Sunday, March 26, 2006

If I Ran the Zoo

Here are some issues I think should be topping political agendas this year.

You might notice that health care isn't on the list. I think health care is always important, but I'm starting to think that the Canadian health care problems that started about 10 years ago were a temporary transition after the federal government changed the system of transfers to provinces. Health care is no longer in crisis, and the past crisis has better prepared us for future potential problems because the Supreme Court has ruled on the acceptable level of delays for treatment.

Pension Reform
Most private sector workers have no pension coverage at all, and those who do are discovering just how insecure the coverage is as companies declare bankruptcy or restructure in order to end their pension obligations. Currently, civil servants are the only people who have guaranteed pensions. The unfairness of this situation is even greater because civil servant pensions are financed by the taxes of people who do not have pensions. We are soon going to have a large underclass of impoverished elderly while one sector of society can take early retirement, have full benefits into their twilight years, and receive high levels of income.

There aren't nearly enough subsidized houses for the upcoming generation of seniors. There are less and less family structures in place to help. The location of food banks and social services often assume that people are hale and hearty and can take buses, walk up stairs, or carry home heavy boxes. As the first wave of baby boomers approach 60 we have a looming humanitarian disaster.

One solution would be to provide much higher government pension benefits, perhaps financed by cutbacks in benefits to civil servants. Some government pension benefits are already clawed back if there are other sources of income, and the claw-backs should be increased. Another possibility is to greatly increase low-income senior benefits such as dental care and housing.

A big problem with getting a debate started is that the people who should be working on the issue (politicians, the civil service and academics) are all guaranteed nice fat pensions and seem to not understand the issue and not care.

Education Reform
Some suggestions for change:

Our school year was designed for an agrarian society in which children were needed to help out on the farm. Nowadays most mothers work outside the home, and their work does not take a hiatus in July and August. Likewise, students need to learn a lot more now than they did a hundred-odd years ago when the school year was set. We need to consider dumping the current 180-day school year and moving to a 240-day, year-round school year (as Germany and Japan have).

In Ontario, a big slice of the budget goes to bussing kids to school. This seems like a wholly unnecessary expense that is caused, in part, by our relatively new system of dual school boards (regular and Catholic). This system separates schools from neighborhoods. Although a high proportion of the population is Catholic and this initiative received unanimous bipartisan support in the Ontario legislature, it's bad for students and for communities and should be reconsidered.

All students in universities and community colleges should have the option of cooperative education in which one-third of every year is a coop work term. This would enhance their studies, help them finance their educations, and prepare them for the work world.

Community Development
We need to reform our approach to urban planning. We all agree that global warming is a problem, and yet we continue with endless urban sprawl that makes public transit unaffordable. After years of attempts to re-invigorate our city centers we still build megamalls on the outside of town. In my town a few years ago, City Council even wanted to move the public library way out on the outskirts of town.

There are systemic reasons that municipal governments often don't provide proper urban planning. In Ontario, there's the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which is pro-developer and which can override local governments. Also, it seems that we don't have strong or smart enough city and regional councils; we need more involvement in and commitment to this level of government.

Environmental Regulation
Politicians have started talking about reducing oil consumption, and Canada has signed on to the Kyoto Accord, but we are doing hardly anything to actually improve our environmental record. Some major causes of pollution are: industry; cars; personal consumption. For industry, we need more regulations on polluting. For cars, we need higher gas prices and a hefty surcharge on new car sales based on gas consumption. For consumption, we need public awareness campaigns. We also need regulations on packaging; for example, why not insist that pop and wine bottles be refillable.

We need a clear, non-ideological understanding of the ramifications of the industrialization and growing economic strength of two countries comprising over 2.5 billion people. Our theories of free trade envisioned countries of roughly equal size; I don't support protectionism, but we need to re-examine our approach based on current realities.

We also need to address the issue of pollution in these growing states and the looming environmental disaster from millions of new factories and hundreds of millions of new cars that have no emission controls or other environmental regulation. Perhaps we can tie access to our markets to better environmental regulations.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

Think Spring

Years ago I met a man who told me that he and his family had once lived on a street with great neighbors. They had lots of street parties and he could wander out in his front yard on a summer evening and find someone to talk to. He said that he and his wife decided to buy a fancier house, but when they moved they discovered that not all streets were like that. Their new neighbors were not chummy or chatty and they never again found that sense of community.

It hasn't been a particularly hard winter but I'm ready for Spring. I took my bike out for the first time today. Despite a little freezing rain it was a good ride, and I found myself wishing there was something fun going on outside where I could be part of my community.

My mathematician/juggler cousin told me about San Francisco's Urban Iditarod, also known as the Idiotarod, which is held each March on the day the Iditarod starts in Alaska. In the SF event people pretending to be dogs pull shopping carts and the route includes many stops for beer. According to my cousin it retains a nice element of the bizarre but it has become a victim of its own success---too big and too slow---so he says the Ann Arbor shopping cart race is more fun.

I suppose I could ride my bike around town looking for other bicyclists. Critical Mass is a movement in many cities in which bicyclists meet up on the last Friday of the month and just, well, bike around. That sounds benign but things can get interesting when thousands of bikes converge during rush hour. Critical mass is also more than a bike ride in that it is an exercise in people-driven organization. For example, it has spawned the term Xerocracy---the idea that nobody is in charge, but anyone who has an idea should print it up, xerox it, and pass it around (literally or figuratively).

My town has some summer festivals, but the weather is iffy even in June so they don't start till July. It also seems that any event that's organized by City Hall is by definition going to be a bit lame. They're like work events organized by HR... too concerned about getting sued or offending anyone and not open to individual initiative.

For example, we have a busker festival that's pretty good but the buskers are screened to ensure there's no unwholesomeness. Compare that to a Fringe festival where shows are chosen by ballot and there is no screening whatsoever. There's an extra frisson if you don't know what will happen---good, bad or weird. Like during a musical at the Toronto Fringe when a guitarist called Bartok Guitarsplat just suddenly took off all his clothes. It wasn't even completely gratuitous: after that, we didn't ignore the music.

