Thursday, February 22, 2007

Harper's Cynical Cigarette Ploy

As far as vote-buying goes, the recent federal tax break to tobacco processing companies really takes the cake. It exposes such a cynical reversal of all of Harper's so-called principles that it takes your breath away.

Harper is using our tax money to give a tax break to tobacco processors - no, wait, it appears that only one company is going to be eligible for the tax break, which the Globe & Mail estimates is worth $500,000 - and that company is located in the riding of federal Immigration Minister Diane Finley, who - quelle surprise - is in danger of losing her seat. The recipient of the $500,000 windfall is Simcoe Leaf Co. Ltd., which is owned by American tobacco giant Universal Corporation.

According to this Norfolk County site, the company imports most of the tobacco it processes; the employees of Simcoe Leaf are losing their jobs even with the handout; and Finley isn't likely to be reelected no matter how much money Harper throws at her riding.

Meanwhile, tobacco farmers in southern Ontario, of whom there are about 650, are in big trouble. They need help transitioning to other crops. But our new fiscal conservatism means that if you're not important to the acquisition of a Tory majority, you're out of luck.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why We Need the Kyoto Protocol

Because we aren't going to make significant environmental improvement unless we're forced to.

There's a reason why Jean Chretien didn't make significant movement on the environment, even though his desire to was clearly proven by his signing of the Kyoto Protocol. We didn't let him. We didn't want to change our own lives. We didn't want the government to spend money on it.

Friday's Globe & Mail editorial, Behind the Gloss of Liberal Kyoto Virtue, paints a terrifying picture of what our renewed commitment to Kyoto will do to us. The Globe argues that there's no way we can meet our commitment and we can't afford to pay the penalty. They lay the blame on Liberal inaction.

That's crap. It was Canadian inaction. We're all to blame: the Alberta oil industry and Ontario consumers first and foremost, but nobody has been environmentally responsible. Even the Green Party, by wasting time on a new tax system that ain't gonna happen, is part of the problem.

We can't rely on the will of the electorate, so we can't rely on the leadership of our politicians, so the only way we can make any progress is to be forced to. Now we're forced. Do we want to pay $10 billion in penalties in five years, or do we want to get serious?


Babel (review)

Warning: Spoilers.

You might say that the premise of Babel is: A film about people who do reasonable things with horrible consequences. The plot could be summarized as: A man sets off a tragic sequence of events, but they save his daughter. The moral: Don't casually cross cultures - people will get hurt.

The events are: A Japanese man on a hunting trip to Morocco gives his Moroccan guide his rifle as a thank-you gift. The guide sells the rifle to a neighbor, who has a problem with jackals eating his goats. The man gives the gun to his two sons, who are his shepherds. The young boys believe that the bullets are ineffective and accidentally shoot a tour bus. Eventually the boys are caught by the police and one of them is killed. Their shot at the tour bus hits a woman in the neck. The woman and her husband are on a trip trying to recover from the death of their baby, their third child. They are delayed getting home to San Diego because of the wife's injury. Their Mexican nanny is stuck looking after the kids on the day her son is getting married, so she takes them with her to Mexico. Her nephew, who drives her, gets drunk at the wedding and so has trouble at the border on the way back. He runs through the border and in an attempt to elude the police he temporarily drops the nanny and her two charges in the desert. They almost die but are rescued and the nanny is deported back to Mexico. Meanwhile, back in Japan, the hunter's daughter - who is deaf, is struggling with teenagehood, and whose mother has recently committed suicide - is coming close to killing herself. The serial number of the rifle has been traced to her father, and a policeman comes to question him about it. He is not home but the policeman has an encounter with the daughter, which finally breaks through her problems. The policeman leaves; the man comes home, and he is finally able to connect with his daughter.

For a movie with such an interesting premise and plot, Babel was badly made. Individual scenes are too long - most of the way through, the experience of the film is boring and unpleasant. There is no character development. We never really understand or come to care about any of the characters - their personal details are only presented insofar as they make their actions reasonable. The nanny's son and his bride are more fully developed than any of the central characters. The prevailing emotion in all the main characters is anxiety.

The film is ungenerous. There is no natural beauty, no architectural interest, just bleakness. Morocco (in reality a fabulous place) never looked so bad - all we see of it is rocky desert and mud huts. That anyone would choose to travel there is presented as tragic bad judgement.

