Welcome.

This is the home of Gillian Burnett’s professional writing portfolio. Here you’ll find samples of opinion columns, reporting, movie and book reviews Gillian has written for such publications as The Vancouver Sun, The Province, National Post, and rabble.ca. To view a category, choose from the list on the right-hand side of this page. Thanks for visiting.

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Investigative reporting: “Do you know where your children are?” (Vancouver Sun, March 6, 2011)

(Part of a Sun series on daycares in the Lower Mainland of B.C.)

Unprecedented discovery at Surrey family daycare reveals weaknesses of licensing system

BY GILLIAN BURNETT, VANCOUVER SUN

METRO VANCOUVER — When two licensing officers knocked on the door of the Grandview Heights family daycare in Surrey last fall, they were conducting a routine investigation. Both had previously inspected the facility in the 11 years it had been licensed, and knew its operator, Anna Calendino, from earlier visits.

Arriving mid-morning on Tuesday, Sept. 21, they were at first refused entry. Calendino, a mother of three in her 40s, appeared on the upstairs deck and said she had just had an inspection in March, and besides, she was closed for the day. The officers explained they were following up on complaints from two parents who alleged, among other things, that more than seven kids — the number permitted by her licence — were attending.

Calendino repeated that no children were present, but when pressed, relented. After a brief delay she let them in, the house noticeably absent of the usual sounds of kids at play.

While one officer headed upstairs, the other made her way to a door that appeared to lead to the garage. As she turned the knob and pushed, the door was slammed and someone yelled, “Get out of here! You can’t come in here; it’s a private suite.” But one glimpse had been enough.

There, sitting on play mats or in high chairs, watching a muted TV, were the children the officers were looking for.

Twenty-four of them.

What they found

That Calendino, who also goes by her married name, Annamaria Piccolo, was caring for 17 more kids than the legal limit was only one of the ways she was contravening B.C.’s Child Care Licensing Regulation (CCLR). Her infractions led to an immediate suspension of her licence, then its cancellation in October. The investigation report, obtained under a freedom-of-information request from the Fraser Health Authority, paints a picture of consistent, conscious and long-term flouting of the rules.

Of the seven kids the licence permits, for instance, only four can be younger than four, with only two under two. Seventeen of the 24 kids found by officers were between one and three.

Also, staff must have completed 20 hours of training, a basic first-aid certification and a criminal-record check. Calendino’s helpers were undocumented and unqualified.

The converted garage in which the kids were found had never been inspected for daycare purposes, and Calendino claimed that until December 2009 it had housed her mother-in-law. But investigators established she had been using it for daycare since 2003.

There was no record of monthly fire drills. There were no daily attendance records, critical in case of an emergency. In fact, when the officers’ initial count of children came to 23, Calendino confirmed the number. A recount put it at 24.

“With no attendance records a child could easily be missed or overlooked in an emergency situation,” the report stated. Also, “[officers] had serious concerns … that children would not be able to be evacuated in a timely manner.”

In addition, Calendino lied about the children’s files, initially saying they were locked in a safe she couldn’t access, then producing two binders: one with seven kids’ files and a second with 25 other kids’ files, for a total enrolment of 32. The investigation found, however, that at least four children attending were undocumented, bringing the total to 36.

The business must have been highly lucrative. A standard daycare operating five days a week and charging the average fee of $38 per day would gross, at most, about $69,000 a year.

Calendino, who operated Tuesday to Friday, was charging $55 a day by 2010. If she routinely cared for 24 children, she would have been making $1,320 a day. That’s about $275,000 a year.

According to the report, which reconstructed monthly enrolment based on parent interviews, the daycare had been egregiously over capacity — catering to between 13 and 25 children in any given month — for at least two years. And it had been consistently over capacity for at least five.

Why, when the violations were so flagrant, weren’t they discovered earlier? And how did Calendino fool the parents, who in some cases had trusted her for years with the safety and well-being of their children?

How it worked

The two-storey home at 16667 24th Ave., where Calendino has lived with her engineer husband Vince and their three school-aged kids since 1996, lends itself to such a scheme. The chalet-style house, screened from neighbours’ view by trees and overgrown bushes, sits well back from the road, overlooking a gated, circular drive.