In neighborhoods in East Africa there is a tradition of impromptu parades in which a bunch of (mostly) women and kids bang empty beer cans together and ululate, and people they pass join on. I can't remember why they occur, but they're fun because they seem joyful, unplanned and goofy.

So I guess March in southern Ontario is not the time to be longing for a spontaneous outdoor community event. Even the Engineering students (the wildest of the campus rowdies) are buckling down in preparation for finals. Maybe I'm too old for it anyway. Or maybe I just gave up looking for that friendly street.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Clash of Civilizations

It's so easy to get mesmerized by the invasion of Iraq and general strong-arm tactics of the US that I sometimes forget that this may not be the main front in the evolution of Arab-Western relations.

In my previous blog The Burqa, I detailed some of the upheaval in northern European countries surrounding tension between Islamic and non-Islamic communities. The Dutch, Danish, and others are having some tough times. Politicians have been murdered. Some laws that address the tensions seem to go too far.

We may be lucky that these tensions are coming to a head in northern Europe, which has long had a reputation as the most tolerant and progressive place in the world. My guess is that they'll work it out, tensions will subside, their societies will be better off for it, and they will provide a model for the rest of the world to follow.

After all, our society is firmly committed to multiculturalism. All kinds of disparate groups co-exist in Canadian society who don't assimilate, such as Old Order Mennonites, new age religious cultists and native Indians. I don't see why the most traditional, fundamentalist Muslims shouldn't be able to maintain their faith and co-exist just as well.

There have had to be some compromises. After losing a 10 year legal battle, Old Order Mennonites were forced to install electricity to refrigerate milk in their dairy barns, and they have to put orange triangles on the back of their horse-drawn buggies. So far Ontario has rejected Sharia law (though narrowly) and polygamy.

But consider the case of 81-year old Doukhobor Mary Braun, who burned down a British Columbia school in 2001 and refused to wear clothing at her trial. There were no major outcries against her anarchist-arsonist-nudist sect. In fact, there was a great deal of unsolicited support.

Prior to 9/11 I wouldn't have worried so much about the future of Muslim/non-Muslim relations in the West. It's a tense time all around, but I'm starting to feel that the western intolerance may be temporary.

I'm not quite as sure about Muslim intolerance, but then I know a lot less. Two recent columns in Al Jazeera (link and link) make me a bit worried.

But we have to distinguish between issues in Arab countries and issues in western countries. For example, I'm appalled at calls to execute Abdul Rahm for converting to Christianity, and we should speak out against it: but that is the internal business of the Afghans. However, the murder of Pim Fortuyn is very much the business of Holland because he was a Dutch politician killed in Holland. Similarly, we have to be careful not to conflate Muslims in Pakistan who riot to protest Danish cartoons with Muslims in Toronto who have orderly protests.

There is a movement for reform in the Arab world. This special section in Al Jazeera pulls together a number of discussions about ways to reform Arab states and even Islam.

Of course, outside of domestic issues, the two big problems in Western-Arab relations are Israel and the US, and I don't know if there's any reason to feel that there's hope on those fronts.

I'm not sure how much Israeli/Arab peace is up to the Israelis. They have to protect themselves from the stated goal of genocide by their neighbors. While they have made some missteps in the peace process, they seem to have made a legitimate effort time and time again that was rebuffed. I don't think the situation can improve until the Palestinians want it to.

The US is a very different problem. I wouldn't be surprised if members of the current administration are prosecuted for war crimes one day, but their disastrous middle east policies could turn on a dime in the next election. However, the US practice of "spreading democracy" around the world, which also means spreading US business interests, is deeply entrenched and may not be called off so easily. Anyone around the world who has the strength to push back is going to want to do it, and that doesn't bode well for the world.


Saturday, March 18, 2006


This just posted on Al Jazeera (though I imagine it will soon be flying through the news world): Bird flu kills woman in Egypt.

What are we to make of this bird flu thing? It appears that there is no cure for bird flu - at least not yet. The Egyptian woman was given Tamiflu but still died two days after her symptoms appeared, and not long after she reported having infected chickens.

My grandmother in Chicago once told me that a third of her family died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Worldwide, it killed tens of millions. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta says that another global flu pandemic is inevitable.

In Plague Time : The New Germ Theory of Disease, Paul Ewald argues the theory of evolutionary epidemiology, in which disease is seen as an adapting force following Darwinian laws. Whether it's a parasite, cancer or virus, the goal of a disease organism is to survive and produce more offspring than competing organisms. In many cases these organisms reproduce rapidly, and so the evolution is very rapid. We can predict, and potentially control, the progress of the organism by understanding the conditions in which it develops.

For example, Ewald has discovered that when cholera exists in an environment where it is not widely spread, it becomes more benign. This makes sense because it must keep its host alive in order to spread. When it is in a place where there is unclean water and it can spread rapidly, the virus is much more virulent because it can kill the host and still be transmitted.

Ewald says that the 1919 flu virus became as virulent as it did only because it grew in the trenches of the Western front during WWI and then was carried home by soldiers as they were demobbed. He says, "Such conditions must have favored the predator-like variants of the influenza virus; these variants would have a competitive edge because they could ruthlessly exploit a person for their own replication and still get transmitted to large numbers of susceptible individuals. These conditions have not recurred in human populations since then and, accordingly, we have never had any outbreaks of influenza viruses that have been anywhere near as harmful as those that emerged at the Western Front. So long as we do not allow such conditions to occur again we have little to fear from a reevolution of such a predatory virus."

Ewald believes that bird flu will not result in the deadly pandemic that the CDC is predicting. That's good news. My one concern with his analysis is whether there is no place in our diverse world that might provide the right conditions to develop a killer virus, but of course there would also have to be a rapid mode of transmission akin to WWI demobbing that could spread the disease before it mutates into a less harmful form. If Ewald is right, the bad news is that we're squandering resources on false threats like bird flu when we could be using them to fight diseases that are currently wrecking millions of lives.