And yet the film is really interesting. I'd say it's better thinking about after the fact than it is sitting through. I'd like to see it remade with a different director and different cast. Perhaps the couple could be British (then the choice of Morocco would be less odd) and some more interesting small cultural clashes could be added.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Flags Day

Every winter we have a national dialogue about a winter holiday. Some provinces have already instituted one. The thinking is that we need a break in the winter. I question this. Shouldn't winter be an ordeal? It's part of our national identity that we survive winter - the short days, the shoveling, the car window scraping and bundling up and shivering. The finding joy in winter sports. It's our thing. Somehow a February holiday would seem to diminish our sense of self-righteous pride in surviving and thriving in a climate that most of the world is too wimpy for.

But that sentiment notwithstanding, there is a pretty good argument that we should have a break during the bleakest time of the year. The question is when.

We could promote Heritage Day, the third Monday in February, to statutory status. The Heritage Canada Foundation aims to "encourage the preservation and promotion of Canada's nationally significant historic, architectural, natural and scenic heritage." Their web site leans towards architectural heritage. All very very good. But is this the stuff of a holiday? Architecture Appreciation Day? Where's the fun in that?

The Germans have this great holiday on November 11 that kicks off their Carnival. No no no!, I hear you cry. That's Armistice Day, the day Germany conceded defeat in the First World War. In Canada, it's one of the many days that civil servants get a break. It's the day we wear poppies on our lapels and watch veterans on TV. All I can say is, sorry folks: 11-11 at 11:11 is not a time when Germans are worrying about what happened in 1918. It's a time when women take over the country and merriment and silliness abound.

My friend Jane King told me about March 4, aka March Forth, or Day That Is A Complete Sentence Day. March 3 is, of course, Day That Is A Complete Sentence Day Eve. Now that's a holiday. The main problem with March Forth Day is that it would probably have to be celebrated on March 4, and here in Canada we know that holidays must fall on Monday. (That also nixes Pi Day, as wouldn't we look like dummies if we celebrated Pi on 3.13 or 3.15.)

We could choose an approximate time that the sap starts to run in the Maple trees and celebrate that. The problem is that that's the end of March and it's a bit too late. It could bump up against Easter and it doesn't satisfy our February yearning for an extra day to lie in.

Unlike Canada, the US had a wealth of winter holidays to choose from. The traditional winter sale day, Lincoln's Birthday, was eventually lumped into Presidents' Day. Out of their embarrassment of riches they wisely chose Martin Luther King Jr's birthday to take statutory, and settled it as the third Monday of January.

Flag day (February 15, the day in 1965 when the maple leaf first flew) has the advantage of being an existing Canadian holiday (although it's pretty obscure). I have two major problems with it:

- Having a statutory holiday on the day after Valentine's Day will give even more weight to Valentine's Day, and especially to Valentine's Day Night, and continue the movement from a charming personal event to a full-blown stress-inducing Hallmark Occasion. (Seriously. We have to be wary of these. I have a friend whose parents split up when the husband forgot to buy his wife a Mother's Day card. And she wasn't even his mother.)

- Celebrating our flag will continue our movement towards greater nationalism and well, sucks to that.

How about this idea though... We could celebrate Flag Day but settle it as the second Monday in February, thus severing it (most years) from Valentine's Day, and we could rename it Flags Day - the day on which we can all fly whatever flags we like. National flags, nautical flags, semaphore flags, sports pennants, banners, metaphorical flags (as in CSNY's lyric "let your freak flag fly")... now that sounds like fun. And of course it's just an excuse for a lie-in.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Yes, Virginia, This IS an Election Campaign

A week or so ago, Harper was hollering that the Liberals were going to force an election Canadians didn't want. Meanwhile, the Tory election campaign was beginning in earnest: personal attack ads, money flying out of federal coffers, popular-issue policy announcements galore, cabinet shuffle, campaign boot camp for Tory campaign organizations, desperate attempts to reinvigorate old scandals... they even got a military commander to slag the Liberals. This is full-blown, serious campaigning. We are in an election campaign. The gloves are off. The fighter is fighting hard, and he's fighting dirty.

But wait. There's only one guy in the ring.

