Thursday, September 20, 2007

On elections and by-elections

I recorded the Ontario provincial leader's debate tonight and just finished watching it. The experience was painful.

John Tory is of the old attack dog school, nasty and belligerent. His opening film referred to "Dalton McGuinty's catch-and-release justice system." Later he said that "McGuinty is letting criminals thumb their noses at us." His passion for sending people to jail is the thing that bothers me most about him, of a long list of things that bother me: teaching creationism in schools, shattering our public school system, weakening our public health system.

Howard Hampton was better than I expected. I agree with his values but I'm not always certain of his facts. But I shouldn't quibble: he was in a tough position as the party that's trailing way back and he stood up well.

I thought Dalton McGuinty was fabulous - the hand's down winner, partly because he was clear, fact-based and convincing, partly because he stood up to all the mudslinging with composure (and a good answer to every attck) - but mostly because he stood up for his record, which has been very good. When he came in he discovered a $6 billion deficit left by the Conservatives; he has turned the deficit into a massive surplus. He has made huge inroads on our problematic school system and health system.

McGuinty is not a big-charisma politician, but he's a good man with good values and he is a solid manager who is running our province excellently.

I wish I felt as good about our federal Liberal leader. I don't think Dion should be ousted because of the by-election losses in Quebec, but it's a canary in the coal mine for his leadership.

For whatever reason, Dion has been unable to be an effective, vocal opposition to Harper. He doesn't need inexperienced lieutenants like Hall-Findlay, Ignatieff and Kennedy. He needs to start developing some federal leadership-level political smarts. In the leadership race Dion ran on a platform of being the antiestablishment candidate (pretty laughable since he had been in cabinet and the other top candidates were outsiders). Maybe he needs to eat a little crow and call in the backroom boys who can get us moving again... pure speculation as I have no idea what's going on in his office, but something has to change.

Dion's political voice comes off (in English) as either whiny or angry: he needs to find a better tone. He needs to get on top of some issues that Canadians care about. He needs to start showing Canadians a Liberal leadership team that we can imagine running our country - Ignatieff and Hall-Finlay are getting too much exposure when they're not ready for prime time.

Since many Canadians are still angry about the Liberal adscam scandal (and Dion as leader perpetuates the problem since he was a Quebec cabinet minister at the time of the fraud), maybe it would help if he unveiled new initiatives to reduce government corruption. And he shouldn't just be whining about the environment: he should be out there making concrete things happen and taking credit for improvements.

We knew in the leadership race that Dion was very unpopular in Quebec. Since the by-election he has been announcing that he's going to address that. But he's not going to win the next election unless he addresses his unpopularity in the rest of Canada. He's a non-entity. He needs to improve his English. He needs to get out into the rest of Canada and start doing things. More pandering to Quebec is not going to impress the voters who will decide the next election.

We Liberals have not had the best leadership for a long time. Chretien and Martin both had their strengths, but a gazillion weaknesses too. Dion came in as the reform candidate - the leader who was going to rebuild the party, energize the grass roots, modernize the system. I just don't see anything happening. One thing's for sure: if Dion doesn't figure out how to be leader, Harper is going to get his majority next time.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Thing About Food

Everything I used to know about produce has changed.

...Strawberries are better when they're small. Wild blueberries have more flavor than cultivated ones. Corn has to be fresh and in season to be sweet. Only the first harvest of figs is good; the September harvest is not sweet. Bananas are flavorless yellow things. Watermelon tastes like water.

None of those things are true anymore. It seems that the agriculture industry found out that taste matters to consumers... et voila! They created more tasty fruits and vegetables.

