Sunday, June 29, 2008

Antoine Sharpe, The Atheist

I picked up a trade paperback called Antoine Sharpe, The Atheist: Incarnate the other day for two reasons: it had a cool sounding title and it was in the bargain bin because of "corner damage". I was extremely impressed by this book and I hope the creators do more soon (one gathers from the introduction that they have major deadline problems). The lead character is "slightly autistic" and has amazing powers of deduction and problem solving; he's also a cold-hearted skeptic and occasional investigator into "occult" mysteries. I know the book sounds a bit like the X-Files, and in a way it is--but it's got a nice edge that that show always lacked, a really creative creepy storyline, and a great ending. In fact, the story told in the TPB would make a great pilot episode or standalone movie.

Psycho Beach Party

Rogers recently sent me Psycho Beach Party, a movie I knew nothing about and added to the list solely because I was curious to see Nicholas Brendon (a.k.a. Alexander Lavelle Harris) in a non-Buffy role. I expected a dumb, cheapie comedy but I was pleasantly surprised that this dumb, cheapie comedy was actually funny a respectable portion of the time. Brendon's "beach stud" character is accompanied by Thomas Gibson (Greg of Dharma fame) and the excellent Lauren Ambrose in the lead role as wannabe surfer/possible crazed psycho killer.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Heller Second Amendment Case

Most of the legal blogs I regularly read have posted extensively on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Heller that the Second Amendment creates an individual right to own firearms, subject to certain undefined limitations. I don't have particularly strong opinions on the case itself, one way or the other, but I do want to briefly mention a couple of points.

First, many are celebrating both the majority's and the dissent's frequent citation and discussion of scholarship. Like most legal scholars, I love to see legal scholarship invoked as it gives me the hope that what legal scholars produce has a real role to play in shaping the law. However, it's not clear to me that in a 5-4 decision like Heller, where the Court is predictably split on conservative/liberal lines, whether the scholarship actually influenced the decision or is merely used to help explain a previously reached conclusion about how the case should be decided. A Canadian lawprof named Allan Hutchinson has also warned, rightly in my opinion, of law professors who write only with an eye to being cited by the courts, as if a count of citations was necessarily validation of the quality of one's work. Cynically manipulating one's writing in order to make it judicially palatable can be demeaning to true scholarship.

Second, Heller is another good example of the dangers that surround lawyers (advocates by nature) attempting to answer questions of historical or empirical fact. Judges and scholars are easily tempted to zealously embrace their position whole-heartedly and, in doing so, to argue that the opposing position is completely wrong and almost frivolous, when often the evidence is contradictory and the facts ambiguous. Such one-sidedness is laudable for a lawyer zealously representing a client but quite problematic in judging, where the goal is (or should be) an objective analysis of the relative merits of various positions. In other words, deciding that Position A is best doesn't always require treating advocates of Position B with thinly-veiled contempt. However, that's been the norm between majority and dissenting opinions in far too many recent Supreme Court opinions.

Monday, June 23, 2008

My Teaching Year (Part II)

One of the weird things about academic jobs is the time lag involved. You interview in October, get an offer in November or early December, and then sit on your heels for a good eight months until you start teaching the following August. I tried to use the time as wisely as possible by reading scholarship about legal writing, looking at lesson plans from other teachers, going to a conference, etc., but like with most things there's a limit to how much you can learn about something without actually doing it, which means you really have to learn on the job while in the meantime desperately hoping you meet the minimum expectations of students, the administration, and other faculty.

Between accepting the job and starting teaching, there were both fun and stressful moments which I won't go into much detail about: finding a beautiful apartment overlooking the river in Windsor; having my boss at CCLA call me the wrong name at my going away toast; my sig-other losing out on a great job in Detroit because they wouldn't sponsor her for a visa; and the Worst Moving Experience in the History of Mankind. But I digress . . .