Where's our Red Book? Our bold new policy initiatives? What is our new leader doing to show the country that he's The Man? (Step 1: Create an ad showing Stephane Dion speaking perfect English.) What are we doing? Ignatieff is talking about pharmaceutical uses of Afghanistan's opium... a worthy initiative, but hardly the right stuff to win an election. We won a vote on Kyoto, which I think confuses most Canadians. (It confuses me.) We're up in arms that PMSH slagged Goodale. We're expending a pile of energy on the NDP, who are like a gnat in this fight. Why aren't the party heavyweights out there undermining all the crap the Tories claim to be doing? Where's Bob Rae?

At the moment, both Ignatieff and Dion have an image problem: their voices sound whiny. They need to go to an image consultant, as Joe Clark and Maureen McTeer finally did, and pick up their act. Campaigns aren't about brainiac ideas; they're about effective PR.

We need to pick an issue that we can use to beat the Tories, and we need to decimate them. They're vulnerable. They're laughably, incompetently vulnerable. We expressed all this lofty idealism that we didn't want old Liberal baggage and so we picked a leader who wasn't affiliated with the good old boys who were so successful at winning elections. Bring 'em back, or bring on a new winning strategy, but let's not just sit here being outclassed by the American-style steamroller Conservative PR machine.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Kitchener-Waterloo's Oktoberfest - Time for a Change

Article in today's Record: Bavarian Festival is at a Fork in the Road.

Indeed. The Oktoberfest festival, which runs every year around the Canadian Thanksgiving, is a travesty. It's all about tackiness and drunkenness. It attracts people who like tackiness and drunkenness - and it attracts a lot of them. There's a tacky beauty pageant, there are crappy beer halls selling mass quantities of cheap beer, there's a parade. I can't comment on the quality of the parade even though it passes less than 100 meters from my home because it starts at some ungodly hour on a Saturday morning (8 am?) and I don't like parades.

Kitchener-Waterloo has loads of Germans and loads of German culture. German culture is fabulous - there's so much we could be celebrating: good beer, German white wine, the wide range of German cuisine beyond the Oktoberfest sausage, Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, on and on and on. What does the K-W Oktoberfest festival celebrate of German culture? Oompapa music, lederhosen and cheap beer. It's not a cultural festival: it's a parody.

A long time ago there used to be an Oktoberfest operetta. I recall a charming performance of Der Rosenkavalier. It was sold out. Why was the operetta cut?

My guess is that the problem with the festival is the management, and a focus on short-term profit instead of building a community organization. For example, the operetta was popular among local residents, but wasn't popular with tourists, which is probably why it was cut - and which is completely wrong-headed. That focus probably also explains why we don't have little independent Oktoberfest events sprouting up around town during the festival: restaurants and community groups would be widening the appeal of the festival if the festival's organizers reached out to the community.

Keep the tacky beauty pageant if you want. Keep the beer halls that sell only Blue or Canadian in pitchers. Keep the early-morning parade. And especially, keep the polka music. All this stuff is wildly popular and it brings lots of tourist dollars to our town. But give us something more. Make it part of the community and something that the community can be proud of. As it is, I try to leave town during Oktoberfest. I think its extreme tackiness and focus on a cheap drunk diminishes our German heritage. It diminishes our whole community.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

5 du Jour

Wonderful post on food at The Traveler's Lunchbox. My only complaint is that it's insane to try to limit yourself to your five favorite foods. The list will, without question, change daily. However, with that in mind, I will give my Five du Jour:

1. Barbecue at Bozo's in Mason Tennessee
2. Pate de fois gras in France
3. Green tea cold-smoked tiger shrimp at Bhima Warung in Waterloo Ontario
4. Eggplant Bharta at Babur in Toronto
5. Thai green mango salad


Sunday, February 11, 2007


I read Freakonomics today. I was prepared to like it - it's just the sort of thing I like - but in the end I was disappointed and even angry at the authors.

The authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, describe Freakonomics as "whatever freakish curiosities may occur to us." The book has little to do with economic analysis. It has little to do with analysis at all: analysis is used just so far as to provide a "Gee Wiz" type of answer, which is rarely considered deeply enough to provide real insight.