Ewald believes that evolutionary epidemology will lead to the eradication of many of the health problems of our time, possibly including cancer, AIDS, malaria, and diabetes, at very little cost. His caution is that there is going to be big time push-back from the pharmaceutical industry, biomedical researchers, and even health professionals, all of whom may become much less necessary in society. Ewald warns that his approach "does not mesh nicely with the profit motive of the free market." Therefore, government priorities and funding are going to have to change if this new approach to disease is going to be successful.


Review of "On Edge" by Jon Jackson

On Edge: Backroom Dealing, Cocktail Scheming, Triple Axels, and How Top Skaters Get Screwed. Jon Jackson (Hardcover, 2005)

There's a lot one can say about this book. It's a personal account, full of bitterness against figure skating officials Jackson doesn't like. It reveals a bias against non-US skaters so strong that I can't believe he was ever a fair international judge. However, memoirs that reveal the biases of the author are often the most interesting, and they allow us to form our own informed opinions. Jackson does not hide that to reach the top ranks as a judge and skating official he played the game, and he even refers to himself as a "phony amongst phonies." (p183)

I am very critical of the book, but I recommend it heartily. It's an engrossing and fascinating look at the corruption in amateur figure skating judging by an informed insider.

An intriguing part of the book, never fully developed, is the allegation that the Russian mafia is behind figure skating corruption. Jackson alludes to this in several places:

- Following the 2002 Olympic pairs judging scandal, the Italian police arrested Russian mobster Alimzhan Toktakhounov and released the transcript of a phone call in which he told his friend Chevalier Nusuyev that he had helped fix the Salt Lake City ice dance competition in order to get a French visa. (p229) The 2005 murder of Chevalier Nusuyev meant that "the preparations for Russian Gold in 2006 had begun." (p291)
- After Maria Butyrskaya said she was tired of sharing her skating wealth with Russian mobsters, her car was blown up and her boyfriend, Sergei Sterlyagov, was murdered. In each case, the crime was committed shortly before she was to skate in an important event. (p209)
- After blowing the whistle on figure skating corruption, the FBI warned the author never to go to Russia again because the Russian mob was involved in the corruption and his life would be in danger. (p232-3)

A strange omission in this book is any reference to proven judge collusion before Salt Lake City. In fact, Jackson claims repeatedly that the Salt Lake pairs debacle was the first time there was proof that judges cheated. In reality, it had been proved numerous times before.

For example, at the 1998 Olympic games, Canadian judge Jean Senft was approached by Ukrainian judge Yuri Balkov, who asked her to vote for Ukrainian skaters in exchange for his support for Canadian ice dancers. Senft agreed to discuss the deal, but only so that she could tape the conversation. The result? Her recording was so damning that the Internatinal Skating Union (ISU) was forced to take action against Balkov, but in a warning to all whistle blowers, the ISU also suspended Senft.

During the 1999 world championships, Canadian television captured obvious collusion between Ukraine judge Alfred Korytek and Russian judge Sviatoslav Babenko during a controversial pairs event in which Berezhnaya & Sikharulidze won gold over Shen & Zhao, who many thought should have won. The result? Korytek and Babenko got a suspension, and TV cameras are no longer allowed to film judges.

But back to the book...

Jackson spends so much time on his personal grievances that his analysis of what's wrong with figure skating gets somewhat lost in the mire. The following allegations, some of which are just hinted at, deserve more thought:

- The US Figure Skating Association (USFSA) has a budget of $16 million, with a surplus of $3 million, and yet spends only $1.6 million on athletes (p247), even if there are spots for US athletes on international events that go unfilled because athletes can't afford to attend, and even if US skaters have to travel to ISU events without their coaches because they can't afford to take them.
- USFSA and ISU officials are volunteers, yet live like kings when attending skating events, while skaters and coaches stay in modest, often inconveniently located, accommodations.
- ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta, who has autocratic control over the ISU, has amassed millions since taking control of the ISU, possibly from kickbacks from national federations wanting his support for officials or skaters. (p265 and elsewhere)
- The ISU and USFSA do not exist for the skaters, but for the personal profit/enjoyment of the officials.
- The International Olympic Committee is also corrupt, and supports ISU corruption. Only the IOC can fix the problems with figure skating. (p280)
- There may be a doping problem in figure skating, as evidenced by Irina Slutskaya's heart problems, which may be due to steroid use. (p147)

Jackson is an opponent of the new scoring system, and he repeatedly says that it will alienate skating fans. He is wrong in this. The new scoring system (minus the anonymous judging rule that came in with it) is extremely popular. Instead of focusing only on who wins, we can see that skaters have achieved a personal best or even a record. It may still be open to abuse, but it's a vast improvement over the old 6.0.

However, I agree completely with Jackson in his detailed analysis of how Tonya Harding was hosed by the USFSA (p144-9). When he's not talking about a skater he favors, he provides a lot of insight.

But in the end, I'm sad to say, Jackson is so much a product of the corrupt system that he isn't competent to critique it. His bias towards "his" skaters and "his" officials is so extreme that he is not credible. That's a real pity, because lovers of figure skating like myself are horrified by the level of corruption that we see over and over again in competitions. On Canadian TV, the commentators barely express an opinion anymore about the relative quality of skating performances, presumably because the outcome is too often unrelated to what happens on the ice.

See also:
Figure Skating at the Olympics 2006


Friday, March 10, 2006

The Burqa

Looking through Al Jazeera today, I came across the article Dismay about possible Dutch burqa ban.

The article starts out by stating that Dutch politicians are considering the ban because the burqa is a security threat. There seems to be justification for such a law in cases such as passport control. However, according to the article, the Dutch government is planning a total ban on wearing the burqa.