One thing I had only the fuzziest impressions of as a law student, but that was very important to learn for my particular teaching position, was the great dichotomy between regular "doctrinal" law professors (those teaching torts, constitutional law, etc.) and "legal writing" professors. In short, although things are starting to improve, legal writing profs at most law schools make far less money, are ineligible for tenure, and (at some schools) can't even vote at faculty meetings. On the other hand, legal writing profs are usually not required to produce scholarship because the positions are designed with former practitioners in mind.

Now the great irony of my becoming a legal writing professor is that I'm primarily a legal scholar and have never "practiced law" in the traditional sense: I've never taken a bar exam, clerked at a law firm, articled, or represented a client in any context other than in a law school clinic setting. Legal research and writing are my strong suits--after all, that's what scholarship requires--but it's fair to say I had a very different background than all of the other legal writing profs at Detroit Mercy and most other law schools.

In my next post, I'll talk about my actual teaching experiences.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Blue Angel

For a while now I've been a subscriber to Rogers Video Direct, which is basically Netflix Canada. In addition to tv shows and movies I missed in the theaters, I've added a long (400+) list of movie titles culled from my steady glancing through a DVD guide book. The length of the list means it's often a year or longer before a movie I put on the list actually shows up in the mailbox, which means I often have no idea what the heck it is I'm about to watch when I put a DVD into the player.

Today's selection turned out to be an excellent movie: The Blue Angel, a 1930s Marlene Dietrich movie. Her first starring role, and my first time watching a Dietrich movie, The Blue Angel is about a high school English teacher who falls in love with a burlesque dancer. The first hour or so of the film is high comedy with schoolboy pranks, fistfights, and a lot of running around. Without spoiling the plot (I'm not sure what the rules are on spoiling fairly famous 78 year old movies!), the last third is incredibly tragic and plays off beautifully from the earlier comedic material.

The movie is tame by today's standards, but you can still see glimpses of what made the movie the subject of censorship in the 30s. In one scene for example, the teacher and Dietrich are sitting at a table when the teacher knocks over a bunch of matches; he crawls under the table to pick them up and Dietrich says "Be careful under there, or you might get ran over."

Friday, June 13, 2008

My Teaching Year (Part I)

I spent the 2006-2007 school year as an Assistant Professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. My main responsibility was a section of a special legal research and writing course for students in the joint American-Canadian J.D./LL.B. program, while during the summer I taught a class on American constitutional law.

I currently have a little over a year to decide whether I want to go back to teaching right after I finish my Ph.D. In this short series of blog posts I want to talk a little bit about my experiences as a law prof, and some of the rewards and disappointments I encountered.

It started, like a lot of jobs, with an ad in the newspaper. I was at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association at the time and desperately looking to make an exit, but had never seriously considered going into law teaching after hearing that it basically required finishing at the very top of your class from an Ivy league school and an appellate clerkship. Still, the ad in Lawyer's Weekly seemed like it was written just for me, as I didn't know many people with American and Canadian law degrees, a solid record of scholarship, and an interest in teaching.

It's worth mentioning that this is an extremely unusual way to enter legal academia in the United States--the "normal" route is through a kind of intense "job fair" at an American Association of Law Schools conference, held once a year in the Fall.

Anyway, I sent in my resume with a carefully crafted cover letter, expecting to hear nothing back. I immediately received an encouraging response from the chair of the search committee and was asked to take part in a phone interview. I did some hasty research on legal research and writing education which paid off considerably in the interview. I was surprised to be posed with a hypothetical about Lawrence v. Texas (a U.S. gay rights case) which came out after I had graduated law school and was working in Canada; fortunately I had skimmed the opinion and must have had some sort of coherent response to the question because they asked me to come to campus for another interview.

My first thoughts about the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law were: this is a high school! The building looked nothing like any law school I had ever been in before; it was not situated within the context of a larger campus. Instead, it simply occupied a three-story building in downtown Detroit, with wide hallways around a central gymnasium, standard high-school like classrooms with old-fashioned blackboards, etc.

