From the archives: July 2007

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Syntax errors made easy

Tuesday, 24 July 2007 — 8:57pm | Computing

As some of you know, I’m spending a nontrivial chunk of the summer teaching kids (lower bound: 11, upper bound: 15) to make their own computer games. They are given five days and a copy of the Torque Game Engine that I modified and compiled for the specific purpose of their prescribed activities. There is, unavoidably, a bit of coding involved.

Something that has always piqued my curiosity is the pedagogical difficulties involved in the instruction of computer programming. I speculate that ill-designed or ill-instructed introductory courses at the freshman level are, in all likelihood, directly responsible for the loss of a significant number of potential students in fields related to computing. When it comes to the matter of instruction, the problem often lies in the gap that exists between instructors that have completely internalized an intuitive sense of what is correct, and students that have not even begun to develop that foundation.

If you look at student essays, even those that are written at the university level, there’s a similar gulf between those who effortlessly arrange words into sentences and sentences into arguments – the former is a grammatical activity; the latter, logical and rhetorical – and those who still struggle with comma splices and coordinate conjunctions, never mind the trouble they subsequently encounter in the minefield of logical fallacies. When something resides in the realm of intuition, one neglects to decompose it into its component subproblems. It’s especially true of fluency in a given language, natural, programming or otherwise.

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, I invariably favour an educational approach built on a strong foundation of fundamental principles. You can’t make a musician out of someone who emulates notes on a page without any thought to chords and scales and how they apply to the inferential shaping of a sensible phrase, and you can’t make a (procedural) programmer out of someone who doesn’t have a basic and language-independent understanding of control flow.

For example, it is my belief that if you have any aspirations to work with computer programming in any capacity, you should have some exposure to recursion as early as possible. True to the title of Donald Knuth’s monograph on the subject, programming is an art. There exist brownie points for elegance. If I had it my way, I’d wean everyone on Lisp.

However, when you only have a week, and the students are impatient to get underway with a tangible project that does something, you have to take some shortcuts; providing them with a game engine and a lot of code already filled in is only the first step.

Here are some points of confusion an even mildly experienced programmer familiar with the lingua franca of C/C++ (the syntactic elements of which are as generally applicable as periods, commas and the Roman alphabet are to most European languages) might completely overlook:

When do we use curly braces, as opposed to square brackets and parentheses? (This is a particular challenge of denotative ambiguity when it comes to youths, who by and large still refer to parentheses as “brackets.”)

When does case sensitivity matter?

Does such-and-such still work if we don’t type in the tabs and spaces?

Is that the letter O or the number 0?

A veteran programmer tends to consciously think about those issues about as much as a pianist scrutinizes his chromatic scale fingerings note by note. He doesn’t think about it at all; he just does whatever makes sense.

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Final draughts

Monday, 23 July 2007 — 9:50pm | Board games, Computing, Mathematics, Science

Here’s something I would have posted last Thursday if I hadn’t cut myself off from the Internet in what was, in hindsight, an excellently timed and perfectly necessary pre-Potter lockdown. It’s been all over the news at a national and international level, as it damn well should be, but I feel it is my duty as an enthusiast of games of strategy and an alumnus of the University of Alberta’s esteemed Computing Science department to once again highlight the tremendous accomplishment that Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer and the GAMES group made last week. I heard rumblings of a major breakthrough about two months ago, but the details were kept under embargo. With the publication of the accomplishment in Science, it’s official: checkers has been solved.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with computing science, game theory or their related fields, what it means in layman’s terms is this: consider how with a simple game like Tic-Tac-Toe, pretty much everyone over the age of five has stumbled upon a strategy that will always play to a win or a draw. Well, it’s been a long time coming, but they’ve just done that with checkers.

There’s a considerable wealth of information on the Chinook website, where you can step your way through a demonstration of the proof or find your way to the article in Science.

