Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Irate Pirates

I made up this game today: Make a poem out of the letters in your name. Except that, for game development/demonstration purposes, I used the word PIRATES, which is why I call the game Irate Pirates. Here are a couple of goes: one doggerel and one haiku. Warning: These poems are really really really really bad.

Irate Pirate
I ate pears at Easter;
Pastries are tastier.
I set a trap,
I spear a rat.
A star repast?
Eat a pest!

Irate Pirate Haiku
Pirates stare at stars
Prettiest pirate apart
Tears atest its stress?


The Flu Shot Controversy

A large Canadian study has found that people who got the seasonal flu shot last year were more likely to get H1N1 this spring than people who didn't get the shot. The report is not yet peer-reviewed, but reports of the report are causing Canadian officials to rethink their flu shot policy. However, the researchers should have expected that certain biases would provide this result, without implying that the seasonal flu shot somehow causes H1N1:

1. People who get the seasonal flu shot are more likely to get flu
Some people never get the flu, because of natural immunity or because they don't spend time in close proximity to infected people. These people are much less likely to get flu shots.

Conversely, some people are much more prone to getting sick, due to poor health, close proximity to infected people, or whatever. These people are much more likely to get the flu shot.

So in the sample group, you would expect more people who got the flu shot to get this new strain of flu. That doesn't mean that the flu shot caused the flu.

2. People who get the flu shot are more likely to be diagnosed with H1N1
This past spring, most people who got sick with H1N1 got mild cases. Most were probably not even diagnosed. The people who were diagnosed with H1N1 are probably those people who go to their doctor more often. People who go to their doctors more often are more likely to get the flu shot. Therefore, of the people who got H1N1, those who are diagnosed are more likely to have had the flu shot.
Correlation does not imply causation.

This sort of research can suggest lines of laboratory research, but it means little without the research. And yes, that applies to all the other statistical health studies we read about in the newspaper.

Unfortunately, immunizations have become the hot topic of people who are paranoid about the medical profession: people who hate doctors, or mistrust science in general, or think BigPharma is manipulating health issues to boost profits.

As for myself, for most of my life I got the flu every year, usually getting sick as a dog and missing a full week of work or more. Every year since 1997 I've had a flu shot and in that time I haven't had the flu. Ontario has now decided to delay seasonal flu shots till after the H1N1 shots, and that increases my likelihood of getting the flu. So I feel I have a personal stake in this. For those who don't want to get flu shots - fine; as long as they stay away from other people when they get sick, they can do what they like. But as a public policy, flu shots work, and shouldn't be delayed until the middle of flu season on such a questionable and preliminary study.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Psychoanalysing Don Draper

Mad Men's Don Draper is all about compartments. As long as every aspect of his life is compartmentalized and kept separate, he's okay. When things start to bleed from one compartment to another, he freaks out.

Don's first and most important compartment is his childhood. In the army he assumed the identity of his lieutenant (who died), and noone - except the man's widow - knows Don's past.

His second biggest compartment is his extramarital affairs. This is reminiscent of some things Bill Clinton said about abuse in childhood that led him to become a compartmentalizer, and how that led him to justify affairs. In fact, Bill Clinton may be the inspiration for that part of Don Draper's character.

Don keeps his working life and home life almost completely separate. Betty frequently complains that she knows absolutely nothing about his work. The one exception is that he occasionally takes her to social business-related outings.

When Roger asked Don how he met Conrad Hilton, Don said, "We travel in the same circles." That's a near-lie, as Don met Conrad at a party at Roger's club. Don doesn't seem able to share any of his secrets.

Don's hatred for Roger Sterling all dates back to when Roger invited himself to Don and Betty's for supper. Don doesn't hate Roger because he made a pass at Betty, but because Roger crossed a boundary into Don's personal space. He got so upset about it at the time that he pulled a horrible trick on Roger: just before meeting important clients he got Roger to have an oyster and Martini lunch; but when they got back to the office Don had bribed the elevator operator to say the elevator was out of order, so they had to walk a couple dozen flights of stairs. When Roger met the clients he threw up on them.

