Giving up Privacy for Essential Safety in the modern age

Canada's Parliament recently passed a bill, called C-51, from the ruling Conservative Party, giving new powers to our spy agency.

I know C-51 is about far more than privacy and even liberty, but this is the aspect I am choosing to discuss here because it’s what interests me most.  The specifics of the bill are tiresome - I suppose that’s why I didn’t become a lawyer.  I do generally agree with the impression that the bill is ham-fisted and doesn’t do a good job of what it’s supposed to achieve.

Individual rights should not be compromised over the vague threat of terrorism.  The obvious quote here is the Benjamin Franklin standard:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

That said, if we are arriving at a technological point where any individual can cheaply produce weapons that can threaten many others, on a scale never before seen, perhaps privacy is a luxury we can no longer afford.  In the past a lone crazy person could only get his hands on a grenade, or a machine gun, or some explosives.  But what if today’s crazy or evil people could easily get ahold of the equipment and plans needed to engineer a virus that kills half the people on the planet?

Source:  Bas van Oerle

In that case, perhaps it’s necessary to grant our spy agencies broad powers, to monitor people all the time.  Giving that much power to a group of people has its own dangers, of course.  The danger is they might abuse their information to embarrass, harass, or otherwise harm innocent individuals of their choosing.  This is in addition to the more abstract or emotional harm done to people who don’t enjoy strangers snooping on their affairs.

Perhaps to mitigate this secondary danger, then, all information should be made public, so that the government doesn’t have a monopoly on it.  It would radically change society, since no one could do anything without others knowing.  Adultery, crime, fraud, would all cease.  But perhaps celebrities would get harassed more often since their locations would be known.  Perhaps not.  Hard to say.  It would be a strange world, but it might have to be the one we make, if Armageddon so easily follows the granting to anyone of even a modicum of privacy.

Thus, my prediction for the future is that advocates of privacy will completely lose the battle.

2015 Canadian Closed DanceSport Championships

3 April 2015.  Photo credit: Horace Leung

3 April 2015.  Photo credit: Horace Leung

This past weekend, on 3 and 4 April 2015, at the Hyatt Regency in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, I danced at my sixth Canadian Championships, achieving a result of 2nd place in Senior I Latin with my new partner Angela Mulrooney.


I want to thank many people for helping me to achieve my dance aspirations.

Above all thanks to Angela Mulrooney, and to Dany Desloges, our coach, for putting up with me in these past six months of practice.

Thanks to my parents Mary Ann and Ronald for flying all the way from Thunder Bay to cheer me on.

Thanks to Michelle Chan, my former partner, who came out with her husband Jon Cheung to watch on both Friday and Saturday night despite having had a baby just a couple of days ago!

Thanks to my other friends Rob Kovacs, Sara Poldaas, Lyn Fry-Abra, and many others for coming to the competition to cheer us on.

Thanks to my wonderful assistant Deanna Kelly and her friend for making signs and distributing them to my friends.

Thanks to Astrid Seeton for haircut and hairstyling tips, and great enthusiasm!

Thanks to my costume designers

  • Mathieu Caron of Feeling for my pants,
  • Kim Lindeman of QueenE for my shirt (Saturday night)
  • Yuliya Zavadska (and her mother) for my shirt (Friday night)

Thanks to my friends at Olympia DanceSport, owners Barbara and Stephen Ko, and studio practice buddies Winston and Amanda, Debi and Marty, Ross and Victoria, and many others.

Thanks to Grace Jefferies and the other volunteers who put on the competition.

Thanks to Florin Raducan and his family for filming us.

I can’t forget my friend Wayne Backer, who pinned my malfunctioning pants at the very last second as we were about to go on for our Paso Doble on Saturday!

As professional dancer Maurizio Vescovo once told me, “it takes a team to win a dance competition.”  Thanks for being on my team, everyone!  I really appreciate it.

Norm Macdonald

Norm Macdonald is my favourite comedian.  Norm has the greatest talent for delivery of any comedian... "... it says here on this card."

His talent seems to be almost 100% just his comedic timing and delivery.  The content of what he says is almost meaningless.  He often uses old standard jokes from other comedians, or just tells long, pointless anecdotes, but is able to make them funny.  In this sense he's the purest comedian there ever was.

