By Daniel Tencer | November 30, 2008 - 3:32 pm - Posted in Newsburger

A desert tableau in miniature

A desert tableau in miniature

Lori Nix’s America
Lori Nix’s aesthetic sense of America is not unlike Bruce Springsteen’s. But while Springsteen sang of a quietly desperate America in decline, Nix built her America in miniature…

A dishonorable business
In Basra, eighty-one women have been murdered this year in “honor killings.” If you want to kill your daughter for her loose morals, all you need is one hundred dollars to hire a hitman. The deal takes place on the street, in broad daylight, and there is virtually no risk of prosecution…

Texas blues
As the Latino population of Texas grows, big pockets of blue are appearing in this once almost entirely red state. Will Latinos turn Texas blue?

Can NYC be murder-free?
New York’s murder rate has plummeted from more than 2,200 in 1990 to probably less than five hundred this year. But what would have to be done to get that number down to zero? Ray Kelly’s answer: “Mass evacuation…”

Get laid in Leeds
Britons are the sluttiest people in the developed world. The US places sixth, in between Australia and France, and well ahead of Europe’s Catholic strongholds…

The Swiss must be high
Referendum voters in Switzerland have rejected the decriminalization of marijuana, but have voted in favor of handing out free heroin to addicts…

As reviews go, this one’s an outlier
Malcolm Gladwell “causes an outbreak of infantilization” among the knowledge-class people who love him. “He’s better known for his Afro than any big idea, or bold conclusion — and his insights have all the depth and originality of Readers Digest or a Hallmark greeting card…”

The worst sexism in the world?
The women of two villages in Papua New Guinea have come up with a draconian solution to end chronic tribal conflict in the area: They have been killing every single baby boy born in the area… In India, the problem is reversed. Ten million baby girls have been aborted, in the face of pressure to have boys…

Obama mistake #1?
Forget Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright. Obama’s “questionable associations” are on Wall Street…

The unintended consequences of the global food market
The globalization of the food business was supposed to make our food supply chain more efficient, thus making food more affordable. But this year’s food-price crisis has shown that “while this system is undeniably more efficient, it’s also much more fragile. Bad weather in just a few countries can wreak havoc across the entire system…”

Trouble on the bookshelf
The publishing world is not immune from the economic crisis. As one startling example, take Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which has placed a moratorium on manuscript acquisitions…

A must-have in our dangerous world
For sale: Genuine nineteenth-century vampire killing kit, complete with holy water, Bible, gun and silver bullets, and yes, even garlic…

The lit world’s fair-haired boy
Robert Bola
ño has been dead five years, yet his books have just hit North America. His almost-completed 2666, nearly a thousand pages long, “posits order and chaos as facets of a single phenomenon, like convergence and digression, the perfect work of art and the spectacular failure. In Bolaño’s cosmology, order and infinitude and artistic perfection are imaginary; chaos and digression and futility are merely their earthbound aspects…” Is it the best novel of 2008?

Canada: The Epic

Canada: The Epic

Madness and artistic genius
“Serious depression strikes artists ten times more often than it does the general population. The link, however, is not creativity. Artists are more likely to be self-reflective and to ruminate, to mull things over. And that thinking style—as opposed to creativity itself—is a hallmark of depression and commonly leads to it…”

‘Obama’s use of complete sentences stirs controversy’
“Since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has broken with a tradition established over the past eight years through his controversial use of complete sentences, political observers say. Millions of Americans who watched Mr. Obama’s appearance on CBS’ “Sixty Minutes” on Sunday witnessed the president-elect’s unorthodox verbal tic, which had Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opened his mouth…”

And finally: Irked by Australia, Canada commissions its own epic
“In a world … where men worship flannel … and even hookers don’t put out on the first date … one man learned the difference … between love and loonies…”

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By Daniel Tencer | - 3:11 pm - Posted in Antics and Pedantics

Two stories in Britain’s Sunday papers today give me hope that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is more than a pipe-dream. The Guardian reports on “power harvesting,” which transforms human energy into commercial energy by turning everything from the pounding of feet on a dance floor to the movement of a prosthetic knee into usable energy.

