World Cup: Spain still searching for greatness

Spain has always taken a back seat to the Big Four Quartet of England, France, Germany and Italy when it came to notable and influential human accomplishments. Any inventory of figures from the scores of reputable history books will reveal this. Interestingly, while they are considered a power in soccer once again we notice how Spain comes up short when compared to the four aforementioned nations.

Even when Ferdinand and Isabella began to fund Spain's empire there was but a mere spike in literature and art but quickly receded again as the Spanish squandered their wealth with more zeal than the Romans. True, the Inquisition and Franco were repressive moments in Spanish history but even if we remove this Spanish contributions are unremarkable. Especially considering its population and the wealth it once possessed - albeit temporarily.

The Netherlands, Austria-Hungary, and Russia surpass even a country with Spain's substantial history on any list. In case you're wondering, yes, two of the three have gone deeper more often than Spain has at the World Cup. The former Soviet Union, for its part, matches Spain.

Since Spain joined the EU serious and legitimate efforts have been made to enhance the Spanish identity and to their credit they have succeeded in doing so. Spain has had its accomplished moments as Goya, Cervantes, Fernando Alonso and Real Madrid (to name a few) attest to but; there's always a but with Spain.

Poly-ethnic and poly-religious states tend to face obstacles. And perhaps - and I'm just musing here therein lie clues as to why Spain persistently falters at the World Cup.

Cup after Cup Spanish hopes are dashed. And Cup after Cup blame usually lies elsewhere. Some of its problems are chronic and structural and therefore more difficult to overcome. Others, it must be said, may still be part of the national character and psyche. It's hard to create a responsible and strong cohesive unit when parts of your own country don't mind watching you fall down as was the case when Catalans cheered following Spain's defeat at the hands of the French.

Despite all these obstacles, Spain has managed to produce players of the highest quality. Relative to its talent and population Spain should have won a World Cup by now - or at least reached a final.

Then again, file this under coulda, shoulda, woulda.


The Great Elusive Canadian Value

I've noticed a peak in the word 'value' among my fellowe Canadians.

I have no idea what this means anymore. It's one of those words that has lost all meaning.

Our priorities in Canada seem a little askew these days. In our efforts to save one of our most cherished values - public health - we are neglecting to consider the bedrock of all institutions - the family. Canadian values usually includes anti-war, anti-smoking, gun legislation, peacekeeping, marijuana and gay rights - among others. But what good are all these if the family structure is eroding? So you have gun legislation in place. If our children are not taught proper morals the legislation becomes somewhat counter productive doesn't it?

Concepts such as personal responsibility, discipline and accountability are lost. Divorce rates are sky high and Church attendance is dropping faster than Galileo's iron ball. There has to be a correlation in there somewhere I am sure.

Here in Quebec there is a family crisis. Something tells me it's the same elsewhere on the continent. Mind you, there's also an unholy intellectual post modern war - but that's for another time. For now, we seem to be focusing less on what makes us a truly civilized state and more on the fluff that makes us look advanced on the surface.

World Cup: Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder; Boca Bonito is Dead

Brazil is 4-0 thus far in the World Cup and they are doing it in a manner that many people are not realizing. In all my years of watching and playing soccer, I have never watched a Brazilian side allow ball possession to their opponents as they have in Germany. In every game except Japan, Brazil has been on the defensive. I have rarely heard the names of Brazilian defenders as often as I have heard this year.

Credit must go to Brazil for adjusting and playing within their capabilities. The reality is that only three or four players on this team can play 'beautiful soccer.' The rest are plain solid talented soccer players.

So much for Nike's 'Boca Bonito' commercials starring Eric Cantona. If you notice all they show is Ronaldinho. That's one player. Kaka and Robinho are the other two who can play this style. In any event, Brazil is taking a page from the oft chastised Italian page. If Brazil can do no wrong in the eyes of a smitten press, the Italians can do no right.

The Canadian press for their part are little too quick to insert the word 'controversy' next to Italy whenever they win. Had England or Germany won the way Italy did over Australia you can bet the headlines would read 'Splendid lads! What courage! Deserved penalty!'

The attacks on Italian soccer reaches absurd levels at times. People who claim that Italy did not deserve their victory over Australia have very little to stand on. Italy deserves to be in the final eight. Pure and simple.

Every team has to play a style that reflects the character of its players and the philosophy of its manager. We see in the four major pro sports here in North America teams win with all sorts of different styles and systems all the time. From the Patriots to the Ravens to the Red Sox to the Suns to the Red Wings. How boring it would be if everyone played the same style!

Not everyone can play open soccer. In fact, playing for its own sake can be brutal to watch. Those who demand that everyone play this style are slightly unrealistic. Italy - heck all countries - is not there to please the Spanish or British press. They are there to win.

Beauty, my friends, is in the eye of the beholder.

Additional Notes:

-Count Hiddink as one of those who subscribe to the myth mentioned above. Here's a guy who benefited from bad call after bad call after bad call when his Korean team beat Spain and Italy in 2002. Yet one would think he'd call it even and move on. No sir. He could not help but pull the silliest of statements when he said "Italy does not play attractive football. They play for the results." Yes and what's his point?
-Well, I have said that this was going to be a World Cup where the world powers would reassert themselves and this is exactly what happened. Six of the final eight teams have won the World Cup and 7 of the 8 expected to be in the quarters. The Ukraine being the lone surprise in their first appearance.

-Spain. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Another disappointing World Cup. There is no doubt they have talent but this is a country that does not know how to win. Historically, political and historical regional cleavages played against them but this time around they were expected to go deep. I thought so too. They can't blame anyone for this one. Perhaps it's time to stop considering Spain a heavyweight?

-Note to the title. I have seen different variations of the spelling of Boca Bonito which includes Joca Bonito.


The Strange Thing About Canadian Values

We hear a lot these days about how we need to protect public health from the grips of "nonsensical neocons" like Stephen Harper. There seems to be a war waging -a futile one as George Grant lamented 40-odd years ago - between grassroots political activists and the mainstream political and academic elite in Canada about 'values.'

This word has been used so often the very meaning has become elusive. Nationalists will say this is so because Canada has sold its national soul to American business interests; that everyday Canada is losing its identity thanks to gutless Ottawa.

There is some truth to this. Canada does possess some shockingly hypocritical and inept politicians. There is also some truth to the reality that Canadians do differ from Americans on several issues. This much can be found in artistic areas such as literature and music.

But how different are we? Canada, in my estimation, is a national experiment going horribly wrong. It has become the most decentralized federal state in the world where the Premiers routinely gang up on the Prime Minister and bicker about everything from unused toilet paper to immigration. Ottawa has dithered and caved in way too many times to the Provinces.

Canada must find its internal fortitude once more and take back some of its powers. Once upon a time the British pegged Canada to take over her Empire as the" sun set on England." The true north strong and free was an Imperialistic call for Canada to lead all Her Majesty's colonies into the 20th century. Instead, what we found was that Canada was not ready to take on such a responsibility. It found some maturity in Pearson and his fine diplomats but that was long ago.

