October 2008

The family business

Justin Trudeau gets a lot of flack for being his father’s son. He’s accused of having a former prime minister as his father as the only thing on his résumé. But he’s far from the only scion of a politician who’s been elected to the House of Commons. Consider that Niki Ashton, Maxime Bernier, Paul Dewar, Jack Layton, Dominic LeBlanc, Peter MacKay, David McGuinty, Geoff Regan and Michael Savage, all elected or re-elected on Tuesday, are all the children of former members of parliament or a provincial legislature, cabinet ministers, party leaders or provincial premiers.

To say nothing, in past parliaments, of people like Preston Manning, Paul Martin, Jane Stewart, Susan Whelan or many, many more. Or of senators like Sharon Carstairs. Or of the spouses of politicians or former politicians who were also elected on Tuesday: Dona Cadman, Olivia Chow, Nina Grewal, Jack Layton. Or the siblings-of, such as the McGuintys or the Petersons.

As I’ve noted before, politics is a family business like any other; don’t single out Justin for doing what so many others also do.

(Compare this to the U.S., where virtually every successful presidential candidate for the last couple of decades has had some significant daddy issues of one sort or another, a trend neither current candidate will change.)

The Citizen endorses Cannon

The Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board endorses Lawrence Cannon for re-election in the Pontiac riding, mostly because of “experience and influence” — i.e., he’s a cabinet minister with a strong C.V. But that’s not to disparage the competition: “All in all, a good slate of candidates,” says the Citizen, who had something nice to say about each one. Truth be told, it’s becoming very hard to figure out who to vote for, simply because there’s no obvious asshat among the candidates this time, just different people with different strengths, weaknesses and policy positions. This is a good problem to have.

MESSENGER swings by Mercury again

MESSENGER Mercury image

Images are now available from the MESSENGER probe’s second fly-by of Mercury. This image “is one of the first to be returned and shows a WAC image of the departing planet taken about 90 minutes after the spacecraft’s closest approach to Mercury. The bright crater just south of the center of the image is Kuiper, identified on images from the Mariner 10 mission in the 1970s. For most of the terrain east of Kuiper, toward the limb (edge) of the planet, the departing images are the first spacecraft views of that portion of Mercury’s surface.”

(Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.)

Previously: MESSENGER images!

More entries below »

Zoe’s Tale

John Scalzi’s aliens are sparsely described and unconvincingly Other (he’s no Larry Niven) and his characters are usually some variation on smartass. But his novels, with exciting plots and witty dialogue (see “some variation on smartass,” above), never fail to entertain. So it is with Zoe’s Tale, which is a retelling of the story of The Last Colony (which missed winning this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel by a whisker) from the point of view of the protagonists’ adopted daughter, Zoë. (Why she loses the umlaut in the book’s title, I have no idea.)

The Last Colony suffered from a couple of plot holes (viz., where did those werewolves go, and how did Zoë get that deus-ex-machina technology?) that Zoe’s Tale fills fulsomely. In fact, it’s impossible to consider Zoe’s Tale absent The Last Colony: it’s very much a mirror image of that novel. The two novels are both case studies in limited first-person narration: neither John Perry, the protagonist of The Last Colony and Zoë’s stepfather, nor Zoë herself in Zoe’s Tale, knows exactly what the other is doing; essentially, these are two books trying to tell the same story. Two blind grabs at the same elephant. The end result is that Zoe’s Tale deals in detail with what The Last Colony mentioned in passing; unfortunately, the converse is also true: the grand plot of The Last Colony is given short shrift in Zoe’s Tale — key points are mentioned briefly, plot twists are telegraphed — and I’m not sure if Zoe’s Tale stands alone as a result.

The tension between the novel’s two ambitions — a retelling of the events of The Last Colony from Zoë’s perspective, and an attempt to explore Zoë’s tragic background and her role as an object of veneration for an entire alien species — is sometimes strained, and I think the latter suffers a little bit at the expense of the former. Despite Scalzi’s breezy and accessible prose and the book’s positioning as a young-adult novel, Zoe’s Tale is an ambitious book. Despite its flaws, it mostly succeeds, in that it’s got lots of good bits in it and is fun to read. Which, in the end, is really what matters, don’t you think?

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi


Marsbound, Joe Haldeman’s latest novel, starts slowly and intimately: the first quarter of the novel is spent following his young protagonist, Carmen Dula, and her family on a weeks-long trip up a space elevator and thence on their journey to Mars. The second quarter unfolds like a Heinlein juvenile (except for the sex), with Carmen’s struggle to survive on Mars personified by a stern and bureaucratic authority figure with whom she comes into conflict. Once Carmen runs away and stumbles upon a colony of Martians, however, the similarities to, say, Red Planet end. The novel pivots, draws back in scope and dramatically accelerates its pace; years fly by in the same number of pages that described hours, as Carmen returns to Earth orbit with a posse of Martians — who turn out not to be indigenous to Mars and unsure of their own origins — as they try to figure out where they come from. Marsbound finishes as another iteration on a common Haldeman theme: human beings facing the judgment of overwhelmingly powerful aliens. The Martians and other aliens are wonderfully imagined in this otherwise spare novel, whose two halves never quite fuse into a satisfactory whole.

Marsbound by Joe Haldeman

Recession, commodities and the oil sands

Maybe you thought the Canadian economy was relatively shielded from the panic and nonsense going on in the U.S. right now, because our financial services sector and our mortgage lending policies weren’t quite as batshit insane as they have been south of the border. If you did, you thought wrong: the commodities sector — stuff like mining, oil and other natural resources, i.e., the backbone of the Canadian economy — took a shellacking on the markets Thursday on fears that an economic downturn would dry up demand. Even oil prices could be affected: one analyst thinks that the price of oil could drop below US$50 a barrel. (It’s still above US$90 now.)

Now that’s interesting, because, according to the Wikipedia article on the Athabasca oil sands, it costs between $36 and $40, Canadian, to turn bitumen into a barrel of synthetic crude. Profits at US$50 a barrel would be something on the order of 16 to 27 percent. At some point near or below US$50 a barrel, oil sands production would cease to be profitable. And then things would get very interesting in Alberta.

So what was that about the fundamentals of the Canadian economy again?