Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pigs and Pandemics and Zombies (Oh my)

From time to time I write fake news articles for a web site called Zombie World News. The premise is that the zombie virus has spread around the world, resulting in marauding monsters causing murderous mayhem. Zombie world news is lots of laughs, but media coverage of the recent fears of a swine flu pandemic is not so ha, ha, ha.

I came to the conclusion some time ago that a flu pandemic is unlikely (I describe why here). Nonetheless, I'm in New York this week, hanging out in crowded public places, and the reports of swine flu pandemic were initially so disturbing that I thought I should keep an eye on the situation in both NYC and Canada. The Globe & Mail and New York Times home pages seem to be updated hourly with new causes of concern. At least the headlines cause concern; all the details seem pretty reassuring: outside of Mexico, everyone who has had this strain of swine flu has been only mildly ill; and the strain is not resistant to Tamiflu (which everyone stockpiled after the bird flu scare two years ago).

We in Canada have been through SARS so know how important it is to handle flu outbreaks carefully. But Jeeze Louise, this swine flu coverage is just fear mongering.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rapid Transit in the News

From today's Waterloo Regional Record:
Not on board

April 25, 2009
Jeff Outhit


John Shortreed fears the worst if politicians build the rapid transit system they are studying.

"The region is about to commit to a big white elephant," warns Shortreed, a former Waterloo councillor. "The number one concern is that it's a huge risk. You're making a half-billion dollar bet."

Waterloo Region government plans to unveil a rapid transit proposal next month. Construction could launch in 2012.

Proponents say it will bring jobs and homes to underused urban neighbourhoods by increasing land values near stations. Critics agree better transit is needed but see rapid transit as a leap too far.

"I don't think it's a good idea for Waterloo, as it currently stands," said Ruth Haworth, a member of a citizens committee to advise Waterloo council on downtown issues.

Haworth fears putting trains on King Street in Waterloo will damage the only downtown that's already flourishing by frustrating traffic and parking and by discouraging cyclists and pedestrians.

"We're way too small for this," says Haworth, a transit user. "This is going to be such a white elephant that it will reduce our ability to have other good transit routes."

Rapid transit will consist of electric trains or rapid buses on the urban spine linking Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. Construction costs for trains will exceed $306 million.

"Urban planners are driving this thing," says Shortreed, a retired University of Waterloo professor who has taught transportation planning.

"They believe it will save energy. They believe that if you build it, they will come. They believe it's the right thing to do."

But he estimates just a 10 per cent chance rapid transit will achieve its goals. He sees a 90 per cent chance of an underperforming system that drains public coffers.

UW professor Jeff Casello disagrees, saying big spending is needed to achieve big results.

"If we invest only a little bit, we are likely to have very little influence on land-use patterns," says Casello, an expert in transportation planning.

"And if we are to invest quite a bit more, then we are likely to see greater impacts on land-use changes."

One real estate study predicts rail transit will boost land values by 10 to 18 per cent near local stations.

Shortreed argues rapid transit is a bad idea because:

Other North American cities with rapid transit are much bigger and tend to have dominant downtowns, Shortreed says.

By comparison, local downtowns lack the office jobs, traffic delays and high parking fees that encourage transit use elsewhere.

Looking forward, Shortreed does not expect local downtowns to gain many jobs. He figures technology firms will continue to choose campus-style suburban locations because this suits their employees.

Casello agrees this is a small community for rapid transit by North American standards. He disagrees it needs to be bigger or will not grow bigger.

Regional Chair Ken Seiling describes Shortreed as a lone voice of scholarly dissent. Building rapid transit now will prevent land-use mistakes other cities have made and are struggling to fix, he says.

Shortreed contends politicians can achieve their goals more effectively with other transit upgrades. Examples include: More frequent buses, realigned bus routes, a limited streetcar system in Kitchener and Waterloo, development incentives and passenger conveniences.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


In the little city of Waterloo, this is the season of the duck. They're everywhere you don't expect them, waddling down sidewalks, poking under decks and peering under bushes, looking intently for somehwere to nest. When it rains and temporary puddles form in depressions in a sidewalk, they're there, paddling around, wondering whether this would be a good spot to stop - then when the inevitable happens and the puddle dries up they waddle off to continue their search. In any subdivision around sunset, look up and you'll see them silhouetted on rooftops, scanning the surrounding yards, intently searching out that perfect little spot.