More than anything else, I hope this kind of high-profile accomplishment encourages others to pursue studies in what is, I think, a grossly misunderstood and often ill-introduced branch of the sciences. I know that I, for one, had little idea just what I was missing until I transferred into their programme in my third year, a decision about which I have almost no regrets. Computers aren’t just tools that are meant to sit around generating heat in office cubicles, waiting to be thrown out a nearby window; their study is not limited to job training for information-age janitors, network witch-doctors and software monkeys. There’s a genuinely interesting field of scientific enquiry there to which few receive anything remotely resembling a proper introduction. I sincerely hope this is a step towards the elusive remedy.

Next stop, poker!

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Hard-Boiled Potterland and the End of the World

Saturday, 21 July 2007 — 6:16pm | Harry Potter, Literature

(“Potterdammerung” was already taken.)

I did it. I made it through to the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows completely unspoiled by external sources. Well, almost completely – while I never received any confirmation of some of the critical details, I was surprised by how easily the public consensus predicted them in the more popular speculations I was so quick to dismiss as “too easy.”

It’s still a remarkable feat, because the conduct of the Muggle mainstream press throughout this entire affair has been completely unacceptable. Having read the book, I’ve now looked at some of the articles that have been run on the front pages of several newspapers, and I am astounded and appalled at how much they reveal. In some cases, the articles amount to no more or less than summaries of the final chapters.

How does this pass for news? What purpose does a paper serve by publishing this aside from being a bunch of complete wankers?

Okay, now let’s talk about the book.

Do not read below this point if you have not read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.


I loved it.

If there was a single speck of disappointment that blemished my initial experience of the final Harry Potter volume, it’s that so many people figured out the answers to some of the major questions so far in advance. It’s very unlike J.K. Rowling to actually deliver precisely what her readers expect. She doesn’t do that throughout the book, mind you; I think I may confine that impression to the chapter entitled “The Prince’s Tale,” in which we find out…

(If you haven’t read it, go away. And if you’re going to read on anyway because you don’t really care to read the Potter books yourself, I’d hate to be blunt, but we’re simply not going to be friends.)

… in which we find out that Snape was acting on Dumbledore’s orders all along, Harry is a seventh Horcrux, and Snape’s primary motivation was his lifelong love for Lily Evans.

I was a resident contrarian on the first two counts and possibly (but noncommittally) the third. It didn’t seem to click in theory. I’ve offered a few arguments to that effect, but the hidden, irrational hunch behind it all was that I simply didn’t believe Ms. Rowling would be that predictable.

It doesn’t matter, because the execution was superb.

The primary basis for my belief that Snape was first and foremost on a side that wasn’t Dumbledore’s was that on a purely literary level, I thought it necessary for Dumbledore to have some ultimate imperfection that prevented him from deterministically orchestrating Voldemort’s downfall all by himself. It was essential that Harry had some knowledge or intuition that Dumbledore did not to truly call Voldemort’s defeat his own. To me, that meant Dumbledore had to have overlooked something, perhaps in the form of a misplaced trust.

So my reaction to the idea that Dumbledore ordered Snape to kill him amounted to, “That wouldn’t make Dumbledore terribly interesting.”

In The Deathly Hallows, Rowling gets away with it by giving Dumbledore a far more interesting character flaw than simply being too trusting, and one that sheds new light on Dumbledore’s chat with Harry at the end of The Order of the Phoenix: Dumbledore struggles with the balance between impassionate tactical genius and passionate concern for those who are to actually carry out his orders. Unbeknownst to Harry and thereby, the reader, that’s the real developmental path that Dumbledore follows over the course of the first six books.

More importantly from a narrative point of view, even up to the point of Snape’s death, there’s virtually nothing that assures the reader of a certain answer. I started to have an inkling I might be wrong about Snape when I saw just how much thought and preparation Albus Dumbledore had put into his will in order to lead our heroes on the trail of a Grail Quest we didn’t know existed.

