Barrel Strength

Over-Proof Opinion, Smoothly Aged Insight

Barrel Strength - Over-Proof Opinion, Smoothly Aged Insight

You have the right to utter ‘stupidities’: Quebec premier

It was in relation to complaints of an Imam that Premier Couillard of Quebec was speaking. And I like this guy more and more, Phillippe Couillard, that is.

ST-GEORGES-DE-BEAUCE — Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said Friday he doesn’t share the Muslim Council of Montreal’s view that laughing at religions should be punished.

Last week, Imam Salam Elmenyawi told committee hearings on Quebec’s proposed hate-speech legislation that mocking Islam was unacceptable.

“When you laugh at my religion, you’re laughing at me, you’re laughing at my wife, you’re laughing at the Prophet,” Elmenyawi told members of the National Assembly on Aug. 20. “If your intention is to protect people, you have to understand that for a Muslim, when you mock his religion, you attack his very person.”

Yes you do. There is no gap between a Muslim and his religious beliefs.They are not a part of him; they are him.  It took several centuries of religious warfare in the west to to put some distance between a person’s right to assault you and your disparagement of his religious beliefs. We have by and large achieved this tolerance, and we no longer are justified by law and society for killing people for offending our conceptions of salvation and the revelations we have received from our Gods. In some ways, this is too bad, but for the most part it has brought down the murder rate, and encouraged civil discourse, and allowed progress.

Couillard told reporters at his party’s pre-session caucus in St-Georges-de-Beauce he disagreed with Elmenyawi.

“We’re still listening to people coming to the hearings, but we want to say very, very loud and clear that we don’t want to obstruct freedom of expression in Quebec. Freedom of expression means saying stupid things or even ridiculous things, and then it’s up to you, it’s up to us to say why it’s ridiculous and why it shouldn’t be said, but not to bar somebody from saying this.”

“The line has to be traced in the sand, though, and for us the line is calling for violence. This is what we want to do, this is what we want to achieve and, hopefully, with the hearings we’ll find a good balance,” Couillard said.

Premier Couillard is a former neurosurgeon, who had worked for four years in Saudi Arabia, after being head of neurosurgery in important Quebec hospitals. He quit medicine and ran for office in 2003.

It is my constant complaint that Quebecois do not travel enough; they have not yet appreciated the vast diversity of the world. Many still think the English Canadians are foreigners, as in, really different people. Protestant and all that. Historical enemies, and heretics.

Thus it is significant that Quebec’s current premier has spent time in the midst of Islam, and has come back to run the province. He knows. He quit the medical profession in 2003, was elected and became Minister of Health under Premier Charest, and became Premier in 2013.

I have often maintained that we do not need political leaders to rant about Islam; we need leaders who will firmly rebuff its cultural assumptions, and in Couillard we have found one.

Incidentally, have you heard anything out of Quebec in the past two years? The silence is of Couillard getting the place in order.

He is 58 years old. I can imagine him as the next Conservative leader, or the next Liberal one. It will make no difference.



Beer and interprovincial trade

A New Brunswick man, Gérard Comeau, has fought back against the attempt of the government of New Brunswick to restrict the interprovincial movement of beer. He has taken the case to court.

Here is the provision of the Constitution Act, 1867, in question:

Section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 provides that:

121. All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces.

The provision has been interpreted by the courts in a way that has restricted its plain meaning. “Free” has come to mean “free of duty” or customs imposts, and not free as in freely. It takes the narrowness of the legal mind to misinterpret the plain intent of the legislation, but that is the result of their training.

Since then, there has grown up host of laws passed by provinces to restrict the interprovincial movement of alcoholic drinks, agricultural produce,  and other  items. The case arose in 1921 in Gold Seal versus AG Alberta and the decision of Mr. Justice Migneault still holds.

I think that, like the enactment I have just quoted, the object of section 121 was not to decree that all articles of the growth, produce or manufacture of any of the provinces should be admitted into the others, but merely to secure that they should be admitted “free,” that is to say without any tax or duty imposed as a condition of their admission. The essential word here is “free” and what is prohibited is the levying of custom duties or other charges of a like nature in matters of interprovincial trade.[8]

It will be interesting to see whether the provincial bans on the importation of alcoholic beverages continue to be upheld. Given that the Supreme Court is in a contest to prove itself more popular than the elected governments of Canada, I suspect that Gold Seal will be substantially revised in the direction of open borders.

We can hope.




The salutary effects of competition



Quebec shares with many places in the world the strong belief that employment can be achieved through greater regulation, that government is there to protect the existing market rather than oversee in a disinterested way the level of competition, and that there is a fixed amount of wealth in society, which government exists to distribute.

The latter is a particularly vicious medieval illusion, which you will find supported regardless of the evident progress of the last three centuries.