Engineers and scientists are developing tiny generators that turn the kinetic energy of everyday movements into electricity which can then power sensors or provide electricity for remote installations. The technology … is already being tested in helicopter frames, the floors of discos and in volunteers’ knee joints in order to generate electricity. In the near future, harvesters could be used to recharge iPods and mobile phones, say researchers.

Meanwhile, an even more exciting potential development in the pages of the Telegraph, which reports on new development in hydro-electric energy that could see slow-moving water harvested for energy.

The new device, which has been inspired by the way fish swim, consists of a system of cylinders positioned horizontal [sic] to the water flow and attached to springs. As water flows past, the cylinder creates vortices, which push and pull the cylinder up and down. The mechanical energy in the vibrations is then converted into electricity … Existing technologies which use water power, relying on the action of waves, tides or faster currents created by dams, are far more limited in where they can be used, and also cause greater obstructions when they are built in rivers or the sea.

Says Michael Bernitsas of the University of Michigan: “If we could harness 0.1 percent of the energy in the ocean, we could support the energy needs of fifteen billion people…”

Meanwhile, New Scientist reports on Lockheed Martin’s Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion project, which exploits the differences in temperature between surface water and deep water in the oceans. Not to be outdone by Bernitsas’ hyperbole, proponents say OTEC “has the potential to become the biggest source of renewable energy in the world.”

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By Daniel Tencer | - 3:06 pm - Posted in Newsburger

The three-day-long terrorist siege of Mumbai “has affinities with the asymmetric street warfare waged by the gangs in Rio de Janeiro that every now and then announce they will take over a major central area of the city” … “Cities seem to be losing the capacity they have long had to triage conflict — through commerce, through civic activity.” It’s the new face of urban warfare…

It took a year to plan…

There’s something about Mumbai “that appalls religious extremists, Hindus and Muslims alike. Perhaps because Mumbai stands for lucre, profane dreams and an indiscriminate openness…”

US intelligence says there is mounting evidence that Kashmir-based Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind this week’s attacks… The group is alleged to have raised funds in Britain… And until the issue of Kashmir is resolved, it will be used as a pretext for terrorism…

“Compared to the instant horror of a suicide bombing, a paramilitary death squad murders in slow motion. The time it took to defeat the gunmen brought a new dimension to the fight against terrorism. On this occasion, it truly looked like war…”

Is it possible that ten people did all this?

“The reasonable Islam of the real world is unimaginably weak, simply overwhelmed by its tormentors, compromised by its putative leaders, deluded by its wealth, unsure of what it really believes, afraid that its supposed adherents actually support its enemies…”

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By Daniel Tencer | November 29, 2008 - 9:26 am - Posted in Smells Like North

Canada’s impending economic crisis has now dovetailed with a mushrooming political crisis, constitutional crisis, and national unity crisis to create a perfect storm of inaction in the face of disaster. I don’t have any solutions for the farcical mess engulfing Parliament Hill, but I do have an idea as to how we got in this mess in the first place. Herewith is my letter to the leaders of the four major political parties regarding the causes of our parliamentary quagmire.

Attn: The Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party; The Hon. Stephane Dion, leader of the Liberal Party; The Hon. Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Quebecois; The Hon. Jack Layton, leader of the NDP

Dear Messrs. Dion, Duceppe, Harper and Layton,

My sincerest thanks to all four of you for the vital roles you have played in launching the political farce currently engulfing federal politics in Canada. Thanks to your unprecedented actions, Canadians are now finally crawling out of their apathetic stupor and realizing how truly deficient and arbitrary the British parliamentary system really is.

That you had to turn our democracy into a circus side-show to do it says as much about Canadians as it does about you. Nonetheless, your actions have resulted in a greater degree of political awareness and participation among Canadians than I have ever seen in my life. It’s as if the Barack Obama phenomenon finally arrived north of the border (except, of course, without a Barack Obama).

And while I have your attention, I would like you to consider for a moment the notion of “minority government.”

Did you know that this political convention, long accepted as unalterable fact by the Canadian media and public, has no basis in our Constitution, and is unheard of in virtually all other parliamentary democracies? (Save for those that descend from the British parliamentary tradition.)

