Monthly Archives: May 2000

Margin of Error: Pollsters and the Manipulation of Canadian Politics, Claire Hoy

Key Porter, 1989, 234 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-55013-172-9

Politics have changed considerably during the last century, and nowhere is this more true than in the now-omnipresent usage of polls. Media use them to boost viewership, establish predictions and build up front-page stories. Politicians use them to gauge the popularity of policies, track down their popularity and plan campaign strategies. Regular polls have become a regular part of the process, protected by an aura of scientific respectability in a field where impressions can often be more important than facts.

Claire Hoy is a well-respected Canadian journalist who, in 1988, reached his boiling point regarding this issue. How is it that the methodology of polls is never questioned? What is the impact of regular polling on Canadian politics? What are the implications of media/pollster relations when some pollsters are obviously biased in favor of political parties? Margin of Error is an attempt to answer these questions, and it makes for fascinating reading.

If you’re like this reviewer, Hoy’s central thesis -that pollsters have enjoyed uncritical admiration for too long, and that they now occupy a central position as decision-shapers- is initially suspect, if not outright paranoid. How can these friendly people with the Numbers be in any way dangerous to the democratic system?

The first section of Margin of Error paints an historical portrait of polling in Canada. Beginning during World War II by way of exiled American specialists, polling quickly established itself as an instrument of knowledge, and soon as a replacement for decision-making; Hoy traces the evolution of the usage of polls from being simple indicators for politicians, to smoke-screens behind which true vision can disappear and where the “best” politicians simply follow the polls.

Ah, but if only it stopped there… As Hoy demonstrates through chapters about the largest Canadian pollsters, the very perception of pollster impartiality (“just the numbers, ma’am”) is ludicrously absurd. Pollsters have long been associated with political parties, courting leaders to become official party pollsters.

It gets worse. Hoy clearly demonstrates, through example and a bit of logic, how questions can be slanted to obtain desired results, how precise formulation can affect results and how special-interest groups can, for a relatively low price, get “official” validation for their viewpoint by hitching a carefully-worded questions onto a “general survey”. Pollsters, despite their reputation as number wizards, can independently skew results with bad survey methodologies in an effort to save a few dollars. (Margin of Error shows, dollar-figures in print, just how expensive a good survey truly is, and how badly results are affected by skimping.)

Not only does it stop there, but as Hoy shows -again through several mind-boggling examples-, media outlets who report this information are most often than not incapable to make an accurate usage of these statistics. They’ll often misrepresent the question (forgoing the precise wording for a more audience-friendly “meaning”), ignore the shaky methodologies and try to buy results on the cheap, resulting in news that are, at best, not paining an accurate picture of reality.

Your reviewer, somewhat of a stats geek himself, started the book with a decidedly skeptical mind. But Hoy does his job properly, and the overall accumulation of facts, citations and -yes- statistics are simply too revealing to ignore. The misuse of polls represented in Margin of Error borders on the actionable, and yet, with eleven year’s insight, things have most probably gotten worse, not better.

In any case, Claire Hoy has produced, with Margin of Error, an essential piece of reading for anyone too easily trusting of polls. As it is showing significant age, an update might be in order. But don’t let that stop you from picking up the book and getting an eye-opener on statistical abuse.

Reliquary, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Tor, 1997, 464 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54283-5

Something is loose deep under New York. Again.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s first collaboration, Relic, was an unqualified success. Their thriller received good reviews, sold well and was adapted to cinema under the direction of Peter Hyams. (Okay, so the film wasn’t all that great and tanked at the box-office, but that’s not fault of the book itself.) It was inevitable that they’d eventually write a sequel.

The logical premise, of course, is to expand the action. Relic had one monster, why not have more in the sequel? The original was confined to a Museum, why not let the monsters loose under the entire New York in Reliquary?

As I said, obvious but effective. In this volume, the remnants of the monster, glimpsed in Relic‘s epilogue, surface some time later as a wave of creepy homeless death occurs under New York. The novel opens as the crisis reaches a boiling point: This time, no mere bum has been killed, but the daughter of a wealthy socialite was mysteriously murdered. Socialite raises hell, policemen investigate, creepy evidence is brought to Relic‘s heroine Margo Green and here we go again…

Fortunately, Reliquary not only does thing slightly differently than its predecessor, but does them better. This time around, the characters are more clearly defined and more sympathetic. The writing is snappier, even improving upon the lean style that was so successful in The Relic. Scenes are more spectacular, belief is more easily suspended… in short, Preston and Child have improved since their first novel, and it shows. Reliquary is in many respects a more enjoyable book than Relic.

