30 September 2007

The theremin

The theremin is the only musical instrument that is played without touching it. Remarkably, it is not a new instrument but was invented nearly 90 years ago, appearing in the eerie film scores of Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound and Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still, where it was employed to great effect by Miklós Rózsa and Bernard Herrmann respectively. Here is Leon Theremin's cousin Lydia Kavina playing Debussy's Claire de Lune on his invention:

Scottish Russians?

Due to the mixed origins of my own last name, I have a continuing interest in surnames from one country that clearly show roots from another. For example, the late Tad Szulc was born in Poland, but his name obviously indicates a German connection. The Dutch names Van Arragon and Antonides would appear to suggest Spanish/Catalonian and Greek roots respectively. Now we read of this intriguing possibility: Scot to bring DNA from Russia with Lermontov. It seems the well-known Russian name Lermontov may once have been Learmonth, with roots in Scotland.

29 September 2007

Anglican views on faith-based schools

I imagine I'm not the only one to find reading the Niagara Anglican a singularly unpleasant experience. Two articles in the current issue are typical in this regard: "Religion in Ontario public schools," by retired Archbishop John Bothwell, and "A religious education," by Peter Wall, Rector of Christ's Church Cathedral here in Hamilton. Both Bothwell and Wall oppose the funding of faith-based schools for all the predictable reasons, favouring instead "religious education," i.e., education about the world's religions, in the public schools. Here is Wall:

[John] Tory's suggestion is that faith based schools are just that — faith based, so we have, rather than religious education, religious indoctrination — potentially narrow and exclusive curricula which promote one religion over another. To my way of thinking, it leads to narrowness, intolerance, a lack of breadth of knowledge and awareness, and a preponderance of religious myopia which has in the past and continues today to cause problems between peoples and groups.

The solution? Keep religious instruction in the churches and religious education in the schools. Notably absent from their remarks is any vision for reclaiming education for the cause of Christ, for bringing the gospel to bear on the whole of life, or witnessing to the coming of God's kingdom. We had best keep our private faith in our churches and out of our schools — "our" evidently referring to Canadians, not Christians. Absent as well is an understanding of the reality that someone's worldview, whether or not overtly expressed, will infuse such teaching about religion.

Sadly, Bothwell and Wall appear to have accepted uncritically the secularizing worldview of the larger society. Accordingly, the church functions as little more than chaplain to that society, affirming it in its prejudices and keeping itself respectable within the eyes of its self-proclaimed opinion-moulders. It shies away from all perceptions of divisiveness, narrowness and intolerance, seemingly vindicating the outsider's cynical assessment of Anglicanism as an establishmentarian church founded to sanction a king's divorce. The offence of the gospel and the exclusive claims of Christ over our lives are obviously not primary considerations.

It is far from coincidental that the same issue of the Niagara Anglican contains this sad article: "Why did St. Philip's close its doors?" A church unable to distinguish itself from the larger culture will eventually become superfluous, as it seems bent on becoming in the Niagara diocese.

26 September 2007

MMP vs MPP reform

The Work Research Foundation has published two pieces in the run-up to the referendum on electoral reform here in Ontario. The yea side is defended (ably, one hopes) by yours truly: Why Ontarians should vote for MMP. The nay side is taken by my genial nemesis, Russ Kuykendall, Senior Researcher for the WRF: MMP? Or, intestinal fortitude? I can agree with Kuykendall here:

What Ontarians need is more MPPs [Members of Provincial Parliament] who set aside advancing their careers in caucus and cabinet and focus, instead, on advancing issues and policy perspectives. We need more MPPs who argue inside caucus, in committees and the legislative assembly, and in media and public meetings on behalf of issues. We need more MPPs who recruit pro-family volunteers, for example, to their campaigns and hire pro-family staff and interns so the next generation of activists is put in place. We need more MPPs who introduce pro-independent and home-schooling bills so that the law better reflects these concerns for fairness and human flourishing – to achieve what Augustine called “proximate justice.”

