November - December 2011

Closing the curtain on 2011


(Ottawa, Canada, December 25, 2011.
Photo courtesy of the Phantom Photographer.)


(So much for) The War on Christmas

December 27, 2011, OTTAWA — As most of you know, there is in the air at this time of year, a recurring noise about a "war on Christmas". Out of the blue, otherwise intelligent and reasonable people are trade angry anecdotes about how they are tired of "giving in" to "political correctness" by being forced to say "happy holidays" or "seasons' greetings" instead of "merry Christmas".

Click here for more Christmas cheer!


Catching up

December 6, 2011, OTTAWA — Seems like only yesterday I was making an ass of myself by forgetting how to Bcc people, but it was in fact actually about a month and a half ago.

Despite the appearances here, I have been keeping busy, beavering away on a long-form writing project, getting myself back into the paid work-force as a driver, doing a lot of cycling to the Ottawa International Airport, experimenting with a technology a bit more recent than a velocipede, and taking note of some lunatic developments in urban "design".

I've also been doing some reading and expect to have a couple of book reviews posted here shortly.

Meanwhile ...

Danger! Urban renewal ahead!

City life is full of familiar risks. Traffic, pollution, crime, unfortunate fashion decisions.

But there are other dangers, too, stationary hazards that lurk right out in the open, waiting for the unwary, the distracted.

In recent years, Ottawa (and many other cities in the ostensibly advanced first world) is in the midst of a lunatic experiment in Ergonomic Selection. I speak of course, of the boxy behemoths which have replaced the old-fashioned, coin-only parking meters.

The new meters take coins, bills and any number of varieties of plastic.

And if they haven't yet, they will also soon take lives.

Don't believe me? Find out why the new parking meters are an ambulance-chaser's best friend!

* * *

Farewell to the Gutenberg era

I've taken the plunge and purchased not one, but two, e-readers. (In succession, one replacing another.)

And I fear I may never again purchase a book make of paper and ink.

¡Viva la Revolución!

* * *

Slouching towards the Singularity?

Speaking of technology, it seems I'm a little slow on the uptake, because I have only just now realized that, well, I do think about the applications of science with which we surround ourselves and on which we depend.

So, a new section, ever-so-imaginatively entitled, "Technology". The name will likely change at some point in the nebulous future, but for now my experience as an e-reader reader has convinced me I'll be talking more about the machines in our lives.

The intro page is here, though it is little more than a holding page at the moment. But if you're interested, click away.

* * *

That's it for now. Coming soon, a review of Steven Pinker's provocative new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which claims we live in the best of all historical (if not of all possible) worlds, of Benjamin Tate's unusual epic fantasy, Well of Sorrow and, sooner than later I hope, of Von Allan's sequel to Stargazer.

So check back soon or, better still, subscribe to my newsletter and let me keep you up-to-date!


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October 16, 2011 - October 31, 2011


That didn't go so well, did it?

October 27, 2011, OTTAWA — If you're new here, welcome and thank you; presumably you got my invitation and, if you did, more like than not you also know that I screwed up in sending it.

I've gotten so used to dealing with actual mailing list software, I had completely forgotten that email programs don't work the same way and that putting a "list" name into the To: field means that every address there will show up in every recipient's mail.

To say I was (and am) embarrassed is to put it mildly.

If it makes you feel any better, my sub-conscious also gave me a helluva hard time last night as well. All right. Time to brave my inbox, and then get to work.



On the inter-connectedness of some things

The MacKenzie-Papineau Monument in Ottawa
The MacKenzie-Papineau Monument in Ottawa. Photo by The Phantom Photographer.

October 26, 2011, OTTAWA — The past couple of weeks have offered some stark reminders of how small the world can seem.

I attended a ceremony at the Spanish embassy on the 20th, and a funeral in the south end of Ottawa on the 22nd. Both events involved family.

I could not help but be reminded of just deep are my own roots into the past. For instance, I am but a single "degree of separation" from the 19th century; my father's father, who lived until 1996, was born in 1899 and fought in the Russian Revolution.

Almost two weeks ago now, my father's last remaining aunt, his mother's sister, passed away (though her funeral was not held until this past Saturday).