As for Harry being the last Horcrux, Rowling met the necessary conditions with what I considered the only possible route for that to be the case: it was extraneous to the six that Dumbledore suspected, it was unknown to Voldemort himself, and its creation was an entirely accidental result. Now, here’s the rub: how long had Dumbledore known? If anything, Harry’s last scene with him in the limbo of King’s Cross reveals that the infamous “gleam of triumph” in The Goblet of Fire manifested Dumbledore’s realization that there was a way of removing Voldemort’s soul fragment from Harry without killing the latter.

Then why deliberately feed Snape misinformation about how Harry has to die? The two reasons I can think of are the obvious ones. First, the reader has to believe that it’s a definite possibility that Harry must perish. Second, it’s with the understanding that Snape’s memory of Dumbledore’s orders will eventually reach Harry, and the plan only works if Harry faces Death confidently and in good faith.

All in all, it’s really the new material – most prominently, the Deathly Hallows and the background surrounding Dumbledore and Grindelwald – that makes the book. At around the halfway mark, one wonders when Harry is actually going to get around to stomping some Horcruxes, but that only amplifies the degree to which one can sympathize with Ron’s impatience with the lack of any apparent plan of action. And although Ron and Hermione don’t get nearly as involved with the final climax as one would reasonably expect, Ron’s return in the chapter entitled “The Silver Doe” may be the best scene in the book – every bit a true fulfilment of the character’s personal journey as that later incident involving the Sword of Gryffindor, Neville Longbottom and a more than nearly headless snake.

As a completely tangential aside: when I first read that one alias of the Elder Wand was the Deathstick, all I could think of was Ewan MacGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You don’t want to sell me deathsticks. You want to go home and rethink your life.”

I do have one concern. It’s a concern, not a complaint, but I think it’s worth mentioning. It’s really not until this book that it becomes clear that Unforgivable Curses (with the possible exception of the Killing Curse) are entirely a legal matter, not a moral one. It was certainly discomfiting to see Harry tossing them about willy-nilly in places, even if they were out of necessity, as in the Gringotts robbery. It was an unexpected direction for Rowling to take, and creates a certain ambiguity when it comes to defining what the criteria are for considering a spell to be one of the Dark Arts. Is it based on means or consequences? Certainly, the “good guys” kill, maim or torture just as readily, though there’s a certain poetry to how Voldemort finishes himself off because he runs into a disarming spell.

One last thing (for now, as there’s a limitless supply of material to discuss now that there’s no more Potter coming): I remember reading that Rowling wrote the last chapter (which I take to be the “Nineteen Years Later” epilogue… why nineteen?) way back near the beginning and stowed it away. It shows, and I say that with the utmost ambivalence. The writing abruptly jerks you back to the innocent tone of the first two books, almost as if the series never really developed in scope, and renders the entire segment a tad out of place. I suppose that’s the benefit of restoring some semblance of natural order to the Potterverse, but I would have preferred a more reflective present-day denouement, especially after the excellent ones that capped the fifth and sixth.

Then again, for all the mundanity of an ending where the happy high school couples stay together, live happily ever after and see their kids to school has a certain assuring tone to it: unlike their father, Harry’s kids get to be sent off to Hogwarts by their loving parents. That’s a difference worth remarking upon, is it not?

Primary unanswered question (and I’m sure others would agree): what horrific memory did Dudley relive in the Dementor attack in The Order of the Phoenix? Answer: unknown, but I’m not sure it’s so relevant now that we know his shock and silence was probably not at the Dementors themselves, but the fact that Harry stuck his neck out for him. I was wondering how Rowling would send off the Dursleys, and I can’t imagine her doing it any better. The clincher was when Harry called Dudley “Big D” in earnest. When you’re reading a book, it’s that kind of moment that makes you feel like a boy who lived.

It’s not until a few hours afterwards that the post-Potter depression really sets in.

We’re done. Life goes on. And at the end of all things, nobody tickled a sleeping dragon.