The Al Jazeera article is interesting because it provides a pro-burqa perspective. A photo of burqa-clad women walking in a group of fluttering light blue behind a US soldier in full body armor seems manipulative to me, but from another perspective it probably sums up the situation that Muslims face in the world today.

One day when I was living in East Africa I bought a day pass to a luxury hotel to use the pool. An Arab family was also there. The men and boys in the family swam in bathing suits, along with girls up to about age 10 wearing long sleeved t-shirts and long pants, while five older girls and women, completely covered in black burqas, sat on chairs nearby. Next to the burqas were three women from South Africa who were buck naked, stretched out on their backs on deck chairs, drinking a lot of beer and smoking. When they were done with a cigarette they would toss it over their heads onto the concrete, even though people were walking around barefoot. As the day went by, I realized that these two groups of women at either end of the propriety scale were at ease together. They didn't talk to each other, but they were friendly.

I still remember the first time I saw a burqa in Canada: I felt like I'd been smacked in the face. It was a shock, even frightening, to see a woman who wasn't allowed to show herself. It seemed a personal threat to my own freedom.

Why didn't I react like the boorish South Africans? Why don't the Dutch?

In the Dutch context, you have to consider the murders of Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn. The Dutch filmmaker van Gogh said some absolutely disgusting things about Jews and the Holocaust. He was irreverant and rude about all religions. But it was his criticism of the Islamic treatment of women that got him murdered in 2004. Fortuyn was a Dutch intellectual and politician who openly challenged the intolerance of the Islamic community in Holland. He was assassinated in 2002 for this position, resulting in an upsurge in national concern about the issue.

Then there's the widespread Islamic violence in reaction to Danish cartoons. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten solicited the cartoons in 2005 to start a dialogue about self-censorship in the Danish press. The result has been self-censorship all over the world, in fear of violent reprisal. Take a look a the cartoons and decide for yourself whether they're offensive.

In 2004, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad published The Bookseller of Kabul, a best-selling expose of life under the burqa. After reading this brilliant book, no-one is going to fall for the line that burqas are harmless expressions of respect that do not curtail a woman's freedom.

And yet, despicable as they are, we can't ban the burqa. We can restrict immigration, we can do more to integrate immigrants, we can wage a PR war, but we can't forbid someone from wearing the clothing they choose, except for situations such as security.

Update, December 2006: A Canadian Arab named Tarek Fatah has a web site called Say No to the Burka in which he largely quotes articles by Muslim women against the burqa. I learned a lot from this site, including that in Turkey it is illegal for women to cover their heads in government offices and schools.


Monday, March 06, 2006

March Menu: Ham & Morels, Wild Rice, and Pear Tart

The recipes in this menu serve up to 6 people. Serve with steamed broccoli and baked yams for a special family meal or a dinner party. All of these recipes can be made in advance if desired.

Wild Rice

1 cup raw wild rice
3 cups water
1 tsp salt
3 T butter
1/2 white onion
1 or 2 carrots
1 or 2 stalks of celery
8 to 12 white button mushrooms
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Put wild rice, water and salt in a pot. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until the rice is tender, which will take from 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the age and variety of wild rice. If there's any excess water, strain it and discard.

Dice the vegetables into tiny pieces. Sautee them lightly in the butter.

Mix cooked rice, vegetables and pecans in a buttered casserole. You can now refrigerate the dish and heat it later, or use it right away. In either case, bake the uncovered casserole in a 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes or until hot through.

Ham Steaks with a Morel Brown Sauce

2 lb ham steaks (about)
3 T butter
3 T flour
1 10 oz can beef broth
1/3 cup sherry
1 bay leaf
1 T dried morels or 4 fresh
1/2 cup whipping cream

Melt butter, stir in flour, and cook over low heat for 3 minutes. Stir in broth, slowly at first so it doesn't lump. Add sherry and bay leaf. Simmer, uncovered, until it reduces by about a third, about 20 minutes. Discard the bay leaf.

If you are using dried morels, they might have dirt and grit. To get rid of this, soak them in hot water for 10 minutes. Put a paper towel in a seive and drain, draining the liquid into the sauce. Dice the morels and add to the sauce. Stir in the whipping cream. If the sauce is too thin you can cook it down some more. Taste: you may want to add more morels, depending on how flavorful yours are.

Ham steaks are already cooked. Fry them to brown the outside and heat through. Put on a platter and top with sauce to serve. If you have extra sauce, serve it on the side.

Pear Tart

This easy tart has a shortbread crust, a thin layer of pears, and a sweet glaze.

1.5 cups flour
3/4 cup cold butter (One and a half sticks)
2 T sugar
pinch salt
3 T ice water (about)

Put the flour, butter, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Process for a few seconds, until the mixture looks like coarse meal. With the machine running, add the water and process for about 30 more seconds. If the dough does not form into a ball, add a little more water and process until it does form a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate at least one hour.

Roll out the dough into a 12-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Put it in a 9-inch tart pan. It's especially good if the crust is fairly thick. Prick the bottom of the dough with a fork. While you're preparing the filling, pop it in the freezer for a few minutes before adding the filling.

2 or 3 medium-ripe pears, peeled and cored
5 T sugar
4 T butter
1 T fruit liqueur, brandy, or orange juice
1/2 cup flaked almonds (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Cut the pears into very thin slices. Fan the slices over the cooled pie crust. Sprinkle with sugar. Cut the butter into small pieces and dot the pears with the butter. Sprinkle with the liquor or orange juice. Optionally, sprinkle with almonds.

Bake until the pears are carmelized and the crust is brown, about 30-40 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before applying glaze.

1/2 cup apricot jam (or another type of jam or jelly)
2 T fruit liqueur, brandy, or orange juice

Heat the jam and liquor or juice in the microwave until it's liquid. If it's lumpy or has pips, put it through a strainer. Spoon the glaze over the baked tart.