Like most people, interviewing makes me nervous--but this time it was different. I really enjoyed myself during the job talk and interviews, and left feeling like I had done everything I could to get the job.

In a couple of weeks, I had the offer. I took a night to think it over--a faculty position at any law school, even a "fourth-tier" school like Detroit Mercy, is an enviable job for most lawyers and would allow me to leave CCLA with a sense of honor. On the other hand, trading Toronto for Detroit/Windsor looked to be a step down, I wouldn't be making much more money (at least at the beginning) than I did at CCLA, and I had a sig-other to think about.

You already know the choice I made, of course, and in a subsequent post I'll talk more about my actual teaching experiences.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Emma Frost, the White Queen

Recently I've been reading Emma Frost, the short-lived series about the high school years of X-Men villain/ally The White Queen. The series only lasted 18 issues but is collected in three pocket-sized volumes.

The series is surprisingly interesting because there are no slugfests, super heroes, or skintight costumes. Instead, there's a high school girl slowly realizing she has psychic abilities while trying to deal with her manipulative, domineering father, her scheming older sister, and her boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks. The characterization of each is extremely well-done and helps shed some light on how Emma Frost could go from the girl on the left to the woman on the right. On the other hand, one can also see why the comic got cancelled rather quickly; the collected volume and some issue covers (on the left) are marketed as "teen drama/romance" while some issue covers (on the right) make it seem like the comic is about the traditional full-fledged, super-powered White Queen. In other words, each potential audience was probably turned off by something about the book. Marketing aside, the comic is worth seeking out and the cheap collected editions are a good way to go about it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

She Wants Revenge

Last week I managed to catch one of my favorite groups, She Wants Revenge, at the Phoenix in Toronto. It was a great show, and I found the Phoenix to be an ideal place to catch a live show--it's small enough you can get close to the stage, there's plenty of places to grab a beer, and there's a nice balcony area upstairs to have a seat and take a break. If you haven't heard of She Wants Revenge, the best way I can describe it is an incredibly sexy Depeche Mode. Here's a couple of their songs from Youtube: (the video itself isn't my favorite, but the song is really good!); and

Sunday, June 8, 2008

My (Manly!) Soap Opera Viewing

Due to a deal with the sig-other, I have, for almost a year now, watched every single episode of General Hospital, the soap opera that focuses about 1/3 of its time on a hospital and 2/3 on Sopranos-lite, watered-down, mafia-type organized crime drama (the mobsters are the good guys and never seem to do anything particularly illegal). In the show's defense, I have to admit it's much better written and acted than I had expected, especially with the need for five new episodes every week year-round (listen to staff commentaries on most prime-time shows and they make it sound like an act of soul-wrenching heroism to produce 22 episodes in a year).

Indeed, I'm somewhat disappointed at the lack of incredibly cheesy melodrama and over-acting that I had expected (though there's a little bit here and there & I'm told that doomsday weather machines were big in the 80s). The one annoying thing is a tendency to repeat certain conversations and debates between characters ad nauseum, which I'm told is partially because many viewers don't watch every single episode. I don't think I would probably keep watching if the deal with my sig-other was off because five hours a week is a significant time committment; on the other hand, soap operas do offer something that no other form of entertainment does--the chance to watch characters portrayed by the same actors slowly evolve over years or even decades of real-time.

Borovoy to Step Down from CCLA

It appears that Alan Borovoy will be stepping down from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (about twenty years too late in my opinion):

My criticism of Borovoy's reign has long been public (, so I hope the organization is able to draft some quality new blood to take his place. Hiring a professional head-hunting firm is a good start by the Board.

British Blasphemy Law Abolished

According to some newspaper reports, England's long-standing common law offence of blasphemy has finally been abolished:

The offence lay unused between 1922 and 1977, but was the basis of a successful private prosecution against a gay newspaper in the late 1970s for publishing a poem about Jesus and a gay centurion. Another private prosecution was attempted in the late 1980s/early 1990s against Salman Rushdie for publishing The Satanic Verses. However, the courts ruled that only Christianity is protected by the law, not Islam. Most recently, just last year, the courts dismissed a private prosecution against Jerry Springer: The Opera.