Likewise, Don's one-time secretary Jane, now Roger's wife, crossed the line into Don's private life when she was indiscreet about knowing that Don and Betty had separated for a while; and Don hates her too.

Don had another near freak-out this week when his company forced him to sign an employment contract. It's not clear why it was so important to him to not have a contract. It could be that he avoids putting his assumed name in legal documents, pressure he is under only because of this huge secret. It could be that he fears being tied down in a way that ties together his personal and professional lives. Whatever it is, his reaction was extreme and irrational.

The key thing about Don's compartmentalizing is that it's pathological. He lives under enormous pressure because of it, and the pressure is never about getting caught - it's not the typical show about a cheating husband - the pressure is almost all in his head, and when his secrets start to leak out or boundaries blur, Don gets angry, disoriented and wreckless.

It seems like Don might be heading for another breakdown. Personally, while the show is as good as ever, I wouldn't mind if they could bring this compartmentalization theme to the fore a bit more and then expand Don's personality somewhat - otherwise it might get a bit tired.


The Real Health Care Question

Okay, I've spent some time in the past documenting how much better and cheaper Canada's health care system is than the US system. But that's not the real question.

The real question is: Why is Canada's health care system worse than many developed countries other than the US? Compared to the US, we look great; compared to the OECD average, not so much. Canada's per capita health care costs are higher than many OECD countries. Compared to countries that provide universal health care, we fall behind on many indicators of heath care quality.

Instead of worrying about the mess in the US, we should be solidly focused on looking east and west for ideas about how to improve health care. In an ideal world of continuous excellence, we would be having a public discourse (in newspaper articles, phone-in shows, debates with friends, the legislature) about all the ways we can improve. Sure, Harper is not interested in improving health care - he wants it to fail so he can privatize it - but health care is provincial, and our provincial governments are in many cases more enlightened than our current federal government.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Some Thoughts on Layton Propping Up the Government

For seven months this year, the Liberals propped up the government. Ignatieff killed the coalition and then kept Harper's government alive. Layton made great hay of that, keeping count of the votes and gloating in speeches about it.

Now Ignatieff has forced Layton to be the one propping up the government. (Cool move, Iggles!) Some Liberals seem to want to start banging on Jack in the same way he banged on us.

Truth be told, neither situation was so bad. It's just how it goes during minority governments. We can't have an election after every vote.

It was different in 2006, when Layton actively got Harper elected by his behavior during the election campaign: alleging a phony Liberal scandal and getting the RCMP involved, as well as disproportionately attacking the Liberals while giving the Conservatives a free ride. That was worth calling him on. This, not so much. Layton made a fool of himself and I don't think anyone has missed the irony, but we don't need to repeat his poor behavior.

Even more ironically, while Ignatieff was propping up the Conservatives, the Conservative were hollering that Ignatieff is a power-hungry psychopath who would do anything to grab power immediately; and they were running around hollering that Ignatieff was in league with the socialists and separatists... the same socialists and separatists who are now propping them up. But then, the Conservative hate machine doesn't give a fig for truth.


Leadership in Canada

Twenty things everyone should know about Stephen Harper and his Reform-Conservative government, by Dan Lauzon via Warren Kinsella:

  1. They rigged a self-serving and politicized infrastructure stimulus program so that most of the money could land in Conservative-held ridings, delaying projects so much that only 12% are in construction and creating jobs.

  2. He called Canada "second-tier socialistic country” and a “Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term."

  3. They put Canada on track for a deficit before the recession hit and now holds the record of the largest deficit on record at 56 billion (and climbing).

  4. They failed to plan for the H1N1 flu by delaying the order of the flu vaccine and sending body bags to remote communities instead.