I didn't know her well; she had been more of an occasional, if benevolent, presence than a person to me, but the elegies I heard made me wish I had known her much better.

Mother of five, whose husband ran out shortly after the last baby was born, Auntie Pearl raised her children on her own. By all reports, she did so with a generosity and love that spread far beyond her blood-ties; I think close to a hundred people turned out to say goodbye, many of them friends, not family.

Coincidentally and on a much happier note, on my mother's side of the family, my great uncle Jules was in town last week, the last living Canadian veteran of the Spanish Civil War.

Uncle Jules was here at the request of the government of Spain which, finally, was to follow through on a promise made 15 years ago to those who had volunteered to fight against Franco's fascists in the dark days before the Second World War.

Entirely by accident, during a ceremony at the Spanish Embassy, I learned that the man who designed Ottawa's memorial to the "Mac-Paps" lives in Sudbury and knows my mother, as does his wife, who is the editor of Sudbury Living, a magazine for which my mother has been writing recently.

The world can sometimes seem very close indeed. And history too is often not nearly so far away as it seems.



The sonic lipstick's last hurrah (Part 3 of 3)

October 20, 2011, OTTAWA — It seems churlish — and a bit pointless — to dwell on the negatives, so let's get it them of the way.

The Man Who Never Was is the weakest serial of The Sarah Jane Adventures's final half-series. The details are clunky and there is an almost unforgivable bit of idiot-plotting to get us to the cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode.

But never mind all that; it is still an entertaining episode and a fitting tribute to its late star.

The other parts of the story, the important bits, more than make up for the deficits, and Russell T Davies deserves our thanks for reigning in his tendency towards over-blown melodrama.

I'm going to miss The Sarah Jane Adventures an awful lot. In its quiet way it offered its young (and not-so-young) viewers a powerful moral vision and provided an example (instead of a lecture) of a subtly radical alternative to life as most of us know beneath its fantastic trappings.

Some spoilers behind the link. And I'll try not to get blubbery.


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October 1, 2011 - October 15, 2011


Travels, autumnal

Hidden agenda

'Oh my God — it's full of stars!'

October 15, 2011, OTTAWA — I had a hidden agenda.

Raven's was to see finally see the wonder of the autumnal display in all its Canadian glory, the nearly miraculous transition of greens into scarlets and golds. She wanted to see the Canadian fall colours up close.

Raven is a city-girl born and bred, raised in the very urban East, just of the coast of Southern China, where vast, Canadian-style wilderness is nearly impossible to imagine.

She wanted autumn leaves; I wanted something more.

But as we drove the winding highway towards Ontario's massive Algonquin provincial park, my goal was one she had no reason to suspect, even as I had little cause for hope it would be fulfilled.

Far from a brilliant autumn weekend, the sky was heavy with clouds when we left Ottawa. It stayed that way for most of the drive. Only when we were within an hour or so of our destination did Old Sol make an appearance, tearing through the lowering clouds at last, baring hints of blue sky in the gaps.

Perhaps, I thought as I pulled off of Highway 60 and eased towards the check-in, perhaps Raven would get more than she had bargained for after all!


The sonic lipstick's last hurrah (Part 2 of 3)

October 12, 2011, OTTAWA — There is but a single story left to tell before The Sarah Jane Adventures is done.

Following hard on the heels of last week's solid series opener, the program has hit one out of the proverbial ball-park.

The Curse of Clyde Langer was an emotionally involving and sometimes very creepy story that only faltered — maybe, a little — in a slightly too-easy resolution.

To add to the episodes' multiple pleasures, The Curse offered strong characterizations, a hefty dose of good humour and even a little unexpected romance. As usual, some spoilers ahead but no snark whatsoever.


Adding insult to fatality?

October 12, 2011, OTTAWA — I don't actually enjoy speaking ill of the dead, nor do I enjoy blaming the victim.

But sometimes there is an important difference between moral and practical blame.

The death of Ottawa civil servant and avid cyclist Danielle Naçu marks one of those times when it is better to risk hurting feelings than it is to observe the social niceties of soothing grief and anger.

So it is necessary to point out what many cyclists — and others — in Ottawa seem to have missed.