The debate has always been either closer integration between America or Britain. Now we have leaders who believe that it should, after all, be with America. And this spooks many. We talk of our independence but how independent was Canada really? We like to point out that we went to war during the early part of the 20th century before the Americans, but conveniently overlook that we did so under the British Empire directive in World War I.

With a tight leash around our necks in the Second War, Mackenzie King dithered and bumbled his way into making decisions. Maybe this new group of intellectuals is trying to break one shackle to truly free Canada. Only problem is that they are making us a servant to the U.S.

Then again, our economy has always been a branch plant one with apologies to Mr. Hurtig. This is not nonsense but economic fact. We never fabricated our own self-sustaining automotive industry, for instance, and this is why we don't have any leverage when bargaining with the Americans.

Now it's a little strange for me to say this as I believe that there is really only a limited role government can play in our lives. The people who want to save Canada want to save it through expanded government. There has to be a better way. I'll discuss this in my next segment.

Back to the values. There is a crisis in Canada. This is not a conservative versus liberal debate - at least it shouldn't be. There is no doubt the public health system is rightfully under attack. Special interest will talk about anti-smoking legislation and gay rights but there is a deeper problem. The institution of the family is under attack.

Values such as discipline, responsibility and accountability are fast becoming irrelevant in the new world order.


World Cup: Team USA at the World Cup

It's always the same old song. When America fails you can bet an armada of fools who will step up to kick them while they are down. It's become a fad of sorts in these dark post modern days. Yes, we know why it's done. People don't like the hype. Especially American sponsored hype. It's just the way things go. Some Americans take a perverse glee in watching their own country lose.

When I was playing elite soccer in the 1980s, the American soccer system in some ways was behind the Canadian program. I know during my playing days Canadian teams had successes against their American counterparts. When Canada reached the World Cup for the first and only time in 1986, it was the apex of Canadian soccer and proof that we were the better soccer country.

Then a funny thing happened. Canada typically took the Canadian route and failed to build on 1986 and America began laying the framework that was eventually going to result in a fifth place ranking with FIFA in 2006. Quite a reversal of fortunes shall we say?

America's rise to the top - and yes I agree that the FIFA rankings* are deeply flawed but still the only legitimate soccer ranking - has been impressive and a direct result of their commitment to developing a national soccer program. Where's Canada these days? I forget. I lost track after their 95th place ranking.**

I'm not here to discuss how America should continue its march towards better soccer or how to market it but I am here to refute the ridiculous reaction about the failure of the U.S. team.

A lot of hard work and pride under the guidance of Bruce Arena went into this American squad and to dismiss them is a shame. It to me reflects more on the ignorance of interloping soccer commentators than the soccer team itself. It seems as though there are way too many jackals and hyenas in the media just waiting to pounce on anything that is remotely negative.

There is no debate about the fact that the U.S. were over matched against the Czechs, played like psychotic huns against Italy and were not cohesive in their game with Ghana. That doesn't mean the team did not have talent - they did - it just means they are not a soccer nation....yet. Not to mention that they are learning the ropes of putting teams together. Many were blaming the officiating but all teams suffer from bad refereeing.

A sophisticated cynic will say "yeah well, I know how we are and we aren't going to do much." Maybe. But results are there: America has made the World Cup 5 straight times since 1990. An accomplishment onto itself.

Many Americans will be hearing all sorts of ESPN types and fans who could care less about soccer bash Team USA***. Given the polarizing nature of American society and politics it's not surprising to listen and watch Americans beat themselves up internally about this. People with the pens and mikes who should know better will babble and instigate. "American arrogance has done us in! We deserved to lose!"

Ignore it. Ignore it all.

*For alternative ranking sources check out ELO Rankings.
**Canada has made it to the Top 60. With the CSA still in disarray I don't know how sustainable this climb is.
***Since the WC, America have had a string of bad outings. They were average at the Gold Cup and terrible at the Copa America.


World Cup: Beautiful Africa

While I was visiting France in 1990, my cousins took me to my first live top flight European soccer match between Brest and Monaco. During the match the question was asked who I thought the most talented soccer country was in the world. The ensuing debate took us across many lands but none of us gave the answer my cousin Francois wanted to hear.

"La bonne reponse c'est les Africains," he told us. This was less a proclamation for a country and more a positive indictment for a continent, he added and I obviously translate, "Sit and watch the game and you'll know what I mean."

16 years later and I still agree. African football has taken many steps forward and just as many back throughout its history thanks to lack of funds, commitment and corruption. They still don't have their house in order but they progress despite all the obstacles.

Ghana, the youngest team in the tournament, advanced to the Round of 16 at the expense of the United States at the World Cup. A truly remarkable accomplishment in a Group that had the number 2, 5 and 13 squads in the FIFA rankings (which clearly mean nothing anyway). If Ghana saw their game improve as the tournament moved along, the Czechs (incidentally the number 2 ranked team) for their part went the other way as they stumbled right out of the competition after losing to the efficient and professional Italians 2-0.

As for the U.S., their first game against the Czechs did them in. They began to find their legs by the second game but they ran out of chances - not to mention luck which they had none. It was really tough to watch the Americans and their proud play succumb.

The Africans have an aspect to their game that can only be explained as joyous. They lack -possibly unwittingly - any sense of inhibitions and risk that tend to grip European sides focused on results. They combine physical and artistic soccer to near aesthetic perfection. What they lack in astute tactical practicalities they more than make up with their enthusiasm. It was a shame the best African side - to my mind - the Ivory Coast did not join Ghana. Alas, they were in a ridiculously difficult group with Argentina and the Netherlands. Tunisia had a slight chance themselves. With a little more scoring touch maybe even the defensively competent Angolans would have made it. All in all, every African side did the continent proud.

When all is said and done it the hopes and dreams of African football may lie with Ghana. As it happens, they will play Brazil in the next round. End of the line you think? Think again. There's a history between the two sides from their Under-20 encounters where Ghana have proven they can beat Brazil. It may very well happen again on the biggest stage of them all.

One thing is for sure, soccer fans will be witnessing a beautiful display of soccer that day.

I noticed that all the African sides tend to pray after each match. As do the Arabs and Mexicans and so on. It's a rather gallant, if not odd, thing to see for some secular North American sports fans. It does reveal where priorities lie with some athletes- if not countries. Here in North America it seems to be the opposite doesn't it?

Which brings me to ESPN...again. That they sneer and snicker at the WC because they 'don't get it' is nothing new. To each his own. However, even within a North American context the recent NBA title game revealed interesting stuff. For example, Maverick players running off the court without shaking hands with the Miami Heat. Not to mention that half the arena emptied out during the celebration. It's almost as if the sport has no soul. 'We didn't win so let's go?' This is where the NHL is superior. Forget the ratings. Part of hockey's folklore is the hand shake at the end of a series. And is there any bigger ritual in pro sports than the presenting of the Stanley Cup? Nope. Hockey may be a minor fish in the U.S., but its values are far ahead of baseball, basketball and football. Try again ESPN boys.