Special mention should be made of the eeriness of subterranean New York so effectively used here. A relatively old city by North American standards, Preston and Child easily populate New York’s underground with forgotten subway tunnels, service tunnels, multi-level outposts and entire underground populations. They state that most of it is true… who knows? Sort of the setting for that old TV show, “Beauty and the Beast”, adapted for a horror tale.

Fans of the first volume will be delighted to find more about Margo, Penderghast, Smithback, D’Agosta and Frock. New characters also join them, including a delightfully feisty NYPD officer named Hayward.

Plus, the novel packs the required chills. There are dead bodies, creepy dark places, riots, carnage, last-minute twists, the promise of world-wide destruction and other sort of fun stuff.

Through it all, one can’t really shake the prefabricated feel that also plagued The Relic, but then again it’s better to have a professional but mechanical thriller than an incompetent one. Preston and Child might build their novels with flowcharts and mathematical models, but the end result is good enough that it doesn’t really matter.

What is a bit more annoying is the unwillingness of the narrative to truly use all the elements it so lovingly sets up. At one point, there’s a congregation of wealthy bourgeois, police squads, monsters, bums and oodles of water all headed for the same point. What happens next isn’t quite as spectacular as what you might think.

Nevertheless, Reliquary exemplifies the type of novel which gave rise to the expression “beach reading”. Undemanding, exciting and unusually readable, Reliquary gets top marks as a thriller. If you liked the first one, don’t miss it.

The Making of a Cop, Harvey Rachlin

Pocket, 1991, 302 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-74740-1

For most North American citizen, all contacts with policemen are limited to the occasional speeding ticket (if that), for which cops are seen as annoyances at best.

That’s too easily forgetting that cops are there for things that are in fact quite a bit more dangerous than simple traffic regulation. And nowhere is this truer than in New York City.

“In 1988 there were 1,915 murders and manslaughters (10 percent of the U.S. total, and more than Great Britain and West Germany combined), 45,824 felonious assaults, 3,412 forcible rapes, 86,578 robberies, 128,626 burglaries, 110,717 grand larcenies, 119,659 grand larceny car thefts, and 43,434 other felonies involving drugs, forgery, arson, prostitution, gambling, and kidnapping” [P.2] If New York isn’t the most dangerous city in the world, it must be close.

[July 2001: After a particularly pleasant trip to New York City and some knowledge of recent statistics, I am pleased to report that this isn’t true any more.  Mayor Guiliani’s reforms of the nineties have truly had an effect.  In fact, New York doesn’t even rank in the top-100 per-capita most dangerous American cities list!]

Against this tide of crime, acting as public defenders, exists the New York Police Department. 28,000 policemen, making the NYPD larger than most national armed forces in the world. But these policemen come from somewhere. They must be trained. Ordinary civilians from all areas must be re-modeled and re-educated so that they can wear a blue uniform, a badge and a gun.

The Making of a Cop is a meticulously detailed documentary on this training process. Author/journalist Harvey Rachlin was granted unprecedented access to the NYPD training academy during one such training session which turned out 650 candidates into pure true NYPD blue. Through the eyes of four very different students, we follow the whole process, from the first to the last day.

There is the expected fascinating chapter on the gun range, but that’s only a small part of the training to become a police officer. They must also follow classes in Law, Police Science, Social Science, Physical Training, Driver training, Car-Stop workshops… and all of these subjects, from the most academic to the most physical, are essential to a policeman’s training.

But The Making of a Cop is not only a dry affair of academia. The world of a police officer is made of difficult decisions that -for the most part- are completely alien to civilians. What is a crime? While that decision is clear when a crime has been committed, it is far more murky when a police officer is witness to potentially suspect behavior. The book details such an occasion, which starts by a policeman watching a bum trying out car doors, and ends with a life-and-death struggle.

But these finer points of conduct are nothing compared to the training aspirants are required to go through in preparation to busts. While civilians may be put off by the behavior of police officers in day-to-day operations, it’s worth remembering that if we don’t reasonably expect police officers to shoot us in their work, policemen must allow for a degree of definite danger in their line of duty. The Making of a Cop is adept at pointing out the delicate balance between self-protection and service to the public.