So something like the Internet is a challenge to this protectionist instincts of the Quebec population and political class, and Uber is the instantiation of that challenge. Thus the jostling between Uber and the various Quebec governments is worth watching.

As the Globe writes this morning:

Since Uber rolled into town, something has been happening to Montreal’s famously sclerotic taxi industry: rapid and profound change. Cab companies have revamped their mobile apps, and in a few weeks every driver in the city will – at long last – accept electronic payment. The airport authority, meanwhile, is instituting a dress code for cabbies and limits on the age of their vehicles.

And earlier this month, a well-known Quebec venture capitalist scooped up Montreal’s second-largest cab company. He is promising a digital platform to rival Uber’s, plus free Wi-Fi and an all-electric, 2,000-vehicle fleet by 2019.

The concerns expressed for background checks of drivers, the need for stricter chauffeur’s licencing for Uber drivers, such as taxi drivers must have, and other impediments to Uber, take on a new light. Are they really necessary? were they ever necessary? How much of taxi licensing is for the protection of the public and how much is protection for the revenue streams of taxi drivers? And the owners of taxi licences, more importantly?

Uber and Netflix capture the public imagination because they so clearly represent the onrushing challenge of Internet-based business models for those based on restriction of competition through artificial scarcity.

there is no further reason for taxis and taxi drivers to be scarce, dirty, expensive, and rude, just as there is no further justification for television to be interrupted for 13 minutes in the hour by obnoxious advertizing.

Given a chance,people are fleeing bad service for better.



The difference between English and American speaking

I find English speakers talk too much and say too little, for the amount of words they use.

For example,  here is the British biologist Simon Conway Morris. He is known for his work on what is called “convergence”. The idea is that biological forms have a narrow range, and that species converge on some particular forms: canid, ape, bird, whale, bug and so forth. The wild variety of possibilities in theory are narrower in fact: gravity, land, sea, buoyancy, air, lift, and thousands of factors reduce and channel the possibilities, so that marsupial, lizard and mammal converge on a limited number of forms.

I could cite Raymond Tallis, Roger Scruton, or, to a lesser extent, Rupert Sheldrake. All four are fine thinkers, and Sheldrake is, by comparison, a good direct speaker.

However, if you follow their Youtube lectures, you are confronted with a massive wastage of words, and frequently – always in the case of Tallis – just  the reading of a text rather than the giving of a speech – and a failure to announce, from the beginning of the speech, what they intend to talk about, why they believe as they do, and to summarize what they have said, with a view to persuading the audience of a particular argument.

I would venture to suggest that other speakers from the British Isles do NOT speak this way. Scots and Ulstermen (the same tribe on two sides of the Irish Sea) do not speak in the voluminous, discursive, and witty way. They speak like North Americans do, with a view to persuading, being clear, and not in spending time showing how erudite they are.

Watch William Lane Craig debate the existence of God for example. Or the Oxford Professor and Ulsterman John Lennox. Each is completely clear in his speech, each understands the argument he is about to make, and each announces his argument without much verbal foreplay.

The TED talk is the perfect expression of this style of speaking: say it clear, say it sincerely, and get over with it in ten to fifteen minutes, free of diversion, free of asides, and free from the need to prove you can quote Catullus, Nietzsche, or Homer so that the world will know how well educated you are.

In the time I have been writing  this brief essay, Simon Conway Morris has still not completed his talk, and I still remain unclear as to what he is talking about. It is fascinating, but still unclear. No American debater would dare take so much time, or indulge in so much wool-gathering.



The romantic image of the writer is of someone who goes to his desk and struggles with the blank page until blood comes out of his forehead. I find the  process of romanticizing, extolling, and criticizing of writers and writing to be tedious. The problem is that writing as such matters very little, to me. It is what the writer says that counts.

I just read an interesting piece on the minor late Victorian writer and caricaturist Max Beerbohm in the New Yorker.  Adam Gopnik, author of the piece, manages more serious thought and fine distinctions of feeling  in his essay on Beerbohm than I could ever summon in myself, and I am led to wonder, is it me? Do I suffer from some metaphorical colour blindness that leaves me largely unmoved by these purely literary concerns?

Probably. I devour histories, I tear through popular science, I enjoy biographies. Yet through all my critical faculties are asking: is the amount of information, including information about information, which is being conveyed worth the attention I am giving the book?

Here is an example of what I mean. Suppose you want to read  about the US Civil War (1861-1865). What is the most efficient way to inform yourself? I would suggest you start with MacPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, one of the Oxford University series on the history of the United States. If you wanted to know more, then I would suggest Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the same struggle, which is the best history in my view since Thucydides’ The Pelopponesian War. But there comes a point of diminishing returns on the investment of attention. By the time you are plowing through a history of the US Union Fifth Army Corps in the same war, you have reached the point of futility. No further amount of detail will explain for you the importance of the Civil War.

