Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bribing Canadian Politicians

Richard Fadden, the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), is in the news this week spilling some very important information: the Chinese government is paying Canadian politicians to spy for it.

It seems clear to me that this was no mistake: he went to the CBC interview to give this information. He must have known that he was risking his career to say this. I suspect he felt it was important for the public to know. Why would he do that? Because we vote in politicians, and once in office there's little that can be done to prevent this sort of thing. The head of CSIS probably weighed his options and decided that the only way to successfully address the issue was to make it public.

The news spin has been about everything but the main issue.

On The Current this morning, Anna Maria Tremonti focused on how this is a slur on the Chinese community in Canada.

Today's Globe has a column about how heads should roll at the CBC because they delayed broadcasting the interview until the eve of the arrival of the Chinese head of state.

Maclean's attacks the whistle blower, saying that his backpedaling is "awkward" and a "ragged retreat".

Is this willful denial, or are serious news outlets - as I hope - sending out investigative journalists to follow up on this story and get us some facts?

And kudos to the CBC for airing this interview just before the G20, when it will get picked up by international media. They may have realized that Canadians wouldn't be able to see the forest for the trees.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Photos of the Gulf Oil Spill

The floor of the Gulf of Mexico, pre-spill:

The surface near the gusher:

Oil approaching a beach in June:

A graph showing where oil has hit land, June 19:

Thousands of individuals are attempting to clean the beaches by hand:

Oil seeping into a salt water marsh:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Plan

Harper's plan seemed to be this:

  • In early summer, host two huge prestigious international meetings (the G20 and G8 summits). Be seen on home soil as top dog among Obama, Cameron, Herkel, et al.
  • A few days later, host the queen. Be seen on home soil as top dog with the lady on the money.
  • While the queen is here, announce the new G-G. Be seen as the guy who appoints the other top dogs.
  • Ride the wave of national pride and personal adulation through the summer (without pesky parliament interfering).

Then, in late August or early September, dissolve parliament and call an election.

This scenario explains a lot.

It explains why Harper was so interested in the G8/20 all of a sudden. This is the guy who was publicly disdainful of these leader get-togethers. This is the guy who showed up late for photo ops and blew off an Obama speech to do a press event at a donut shop. This isn't even a regular meeting - the G20 summit is in November, and this is just an add-on.

It explains the odd wording of the Afghan detainee document deal that would allow Harper to cancel the opposition party's access to the documents if he wins a majority.

It even goes a little towards explaining why he prorogued parliament and then delayed so long on signing the agreement on release of the Afghan documents... his plan was that parliament would have very little time to see those documents before he used his majority to yank them back.

And he almost pulled it off. By now, the Canadian public was supposed to be dazzled by a sense of our growing international importance. By next month, we were supposed to adore the man who made it all happen. Last week Harper's PR team released a photo of him standing alone in the House of Commons, looking pensive. This was just the beginning of a repositioning. I have no doubt that a whole series of photos, events and ads were planned to remake Harper in the eyes of the country. It didn't have to fool everyone, and it didn't have to fool anyone for long - just long enough to win a majority.

It's lovely irony that Harper is hoist by his own petard. To get maximum political benefit from the summits, he let the organizers go hog wild on costs. If the government had managed to hide the costs of the G8/20 summits, we might have had a Conservative majority by Thanksgiving. (Gack - we still might.)


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Junk Food for Babies?

Gerber has a line of junk food for babies.

The label says that by 12 months babies are ready for a wider variety of foods. Called Lil Crunchies in the Graduates line, the baby junk food includes cheese puffs, vegetable puffs and fruit puffs.

To add insult to injury, it's really expensive.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Dedicated Bike Lanes

Trendy ideas come and go. We all (myself included) have a tendency to get behind an idea that sounds good, even if we haven't completely thought it through.

The latest fad, in Waterloo Region at least, is bike lanes with curbs around them. These, it is thought, will be safer for bicyclists and so increase bike commuting. Sounds good, no? All of a sudden everyone seems to be behind the idea - you hear it all the time, proposed with great authority.

But wait. There are a few other things to consider:

  • Given the much higher cost of this sort of bike lane over a regular bike lane, a shift to the new lanes will almost certainly slow down the development of new bike lanes.
  • The new bike lanes require more space so won't be possible on many roads. This isn't a drawback unless (as I've heard) people decry the regular bike lane as unsafe - then we just end up with less bike lanes.
  • In winter, it will be more difficult to plough these lanes. Regular bike lanes (essentially just a white stripe down the road marking off a lane for bikes) are easier to plough. The city will have to send out a different sort of snow plough to handle the new bike lanes. They likely just won't get ploughed.
  • As a cylist, I don't relish the idea of a curb surrounding my lane because it makes it more difficult for me to merge with traffic to make a left hand turn or get to an address on the other side of the street. It also makes it more difficult to pass slow bike riders and other impediments.
  • The curb alongside the bike lane does not solve the biggest problem of bike lanes: at intersections, bike lanes tend to disappear - leaving the cyclist high and dry in the most dangerous part of the street. This problem will probably be much worse with curbed bike lanes, as the curb will have to stop at every spot where cars need to turn.
  • Curbed bike lanes only make sense on streets with limited car access - long stretches of road without intersections or driveways. But in those situations, a path running a few meters away from the road is a safer and more enjoyable alternative for bikes.
  • There is an accessibilty consideration: how do pedestrians with walkers, baby buggies or wheelchairs cross them? What about the sight impaired?