This is so recent it seems like a miracle. When I returned from living in Africa ten years ago, the difference in taste between the food I ate in the tropics and the food I could buy in Canadian grocery stores was like the difference between caramel and glue. That's all changed. I guess it's the miracle of capitalism.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Greenspan Argument: Why Sadaam Hussein Had to Go

In his recent book The Age of Turbulence, former US Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan writes that oil was the reason for invading Iraq. I have questioned this notion, largely based on Gwynne Dyer's argument that it is against all countries' interests to disrupt the oil supply. But Greenspan is, at first blush, pretty convincing. Here's his argument, as passed on to Bob Woodward in an interview:

It was looking like Sadaam was going to be able to take control of the Straits of Hormuz, through which up to 19 million barrels of oil pass daily. Had he achieved this, Sadaam could have disrupted world oil supplies. Greenspan says that if Sadaam were able to disrupt as little as 3 million barrels a day, he could have caused prices to jump dramatically - easily to $120/barrel. If he had disrupted more than that, he could have caused chaos in the global economy.

Is this true? If it is, then history might judge that Bush did the right thing to unseat Sadaam. (I'm not saying that he was justified in invading and occupying the country - there is no justification for killing 650,000 people and turning 4 million into refugees.)

I have some doubts about Greenspan's argument.

Greenspan isn't explicitly trying to explain Bush's motivation: he is explaining his own reasons for thinking that something had to be done about Sadaam. If Bush's rationale for war had anything to do with the Straits of Hormuz, then he surely would have used it, given his kitchen-sink approach to justifying his war (WMD, human rights, regional stability, terrorism, al Quaeda, ...)

Also, Greenspan should be more explicit that such a move on Sadaam's part would cause short-term problems, not long-term ones, because if he had taken over the Straits of Hormuz there would have been a broad-based coalition of countries, including all oil-producing states whose oil business was disrupted, ready to take immediate military action to take back the Straits. In fact, had Sadaam been left in place to make such a bold move, it would probably have been fairly easy to depose him without bombing and occupying the entire country.

Update: Gwynne Dyer rebuts Greenspan here.


Monday, September 17, 2007

US Health Care

One thing that bugs me about the universal health care debate in the US is the assumption on the part of many of the participants that the Canadian system is no good and should not be considered.

This, I believe, is due to a PR campaign by the health care industry in the US to discredit the Canadian system. Or better put, the Canadian system got trashed as part of the attempt to discredit universal health care in general.

It's true that Canadians love to complain about their health care. Health care could always be better, and there was a period of a few years when we had significant problems with wait times.

But our metrics are good. Canada beats the US on key indicators such as infant mortality and expected lifespan. Canadian women are not more likely to die of breast cancer than Americans, even when the wait time for a surgical procedure was a little longer. And while the Canadian system is much cheaper to run, the Canadian system is also more extravagant: Canadian hospitals tend to be cleaner, resulting in less superbugs and other side-effects of hospital stays; after-care is better; and so on.

The problems with the Clinton and Edwards plans are that (as far as I can see) they don't address two main areas.

(1) They don't address the issue of incredible inefficiency in the current US system, caused by too many profit-takers and too much red tape. Health care costs in the US aren't just a little higher than Canada: they're astronomically, mindboggingly higher. There is an impending crisis due to the retirement of baby boomers, but it is not due to inadequate funds in Social Security: it is how Medicare will be able to fund the health needs of retiring boomers at the current high cost of medical care.

(2) They don't address the issue of putting too many life-and-death decisions in the hands of people whose jobs are to cut costs. I have a cousin who was nearly denied a life-saving transplant because she was considered too ill to survive it (that was 10 years ago, and she's doing very well).

I can see that the US is never going to accept a fully socialized health care system. But a modified Canadian system - government-funded health care for all with the addition of private pay-as-you-go clinics - seems to be the ideal choice for the US. That is essentially what we have currently in Canada, because 95% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the border.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Planting Trees

I was out yesterday picking chestnuts from beneath healthy trees. Then I spent the evening peeling off the green shell to get to the brown seeds beneath. I got about 200 and today I'm going to plant them in bare areas in my community, along with other seeds I've gathered: wild apples, sumac, wild rose bushes, perennial flowers.