In most civilized countries, no one can claim to be prime minister if they do not have the express backing of a majority of members of parliament. That’s why it’s called a “democracy.”

I believe that the notion of the “minority government” is the reason we are in this mess.

Had Prime Minister Harper been compelled from day one to have the active backing of at least one other political party, he would have had to govern in a spirit of cooperation, rather than mistakenly believing that partisan attacks are all he needs to run the government. He would have had to cooperate all along, rather than attempting an ill-advised campaign of “divide and conquer”; last week’s so-called “fiscal update” never would have happened; and we would currently be enjoying a stable, relatively long-lasting coalition government.

The very concept of “minority government” creates a logical fallacy. The party with a plurality of parliamentary seats (in this case, the Conservatives) mistakenly believes that it can govern without the support of a majority of members of Parliament; of course, they cannot. No legislation can pass without the support of a parliamentary majority. And the public, too, comes to expect that the party with a plurality of parliamentary votes has a mandate to govern — of course, it does not, as a majority of members of parliament form the opposition, and not the government.

In a democracy, “minority government” should be considered a contradiction in terms. When no party wins a clear majority of seats in Parliament, only a coalition (formal or informal) should be given a mandate to govern. It is time for Canada to wake up and realize this.

Thank you,

Daniel Tencer

UPDATE: So the G-G has approved Harper’s request for prorogation.

Now the coalition strategy should be to keep threatening to take down the government — resulting in the Tories spending their war chest on fear-mongering ads.

Then, once the Tory war chest is sufficiently reduced, they should send out an olive branch — in the form of a proposal from the Bloc to support the government. It would be great to see Harper team up with the “separatists” to save his ass, after all that he’s said. If that doesn’t work, send out the NDP, and make him do a deal with “socialists.”

Either way, Harper is totally screwed. He will be beholden to either “separatists” or “socialists” and he will no longer be a legitimately “conservative” prime minister.

We’ve got Harper by the short and curlies. Well done, Canada, well done. Proud of you today!

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By Daniel Tencer | November 28, 2008 - 10:45 am - Posted in Newsburger

Mumbai burning

Mumbai burning

It’s been forty-eight hours since the Mumbai attacks began, and the fighting is still raging. I don’t think “terrorist attack” fits the bill anymore. This is a “terrorist civil war,” or a “terrorist mini-war,” perhaps, as “civil” would indicate an internal conflict, while this could be an international effort. Some of the more interesting things I’ve found on the mini-war thus far:

Suketu Mehta puts the Mumbai attacks in perspective: It would be “as if terrorists had taken over the Four Seasons and the Waldorf-Astoria and then were running around shooting people in Times Square…”

“Though it was unclear exactly who orchestrated the attacks, they appear to provide further evidence that the main battleground for Islamist extremists is shifting from Iraq, where violence has fallen dramatically this year, to the democracies of South Asia…”

“The well-coordinated and large scale assaults on Mumbai this week are not only qualitatively different, but also came with a chilling new message. The jeans and t-shirt clad, youthful terrorists, who looked like backpackers out on a hiking expedition, delivered an unmistakable warning to the world: Foreigners stay away from India. Their special note to the Jewish community: You are safe nowhere…”

“The Islamic Mughals vanquished all of northern India, Pakistan, and a good part of Afghanistan, but they could never consolidate the Deccan against the Hindu Maratha warriors. This Mughal history has taken on heightened symbolism in India in recent years precisely as a result of globalization and the expansion of electronic communications and education, all of which have sharpened the country’s religious divide…”

“As the smoke clears and the body count grows in Mumbai, in one of the most brazen and chilling terrorist attacks we’ve seen in a long time, the truth about the region becomes crystal clear: Pakistan is a cancer on its neighbors…”

It’s India’s 9/11…

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By Daniel Tencer | - 10:36 am - Posted in Smells Like North

Six weeks after winning a second consecutive minority government, the Conservative Party of Canada has decided that political suicide, rather than a response to the global economic crisis, is their priority.

