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Border no barrier for Black's autograph pen

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

It probably wasn't the first time a convicted felon has autographed a book he had written, but as book signing ceremonies go, the event held yesterday evening in Toronto was nevertheless unprecedented.

About 50-60 people lined up at the World's Biggest Bookstore to have Conrad Black autograph his latest tome, The Invincible Quest, The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon (McClelland and Stewart), which weighs in at 1,152 pages.

But the disgraced media baron - barred from leaving the United States pending sentencing on Nov. 30 for his conviction on charges of fraud and obstruction of justice - was several thousand miles away, sitting stiffly at a desk in the book-lined study of his Palm Beach, Fla., home.

He signed the books remotely, using the recently invented LongPen.

The device, conceived by novelist Margaret Atwood and now being marketed internationally, uses digital and magnetic imaging technology to facilitate long-distance book signings and video-conferencing.

Readers seeking Lord Black's autograph were thus able to engage him virtually face-to-face.

The author and historian thanked Ms. Atwood for helping to organize the event, calling the LongPen "an astounding invention."

Using a magnetic stylus, Lord Black first wrote his name and accompanying messages on an electronic writing tablet. When he pushed "send," a stylus magically inscribed it in real ink on a copy of the book in Toronto. Ms. Atwood was the first yesterday to have hers signed.

During the hour-long event, Lord Black did not directly address the legal quagmire in which he has been mired for the past two years.

But he complimented Toronto chartered accountant Brad Wiffen, 24, who arrived wearing a black "Conrad will win" T-shirt.

Mr. Wiffen, who maintains that Lord Black was unfairly convicted, told him that he was thinking of adding the words "on appeal" to the shirt, in light of efforts by Lord Black's lawyers to have the charges dismissed.

"Well, yes," Lord Black said, "We've dealt with three quarters of the charges and now we can deal with the rest."

Earlier, in a short question-and-answer session, CTV Canada AM host Seamus O'Reagan asked Lord Black to respond to statements made by former prime minister Jean Chrétien in his just-released memoir, My Years as Prime Minister.

In the book, Mr. Chrétien writes that Lord Black tried to persuade him not to block his entry to the British House of Lords, saying he would join the Liberal Party of Canada and accept a simultaneous appointment to the Canadian Senate.

Lord Black said he had not yet seen the Chrétien book and was therefore "a little reluctant" to respond. "But on that particular point," Lord Black said, "he told me that I should be seeking to be a senator and I said, well you can do both. On the business of promising to sit as a Liberal, I said 'I would consider it.' "

Later, Toronto web designer William Stratas asked Lord Black if he saw an ironic parallel between his own life and Nixon's. The president, Mr. Stratas noted, was done in partly by an infamous 18-minute gap in a White House audiotape that discussed the Watergate burglary, while Lord Black was caught on tape illegally removing file boxes from his former Toronto Street offices.

Lord Black said the two events had nothing in common, and that he had himself ordered the installation of the in-house surveillance system that recorded the file removal.

Asked by Mr. O'Reagan how he had managed to write in such difficult legal circumstances, Lord Black said the book was a welcome respite.

"It was not as inconvenient as you might think," he said. "Because of the legal travails I had, I spent a lot of time intermittently speaking with lawyers. But you never know exactly when they're going to phone. So it was the absolutely perfect occupation for someone as beleaguered as I was. You're interrupted from time to time, but you're not just sitting there waiting for the phone to ring."

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