Although the blasphemy offence has received its well-deserved death, it's not necessarily the end for some blasphemy-type prosecutions, as one of the reasons for abolishing the law was the recent enactment of a religious hate speech offence.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Lost Novels

The Season Four Lost finale was the higest rated program of the week, and with good reason: the show continues to delve deeper into an intriguing mystery through a clever and original mix of flashbacks, flashforwards, and present-time scenes.

Major Lost fans might hear about the three media tie-in novels published in 2005/2006: Signs of Life by Frank Thompson, and Secret Identity and Endangered Species by Cathy Hapka. However, you should save yourselves the trouble: the books range from promising but ultimately unsatisfying (Thompson's) to just plain boring (Hapka's). Each novel centers around a new character and follow the Lost template of flashbacks mixed with present-day scenes, but nothing of consequence happens in any of the books, nor are there any insights into the island or its mysteries.

The novels could have been a wonderful addition to the Lost mythos. The show is known for throwing out far more mysteries and characters than it's likely to be able to deal with in the episodes that are left, so letting each novel reveal the truth behind one of the smaller mysteries (the four-toed statue, the hatch blast-door map, the parachute food drop, etc.) or shine a spotlight on one of the ancillary characters (Arzt, the Other's Sheriff, Rousseau, etc.) would have been a great way to draw in committed fans without alienating the t.v. show viewers who only care about whether Kate's going to end up with Jack or Sawyer.

A well-coordinated media tie-in novel could add to the show's depth and would ultimately sell more copies than the quick, unsuccessful cash-ins that these novels were.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Toronto Star Headline

"Complete Blindness Hazard for Pilots"

June 22, 1939

Monday, June 2, 2008

Why I'm Not a (Canadian) Citizen

Citizenship has its privileges--in Canada, they include voting in provincial and federal elections, travelling under a Canadian passport (safer in some countries than under a U.S. one), and legal protections against security certificates and other "anti-terror" laws of dubious constitutionality. I've spent enough time in Canada to be eligible for citizenship, so why not take the plunge?

The answer is one my sig-other teases me about: I won't take an oath to "be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen".

It may sound silly, but I'm a republican in the old-fashioned sense of the word--I really believe in the virtues of democracy over monarchy, and I see Canada's ceremonial allegiance to the Queen of England as the last vestige of a system of government that is supported by neither reason nor history. If I were to swear to "be faithful and bear true allegiance", I would consider myself morally bound not to criticize the Queen, argue against the monarchy, or vote for a constitutional amendment to dethrone the House of Windsor (as almost occurred in recent years in Australia).

I'm not the only one who takes such an oath seriously: a class-action lawsuit is currently pending in Ontario, challenging the lawfulness of the citizenship oath on exactly the same grounds as I do. In Roach v. Canada (Attorney General), the Ontario Superior Court of Justice found there was sufficient grounds for the challenge to survive a motion to dismiss and the litigation continues.

To the question: it's just a silly oath--why does it matter?, I can only respond: if the government takes an oath seriously enough to deny me citizenship over a refusal to swear to it, I'll take the requirement seriously too.

Beggars in Spain

There are so many books that I have to read (for research) or that I read for fun (genre novels--Star Wars and the like) that it's rare a book stops me cold in my tracks, sticks with me for months, and really makes me think.