Yesterday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unveiled a “fiscal update” ostensibly designed to respond to the quickly deteriorating economic situation. That “fiscal update” turned out to be nothing of the sort; a better descriptor of it would be “a declaration of war” against the opposition parties, or perhaps a “suicide note” for the forty-five-day-old government.

The fiscal update included no economic stimulus of note, and only one major change to the government’s finances — an end to the public funding of political parties. Currently parties receive $1.95 for every vote they receive in an election. Without getting too deep into the numbers, the bottom line is this: Cutting the public subsidy would hurt the Conservatives the least, the Bloc Quebecois the most (in terms of total percentage of funding), and would bankrupt the Liberal party. None of the opposition parties will support it, and because financial issues are always a matter of confidence, a no vote in Parliament would topple the government.



So, instead of tackling the financial crisis, Stephen Harper has thrown Canada into a political crisis. And the news media are turning against him fast.

The Globe and Mail, which just six weeks ago gave Harper’s Conservatives a cautious endorsement, appears to have turned against them overnight:

As the rapidly worsening global recession pushes governments around the world to step up spending, Ottawa’s first official response is to cut back … [Flaherty's] moves are exactly the opposite of what many economists recommend in times of recession.

And the paper’s editorial this morning is nothing short of an about-face on the Conservatives:

By destabilizing their own government, the Conservatives have placed Canada at a competitive disadvantage against other states. Through gratuitous partisanship, they have turned an economic crisis into a political one. They should withdraw their cynical attempt to rewrite election rules and concentrate on what matters: the world economic crisis.

In an online piece entitled “Small men of confederation,” Adam Radwanski tears into Harper:

It takes a special kind of immaturity to look at an economic crisis — one that has people worried about their jobs and their homes and their life savings — and consider only how it might be turned to your advantage. But then, for all his ideological roots, Harper has demonsrated time and again that nothing interests him so much as cementing his hold on power.

Apparently Radwanski read the reader comments on his article, and responded to those who say ending public funding of political parties is the right thing to do:

I wonder how some of the commenters below felt about the $84-million John McCain received in public financing south of the border this year. Or, more to the point, how they’d feel if Barack Obama — whose campaign was funded entirely privately — built his response to the economic crisis around a ban on his opponent in the next election getting any of those public funds.

Oh, snap!

Not surprisingly, the Toronto Star has a less than charitable view of the fiscal update as well. Thomas Walkom puts the political circus aside and looks at the fiscal update itself. No dice, he says:

Harper says Canada is threatened by the kind of global economic collapse not seen since the `30s. Yet his finance minister predicts that this “technical recession” will be over by next April. To read Flaherty’s update is to weep. The economy is worsening. Tax revenues are falling off. Yet the government’s response – contrary to Harper’s words from the weekend – is to cut spending.

Even the National Post, which was on the verge of being declared Official Cheerleader of the Conservative Government, has lashed out against the Conservatives on this move. Don Martin wrote:

The true horror [of the fiscal update] … is the nightmarish aftershock from a sneaky, ill-timed, irresponsible government move to eliminate the $1.95 annual per-vote public subsidy to political parties which, given the united lineup of opposition parties that instantly formed Thursday, sets up Canada for another federal election.

And John Ivison pulled no punches:

There are many good reasons why the public subsidy for political parties should be eliminated, as the government intends, but none of them holds water at a time when Canadians expect politicians to put their interests ahead of petty partisan politics.

Here’s what I think: I think that, on some subconscious level, Stephen Harper wants to lose. I think Stephen Harper is scared, very scared, that his own cabinet — which includes very little in terms of serious intellectual power — cannot handle the economic crisis, and that he will be blamed for the recession that is developing now and will likely be full blown next year.

I think Stephen Harper would rather be remembered as a tough-as-nails political scrapper who lost a gambit to seize a political advantage, rather than the prime minister whose inflexible ideological views made it impossible for him to do anything useful in the face of crisis. The latter scenario would hurt the Conservatives for years to come — they would develop a reputation as a party that cannot be trusted in a crisis, and cannot be trusted with the economy. But the former scenario would reflect only on Harper himself, and a new Conservative leader would not be encumbered with that legacy.

