Friday, June 29, 2007

This is the most public yet of my many humiliations.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I was surprised and disappointed last month when it was brought to my attention that friends and family had no idea who Robert Borden was. Robert Borden is no John Difenbaker, but at the same time, he's hardly a Mackenzie Bowell. I met Robert Borden today at the bank, which, along with public libraries and government buildings, is part of an increasingly small set of places where his likeness can still be found. This instantiation of Robert Borden was derived from the eighth Prime Minister of Canada like all other instantiations found at the bank, predominantly on one hundred-dollar bills. However, this instantiation was actually his great-nephew with the same name.

Like many of the other independently weathly eccentrics roaming the underground of Toronto's financial district, Mr. Borden had an excellent sense of humour and as much time on his hands as money in them. He had come to the bank to exchange a hundred dollar bill that featured his great-uncle, who he regarded affectionately as a grandfather, for two fifty-dollar bills with the likeness of that other independently wealthy eccentric, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Not all of the independently wealthy eccentrics who aren't saddled by the unpleasant business of remunerative labour are as effervescent as Borden the Younger. I thought I'd seen it all in my three years of retail employment until I saw what I saw Monday afternoon. A real-life Lyle Lanley strode into the store while I dealt with a golden boy who spent his free time at the country clubs of Antigua. The Lanley lookalike wore a white suit topped by a broad-rimmed hat with a feather on it, credibly and eerily playing the role of a turn-of-the-last-century con man. He was nasty, scowling and gave chills to all who spoke to him. He probably knew who Robert Borden was given that Borden was Prime Minister when he purchased his suit, but he unfortunately didn't know that Nike made more than one shoe, or that the servile Chinaman had been granted full citizenship of the Dominion.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Blue Jays have always had bad luck when it comes to no-hitters. I'm not aware of any statistics that show how often a franchise has lost no-hitters in the ninth inning, but the Jays must rank very highly for their proficiency at perpetrating this misfortune. Dustin McGowan pitched a one-hit shutout against the Colorado Rockies today, the only hit he allowed was a lead-off single to Jeff Baker in the ninth. This was the ninth no-hitter negated in the ninth inning for the Blue Jays.

Four of the nine were suffered by the great Dave Stieb, who made a career out of pitching eight no-hit innings. So great was Stieb's love for narrowly failing at throwing no-hitters that he once achieved the feat in consecutive starts in 1988. On September 24, playing in the cursed old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Stieb was one out away from a no-hitter. The ageless Julio Franco (he's still playing at 48), as deathless as The Mistake by the Lake was dead, dampened the party on this occasion. The next week, at home in That Other Mistake by the Lake, Stieb again pitched an astonishing 8.2 innings without allowing a hit. In an equally astonishing feat, Jim Traber of the Orioles would again deny Stieb, his third foiled no-hitter.

The following August, Stieb retired 26 consecutive batters against the Yankees before Roberto Kelly doubled, Steve Sax singled him home and Stieb escaped with a 2-1 victory. In September 1990, Stieb returned to Cleveland's Municipal Stadium and redeemed himself by inducing the wily Jerry Browne to line out to Junior Felix. Four years earlier, before pitching 8 no-hit innings became his knack, he had unwittingly titled his book Tomorrow I'll Be Perfect after just one ruined no-hitter.

Jim Clancy and Jimmy Key preceded Stieb and were followed by David Cone and Roy Halladay, so clearly McGowan is in good company. The only one of the nine that I saw was Halladay's attempt on September 27, 1998. Halladay was making his second major-league start against the Detroit Tigers. His perfect game was ruined by an error, but his no-hitter was intact until Bobby Higginson homered in the ninth inning. The Jays still won, their 88th win of that perplexing year, still the most they have won in the 13 seasons since their last championship.

As for Halladay, though he eventually fulfilled his promise as a dominant starting pitcher, the no-hitter was only an indication of his immense talent when he set a major-league record for the highest ERA (10.64) by an pitcher who threw at least 50 innings. McGowan, like Halladay, is a first-round draft pick with great potential but a slow development. Unlike Halladay, his flashes of brilliance have been rarer: in his last start, he recorded 5 outs and conceded 6 runs.

Monday, June 18, 2007

In grade 11 math, I thought that many of my peers didn't really understand what seeking the cosecant of something, anything, really was. That was fine, of course, because I didn't either, but their marks were higher than mine. I got the uncomfortable, alarming feeling that these students never really learned anything, but they were remarkably, frighteningly adept at reacting a certain way to a certain problem. More times than not, a question that was phrased a certain way required them to act a certain way.

I can't try and reproduce any of those questions, but I can offer another example: what is the soul according to Aristotle? The answer is, as I try and recall my conditioning, that the soul is the first actualization of a living body. I never quite understood what that meant, but this was the appropriate reaction to any question about Aristotle and the soul.