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Famous last words: nitwit, blubber, oddment, tweak

Tuesday, 17 July 2007 — 9:28pm | Harry Potter, Literature

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has shipped. Consider this my last transmission in a state of blissful ignorance before I retreat to my hastily prepared hermetic shelter.

There’s been a leak online, and I personally know at least one individual who legitimately claims to have read the book. To me, the next three days are nothing more or less than a treacherous challenge to survive unblemished in a viral world polluted with too much information. I have summarily severed all inbound lines of communication. If word gets out in the next few days that a lit-crazed science camp instructor has viciously silenced a small child or three, you’ll know why, and you can tell it to the cops that I solemnly swear they were up to no good.

Here are my final predictions. I don’t have time to offer as thorough a rationale for each of them as I’d like; some of them are hunches, and some of them are cases of deliberately contrarian muckraking. If I’m right, I promise you I didn’t cheat. If I’m wrong, I’ll look rather silly, won’t I? But just this once, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Let’s start with the important questions.

Snape, Snape, Severus Snape. Evil.

I’ve lost sleep mulling over this and flipping back and forth, but after reading through all six of the preceding volumes again, I’m going back to the same initial impression I had when I first read Half-Blood Prince; see this blog’s most (inexplicably) popular post of all time for details. I can understand the argument that Snape killed Dumbledore on Dumbledore’s last-minute orders – making yourself completely vulnerable and committing assisted suicide to plant a double-agent right-hand man? Ingenious! – but I just don’t buy it.

First: Dumbledore wouldn’t order someone to commit murder, even as someone who believes that death is the next great adventure. I really do believe Snape took him by surprise, and that Dumbledore petrified Harry to prevent any interference only when it came to Draco Malfoy – who, as I’ve said before, probably had the right idea about Snape all along. As for the pleading, we may confidently infer that Dumbledore’s condition was something only Snape could properly address. We’ve also been told time and again that an Unforgivable Curse doesn’t work unless you really mean it and take pleasure in the act of violence.

Was Snape just securing himself the advantageous position of Voldemort’s real first lieutenant and “most loyal servant,” the delusion successively held by Peter Pettigrew, Barty Crouch Jr. and Bellatrix Lestrange (and before that, arguably Lucius Malfoy)? I doubt it. Snape, of all people, is in a position to understand that someone like Voldemort doesn’t put much stock in first lieutenants. He’s too cunning to believe that there’s any safety in such a position. I think Snape is primarily looking out for his own survival, the true mark of a Slytherin.

Will Snape end up doing something in favour of the good guys? Almost certainly, whether it’s intentional on his part or not. Will Harry forgive him? Unquestionably, not least because of our boy hero’s continued assurances that it will never happen. That’s something we’ll leave for the action in the seventh book. What I’m far more interested in is the motivation behind what Snape has been up to so far.

I think it’s imperative that we accept that Dumbledore is a flawed character – someone who has a gaping hole in his wisdom because of his willingness to see the best in people. Sooner or later, somebody was going to take advantage of it, and that someone turned out to be Snape. (Ironically, it was Dumbledore alone who saw right through the young Tom Riddle.) I was waffling on this, but what convinced me for good was this article comparing Severus the Half-Blood Prince to Severus in Machiavelli’s The Prince. There’s no way that kind of correlation is just another inconsequential blip on the radar.

Does it impugn Harry’s maturation as a character to say that on some level, he was right to have an irrational dislike of Snape all along? Maybe, but one other thing to remember about Half-Blood Prince is that much of it is a case of the boy who cried wolf: for once, Harry’s intuition is right on the money, but everyone is so used to it being ostensibly wrong that they didn’t take him seriously when it came to, say, Draco Malfoy’s degree of involvement in Voldemort’s cause.