Ducks have those two sides to them: the comical and stupid side, and the dignified and admirable side. You have to wonder at some of their dumb decisions; but then they seem so purposeful, and each pair seems so dedicated to each other.

When the ducklings come they always seem to cross the roads at the same place, making it possible for the city to put up duck crossing signs and for motorists to watch out for the straggling lines of little ones. Then the house cats come out and the straggling lines diminish to a chick a two. It doesn't seem to reduce the numbers much. Every year they fly off south and the whole thing starts the next year.


New Journalism

I saw the film State of Play this week, and it was pretty good (engaging but forgettable). One thing that bugged me though was that it created a false distinction between print media and online media. It portrayed print media as the last bastion of experienced investigative journalists, and portrayed online media as the home of bloggers hired by newspapers to write gossip.

I read a lot of "MSM bloggers". (We really need a name to distinguish them from people like me. By MSM blogger I mean a person who writes a dedicated blog for a newspaper - which is what State of Play was about, too.) The MSM bloggers I read are prestigious, experienced journalists. Their blogs are a delight because they don't need to conform to usual print standards for length or style; they can add lots of online links; and they can be more casual, which often allows them to discuss things they couldn't discuss in a column. Some examples:

- Kady O'Malley's blog Inside the Queensway on
- Paul Krugman's blog The Conscience of a Liberal on
- Howard Kurtz's blog Media Notes on

The whole premise of the movie was Luddite: a railing against the new in defence of the old. I wouldn't mind except that it spreads misinformation about the exciting new world of online journalism - an innovation that is not only positive, but also necessary.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Rapid Transit Update

I hear that Waterloo Region is expected to release its plan for Rapid Transit very soon... probably on Saturday, May 9. After that there should be public consultation of some sort - at the least, the ability of citizens to make delegations before Regional Council. Then sometime soon there will be a vote at Regional Council and that vote will decide what happens. On Council, the city of Waterloo has three reps and Kitchener has five. Since rapid transit appears to have been designed specifically to suit the needs of Kitchener, I assume that Kitchener councillors will vote for it. There are seven other councillors, including three from Cambridge; one each from North Dumfries, Wellesley, Wilmot and Woolwich; and Regional Chair Ken Seiling.

My guess is that rapid transit is going to be very difficult to stop, and councillors are not going to vote against it unless citizens speak out and speak loudly.

As I've said before: If you don't know the details, rapid transit sounds like a great idea - a fast futuristic system that will help the environment by taking cars off the road. But when you look at the details, it turns out to be a poorly planned white elephant that will not serve Waterloo at all well and will drain resources from existing bus routes. If you care about transit in Waterloo, you should review the rapid transit plan very carefully.

I'm planning to speak to the issue, but I'll need to see the specifics before I can prepare anything. At this point all we have is hints of the Region's preferences on such details as route, stop location, and whether the transit will be bus or rail.

Here are my previous musings on the topic:

Rapid Transit: King Street North
Rapid Transit Part 1: Rapid Transit is Poised to Destroy Uptown Waterloo
Rapid Transit Part 2: First, Do No Harm
Rapid Transit Part 3: Whether the Concept Makes Sense in Waterloo Region
Rapid Transit Part 4: How Uptown Waterloo Could Fail


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Damn Blogger

Blogger just published an unfinished post I was working on (which I then deleted). Sorry about that. Blogger seems to have become increasingly flaky over the last year or so. For example, I lost the ability to moderate comments. Then the functionality for notifying me of comments went kablooey - now I only get notified of comments that I myself write on my blog (thanks very much, blogger). Today the word verification functionality went screwy, so that as I'm writing a post (which I have to be logged in to do) I can't save my writing until I type the word verification letters. When I did that just now, damn blogger posted my unfinished writing.

