Saturday, August 29, 2015


Longtime readers of this, the second best blog called Measure of Doubt will have picked up on the fact that your noble is author is slightly OCD.  Titles are always one word and I only ever have one picture, which appears in the top left corner.

I have a variety of OCD habits that I am at a loss to explain, many of them stemming from childhood. My solution is to be really very messy – I am currently aiming to achieve maximum entropy in my office. When things are moderately clean my OCD kicks in, and I have to make sure the books are perfectly square with the lip of the bookshelf and whatnot. When it's complete chaos, I don't bother.

Anyway, all that brings me around to superheroes. There's something I want to discuss, briefly, and it will require me to do something unprecedented on MOD: namely, post more than one picture. So maximum entropy to overcome the OCD.

Here's a bunch of movie and TV posters about Superheroes. These are all real. I noticed something.

Here are Batman and Superman. Looking down.

Here's Spiderman, looking down. Maybe something fell out of his pocket while he was climbing walls or hanging upside down.

The Flash, looking way down.

 Captain America, looking so far down he may actually have nodded off. 

 And again. Bear in mind he's a WWII vet and getting up there. 

In case you thought maybe it was the helmet, weighing his head down. Nope. 

Here are Bruce Banner and the Hulk, both looking down. Banner is wondering how the Hulk fits into his pants, why a Hulk sized dingle doesn't flop out every time he gets angry.

A completely different Superman, looking down. Lois Lane, however, is looking up. She's thinking, "What is wrong with him? He's got issues."

Speaking of issues. Mr. Issues himself, looking down. 

The Dark Knight Rises, but he's looking down. 

Wolverine, looking down. In fairness, it is raining.

 Daredevil, looking down, which is odd. Because he's blind. What's he looking at?

Here we have Iron Man, looking down-ish. Or, in his case, Downey-ish. 

But his sidekick and corporate CEO Pepper Pots is most definitely looking down.  

Green Arrow is too cool to look way down so he just inclines his chin slightly. 

Thor, down. But as far as I'm concerned that Chris Hemsworth can look at me anyway he wants. Also Black Widow, doing the slight chin incline thing because too cool.

Bad guys look down sometimes, too.  Here's Loki, looking down but at you at the same time, to stress his unpredictable nature.

Whereas Ultron looks down AND turns his back on you just to be rude.

 I don't even know what this villain's name is but he is looking down

 Okay, this is not just looking down. This is a cry for help. Which, you would also make if you had been in Spider Man 3. 

...or if you were going to prison for tax evasion.  

Some of the Watchmen are looking down. But they need to watch you. So they have to be careful about that.

Some people in this poster are looking down. But Ant Man is more-or-less looking on the level. He is very tiny, after all, and might get stepped on if he looked down.

Shhh. Shhh. It will be okay. 



Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Much brouhaha in the United States right now over the Confederate flag — more properly the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia — and whether it should be flying over the statehouse in South Carolina, or anywhere for that matter. Walmart and Sears stopped selling them last week. In typically stale and unthinking reporting, successive journalists have described the debate as one that pits those who see the flag as a symbol of racism and oppression against those who see it as a symbol of history and heritage, as if it can’t be both.

Back when I taught American history I would sometimes get confronted by enormously self-assured students who told me that I had it wrong. The American Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights. They learned this in high school. In a sense, they were correct. The Civil War was indeed about states' rights, of which the only one worth going to war over was the right to own slaves. The Union did not go to war in 1861 to free slaves, but the South most assured did go to war in order to keep them. If the Confederacy had won the war the institution would not have died in 1865.  Having lost the war, however, the former Confederate states mobilized politically to replace slavery with legal forms of racial discrimination that endured for over a century, and whose social and political legacy remains deeply entrenched. 

The “Confederate flag” is a symbol of all that, and its opponents are right to insist that it belongs in a museum, not over a statehouse, or in Walmart, or on a bumper sticker.

But how selective our righteous indignation can be. I wonder how many flags aren't symbols of cruelty and oppression for some group of people, or even very large groups of people? Certainly not Old Glory. Or the Union Jack. Or Japan's flag. Or the Republic of China’s. Shall we count bodies of the innocent? In reverse order from the list above, we would start with about 40 million.  