Snape is far more dangerous than we give him credit for. He’s already accomplished two things that Voldemort only ever dreamed of doing: teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts, and getting Dumbledore out of the way. I’m not saying I’d place him as the primary antagonist over Voldemort himself, though others have pursued that train of thought; the symmetry isn’t quite there, and I’d say that even though Half-Blood Prince was named for Snape, the primary contribution it made to the series was its reassertion of a solid and credible basis for believing that Voldemort is as much of a villain as everybody makes him out to be.

I may end up eating crow, of course, and if I do, I think I know why. It’s because we still don’t know why Dumbledore trusted Snape. This is one of the two big uncertainties that characters in the book (never mind the readers) have occasionally mistaken for certainties, the other one being, “Why couldn’t Voldemort kill Harry?” Harry recognizes the sheer implausibility that Dumbledore could be hoodwinked by Snape’s apparent remorse for the deaths of the Potters. Well, it’s not just implausible – it’s impossible. In Goblet of Fire, we learned that Dumbledore testified that Snape defected prior to Voldemort’s fall. That means the defection had to occur before Voldemort marched into Godric’s Hollow. An advance warning? Perhaps, but it didn’t seem to help.

This is literature, folks. The question we should be asking isn’t, “What makes the characters the most clever?” but rather, “What results in the most elegant pattern?” J.K. Rowling may prove me horribly wrong, but I think the answer involves a Severus Snape who isn’t just doing Dumbledore’s bidding.

If we accept my take on things, the biggest question is this: why does Severus Snape feel obligated to protect Harry Potter? Is this of his own accord, or is Snape unwillingly bound through something like an Unbreakable Vow or his outstanding debt to Harry’s father?

Harry will never pull off an Unforgivable Curse. And he’ll never be a murderer. It’s not even a matter of the amount of conviction or hatred he can pour into a spell meant to torture or kill – he’s just fundamentally incapable of the act. Sectumsempra is in all likelihood the closest he’ll ever come to the Dark Arts, and it was in many ways accidental. And this leads to the central curiosity I have going into the final volume: how could Harry vanquish Voldemort without murdering him?

Dumbledore’s dead. He’s been dead for two years now. Get over it.

Who lives? Limiting myself to candidates that may or may not have been bandied about, so I don’t have to comb the dramatis personae all the way down to Dedalus Diggle: Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Hagrid, all three of the Malfoys, all of the Weasleys (with the possible exception of Ron, but I’ll get into that later), Minerva McGonagall, Remus Lupin, the Dursleys.

Who dies? Lord Voldemort. His greatest weakness is his failure to realize that some things are worse than death, but I think that’s a reason why he will die, not why he won’t. It’s precisely the fate that all of his evil was conjured to avoid. There’s one hitch with this I can see: Voldemort is so resistant to death that theoretically, he’d come back as a ghost. There has to be some reason that his death is permanent, and it’s not going to be as simple as running out of Horcruxes. It probably involves love, but that doesn’t get us any closer to a practical solution, does it.

I’m actually inclined to think that all three of Harry, Ron and Hermione will survive. But I’ll hedge my bets and say that if one of them is going to bite the dust, it’s going to be Ron. It’s the chess game in Philosopher’s Stone that tips the balance. He has a clear arc of character development – individuation relative to his siblings and his best friend – that is reaching its saturation point. Really, what it might come down to is whether or not Rowling intends to rip him and Hermione apart just after they’ve finally gotten together.

If it’s not Ron, who will it be? We’re certain to lose someone near and dear to us, aren’t we? Who’s important enough?

Neville Longbottom, that’s who. I don’t say this on the basis of any evidence in particular, but here’s what we know. He has a score to settle with the Lestranges, that much is clear. There’s already a certain symmetry between Neville and Peter Pettigrew, and I could see a scenario in which the former takes the fall for his friends where the latter didn’t. After all, so much of the series is founded on taking similarities and splitting them in divergent directions at critical points marked by decisions that reflect one’s true character. And let’s not forget Neville’s role at the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, shall we?