I had been thinking of buying saplings to plant. There were various reasons for not doing this. I live in an apartment and have no place to store them. It's a hassle to get permission to plant trees. Transplanted trees have a lower survival rate. Plus, I want to plant a lot and do not have much of a budget or manpower. All I'm investing is a couple of weekends and a few bags of composted manure.

I know that chestnuts grow well from seed because I used to live next to a chestnut tree and squirrels were constantly burying them in my flower beds. Some species of chestnut do not do well in clay soil and this is a clay-based area. I will seek out sandy soil but chestnuts may just not be the best choice. On the other hand, global warming is changing the dynamics of tree survival.

Wild apples seem to grow everywhere and again, my squirrel experience assures me that you can plant an apple and get a tree.

Sumac is supposed to be slow to germinate so I won't worry if I don't see plants next year. I don't know what to expect from the wild rose seeds: my rose bushes never reseeded themselves. Also, roses may require better soil than I will be able to find.

The key to guerilla community gardening is to plant hardy, drought-resistant varieties that can survive in the place you plant them. It's easy enough to get the information you need on the internet; or just choose something that is already growing wild on its own.


Humpty Dumpty Iraq

A year ago, the Lancet medical journal estimated that 650,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the US invasion. The number of documented civilian deaths due to violence since the invasion is 75,000. In addition, the United Nations estimates that there are over 4 million Iraqi refugees (including, this summer, the author of Baghdad Burning). The violence is only getting worse, and the violence is all about opposition to the US occupation.

There is no hope of creating a centralized Iraq without the long-term presence of US troops - probably for decades - and the price of doing that is too high. It is morally indefensible to perpetuate this level of hardship on the Iraqi people. There seems to be only one workable exit strategy: the US must give up on the attempt to put back together what it destroyed. Iraq must be divided up - like Bosnia - into its ethnic parts. (In fact, effectively, this has already happened.)

Dividing up Iraq causes all sorts of problems. Turkey has problems with the idea of an Iraqi Kurdish state. Iran may have an easier time taking over the Shi'ite part of Iraq (and since Iran and Iraq warred over territory for decades, we can assume that Iran wants to do this). The small nation-states that Iraq will become may war. The creation of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states may contribute to regional factionalism and instability. There is the issue of stability of oil production. And loads of other big issues.

Once we accept that Iraq cannot be put back together again, we can begin to start focusing on how to meet these challenges, and stop the unrealistic focus on how to both withdraw US troops and maintain a centralized Iraq.

The US needs to also stop the rhetoric that the problem is not getting fixed because the Iraqi congress takes a 4-week holiday or Maliki is not serious. This mess is not the fault of the Iraqis, and at this point they are largely powerless to fix it. It is not the fault of Iran or the Arab states: in fact they all officially told the US not to invade Iraq. This mess is 100% the fault of the US, and the inability to fix it is 100% the fault of Bush insisting on the unrealistic goal of creating a unified Iraq (as he did again in his presidential address last week).

As I have argued before, what is needed is a Truth & Reconciliation commission in the US, similar to what was done in South Africa after the dismantling of apartheid. The US needs to assure itself and the world that it will never commit such an atrocity again.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

We Need Censorship

These days, mainstream North America seems to believe that censorship is always bad, that adult pornography is perfectly legitimate, and that the only real problem with porn sites is that they may leave annoying cookies on your computer. Do you agree? If so, do me a favor: go to google and type porn bondage. Open the first site in the long list, which I think will be yobt. Take a long look at what's there.

If you look through the links on this site you'll see things that will give you nightmares. Some of it, like the blood and whip marks, may be make-up. Some of it, like the electrodes attached to genitals, is probably fake. But some of it is not fake: the lack of blood circulation, distended orifices and objects stuck inside the women. These women are not into pain and humiliation: in real bondage, the person being dominated is asking/paying to have it done and has a safe word to make it stop. These women are porn models who are being posed, and being hurt while the filming is done. And it's part of a mainstream, huge porn site, used by millions of men.