Namely, that if Danielle Naçu had been following two basic rules of safe cycling, she would not have been hit and so she would have almost certainly still been alive today.

For the rules and a bit of a rant, click here.


The sonic lipstick's last hurrah (Part 1 of 3)

October 11, 2011, OTTAWA — Pretentious is a dangerous word for a critic, one I try to avoid and one which (I hope) I use with judicious deliberation when I do press it into service.

The term is kissing cousin to dishonest, and which implies promises which are undelivered or, worse, betrayed.

As you might know, I have spent considerable time over the past few months looking at a couple of British science fiction series, the 2011 editions of Doctor Who and its ostensibly adult-oriented spin-off, Torchwood, both of which promised much but delivered very little indeed.

So it is that I am very happy to report that the first (of three) remaining instalments of The Sarah Jane Adventures promises only an entertaining children's adventure story yet delivers quite a lot more.

Phil Ford's eighth two-part serial is, not surprisingly, very much a typical Sarah Jane adventure, offering low-key, character-based comedy, thrills enough (I think) to keep a child on the edge of his or her seat (if not, quite, hiding behind the proverbial couch), and a subtle moral seriousness that leaves its more bombastic cousins looking like charlatans, or worse.

Not many spoilers and no snark at all (for a change), as I take a belated look at Sky and begin my last dance with Sarah Jane Smith.


Confessions of an improbable plagiarist

October 7, 2011, OTTAWA — Every so often a famous writer gets taken down for plagiarism. Usually it's something pretty blatant, words and concepts lifted almost verbatim from a well-known work, as if it had improbably never occurred to the culprit that he or she might get caught.

When they do get caught, they typically claim it was an accident, that they must have done it sub-consciously. And the rest of us wonder, How stupid do you think we are? Give us a break and just 'fess up!

But I am suddenly much more sympathetic to those claims than I once was.

In my ostensible leisure time this week, I've been working pretty hard on my response to The Wedding of River Song and, yesterday, had what I thought was a well-argued two thousand words merely in need of a little polishing.

Towards the end of it, I made reference to a review I wrote earlier this year. Decided to link to it. And, linking, re-read it.

Guess what? I had been plagiarizing myself.

It wasn't word-for-word, but it was close. It was was a dismaying, a frustrating and a scary discovery. I really do try to credit sources, to quote directly or to paraphrase with attribution — and here I was, ripping off my own work!

Honest to god, your Honour! It was all sub-conscious!.

And so it is that my review of The Wedding of River Song, now plagiarism-free (I hope!), is a lot shorter than I had expected it to be, with a very conscious link to that which I have written before. As usual, spoilers and snark below the icing ... of The Wedding Cake of River Song.


Time gentlemen! Please!

October 2, 2011, OTTAWA — Well, here we are. The last episode of Doctor Who's 2011 series has gone to air and I have it in a thermos, hoping to keep it warm while I scrabble to polish up my impressions of the penultimate episode, the unfortunately-titled Closing Time.

What can I say? I've been busy, then I fell sick, then I was sick and busy.

Truth to tell, I'm glad the series is coming to a close. It's no secret that Moffat's Who has not been my cup of tea and I suspect I am almost as weary of saying so as I am sure many of you are of hearing me say it.

So it is with considerable sadness, not glee, that I find myself forced to say that, while more slickly-written, Closing Time rivals the infamous pirate episode for badness.

You really don't need to read on if you don't want to. But if you do, you'll find the usual snark and spoilers, along with thoughts on racism, sexism and (of course) on good writing and bad. Time, gentlemen! Please!


Doctor Who, The God Complex, reviewed

September 30, 2011, OTTAWA — Taken by itself, The God Complex is a mostly entertaining episode, competently-scripted and boasting quite stylish direction.

At least one guest star really shines, none of them bore us, and we're treated to the requisite chills expected of an encounter with the unknown in company of Doctor Who.

But The God Complex comes after three stand-alone adventure in what this viewer, at least, had thought had been advertised as a complex, series-long arc of single story, one that would presumably lead to a climax providing two series' worth of answers to dangling threads.

Does The God Complex deliver as prophesied? Click here to find out — spoilers and opinions as usual, so proceed at your own risk.