This is all well and good, but there is a need for institutional reforms that would facilitate these desirable outcomes, and they will likely have to be implemented within the parties themselves. Simply relying on the courage of individual MPPs will almost certainly be inadequate, because they will need a larger support system to overcome the obstacles posed by current levels of party discipline. I would welcome from Kuykendall more specific proposals for giving effect to this.

That said, these really are reforms for another day. The question now at issue is the one of fair representation, which I don't see Kuykendall addressing as such. I understand the objection to a party leader selecting list candidates. However, this is not so much an argument against proportional representation (PR) as it is an argument against the specific form on which we will be voting in two weeks. The single-transferable-vote (STV) would not possess this perceived defect. Might Kuykendall be more favourable to STV?

Finally, I do not see him addressing the injustice of a single party governing over the objections of most voters. There is wisdom in James Madison's belief that a multiplicity of factions will be less likely to harm a polity than a single faction taking power on its own:

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.

Madison would scarcely think it better for a minority faction to claim majority status and rule accordingly. By increasing the likelihood of multiparty coalition governments, MMP will help to address this danger.

I am sorry that the WRF has seen fit not to take a position on the issue, given that a number of like-minded organizations (e.g., the Center for Public Justice and Canada's Citizens for Public Justice) are in favour of PR. Yet I am pleased that they have disseminated these two essays to educate further the voting public in this province.

25 September 2007

How's that again?

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association appears to believe that allowing parents to determine their own children's education is a violation of their civil liberties: Civil Rights Group Opposes Tory Faith-Based Schools. A number of high-profile people are willing to accept this rather odd reasoning.

There is, however, high-profile support on the other side as well. Canada's newsweekly Macleans has published an editorial arguing that Choice is good, and more choice is better. Bravo, Macleans!

23 September 2007

Dino's feathers discovered

Here's the latest from the paleontological front: Velociraptor was just a scary turkey, say scientists. It seems a certain nearby sport team could be in for a name change. I'm sure someone would buy tickets to see the Toronto Scary Turkeys. . . assuming they had nothing better to do that day.
Citizenship and the Cyprus Republic

The Cyprus Mail, located in the Greek-dominated south of the island, is to be commended for publishing this piece by Turkish-Cypriot Alkan Çağlar: Why the Republic of Cyprus is institutionally racist. As readers may recall from an earlier post, Çağlar has argued that Turkish-Cypriots are descended from converts to Islam from the island's Latin and Maronite christian communities after the Ottoman conquest in 1571. His current article calls attention to the plight of a mainland Turkish woman, married to a Turkish-Cypriot, attempting to gain citizenship in the Cyprus Republic. By behaving in such a petty way towards this couple, the legally-recognized government in the south is hurting its own cause by increasing the possibility of a permanent "apartheid" of the island and further tempting the international community to recognize the status of the TRNC.

In his mid-20s, Çağlar is still a young man. However, if Cyprus is ever to be reunified and its people reconciled, people like him will have to move into positions of influence on both sides of the divide.

21 September 2007

Rebel without a Cause

Nancy and I recently watched the classic 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause for the first time. With its young co-stars, James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, it was one of the first adolescent angst movies that would capture the imaginations of viewers in that world of fifty years ago. Although the genre has by now become something of a cliché, its contemporary impact can nevertheless be appreciated in retrospect as we recall the huge changes occurring in North American popular culture in the years following the Second World War. Rock and roll was just gathering steam, and a distinctive youth culture, reinforced by postwar prosperity and overindulgent parents and incubated in the ubiquitous public secondary schools, was exploding into a frequently unpleasant reality — both for parents and for the adolescents themselves.

