Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Listening

Just returned from the Scilly Isles, where the puffins go to breed. I was part of an international team tasked with the assignment to establish a super sensitive listening post. The software involved was keyed to pick up linked references involving words such as Al Qaeda, Taliban, Yemen, jihad, Saudi Arabia -- well, you get the point. What was unusual was the algorithm being used in the linkage, an advanced thing indeed, and as the saying goes, if I told you its nature, I would have to kill you. Moreover, the geography was such that the Scillies were perfect for the areas concerned.

Yet all this high tech stuff can, at times, be superseded by the common rough and tumble of daily existence. A case in point.

A few weeks ago, I was in the study re-reading in Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, when a shriek erupted from the den. I rushed over, and found my gardener, Consuela, regarding the television set with a look of pure fury. It was from this incident that a rather important result emerged affecting national security. Only this time for real, not the Bush-Cheney use of the term for purposes that can only be called self-serving.

Consuela had been watching something called Canadian Idol. Given Canada's hockey-mad ethos, I thought this would be a program featuring Wayne Gretzky, or Bobby Orr, or perhaps even Don Cherry. But no. Apparently it is an 'adult' (the term is used with misgiving) version of the children's Tiny Talent show popular years ago.

What had irritated Consuela was a performance that used a song by her favourite pop artist, Avril Lavigne, the pride of Napanee. Also, the fact that Consuela was seven months pregnant, and tended to be irritated about just about anything, didn't help.

By this time her husband Ahmed, my driver and handyman, had joined us, along with Irving, my butler and minder. Consuela had taped the offending piece, and we all watched an absolutely terrible version of La Lavigne's Complicated.

"Wait," said Ahmed. "Play that again." Consuela did so, and Ahmed stared closely at the screen. "I thought so. I know this person. It's Khuram Sher, and he's lying. He wasn't born in Pakistan, and I doubt he's ever been there. I wonder what's going on?"

Long story short, Ahmed peeled the onion a bit, and soon had some pertinent information. This I passed on to CODE Barry of CSIS, who then got in touch with the R.C.M.P. Irving also had contacted a colleague in Mossad, and I, of course, kept Tilly Hatt of the CIA in the loop. And as you now know, three arrests were made in Ontario, and a rather vicious little plot nipped in the bud. So while high tech has its uses, normal alertness and careful listening for the unusual still can play a significant role.

Of course, that's not all that can result from careful listening. I recall a certain fund-raising dinner in Washington to which I had been glad to make a contribution and attend. It was hosted by President Bush (the sane one, not George W.) and was in support of National Public Radio. I was seated between the Kissinger brothers, Henry and Walter. When Henry got up to greet Someone Of Importance I turned to Walter and said, "I note that you have almost no accent, while your brother...."

"Oh," said Walter, "that's easily explained. I listen."

Discuss among yourselves.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Mosque at Ground Zero

I dearly wanted to avoid this issue, but Sir Harry would have none of it.

"Are they going to build that Cordoba mosque or not?" he barked over the secure line. "And what are the ramifications?"

"As to your first question," I replied, "it could go either way. Depends, as these things usually do, on the money. And more importantly, where the money is coming from. As to the ramifications, which also will bear on the possible construction, how you interpret the symbolism will be the deal breaker."

"What do you mean?"

"It's a bit complicated, but it will be in my report. Along with the invoice."

"Send it by tomorrow. Use encryption code D."

"That's rather elaborate. Something in London gone awry?"

"Fruit not yet ripe for the plucking," Sir Harry stated brusquely. "Now mind. By tomorrow." At which point the line went dead.

Now the real reason I was shying away from the New York mosque issue is that one must wrestle with symbolism and, with symbolism, things can get very complicated in a hurry. Let me give you an example drawn from Northrup Frye's magnificent The Anatomy of Criticism. Frye notes that when a critic of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene encounters St. George, the Redcross Knight, bearing a red cross on a white ground, he has some grasp of the figure. Frye then goes on to state that "when the critic meets a female in Henry James' The Other House called Rose Arminger with a white dress and a red parasol, he is, in the current slang, clueless."

They are symbols, you see, but where one is easily discerned, the other is not.

Which brings us to the proposed Cordoba mosque.

First, let us dispense with the Cordoba aspect. In any symbolic interpretation, one must have at least an idea of what the symbol means. I put out a call to Tilly Hatt, who was currently in New York having a romantic interlude with some Romanian she had met in the Bronx. At my request, she asked a number of New Yorkers -- fifteen to be exact -- what they thought 'Cordoba' meant. Seven simply stared at her blankly, while eight said it was a 1975 Chrysler. (Americans may be no hell on Spanish history, but they know their cars.) So away goes Cordoba, the Moorish capital of Al-Andalus, along with the the Mezquita, (the Great Mosque) and the taking of the city by Christians in 1236. No symbol there.

With 'mosque', however, we are in entirely different territory.