Amazon is no longer selling the Confederate Flag, either. Whew. Wouldn’t want that symbol of oppression to fall into the wrong hands. Buy one of these instead. 

Addendum: shortly after I posted this column, South Carolina took down its Confederate flags from the state legislature. I approve but, remember: when they de-Stalinized the Soviet Union, the point wasn't to confront the past. It was to bury it.

Friday, May 29, 2015


Saturday, October 28th was the second consecutive day of high winds, rain, and heavy cloud, dreadful weather that grounded much of the RFC on the Somme. Undaunted, 24 attempted two patrols that day. Returning from a solo OP that morning, Saundby, whose engine was giving him trouble, fought a west wind so strong he could barely make headway against it. Low on fuel, he landed at Morlancourt, home to No. 9 Squadron. After refueling and some repairs, he clawed his way the remaining twenty miles west to Bertangles, arriving late but intact, no doubt much to relief of his squadron mates.  The weather had hardly improved by 3 PM, when McKay and Knight alighted in the rain on a defensive patrol. High winds, dense cloud cover and what Knight described as intermittent “gales and storms” led another pilot to think them “impertinent” for flying at all. Worse still, McKay’s engine was acting up, and he had already returned to the aerodrome once with a dud engine to switch machines. Buffeted by wind, rain, and sleet, he had a horrid flight through frigid grey skies over a devastated grey landscape, nursing his engine, sputtering along at 7000 feet, 1500 below and behind Knight, unable to climb higher. Beneath them, the armies hunkered down in their waterlogged trenches, wearily and grimly bracing themselves for the denouement of the Somme battle. 

By 3:40 PM, McKay and Knight reached the town of Pozieres. In July and August twenty-three thousand Australians had been killed or wounded wresting the town and its adjacent ridge from the Germans in a series of violently contest assaults. Now it lay in shell-pocked ruins.  On the two Canadians pressed, flying through cloud and rain. Then, peering into the distance, McKay spotted a single German machine, well below them to the north. It was a tempting target, but experienced pilots knew that this sort of thing was often a trap, designed to lure reckless newcomers into formations of scouts lurking at high altitudes. Scanning the sky above, McKay saw them between the clouds: nearly an entire squadron at 10,000 feet. “Halberstadter and brown scouts,” he called them in the squadron record book, but they were in fact the new Albatros fighters, faster than the DH.2 and mounting twice its firepower. Knight had seen them, too. Probably both men had guessed their identity. This was 24’s arch-nemesis, Jagdstaffel Zwei, and after five minutes of pursuit, half a dozen of them, led by Oswald Boelcke himself, slipped to the side and came screaming down upon them. 

From Eddie: The Life and Times of A.E. McKay, Royal Flying Corps (in process)

Friday, April 10, 2015


On the 14th of March 1917, Eddie McKay departed 24 Squadron for the last time. The squadron’s aerodromes had been his home and its pilots his family for nine months. Now he was the last — the very last — of that ‘fellowship of famous knights’ who had stormed the skies above the Somme when the great battle began in July. He still languished as 2nd lieutenant, undecorated, with a solid but undistinguished four victories to his name, and the Boelcke story probably starting to become a bit threadbare in the mess. But he was alive. ‘Lithe’ Eddie McKay, ‘cool headed’ Eddie McKay, ‘quick and scrappy’ Eddie McKay, never happier than on the rugby pitch, boring in with heart alone against bigger men and bringing them down. He was alive. Gray, Wigglesworth, Evans, Mansfield, Gooderich, Langan Byrne, Crawford, Begg, Glew, Wilson, Holtom, Knight, and Lewis were not. And Hawker was not. McKay left. England and the Home Establishment beckoned.
    The next day, his replacement, nineteen year old 2nd lieutenant James Kenneth Ross of Crouch End, a comfortable middle class suburb in the north of London, arrived fresh from No. 6 Reserve Training Squadron to take his place in the roster of “A” Flight. He was dead in twenty days.

from The Life and Times of Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps (in process)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015



I’m offering tennis lessons, at a big tennis facility. They cost $7271.93.  I know that sounds like a lot, but, consider the following. The average incoming tennis student, based on prior demonstrated skills in tennis, is awarded a $1,000 admission bursary. This brings the cost of a package down to $6300, on average. For that, you get fifteen hours of tennis lessons per week with at least five established professionals in the field, and it’s a twenty-six week package! That’s 390 hours of tennis lessons for $6300, which works out to $16/hour for instruction!