It turns out that blogger has flagged me as a spam blog, which is a blog that is auto-generated to post advertising messages. I have sent a request to blogger to take me off the spam list.

It seems to me that my blogging problems started with Blogger 2.0, but I may just be feeling burned about new versions because I upgraded to Skype 4.0 last week and it is crap compared to v3... I'm having all sorts of problems, and since I have an online phone number with Skype and use it as my home-phone-away-from-home, and since I'm away from home more often than not, it's a real pain to suddenly have it downgraded to alpha-level usability. Skype phone numbers are cheap and have unlimited long distance and free voicemail, but I guess I'm getting what I paid for.... which appears to be the case with my free account on blogger, as well.

Update: Reading the blogger help pages, I see that they say spam blogs "can be recognized by their irrelevant, repetitive, or nonsensical text..." Now that's just mean! ;-)


Rapid Transit: King Street North

The two-block stretch of King Street North from University Avenue to Columbia Street is booming with residential development. One surprising thing about the development is that at least two of the enormous new buildings are designed for non-students: one of these near the corner of Columbia is nearly complete, and the other at the corner of University is in the planning stage. The denisty of this area is bolstered by the line of apartment buildings along Regina Street North, just one block to the east.

The mixture of non-students is a very good thing, and creates a more stable neighborhood. As we relearn every year around this time, creating ghettos of student housing results in all kinds of problems, especially for the few non-students unlucky enough to still be living in the area.

You have to wonder why the Region's rapid transit is bypassing King Street North altogether (the route runs from uptown Waterloo through Waterloo Park, across UW campus and up to Conestoga Mall). The Region seems most concerned about giving UW students a convenient way to get to class in UW's new distributed campus - especially the Pharmacy School in Kitchener and the Balsillie School in Uptown Waterloo. For Waterloo, the RT is more of a campus shuttle than municipal transit.

The University of Waterloo can pay for shuttle buses for its students to get around. When I was an undergraduate at Trent, which has colleges in several locations, we had a free shuttle bus and it worked very well. I'm not anti-UW by any means (I'm an alumna and also practically grew up on campus, and am very fond of the place), but this route is just nuts. We're talking about an incredibly expensive transit initiative - building the thing will cost over half a billion dollars just for Phase 1 - and the costs of running it will also be very high. You don't get self-sustaining transit that is largely used by students who pay less than $10/month for unlimited travel (I believe they currently pay $35 for a 4-month term). In addition, students are almost all young; they can walk a bit further to a bus stop or take a slightly slower bus: surely the priority for fast convenient transit should not be students.

If the city of Waterloo were designing a rapid transit route to best suit the needs of Waterlooians, you have to think that it would take a very different route. Instead of being hijacked by decisions made at the Region, we should all take a step back and rethink rapid transit from a Waterloo perspective. After all, Waterloo tax dollars are going to help pay for it, and Waterloo residents are going to suffer reductions in other transit routes if this thing loses money.

We used to have a trolley in K-W that went straight down King Street, turning around just north of University. At the other end it turned at Rockway Gardens. I'm no expert on routes, but I'd like to hear a justification for why the bulk of the RT route in Waterloo should be park and campus. It's also time that we saw revenue projections for the RT.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Early Days of the Oliphant Commission Favor Mulroney's Version of Events

Things are definitely looking up for Brian Mulroney after today's testimony at the Oliphant Commission. Three important areas were covered, all of which point towards Mulroney's original story about the $300,000 being true (that he was paid for legitimate lobbying work after leaving office). The areas are:

1. Mulroney's lawyer Guy Pratte got Schreiber to admit that he and Mulroney didn't really sign an agreement two days before Mulroney stepped down, as Schreiber had previously claimed. Mulroney and Schreiber only "agreed to agree." I don't know what the legal status of "agree to agree" is, but it sounds like it could at least be interpreted as not an agreement.

2. Pratte got Schreiber to agree that around the time he paid Mulroney, Bear Head issued a pamphlet saying that the vehicles were designed for UN peacekeeping. This might make more credible Mulroney's claim that he was lobbying the governments of China and Russia. (I don't know the details of peacekeeping, but the main complaint about the China/Russia claim is that it would violate NATO rules for Canada to sell them armaments.)