For example, the case study of three little girls (presumably around 8). The parents of one girl will let her go to visit one of her friends, who has a swimming pool, but not the other girl, whose parents have a gun. The authors provide the statistic that more children under 10 die of drowning in backyard pools than die in gun accidents so presto besto - the parents are irrational. But the parents are not dealing with average children under 10 - they're dealing with a specific set of circumstances. If most children who die in backyard pools are toddlers or older children who don't know how to swim, and if their 8-year old knows how to swim, then the swimming pool death statistic isn't relevant. For authors who claim to be trying to "understand the hidden side of everything", they seem to be more interested in taking cheap shots at the conventional wisdom than providing real insight.

Similarly with a chapter on how rich or educated people name their children vs poor or uneducated children: a 25-page chapter yields one insight, that the most popular names for poor or uneducated people are sometimes the names that rich or educated people named their children ten years before. That's it.

The chapter on crime is confused. Levitt's one original insight, that legalized abortion was a contributing factor to lower crime rates, is pretty neat. But the rest of the analysis is a mishmash of other theories, poorly and inconsistently explained. For example, they go back and forth on the importance of having two parents, and they don't even seem to notice they're doing it. There is no thought given to the different types of single-parent households: were the parents ever married; is the father around or paying support; has the child met the father. They make some startling assumptions, such as that sending more people to prison decreases crime rates, while Canadian studies show just the opposite - and at one point, they even argue the opposite (that increased jail time enabled gang members to get to know drug importers).

I like the repeated appeals to stop confusing correlation with causation. The book starts out well, and the first 100 pages are the best, but the whole thing is less than 200 pages, with the last half seeming a lot like filler. (My edition came with some "bonus material" - an overly laudatory bio of the authors and some previously-published articles that partly duplicate the material in the book.)

One of Levitt's recurring themes is that so-called experts often have their own agendas and so we should be wary of trusting them. That's an unintentionally self-referential argument. This book reads like a thrown-together rehash of old material, inadequately considered, with a hyped-up meaningless title, designed for one purpose - to make some quick cash. A more thoughtful and well-argued book might not have had the same mass appeal.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Environmental Dissonance

North Americans know that the environment is a huge problem. We know that we need to take immediate steps to reduce green house gas emissions. And yet we seem unable to do even the easy things.

Reducing electrical consumption means reducing the pollution that comes out of coal-fired generators and other plants. There is so much waste in our current lives that we can greatly reduce electricity usage without losing any comfort or convenience. For example, Garth Turner writes, "if we just put on-off switches on kitchen appliances to shut off power (stoves, microwaves, coffee makers) when not in use, we could save a third of the power generated by the country’s worst polluter, Nanticoke."

It's a great idea. But don't forget that there are currently on-off switches that aren't being used enough. Walk through any office building on a Friday evening and you'll see computers and monitors winking away on every desk. Even in power-saving mode computers use up a lot of power when left on, and they should be shut down every evening.

Thermostats are another easy change. I wear short sleeves in the winter and jackets in the summer because in my company we heat too high and cool too low. (Some people put heaters under their desk in the summer.) And there are still loads of homes that don't have programmable thermostats and don't turn down the heating/cooling when they're asleep or out of the house. Or even wear sweaters around the house in winter.

That's just part of it. There are also compact fluorescent light bulbs, fuel-efficient automobiles, insulation, energy-efficient appliances, products with less packaging, public transit, long-lasting appliances... in almost every well-known, easy to change environmental initiative, North Americans aren't doing what they could.

There are a number of things the government isn't doing that it needs to do. They need to make regulations smarter, tighter, and better enforced. They need to increase the tax on gas and electricity so that we have a cost incentive to reduce consumption. And they need to provide clear, unambiguous public education about the need for change.

But none of this is going to change things until North Americans clear up a conflict of values about consumption. Smoking finally started to drop off when smoking became déclassé. Wasteful consumption is not déclassé - far from it. Its opposite, frugality, is déclassé.

Wasteful excess is still glorified in our society as a sign of wealth and success. We are living in a state of cognitive dissonance in our attitudes to the environment. We know there is a huge problem and we're scared and we want to improve it, but we value excess as the trappings of success. We're proud to live in a huge house that costs $500/month to heat, and we consider little houses as being for people who can't afford "better". We value big new SUVs and devalue buying small cars and keeping them a long time. We admire possessions and don't admire simplicity.

I used to think that raising the price of gas and electricity would solve the problem of wasteful consumption, as it has in Europe. I no longer believe that. Gasoline prices skyrocketed in the US over the last couple of years, and yet the fuel efficiency of new cars fell. We are a very wealthy society and we can afford to waste.