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Memo from the nation's Capital


Parliament's Back ...

Photo-illustration by Geoffrey Dow,

Don't despair, but there's a lot of hard slogging ahead.

Cartoon by Geoffrey Dow.


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September 1, 2011 - September 29, 2011


Torchwood: The Blood Line reviewed


September 12, 2011, OTTAWA — One of the most shockingly bad television series in recent memory crawled to a bloody close on Friday night.

The end of Torchwood: Miracle Day was not quite as obscenely amusing as some had predicted, but its climax prompted laughter in this reviewer, not tears.

No dangling plot-lines were tied up, no extraneous characters rescued from irrelevancy. The program is over — and so too, probably, is the franchise — but not even the most generous critic could with a straight face say that it was concluded.

Snark? Oh yes. For snark and bullet points and a reviewer's exhausted post-mortem, visit, Where have you gone, Russell T, Russell T?



Doctor Who: The Girl Who Waited, reviewed


September 11, 2011, OTTAWA — I know, I know, it's an awful cliche, but true nonetheless: I laughed and I cried.

There's more to say, but the short version (tl;dr) is that The Girl Who Waited is the stand-alone episode of Doctor Who that last week's Night Terrors threatened to be, and that The Doctor's Wife very nearly delivered: exciting, original and emotionally intense, with some hard-to-answer questions about the implications of time-travel thrown if for those who might want to ponder them, yet never once hitting the viewer who isn't interested in such thins over the head with them.

In other words, the The Girl Who Waited is the best episode of Doctor Who to appear since Steven Moffat took over as show-runner.

It is a story rigorous in its internal logic, emotionally gripping and intellectually satisfying, one that never cheats and one which offers no easy outs.

Add to that a remarkable performance from Karen Gillan and strong ones from both Arthur Darvill and Matt Smith, and we have been given an episode that, despite a heavy does of pathos, contains at its heart, like a glowing ember of the Tardis itself, a strange sort of joy that serves to remind this too-often disappointed fan just why it is he has stayed with the program.

Instant classic? Only time (or Time) will tell. But for my immediate thoughts, along with the standard spoilers, on the best episode of Doctor Who in a very long time, click here.



Bring on the night (terrors)!


September 4, 2011, OTTAWA — Before I say anything else, I'd like to make it known that, for a wonder, this reviewer liked Mark Gatiss' latest Doctor Who adventure, Night Terrors.

Derivative? Sure.

Cheesy? A little.

Funny? Quite a lot, at times.

And scary? Oh yes, indeed.

Whatever carps one might have about Night Terrors' similarities of plot to episodes like Fear Her, or its monsters' resemblance to those in The Beast Below, The Girl In the Fireplace or the gas-mask kids from The Empty Child, there can be — at least, there should be — no denying that Night Terrors is a well-crafted story, amusing and frightening by turn, that moves briskly along from beginning to end.

After The Doctor's Wife, Night Terrors is easily this reviewer's favourite episode of the 2011.

Not too many spoilers and fewer a lot less than a thousand words for once at Old story for old eyes (and new).



'Torchwood: The 19th Century is when everything changes'

Never Mind the Physics, here comes Torchwood! Image manipulation by Geoffrey Dow

September 4, 2011, OTTAWA — The sex columnist Dan Savage has recently been fronting a campaign to reassure isolated and often depressed queer kids that "it gets better."

I'm very sad to say that there's no getting better in Torchwood: Miracle Day.

Not for the people living in that world, not for the viewers in this one and certainly not for any attempt to offer us even a semblance of respectful story-telling.

As the saying goes, Fool me once, shame on you; fool me nine times, shame on me.

More fool, I.

Clearly determined to never give the suckers an even break, the penultimate entry in the Torchwood: Miracle Day demolition derby thumbs its nose at even the most modest expectations of its viewers.

It mocks the fundamentals of episodic drama and, in a final "mighty leap" before episode's end, at pretty much all of the 20th century's geo-physical science as well.

Or maybe I should just say, at basic physics.

Snark, sighs and spoilers galore but, I hope, not too much of a synopsis, all at Torchwood: 62 Days Later.

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