For me, what engrosses me most about studying Norm Macdonald's career is that I want to understand why he's so underappreciated.  Despite his evident brilliance he's never had a consistent, successful starring vehicle.  Here's a chart graphing each episode of TV and TV talk-show appearance he's made:

(I'm missing data for Dennis Miller Live and any radio appearances:)



Source: Google Trends

Source: Google Trends

His best chance for a long-running TV gig might have been the Late Late Show, which he's been up for several times:

One of the most brilliant comics in the world deserves a consistent TV gig!  Fortunately he's been putting on the brilliant Norm Macdonald Live on YouTube, but the production values are low and the audience is about a tenth of what it would be if it was on a major network.

In the late-night universe, there are TWO kinds of comedy:

  • NBC: straight, obsequious: Leno, Fallon, Meyers
  • CBS: offbeat, crazy, stream of consciousness, awkward: Letterman, Ferguson

Conan was the oddball being on NBC, and that's why eventually he had to be let go and moved over to TBS.

Norm definitely fits into the second category.

Norm has never been on Fallon's or Meyers' shows, and had been on Leno just a few times.  In contrast, he's one of Letterman and O'Brien's favourite guests:



At this point in Norm's career, it seems unlikely he'll be given a coveted network talk show position.  This is a tragedy.  But it's also understandable from a business perspective: he's independent and uncontrollable.  He has shown again and again to be unwilling to take feedback or criticism from network executives.  However, I think he rightly understands that the foundation of his comedy is that rebellious streak, and if he ever neutered himself, he wouldn't be funny, and therefore it would be pointless for him to give in.  After all, a huge part of his comedy is doing or saying outrageous things that make everyone uncomfortable.

In fact, I'd argue that the quality of his comedy increased after his firing from SNL.  He's said to Conan that he's been "worn down by years of failure" whereas Conan has known "only success".  He's right, and I think Norm has come to realize this has only made him a better comedian.  In the early 1990s he had a smarmy cockiness that did not serve his comedy well.  Now that he's more bitter or just doesn't care about looking good or seeming "cool" anymore, his comedy is more raw, and more real.  Basically, his 1998 firing, and later setbacks, made Norm humble, and more real, and even funnier.

I'd be okay if he settled into a comfortable pattern of 2-3 network talk show appearances per year, a 13-episode season of Norm Macdonald Live, and then going out on the road doing standup for the balance of the year.  He's done that for the past two years, and if he keeps that up for the next five I'd be happy for him.  Still, the brilliance of Sports Show with Norm Macdonald, which was cancelled after just 8 episodes in 2011, shows how much more he could do if given the chance.  The show pulled in about 1 million viewers a week, but that was about 25% too little for Comedy Central to keep the show going.

Still, unlike standups who enjoy having a rigourous schedule of shows like Leno or Seinfeld (likely because they get to travel in private jets), Norm would likely prefer not to have to be subjected to a brutal road schedule each year.  On 9 Feb 1996 on Letterman, using an anecdote from early in his career about a show "outside of Red Deer, Alberta", he mentioned how much he dislikes the standup  road schedule:

Another option might be if someone took him on as a permanent sidekick.  Conan is the obvious choice here, but of course he already has the excellent but far less ascerbic Andy Richter.  Andy has a sweetness about him that Norm completely lacks.  Norm's favourite thing to do is to utterly eviscerate someone with comedy, and then sarcastically say "naw, you're a great guy".  Despite their differences, both Andy and Norm work great as Conan's sidekick.


Questions for Norm

Having compiled a lot of data on Norm Macdonald, I have a few questions for him.  Maybe someday I'll get an answer.