Among the minor villains, I’m picking Bellatrix Lestrange, Peter Pettigrew and Fenrir Greyback to be out of the picture by the book’s end. Ever since Goblet of Fire, we’ve all been watching Peter Pettigrew to see what he’ll do with that silver hand, and a lot of the money’s on him killing Lupin. I actually think that if Pettigrew does slay a werewolf with a well-placed handshake, it will be Greyback; sure, the history between the characters isn’t there, but let’s not forget about that life debt to Harry.

What about Snape? I think he’s a dead man. Not at Harry’s hands, obviously. Harry will forgive and spare him. I can’t say the same for everyone else.

Ron will finally say the name “Voldemort.” And it’s about time.

Harry is not the last Horcrux. I admit the possibility, but I just don’t see it. This is a piece of Voldemort’s soul we’re talking about. If the Riddle diary was any indication, this is equivalent to an independent instance of Voldemort himself. We saw at the end of Order of the Phoenix that Voldemort is flatly unable to reside in someone who is able to love and be loved in the manner of Harry Potter. When Voldemort possessed Quirrell, he couldn’t even touch Harry with someone else’s hands because of the protection conferred by Harry’s mother. Is it really at all likely that Harry has played host to a shard of Voldemort’s soul this whole time? Not a chance.

The locket and the cup are probably givens. Some object of Ravenclaw’s? Probably, seeing as how there’s already one of Hufflepuff’s. If Dumbledore was wrong about any of the Horcruxes, it’s most likely the snake. But it’s not going to turn out to be Harry.

A brief word about R.A.B. It’s Regulus Black, but it might not be that important that it’s him. We should at least acknowledge, in passing, the possibility that Regulus was framed. For all we know, Snape could have been behind it all along. He had access to Grimmauld Place, he addresses Voldemort as the Dark Lord, he’s a known defector (genuine or otherwise), he’s proficient enough with potions that he could have filled or refilled the basin in the cave, and he is a likely candidate to attempt to subvert Voldemort from the inside. (We are, by now, well out of prediction territory and into the realm of fanciful conspiracy. My actual guess? It’s just Regulus Black.)

Someone we know or recognize will come back as an Inferius. And it will creep us out. But if you’re going to introduce a device like reanimated corpses into your story, why not use it?

Hoggy Hoggy Hogwarts. We’ll see more of it than we expect.

We will pay a visit to Azkaban. Of all the major locations mentioned in the books, Azkaban is the one we haven’t seen (Godric’s Hollow aside, but we know that’s coming). There’s a potential reason for going there, too: if Slytherin’s locket was indeed the one in Grimmauld Place, and Mundungus Fletcher indeed lifted it before being sent to the wizard prison, Harry will be hot on his trail.

The prophecy will be fulfilled, and it will be Voldemort’s fault. In other words, Harry lives and Voldemort dies. Voldemort’s is a case of Oedipal self-fulfilment par excellence. Is Divination still bunk? Yes, and it has always been. But Voldemort acts on its predictions, and has done so to his own peril on at least one occasion. That’s an exploitable trait if I ever saw one.

Sirius Black will not return as an innocent singing sensation. But they’ll finally clear his name.

The bad guys will get lucky. J.K. Rowling has proven time and again that any external utility or supplement that works in favour of the good guys can just as easily work in favour of the bad guys. She did it with Polyjuice Potion, the Invisibility Cloak, the Marauder’s Map and the Room of Requirement, and I strongly suspect Felix Felicis will fall into the wrong hands at some point. Then again, she does have limits; for example, she wrote the Time-Turner out of the story and avoided what could have been a very messy nest of Nargles.

We’ll see more of… Dobby, Kreacher, Luna Lovegood, Buckbeak, Grawp, Crabbe and Goyle, the huge and clumsy Death Eater at the end of Half-Blood Prince, the late Albus Dumbledore (who is unquestionably dead, but his portrait isn’t sitting in Hogwarts and who knows where else without reason). Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback? We can only hope. What’s Charlie Weasley been up to lately, anyhow?