Large picture windows aided in the operation of a kind of child valet service. Parents would park, and by the time they reached the door their child would be waiting, dressed and ready to go.

Off that entryway was a door that obscured the bulk of the daycare from view. Calendino told parents that to minimize disruption, she preferred they remain in the hall. To limit parental crossover, Calendino gave strict fifteen-minute windows for drop-off and pickup.

Even so, at times parents couldn’t help but notice there were nine cars in the driveway.

The logistics of such an enterprise are daunting. If even half of the children weren’t toilet-trained, the daycare must have produced upward of 140 dirty diapers per week. Lunch, drinks and snacks, all provided by parents, must have been served in shifts, as most kids were too young to feed themselves.

It’s hard to imagine where programming would have fit in; a trip to the backyard on a sunny day would have required 24 hats and applications of sunscreen. When officers discovered the children last fall, half had been sucking on soothers.

Diane Bellesen, chair of the B.C. Family Child Care Association and a 17-year operator of a family daycare in Surrey, said, “How [Calendino] managed to care for 17 children of those ages is absolutely beyond me. No matter what anybody says, you can’t give quality care to 17 children between two people.”

Bellesen, who called the case “unprecedented,” has been told by former Grandview Heights parents that most had an inkling of what was going on.

“Everybody knew she had more,” she said, “but they didn’t realize she had that many more. It was kind of a running joke — ‘Wow, today it’s a real traffic jam here.’”

But the real concern was safety, Bellesen noted. “If there was a fire, how do you get that many little ones, many of whom aren’t going to be walking, out of the house safely? … If there was an injury … how do you deal with that effectively when one person is left to take care of 24 children?”

She also points out that the operator’s liability insurance would have been void. “We carry insurance in case something tragic happens … but if we are not in compliance, it’s not covered,” Bellesen said.

Yet Calendino was supremely confident, telling one parent that “regardless of licensing’s rules … Staff #1 and [she] could care for 24 children.”

A pattern emerges

“I can tell you this is unusual,” said Roy Thorpe-Dorward, spokesman for the Fraser Health Authority, which regulates 703 licensed family daycares from Burnaby to White Rock to Hope.

In the last two calendar years, only five other licences have been cancelled, none because of capacity violations.

Grandview Heights, in the course of 10 unscheduled annual inspections since 1999, had always received a low-hazard rating. But there were minor incidents that, with hindsight, point to a pattern.

As early as July 2004, licensing received a complaint from a parent who said she’d observed eight children in care and two extra staff. At the followup inspection, Calendino denied being over capacity and explained she had just hired two part-time staff.

Two-hour routine inspections are unscheduled, Thorpe-Dorward explained, so officers can observe a typical day.

But such drop-in inspections in March of 2007 and 2008 found, surprisingly, no children present at all. In both cases the officers scheduled later appointments to observe Calendino’s programming. At those appointments, fewer than seven children were present.

At an inspection in March 2009, only six kids were present, while the investigation later determined 17 had been enrolled at the time. An inspection in March 2010 noted only eight kids present; by then, it was later established, enrolment had ballooned to 24.

Thorpe-Dorward emphasized that “[the officers] had concerns, but there was no documented evidence of harm.”

That is also the conclusion of the report, which describes how parents felt about their kids’ care before they found out Calendino was breaking the rules: “Twenty-two parents [of 28 interviewed] were happy with the care given, and felt … the staff had a genuine love for the children.”

Three parents voiced concerns about programming or lack of compassion dealing with toileting accidents. One had wondered if the kids were being adequately supervised. Three said they’d removed their kids over concerns about numbers or lack of programming.

How did they feel about the revelation that 24 kids had been found? “Eleven parents expressed how upset, shocked, surprised and deceived they felt,” says the report. Three felt they hadn’t got what they’d paid for. Three expressed serious concerns about the effects on and safety of their children.

Twenty-three parents acknowledged they knew the daycare was over capacity, but hadn’t realized to what extent.

Future concerns

Calendino declined to be interviewed for this story. During the investigation, she dismissed parents’ complaints as malicious and accused officers of vilifying her. She refused to supply invoices or tax receipts. (According to one parent, Calendino gave her a receipt under her own name rather than that of her business.)