Nancy Kress' novel Beggars in Spain is one of those books. It has nothing in particular to do with beggars or with Spain, but instead it's the story of a slightly-future Earth where genetic modification has reached such a level that a small group of humans can go without sleep. Forever. But the implications of having 33% more life are far more than mundane, as the Sleepless create wide-scale changes in culture, law, morality, and more. I'm probably not doing the book justice, so I'll swipe from the dust jacket:

"In the year 2008, thanks to a stunning scientific breakthrough, Chicago millionaire Roger Camden and his wife Elizabeth produce the perfect child--a genetically modified daughter, Leisha, who is beautiful, extraordinarily intelligent . . .and who will never require sleep. She is one of the first twenty so-called 'Sleepless' in a world that will initially treat them as interesting anomalies . . . and later, as objects of envy and scorn. As the decades pass, the Sleepless population increases and prospers--and Leisha grows to become one of the ablest legal minds in America. But the heightened abilities and a shattering revelation about the near-immortality of 'her kind' has inflamed the wrath of the nation's Sleeper majority--spawning political repression and shocking mob violence that drives the Sleepless en masse from a society that rejects them . . . and, ultimately, from the Earth itself. But Leisha Camden remains behind--outcast from both worlds, yet unwilling to forfeit her rightful place in the community of man. Meanwhile, aboard an orbiting colony called Sanctuary, a new generation of genetically engineered super-child is born--the foundation of a brilliant and bitter Sleepless leader's devastating conspiracy of freedom . . . and revenge."

The aforementioned Leisha Camden is a remarkable character--in many ways the ultimate embodiment of the Enlightenment & a woman I have quite the crush on--but the genetically-engineered humans who come after her don't even think like anyone who has come before. The book raises profound issues of morality, law, and ethics; it's even made me interested in perhaps writing an article or two in the area of bioethics after my current projects are finished. Beggars in Spain is not an easy book to read--new characters are introduced without a great deal of exposition, there are sizable time jumps, etc. However, it's definitely worth wrestling with and I can't recommend it highly enough. There's also two sequels: Beggars & Choosers and Beggar's Ride.

So what are you waiting for? Go buy it!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Restless Gods

Dear Professor Bibby,

I recently finished your 2002 book Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada. I can't offer a good excuse for the delay other than the usual claim that there's always more books to read than there is time to read them.

I realize you had training in the ministry and your religious leanings are confessed near the end of the book, but I can't help but feel that your theological orientation has led you to miss some of the interesting sociological implications of your research.

Throughout is a strange kind of triumphalism that Marx and Freud were wrong in predicting the complete downfall of organized religion, or that the secularist bent of sociology in the 1960s has been proven incorrect; I wasn't alive in the 1960s but I can't help but feel that these are old battles that have been fought and won several times since and that, in any event, anyone who sincerely thought religion would completely disappear from the West was the sort of person who thought that by now science would eliminate all disease, robots would be doing our housecleaning, and we'd all live in socialist communes. In other words, the ideological secularism theorists have been vanquished long ago and it's time to move on to more interesting subjects.

That being said, the finding in your book that seems the most startling and worthy of further study is the "Religious Nones" category. As you indicate, the percentage of the population claiming no religious affiliation grew from less to 1% in 1971 to 12% in 1991 and finally to 20% in 2002 (pages 37 and 63). Twenty percent of the population, almost doubling in a single decade. In other words, far behind Catholics and just a little behind Protestants ("Mainline" and "Conservative" combined), the next highest affiliation for Canadians is "No Religion". See also "Nonbelief in Canada: Characteristics and Origins of Religious Nones" by Merlin Brinkerhoff and Marlene Mackie in The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Focus (W.E. Hewitt, ed.).

Yet the "Religious Nones" are largely ignored throughout your book other than a dismissive couple of paragraphs (pp. 64-65) where you note that some members of the category will shift out (just like religiously-identified persons may shift to other religions or to the Religious None category) and that between 1/5 and 1/3 of the Religious Nones will still use a religious organization for funerals, weddings, and the like. The implication seems to be that Religious Nones either do not hold their beliefs as strongly as the religious or that they secretly have religious beliefs. Either of these propositions could be true, of course, but they would require further study to know one way or the other.

I'm confident you didn't intend the book to be biased in this way; your work is clearly fair and balanced in almost every other respect. All I ask is that if your work continues to be marketed as serious sociology, you strive to be objective towards the significant percentage of your readers who are non-religious.


Jeremy Patrick