Technically, this book is nearly perfect, giving a compulsively readable account of almost all facets of training from beginning to end, with plenty of tasty anecdotes and first-person testimonials to hook us into the narrative. Rachlin wisely stays in the background, only directly integrating himself in the narrative in the introduction and the conclusion, letting the policemen speak for themselves during training.

But most significantly, The Making of a Cop is a splendid testimony to the often-ungrateful, often-dangerous job of policemen. It’s nearly impossible to read this book without coming away from it with a renewed respect for police forces, with the types of dangers and decisions that is their daily workload.

Remember that the next time you get a speeding ticket.

San ying hung boon sik [Return To A Better Tomorrow] (1994)

(On TV, May 2000) This exemplifies the uncharacteristic weirdness of Hong Kong cinema, where the usual “rules” of Western movies are irrelevant, and where genres might turn on you in an instant. This one starts off as a conventional brothers-against-mafia story with a touch of dark comedy, veers in court drama, becomes full-blown tragedy, skips two years and end in heavy cop drama once again. You won’t be able to predict where it’s going. There are a few good action scenes, but make no mistake, it’s the twists and turns of the plot that will keep you going. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The Whole Nine Yards (2000)

(In theaters, May 2000) As a French-Canadian, this film is more than a pleasant surprise, explicitly featuring a Montreal-area setting as a background to a big-budget dark comedy. Never mind Patricia Arquette’s amateurish French accent; the other details (the house styles, the cars, the Re-Max real estate signs) sell the film. Bruce Willis is in there, practically playing a parody of his hitman character in The Jackal. Amanda Peet bares her chest to the camera and provides most of the film’s charm with her role as a spunky… er… dental assistant. Matthew Perry’s befuddled dentist is the straight core of the film, though his various pratfalls underscore his ability to play the comic role. The script is not without a few problems (what’s about the undercover agent?) but the direction keeps things moving briskly. As with most comedies, this one isn’t a must-see, but fills a slow evening quite decently.

Vertical Run, Joseph R. Garber

Bantam, 1995, 305 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10033-5

Some books seem naturally destined to become movies. Then again, some books are directly ripped off from some movies.

Both of these statements are true in the case of Vertical Run, a thriller taking place in a high-rise building, where a lone man is pursued by a team of special operative who will stop at nothing to kill him. DIE HARD, anyone? No matter, because Vertical Run takes us places John McClane hadn’t seen.

It begins early in the morning, just as ultra-average senior executive Dave Elliot steps into his office to begins his workday. It’s not a Monday, but his day starts sucking right away anyway as his boss enters the room and points a gun at him. One fancy move later, the boss is knocked out cold (wish-fulfillment is an essential part of all good thrillers) and Dave has more questions than ever. Let’s hope he’s had his morning coffee, because soon afterward he’ll have to face a whole team of crack operatives all intent on his untimely death.

Unfortunately for them, Dave Elliot’s an ex-Green Beret. That’s gonna hurt.

And so begins Vertical Run. This is one of those books which perfectly define the expression “page-turner”. Garber knows his stuff, and the pacing of the book is relentless, driving you to read later and later in the night.

Thrillers are built on premises, and Garber knows how to milk his carefully. Pretty much every detail sounds authentic and he effortlessly builds suspense and excitement out of a few simple actions by his protagonist. The book is filled with these “oh-so-cool” scenes that elevate the novel from a run-of-the-mill thriller to something that readers will remember with a certain affection long after they’ve read the final line.

There are a few problems, such as the lessening of tension in the last third, the slightly underwhelming conclusion or the fact that the protagonist has so much trouble figuring out why everyone wants to terminate him with prejudice. (Most seasoned readers will immediately recognize the crucial hint as soon as it’s mentioned. Unfortunately, this information is withheld until well past the halfway point, and the protagonist doesn’t figure it out until more than fifty pages after.)

There have been persistent rumors, ever since Vertical Run‘s original publication, that the novel is headed for the silver screen. It certainly has all the ingredients required for a big thriller: Sympathetic-but-competent protagonist, evil-but-clever antagonist, love interest, action set-pieces and clear narrative. While final release is probably a while away -Hollywood development processes being what they are-, you can do the next best thing right now and grab the book.