Rebel captures this moment well. The three principal actors deliver impressive performances, and one can hardly equal the evident interpersonal chemistry among them. The main flaw is that the script's psychologizing is too obvious and heavy-handed. Dean is rebelling against an overly passive father unable to stand up to his mother's domineering ways. Wood is starving for affection from a father who withdrew his when she hit puberty. Mineo is hungry for parental love, living alone in the care of an ineffectual nanny while his divorced father and mother live elsewhere. Mineo fixates on Dean as a father substitute and, at one point, says to him, "I wish you were my father" — just in case we didn't already get the message.

The film is held together by a nihilistic thread and a preoccupation with death — from the morbid planetarium show to the tragic deaths of two teens. The planetarium lecturer, Dr. Minton, represents adult authority and authoritatively imparts this nihilistic worldview to his young audience:

And while the flash of our beginning has not yet traveled the light-years into the distance, has not yet been seen by planets deep within the other galaxies, you will disappear into the blackness of the space from which we came - destroyed, as we began, in a burst of gas and fire. The heavens are still and cold once more. In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence. *

While apparently believing in the ultimate meaningless of existence, the adults in the film nevertheless manage to live respectable lives. Yet in the larger scheme of things there is no compelling reason for them to do so, and the youth have picked up on this. They are simply living out their parents' worldview, even if their parents are unable to comprehend this. Constantly flirting with death, they live as if there is no tomorrow. Tellingly, in the film's timeline there is indeed no tomorrow. The action occurs over a period of just 24 hours.

All three of the film's stars died tragically. Dean was killed in an automobile accident in September 1955, a month before the film opened. Mineo was murdered in 1976. Wood drowned in a boating accident in 1981. The film's title is perhaps misleading: the cause of the adolescents' rebellion is, paradoxically, the ultimate lack of cause for acting differently - for conforming to their parents' expectations when the parents themselves can offer no justification for doing so.

20 September 2007

Faith-based schools

Education seems to be the number one issue in the Ontario election campaign, somewhat surprisingly. The two major parties are divided over whether to provide provincial funding for faith-based schools, with John Tory's Conservatives in favour of bringing them into the public system while permitting them (for now) their distinctiveness, and Dalton McGuinty's Liberals favouring an homogenized public system, with grudging acceptance of funding for Catholic schools. Howard Hampton's New Democrats have chosen to sit this one out, labelling it a smokescreen. The Greens favour a completely homogenized system, with no funding for the Catholic schools. (How this will protect the environment is anyone's guess!)

The CBC has posted a brief but informative historical account of the issue, as well as a survey of the differing approaches to education taken by each province: Faith-based schools.

The central issue, as I see it, is whether it is the proper task of government to socialize the young and to create a society based on "tolerance" of differences while at the same time doing everything possible to minimize or trivialize those differences. Or does this go well beyond the normative task of government to do justice? Many of us believe government should play at most an ancillary role to the overriding parental task of educating one's own children.

Unfortunately, despite Canada's multicultural character, the province of Ontario is heir to an establishmentarian mentality that views homogeneity as the norm. At one time this meant a generic protestantism, but for the last 40 years secularism has been the established religion, with the rest of us viewed condescendingly as bothersome dissidents at best. Add a bit of Rousseau's civil religion, courtesy of Québec's Quiet Revolution next door, and you have a pretty toxic mix. Perhaps it's time for another William Lyon Mackenzie to take on this new Family Compact.
Loonie = Greenback

This is remarkable considering that not too many years ago the Canadian dollar was worth $.62 US: Canadian dollar closes in on parity with U.S. greenback.

18 September 2007

Catastrophe pour les Libéraux

It's a safe bet that the federal Liberals will not be bringing down Stephen Harper's minority government any time soon: Liberals shut out in Quebec byelections.

17 September 2007

The Jena six

This is the sort of incident we used to hear about in the US 40 or 50 years ago: Apart from the noose, this is an everyday story of modern America. It seems incredible that it could happen at the beginning of the 21st century. The unequal judicial treatment of the black and white youths in this incident is sparking protest and planned rallies. It has also brought the small Louisiana town unwelcome attention from around the world.