Reborn Under a New Sky

The Lord picked me up and sent me on my way. At least He had the decency to hang around and give me a push. Heaven forbid the distant woman I married would stand by me during these hard times. I look over and she is awake facing the window away from me. It was a long night as the thunder kept me up all night. A fly can keep me up so I shouldn't blame nature. I looked down at my toes and realized that the hair on my big toe was getting long.

I look back with one eye fixed on the lady I once loved, "I love you." "Me too," she replies. She lies. Come on. It was about as convincing as the act of patriotism of any modern politician. "I'll see you later." "Don't forget to take out the garbage." Who can eat breakfast under such duress?

The grey skies were giving way to a healthier shade of grey. By the time I drove off it was blue again. Heck, even the sun began to shine. The park seems to be bustling more than usual this morning. The radio is on. The same Van Morrison disc has been playing over and over for the last few days. I never seem to pull it out. Evidently I havent been paying attention to it. Today is different. "On the dark end of the street to the bright side of the road, we'll be lovers again on the bright side of the road...."

I wonder. Roonie hasn't been the same since her father died. After I file my bankruptcy papers, I think I'll stop by that flower shop. With my luck - I think it was Plato who said the harder you work the luckier you get. 70 hours a week, everyday for two years and luck bypassed me. It's no longer about passion but about money - I'll walk in on her and the plumber with $50 worth of roses in my hands. Nah. I know Ronnie. She's an angel. She too needs to be picked up. I've known this for a while but simply could not see it. Or perhaps I chose to ignore it with damaging wrecklessness?

Lousy parking lot. It's always the same. Tight spaces and aggravating elements. I won't miss this place. I make my way through the dark, smug, sooty atmospheric hallway of the office. "Hello, Mr. Richards." Hmm. The secretary had that wart removed. She thinks I don't notice. Ronnie has an exquisite beauty mark on her face that evokes being magnificently painted on by the hand of Giotto.

"Let's get this done with. I have important matters to attend to."


Death by the Mountain: The State of Montreal Architecture.

Featured in ARQ Magazine - August 2006

For a few years now I've been observing a strange happening in Montreal. While walking or driving around this magnificent art-deco city, it's easy to remain captivated by the city's landmarks. It keeps us romantically drawn to another era. However, remaining stuck in the past can sometimes blind us to what is transpiring in the present. As citizens we don't ask any questions, as we are not connecting what once was to what presently is. I often ask myself whenever I pay close attention to the craftsmanship on a building, "Why we can't build like this anymore?"

It's a simple exercise really. Just look, for example, at the Centre D'Histoire (The Old Number One Fire station) in Old Montreal and compare it to anything going up now. My favorite target is the concept of the min-mall springing up everywhere. These impersonal and menacing gargoyles are popping up like dandelions all across the suburbs and it's caused me to ponder the state of architecture in the city. It is evident that we have lost our architectural soul.

Thankfully, architects are aware of what is going on. "For starters, architects should constantly be asking how they can improve the world that surrounds them. We think we're asking the right questions but we're really not," was how one Montreal architect put it.

What is preventing them from thinking along these lines? "We are mired in a post-modern quagmire in Montreal. The age we live in demands that economics and profitability prevail above all considerations. In this way, it is hard to ask the right questions when it comes to imagining a project. It detracts us from progressing," a professor of architecture at the University of Montreal added.

The age we live in can be characterized as one that puts a premium on convenience. These new one-stop mini-towns feel as though they are fabricated on a Hollywood set. It does not matter if it does not invite us to stop and enjoy the architecture over coffee. What matters are that it meets the demands of a fast paced consumer society. I know, this has been said before but it does merit repeating. We, the citizens, must shoulder part of the blame. It's not always about low prices. If it is, may God have mercy on our cultural virtues.

Computers have made our lives more efficient and in some cases quite creative. But how much reliance should be placed on the marvels of the technology age? "Today, thanks to technology, awards go to the person with the most aesthetically pleasing presentation even though it may not have any deep architectural value. We can't distinguish between what is bad and good design anymore. Contemporary students don't need to sit and think in abstract terms," was how a student I questioned put it. This sounds very much like the state of politics and writing, doesn't it?

German romantic thinkers referred to the intellectual spirit of an era as the zeitgeist. If it is any indication of the zeitgeist, then we are witnessing a Dark Age unfold before our eyes. If Filippo Bruneleschi were alive today he would further comment that the spirit of the Renaissance is dead. Once upon a time, the great minds of society went to look for patrons to support them; usually with brilliant results. Today, money is thrown at the minds that exploit the worse excesses of our sensibilities.

For all intents and purposes, architects are artists and artists traditionally have been ahead of the cultural, if not social, curve. However, in the glittering information (or misinformation depending on how you look at things) age, we see that in many facets of pop culture too often the spoils of rewards go to the ones who happen to be coincidental indicators of a culture - to borrow an economic term. They merely reflect the age they live in.

Can we change the tide? "It will be difficult. So many cultural variables come to play. For instance, in order to design and implement an innovative structure we need the full support of the men and women who will be building the structure. Often, they are to set in their ways to undertake such a project."

Is it the same elsewhere? Whenever I visit Europe or the United States, impressed upon my visual senses is the fact that architecture in these places remains vibrant. Again, I asked the people who know, "Europe has a cultural heritage that is accustomed to being open minded to new ideas. The United States, for its part, has spearheaded some architectural movements, as was the case with Frank Lloyd Wright that keeps them from being fearful of innovation. Canada, Quebec in particular, maintains a parochial if not colonial outlook. It has less to do with talent because the talent is available. It's more a question of vision and will." Our once proud joie de vivre is nothing but a distant memory now.

Before closing this piece I went for a drive. I visited a mini-mall nearby. Along the way, I thought about Notre-Dame Basilica, the financial district on St.James St. and several other buildings in and around the city of Montreal. It was not uncommon for some of these landmarks to add gargoyles to keep bad spirits away. The mini-mall is a gargoyle on the landscape. Only it's keeping the wrong sprits away. Will there be a rediscovery of architectural eminence? View this is as a call to architectural arms.


The Nation-State and the World Cup

During one of my political science classes in University, students and professor alike - though some students clearly had no interest - were engaged a debate about the concept of the nation-state. Specifically, if it retained any relevance in the post-Berlin wall era. By that I mean after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In any event, it was an interesting debate and it turned out I was one of the few who posited that the nation-state was not dead yet. Indeed, a few years later The Economist made a case that the nation-state was prepared to reassert itself. My comment was politely dismissed, boo-hoo-hoo, as "real" thinkers in the class went on discussing the inevitability of its demise. I must confess I was somewhat disappointed nobody thought to consider and expand - or at least humour - what I said.

Observing national governments today, does anyone really believe that the nation-state is on its death bed? Cuba, China and France are prime examples of governments not quite ready to relinquish any of their powers to anybody.

It's intriguing to watch European governments balance their sovereignty with the ideals of the European Union. Either we are witnessing them go down guns-blazing or a legitimate relaunching of the nation-state.