When I saw this site, my first thought was to call the RCMP and report it. But as far as I can tell it's completely legal to do this to women as long as they're adult. In a few minutes of clicking I found dozens of similar sites, and yet I have never heard a peep of criticism about it - in the media, from friends, on other blogs. Think of the outrage if a horse is shot in a movie, and there is no notice assuring us that "no animals were harmed in the making of this film." I have even seen movies say that no insects were harmed.

The damage is not limited to the women. The men who look at this stuff are also being desensitized. I don't know much about pornography, but I suspect that men who look at softer porn that humiliates and degrades the models are led slowly to the hardcore stuff.

I'm not saying that we should go back to the days when Robert Mapplethorpe exhibits were raided. But we need to apply some tougher legal standards to adult pornography. We need to start acknowledging that it has harmful effects on the workers in the industry. If we didn't have laws, poor people might do all sorts of things for money that caused them harm, like sell their internal organs. Pornography has become a sacred cow and that needs to stop.

It's true that it would be difficult to get this stuff off the internet. It's tough enough to track down the creators of child pornography. But we're miles away from trying to stop this hardcore porn: we're still at the stage of saying there's nothing wrong with it. That complacency hurts our children and our culture.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

He Rises to Slime Again

As I write I'm watching Brian Mulroney's interview on CTV that coincides with the release of his memoirs.

Some things have changed since Mulroney's tenure as Canadian Prime Minister. He is apparently no longer hopped up on Nyquil - while he's still smarmy, he no longer has the careful enunciation and telltale slur of one slightly drunk.

But the slimey lies are still there. He just decried his opponents for getting upset with him for singing on stage with Ronald Reagan, saying that the "loopy left" was crazy to criticize - totally ignoring the fact that we weren't objecting to the song, we were objecting to his sucking up to the American right and acting against Canadian interests.

He argued at some length that former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, whom he obviously hates, had no moral authority in Canada and had no right to be a leader. He implied that Trudeau was anti-Semitic and even pro-Nazi.

The character assassination continues with Lucien Bouchard, and since I'm no fan of Bouchard I don't care to dredge up the details, but I don't believe a thing Mulroney says. He's a bald-faced liar, a prime-time sleeze. His legacy is that he did such an execrable job as Prime Minister that he destroyed his party.

And as to his own moral authority, I think Stevie Cameron settled that question in her book On the Take.


The Next Big Thing

It seems we are in the middle of a revolution in computing: the move from tethered communication to mobile. Worldwide, there are approximately four times as many mobile devices (mostly cell phones) as there are traditional laptops and desktops. And mobile devices are improving to an extent that they may make desktops and laptops as laughingly obsolete as rotary dial phones.

Consider the possibility of "a microbrowser in every pocket" for both personal and business use. Then think about the potential for embedded wireless applications. Our economy will be transformed. Wifi is a stopgap, but in the US the FCC is rumored to be considering the approval of new broadband networks that could make make wired and wireless internet nearly free.

The screen and keyboard on mobile devices are too small to be fully useful, you say? It's all being worked out. We've all seen the iPhone, but check out these new products from HTC - they're just as revolutionary.

These developments make it all the more urgent for the Canadian government to get off its butt and start doing something about the pitiful state of Canada's wireless service provider industry. At this point in time, lagging behind Rwanda is not going to cut it.

Update: PCs Being Pushed Aside in Japan


Friday, September 07, 2007

Why Canada Has the Highest Wireless Costs

A few months ago this graph was published in an article called Canada Worse than 3rd World Countries when it comes to Mobile Data Access. It compares the cost of transferring 500MB of data in several wireless plans. The Comments quibble over the details, but the upshot is that Canadian wireless plans are way more expensive than other countries - and Canadian wireless prices are rising sharply. (Here's a similar graph comparing 1GB of data.)

Don Morrison, COO of RIM (the Waterloo-based maker of the BlackBerry), tells a similar story: Canadian wireless plans are too expensive, and the cost is only hurting wireless service providers by keeping national adoption relatively low.