16 September 2007

Ontario's referendum

Our family finally received in the mail a flier about the upcoming referendum on reforming the province's electoral system. This was published by Elections Ontario, which maintains this website to provide information to voters. I, of course, will definitely be voting in favour of the mixed-member-proportional system (MMP). For those still in doubt, it needs to be emphasized that it entails, not an abandonment of our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, but an addition to it to ensure that every vote truly counts and that the diversity of political visions is better represented in the legislature.

In the meantime, Hamilton's own Sheila Copps defends our current electoral system with this measured and thoughtful op-ed piece: Foolish Ontario could muck up country. To her credit, Copps uses the words extreme or extremist only 5 times, which must have required considerable restraint on her part.

Conservative leader John Tory is hinting that he will vote no in the referendum. Why? Ostensibly "because some MPPs would be 'appointed by party bosses and accountable to no constituents'." The real reason? Both his party and the Liberals would no longer monopolize the political process as they do now. In short, Tory's Tories would lose out.

The October issue of The Walrus carries this article advocating MMP by Daniel Aldana Cohen: Blown Into Proportion. Cohen holds out an intriguing possibility for our future:

If Ontario’s voters opt for change, Canada could follow. Imagine Ottawa’s metamorphosis: a small but strong Green Party; the Bloc Québécois cut almost in half; Liberals and New Democrats from Alberta, Tories from the big cities; a new party or two; many more female and minority members; a bump in voter turnout; the pmo reined in by Parliament; stable coalition governments. For much of the old guard, this would be a nightmare.

No wonder Tory is so skittish. Now we have to convince our fellow citizens of the merits of adopting MMP. It really will give them a stronger voice by ensuring that votes are not wasted. Without adequate information ordinary citizens are inclined to stick with what they know. When MMP is explained to them, they tend to become enthusiastic supporters. Let's break the conspiracy of silence in the corridors of power and vote YES on 10 October!

12 September 2007

Today's challenge

English-speaking Calvinists are generally familiar with TULIP:

Total depravity
Unconditional election
Limited atonement
Irresistible grace
Perseverance of the saints

However, given that some might see TULIP as old hat, today's challenge is to come up with another floral acronym that expresses the truths of Reformed Christianity. For example:

Perseverance of the saints
Authority of scripture
Noetic effects of the fall
Salvation in Jesus Christ
Yes to God’s grace

Entries may be left in the Comments below.

11 September 2007

Facebook friends

This report proves that it's possible to be both accurate and uninformative at the same time: It's hard to make close friends on Facebook, study says. Here's the summary: "Social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace aren't expanding people's circles of close friends, but they are creating plenty of meaningless relationships, according to British researchers." It's about time someone funded a study on this for those of us who had assumed otherwise.

10 September 2007

REAL Women needs to get real

Gwen Landolt, National Vice President of REAL Women of Canada, has issued a statement opposing the mixed-member-proportional (MMP) system that Ontarians will be voting on a month from today, as reported here: REAL Women of Canada Warns Against Ontario Proportional Representation Voting Change. Landolt claims that "it will undermine our democratic system of government." Admitting that under MMP parties will have to form coalition governments, she raises the spectre of short-lived Italian-style governments plaguing Canada's political process. Landolt also fears that feminist influence within the major parties will increase as a consequence of MMP.

Her objections need to be addressed and put to rest. First, MMP will produce a legislature more, not less, representative of the political opinions of ordinary voters. Under our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, a single party takes all the effective power over the opposition of most voters. Why Landolt would find this democratic is a mystery.

Second, Germany and New Zealand, both of which use MMP, are stable democracies with governments generally lasting as long as they are expected to. The Netherlands uses a straight party list system with no single-member constituencies, and its governments are also durable. Electoral reform and multiparty coalition governments do not by themselves foment political instability.