Still not convinced? Well – and you’re not going to believe this – the cost of your lessons is tax deductible! This reduces the functional cost of your tuition, I mean, tennis lessons,  by an average of 15%, or to about $5350, or about about $13.70 hour.  I'll say that again – $13.70 an hour!  That's about what Laser Tag costs!  (You can even take out low-interest loans to cover the cost of your lessons, and the interest you pay on them is tax deductible, reducing the interest rate with inflation to about 1%).

In addition, I forgot to mention the other services we offer. You have free weekly opportunities for one-on-one consultation with your tennis instructors – some of whom are world class tennis champions – in addition to a wide array of free skill-set and personal related counselling by professionals that you can consult without limit. And your tennis instructors almost always can offer tips by e-mail.

Did I mention the tennis library, which has tens of thousands of works about tennis you can check out, staff you can consult with, and where you can work to study up on your game for no additional charge? Or the tennis libraries’ thousands of digital databases you have 24/7 access to in order to improve your playing?

Did I mention our recreational facilities? The gym? The pool? The fitness classes? The dozens of non-tennis related clubs? The vast number of social activities you can go to in order to meet other tennis students? That we even hold concerts and plays and have an art gallery and lovely grounds to walk? Nearly all of these services are available at no extra charge, and they’re available to you when tennis lessons aren’t in session. We even throw in a free year-round bus pass! Finally, we can demonstrate statistically that people who have taken tennis lessons have higher lifetime earnings than people who haven’t.

What’s that? No, I’m afraid we can’t offer tennis lesson for free.  All those services cost money. I know it's a difficult concept.  But the fact is, we’re literally going bankrupt offering the lessons at their current rates. The way it’s looking right now, we probably won’t be able to offer them for much longer, so I’d grab the lessons now if you could.

One thing, though…some people still complain that their tennis lessons are far too expensive. And yet our records show that they only show up for half their lessons!  Maybe they shouldn’t have taken tennis lessons in the first place.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


High-fives all around, humanity. You’re familiar, of course, with the terrible story of James Robertson, the Detroit man who walks over twenty miles a day to work at a job that pays $10.55 an hour. A crowdfunding effort has raised nearly $300,000 – that’s Robertson’s take-home pay for a decade, by the way –  to help him get to work.  And now he has a  “team of financial advisors" to help him out. Problem solved!  And here you crazy lefties thought that the problem was the economy we've chosen to have, and the cities we've chosen to design. Ha! Ha! 

In other news, a crowd-sourcing effort is underway to save a drowning polar bear whose ice flow has melted due to climate change. We'll alert you when the polar bear is saved and that problem is solved, too.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


My fellow Americans. I did not write these words. They were written for me by a team of professional speech-writers. They were tested before small focus groups ahead of time in order to determine their likely impact on the polls. The speech you are about to hear will be devoid of substantive content. Nothing that I will say will be surprising. Ninety percent of what I say could have been said by any of my predecessors in the past forty years. The speech will contain at least two dozen tiresome political cliches. I will pause for just a moment after delivering each of these so that members of Congress and others in attendance will know when to rise and applaud. You will notice that the Justices of the Supreme Court and the Joints Chiefs of Staff seldom will clap. This is their way of maintaining the ridiculous pretense that they are somehow apolitical, when in fact they are some of the most ideologically zealous people you will ever meet, and have been chosen in part precisely because of their ideological zealotry.

I will now insert a word of thanks to the brave men and women of our armed forces. Members of Congress, you will wish to be first on your feet to applaud for them. If you believe that it is not merely absurd but actually insidious and indeed even fascistic to valorize martial virtues over civilian ones, or if you think that it impedes badly needed argument about the conduct of America’s foreign and military policy, you should rise and applaud anyway. To do otherwise would be to commit an immediate act of political suicide, with implications not only for your own career but for your party.

In addition to offering a succession of banal statements written at approximately an eighth-grade reading level, I will also deploy a number of rhetorical cliches. These ring familiar to the ear, like a repetitious hit song, or the formula that drives your favourite Hollywood movies. They have been shown by the marketing and public relations firms that drive so much of our political culture to produce the most statistically favourable poll results. To that end, I will not and shall not just say “will not.”  I can not and will not just say “can not.”  I will also be referring to Americans as “folks” and will never say “taxpayers” without inserting “harding working” in front of it. I promise to make no literary references except to the Bible. My only historical references will be to the Founding Fathers, though I have been advised to downplay Thomas Jefferson.