Thus, I am unable to take interest in a piece of writing that describes the impressions in a six year old’s mind of the Christmas stocking hanging at the end of his sister’s bed, no matter how finely written. It seems that most of the people who take literature seriously are far more concerned with such writing than with accounts of real-world events. Hence the pages of newspapers and book review magazines are filled with reviews of books in which I can summon no interest whatever. Most women’s writing falls into this category.

Books like Proust’s A la recherhce du temps perdu, and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, will remain forever unread, and if their every copy were destroyed and forgotten, I do not think the world would be much poorer.

For those novels that I do manage to read, such as by John Updike and Philip Roth, their virtues for me consist in:

a) they are readable (this is the primary criterion)

b) the author has a viewpoint in which I can participate;

c) the book appears to be about something;

d) the author leaves me with the feeling that he is not concerned with whether I hold him in the highest regard; he is happy with the royalty payments, and if I toss the book, or pass it on to a friend, it is of little concern to him, or her.

Thus authors like Margaret Atwood always annoy because they seem to make the matter of whether you like their writing or not, an issue of your patriotism, whereas genuine geniuses like Alice Munro ask no such thing of the reader. They only ask that you read the book, and hope you like it.

I do not wish to convey a snobbery about entertainment literature. A lot of reading is pure escapism: police procedurals, mystery writers, science fiction, and the like. They have a humble purpose, and are much appreciated by those who read them, such as me.

What bugs me is this idolatry of the author and of Good Writing, Higher Literature, and Significant Purpose. I once read Annie Dillard’s  A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which was all the rage back in 1988 and is considered a modern classic of writing. Information content: zero. Value to me: zero. Value to the literary crowd: near infinite. Degree of self reference: total – the book is about writing. To which I say: “It is just writing, people”. By the same token, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is not just writing, it is about something more than the act of writing itself, it is about life, and love and family and the ravages of war, and we are made to care deeply about the people involved. Same with The Lord of the Rings, which will be read for as long as Thucydides has been and may, in some distant future time, after a cataclysm or two, be taken for an early history of the planet earth.

Finally, a last word on books that are information about information. The Black Swan, the Impact of the Highly Improbable, comes to mind. Nassim Nicolas Taleb wrote a book that not merely adds to one’s knowledge, it reorganizes the content of one’s mind. The division of the world into the  known, the known unknown, and the unknown unknown causes a reorganization of all that one knows, and allows for one to prepare to face the future as if it were really the open book it is.



The long slow retreat from AGW

I have previously maintained that the anthropogenic global warming  (AGW) scare resembles the cholesterol scare that probably reached its peak in the 1970s and 80s. No government agency will announce that cholesterol is neither good nor bad; there will be for a long time a slow leakage into public consciousness that new studies show the whole thing to be based on false evidence.

Today, for instance, the Telegraph announced a Canadian study that shows that margarine is possibly bad for you, but animal fats not so.

Traditionally people have been advised to reduce animal fats, but the biggest ever study has shown they do not increase the risk of stroke, heart disease or diabetes. However, trans fats, found in processed foods such as margarine, raise the risk of death by 34 per cent in less than a decade….

“Trans fats have no health benefits and pose a significant risk for heart disease, but the case for saturated fat is less clear.

“That said, we aren’t advocating an increase of the allowance for saturated fats in dietary guidelines, as we don’t see evidence that higher limits would be specifically beneficial to health.”

The story continues:

The “vilification” of saturated fats dates back to the 1950s when research suggested a link between high dietary saturated fat intake and deaths from heart disease. But the study author looked at data from only six countries, and chose to ignore data from a further 16 that did not fit with his hypothesis.

The new research found no clear association between higher intake of saturated fats and conditions such as coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, or type 2 diabetes.

 As usual, policy-based evidence making was at work. I need not dilate about the amount of political vilification of medical opponents’ research that went on, which contradicted the saturated fats hypothesis; the cover-page treatment in the then important Time magazine of the doctor who developed this thesis; the nauseating advertisements using a fake Indian princess who touted corn oil, “which we call maize” she said; and the endless nagging from worried wives of harried husbands for eating bacon and eggs. In short,  the corn oil industry got behind the fad and pushed it as far as it could go, and the chief institutional backer of the American Heart Institute to this day remains the vegetable oil industry.

And it was all based on scientifically authorized rubbish.

My point concerns the length of time you have to live before certain patterns start to be clear. From the time I reached political consciousness about the age of ten (1960), when I remember the inception of the Great Cholesterol Scare, until now is 55 years.

More than half a century. My children have grown up in an atmosphere of concern for poisoning oneself with food. This error has reigned longer than they have been alive. Thus the article can write about how “traditionally” we have been warned against animal fats – meaning that the author of the article too has never known a world in which we were not warned against animal fats in the diet.

Yet it was all rubbish.