  5. They spent 5 times more on self-promotion than informing the public on how to protect themselves from H1N1?

  6. In the past two months, he has twice failed to defend Canada’s healthcare system against outrageous attacks from ultra-right Conservatives n the United States.

  7. He kept Ministers in his cabinet who called the medical isotope crisis they helped create "sexy" and made jokes about the listeriosis crisis.

  8. He broke his promise not to raise taxes with a $13 billion EI payroll tax.

  9. They pick and choose when to protect the rights of Canadian citizens at home and abroad.

  10. He called women, minorities, the disabled, and gays and lesbians “left-wing fringe groups” and Canada’s independent judiciary “left-wing ideologues.”

  11. He keeps a Minister in his cabinet who openly mused about putting 10-year-olds in jail.

  12. He denied that the country was in a recession and failed to plan for it, and only agreed to provide economic stimulus after causing a constitutional crisis.

  13. He said he doesn’t care if “Canada ends up as one national government or two national governments or several national governments, or some other kind of arrangement.”

  14. He holds the record for unelected Senate appointments for a single year — 27, more than any Prime Minister in Canadian history – after saying he would never appoint Senators.

  15. He has presided over the loss of nearly a half million high quality fulltime jobs since October, with no plan to replace them with the next generation of jobs.

  16. He has pushed for amending the Canada Health Act to allow for-profit-pay-as-you-go Medicare in this country and abdicated any federal role in ensuring its guiding principles of public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability, and accessibility.

  17. He said "There will be no special status, formally or informally, for Quebec or any other province."

  18. He pushed for further deregulation and less oversight over banks and financial institutions.

  19. He has done nothing to address the hollowing out of corporate Canada due to a weakening in foreign takeover rules.

  20. He bragged that he was opposed to government programs to eliminate child poverty and promote cultural identity.


Ten Ways to Avoid Rape

  1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.

  2. When you see a woman walking by herself, leave her alone!

  3. If you pull over to help a woman with car problems, remember not to assault her.

  4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.

  5. If you are in an elevator and a woman gets in, DON’T ASSAULT HER.

  6. Remember, people go to laundry rooms to do their laundry: do not attempt to molest someone who is alone in a laundry room.

  7. If a woman is drunk, don’t rape her.

  8. If someone tells you he raped someone, report him to the police.

  9. Don’t tell your friend that being raped was in any way her fault.

  10. Tell your sons, god-sons, nephews, grandsons and sons of friends that it’s not okay to rape.

- Expanded from a post by Antonia Zerbesias.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Thank Heavens for Dalton McGuinty

Think back a few years to when Harper first ascended to be our PM. He went out of his way to insult Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and promote then-Ontario Conservative leader John Tory. On Harper's first visit to Ontario he snubbed McGuinty, refusing to meet with him, met with Tory, and criticized McGuinty.

I was not surprised by Harper's act, as such nastiness is typical of him (though outrageous), but I was really surprised by McGuinty's reaction: he just kept his head down and continued to try to forge a relationship with Harper - or at least that's how it seemed to me. Over the years he's plugged away at it, and it has paid off for Ontario.

Ontario is hugely under-represented in federal parliament, and last year Harper proposed a bill that changed the composition of parliament, but added too few Ontario seats and too many seats elsewhere. McGuinty opposed the move and the bill stalled. Now Harper has announced a much better composition; instead of adding ten more seats in Ontario, we're getting 21 more, resulting in a much fairer distribution. (Details here.)

Unlike the US, Canada doesn't allow gerrymandering so we don't have to worry about that. The only threat was a government that tried to provide over-representation in its areas of support - which is exactly what Harper tried to do. But after a year of negotiation, the final compostiion seems pretty fair.