I have invited guests today to hear the State of the Union Address. They are good people who have done good things for their communities. Some of them have saved peoples’ lives. You will be comforted to know that they have been carefully vetted to ensure that they haven’t done anything in the past that might embarrass me; they have also been selected in a precisely calculated manner so as ensure that their selection plays out favourably in terms of likely and probable voter support.

I wish to stress again that this speech will include no substantive content. For instance, I will not and shall not mention that we borrow money China in order to pay for ridiculously bloated armed forces that irrationally regard China as their greatest foe. And I can not and will not mention that a powerful lobby has somehow convinced millions of Americans that gun crime is unrelated to guns. Or that we alone do not use the metric system. Or that forty percent of you think the world is less than 10,000 years old and that this in turn explains why we are falling behind in scientific achievement relative to the rest of the world. 

Nonetheless, this content-free speech will be analyzed down to the last word by journalists, a very special breed of people paid to write and speak at great length on matters about which they have no professional expertise. They will judge the value of speech – and note once again, that it has none in particular – based on their pre-existing ideological predispositions. They will pay particular attention to the one or two times in this speech when I make a gracious remark about a member of Congress from another political party, like the guy sitting behind me. I can not – and shall not – reveal just how much I hate that guy’s guts. Instead, I will make a point about how great America is by observing that he came from humble origins. You may now applaud.  

Once again I’d like to thank the brave men and women of our armed forces for protecting our freedoms, even if it demonstrably true that our government in the conduct of its foreign and military policy has provided vital political, economic, and military aid to a litany of dictatorships while progressively encroaching on individual liberties at home. I’d also like to thank the hardworking taxpayers who make it possible for us to spend $1.5 trillion on a jet that we don't need and that doesn’t work while our urban infrastructure crumbles.

I do not believe in God but am required by poll evidence to conclude this speech by asking God to bless America, because despite the widely held view amongst the religious that their faith is under attack and in retreat, they constitute an overwhelming majority of the population.  So, God Bless the United States of America. He didn’t stop the Holocaust but maybe he’ll intervene on our behalf in this particular instance, and straighten out a health care system that costs two or three times as much per capita as ones that we deride as being "socialist."  Thank you and goodnight. Especially if you're one of the brave men and women of our armed forces.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


Feeling more aggrieved than usual, your unbending author interrupts regularly scheduled programing to clear his throat in defense of civilization. 

Yes, I tweeted #JeSuisCharlie. Yes, I put the hashtag on Facebook. Yes, I even put it on the wipe board on my office door, which isn’t really my office door, hence the “even.”  #JeSuisCharlie is a small thing, but not meaningless, a gesture of solidarity with victims of religious fascism. As someone who makes his living in the world of thought and ideas and written expression, I found the murders at Charlie Hebdo particularly poignant even though far worse acts of violence against innocents were committed elsewhere in the world that week.  Boko Haram murdered several hundred people in the town of Baga around the same time as the Paris shootings, and despite what some people seem to think, I am not ignorant of the one if I care about the other. 

The very minute I saw the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag, I knew that the backlash against it would begin with a couple of days or so. Sniping of the kind I just described was inevitable. Even before the Ice Bucket Challenge (remember that?) reached its zenith last summer people started saying, “Why all the attention about ALS? Don’t people know that heart disease kills more people?” And so on.  If you’re ever giving a eulogy, try that line of reasoning out. “Well, sure, this guy is dead. But, come on. A lot more people than him died this week. Don’t you people care about them? What kind of monsters are you?”  See how that goes over. 

So the backlash against #JeSuisCharlie has taken on a perfectly predictable form and has come from perfectly predictable people, including a number of journalists who make a living writing Op-Eds that wouldn’t make the cut for emergency backup columns on Measure of Doubt.  To those people, I say: just how stupid do you think I am?  Did I anywhere claim that posting #JeSuisCharlie is an act of bravery? That it constitutes a serious blow against religious fascism? That it mitigates the need for vigilance about freedom of expression in my own country? Does it mean that I am unaware or uncaring about other acts of violence, including some committed by the government of France in the past? Does it mean I am not aware of the complexities and nuances of the political, economic, and cultural conflicts that underpin the attacks? Does it mean any of those things about anyone who posted it?  To listen to and read many cranks you’d think so.