The report concluded, “You have chosen to wilfully disregard the regulations and operate the facility in a manner that has the potential to have a serious negative impact on the health and safety of children in care.” Calendino was found to have contravened two sections of the Community Care and Assisted Living Act (CCALA) and 13 sections of the CCLR.

On Oct. 20, her licence was cancelled, the harshest penalty available under the CCALA.

“If she reapplied [for a licence],” Thorpe-Dorward said, “she’d have to begin at the beginning.” The agency would take her history into consideration in making their decision.

Asked if Calendino could open an unlicensed daycare, he said, “It would be entirely possible. There would be a maximum of two children [not her own], or three or more if they’re family members. There’s no indication for licensing if it falls within those limits.”

In fact, Calendino inquired about reopening during the investigation — both with a licence elsewhere, and without, as a licence-not-required (LNR) daycare. When she asked what would happen if she cared for more than the two children indicated, she was told, “We might get the police involved and there will be fines.”

But criminal charges such as fraud haven’t been considered, Thorpe-Dorward said. “Officers, if they’re made aware of illegal activity, have a professional obligation to report that to the police,” he added. “But any actions [to collect] fees would have to be taken forward by parents.”

According to lawyer Paul Briggs, Calendino’s spokesman, “she has since moved on with a new career path.”

Bellesen, whose organization consults with government to develop standards of practice, said this case undermines the credibility of other family-daycare providers.

But it also highlights other problems, she noted. One is a lack of parent education: “After hearing about this and talking to these parents, they said, ‘We had no idea. We just relied on our sisters and our neighbours telling us it’s a wonderful place … and now we’re horrified that we didn’t educate ourselves.’”

The other, larger issue, she said, is the non-regulation of B.C.’s thousands of unlicensed daycares, which can be run by someone with no training.

By law, anyone caring for three or more kids must be licensed. “But nobody other than the [Child Care Resource and Referral programs] … is watching,” Bellesen said. “We know of people who have 10, 12, 14 children and operate as an LNR. Licensing can only go where there is a complaint, so it’s very frustrating for us.

“Parents can go on Craigslist and there are all kinds of [unlicensed daycares] on there…. And, you know, if [operators] don’t follow the regulations, you’re up a creek.”

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Sample blog post: “Smothering” column (mommyish.com, May 2011)

Smothering

Episode 1: Food

I have food issues.
Not the kind you’d expect. Sure, my kids are picky eaters. Yes, I’ve had battles over broccoli, “brown chicken” (aka steak) and Bran buds (“bunny poop!”). 
The garden-variety complaints I can handle, and if I can’t I just don my trusty earplugs.

What I did not expect, when becoming a parent, was having to learn to anticipate the many ways food is an accident waiting to happen.

At first, there was breastfeeding, which gave me a shortlived sense of complete control over what passed my infant’s lips. Then came baby cereals and mashed vegetables — innocuous mush that couldn’t harm a fly.

As solids began to creep in, though, the hidden dangers of food suddenly became apparent. One day I came home from a shopping trip to find my year-old son sitting happily in his highchair being fed by his father. I smiled at the blissful scene, then rounded the chair to confront what lay on his tray.

A carrot. A hairy orange tuber the size of a megaphone. In other words, certain death by choking.

“What. Is. That????” I probably screamed. (My memory of the moment has, mercifully, since faded, while the sense of outraged disbelief is still fresh in my mind.)

I have no doubt my husband blinked innocently up at me and replied, “It’s a watermelon. What do you think it is?”

Thus it dawned on me that our opposite approaches in life, which I had naively thought of as complementary — me a relentless information-gatherer and reader of instructional manuals, him a relaxed, spontaneous fabricator of theories based on “instinct” — might in fact lead to conflict.

With the floodgates of anxiety opened, the list of unexploded refrigerator landmines quickly grew. Grapes, Nature’s gift to the parents of picky children everywhere, were a major battleground. (If he agreed to cut them in half, which was rare, he would cut them for maximum choking potential.) Hot dogs, designed to be eaten anywhere but sitting safely at a table and the biggest single cause of choking deaths in children, led to skirmishes. Popcorn, which could easily lodge itself in the lungs and is my husband’s favourite food (if indeed it can be termed a “food”) was practically grounds for separation.

And those were just the hazards you could see. The microbial dangers lurking on mouldy cheeses or sandwich meat that my husband, a religious disregarder of expiry dates, refused to throw out, were equally hair-raising. To this day I scan the fridge regularly with a view to keeping my children safe from botulism toxins.