Whether or not Stephen Harper is actually weighing the situation through this perspective is beside the point; his strategy amounts to self-sabotage, and the very fact that he would tackle the economic crisis this way (or rather, not tackle it in any way) is a sure sign that he can’t be trusted — with the economy, with the Prime Minister’s Office, or with anything else that affects the well-being of the country he is clearly incapable of leading.

UPDATE: This is amazing. The power vacuum in Ottawa is much, much larger than I had suspected. The NDP and the Liberals are now in emergency talks about forming a minority coalition government — a coalition of parties that doesn’t even represent a majority of parliamentary seats. It’s hard to imagine a less stable form of government, but unfortunately, that’s the best option we have right now. Harper’s government has pretty much proven itself incapable of running the country. Another truly amazing thing is that the Lib-NDP talks aren’t being carried out by the party’s leaders, Stephane Dion and Jack Layton, but by their predecessors, Jean Chretien and Ed Broadbent. Presumably this is because Chretien and Broadbent are seen as “elder statesmen” who have the political authority to tell their parties to play nice with an opposing team. But, in reality, it’s because neither Dion nor Layton have the confidence (read: authority) of their party members. So, even as the Conservative government teeters on the edge of self-inflicted ruin, the alternatives to them are looking weaker than ever. Canada could be in big trouble…

UPDATE II: The Conservatives are backing down. I am certain this is the result of a) the negative media attention, and b) the Lib-NDP negotiations to form a coalition government. Point “a” told Harper that his usual threat to hold an election if the opposition didn’t support him was about to backfire, with the country blaming him, not the opposition, for having a second election in less than two months. Point “b” is something he should have realized no later than election night on October 14 — that, if a government confidence motion fails, there is an alternative to holding another election, which is a coalition government of opposition parties. So maybe this wasn’t subconscious political suicide — maybe it was just plain incompetence. In which case, I am still as worried for the future of Canada as I was before.

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By Daniel Tencer | November 26, 2008 - 12:43 pm - Posted in Newsburger

All of this has happened before...

All of this has happened before...

Afghan history is circular
Nearly thirty years ago, “a Soviet general told us of the imminent victory over the “terrorists” in the mountains, imperialist “remnants” who were being supported by America and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Fast forward to 2001 – just seven years ago – and an American general told us of the imminent victory over the “terrorists” in the mountains, the all but conquered Taliban who were being supported by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Russian was pontificating at the big Soviet airbase at Bagram. The American general was pontificating at the big US airbase at Bagram. And it gets worse…

Spitzer’s downfall, revisited
I’ve previously discussed the suspicious circumstances under which Eliot Spitzer’s career as a white-collar crime fighting political hero came to an end. Now, the US House of Representatives wants to discuss it, too…

This job is murder
Working for a bad boss for four years increases your likelihood of a heart attack by sixty-four percent…

Marlon’s ghosts
“If there was a ‘Rosebud’ in Marlon Brando’s life, it was the mental illness that had dogged him for decades, probably from early childhood…”

Re-branding the bailouts
“America hated the first ‘bailout,’ according to pollsters. So Barack Obama’s multi-billion dollar economy-saving expenditure plans were soon referred to as “stimulus packages” … But now that isn’t good enough for whiny Americans either! So please enjoy your economic recovery program, everyone!”

Broke Britannia
Household debt at 165 percent of GDP, a budget deficit at eight percent of GDP and counting, and a potential two-trillion-dollar national debt; is Britain going bankrupt? More…

Best just to plug it in
Can you use an onion to charge your iPod? Theoretically, yes, but in practice…

Surprise, surprise
The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya may have been ordered by a Russian politician, who remains nameless…

Lost and found
In 1949, sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem put together a satire featuring a supremely wise Josef Stalin; he then promptly misplaced the work, and never found it again. It has now turned up, hidden in the pages of an unfinished novel entitled Botched Crime Story…

Money well spent?
The ceiling of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the UN has been turned into a swirling maelstrom of color by Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo, at a cost of some twenty-three million dollars. Some of that money was supposed to be aid for poor countries, but hey, “it’s a small price to pay for a dope-ass ceiling…”