3. A smaller point, but we learned that when Schreiber met with Fred Doucet on Feb 4 2000 and Doucet gave Schreiber the draft of a letter stating that Mulroney had worked for Schreiber as a lobbyist, Schreiber edited a copy of the letter. (His scribbled copy, which Doucet presumably kept, was entered into evidence.) Previously Schreiber had said that Mulroney's friends had tried to pressure him into stating that he had hired Mulroney; now it looks like he almost went along with it.

According to Kady O'Malley's live blog of the hearings today, Robin Sears made this announcement today:

"The central matter of public trust at issue in the Inquiry was Karlheinz Schreiber’s assertion, made in his affidavit of November 2007, that he and Mr. Mulroney had entered into an agreement at Harrington Lake while he was still Prime Minister in 1993.

Today, Mr. Schreiber admitted that was not true and that the agreement was made at Mirabel on August 27,1993, two months after Mr. Mulroney had left office.

The core foundation of Mr.Schreiber’s accusations against Mr. Mulroney has been destroyed by his own testimony under oath today."

It's starting to look like the real offence here was that Mulroney initially tried to hide the money from Revenue Canada. But since he made a voluntary disclosure in 1999, he's clear of any wrongdoing there.

I have been very critical of Mulroney throughout this scandal, but if this is the truth, then we need to know it. Of course there's still lots of testimony to come, and Schreiber made a bizarre promise yesterday morning that he would reveal details of seven scandals...


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Call for Another Inquiry

Finally, finally, finally, an official body is poised to get to the bottom of at least some aspects of Mulroney-related corruption. It's 25 years after most of this stuff took place (and more, if you count the arms dealer-funded ouster of Joe Clark as party leader). It's 15 years since the Chretien government settled out of court with Mulroney for $2.1M - in a case where Mulroney's cries of innocence have been found to be untrue.

The RCMP botched the investigation thoroughly, and by dropping it they seemed to imply that Mulroney was innocent. Media, particularly the Globe & Mail, W5, Harvey Cashore and Stevie Cameron, pursued the story when half the country angrily wanted everyone to shut up about it. Year after year they doggedly recovered more and more details, until finally Mulroney had to admit to taking large amounts of cash from Schreiber, and finally even Mulroney's own party had to call an inquiry.

Stevie Cameron was pilloried, completely unfairly - caught in a world of dirty politics trying to protect their own. She has mostly backed away from the story now, and it's interesting that the last thing she posted on her blog was the original anonymous tip she got, back in 1988, a hand-lettered note saying, "FRANK [MOORE] HAS ARRANGED FOR AIR CANADA TO BUY $2 BILLION WORTH OF FRENCH AIRPLANES, AND HE GETS A COOL 5% OR $100 MILLION. OF COURSE, THE FRENCH WILL PAY THE COMMISSION, BUT $300 MILLION WILL COME FROM OTTAWA, AND YOU KNOW YOU AND I PAY FOR THAT. CHECK IT OUT." 21 years on, and it's all being proved true.

After the Oliphant commission completes its work, we need a commission into how this egregious delay was allowed to happen. I know, I know: commissions cost the earth; but we can't live in a democracy where our prime ministers and their cronies are robbing the country blind and getting away with it. There's plenty of blame to go around in both main parties, so this doesn't have to be partisan.

My main concern is the utter incompetence of the RCMP: did they bow to pressure from the political bosses of the day? Did Chretien want to cover up Mulroney's wrondoing to avoid setting a precedent that might hurt him? And most importantly: How can we avoid, in future, a situation where a prime minister can be corrupt and get away with it?


Monday, April 13, 2009

While the Cash Cow was Milked...

Nearly all of the top retail banks in the US and Europe are still operating core systems from the 1960s, based on creaking mainframe technology. Frequently, this is attached to a chaotic IT estate of some 600 surrounding applications or more, rendering the core systems environment not only inflexible but quite often untouchable. - The Banker

In contrast, new banks in emerging markets, "in particular Asia-Pacific countries including India, China, Taiwan, Thailand and Korea, have competed or initiated projects to replace their core systems, and in turn rationalise their IT estates. 2007 some 50% of Asia-Pacific banks began investing in projects to reduce the costs of running core systems, and to rationalise their systems architecture. core technologies have evolved highly agile component-based architectures, which are frequently inexpensive to operate and easy to integrate."