Of course, as the kids have gotten older, the anxieties have receded or bloomed in a different direction. And I will admit that my husband has made some progress, too.

Non-baby carrots, however, are still banned from the premises.

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Opinion: “Gambling with other people’s money” (The Province, Sept. 3, 2009)

Gambling with other people’s money; Funding breakdown everyone’s business

by Gillian Burnett

In the frenzied runup to Tuesday’s bad-news budget, the Liberal government quietly sent out hundreds of ticking time bombs and retreated to the relative safety of their homes for the weekend.

Last Friday, dubbed “Black Friday” by the thousands of B.C. charities that depend on gaming revenues for their existence, Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for disbursing the money, sent out a memo. His message, delivered under the sunny “Best Place on Earth” logo, was to the point: Dear Community Organizations, We screwed up the numbers, so you know that cheque we said was in the mail? It isn’t.

The tone was brisk. Unapologetic. The gaming gravy train has ended, and in its place we’re funding, well, gravy. CommunityLINK, which supplies lunches to needy kids and was previously paid for by the education ministry, will be getting your money, in addition to projects supported by the B.C. Arts Council, also previously funded by the taxpayer.

Priorities have shifted, Coleman lectured, and community groups that the ministry deems expendable — environmental, adult sports groups, alumni associations, and especially “a number of arts and culture organizations” — are out of luck.

It got worse. That money hadn’t only been for future use. In most cases it had already been spent, based on formerly ironclad written guarantees that have simply been trashed by the officials who signed them.

Oh puh-lease, I hear some of our readers thinking. We’re all suffering, so why should I get upset about a bunch of fancy-pants artists when the alternative is to let kids go hungry?

Well, that’s exactly what Coleman wants you to think. That false comparison is calculated to distract from the heart of the issue: It’s not the government’s money to take away.

To understand why, we need to go back a few years.

In Canada, before there was “gaming” — a cuddly word that evokes family Scrabble nights — there was gambling.

And it was bad. So bad, in fact, that it was illegal for the first 100 years of Confederation. The only exemption was for charities, which ran lotteries, bingo halls and casinos, and reaped the profits.

Then, in 1969, a Criminal Code change allowed governments a foot in the door — but only when a worthy cause was involved. Charities were their ticket and their moral justification, and still are: Just look at the pages on the BCLC website trumpeting the motto “When you play, good things happen.”

Smelling easy money, the province, by the late 1990s, was soon kicking open that door, even while promising to set aside charities’ cut in a trust and ensure direct access to the funds. The contest between a goliath government and small, varied community interests had predictable results.

In 1997, when the province, in a reverse Robin Hood manoeuvre, tried to rob charities of $24 million to pay for its own “charitable” health and education services, the NDP government was taken to court. The following January, when then-deputy premier Dan Miller was ordered to give the money back by the Supreme Court, opposition leader Gordon Campbell summed up the decision best: “Mr. Miller had to give it back,” he declared. “It wasn’t his money. I don’t trust him, period. And I don’t think the charities should.”

In June 1999, the province signed agreements re-committing to their community partnerships. They pledged to consult the charities’ umbrella representative, the B.C. Association for Charitable Gaming (BCACG) regarding any proposed changes, and guaranteed a yearly minimum of $125 million with a view to committing fully one-third of ongoing net community casino revenue.

That was 10 years ago, when gaming revenue grossed B.C. about $525 million annually. Last year, net gaming revenue hit a high of $1.1 billion, yet the charities are getting $139 million, 11 per cent less than they got the year before. And the legitimate recipients still don’t know how much of that $139 million will be used by Coleman’s appointed illegitimate recipients.

“And yet somehow the government managed to find $39 million to promote the Olympics,” points out BCACG’s Executive Director Cheryl Ziola. The impact of the cuts is immeasurable, she says. “These cuts are going to affect hospices, daycares, playgrounds, you name it. In Prince Rupert alone there are 40 charitable organizations that rely on gaming funds to provide services.”

Most shocking of all, perhaps, is the absence of any attempt on the government’s part to minimize damage.