Don’t skip out on the epilogue, which send a nice little curveball in what you’d expect.

Shanghai Noon (2000)

(In theaters, May 2000) This proves again why you can’t go wrong with a Jackie Chan film. Successfully blending action, comedy, buddy-movie and western elements in a fashion that Wild Wild West only dreamed about, Shanghai Noon provides laughs and thrills like the best crowd-pleasers. Chan purists will argue, reasonably, that the film lacks the “big stunts” or the awe-inspiring fights of his previous few films, but that shouldn’t distract the rest of the audience. (After all, Chan is getting older) There are quite a few flaws in the script, from the waste of the “Indian Wife” to the incoherent ending. Still, if it’s fun at the movie you want, Shanghai Noon is there for you.

Money Talks (1997)

(On VHS, May 2000) Not everyone likes Chris Tucker and his groovy-young-black routine, but it would take a real curmudgeon not to like Money Talks, as director Brett Ratner so easily capitalizes on the natural loopiness of Tucker for added comic effect beyond the limits of the script. Among the pluses: A pretty good car chase, evil Frenchmen, “That’s Beautiful” “That’s Barry Manilow!”, good chemistry between Tucker and Charlie Sheen, a fun finale and a marriage at the end. It’s a comedy; not a great one, but a good one.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

(In theaters, May 2000) Frustrating because it is, at the same time, so bad and so good. The script is one of the sorriest excuse for an “action” film I’ve seen in a blockbuster for a long, long time. Say what you want about Armageddon, at least it had pacing on its side. Not so with Mission: Impossible 2: If the first fifteen minutes are pretty enjoyable, the following hour drags on like molasses, with a complete lack of any action. That dreadful hour is further drawn-out by nauseatingly trite dialogue, obvious “surprises” and bland scripting. But, forty-five minutes before the end, Ethan Hunt finally gets to act like the James-Bond clone he has so obviously become, and only then does Mission: Impossible 2 become a thrill ride. That’s when characters stop speaking and start shooting, all sumptuously directed by John Woo. Slow-Motion bullet ballet, a wonderful motorcycle chase worth the price of admission in itself and a superb hand-combat sequence complete the film. A shame you have to slog through so much… emptiness in order to get to it. Tom Cruise is irreproachable -as is Anthony Hopkins’ cameo- but the rest of the actors get short thrift and Thandie Newton’s character is atrociously written. So much good stuff, so much bad stuff… and Hollywood suddenly asks itself why we think its summer blockbusters suck.

Jing wu ying xiong [Fist Of Legend] (1994)

(On VHS, May 2000) Given Jet Li’s newfound popularity in America (after Lethal Weapon 4 and Romeo Must Die), it was inevitable that some of his better efforts would find their way here. Fist Of Legend, released On VHS, is the second of them after the theatrically-released Black Mask. If marketers truly knew their stuff, they would have sent Fist Of Legend to the movie-houses and kept Black Mask for the Blockbusters. It’s that good. Martial-arts fans will have their money’s worth with Fist Of Legend, a historical film with plenty of balletic bone-crushing action. It takes a while to get going, the pacing is sufficient to keep us interested throughout, and builds to a pair of awesome fights (including one where both opponents are blindfolded) Fantastically directed, and wonderfully choreographed. A real treat for martial arts enthusiasts.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

(On VHS, May 2000) Another of these dark films which throws disturbing images at you while promising a payoff at the end. (See Stir Of Echoes) Unfortunately, it barely delivers on these payoffs, even negating a part of what made it so creepy. Proof? Well, if the ending is to be believed, then at least one whole subplot/timeline (most of the film, actually) does not mean anything and shouldn’t even be there. That’s the point where Jacob’s Ladder stops making sense and becomes a series of images designed to creep you out. Too bad it couldn’t be more coherent, because a slight rewrite could have made it so much more efficient.

Poor Richard’s Web Site, Peter Kent

Top Floor, 2000, 422 pages, C$47.95 tpb, ISBN 0-9661032-0-3

You’re a small businessman. You own your own little-to-medium company, but lately you’ve become concerned that this Internet thingy might be hurting your sales. Or, at the very least, that you’re missing out on some great marketing opportunity. Whatever the reason, you want to get a piece of the e-action. But building a web site is complicated stuff, right? Expensive too, if you’re to believe the stories in the newspapers.