A main advantage of the more techno-savvy banks is the speed with which they can react to market opportunities by launching new products with "hyper-speed to market". They are ahead in their mobile banking offerings, and have expanded ATMs into multi-functional service areas where customers can arrange loans, pay tuition, and on and on.

For years western banks knew they should upgrade their systems and they even planned upgrades, but according to the article they were "distracted by revenue growth". Another unfortunate side effect of our recent bubble, I suppose.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Is Morality Too Relativistic?

Back when the first Lord of the Rings movie came out I was talking to a friend about the books and I mentioned that my favorite character had always been Sam. My friend was somewhat taken aback by that and said that Sam was the only thing he didn't like about the books, to the point that Sam's character almost spoiled the books for him. He was bothered by the fact that Sam was presented as a low-class person who voluntarily served as Frodo's servant, called him Master, and so on.

My friend is British, and it dawned on me that during his childhood 40-odd years ago, classism was a big problem that had probably left him sensitive to that form of discrimination - while during my childhood in the US and Canada in the same time period, I became most sensitive to the issues of racism and sexism. Does that mean there was no class discrimination in North America? - Certainly not, but even though there is all kinds of evidence that poverty is self-perpetuating, North Americans still don't talk much about class discrimination.

Likewise, while there's mainstream agreement that racism is an abuse of human rights, my sensitivity to sexism is something that few people seem to share. When I blogged about sexism facing the Hillary Clinton campaign last year, commenters were borderline abusive. One fellow blogger who I generally agree with wrote that I was making a fool of myself by repeatedly writing about sexism. Most denied that there is any serious sexism at all, and some even felt that it's men who are widely discriminated against. It's one thing to disagree with someone and it's another thing to tell them that their sense of right and wrong is invalid, silly and overblown. It seems that others see my moral sense as a pet peeve.

When I lived in Africa I had an eyewitness view of one culture trying to impose a moral code on another. Many Africans were unimpressed - simply because we were so inconsistent. There were massive campaigns to get Africans to wear condoms to slow the spread of AIDS - with all sorts of funding and advertisements; there were other massive campaigns (by Roman Catholics) telling them that they'd go to hell if they used condoms. Many Africans told me that they refused to take the issue of condoms seriously because of the conflicting messages.

Africans I met were also plenty angry about whites moralizing about human rights. As they explained it, not long ago the colonial powers flogged wrong-doers and used capital punishment; now they've changed their minds and decided that both are human rights abuses. If we can change our minds so quickly about weighty moral issues, we cannot expect others to take our sense of right and wrong seriously.

These days, in western cultures, moral issues seem to mostly be about social control. A "good" person is one who is unselfish, generous, helpful, honest, law-abiding, and so on. It doesn't have to be like that. A good person could be someone who is self-reflective, fully realized, creative, open to new ideas. Instead of "do no harm," our preiminent moral imperative could be "know thyself." Social rules could be something that we have to follow because we live together, but that are pragmatic rather than moral issues. In other words, we wouldn't have to teach our kids to feel shame at their natural urges to be selfish or unkind. We could instead instill a deep inner drive to express their souls.

I'm not arguing that we should do that; I'm just trying to create a convincing alternative to our current moral sense. There could be many others. I'm an atheist and not a fan of religion, and I don't see that there's any reason to adopt Christian morality when you don't accept Christian dogma. It would be interesting to learn to drop the shame we learned as children (also known as internalized morality) and to adopt a more rational moral sense.


Eyes on the Prize

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Come In Under the Big Tent

That former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was dirty we have known for a long time, certainly since the 1995 release of Stevie Cameron's On the Take. Recent revelations about his connections, while PM, to $20M in Airbus bribes and $4M in Thyssen bribes have been so convincing that even his own party is trying to pretend he isn't a member. The long-delayed public inquiry into some of his shenanigans will produce a flood of fresh news articles in coming weeks.