September 11 certainly revealed to people that the United States remained a nation-state and more importantly a country that began to question the whole international system as it was constructed. If World War I destroyed the last vistages of the Treaty of Wesphalia (1648) can it be 9/11 ordered a radical make over of the post-1945 era? There are indeed forces on the planet out to spoil what we have constructed and when it comes to issues of security and jobs people still want government involvement of some kind.

Here in Canada, the government still retains a fair amount of interventionist capabilities - good or bad. The province of Quebec is yet another example of the state maintaining control.

Even if one rejects all that was written above, there is one realm of human activity that can with reason confirm that the nation-state is alive and kicking: the World Cup. One need only watch the raw emotions that overcome people as they wave their national flags and sing in powerful unison their national anthems. One can assume much to the pleasure of politicians, monarchs and other assortments of power brokers in attendance. It's all very patriotic and nationalistic - if not overwhelming.

Lord, even Trinidad and Tobago fans were in full nationalist mode.

Soccer clearly shows that the nation-state has some staying power. Whether it is hollow is another matter.


World Cup Report: Some Observations

Everyone has played one game and here are some comments about what I have seen:

-It's still early but the officiating has greatly improved from 2002. There have been some harsh calls but all in all a good job all around. I especially applaud their efforts to crack down on diving. It is somewhat embarrassing to watch superbly fit athletes cry at the slightest infraction. Soccer was originally intended to be a gentleman's game.

Note: Ok. The officiating did not maintain itself. We're not quite at Korea 2002...yet. As the games tighten I hope the refs do not decide the outcome. That said, Sepp Blabber, er Blatter, should not be publicly assaulting his officials. After all, he is the big Taco over at FIFA HQ. If anything, it reflects his own failures to improve the officiating.

-The truth about France is that they have not been in top form since 2000. The cracks were already there for those who cared to look when Italy outplayed and outclassed them in the Euro 2000. France went on to tie the game in extra time (four minutes were mysteriously added) and pulled it off in overtime. Since that time France has failed to impress at any level and have not scored a World Cup goal in four matches going back to 2002. Though this will change as they face Korea and Togo in their next matches. It boggles the mind how French striker David Trezeguet was kept on the bench. The Swiss deserved a better fate.

-Speaking of odd decisions. Portugal went into defensive mode in their game against an offensively impotent Angolan team much to the derision Portugeuese fans. While I am a fan of taking practical and pragmatic tactical decisions, this one was odd. Portugal was in complete control of the game. It is interesting to note that many teams are employing the exact same tactics that have brought Italy fame and misery through the years. Yet, ironically Italy is moving away from defensive play. More irony? All those years Italy played the catenaccio (chain defense) they always had world class strikers. That said, there's always room for prudent defense in soccer.

-Serie A in Italy is arguably the toughest league in the world to play in. One of the reasons is because of the relentless tight marking and attention to detail. It's a tactical league. Those who play in this league generally handle the pressure of World Cup soccer well. An argument can be made that strikers who play in Italy are more sharp since they have to craft their way through defensive lines that seek to break your ankles.

-This from Oxford dictionary - Crazy: insane, very foolish; madly eager. The press in Spain and England.

-Cheers to the English. Once upon a time the English deserved their hooligan moniker as they roamed the streets of Europe like depraved, pillaging Vikings. Granted, it was a select few who created the trouble but as we have seem with Muslim extremism it only takes a couple of rotten apples. However, this stigma no longer applies. English fans have behaved and have acted in the traditional civil British manner abroad in recent years. In Germany they are in full force without a hint of trouble. I hope they don't make me look silly. Time will tell if they will be rewarded with an English triumph. Like most teams, England comes in with one of the most balanced assembly of players in decades. The fans in England deserve a shot at this thing.

-Why does Germany win? This isn't a very talented German squad. In fact, it's two straight World Cups Germany manages to pull out some wins. A break here, a luck chance there and presto! But it's not all fortune. Germany plays a minimalist forward attack that simply works. Once they get int he 18 meter box they become autistic (I don't mean this in any derogatory manner but rather they become black and white in their visions) in the area. None of this colorful Latin stuff. Pure Teutonic simplicity.

-Is this the year Spain overcomes its woeful track record at this tournament? Make no mistake about it, Spain had enough talent through the years to win at least one World Cup but have flopped miserably. There are many reasons for this (including historical regional cleavages that impeded proper unity on various teams) but 2006 may be their best shot yet. Look out for David Villa. Sharp player.

-Brazil did not impress in their first -or second - game. Croatia and Australia were worthy opponents. I'll reserve comment about Brazil until a few games. They are, well, Brazil and they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

-I hope to see the African teams do well. Particularly Ivory Coast and Ghana. They play hard and somewhat erratic but no one can deny their talent and class.

-Pound for pound, it can be stated with reason that Argentina has looked the best so far.

-Heard Eric Wynalda make some comments on PTI (Pardon the Interruption) about the tournament so far. No idea why some American soccer players and analysts dismissed Italy's victory over Ghana. His comments about Ghana were arguably misleading. This is not 'just Ghana' as he said. This team happens to have one of the top defensemen in the world in Kuffour (AS Roma) and several solid players who play in Europe like Appiah, Muntari and Essien. They have a soccer pedigree as their their 4 under-20 world titles reveal. In some ways, they are more accomplished than the USA. Wynalda notwithstanding, Ghana will give the USA all sorts of trouble. Italy's victory over Ghana, all things considered (including the gambling and match fixing scandal hitting Italy) was a legitimate statement game. The Czechs on the other hand - to whom everyone is crowning the Champions - simply took advantage of an unprepared American squad. In any event, this is all short term in thought and academic. There is a lot of soccer left.*

*On June 17, Ghana defeated the Czech Republic 2-0. While I am not surprised by the outcome, I am impressed by how Ghana brought their game to another level. They were outstanding - which only makes Italy's victory over them all the more important. There's a chance Ghana can meet Brazil in the next round. If so, it can prove to be an incredible match up. A set up that Ghana can win.


The World Cup And....Quebec?

The World Cup almost always captivates in the oddest of places. The other day technicians from Sears came to our house to service our stove - all is well. On this day, the stove was the least of my concerns as the television was on - you know it - a soccer match.

One of the men was oblivious to what was on but the younger one kept turning his head to catch a glimpse of the game. During the session, he and his partner were engaging my wife in a conversation - as I continued to be focused on the game. All took place in French of course.

The conversation was an appealing one. The World Cup reveals some universal truths about cultures and how we perceive them. I remember a man once telling me he hated people who waved flags. I thought that was a bit harsh. Sure, when done in nationalist fervor it tends to rear its ugly side but in general what is so wrong in connecting to ones roots via a symbol like a flag? Another fascinating point, the tactics and styles employed by soccer nations often reveal a thin hint into that country's national psyche. Which is why people may take it so seriously.

The older man told my wife that it's amazing to see how cultures rally during soccer. He was impressed by the act of solidarity and strength of some cultures. Then, he took a sudden turn towards Quebec culture. "I wish Quebecers were united. We pretend to be but we're not. We're all for ourselves. Here, even the separatists are divided. I wish it was different. I hope it improves one day."