Good served warm or cold.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Stop the Presses!

Back in January I saw an article in Al Jazeera about Russian plans to mine the moon (link). Russia is planning to have a permanent base on the moon within 10 years, with mining starting five years after that. I wondered how I could have missed such an explosive story (and to be honest, I was a little doubtful of its credibility) so did a google search and found that only one other online newspaper had the story (Pravda), although a couple of science sites had picked it up.

Now a couple of months later it's still not big news. Lots of blogs and science sites have it, but other than Yahoo news and the Washington Times (not my first choice for reliability), North American newspapers haven't picked it up. None of the New York Times, Washington Post or Globe & Mail have covered it.

The space elevator has had slightly better press than moon mining, but the idea has been around for a long time and NASA has really pushed it. One of their web pages is headlined Audacious and Outrageous and someone has even created a wikipedia page. Even so, few people seem to have heard that we may have cheap and easy access to outer space within our lifetimes, without a space shuttle.

I was talking to a science type I know about the mass closure of university chemistry departments in England, and he suggested that if they renamed chemistry "nanotechnology" the discipline would probably be growing, not shrinking.

But surely we can't be saying that moon mining and space elevators sound boring. This is thrilling stuff. Perhaps the deaths of shuttle crews has curbed the public's appetite for news of outer space?

Public understanding matters. If moon mining and space elevators were part of our public discourse, it would be much more likely that commercial opportunities would be identified that would help push these initiatives along. NASA estimates that an initial space elevator would cost about $5 billion. That doesn't sound like much for technology that will provide a platform to launch satellites and space ships that is cheaper, safer, and less harmful to our environment than existing technology.


Beatles and beards

So now Paul McCartney is going on Larry King Live to talk about the seal hunt. What a great publicity stunt for the aging rock star. It makes me almost wish I hadn't blogged on the topic (was I just playing into some PR rep's scheme?) and makes me gladder that I was pretty brutal in my characterization of Paul (something I have been feeling a bit badly about).

It's sort of like talking about Al Gore's beard. One couldn't help but notice back in July 2001 while he was on vacation in Europe that Al grew a beard, and it might have been interesting to speculate about if the media hadn't jumped on the topic and thrashed it convulsively for months and months and years till it made one's head want to explode. On March 17, 2002, when Al shaved his beard, it merited front page news and started a whole new cycle of bearded Al articles. It may quite possibly never, ever stop. Oops. I guess I'm not helping much.

The Seal Hunt
My Obsession with Al Gore (Part 1)
My Obsession with Al Gore (Part 2)


About YappaDingding

A yaba dingding is a pre-Columbian wall sconce. I once saw some beautiful yaba dingdings on Roatan, a Honduran island populated by the Garifuna tribe. The term "yappa ding ding" is a Garifuna expression meaning "something worth less than nothing". How these terms are related is a mystery (at least to me), but it's a good guess that the Garifuna, who have a fascinating culture stemming from the intermingling of escaped slaves and persecuted Carib indians, do not place a lot of importance on wall sconces.

I chose the name for no particular reason except that I always liked the name yaba dingding, but Yabbadingding is the name of a song and I didn't want to get confused with that. Plus I thought the meaning of yappa ding ding, if true, is sort of funny, and I like the handle Yappa.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Renaissance of the Liberal Party

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper got the Top Job but he didn't get the majority he needs to wield any power, so Steve is lying doggo, biding his time, quietly plotting how to win the next election.

Meantime we lost our last Liberal leader, and now we have to decide what to do. I hope that there is more to this process than finding a new personality. I would like to see a Renaissance in the Liberal party, a serious discussion of principles and process.

For example, the Liberals should reconsider this overused practice of parachuting candidates into ridings. This issue might be seen as an embarrassment to Michael Ignatieff, who was parachuted into his riding a few months ago, but he could turn that around by saying that the uproar in his riding has taught him how counterproductive the practice can be.

The Liberals should have an open discussion of policy. The same-sex marriage issue really tore at the fabric of the party. I see same-sex marriage as a basic human right that should be fully protected by law. Since the Supreme Court also feels that way, it will take a Harper majority and the notwithstanding clause to strip Canadians of this right. (And if we aren't careful that's exactly what's going to happen.) However, it's a bitterly divisive issue in the Liberal party and there needs to be a sense that it was decided by consensus, and not forced on the party from the top.

We need to address regional issues: how to broaden the geographic scope of the party. We need to build a new party platform, consensus, and commitment.

The Liberals didn't lose the last election because of mistakes in the campaign. We lost because at the 1990 leadership convention Paul Martin narrowly lost to Jean Chretien and the party has been split in two ever since. I am by no means a party insider, but the result of that rift is evident all over the place. In the recent election former Liberal cabinet ministers were even urging voters not to vote Liberal. We need to heal this rift.

So back to the personality. It seems to me that the new leader has to be someone who isn't in either camp. I don't know if Michael Ignatieff can do it. Maybe he'll be brilliant; he hasn't proved himself yet. Ditto Ken Dryden. Bob Rae is one of the greatest politicians our country has produced, but it's unclear whether he can make the transition to Liberal (and leave his Big Labor nay-sayers behind). So let's have a leadership race that gives candidates a chance to show us what they can do. Take some time; take the process across the country. Have town hall forums. Create a big complicated time-consuming process that deals with substantive issues that are important to Canadians. Keep it civil and keep it non-combative. Promote everyone and not just the winner. And please, please, whoever comes in second, take defeat gracefully.

See also:
If I Ran the Zoo


The Seal Hunt

A headline in today's Globe & Mail declares, "Former Beatle urges Harper to stop seal hunt."

The article describes Paul McCartney and his entourage arriving at the Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island airport in a black Lincoln and boarding "at least four helicopters" and a fixed wing plane to fly to Iles de la Madeleine.