Finally, Landolt fears that the major parties would pander to special interests, including feminists, in allocating list seats. This misses the point. Under MMP the "major" parties would no longer be as strong as they are now, with other parties, along with the viewpoints they represent, gaining seats in the legislature, provided they receive at least 3 percent of the vote. This could include a party more in keeping with the convictions of Landolt and REAL Women — one that is currently handicapped by FPTP. The Family Coalition Party (FCP) comes to mind here.

Incidentally the FCP favours MMP. Landolt's group should rethink its opposition and consider the possible advantages of MMP to its own cause.
Political leanings hardwired?

This study might encourage those who would reduce political differences to biology: Homo politicus: brain function of liberals, conservatives differs. On the other hand, it could simply be seen as one more piece of evidence that the operations of the mind are dependent on the brain. Now, after reading this article, I can't help wondering what sort of neural patterns would show up in a fanatical moderate.

06 September 2007

MMP in Ontario?

In a few short weeks the citizens of Ontario will be voting, not only for a new provincial government, but in a referendum on whether to adopt a mixed-member-proportional (MMP) electoral system. Readers of this blog will know that I am in favour of adopting this form of proportional representation, having contributed a submission to the Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform earlier this year. Two days ago The Globe and Mail's Chris Selley wrote an article drawing on New Zealand's experience with MMP: Wake up and smell the kiwi: What New Zealand can teach us about proportional representation and electoral reform.

Unfortunately, and as far as I can tell, there has been next to no publicity about the referendum either by opponents or proponents. My fear is that the proposal may die for lack of awareness on the part of voters, who will not know what's at stake. Another opportunity like this may not arise, and thus far it's being squandered. Let's hope that changes between now and next month.
Another Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

I am pleased to announce the publication by InterVarsity Press (US) of Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition, written by my esteemed colleague, Dr. James R. Payton, Jr. I have recently acquired a copy of this book and look forward to reading it.
Town fairs and world's fairs

Martin's World's Fair Album Atlas and Family Souvenir, 1893
Our family spent much of this past saturday at the 149th annual Paris Fair, a local event held in the lovely town of Paris, half an hour to the west of Hamilton at the confluence of the Grand and Nith Rivers. It is basically an ordinary town fair, like many occurring across North America during the summer months. With her zoological proclivities, our Theresa loved seeing the animals, especially the poultry. We were all amused at Clarol the Clown's antics. We saw a pony show. And, of course, what fair would be complete without a midway, boasting various rides and amusements.

Although most such fairs tend to reflect local agrarian pursuits, with their horse and cattle shows and the like, world's fairs have highlighted industrial and technological accomplishments. In fact, the very label "midway" originated in one of the most famous of world's fairs: the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, which I mentioned in passing in a recent post on Daniel Burnham's Plan for remaking that city. The fair was located in Jackson Park, on the south side of the city along the shores of Lake Michigan. Extending west from the Park was the Midway Plaisance, whose other end connected to Washington Park. This was the first "midway," boasting amusements from all over the world, including a gigantic wheel created by George Ferris for the occasion — one that would dwarf most future Ferris wheels.

Century of Progress Atlas of the World, 1934
Although world's fairs are still held, the heyday of world's fairs extended from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, beginning with London's Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, showcasing the achievements of the British Empire, and ending (for all practical purposes) with Montreal's Expo 67, coinciding with Canada's centennial celebrations and marking my own introduction to this country. During this period fairs were held in, among many other places, Paris in 1889, St. Louis in 1904, again in Chicago in 1933-4, New York in 1939 and Seattle in 1962.

Incidentally one assumes that the Rockton World's Fair, in Rockton, Ontario, does not have the official sanction of the Bureau International des Expositions to call itself such.

04 September 2007

Learning on the prairies

Judging by the last photograph on this page, Dordt College in Iowa appears to be giving its students a good undergraduate education — at least in one field.


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