It was a poignant and honest comment. One that many ethnics in the province agree with. For years, the minorities have been trying to explain to Quebecers that some of their aspirations are suicidal and pointless. Driven by passion rather than sober pragmatism.

Many Quebecers are slowly becoming aware of the shortcoming of the culture now. There is a segment of the Quebecois population (as well as pretty much all communities) that are well ahead of the cultural curve vis-a-vis our political and academic masters. For too long Quebec culture was defined first by the Church and then by politicians and nationalist scholars. Quebecers were never allowed to flourish under their own accord. That's why they exhibit a colonial world view. The only way they will evolve into a mature society is if they free themselves from the shackles of oppressed imaginings.

Right now, Quebec society is way too parochial to be taken seriously. Which in part explains why they failed three times to insanely leave Canada. Being impoverished and immature are not the best conditions to leave a country. The will of the Quebec people - so enamored by romantic nationalists - is a myth.

I too hope he gets his wish that things will change one day. Canada is not at the World Cup, but soccer still managed to have an opinion about us. Ah, the beautiful game.


Sports Comments: World Cup, The Montreal Gazette and Peter Laviolette

When I awoke this Sunday I followed my usual routine of preparing an espresso and sat to watch some soccer. It's rare I read the Montreal Gazette but I was caught off guard by an error on the cover of its sports pages. The scoreline showed that the Oilers beat the Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup playoffs 2-0 - the actual score was 2-1. Curious, since all we exist for is hockey and we still make simple errors.

As I turned the pages, I noticed a soccer piece by the sports editor. Reading it I realized that my calls for true sports writing is indeed true. I really did not see the point of the article besides the usual 'we don't get it and don't want to get it' mentality. But nothing was to prepare for the most glaring errors I have personally ever read. Here's the paragraph in pieces. Italics are mine:

"At the 1954 World Cup, when Switzerland was the winner"....Germany unexpectedly won over powerhouse at the time Hungary. " 1958, when Sweden won..."Brazil defeated Sweden in the final. "...before falling to 2.78 in 1962 when Chile won. Brazil won in 1962. "...with a record low of 2.21 in 1990, when Italy won..." Germany won in 1990. Italy finished 3rd.

Incredible. This is the sports editor we're talking about here. This sort of stuff drives me crazy because I am too aware when it comes to sports. I demand that sports writers representing the city paper be the same. I guess I am asking for too much. This guy should have his article proof read by a sports aficionado; at the very least.

-Hockey: We see this in sports often don't we? After Game 3, Carolina Hurricanes head coach Peter Laviolette complained about Edmonton's second goal (which proved to be the winner). Here's my opinion on this. If they do go on to win they will go down as probably the most unconvincing Stanley Cup winner in recent memory. I'm not usually comfortable about saying this about any team - the Hurricanes are a very good team - but one would think that Laviolette would recognize that you can't be lucky all the time - and the 'Canes have had their share of breaks. In any event, it's mid-June and the NHL is still playing hockey.

Note to Bettman and the NHL: smarten up. I know you had a two-week break for the Olympics but shouldn't you have foreseen this? Shorten the season. This takes vision and - ah, forget it.

Soccer is the game of humanity. Yesterday, we witnessed one of the greatest accomplishments in World Cup history when the tiny country of Trinidad and Tobago managed a scoreless draw against Sweden - a nation with a solid soccer pedigree and with a strong team in 2006. More impressive, T&T did it one man down - with ten men. Prior to today's match between Mexico and Iran the Iranians presented the Mexican goalkeeper with flowers upon news of his father's sudden death of a heart attack. It was a gesture of class and for a moment the world got to see the injustice the Iranian people are facing with their regime. It served as a reminder that while governments can be awful, the people of that country are not necessarily so. As for Mexico, who won 3-1, I wonder if they watch Speedy Gonzalez clips....kidding.

Don't email with hate mail.


The New German?

I wonder how Otto Von Bismarck would feel these days if he were alive and militarizing in contemporary Germany. The German personality has undergone some serious shock treatments and severe mood swings in the last two centuries.

One of my more entertaining and enthusiastic professors in University once put it this way when describing Germans. I loosely quote, "If you were to ask a European in the 14th century what they thought of Germans the answer would likely have been 'docile, friendly. Even musical.'

Von Bismarck changed all this. By 1870, the Germans had the reputation as one of the most militarized and efficient society in all of Europe. Indeed, the world.

This is what I was thinking about while I watched Germany - models of efficient soccer - play Costa Rica today in soccer. I was reflecting on how they were once quiet, then aggressive and since World War II, quiet again. They seem to have come full circle. This trait was made clear when Germany - once America's most trusted confidante - refused to support America during its invasion of Iraq.

In fact, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (why do I keep thinking about a piano when I type his name?) shamelessly used an anti-American platform during his election campaign. They are not soft by any means of the imagination. Just choosing to project a soft approach in international politics.

If I was a cartoonist or illustrator I would depict a German person sitting meekly at a desk with round spectacles and a patchy beard. Two people are waiting for him to make a decision when one tells the other "It wasn't always this way." In the background it shows a photo of the person at the desk standing proud with a striking silver beard in military gear projecting an iron will.

Germany is the single most important European nation. The U.S. needs to maintain good relations with them. France can be overlooked. Not Germany. While we should welcome Germany's new commitment to peace, it is interesting to note the extreme swings they have undergone.

They went from handling just the flute to casting only iron. When are they going to merge the two and design an iron flute?


Canadians Need to be More Reflective About Themselves and the United States

John Keegan is one of the world's greatest military historians and in 2004 he wrote The Iraq War - a book that was not without its critics. I read it from a Canadian perspective of course and it was glaring to note the absence of any reference to Canada in the entire book. This was interesting because it summarized Canada's foreign policy in a nutshell: as nothing. Or at its minimum, as poorly conveyed to its citizens.

The issue was not whether we chose to go or not but to give a coherent explanation for the decision. It's not enough to say "we are not American." If the Bush administration failed to explain its reasons for invading Iraq*, then the Chretien government allowed its arrogance to cloud its ability to tell Canadians why they chose not to participate. In the aftermath of 9/11 only John Manley seemed to have his head screwed on properly as he said all the right things.

Anti-Americanism has always played an uncomfortable role in Canadian public life. Its existence is unfortunately there, however, to let it direct our foreign policy is not a path we should follow. Canadians of all people should understand the complexities that the U.S. faces as a superpower.

Over the years, I have observed Canada's pseudo-patriotism quietly grow as it teeters on unsubstantiated smugness. American-bashing - benign or otherwise- has been a part of the Canadian national discourse for decades. Naturally, friends and neighbours will have disputes. It wouldn't be normal if there weren't any. But Canadians should really get over 1812 and America's failed attempt of invading us.

I have also noticed that we tend to ally our "values" and interests with Europe - a continent we trade very little with. While this is a social question, Canadians who go abroad should nonetheless resist the temptation to bad-mouth Americans for having their own standards. America is not Europe and it is not Canada.