What irony. The seal hunters are not wealthy people. For most of them, the annual seal harvest is a major source of income. They are participating in a traditional practice that has been part of their culture for hundreds of years. McCartney's high tech publicity stunt probably caused more pollution than any of the hunters could cause in a year.

The Canadian Veterinary Association, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing in Canada have all found that the method used to kill seals is humane. Sealers use a traditional spiked club called a hakapik that they hit the seals with, and the seals die quickly and painlessly. Like many animals, seals sometimes continue to move (making instinctive swimming motions) after they have died, and this can give the appearance that they are being skinned alive when they are not. Yes, it's gross, but try going to a stockyard sometime.

I remember reading an interview years ago with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, who was friends with McCartney and his first wife Linda. She said that when their kids were little, Paul and Linda told her they wouldn't let their kids associate with children "who had digesting meat in their stomachs"---in other words, who weren't vegetarians. This tells us a couple of things about McCartney. One: he is very intolerant. He demonizes small children for doing the most natural thing in the world, eating. Two, he is violently opposed to all killing of animals. He would probably like to outlaw all meat, leather, fur, and other animal products.

All over the world there are hunts that should be protested. There are hunters who hunt from helicopters with machine guns. Endangered species are hunted. There are hunters who kill just for fun. Why focus on seal hunts? Because environmental and animal rights groups rely on cutesy-pie big-eyed seal babies as a key fund raising tool. Think of the uproar if tuna were cute.

It goes on year after year: protests on the ice floes, boycotts of Canadian fish. The celebrities who have harassed sealers include Brigitte Bardot, Pierce Brosnan, Richard Dean Anderson, Yvette Mimieux, Sean Penn, Loretta Swit and Paris Hilton. The amount of money spent on anti-sealing propoganda is incredible, and much of the anti-sealing propoganda is completely false. Meanwhile people are being demonized who are carrying out a traditional activity that is not inhumane, not harmful to the environment, and not illegal. Just leave them alone.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Voices from Katrina

In the week after Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, the New Orleans Times-Picayune posted a web page where people could write in with their experiences. During that period I copied the content out of that web page. About three weeks later I went back to the site and couldn't find the page anymore.

Here are some excerpts. Most are pleas for help but there are also two lengthy descriptions of what was going on. (There were dozens of other pleas for help, mostly about ill or elderly relatives, that I did not include.)

I had been in New Orleans with my mother just a couple of months before Katrina, and so the experiences of people in hotels really hit home. Also, while I don't want to imply that tourists were the most important victims, their plight was not well covered in the media.

Sept 3:
Ten federal employees are trapped on the roof of the police jury complex in St. Bernard parish in Chalmette, LA. St. Bernard parish has been hit harder by flooding than New Orleans. There has been no coverage. You can contact Kim Owens, who is on the roof, at 504.239.7105. They have a generator and can get cell calls and text messages. Please investigate why they haven't been rescued or had supplies dropped to them. There have been many deaths in St. Bernard's parish (county). Another contact is Christie Spegall at 225.664.2736 in Baton Rouge.

Sept 3:
I recieved email from family members about my niece who is a dispatcher for the St Bernard Sheriffs Deparment. They have been trapped inside the Courthouse Building on the third floor for 5 days now. No Food or water, and bodies of co workers float around them. My niece has a young son and husband that need her. Please send help.

Sept 3:
Can someone get to the authorities there. I have worked for the past three years at the Park Plaza Hotel in NO. The GM called me yesterday from a pay phone that works in the hotel. There are between 100-150 ppl still trapped in there surrounded by water. NO one has been there at all, no one knows they are there. They have been on the fire escapes outside of the building but because of the water, no one has been close to them. There are four elderly people that were guest there that are critical and the GM is desperate to get them out to get help but it needs to be by boat. I have tried and tried emergency lines but cannot get anyone to answer. If you can help, please pass this along.

Sept 3:
this letter is to let people be aware that there are people still alive and in need of medical attention. the area they are located in Delille Senior Citizens home . The address is 6924 chef menteur hwy. in n.o. east. a few people are still in there and in need of attention. please send someone over there to see about these persons.

Sept 3:
My sister was evacuated from University yesterday, and she saw medical students still stuck in their dorms. Does anyone know they're there? Have they forgotten them?

Sept 3:
Please tell authorities, there are about 300 people trapped in the Crowne Plaza hotel on Canal Street. The water there is still up to theee 2nd floor and they can't get out!!PLEASE send help!! My cousin Tracy Smith is one of them.

Sept 3:
Story: There are 100+ people trapped at the former Radisson/Wyndham Hotel on Canal street. It is at the end of Canal near the I-10 overpass. They are running out of food and water only one day left. Please help, Please contact authorities.

Sept 3:
Art Thompson trapped in Park Plaza hotel with 100 plus guest. No water and no food. Please evacuate asap. Art is manager of hotel

Sept 3:
I wanted to respond to an article posted about 1100 people still at University Hospital. My boyfriend is a doctor there and called me around 4:30 EST and told me they had evacuated the entire hospital and he was on a bus to Dallas. I'm assuming the rest of the hospital staff is going to Dallas as well. If you can let Lisa Reidsema know that they have been evacuated, maybe that can bring some comfort.

Sept 2:
Is it possible for you to contact someone (media) ,senators, and the governor about University Hospital with 1100 people STILL STRANDED 9/2/2005 8:30 pm? It seems to have fallen off the priority list. I'm just heartbroken about the way my community is being treated!!

Sept 2:
I have a friend who along with a group of about a dozen others are still holed up in the French Quarter, inside and in the vicinity of the Chateau Motor Hotel. St. Phillip @ Chartres. They do have shelter and are all in relatively good health for now, but they have a very limited supply of food and water.

They are all afraid to move to the buses at the Superdome or Convention Center. They have limited communications and are NOT fully aware of the situation outside the neighborhood. They need help to get out.

The National Guard is in town, but are assisting other parts of the city. Those in the French Quarter are venturing out to find supplies for the neighbors. This area is in need of immediate relief.