Our clash of values freezes us up. That's why Jean Chretien signed Kyoto but didn't reduce greenhouse gas emissions; that's why Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty had to go back on a campaign promise to close down coal-fired generators; that's why every North American politician has talked about the environment but done precious little to improve it. The lack of political will among citizens is holding back the government.

It's nice that a few movie stars are driving hybrid cars, but as long as we watch celebrities debauching out of gas-guzzling limos onto the red carpet at the Academy Awards, as long as we aspire to the wasteful excess of the rich and famous, as long as we value wealth and excess over all - we won't make real strides on the environment.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Virtues of Scarcity

This morning on The Current, Anna Maria Tremonti was talking about geothermal electricity sources. Iceland gets virtually all of its non-transportation-related energy from geothermal sources. It's easy there because they have geysers of hot water on the surface of the land. California also produces quite a lot of electricity from geysers (if I heard correctly, sometimes it's up to 20% of their electricity production). According to The Current, the technology exists for geothermal-electric generation to be used everywhere. One technique is to dig a tunnel about 500 feet deep (where the rock is hot), close off an area down there, and pipe down water. The water comes back up as steam; the steam is used to create electricity; and the cold water is sent back down the hole again. This form of electricity would be extremely cheap.

This got me thinking about what would happen if North America had virtually unlimited, dirt-cheap electricity. Hmmm. My guess is that we would use so much that we'd either start damaging the earth or use it all up.

For example, we might decide that the only way to cope with cold Canadian winters is to build giant domes over cities and heat the whole thing. Then we'd consider it an abrogation of human rights to not heat every settlement, no matter how small (and of course to cool them in summer). How about the idea of heating the rivers so we can fish and swim year-round? And freeze some in the summer so we can skate outdoors. Or we'd start using unbelievably inefficient manufacturing methods. Or prices would drop on goods so we'd start treating even more items as disposable. How about one-trip plastic cars? Disposable houses? Then we'd look back and be amazed that we could ever have survived without all this stuff. "How primitive and rustic!" we'd say, referring to those days when we had to change our clothing during the year to cope with temperature changes.

Unless there's scarcity and a price incentive, we seem to use up everything. We have water shortage issues even where I live, which is a small splotch of land surrounded by the Great Lakes - and in some communities, the only thing that is holding back complete paving-over of farmland with subdivisions is the availability of water. At one point, we'd used up the bandwidth available for transmitting radio waves - now technology has increased that limit, but who knows how long it will be until we bump up against similar constraints on our seemingly endless supply? A mature capitalist economy turns out to be one that is intent on exploiting every resource to the limit, and so destroying itself.

Perhaps that's a slightly too negative reaction to the possibility of using geothermal-electric generation...


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Best Line on "Garth Day"

Green party leader Elizabeth May, poking a little fun at her friend: "The Green party will welcome Garth after he's thrown out of the Liberal caucus."

I'm glad Garth Turner joined the Liberal party. I don't agree with him on a lot of things, but I read his blog (it's in my favorites list in the right-hand column) and I like the way he talks about politics and Canada. There's no "floor crossing" in this move: Harper threw him out of the Conservative caucus ages ago. He has done an amazing job as an independent, and we're lucky to have him.


Another Bush Coming in the Back Door

It's a travesty that Rudy Giuliani is the front-runner in the Republican presidential race. Giuliani was washed up, a failure... until he made some good speeches following 9/11 and became a national hero. The guy is attractive and charismatic (and he has political genius, especially for creating photo ops and for taking the credit for other people's work) but he is not fit to be president. After the disastrous record of this president and the global consequences - not just the war but also his trashing of the US economy and retrograde domestic policies - how could they even be thinking of putting another incompetent in the Oval Office? The irresponsibility is staggering.

To add insult to injury, a rumor is circulating that Giuliani is thinking of choosing Jeb Bush as his running mate. After two failed Bush presidencies, a lot of people thought it would be impossible to have a third Bush president, but this seems to be the way it could happen. It would certainly give Giuliani a boost in fund raising to be allied with the mighty Bush clan and all their cronies.

The latest sad and undemocratic trend in the US is dynasties that are caused by the ability to raise funds. Whether you're a son or a brother or a wife, being a member of a political dynasty is a big leg up, and it's a given that we'll see more and more of this.