Rather, when a European vehemently disputes America, Canadians should act as a prudent and enlightened mediator. Then again, this may be too much to ask. Canadians already possess a tenuous grasp of their own history. How can we be asked to know America's?

For all intents and purposes, we are two countries sharing history. Our goals are the same only we have chosen different paths to reach those goals. As such, our values differ in many ways. However, I fear that we continue to take one another for granted. One of the hallmarks of a true intellect is to borrow the proper ideas from other people. This premise holds true for nations. The only problem is that we are not examining one another free of the prevailing attitudes of our times. In other words, we are not being critical in the right places.

For their part, why should Americans care anyway? True, Americans can go on without Canada. The reverse is less so for Canada. In this light, Canadians, who have a different perspective on issues, are the ones that need to be mature about its relationship with the U.S. I believe it is incumbent on Canadians to exhibit a reflective posturing that can allow them to be intimate with the American experience. Yes, I am calling my country out.

Our own politicians seem oblivious to the exceptional position the U.S. is in. Heck, our leaders are oblivious to many things. If they were more attentive -as they were in the past - they would discount this in their irrational fears and perceptions about America.*

This is not to dismiss America's responsibilities towards us. Respect is a two-way street. I find that American politicians have been understanding of Canadian sensitivities in the past and governed accordingly. There were, however, incidences where they were not so kind. These days, the patience in the U.S. to deal with Canadian soft spots is understandingly thin. This shouldn't offend us. Their needs have changed since 9/11 like it or not.

For this to become a reality, leadership is obviously important. Just as relevant, we need intellectual circles to free themselves of colonial shackles to pen essays of enlightened thought about this special bond. I further lament that Canada does not have a strong tradition of true open debate in a vibrant intellectual atmosphere. Ours is an under-siege, cut and paste approach. And don't look to our newspapers for help on this front. I have no clue what's going with our national print masters.

I'm not advocating complete submission to America. Far from it. If one is strong and free then one will act accordingly. What I am saying is that we need to be realistic. Those who complain that we are marionettes are impractical neo-cynics. They are the ones that have no inner confidence in their abilities. Nor should it matter how it is received by other nations. They are not us and they do not know the intricacies that guide and guard the aspirations of both countries. As such, they should not be passing judgment.

I can only conclude on the Canadian end of things. Canada is a place that has not yet realized its full potential in my estimation. We should and can do more. We as Canadians alone should make choices in our best interests.

Alas, today we are not making any real choices. We are swinging around in the dark clinging on to age old myths about the Canadian identity. Don't be fooled. It's a mirage.

Time to grow up.

Note:I think Canadians have confidence. We just have a hard time on how to portray it regarding the United States. It's either too excessive that teeters on wasted and empty arrogance or it is meek and childish in its orientation. We're still trying to find a balance.

*I think the reasons were pretty clear. The American intelligence community provided the American executive with information regarding WMD's that were erroneous. However, President Bush was also concerned with the possibility of Iraq's ability to start up a program. As such, it is important to make a distinction in relation with Al-Queda. The Americans claim - with reason - that Hussein did have links to Al-Queda. Upon closer inspection, they never used, as the anti-war camp claim - Hussein link to 9/11 as a pretext to go to war. It was, as it turns, a preemptive attack on Iraq based on Hussein's track record and capabilities. Everything else, oil, democracy and hubris were secondary issues. The U.S. went in first and foremost based on national security issues based on information given to them which they subsequently believed.

**Since writing this post Stephen Harper was elected Prime Minister. Harper buck this trend.


Are You an Original?

"Originality is undetected plagiarism." William Inge

I once heard David Foster demand some American Idols to bring 'originality' to the table. Leave aside the cold, hard fact that I don't know what this means these days - especially considering that apparently all has been said and done - last I check David Foster wasn't exactly an 'original.' At least not in the way I interpret the concept and definition of the word. Being anointed the first to do something is a tough lineage to trace back. Was Foster an innovator?

I look around and hardly see most artists bring anything new to the table; just new interpretations and variations of a preceding form or idea. Scratch Bob Dylan and find Woody Guthrie? A more blatant example is remaking films like 'The Omen' almost exactly as the original. What's the point?

This is fine if a new version can improve the last; or enlighten us. However, it annoys and comes off somewhat disingenuous when someone demands you be original - especially if that someone is not so themselves. It seems as though selling and making millions gives you a free pass into being 'original.' Integrity has nothing to do with it.

Ironically, the immensely likable and talented Taylor Hicks won AI - and he sounds like Michael McDonald and bops like Ray Charles. He's a throwback. A neo-soulster. So much for 'originality.' That's a good thing. Right?


Ladies and Gentlemen: The World Cup

It is the biggest sporting event in all of sports. So mammoth in its scope that it operates as a separate entity onto its own. It is not an exaggeration to state that FIFA has more power than any international organization in the world. It is much bigger in its fan base than the Olympics or the Super Bowl. Like jazz, the World Cup is. Americans for their part should be interested. American soccer is on the rise and this is great for the sport.

So, to get into the drama of it all, I will be posting my thoughts about the tournament which runs from June 9 until July 9. Today I want to begin with a discussion involving what is widely regarded as the 'Big Four' in international soccer: Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Italy - with respect, of course, to other soccer stand outs such as England, France and Holland. Maybe I'll start a 'Big Seven' list later on.

If Brazil is considered to be the purveyor of beautiful free-form improvisational soccer, Italy represents the essence of sophisticated, practical and tactical football. Brazil are all about ball possession. On the other end of the spectrum, Italy are defined by opportunism. If we accept this premise (and I think most do), these two countries represent the extreme interpretations of the game. Though as I pointed out in an earlier post, this is changing for Italy.

Next lie Argentina and Germany who play a more integrated style. The Germans play a remarkably systematic and efficient -if not predictable -version of the game in itself filled with sublime marvelous football, while Argentina incorporates all the natural Latin passion inherent in their game that is both stylish and imaginative as much as it is aggressive teetering on being brutal.

Between the four they have produced countless players of the highest caliber. They have all influenced the game in some way at some point throughout history. For its part England and its rich soccer heritage has done much in internationalizing the game but World Cup greatness eludes them as their only victory came in 1966.

Other countries include France (the School of St. Etienne has historically produced brilliant players. The French play with a philosophy of attractive football. They too have one title captured in 1998) and Holland (while the concept of 'total football' was a Northern European invention, the Dutch played it to near perfection.)

Both Brazil and Italy are rabid soccer nations. Among the top four they take the top two spots in terms of their fanaticism for the game. This is all subjective of course so let's turn our attention to cold, hard statistics when comparing the two.

Brazil's all-time record at the world cup is 60 wins, 13 losses and 14 ties for a total of 141 pts. This translates into an astounding .770 winning percentage. Brazil are five time Champions and twice they have been runner up (5-2 in finals). They have finished 3rd twice and 4th once. That's 10 trips to the semis out of 17 appearances.* They can be excused for thinking the World Cup strictly resides within their sphere.