So what about the time frame for the anthropogenic global warming scare? When can we say it started, and how long can we estimate its duration?

An excellent article argues that it received official support from Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1970s. By 1992 concern for emissions was firmly established in the Rio Summit, Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and by 1997 these concerns were instantiated in the Kyoto Protocols, which called for significant reductions of fossil fuel use in advanced economies, and which ignored comparable use in China and India.

Thus, if we take 1970 as the year in which the anthropogenic global warming scare really started – in that it received the support of a serious government – and if we assume that the scare will run 55 years, more or less, then it should start to be treated as a form of scientific rubbish in the mainstream media by about 2025. Only another ten years to go.

This leads me to a further reflection on the passage of time, because climate variability can only be measured over significant periods of time. One science writer, Colin Tudge, argued that the shortest period in which one should think about climate is 1000 years.

Tudge wrote in 1997, before the hounds of AGW correctness were in full cry. It is instructive to read books written before the scare reached its apogee. It was through Tudge’s book I first became aware that for the last 30 million years atmospheric CO2 has been diminishing, and the inferred cause is the rise of the Himalayas as the Indian and Asian tectonic plates collided.The interaction of monsoon rains, which contain dissolved atmospheric CO2, and the reaction of CO2 with exposed limestone, cause CO2 to be progressively leached out of the atmosphere. I have read this hypothesis about global CO2 reduction in other places as well.

The time frame over which CO2 has been leeched from the atmosphere is 30 million years, during which the earth has entered increasingly severe and long lasting ice ages. We are in the middle of one such ice age now, only we are in the last stages of an interglacial warming period, which so far has lasted about 10,000 years

So what is your time frame to be?

Since 30 million years, since the Himalayas first were pushed up?

Since 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice age?

Since 1850, when the latest mini-ice age ended?

Since 1970, when you or  your parents went to university?

One’s idea of “climate change” is profoundly biased to the extremely short time frames of human lifespan. It is hardly surprizing that our perceptions are distorted.


An excellent video on the origin of the AGW scare can be found here.




How do we cope with a post-Putin Russia?

Financial Review presents a provocative article by Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin spin doctor, on the workings of the current Kremlin decision-making apparatus and its inadequacies:

Russia, to Mr Pavlovsky, is driven not by a search for external power but by internal weakness — a lack of vision for its impending post-Putin existence. Mr Putin has successfully made any political alternative unthinkable, and his entire country is now trapped by his success. In other words, Mr Putin’s enormous popular support is a weakness, not a strength — and Russia’s leaders know it.


Deprived of a vision for the future, Russian elites are tempted by conspiracy theories and apocalyptic pronouncements. As Aleksandr A. Prokhanov, a writer and leading voice of Russian imperial nationalists, lamented, the elites know that if they attempt a Perestroika II, they will fail. Better, he said, to provoke another world war than try to dismantle Mr Putin’s designs.

Reading Mr Pavlovsky’s book, one realises that what is totally absent in the Western analyses of today’s Russia is this “end of the world” mentality among Mr Putin’s political and intellectual elites. In Mr Pavlovsky’s view, the experience of the catastrophic collapse of the Soviet Union, rather than geopolitical interests or values, is the key for understanding Russia’s strategic behaviour and the inner logic of Mr Putin’s regime.


Obviously the most interesting candidate in the primary season is Donald Trump, a blowhard from his days in primary school, billionaire, disruptor, egotist, and accomplisher. The issue is: what is his long game?

Is he seeking a high price to be bought out of the race? Or is he seeking the White House for real?

As others have observed, his success so far is a standing indictment of the US political class, Republican and Democratic alike. His every outrage is increasing his strength in polls.




Trump is having the same effect as Nigel Farage in the UK, Geert Wilders in Holland and, in his day, Preston Manning in Canada: he is opening the boundaries of political possibilities; in a stifling political environment; he is introducing fresh air into an over-managed politically-correct public discourse.

Democrats guffaw, Republicans tremble and splutter in assumed rage. I was dining with a table largely full of Democrats last night. You may imagine their derision. But the most politically savvy among them has a son working for Joe Biden. Why? Because they feel that the first post-feminine female candidate, Hilary Clinton, is not going to win the Presidency. Why? You tell me.

The one American Republican at the table was saying to his colleagues that he could see the circumstances in which he, a hugely intelligent technology entrepreneur and manager, could vote for Trump. The two Canadians at the table were trying to tell the Americans about a certain improbable Toronto mayor named Ford who took the mayoralty of Toronto despite all the hostility of the chattering classes.

Trump as President: it could happen, and that is what the American political class fears. Especially the Republicans. The Dems have their own problem to solve, and her name is Hilary. That bitch won’t hunt.

Between the bull moose in the cow pasture and an heir presumptive who is perceived to be fatally weak, the American presidential race is interesting this month.