They could have taken away this money (that isn’t theirs to take) slowly and with warning. Instead, they knocked the door down and set fire to the furniture, killing some organizations and crippling others. Some groups had multi-year funding in place, only to be told they were broke.

Wednesday, by which time rumblings about potential lawsuits had no doubt reached the ears of government lawyers, Finance Minister Colin Hansen experienced a sudden (partial) change of heart: Our mistake, he said. We’ll honour those multi-year agreements after all, representing a reinvestment of $20 million over the next two years.

Reached for reaction, BCACG’s Cheryl Ziola said, “The fact is, they’re still not fulfilling their funding agreement, and we’re going to keep hammering on that.” Plus, she pointed out, they made this sudden decision with absolutely no consultation whatsoever.

What about those organizations that didn’t have a multi-year deal? Well, it’s their problem, along with their creditors, their laid-off employees, the venues they’d booked next season that will now sit empty — and, in many cases, the taxpayer, who would have seen a $1.38 return in tax revenue for every dollar invested in the arts. And keep in mind, these dollars aren’t coming out of taxes to start with.

In effect, the Liberals have handily dumped a portion of B.C.’s deficit onto the unsuspecting backs of the people in our communities — often volunteers — who make a daily, qualitative difference to all of our lives. All with money that isn’t theirs.

Just ask Gordon Campbell.

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Opinion: “Fuelling an addiction” (The Province, Aug. 21, 2009)

Op-ed: “Fuelling an addiction; government’s gambling with other people’s money”

by Gillian Burnett

The B.C. Lottery Corporation’s official motto is: “Know your limit, play within it,” and they insist they mean it.

Why, then, has the Lottery Corp. just announced it’s raising the weekly spending limit on its PlayNow.com website to $10,000?

You read that correctly: $10k. (Well, $9,999, if we’re splitting hairs.) Seems like a lot of money? Clearly BCLC agrees, as the weekly limit being replaced is a mere $120 — yup, you read that correctly, too — making for an increase of 8,333 per cent.

As Michael Smyth pointed out in these pages yesterday, you only need scratch the surface of this government-issued lottery ticket to see their coming payday.

Consider the following.

According to a Statistics Canada report released in late July and reported on by The Province, revenue from government-run gambling in all of Canada fell in 2008 for the first time in 16 years.

B.C., however, proved the exception to the rule: our net gambling income was up — to $1.09 billion for the year ending March 31. But that was still $19.3 million below the target, set before the recession took hold.

Indeed, just Monday it was reported that thousands of community groups across the province are in financial limbo as tens of millions in lottery funds have been frozen, subject to “comprehensive review.”

Meanwhile, casino operators, BCLC’s co-dependents for many years, have been issuing dire warnings about falling revenues since the recession was a gleam in the economy’s eye.

How can BCLC increase revenues at light speed and cut those pesky casinos out of its profits in one fell swoop? Online gambling.

How can they cash in on the exploding popularity of unregulated offshore gambling websites? Online gambling with fewer regulations.

Studies, though, point to two sobering facts: in a poor economy, people in desperate straits are more likely to take financial risks; and, online gamblers are statistically far more likely than other gamblers to develop an addiction.

The government’s own report, commissioned in 2003, supports these theories. Where the province estimates that 4.6 per cent of British Columbian gamblers are addicts, the “Problem Gambling Prevalence Study” estimated that 9.9 per cent of Internet gamblers have a moderate or severe problem. That one-in-10 figure was suggested long before Internet gambling became a mainstream phenomenon.

This from a Liberal government elected, in 2001, on a platform that included a straightforward objective: “Stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families.”

Fast-forward eight years, and those same families are straining just to get by.

There is some assistance on the way, though. In an interesting coincidence, less than two months ago BCLC announced the introduction of GameSense, a program designed to reach out to hard-core gamblers who might be put off by the tough, “Big-Brother-y” approach of existing programs, to use Lottery Corp. president Michael Greydon’s term.

An apt choice of words. What’s more Orwellian than a government that seeks to ban your choice of leisure activity? A government that regulates that activity to the clear and self-acknowledged detriment of its own citizens.