Italy's all-time numbers are 39-14-17 96 pts./.674 and 3rd overall. Italy are three time champions (3-2 in finals). They have been runner up twice. They have finished 3rd and 4th once. 7 semi-finals in 15 appearances.**

I single out Italy and Brazil because it's these two that have played more important games against one another when it comes to the continental comparison. Germany has a dismal losing record (4w-10l-4t) against Brazil. Interestingly, despite a staggering 14 finals between them, they have met only once in the World Cup and that was in 2002 when Brazil defeated them in the finals 2-0. Argentina has a winning record against Brazil (35-33) but they have been playing each other for a century and know one another well. Argentina have won more Copa America's (14) than any other South American country including Brazil (7). That leaves Italy as the only European nation to hold its own against Brazil.***

Italy and Brazil are locked into a 6w-6l-1d all-time record (including friendlies) against each other. In World Cup play the record is also tied up 2-2-1. However, one of the draws happened in the 1994 finals when the two sides played to a scoreless draw at the end of regulation. Brazil went on to win in a shoot-out. Each time they have played it has been in a crucial match and Brazil has earned a slight edge here. Twice Brazil defeated Italy in the finals (1970, 1994). Once in the semi-finals (1978). Italy for their part defeated Brazil in the semis in 1938 and 1982.

As a point of interest, Italy has never lost to Germany at the World Cup.****

Germany is ranked 2nd all-time at the world cup with a 50-17-18 record. 123pts./ .684. Germany has triumphed 3 times and reached the finals an additional 4 times. They join Brazil in 7 finals appearances (3-4). They earned 3rd place twice and 4th once. 10 semis in 15 appearances. That's a .667 ratio which even tops Brazil's 10 in 17 (.588 ratio) and far better than Italy's 7 in 15 (.467).

Argentina is ranked 4th. 30-19-11 72pts./ .592. In terms of winning percentage England and Holland surpass them for teams with at least 6 appearances. Argentina has reached the final 4 times twice being crowned champions (2-2) in 13 appearances.

There you have it. I kept it as brief as I could. It's a good start to begin. I hope to include along the way other interesting soccer nations like Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Poland, Sweden, Belgium (who are not in Germany in 2006), Croatia and Serbia (regarding the Yugoslavian lineage) and African football. To name a few. If I don't get to all of them it's because I had no time.

*Brazil only country in history to qualify for every world cup.
**Italian appearances were hurt after the tragic Torino plane crash in 1949 which set the national program back a decade. They declined to enter in 1930.
***I deliberately exclude the Magnificent Magyars from Hungary of the 1950s who dominated world football that decade without winning the big trophy. Much like Holland 20 years later when they embodied the spirit of 'total football' in the 1970s. Holland has a 1-1-1 record at the World Cup against Brazil. Hungary for its part has the honor of never losing to Brazil not only in the World Cup (2-0) but all time (3w-0l-1t). Between the two, three finals and no victories. Life isn't fair sometimes. Still, between Hungary, Holland, Argentina and Italy it brings into question Brazil's apparent dominance. Against higher quality sides Brazil is on par. Despite popular conceptions they are beatable.
**** Italy never played Germany prior to the second world war or East Germany. All meetings have been with West Germany. Italy is 12w-7l-8d all-time against all German teams (including Euro and friendlies). There is a possibility these two giants could meet in the finals in 2006.


Gotta Invite This Guy To the Next Cartoon Festival.

The following appears in June's issue of Harper's. It is from a lecture by the Iranian Education Ministry given by one Hassan Bolkhari.

"There is a cartoon that children like. They like it very much, and so do adults - Tom and Jerry. It is still shown throughout the world. The cartoon maintains its status because of the cue antics of the cat and mouse - especially the mouse.

Some say the main reason for making this appealing cartoon was to eradicate a certain derogatory term that was prevalent in Europe: the Jews were termed "dirty mice." Tom and Jerry was meant to change the Europeans' perception of mice.

It should be noted that mice are very cunning and dirty. Tom and Jerry displays the exact opposite image. The mouse is very clever and smart. He kicks the poor cat's ass. Yet this crulety does notmake you despire the mouse. He look so nice in the minds of Euopean children, and to show that the mouse is not dirty.

If you happen to watch this cartoon tomorrow, bear in mind the points I have raised and watch it from this perspective."

Gee, never did quite see it this way. Maybe the Fritos I ate all those years watching the cartoon in question jammed and short circuited my brain. God, how could I have been so stupid! Of course, that explains everything. Yeesh.

First of all, Tom and Jerry stinks. Second, the cartoon was intended for a North American audience. Still, I feel bad for those European kids. Third, Tom is an idiot thus making Jerry look smarter. Fourth, Iranians need to get out more.

I wonder what's his take on Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner; Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd; Itchy and Scratchy?

An Interesting Historical Paragraph

"...while the state was feeble, incompetent, governed by unprincipled self-seekers, and totally without any policy beyond that of momentary expedients, the Church was vigorous, able, guided by men prepared to sacrifice everything personal in its interests, and with a policy so far-sighted that it brought victory for the next thousand years. It is true that these merits were offset by fanaticism and superstition, but without these no reforming movement could, at the time, have succeeded."

The above passage is from A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. It describes the state of affairs while St. Ambrose was bishop of Milan - then capital of the Western Empire - at the end of the fourth century.

For those cynics among us, in the first part, they can take cold comfort that our age is not the worst of times. Removed from its context it can very well apply to modern times. Above all it is clear that history does have a spine after all.

There is also another angle here - the pillars of Catholic theology, beginning with St. Jerome, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, and later Gregory the Great, and its influence and impact on Western thought.

Today, we tend to view religion as an irrational if not dangerous force. This was not the case for a long time. Interestingly, some of its tenets were found in ancient Greek thought, itself rooted in rationalism. The Church was an integral part of the West and its development until the Enlightenment decided to challenge many of its assertions. Since then we have run with Hobbes and Voltaire. We seem to be tiring out at the moment. In this way, the last sentence in the passage is the one we cling on to as a vision and perception of religion.

In fact, it explains, in part, how we tend to rationalize the Church's reaction to the 'Da Vinci Code.' I often heard the phrase 'what's the big deal?' when talking about the 'Code', regarding its possible indiscretions. The 'big deal' is that we are superimposing our present secularized blueprints on something - the Church - that has a completely different world view. Since I firmly believe (as a secularized person) that theology has a firm place when discussing important issues in society in the public sphere, I would have been discomforted if they Church did not respond to it. It makes no sense to censor their view. I want to hear the best minds society has to offer in civil discourse.

This paragraph shows and reminds us that we must always look at the big picture and that the grass wasn't always greener centuries ago. Specifically here, it was the Church that was once the most enlightened institution on earth and the government (the last refuge of collectivism) was a petri dish for all human vices. Have the roles been reversed as much as we think they have?


My Day at a Workshop: Part 2

It's usually about luck. Make your own luck I've heard over the years. Where? How? I think it was Socrates (or one of them Ancient Hellenes) who said that hard work will inevitably pay off.