A kinder, gentler urban guerrilla
Put down the spray paint can, and pick up a needle and thread. Urban knitting is the new graffiti…

Home values: Still too high
For the young generation shut out of booming housing markets over the past decade, the decline in house prices is cause for celebration. Only problem is, it’s still not enough. Where a typical house cost six times earnings in 1977, it costs twenty-two times earnings today…

In our nature
Climatologists simply can’t understand why the public hasn’t responded more robustly to the threat of global warming. But to the average person, danger is not a statistic, it’s a feeling. Until global warming bites us directly in the ass, we simply won’t care…

The age of ’stealth wealth’
Forbes has made it official: The economic crisis has made excessive displays of wealth and consumerism tacky and passe. Put away that laptop while you drink your Starbucks cuppa…

Ontario will just hate this
If the iPhone’s ride-sharing app attracts the twenty million users that Apple hopes it will, it will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 73.6 million tons…

Proof that GM is run by an idiot
Rick Wagoner, the CEO of General Motors, was recently asked in an interview if he regretted anything he had done as head of what was until recently the largest car company in the world. He said killing the electric car and not paying attention to fuel efficiency were at the top of the list. No shit, Sherlock…

Beijing buys Wall Street (and maybe Detroit, too)
China now holds $600 billion in US debt, outpacing Japan as the US’s largest creditor… ALSO: The Big Three could end up in the hands of Chinese owners…

Progress, Iraq-style
An Iraqi investigator recently testified before Congress that “thirteen billion dollars in reconstruction funds from the United States had been lost to fraud, embezzlement, theft and waste by Iraqi government officials.” The reaction from Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was swift. He started firing oversight officials…

The word-master’s inner torment
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s family was “a seething cauldron of psychosomatic disorders,” a ceaseless circus of repression, pain, and suicide. If Ludwig “was sometimes plunged into spiritual despair, it was because he was unable to strip himself of himself. Wittgenstein struggled to live on what he called the rough ground of everyday life…”

South Korea’s divorces are the worst
South Korean actress Ok So-ri is facing eighteen months in jail for cheating on her husband. That’s right, adultery is illegal in South Korea…

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By Daniel Tencer | November 25, 2008 - 2:40 pm - Posted in Antics and Pedantics

Strange new developments in the burgeoning growth industry of high-seas piracy. Just last week it seemed that the Indian navy was taking the lead in fighting the hijackers that are now holding fifteen ships and three hundred sailors hostage. But, in the latest twist, it appears that Islamist militants in Somalia are taking the fight to the pirates.

The official rationale is that the pirates are hijacking Muslim-owned ships, thus affronting Mohammed’s laws.

An explanation I don’t buy for a minute. If these Islamists are willing to set off bombs in Cairo and Jordan and kill scores of Muslims, then why would they be offended by the hijacking of a Muslim-owned supertanker? I’m tempted to say “because the Islamists themselves didn’t get to the tanker first,” but that’s silly.

No, I think the real reason for the Islamists’ offense is that some part of the oil revenue from Saudi Arabia, Iran and elsewhere makes its way through channels both official and otherwise and ends up funding Islamic extremists, even those located in remote edges of the Muslim word, like Somalia.

Start cutting off the oil supply, and you start cutting off the cash cow that allowed Osama bin Laden to organize an international terrorist group, that allowed Hezbollah to triple its rocket arsenal in the past few years, and that resulted in Iran getting its hands on enough uranium to build a nuclear bomb.

Muslim fundamentalists depend on the West’s addiction to oil, and they know it.

Yet the whole notion of mujahiddeen fighting pirates evokes a strange emotion in me, as if I were watching two Hollywood movies from different genres haphazardly spliced together.

The high-seas pirate, one-eyed and hook-handed, stands on the deck of his schooner, facing the Islamist insurgent.

“Avast, ye scurvy mongrel!” the pirate screams, drawing his broadsword.

The insurgent pulls back his coat, revealing a chain of dynamite sticks wrapped around his waist.

“Allahu akbar!” he screams, and the ship is englufed in flame.

The twenty-first century sure is going to be interesting.

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