If someone in the city can get the word out, please. They're not alone in the neighborhood. Other tourists are stuck in hotels. If anyone gets information about when this area is supposed to get relief, please let me know!

Sept 2:
Please help me to get this story out. We need to get the truth out and these people helped.

Jeff Rau, a family and now personal friend to whom I will forever be linked, and I were volunteering with a boat and pulling people out of the water on Wednesday. I have a first-hand experience of what we encountered. In my opinion, everything that is going on in the media is a complete bastardization of what is really happening. The result is that good people are dying and losing family members.

Eight people in particular who stood out during our rescue and whose stories deserve to be told:

1.) We were in motor boats all day ferrying people back and forth approximately a mile and a half each way (from Carrolton down Airline Hwy to the Causeway overpass). Early in the day, we witnessed a black man in a boat with no motor paddling with a piece of lumber. He rescued people in the boat and paddled them to safety (a mile and a half). He then, amidst all of the boats with motors, turned around and paddled back out across the mile and a half stretch to do his part in getting more people out. He refused to give up or occupy any of the motored boat resources because he did not want to slow us down in our efforts. I saw him at about 5:00 p.m., paddling away from the rescue point back out into the neighborhoods with about a half mile until he got to the neighborhood, just two hours before nightfall. I am sure that his trip took at least an hour and a half each trip, and he was going back to get more people knowing that he'd run out of daylight. He did all of this wit! h a t!

2.) One of the groups that we rescued were 50 people standing on the bridge that crosses over Airline Hwy just before getting to Carrolton Ave going toward downtown. Most of these people had been there, with no food, water, or anyplace to go since Monday morning (we got to them Wed afternoon) and surrounded by 10 feet of water all around them. There was one guy who had been there since the beginning, organizing people and helping more people to get to the bridge safely as more water rose on Wednesday morning. He did not leave the bridge until everyone got off safely, even deferring to people who had gotten to the bridge Wed a.m. and, although inconvenienced by loss of power and weather damage, did have the luxury of some food and some water as late as Tuesday evening. This guy waited on the bridge until dusk, and was one of the last boats out that night. He could have easily not made it out that night and been stranded on the bridge alone.

3.) The third story may be the most compelling. I will not mince words. This was in a really rough neighborhood and we came across five seemingly unsavory characters. One had scars from what seemed to be gunshot wounds. We found these guys at a two-story recreational complex, one of the only two-story buildings in the neighborhood. They broke into the center and tried to rustle as many people as possible from the neighborhood into the center. These guys stayed outside in the center all day, getting everyone out of the rec center onto boats. We approached them at approximately 6:30 p.m., obviously one of the last trips of the day, and they sent us further into the neighborhood to get more people out of homes and off rooftops instead of getting on themselves. This at the risk of their not getting out and having to stay in the water for an undetermined (you have to understand the uncertainly that all of the people in these accounts faced without having any info on the resc! ue ef!
forts, how far or deep the flooding was, or where to go if they want to swim or walk out) amount of time. These five guys were on the last boat out of the neighborhood at sundown. They were incredibly grateful, mentioned numerous times 'God is going to bless y'all for this'. When we got them to the dock, they offered us an Allen Iverson jersey off of one of their backs as a gesture of gratitude, which was literally probably the most valuable possession among them all. Obviously, we declined, but I remain tremendously impacted by this gesture.

I don't know what to do with all of this, but I think we need to get this story out. Some of what is being portrayed among the media is happening and is terrible, but it is among a very small group of people, not the majority. They make it seem like New Orleans has somehow taken the atmosphere of the mobs in Mogadishu portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," which is making volunteers (including us) more hesitant and rescue attempts more difficult. As a result, people are dying. My family has been volunteering at the shelters here in Houma and can count on one hand the number of people among thousands who have not said "Thank You." or "God Bless You." Their lives shattered and families torn apart, gracious just to have us serve them beans and rice.

If anything, these eight people's stories deserve to be told, so that people across the world will know what they really did in the midst of this devastation. So that it will not be assumed that they were looting hospitals, they were shooting at helicopters. It must be known that they, like many other people that we encountered, sacrificed themselves during all of this to help other people in more dire straits than their own.

It is also important to know that this account is coming from someone who is politically conservative, believes in capitalism and free enterprise, and is traditionally against many of the opinions and stances of activists like Michael Moore and other liberals on most of the hot-topic political issues of the day. Believe me, I am not the political activist. This transcends politics. This is about humanity and helping mankind. We need to get these people out. Save their lives. We can sort out all of the political and social issues later. People need to know the truth of what is going on at the ground level so that they know that New Orleans and the people stranded there are, despite being panicked and desperate, gracious people and they deserve the chance to live. They need all of our help, as well.

This is an accurate account of things. Jeffery Rau would probably tell the same exact stories.

Sept 2:
Will Someone please tell whoever will listen that they still have people in
St.Bernard parish that are very much alive and their families are not hearing
anything about them on the news. WHERE IS THE HELP FOR ST.BERNARD
The men and women of the Levee Board are pumping water out and the sheriffs
office and fire depatment or still rescuing people off of rooftops and out of
BACK BURNER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sept 2:
I live in Oregon, but like Americans all over the country, I've been horrified and heartbroken by the news stories from New Orleans, a city I've always loved not only for its beauty but for the warm-heartedness of its citizens.

Finally, this morning, I'd had enough. I emailed Mark C. Smith, Public Information Officer at the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness. I thought you might be interested in his response to what I had to say. Note especially the description of the Convention Center as "not an approved site"!

From: Amelia Hard
Date: Fri, 02 Sep 2005 09:20:48

I don't understand why you aren't moving heaven and earth to get water IMMEDIATELY to the refugees in the N.O. Convention Center. As of this
morning, according to NBC news reports, they STILL DON'T HAVE WATER, two babies have died already of dehydration, and more will die today if they don't get water and formula.