The curbed bike lane idea may be made with the best of intentions, but it may also be a very negative force on the future of urban cycling. We'd be better off itemizing the problems with regular bike lanes and thinking up better ways to solve them: motorists parking in bike lanes; lanes running close to parked cars with doors that could suddenly fling open; safe ways for bikes to make turns and cross intersections; etc. And the number one priority is just to have more trails, paths and bike lanes, and to make sure they connect.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Maybe Not a Merger - But Cooperation, For Sure

The 2008 coalition was impossible because there was no-one in place to lead it. Dion was so weak that he was ousted, and then Ignatieff was merely He Who Would Be Acclaimed. He couldn't take over as PM before a convention making him Liberal leader.

Harper and the boys spent a lot of money trying to convince Canadians that the very notion of a coalition is undemocratic, and that one in our current political environment would be doubly undemocratic because Liberals would have to join with "socialists and separatists." It was McArthyesque, but it resonated, despite the well-documented attempt at a coalition initiated by Harper himself in 2004.

The problem was how to ever get out of this hole. Many Canadians had bought the line that a coalition would be a coup d'etat - hell, The Economist even used the word coup to describe it (although that word didn't reappear in their analysis of their own country's current coalition).

Enter Jean Chretien, circa last week, musing about the possibility of a merger between the Liberals and the NDP. All of a sudden mergers and coalitions have resurged as a topic of discussion - and this time Harper isn't setting the agenda. This discussion has the potential to clear away some of the paranoia about center-left cooperation.

Harper is doing his best not to let it. This week the PMO/PCO has tried attacking the president of the Liberal party, creating a bunch of nutty fake quotes and so on. It's typical Conservative smear tactics, but it has a hint of desperation to it. And at the same time, Conservatives are slipping in the polls (not that that means much).

Perhaps I'm giving Chretien too much credit, but he may have been crazy like a fox in starting up merger talk. It may do all kinds of good for all nonCon parties.

Personally, I'm not pro-merger. I think it would be good for the Liberals (my party), not just because it would let us win a lot of ridings where the Liberals and NDP split the vote, but also because I'd like to see the Liberal party move left, and I have a lot of respect for New Democrats - especially a lot of current senior NDP MPs like Pat Martin, Olivia Chow, Thomas Mulclair and others. I'm against a merger because I don't want to see the NDP vanish.

However, maybe there are solutions to merging and not killing the NDP. Maybe the NDP could exist as a mini-caucus within the Liberal party. Or maybe a cooperation accord could be signed that was part coalition, part merger. I have no idea what sorts of arrangements are acceptable in the Westminster parliamentary system, which of course I would want to adhere to. Also - if the NDP decided it wanted to merge, then as a Liberal I would have to defer to them.

All in all I think it's an interesting and good discussion. For months the headlines have been that the Conservatives are ahead in the polls, when the same statistics could have been reported as that the government is hovering at preposterously low 30% support. The Conservatives get away with it because the rest of us are split, and the rest of us have more uniting us than dividing us. I'd prefer a coalition, but any talk that gets us closer to cooperating is fine by me.

Conservatives are in desperate attack mode because center-left cooperation is a major threat to them. It's quite possible that the Liberals can beat them on their own in the next election, but the more we present a united opposition, the more the Conservatives have to fear.

Update: Media pundits keep saying that coalition talk is something that has been done to Ignatieff. I disagree. Chretien and Romanow may be loose cannons, but Bob Rae didn't write a piece about his experience in a coalition without the approval - and probably the direction - of Michael Ignatieff.


Sunday, June 06, 2010

Measured in Millihelens

The Iliad has two heroes: one nominal (Achilles) and one subversive (Hector). Achilles has to be the hero because Homer's audience was Greek and Achilles is Greek (Achaean), whereas Hector the Trojan prince was the enemy to the Greeks in the Trojan war. Achilles is certainly a hero - but he sulks in his tent and fights in blind anger. In Homer's lifetime there were no Trojans left to cheer on Hector. Just to solidify our preference for Hector over Achilles, Achilles is most unheroic in his treatment of Hector's dead body after he kills him - and Achilles' blind anger and revenge-killing of Hector is not very heroic, either.

So instead of black and white, at the center of the Illiad is an odd take on us-and-them: we are great but flawed. The unattainable standard of heroism is embodied in the other. More: we destroyed the ideal hero (Hector). The nominal hero, Achilles, lives on - an interesting ploy of Homer's, as Achilles lives only because Homer stopped the tale shortly before Achilles' death. (In other versions of the story he dies during the sacking of Troy.)

On a macro level the Iliad is also subversive. While it is a book that celebrates a great Greek victory, the prominence and glorification of Hector implies that the Greeks were wrong in fighting the war. There is great sadness in the destruction of Hector and his civilization, and the Greeks come off as brutes.

There is a humanism in the Iliad that you seldom see in historical fiction. No man dies anonymously. If a man dies in the Iliad, the means of his death is described, as is the name of his father and something of his history. This makes it a bit bloody, for sure (some might say there are endless descriptions of ghastly fatal wounds), but it is also very respectful of life.

Achilles doesn't refuse to fight because of any moral qualms; he's just mad that Agamemnon has taken his slave-girl Briseis away. Achilles didn't want any part of this expedition in the first place, but was forced to go. Hector is forced to defend his city, but wants only a peaceful life with his wife and young son. Despite the bloodiness of the story, the Iliad is profoundly anti-war.

All this makes sense when you think that Homer (or a collection of writers we call Homer) was writing at the end of the dark ages and is describing the cause of the dark ages (as I've argued before). You could see the central premise of the Iliad as: The heroic deeds of our (Greek) heroes resulted in hundreds of years when civilization died.

Okay, if you got this far, here's a little Illiad joke to reward you:

Q: What's a millihelen?
A: The amount of beauty sufficient to launch one ship.