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Entertainment column: “Stars shun sequels for good reason” (The Province, Aug. 10, 2007)

“Stars shun sequels for good reason”

by Gillian Burnett

Oh, what a fickle mistress fame can be. Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr., who made “Show me the money!” famous in 1996’s Jerry Maguire, must have been in grave need of cash when he took on the role formerly known as Eddie Murphy’s in Daddy Day Camp, the sequel to Daddy Day Care that just landed in theatres with a resounding thud. In a nice kind of symmetry, Murphy just climbed out of his own slump to garner an Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls; maybe he thought Norbit was enough big-screen humiliation for one decade.

But Cuba Gooding is certainly not alone. There is a long, humbling tradition of sequels without stars — ahem, I mean sequels without their original stars. To wit:

Son of the Mask: This 2005 followup to 1996’s The Mask, featuring the rubber-featured Jim Carrey, “stars” Jamie Kennedy and received one of the lowest user ratings I’ve ever seen on the Internet Movie Database. (Two stars. That’s out of a possible 10.) Kennedy’s finest work can be seen in such classics as the recent Kickin’ It Old Skool. ‘Nuff said.

Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. Jeff Daniels and (again) Jim Carrey are nowhere to be seen in this 2003 sequel to Dumb and Dumber. Derek Richardson and Eric Christian Olsen (exactly: who?) take on the roles of the teenage Harry and Lloyd in this forgettable flop. Here’s hoping the producers aren’t planning on a Dumb and Dumbest: When Harry Buried Lloyd.

Evan Almighty. Hmmm. Are you noticing a trend here? It seems that a rule has emerged: when Jim Carrey won’t go, just say no. Not even the hilarious Steve Carell could save this 2007 Waterworld of comedies from sinking.

Home Alone 3. Child star Macaulay Culkin wouldn’t touch this sequel, which came in 1997, five years after the success of the first two. (To be fair, at the time he was off developing a coke habit in response to his parents’ ugly wrangling over his fortune.) In fact, even John Hughes, who directed No. 2 and wrote all three, had the good sense not to direct the third, which cast Alex D. Linz in the starring role and boasted the official tagline, “It’s bad news for bad guys. Again.” Even the tagline knew there was nothing to see here.

Speed 2: Cruise Control. Keanu Reeves starred in Speed as a cop who has to save the passengers of a bus in which a bomb will explode if the bus goes below 50 m.p.h. (That’s about 80 km/h for Canadian actors.) The sequel stars Jason Patric as a cop who has to save the passengers of a cruise ship that will collide with an oil tanker … you get the picture. Sandra Bullock, however, had no such reservations about returning. And then she made Hope Floats.

Wild Things 2. Neve Campbell and Denise Richards’ upper torsos were the real stars of the first Wild Things (1998), whose ill-advised plot involved two high-school students framing their guidance counsellor for rape. Too bad Leila Arcieri and Susan Ward didn’t seek guidance before they signed on for the 2004 sequel.

Cruel Intentions 2 and 3. The first Cruel Intentions featured Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon, among other big names, not one of whom returned for the sequel. In fact, even the no-names who starred in No. 2 turned down No. 3. You know you’re in trouble when …

Batman Forever. Michael Keaton might have stunk up the joint a little as the caped crusader in Batman (1989) and a lot in Batman Returns (1992), but he was no sucker for punishment. Val Kilmer was a slightly more credible hero in 1995’s Batman Forever (not an apt title, in retrospect), but the pair who swept the Razzies in 1997, George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell as Batman and Robin, indelibly stained the franchise. It would be seven years before brave Christian Bale would attempt the role again, in Batman Begins.

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Movie review: “Batten down the hatches!; Pirates a tale of battles, barnacles, betrayals” (The Province, May 24, 2007)

Batten down the hatches!; Pirates a tale of battles, barnacles, betrayals

by Gillian Burnett

I’m exhausted. Bone-tired, really, still reeling from the demanding business of watching the third — and possibly, though not probably, the final — instalment of the ludicrously lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Clocking in at two hours and 49 minutes and costing a rumoured $200 million US (that’s about $1,183,000 per minute), At World’s End may just be the movie that forever redefines what constitutes “bang for your buck.”

At the press screening I was handed a typewritten memo from the organizers pleading with reviewers not to reveal the “many plot resolutions that occur.” They need not have bothered. While there are many plots, and many resolutions that don’t bear scrutiny, I couldn’t begin to recount them here. At World’s End is a seething, bubbling bouillabaisse of battles, bombs, boat-boardings, barnacles, beating hearts, betrothal and betrayals — above all, betrayals — where characters switch allegiances more often than your average cast of Survivor.