The situation affects my company as well. Also based in Waterloo, we develop database and synchronization software for developers of wireless applications. Like RIM, we don't do much business in Canada.

Why are Canadian wireless costs so high? These seem to be the contributing factors:

1. Bad business decisions by wireless service providers - bad in that they're hurting themselves as well as their customers.

2. Too little competition. There are three providers - Rogers (which owns Fido), Telus and Bell. And Telus and Bell share infrastructure.

3. Lack of regulation. For some reason, the CRTC doesn't regulate wireless services.

4. Population density. Our population density is 3.2 people/km^2. This is 1/10th the population density of the US, and nearly 1/100th Britain's. Low density isn't as important as it might seem, because 95% of the Canadian population lives within 100 miles of the US border and more than half live in our six biggest cities. Plus, once the infrastructure is in place, the providers could recoup their expenses better by attracting more customers. Also, Australia has a population density even lower than ours (2.6) and they have cheaper plans.

5. Canadians don't demand a better deal.

Update: Jake Billo


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Traveler IQ Challenge

The Facebook game Traveler IQ Challenge was created by TravelPod, an Ottawa-based company that was acquired by TripAdvisor in late 2006. The game is fun, educational and thoroughly addictive. This post refers to the World challenge game, but there are other games as well (World Capitals, UNESCO sites, regional games, etc).

As far as I can tell the game is only available through Facebook. Here is the official statistics page from TravelPod. You might need a Facebook account to access the game here.

Details of the game
The game works like this: the name of a place pops up and you use your mouse to locate it on a map of the world. Your score is presented and then another name pops up... and so on. I play quite quickly and a game takes me 10-15 minutes. At the end you are presented with your final score. If you scroll down the page you'll see the top scores in the world, as well as the top scores of people in your friend list.

The game consists of 12 levels, each with a number of questions. Here's a game I played recently:

Level 1: Havana, Cuba; Venice, Italy; Brasilia, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Houston, USA (5 questions)
Level 2: Versailles Palace, France; Tower of London, England; Sydney Opera House, Australia; Buckingham Palace, England; St. Paul's Cathedral, England; St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City; Carlsbad Cavern, USA (7 questions)
Level 3: Paris, France; Cairo, Egypt; Helsinki, Finland; Rejkjavik, Iceland; Mexico City, Mexico; Montevideo, Uraguay; Sucre, Bolivia (7 questions)
Level 4: Antwerp, Belgium; Baltimore, USA; Philadelphia, USA; Kyoto, Japan; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Marseilles, France; Anaheim, USA; Jacksonville, USA; Oslo, Norway; Istanbul, Turkey (10 questions)
Level 5: Battle of Hastings, England; Xel-Ha (Mayan Ruins), Mexico; Oriental Pearl Tower, China; Mount Everest, Nepal; Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia; Battle of Stalingrad (1942-3), Russia; Leptis Magna, Libya; Hagia Sophia, Turkey; Rapa Nui (Easter Island); The Alhambra, Spain (10 questions)
Level 6: Manila, Phillipines; San Jose, Costa Rica; Kyiv, Ukraine; Asuncion, Paraguay; Kabul, Afghanistan; Bangkok, Thailand; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Paramaribo, Suriname; Pretoria, South Africa; Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic (10 questions)
Level 7: Calcutta, India; Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Caracas, Venezuela; Cinque Terre, Italy; Santiago, Chile; Osaka, Japan; Ho Chi Minh City, Japan; Myrtle Beach, USA; Killarney, Ireland; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Dusseldorf, Germany; Hanoi, Viet Nam (12 questions)
Level 8: Luanda, Angola; Kigali, Rwanda; Maseru, Lesotho; Astana, Kazakhstan; Tbilisi, Georgia; Vilnius, Lithuania; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Mogadishu, Somalia; Djibouti, Djibouti; Sofia, Bulgaria; Manama, Bahrain; Tegucigalpa, Honduras (12 questions)
Level 9: Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt; Kathmandu, Nepal; Columbo, Sri Lanka; Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire; Guangzhou, China; Mumbai (Bombay), India; Hamilton, Bermuda; Vientiane, Laos; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; Queenstown, New Zealand; Ubud, Indonesia; Kandahar, Afghanistan (12 questions)
Level 10: Thimphu, Bhutan; Niamey, Niger; Muscat, Oman; Palikir, Federated States of Micronesia; Honiara, Solomon Islands; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Bangui, Central African Republic; Mbabane, Swaziland; Podgorica, Montenegro; Zagreb, Croatia; N'Djamena, Chad; Port Louis, Mauritius; Basselerre, St. Kitts and Nevis; Maputo, Mozambique; Brazzaville, Republic of Congo (15 questions)
Level 11: Christmas Island, Australia; Nundle, Australia; Yekaterinaberg, Russia; Daugavpils, Latvia; Pagan Island, Northern Marianes; Ushuaia, Argentina; Bam, Iran; Tigre, Argentina; Iqaluit, Canada; Luang Prabang, Laos; Cluj-Napoca, Romania; Naxcivan, Azerbaijan; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; Port Arthur, Australia; Mancora, Peru (15 questions)
Level 12: Urumqi, China; Koror City, Palau; Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland; Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia; Larak Island, Iran; Brasov, Romania; Yellowknife, Canada; Kimberly, South Africa; Tikrit, Iran; Al Khurtum, Sudan; Ventspils, Latvia; Omsk, Russia; Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia; Wangerooge, Germany; Val-d'Or, Canada (15 questions)

