian politics. Although it won the right to govern in several provinces, the NDP had never before become the Official Opposition at the federal level. This was in part because Jack was born in Montreal; his command of French was not fluent, but very good, good enough to satisfy Quebecers. Of particular note is the fact that the NDP had never before won so many seats in Quebec. In part, this was due to the widespread loss of faith in the Bloc Quebecois, a party consisting solely of Quebecers and at least in theory dedicated to the eventual separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada.
Another thing distinguishes the NDP from the other parties in Canada. Every member of the party gets one vote. There are no backroom brokers. In the other parties (and in the past, also in the NDP), losing candidates could cross the floor and throw their supporters’ votes to another candidate. No more, in the NDP. Granted, Mr. Mulclair was endorsed by Ed Broadbent, the elder statesman of the party, but that is a far cry from backroom politics.
Another remarkable thing about the leadership convention was the proportion of young people. Jack used to say that when he was contesting the party leadership, he often found himself the youngest person in the room.
What of Thomas Mulcair? First, he is from Quebec and is fluently bilingual. He was also the first NDP candidate to be elected within Quebec. Under Jack’s leadership, Mr. Mulclair played the pit bull to Jack’s conciliator; more than a few within the NDP believe that it takes a pit bull to fight one, and if anything is certain in Canadian politics, it is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a pit bull with an agenda and is willing to ride roughshod over anyone who stands in his way, and over anything, including the Constitution and criminal law.
Yet Mr. Mulcair’s speeches contained much about moving toward the political centre. Some candidates and party members heard this as an abandonment of traditional core values within the party. In my view that is not the case; rather, given the collapse of the Liberal party (which was traditionally either the government or the Opposition) in the last federal election, Mr. Mulcair sees this moment as the opportunity to bring thousands of former Liberals into the NDP tent.
Prime Minister Harper, meanwhile, has moved steadily further and further to the right, alienating a sizable number of what we call soft-Conservatives. The next election is not for three and a half years, which in my view is a bad thing for Canada but probably a good thing for the NDP, in the sense that it will have time to get its sea legs, dream of actually winning the next election, and ponder what to do in the event of a minority government. (A majority government, as we have now, is a situation in which the governing party holds more seats than all the others combined, and thus can pretty much do whatever it wants. A minority government can be tossed from power anytime the other parties outvote it, although in practice there is a distinction between critical bills (votes of confidence) such as the federal budget, and less critical bills, whose failure to pass will not trigger an election.
There has been some talk about the NDP and the Liberals forming a coalition next time around. This could be a formal coalition or just a strategic one, in which both parties agree not to run candidates in ridings considered to be shoe-ins for the other party. On the other hand, some NDPers feel that since 1994, there has been almost nothing to distinguish Liberals from Conservatives. I would hold that while this may well apply to the Liberal leadership, there is no reason to believe it applies to the rank and file.
Today (March 26) is Mr. Mulcair’s first day in Parliament as Leader of the Opposition. Whether he comes out like a pit bill or in the always-polite and genteel mode of Jack remains to be seen. Nobody, especially his opponents, disputes Mr. Mulcair’s masterful debating skills and sharp wit. My own opinion is that he should hand off the pit-bull collar to someone else in the shadow cabinet, and shift to Jack’s mode for himself. Still, I do expect him to hit the Conservatives very hard in their weak spots – the RoboCall scandal (in which thousands of voters who stated to canvassers that they were not going to vote Conservative received erroneous phone calls allegedly from the offices of Elections Canada, telling them their voting polls had changed and directing them elsewhere); the G20 diversion of money away from security issues and into ludicrous projects in Tony Clement’s riding, that clearly had nothing to do with security; forcing Air Canada pilots back to work when they were in a clearly legal position to strike (the justification for which was the travel plans of students and families during Spring Break); and a host of others.
We shall soon see.