Don’t.

As Peter Kent points out, the dirty little secret of the Internet is that “it’s a giant jobs program for computer geeks.” A bit unfair as a statement, but not quite as ludicrous as you’d imagine. Kent’s point is that most of what you really need to know about a web site can be learned quickly, and practiced cheaply. So here’s a fifty-Canadian-bucks book to teach you how to be cheap. Poor Richard’s Web Site is a giant ad for Peter Kent’s business.

All kidding aside, this book condenses in easy-to-read format a whole bunch of things most small business owners would be grateful to know about the Internet. Kent doesn’t do technical stuff (as he rightfully points out, there are plenty of other books that do that, and it’s not rocket science in any fashion.) but rather focuses on overarching business and design issues, plus spends a full third of the book on marketing.

In its first two-third, Poor Richard’s Web Site strikes an admirable balance between down-to-earth business advice, and technically correct information. People baffled by the techno-jargon of other more in-depth work should feel at ease here, while more technically-oriented persons won’t be able to nit-pick the advice to death and even maybe learn a few new tricks or two.

All throughout, Kent’s advice is sensible, often irreverent (if wholeheartedly supporting Microsoft can be considered slightly edgy) and often brought with a humorous slant.

So far so good, but the book is contaminated with the stink of shameless self-promotion. As the book advances, it becomes obvious that Peter Kent is trying to sell you something: A contract with his own web hosting company. One or two mentions would have been fine, but when the URL of his own business is brought up every chapter or so, enough is enough.

Things devolve in the last section, about marketing your web site. Though Kent at least has the decency to discourage spamming -noting that it may result in your web site being wiped out the face of the Earth-, his recommended “soft-sell” practices tend to run on the annoying side, especially when practiced on established communities that don’t really enjoy this type of thing. (eg; Usenet, where similar tactics are usually scoffed at.) At least Chapter 18 mentions real-world PR, which is where most of web promotion dollars should be going anyway.

But I’m being once again too hard on the book. Naturally, it will appeal more to those with a business-and-marketing oriented mind. Naturally, techies are better off reading something more specialized. On the other hand, Poor Richard’s Web Site does manage to fulfill its goal of providing a one-stop business web primer.

Just consider the opening five (!) full pages of blurbs as an advertisement of what you’ll learn inside…

Gladiator (2000)

(In theaters, May 2000) A nice surprise with a few problems. While the title, packaging and previews would seem to sell a straight historical action film with plenty of fancy fighting set-pieces, Gladiator is really more of an old-fashioned historical epic, with political machinations, romantic interludes and tragic sacrifices. Moreover, the action scenes fail to attain true greatness by an annoying over-reliance on gimmicky special effects. (CGI extensions, sure, but most egregiously the step-printing and the exasperating quick cuts) Director Ridley Scott never provides a shot-to-shot continuity of action, and the film suffers from, basically, a cruel lack of long-shot look at the action. (The opening Roma-versus-Germania battle, fortunately, does so and is much more impressive because of it. But look at the gladiator-versus-chariot fight to see how much more impressive it would have been with a few continuous long shots.) Still, the film thrives on Russell Crowe’s impressive charisma and on a strong heroic arc. A good movie, just short of being great.

Deep Rising (1998)

(On VHS, May 2000) A film doesn’t have to be original if it does the familiar incredibly well. This is the case with Deep Rising, a wholly average monster-aboard-ship film that goes through exactly the expected motions while being just enough fun that we don’t care. The script is punchy in a trash way, the actors know they’re not doing Shakespeare and the pacing is snappy. Furthermore, the whole thing is so much fun that it’s hard to be disappointed. Not a great film, but one that can be readily re-watched.

The Big Tease (1999)

(In theaters, May 2000) Mostly innocuous satire about a Scottish hairdresser who somehow tries to hit it big in Hollywood. The pseudo-documentary format doesn’t add a great deal and takes a lot away. Craig Ferguson is charming as the protagonist. There simply isn’t enough hair stuff for a comedy about hair. The finale is curiously underwhelming. There are a few cute bits when the film takes subtle jabs at the acting profession (so the protagonist must have a day’s work in order to join SAG… er… HAG?) Diverting, but not exceptional.