Total = 130 questions

The game isn't impossibly difficult because there seem to be only about 300 places that are used so it's possible to memorize them by repeated playing. Also, some countries are more highly represented than others (especially the US, Canada, Italy, England and Australia). For example, the only places it might ask you about in Canada are the Bay of Fundy, Calgary, the CN Tower, Edmonton, Iqaluit, Montreal, Niagara Falls, Ottawa, Portage au Prairie, Quebec City, Toronto, Val d'Or, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Yellowknife. There are seven places in Norway, about two dozen in Australia, about a dozen in Italy... in most countries there are is only one, or in bigger countries two. There are some islands that are a bit tricky to pin down, but the only one that is still buggering me up is Easter Island, which doesn't come up very frequently.

Improving your score
When you start World IQ Challenge the splashscreen says that speed matters. However, the points you get from time are much, much less than the points you get from accuracy.

The following graphics give you an idea of how to score high points. The first graphic shows a very high score: I clicked within 28 kilometers of the target in 1.55 seconds. (The red arrow shows you where you clicked; the green arrow is the correct location.) It's difficult to do much better than this:

The next graphic shows that it is much better to take an extra second or two to perfect your accuracy. I was almost as quick (1.71 seconds), but I was 800 kilometers off. That cost me 1,543 points for accuracy and 8 points for time:

My top score for a game is 631,067. Since there are 130 questions, that works out to an average of 4,854 points per question. I could definitely improve my score. I am still a bit sloppy - I frequently do something stupid like click in Spain when I mean France, or (worse) in Australia when I mean China. (This happens because the world map is quite small.) Also, while I started the game with a good grasp of countries I am still building my city knowledge, especially in China and Russia. And I have to figure out how to be more accurate with spots that have no easy reference points - like the middle of the south Pacific (I can get close, but close might be 1,000 kilometers).

I found that decreasing the resolution on my monitor (making the map bigger) gave my score a boost. I also got a better score when I learned to slow down; in particular, after clicking on a location I pause, read the score and make careful note of the green flag that shows the correct location.

World Challenge IQ shows the top 25 scores in the world. (When you open the game, scroll down and you'll see the list.) The top score is 702,629, which averages 5,405 points per question. That is close to perfection. It would require getting less than 20 kilometers from every location in less than 2 seconds... not bad.

For another good (but simpler) map game, see Map Game.