There is no excuse not to do WHATEVER IS NEEDED, be it air-drops or armed convoys. It is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE for American babies to die of dehydration.

Amelia Hard


From:"Mark Smith"
Date: Fri, 2 Sep 2005 20:34:41 +0000 GMT

Lady as soon as we found out that residents were at the convention center-not an approved site-we dispatched trucks with food
and water. That was yesterday. Don't believe you see on the news

Mark C. Smith
Public Information Officer
Louisiana Office of Homeland Security &
Emergency Preparedness

(225) 925-7427 Office
(225) 276-7177 Cell

Aug 30:
From Greg Henderson, MD
Thanks to all of you who have sent your notes of concern and your prayers. I am writing this note on Tuesday at 2PM . I wanted to update all of you as to the situation here. I don't know how much information you are getting but I am certain it is more than we are getting. Be advised that almost everything I am telling you is from direct observation or rumor from reasonable sources. They are allowing limited internet access, so I hope to send this dispatch today.

Personally, my family and I are fine. My family is safe in Jackson, MS, and I am now a temporary resident of the Ritz Carleton Hotel in New Orleans. I figured if it was my time to go, I wanted to go in a place with a good wine list. In addition, this hotel is in a very old building on Canal Street that could and did sustain little damage. Many of the other hotels sustained significant loss of windows, and we expect that many of the guests may be evacuated here.

Things were obviously bad yesterday, but they are much worse today. Overnight the water arrived. Now Canal Street (true to its origins) is indeed a canal. The first floor of all downtown buildings is underwater. I have heard that Charity Hospital and Tulane are limited in their ability to care for patients because of water. Ochsner is the only hospital that remains fully functional. However, I spoke with them today and they too are on generator and losing food and water fast. The city now has no clean water, no sewerage system, no electricity, and no real communications. Bodies are still being recovered floating in the floods. We are worried about a cholera epidemic. Even the police are without effective communications. We have a group of armed police here with us at the hotel that are admirably trying to exert some local law enforcement. This is tough because looting is now rampant. Most of it is not malicious looting. These are poor and desperate people with no housing and n!
o medical care and no food or water trying to take care of themselves and their families. Unfortunately, the people are armed and dangerous. We hear gunshots frequently. Most of Canal street is occupied by armed looters who have a low threshold for discharging their weapons. We hear gunshots frequently. The looters are using makeshift boats made of pieces of styrofoam to access. We are still waiting for a significant national guard presence.

The health care situation here has dramatically worsened overnight. Many people in the hotel are elderly and small children. Many other guests have
Have unusual diseases. They are unfortunately . 'We have better medical letter. There are ID physicians in at this hotel attending an HiV confection. We have commandered the world famous French Quarter Bar to turn into an makeshift clinic. There is a team of about 7 doctors and PA and pharmacists. We anticipate that this will be the major medical facility in the central business district and French Quarter.

Our biggest adventure today was raiding the Walgreens on Canal under police escort. The pharmacy was dark and fool of water. We basically scooped the entire drug sets into gargace bags and removed them. All uner police excort. The looters had to be held back at gun point. After a dose of prophylactic Cipro I hope to be fine.

In all we are faring well. We have set up a hospital in the the French Qarter bar in the hotel, and will start admitting patients today. Many with be from the hotel, but many with not. We are anticipating to dealing with multiple medical problems, medications and and acute injuries. Infection and perhaps even cholera are anticipated major problems. Food and water shortages are iminent.

The biggest question to all of us is where is the national guard. We hear jet fignters and helicopters, but no real armed presence, and hence the rampant looting. There is no Red Cross and no salvation army.

In a sort of cliché way, this is an edifying experience. Once is rapidly focused away from the transient and material to the bare necessities of life. It has been challenging to me to learn how to be a primary care phyisican. We are under martial law so return to our homes is impossible. I don't know how long it will be and this is my greatest fear. Despite it all, this is a soul edify experience. The greatest pain is to think about the loss. And how long the rebuid will. And the horror of so many dead people .

PLEASE SEND THIS DISPATCH TO ALL YOU THING MA Y BE INTERSTED IN A DISPATCH From the front. I will send more according to your interest. Hopefully their collective prayers will be answered. By the way suture packs, sterile gloves and stethoscopes will be needed as the Ritz turns into a MASH


How to Vote

Today's New York Times had more bad news about voting in the US... the top story on the web edition was "New York State sued for failing to meet new voting guidelines." Hanging chads, butterfly ballots, voting machines that can (and quite possibly were) programmed to cheat... The problems with voting in the US make me sick at heart.

Here's an alternative.

Canada uses paper ballots. A federal agency prints them all. Every riding has exactly the same format. They include the names of candidates in alphabetical order and do not include the candidate's party. (This is a somewhat controversial omission.) The background color of the ballot is black, and next to each name there is a white circle nearly as big as a dime. There are instructions with a picture that show you how to mark an X in the circle. A pencil is provided. The completed ballots go in a sealed cardboard ballot box.

Two people run the poll, a deputy returning officer and a poll clerk. They are nominated by the parties that came first and second in the riding in the last election. In addition, each party running in the riding is allowed to send one scrutineer to the poll to oversee the vote.

About 200 people vote at each poll. At the end of the day the ballot box is unsealed and the ballots are counted by the deputy returning officer. He or she lifts up each ballot, calls out the name, and puts it in a pile for that candidate. The polling clerk and scrutineers can see the names. They have the right to inspect ballots and to ask for a recount. When everybody's satisfied, the form with the count is signed. The form and the polls go back in the box, which is resealed. The box is picked up by an elections official. The deputy returning officer calls the riding's Returning Officer and reads the count. All this takes very little time; most polls have reported their vote within 30 or 40 minutes.

As a usability practitioner, the Canadian system strikes me as simple perfection. Except for the names of the candidates, the ballot never changes. It accommodates everything from low vision to low intelligence. It's cheap and safe and it works.