It was a dark and stormy opening sequence. A noose hangs starkly in silhouette. Row upon row of prisoners march to their deaths at the hands of the British. A lone shadowy figure poles a skiff through the murky, steaming waters of an underground Singaporean pirate hangout, where the rats run rampant and the air of menace is thick. Piercing the gloom are Keira Knightley’s teeth — brilliant Chiclets that have inexplicably escaped the makeup artists’ palette of pirate grime.

Enter Chow Yun-Fat, the scar-faced, treacherous Sao Feng, one of nine pirate lords being summoned to “the brethren court” to reunite the legendary Pieces of Eight to combat the mercenary and merciless East India Trading Company. But first, they must join forces to rescue Jack at world’s end.

And we’re off. One huge waterfall, a few betrayals and a land of the dead later, the pirates are reunited against their common enemy, who have harnessed the power of the Flying Dutchman for ill, if you consider ridding the high seas of pirates a bad thing.

Favourite characters are all back in force: the dashing Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the bossy, squinting Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the squid-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). But the star of the show, the centrifugal force around which the action swirls, is the lurching, eye-rolling Jack Sparrow, played with cockeyed abandon by Johnny Depp. The few scenes in which he doesn’t appear seem flat and poorly paced.

And it’s the humour (which is, predictably, in the my-spyglass-is-bigger-than-your-spyglass vein) that carries this empress of excess into port. In a highlight cameo by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards — whose costume, as Jack’s pirate dad, appears no different from his stage clothes — Jack asks, “How’s Mum?” In answer, the man who famously joked about snorting his own father’s ashes holds up a grey, shrunken head.

Now that shivered my timbers.

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Book Review: Freakonomics (rabble.ca, May 30, 2006)

BOOK REVIEW

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

(HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005; $34.95)

by Gillian Burnett

If you’ve been living under a marketing-free rock for the last year, you might have missed the juggernaut of hype that attended the publication of Freakonomics, a collaboration between rock-star economist Steven D. Levitt and New York Times writer Stephen J. Dubner. Levitt teaches at the University of Chicago and was recently awarded the John Bates Clark medal, which is given every couple of years to the best American economist under the age of 40. Notably, about half of those who’ve received it have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

If that tidbit makes you want to yawn, resist the urge. Freakonomics is as compelling as The Da Vinci Code, only it’s based on fact. Its backbone is a series of disparate economic case studies, each of which reveals a surprising truth — for example, that swimming pools are 100 times more dangerous than guns for the average U.S. child — or challenges received wisdom, such as the assumption that drug-dealing is more lucrative than a McJob.

Levitt is the sworn enemy of conventional, lazy thinking, pointing out that just because two pieces of information are correlated does not mean they have a causal relationship.

There is no unifying theme here, a problem not entirely solved by the co-authors’ open acknowledgment of that absence. And even though Levitt’s conclusions are sometimes explosive — he asserts, for instance, that legalized abortion is the single factor most responsible for the recent dramatic drop in U.S. crime rates — he ducks controversy with his just-the-facts-ma’am approach. The book’s title was clearly chosen more for its marketability than its aptness: there’s nothing freaky about any of this stuff. But it captures the spirit of his inquiries, which are full of brilliant deduction and a disarming curiosity about what drives people to do things.

On the topic of economics, I’m not sure that 200 pages of well-spaced, large type for $34.95 qualifies as a good investment, especially in a book that boldly claims to deal with Everything. Freakonomics reads like what it is — a beefed-up version of a piece Dubner wrote in 2003 for The New York Times Magazine. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from the article, which lends the book a strange self-referential quality and a faux structure that tries to mitigate the book’s formlessness.

But if you can beg or borrow a copy, it’s arguably the most fun you’ll ever have reading about microeconomics, which is, at root, the stuff of life.

Of course, Levitt and Dubner are not the first to try to make their subject accessible to the masses. A quick search reveals such (less catchily titled efforts) as The Armchair Economist: Economics of Everyday Experience (Steven E. Landsburg), The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life (Gary S. Becker), and Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life (David D. Friedman).

I wonder what Levitt would have to say about the correlation between economists, middle initials, and lengthy subtitles.

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