We may have seen the last of… Moaning Myrtle, Firenze, Rita Skeeter, Cho Chang, Lavender Brown, Madame Maxime, Viktor Krum, Gilderoy Lockhart, Nearly Headless Nick, Peeves, Fawkes (who may have made his final exit alongside Dumbledore), and most of the Hogwarts staff. And again, Dumbledore is not just merely dead – he’s really, most sincerely dead.

Harry will live to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts. I may hold minority opinions on a number of things, but this is not one of them. This is Harry Potter’s most likely fate. Voldemort’s curse on the position is a fairly consequential subplot of its own; who better to break the pattern and restore a settling sense of natural order?

I think that’s all I can come up with for now. I will see you all on the other side, burdened with an inevitable case of post-Potter depression.

Mischief managed?

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The sun never sets (and a few words about rats)

Sunday, 1 July 2007 — 10:39pm | Animation, Canadiana, Film

It’s Canada Day. But before I go on: only $47M? Where were you all this weekend when you were supposed to be seeing Ratatouille?

This is the first time in several years that I’ve not posted here for the entire span of a month, but I assure you that I had an unfinished post from two weeks ago about Pixar’s latest sitting around, which I abandoned in part because it was hopelessly redundant. It went like this:

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, I cancelled all of my plans and zipped off to see Ratatouille as soon as I found out it was playing last night, two weeks ahead of its general release. By now everybody is familiar with the way I gush over every new Pixar film, so I’ll confirm that it’s just about perfect, declare my intention to revisit it several times when it opens, and marvel at how Pixar is a perfect eight for eight and is now indisputably the greatest feature film studio of all time. You know the routine.

… followed by a potpourri of trivial observations that I’ve decided to save until I’ve seen the film a few more times. (For example: was that Chinese take-out box in Linguini’s refrigerator the same model as the magician’s cabinet in A Bug’s Life? And where, if anywhere, is the elusive A113?) More on all this later – and if time permits, a few words about Brad Bird and the American Dream: a post-scriptum to what I wrote about The Incredibles, after a fashion.

Time will probably not permit. I have a lot of Harry Potter to get through. Again.

And now, back to the British Empire (as most things should be).

It’s my country’s special day, of course (musical recommendations: Kenny Barron’s rendition of “Canadian Sunset” on the album Live at Bradley’s, and as always, the entirety of Oscar Peterson’s Canadiana Suite), but that’s not the only special occasion involving the progeny of the Union Jack.

I don’t look favourably upon celebrity culture, so even as a loyalist I’ve never understood the extent of all the fuss over Princess Diana, but I do have to make a special mention of a moment buried in the sea of washed-up pop icons at her Wembley Stadium memorial. It involved Andrew Lloyd Webber, and you can see a segment of it here starring Sarah “I was singing this role before Emmy Rossum was toilet-trained” Brightman and Josh “I’m way too talented for the music I’m given, but Nick’s mother stalks me anyway” Groban.

The other event associated with this particular 1 July was the tenth anniversary of Britain’s loss of the colony of Hong Kong. On the upside, the Hong Kong SAR has managed to retain its autonomy in relative peace for a whole decade. At the same time, that only leaves forty years for the PRC to fall (the sooner, the better) lest the whole operation go to pot. It remains my learned opinion that the PRC basically extorted the place from the British crown by taking advantage of a post-Falklands moment of weakness. And before any of the vehemently anti-colonial types interject, let me point out that there’s a world of difference between a) decolonization in the name of self-determination and b) a transfer of sovereignty to a communist regime that we already knew couldn’t be trusted.

As I was pointing out not long ago to my comrade-in-arms Kyle Kawanami, the British government should have given Deng Xiaoping the finger and fulfilled its contractual obligation to the letter by handing the New Territories over to Taiwan.

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