The seminar was presented, presided, narrated, hosted - you name it - by Guy Lawson. A journalist of repute who had his work published in places like the New York Times, Harper's and GQ. Gay Quacks. Kidding. Gotta love workshops that begin "I've never had to go through this but...I guess I was lucky." Yup, I guess you were.

It reminds me of my former senior partner at an investment firm. "I was lucky. I came into the business before it was saturated. I never had to make a cold call. I don't believe in it. Too bad for you that you will have to do it." Yup, too bad for me.

As the day went along Mr. Writer grew on me but one of the students in the group made it a point to irritate this mild-mannered blogger. I know this to be true as she told me in a nightmare. She specifically said, "I will irritate you tomorrow at the workshop. It will turn into a torture chamber for you. Then, we will make love like two insane squealing seals from Sable Island." It wasn't quite like that. You know dreams. One minute they're real, but the second you get up to go wash out your mouth you can't recall its contents with any reliable accuracy.

Regardless, towards the end of the day, Mr. Lawson began to talk about - without explicitly saying it since it's a dirty word these days - morals in writing. He essentially spoke about how responsible a writer must be. That accountability and integrity does and must play a role in a journalists personal ethics. That sort of stuff. Values I absolutely agreed with. Everyone nodded in agreement. Though I openly wonder on this page how many truly meant it.

To his credit, it was refreshing to hear a successful writer tell things like it is. He did not refrain from offering his comments, for example, about the New York Times. In a short phrase? It's overrun by incompetence. That, in general, the whole industry is packed with nepotism. Gee? Really? I didn't notice. No matter; the Times always gets a pass. I recently heard some sports writer still consider it great writing. Oi. Some can do no wrong, eh?

He didn't stop there. He went as far as to make known his feelings about some guy called Martin Finkle (I can't remember his name. Could have been Sprinkle, Spankle, Spank Me. Whatever). It stunned most of the people to hear such candid opinions. Lawson brought the example of an article this chap had been made up. It was fictitious. Like Greek mythology. In his opinion, that sort of dishonesty is simply unacceptable. It spoke volumes about the character of the writer. I agree.

But not to the girl in my class. She took issue with this. She knew the writer in question and proceeded to defend him. It was an awful display of moral relativism. In a nutshell? In her world - and by her logic - he was completely innocent because the editor told him to make up the story. She went on and on about how he's a guy who lives on the edge blah, blah, bling but what startled - if not angered me - was the willful denial of personal accountability. Regardless of the editors faulty intellectualism, it was ghastly that she would defend this person. That they both admitted to the story being a piece of trash ad conspired to blame another person astounded and intrigued me.

Look, I understand that sometimes in life we get pushed into a corner and that forces us to perhaps do things we shouldn't. It happens - though you should guide yourself in a manner that allows you to avoid those predicaments to begin with. Nonetheless, I'm willing to offer amnesty every once in a while.

Not in this case. No one held a gun to his head. He had a choice. He made the wrong choice by his own free will. You can't defend the indefensible. No one bought her argument but she kept hammering at it. It was modern decadent intellectualism.

Alas, these are the days - the Zeitgeist if you will. A word kindly reminded to me by Contratimes blog.

I asked him, as a matter of record here, about the great mythology scholar Maureen Dowd. But that's for another time.

Canadian Influences in Early Hollywood

Ever pick up a dusty book or piece of antique that you thought to be unimportant, only to discover its inherent value? That's how naughty history can be sometimes. There's never a dull moment when one rediscovers pieces of history. I can just imagine how Italian humanists felt just before they nurtured the Renaissance in Europe.

Canadians are not generally regarded as a people attached to their heritage, so the opportunity to dust off pieces of Canadian history is there for us to discover. Indeed, we have seen this with the Heritage Series vignettes aired on television, highlighting Canadian historical achievements and contributions.

I recently stumbled upon one of those lost relics of Canadiana I never knew existed; which surprised me since I do take an active interest in this country's past. Reading about Canadian history has introduced me to the innovative spirit of Canadians through the years. In the realm of Hollywood, Canadians were rugged individualists who roamed the continent giving unique Canadian imprints to the North American film experience.

What was supposed to be a night researching Buster Keaton led to the discovery of several Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood. While going through the list of Canadian names on various web sites dedicated to the silent film era, the one thing that caught my attention was how this presence and influence seemed disproportionate to Canada's tiny population, which grew from 7 million in 1910 to 10 million in 1930. It was like discovering a long lost relative.

Some quotes from The Grove Book of Hollywood anthology edited by Christopher Silvester helps to put things in historical perspective. Dancer and choreographer Agnes DeMille (niece of Cecil B. DeMille) once said "Hollywood was merely a country town, like many in the East, with palms instead of maples and chestnuts. The hills, though steep, were plain colored. The people were just ordinary." She even described how there were still cowboys who, "kept largely to themselves."

British actress Constance Collier added "Hollywood was still a village, with farms that had not yet been built over, and the surly farmers were furious at the advent of the picture folk." In a similar vain, screenwriter Lenore Coffee wrote "In 1919 Hollywood was a village. Hollywood Boulevard could have been any Main Street in America."

With this, Hollywood was hardly a romantic and opulent place in its infancy. Such was the character of Hollywood in its formative years. There were no agents and it was normal for employees to offer their insights to the director. What Hollywood lacked in panache it made up in the family surroundings it fostered. In many ways, this unassuming and humble reality resonated well with a Canadian mindset.

And so it is with DeMille's ,Collier's and Coffee's Hollywood, Canadians were poised to leave their mark; earn their stars they did.

Notable figures during this time included the tragic lives of Marie Prévost and Florence Lawrence 'America's First Movie Star.' This period brought Canada's only three female Academy Award Winners: Norma Shearer in 1930 and Marie Dressler in 1931. Mary Pickford - 'arguably the most famous person who ever lived' - won this country's first award in 1929. A powerful figure and co-founder of United Artists, Pickford was known as 'America's sweetheart.'

On the director's chair, Canadian influence was felt through the slapstick director Mack Sennett, who introduced the 'Keystone Kops' to film audiences, now regarded as an American institution. Sidney Olcott, among the first true great directors, was a founding member of what is known today as the Director's Guild of America. In business, Jack Warner was the driving force behind his co-founding of Warner Brothers Studios. Other notable names include Raymond Massey, Nell Shipman (The Girl From God's Country), Al Christie and Fay Wray, famous for her role as the blonde captive in 'King Kong.'

With this list, it should not surprise anyone Canadians brought to Hollywood a distinctly Canadian flavor to film audiences everywhere. Ironically, while Hollywood is singled out by cultural protectionists for its threat to the Canadian identity, it is interesting to note that Canadians themselves had a role to play in this development. But that is another story altogether.

From the dusty streets of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Streets in the early 20th century, to the modern glitz of 21st century Hollywood, Canadians have been an integral part of the process every step of the way. Dusting can be a rewarding and therapeutic exercise.