I did some research here, and discovered that prior to the attack on the World Trade Center, Americans held little animus against mosques. Indeed, they thought them quaint, and of course no rivals to those palatial Pentecostal palaces that were springing up everywhere. In short, any symbolism simply escaped them, much like Frye's critic in the Henry James example. After the attack, however, Edmund Spenser's example leaped to the fore. Mosques became to a slew of Americans a symbol of aggression and the slaughtering of innocents, a Redcross Knight gone berserk.

And Muslims wish to erect one near Ground Zero? Madness.


1) The funding is entirely by American Muslims, as an act of atonement and an expression of the regard in which they hold America, their pride in being American citizens, and their deep belief in the separation of church and state. (Shut up, Sarah.)

2) No foreign capital to be sought, particularly from Saudi Arabia, whose interpretation of the Qur'an is, to put it bluntly, nonsensical and from time to time, vicious. (The Saudis are not alone in this.)

3) A number of 'meditation' rooms to be available to people of other faiths; that is, a small chapel, a little temple, and perhaps a small shul. I mean, if you're going to atone, do it right.

If these conditions fly, then, as I wrote Sir Harry, the building should go ahead. I am afraid, however, that when it comes to something flying, it will be pigs.

Then there is Newt Gingrich's condition, and I hate to admit it, but part of me (and not the best part) agrees with the old Republican curmudgeon. Newt simply stated that permission to build the mosque be conditional upon Saudi Arabia permitting a cathedral to be built near the Kaaba in Mecca.

Works for me.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Famial Frippery

From time to time readers ask for more information about my kids. I try to keep such information at a minimum, lest this descend into some kind of weird soap opera along the lines of As The Stomach Turns or The Edge of Blight. But perhaps I have been too stringent.

It so happens that time will permit a quick update. Sir Harry and MI6 are pleased with some information I forwarded, and it will take some time to digest. Nothing dramatic, but a well-thought out response to the rain and mud catastrophe in Pakistan. I just called in some markers, and was able to fire off data on certain organizations that would ensure that monetary aid would actually get to those who needed it, rather than see it funnelled into ISI pockets, Islamic idiots or the Taliban. (The organizations are not necessarily mutually exclusive). Better to procure tents, blankets and fresh water than AK 47's, IED's or RPG's.

So...the kids.

Well, Victoria, the historian/actress and youngest daughter, has just left for London to present a paper on the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, the gathering that gave credence to the nation state. Her take on this is that another such meeting is desperately needed -- the nation state has become, in her opinion, a dubious entity. (Discuss among yourselves). After that she returns to New York, and some appearances in Law and Order, SVU, a TV show that employs her almost as much as her favourite, True Blood. I am rather partial to True Blood as well, a kind of Coronation Street on crack cocaine.

My eldest daughter, Isolde, is at the Manor at the present moment. She is a concert violinist, and is preparing for an appearance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. She is doing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, something she states is "a brute" and hence the preparation time. Isolde I have to watch closely. I know for a fact that Sir Harry sees her as ideal courier material, and being Sir Harry, will persist. I am dead set against this, but, not wishing to kill hope entirely, told Isolde that she could do this when Sir Harry gives her her very own Stradivarius.

Sir Harry didn't speak to me for two weeks.

I am glad to report that my youngest son, Mark, has finally outgrown his disturbing predilection to go down a snowy hill on two sticks. Mark was, at one time, being considered for the Canadian Olympic team until a broken leg put paid to that. (Not that I am against skiers. I once had a fantastic bar crawl with Nancy Green and Picabo Street in Salzburg, and then the guys joined us and -- but never mind.)

However, I knew Mark to be ferociously bright, and if you have a talent, then it should bloody well be used. Now Mark is at CERN and involved with the Large Hadron Collider. His last letter to me indicated that her was excited as hell. He was working on his PH.D and just had his thesis accepted, something involving non-locality and the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Effect, or EPR as the cognoscenti would have it. More than that, had had had an opportunity to run his preliminary notes by Stephen Hawking when he visited the establishment. Apparently, Hawking had indicated that Mark's approach would fail, but then added that the reason it would fail was fascinating and that he should continue. His point, Mark wrote, was that defining a dead end was immeasurably beneficial to science, for then more promising avenues could be explored. Mark had then blurted out (he always had that habit) "Too bad the same can't be said for politics."

Hawking had then given him a penetrating look, then said softly, "Do let me see your finished paper."

My eldest son, Sebastian, has taken an entirely different route in life. Mark designs and makes clothes, using hemp as his primary material. He has shops in New York, London, Paris and Toronto, and is enormously successful. That may be because he designs clothes that people will actually wear. I myself have three skirts, two jumpers and one "little black (hemp) dress". Most recently, he has had a major coup in New York. He had initially run afoul of the law, in that hemp was viewed as marijuana. That was straightened out with the aid of Mayor Bloomberg, with a little help from myself, and now it turns out that Mark has just won a contract to supply the entire NYPD with hemp-based uniforms, clothing which the officers find far more comfortable and easy to wear than their present ones. What goes around, comes around.