It's always a little frightening to realize that someone who you thought had knowledge about a given matter only knows how to follow rules in such a way that it's successful. Given the slightest of variation in the situation that leads to that rule being followed, this person may well have undergone a frontal lobotomy. I have a co-worker who fits this description neatly. I sometimes wonder whether he even has a knowledge of the words he uses, or if he only knows that using a certain combination of words in a certain arrangement will produce a desired result.

I first learned of John Searle's Chinese Room the semester after grade 11, and all of a sudden, all those marks in the 80s made sense: all those future kinesiology graduates were only manipulating symbols of which they had no grasp. Ever since then, Searle's Chinese Room, presciently intended in 1980 to counter the claim that computers could ever think, has explained to me just how it is that the astonishingly and bewilderingly stupid locomote in the allegorical cave that is their world. Following landmarks while driving, looking for key words on tests, stringing together appropriate jargon in a business report or literature essay and coping with adult illiteracy by matching symbols on cans of food are all examples of reacting to indecipherable symbols in successful ways.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I never thought it was possible, but there was somehow a very hot, strong wind to go along with 31-degree heat this afternoon. It seems a cruel joke to live in a city where there is the risk of death from running in temperatures that are too cold and too hot. It is a virtual guarantee that a winter day in Toronto, no matter what the temperature, will be windy. It is also a guarantee that this wind will be in your face. The tall buildings tunnel the wind and open spaces offer no protection from its ravages. Soon enough, the overwhelming heat settles in for the summer and the humidity saps the life out of anyone who dares to leave an air-conditioned office building, subway car or home. Twice a year, there are roughly six weeks of respite that could be called pleasant weather, but for the most part, we in Toronto suffer gamely through lunar fluctuations in temperature, about 55 degrees in a typical year.

Toronto is also, unfortunately, a reasonably hilly town, though I like that. However, today I ran up the Iroquois Escarpment into a headwind, feeling like I was running into the welcoming arms of a flamethrower. The only thing I could do was to run faster so as to have some semblance of control over my suffering, but the heat won easily. I didn't stop sweating until about a half hour after I finished running. Then again, I was able to respond to verbal cues and hand gestures afterwards, which is certainly a victory for me.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Christopher Hume cogently discusses some wonderous structures and places in Canada in today's Star. He ceases to be cogent in dutifully inserting the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal into that list. Few would deny the significance of the transcontinental railway or the CN Tower, but Hume is egregiously premature in pronouncing the glass edifice at the corner of Bloor and Avenue to be on par with his first-and-second-team wonders.

Equally egregious would be equating the long-awaited opening of this mass of glass as marking progress for Toronto. Gentrification along Bloor Street west from Yonge to approximately St. George is as rampant as it has been rapid. Plans for an 80-storey condominium on the southeast corner of Yonge and Bloor, along with a similar project at One Bedford, cement this stretch as one of the wealthiest in the city. In the meantime, life continues unabated in the de facto slums that circle the core, particularly in the northwest.

Developing the downtown, which includes an abandoned lakefront, is undeniably an important task for the city. However, we ought to remember that Toronto extends east of the Don Valley, sprawls west of Bathurst and reaches north of Eglinton. For far too many of its residents, poverty ensures a bleak existence. No amount of crystals or condominiums downtown will make a difference in the eight-tenths of the city where each intersection has less than two Starbucks. Toronto risks producing an unnavigable moat between rich and poor by concentrating this putative renaissance in its core.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

That Barry Bonds (he's at least as well-known as Jimmy Choo), as old, frail and cantankerous as he may be, will break Hank Aaron's record of 755 career home runs is not at all problematic. Aaron's record is, to many, the single most prestigious mark in all of baseball. That is certainly debatable, but I would argue that the significance of records is immensely overstated. Aaron hit 755 home runs, but is not generally considered to be the greatest power hitter in baseball history. That honour belongs, and likely always will belong, to Babe Ruth.

Of course, it is certainly problematic that a prestigious honour is held by a player who is most likely a cheater, but are records really that significant? Records, when measuring a career, reward longevity over proficiency. This may help to explain Pete Rose's 4,256 hits or Ron Francis' 1,798 points. Records, when measuring a single season, reward anomalies of absurd proportions. Consider Earl Webb's 67 doubles in 1931 or Herman Moore's 123 receptions in 1995. Broadening our spectrum, Sammy Korir has run the second-fastest marathon ever, but no one considers him to be one of the greatest marathoners in history.

Far more meaningful than records and statistics are, of course, true greatness. We know that Pete Rose wasn't as good as Ty Cobb, Ron Francis not as good as Mario Lemieux and Joe Montana was better than Dan Marino at just about everything. Worrying about who holds what record is moot, as moot as worrying that Charley Radbourn's 59 wins in 1884 overshadow Pedro Martinez or Greg Maddux. Having seen a player perform over his career and being able to interpret the significance of his statistics are far more important than the records he may happen to hold. Records are made to be broken, but they certainly aren't made to be revered.

Monday, June 04, 2007