Meanwhile Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is taking a conciliatory tone towards Mulroney, pointing out that he deserves some respect as a former PM. And so he should. I assume (hope) that Liberal brass are trying to lure Mulroney conservatives out of the Conservative party and into the Liberal. They would fit into the Liberal party far better than they do in the far-right party that Harper has created.

It's a wonder to me that so many Progressive Conservatives stayed in the party after the hostile take-over that forcibly merged the PCs and Reform-Alliance. It takes brand loyalty too far to remain loyal after everything but the name has changed. Conservatives who supported Joe Clark are essentially Liberals. Conservatives who supported Mulroney are closer to Ignatieff than they are to Harper. Harper not only changed the values and policies of the Conservative party, but also moved its base to Alberta. Harper's autocratic, centralized-power style has been designed to keep down the majority of the party who are not natural followers of his far-right ideology.

Conservatives might think that it's a little craven of me to write about non-Reformers in their ranks moving over to my party, but I think the time has come to open the discussion. It was six years ago that Peter MacKay was made leader of the Conservative party on the written promise that he would not merge with the Reformers, and six years ago that MacKay bought himself a cabinet seat by handing his party over to Harper.

The strength of the Liberal party is that it responds to the needs of all Canadians and not just a narrow base; it is jokingly called Canada's "natural governing party" because it offers the most responsive, responsible governing style. The Liberal party tries to be fiscally conservative and socially progressive - a balance it can never achieve perfectly, but it's the only party even attempting it. Chretien/Martin spent a decade wiping out the structural deficits created during the Mulroney era; it took Harper only two years to create another structural deficit (before the recession), despite slashing social funding.

All evidence so far points to Mulroney's corruption being totally for his own gain, with no taint on his party or supporters. The Harper Conservatives are hanging Mulroney out to dry, so people who believed in Mulroney's policies should give some thought to leaving Harper and either forming their own party or joining up with their natural allies in the Liberal party.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Tear Down the Icons

While we're being justifiably outraged at the corporate oligarchs who took outrageous risks with our money, garnered massive bonuses, wrecked their companies and are now the recipients of massive bailouts (and more massive bonuses), let's open up the discussion a little to take a fresh look at our relationship with celebrities, as well.

The culture of entitlement that has emboldened the CEO/director class to pillage public companies is not an attitude that stops at the end of Wall Street. Our culture's celebration of wealth has allowed all rich people to have a free ride in most aspects of their behavior. Money and celebrity have become far too important in our collective value system. Our celebrity culture has become almost celebrity worship. A better example could not exist than yesterday's interview of Billy Bob Thornton by Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio (which was also filmed).

Thornton's band would never have been featured on Ghomeshi's show if not for Thornton's Hollywood fame. After a brief introduction Ghomeshi, who is a successful musician himself, tried to start what could have been an interesting conversation about the band's development and musical influences. Thornton, in a snit (apparently over Gomeshi's having mentioned that Thornton is an actor and at Toronto's anti-smoking by-law) was as rude and petulant as anyone I've ever seen over the age of three.

(I've always thought that for every Hollywood success there are thousands of struggling actors who are just as talented, business-savvy, charismatic and attractive. People make it to the top through a mixture of luck and strategy. Thornton falls into the strategy camp, having made his name in the tabloid papers as the face-licking husband of Angelina Jolie a decade ago. Perhaps that's why he's impatient with people talking about his acting chops: deep down he knows how unjustified the accolades are.)

It was perhaps a rare glimpse into how a Hollywood star interacts with the world. Normally hidden behind a phalanx of staff or following a highly scripted PR agenda, we rarely see a celebrity's real attitudes. Thornton stepped out from behind the curtain and let us see what he really thinks of us. It wasn't pretty.

Sometimes wake-up calls come from small incidents. We may not be able to fully comprehend that Wall Street is currently ripping off hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout money, but injustice hits us in the gut when we read about bankers in London taking bets on how many citizens would die, be injured, or be arrested during the G20 protests.

Every day brings fresh wake-up calls. It's time for a change.