So there we are, and that will be enough of that.

I leave you, however, with a kind of hemp cartoon from the British Magazine Punch sent to me by Mark. Outside a window, you see a gigantic beanstalk with Jack close by. His mother, through the open window, asks, "Well, Jack, are you going to climb it?"

"Hell, no, Ma, I'm going to smoke it!"


Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Conversation on Commissions

There were three of us at the pool, Matilda Hatt, myself and my daughter Victoria. Vicky had just finished shooting a number of damsel in distress sequences for the True Blood series in Los Angeles and was now back at The Manor working on a paper commissioned by the British Historical Society entitled What Really Occurred at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Tilly was back from God knows where, and had picked up a nasty bruise on her forearm that she was not talking about. Given that the temperature was pushing 33 degrees C., the pool was the place to be.

Another reason that drove us outside was the fact that two of the Manor's fireplaces needed attention, and various workmen were at present clambering all about, and making a hell of a racket. My driver Ahmed was supervising, and for this I was glad. His wife Consuela, my gardener, was great with child, and he was continually fretting and worrying.

We were all in our bikinis, something that did not go unnoticed by the odd workman's face that would appear from time to time in the Manor's windows.

I looked up. saw one, and muttered, "Bloody better get back to parging, boyo."

"What the hell is parging?" asked Tilly.

I didn't acquire an engineering degree for nothing, and replied, "It's applying a thin coat of polymeric mortar to create a smooth surface. In a fireplace that's necessary because --"

"Now Mum," said Vicky, putting down her history notebook, "let's not get all technical. I mean, I can expound at length on this Westphalia thing as a justification for the Thirty Years War. It did, after all, establish a diplomatic principle of non-interference in another countries affairs that --"

"Enough!" said Tilly loudly. "It's too damn hot for obscure arguments. But I am curious, Victoria, about your little cinematic commissions as a way of making some money on the side.

"Actually, quite a lot of money," I said.

"Well," said Vicky, "I enjoy it, although at times you have to be a little, er, athletic."

"Like being suspended by the ankles over a pit of open fire," I added. "Just your normal cameo role."

"Now, Mum," said Vicky. "That was one of my best. It's a pity there isn't an Oscar category for that type of performance. I mean, I writhed!"

Tilly, who I knew had once been in that very position in an actual situation, just stared at her.

"And look, Mum, I got a gift from the True Blood cast. See?"

Vicky did something with her tongue, and, click, two little fangs appeared.

"Good God," I said.

"Cool," said Tilly.

I had had enough of this, and plunged into the pool. I surfaced, and was soon joined by Tilly. We swam for a bit, then perched on the far side of the pool. Vicky had gone back to her notebook.

"Lord," said Tilly out of the blue, "but Canada is a civilized country."

"And just what prompts this observation?"

"For starters," she replied, "you don't tear yourselves apart over an issue. In the USA, health care, abortion, gun control -- both Democrats and Republicans just snarl at each other. And each year the divide seems to be getting more wider, even more vicious. Yet it doesn't appear to be the same here."

"Not exactly true, Tilly. There was the FLQ in Quebec, and earlier, at the time of WW II, conscription was a big deal. Further back, there was Riel, and the Fenians, but I see what you mean. Actually, what Canada does is rather unique when a divisive issue surfaces."

"And just what is that, precisely?" Tilly was all ears now.

"We borrowed a strategy from the Brits. It's called a Royal Commission. Wonderful thing, really. When an issue looks like it's going to be problematical, the government appoints this Commission, headed up by someone who has an impeccable record, and comprising a number of the great and the good. It is staffed, and then swans about the country for a considerable time, listening to everyone and making copious notes. Later, much later, an Interim Report is issued for yet further comment, and a goodly time after that comes the Final Report. Of course, by this time everyone has forgotten all about the issue, and presto -- problem solved."

"We don't have Royal Commissions," said Tilly glumly.

"You could have, if George III and Lord North hadn't been so stupid. But, as they would say in Yorkshire, that's between summat and nowt. Yet all might not be lost."

"What do you mean?"

"Why not suggest a Presidential Congressional Commission? Get someone who both parties agree is a near saint on the issue at hand, and have equal membership from both Republicans and Democrats. It would also help if they knew something about the issue. Then off they go, listening and taking notes, with everyone saying their piece. Health care would be a natural."

I could literally see the wheels turning in Tilly's head. "You know," she said, I have this contact in Michelle's Secret Service detail. A word in his tinted ear, then to Michelle, then to Barack -- hell, it's worth a try."

"Good, but remember old W.C. Fields on this: 'If at first you don't succeed, try again. Then quit. There's no point being a damn fool about it.'

"I," said Tilly swimming away, "will keep that in mind."