There’s another distressing side to this, too, even though it was equally predictable. You wouldn’t think you’d have to defend the idea that people ought not to be murdered for hurting the feelings of the kinds of people who murder people for hurting their feelings, but you do. There are hordes of people saying right now, “Well you poke the bear…” or “I’m against murder, but…” and so forth. We've been listening to that noise since The Satanic Verses pissed off people who never read it. So, here’s the thing. Am I committed to freedom of expression? Yes. Do I understand the nuances and complexities of the statement I just made? Yup, some of them. You can explain the rest to me if you feel the need. But will I post any of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons here? No. Why not? I already told you, and it’s not because I’m afraid of terrorists. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015


OK. I want to see places where I don’t already live. See the problem?  To listen to some people, you’d thing that being a tourist was some sort of inherent crime against humanity. How dare I not be a native Parisian? Where do I get off not having been born in Thailand? What was I thinking, choosing parents who didn’t live nearer to Venice? 

There’s a large body of literature that interrogates what it means to be a tourist and sometimes very cleverly distinguishes between the tourist (who comes as some sort of cultural imperialist, if I understand things correctly) and the traveller, who is respectful and discerning about what he encounters. Oh, please.  If I’m in Paris I’m going to tie on my bright white running shoes, grab my day pack, see the Mona Lisa, go up the Eiffel Tower, buy a fridge magnet of Notre Dame, and photograph the hell out of the place.  Then I’m going to damn well put those photographs on Facebook, that weird world where people ask to be your friends and then complain when you use it for what it’s intended for. By all means get snooty about that while you wallow in whatever hellhole you’re from.

I'm writing this from Portugal, where there are important archeological sites, medieval towns, cathedrals, museums, and galleries that would slide into total ruin and decrepitude if not for the massive stream of tourists whose spending supports these places or the local economies that support them. And around the world whole countries depend on tourism as the backbone of their economy. This comes at a price, of course, because the tourists change the places they’re visiting. In some cases, such as Paris’s famous Latin Quarter, there is very little left of what drew tourists in the first place, just shops selling junk gifts and restaurants selling junk food to tourists who can’t imagine anything worse than eating something they’ve never eaten before (the kind of people who will line up on a Friday to eat at East Side Mario’s.)  

And there really are tourists who are culturally ignorant and insensitive. They use their camera flashes in places where they’re asked not to and don’t even bother to learn to say “hello” “please” or “thank you” in the local language. Last year a perfectly nice evening we were having in a very good restaurant in Paris was very nearly ruined by four people at a nearby table. Why was the service so slow? Why didn’t the waiters speak English, after all we had done for them in the war? And they demanded to know of a lovely couple from New Zealand, sitting (thankfully, for they absorbed the brunt of this) between us and them, how New Zealanders could possibly get by without gun rights? How did they defend themselves? (At this point you can probably guess which country the four were from, and probably who they voted for in its last several elections.)  With good humour, one of the New Zealanders opined that he’d never considered the need to defend himself at all in New Zealand, there having been five homicides, three of them committed by sheep, the previous year.  Game, set, and match, I thought, but it was more of a moral victory than an actual one. The big hairs carried on. They really need to fix the roads – they’re so narrow! And the locals are so rude!  I ordered a second bottle of wine to dull the pain.

It’s also true that there are weird forms of tourism: “dark tourism” (visiting sites of murders, massacres, genocides, and the like), and “poverty tourism”, where people who are rich pay money to see “authentic” people who are not. But I’m not sure that what I’ve done is much different: I’ve led battlefield tours, and spent the day today photographing character-filled medieval neighbourhoods in Lisbon, behind whose walls and doors are people who are by Canadian standards really quite poor.  

So I’m not sure what it all means. But I do know this: in about three days our plane will land in Toronto and one of the first things I will see will be that most ubiquitous of Canadian restaurant chains, and weary travellers who will immediately queue for a coffee that’s so bad they have to double the sugar and milk just to drink it, and a little part of me will die. But it won't be the unapologetically elitist part.