Question 1: The Lost Conan Years

You were on Conan 12 times from 1995-97, ending with the infamous Courtney Thorne-Smith appearance.  But then other than once in 1999 to promote Norm Show, once in 2003 to promote a Minute with Stan Hooper, you didn't appear on Conan's show again until 2009, during his Tonight Show days, when he fought to get you on the show 3 times despite you having nothing to promote except local comedy appearances:

Macdonald became a frequent guest on The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien during its 2009 and 2010 run. Norm was among the first guests on O’Brien’s Tonight Show, and appeared also during the show’s final week. Initially, The Tonight Show faced network opposition to bringing Norm on so early in the show’s run, and Norm having nothing but local stand-up appearances to promote on-air. Despite this, O’Brien’s insistence prevailed and Norm’s first and subsequent appearances were highlights of O’Brien’s brief Tonight Show run.
— Wikipedia


So, why didn't you appear on Conan's show more in the years 1998-2009?  Were you blacklisted on NBC during that time because you publicly spoke out against Don Olmeyer on Letterman, on 7 Jan 1998?  You did appear on Leno in 2003, 2005, and 2008, though.

Was it because you lived in LA?  Was it because from 1995-97, it was convenient for you to drop in on Conan since you were in the building anyway for SNL?  Or was it because at the time Conan was starting out and couldn't find "big name" guests?  That doesn't make sense because Letterman had you on 4 times in 1998.

Question 2: The Lost Homeless Man Joke

What is the ending to this joke you started about the homeless man on Letterman, 21 May 1996?

Also, what's the story about why Letterman wouldn't let you finish the story?  You were clearly on good terms with him he had you on the show 10 times from 1996-1998.

Question 3: Your Late Thirties

What did you do in your late 30s?  (2001-2003).  Your son was young (8-11), were you raising him?  You had a 2.5 year gap between the end of the Norm Show and A Minute with Stan Hooper where you had no mass-media appearances.

Question 4: Personal Life

When did you get married, when did you get divorced?  Are you currently seeing anyone?  Did you raise your son, or did your wife?  From what it appears in recent appearances and tweets, you seem close with your son.

Question 5: Vices

Do you still smoke?  You used to smoke, when did you quit?  How bad of a smoker were you?

You say you've only drank 3 times in your life, but people have commented on reviews of your standup that you sometimes seem incoherent and slurred in your speech.  Are you taking drugs of some kind?  You gave some drugs to Roseanne Barr when she appeared on Norm MacDonald Live, is that because you take them regularily?

Question 6: Carrot Top

What does Carrot Top think of the classic moment you had on Conan on 15 May 1997?


Here are some further resources on this wonderful comedian:

Great article on the infamous Carrot Top interview from 15 May 1997:

On Norm Macdonald, the Greatest Talk Show Guest Ever

Norm MacDonald Live reviews:
"His producers were toying with the idea of charging two bucks per program, but Macdonald is a man of the people. He thinks the idea is “ridiculous”. Ditto soliciting donations “like you’re a communist or something”. So it will remain free for all."

“They wanted young guys, so they got this guy from The Big Bang Theory,” he says of actor Simon Helberg. “He was nice enough but completely uninteresting. And then no one watched it! Like, no one cared. My idea was to get guys as old as possible, like before they died. Because I find those old guys will say anything because they’re not in show business anymore.”

2010 Norm Onion A.V. club interview

SNL norm as letterman:

Norm on Anti-Comedy

First appearance on Letterman, 9 May 1990:

An anecdote Norm told in August 2014 after Robin Williams' death about what happened after that appearance first appearance:

Thanks to for Norm's talk show appearance information dating back into the 1990s.

Here's a link to the underlying data used for the charts in this post.

Robot companions

It has been found that horses alone in their stalls are often comforted by the presence of a mirror, since they perceive there to be another horse with them that is very much like them, in appearance and temperament.  Humans are not so easily fooled, but in the future we may have an analogous option available in the form of robot mates.  It seems that our future mates may be "mirrors" of ourselves, in the guise of AI companions that speak to us and/or that embody robots that are tailored to share our interests, to laugh at our jokes, and to give us just the right amount of disagreement that we won't so they don't seem annoyingly sycophantic.  With robot bodies of sufficient verisimilitude, it seems possible for them to be able to cross the uncanny valley and for us even to be sexually attracted to their forms, who have the further advantages of remaining forever young and healthy.  So, our descendants, unless they carry the banner of Ludd, will pair off with robots instead of with each other.  Reproduction can still take place via artificial insemination.

Many today might find this picture of the future dystopian.  But think of how many features of our modern world - such as drones, surveillance, childhood obesity, spam - that might seem dystopian to an audience from years past.  Perhaps this will seem completely normal to us by the time it becomes possible.