I like McGuinty. He's low-key and competent, and he's an effective advocate for Ontario. Would that more politicians had less ego and more focus on an agenda for the people.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Count Gets Dissed

There have been several scathing criticisms of Michael Ignatieff lately. I'll take on three:

* Ignatieff has 'put absolutely nothing on the table,' say Liberal insiders by Abbas Rana in the Hill Times, Sept 21.
* For Liberals, new leader, same losing scenario by Chantal Hebert in The Star, Sept 18.
* Tired rhetoric, and not much more by Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe & Mail, Sept 23.

The basic complaint is that Ignatieff has not put out enough policy detail yet. They argue that, had there been an election, he would have been unprepared. However:

* There wasn't an election. Call him lucky or crazy like a fox, Ignatieff has managed to stop propping up the government without an unpopular election and he has manoeuvered the NDP on to the hot seat. This may have been a Mulroneyesque rolling of the dice: whatever, we're in a much better position than we were a month ago, in lots of ways - just one of which is to bleed support from the NDP.
* He has been leader less than a year. In that time he has achieved the vital goal of raising a lot of money. Now he's starting an ad campaign, starting to get more specific about policy - give him some room, folks! I don't see any problem with his timing.
* The biggest mistake Dion made was to unveil his election platform too early. When he announced the Green Shift everyone was anxious about global warming. By the time the election was called we had had the biggest financial crisis in our lifetimes and were facing the biggest depression in history. Everyone was more concerned about the economy, yet Liberals were stuck talking about something else. Timing is vital. Ignatieff needs to be prepared to talk policy in an election, but he doesn't have to spell it all out in advance.

Jeffrey Simpson also complains that Ignatieff hasn't distinguished himself sufficiently from Harper. I find this line of reasoning to be totally specious. Prime Minister Ignatieff would have a totally different effect on Canada than Prime Minister Harper; to say they are indistinguishable is absurd. Don't forget that Harper was going to cut the budget this year and enact no fiscal stimulus until forced to by the coalition. If you think there's no difference between the two leaders, talk to the thousands of young people languishing in jails under Harper's US-style legal "reforms". Talk to the women who can no longer get any legal assistance in fighting abuse and wage discrimination. Talk to the arts groups that are no longer funded. Look at how our allies view us after the long series of screw-ups by the incompetent people Harper puts in his cabinet so he can run the show himself. And that doesn't even mention the areas that Harper is neglecting: Ignatieff is probably the best person in the world to address our long-standing disunity issues.

(btw, Harper has also been coming in for some pretty snarky dissing of late, at least in the Globe. See Tories spend five times more on budget ads than flu plan and Harper makes donut run (Harper skips Obama's speech at UN to go to Tim Hortons).)


Monday, September 21, 2009

The Count Steps Up

I told you that Michael Ignatieff would smite the Harper. And now it begins...

The timing is perfect. Ignatieff needed a few months to raise money and work out his strategy, and the summer is too slow a news cycle, but now that fall is here the Liberals are starting to move their pieces into place. No longer supporting the government, Ignatieff can now move into a more prominent position, taking control and proposing policies. The Liberals are essentially in campaign mode now. (At least that's the way it looks to me, and since I sometimes get quoted by Conservatives as if I'm a party insider, let me reiterate that I ain't.)

I predict that the longer the NDP props up the government, the stronger we'll get. The chances are very good that Ignatieff will form the next government.

If you missed the profile of Ignatieff in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker, you might want to go to a library and give it a read. It reveals a man who will be a very different leader from the lowest-common-denominator operator that we have now. Harper was a backroom boy, a crafty wheeler-dealer who follows a blunt and simplistic ideology. Ignatieff is a political commentator who has spent his life grappling with issues like how to balance the rights of the individual and the rights of the community, and he is ready to step up and redirect our nation in a way that hasn't happened since Trudeau. But Ignatieff will take us beyond Trudeau's liberal individualism (viz, the Charter of Rights) to a more sophisticated and evolved state of collective rights that will reconcile individual rights with our reality as a multicultural mosaic and state based on two cultures (or three, if John Ralston Saul has his way). Canada needs Igantieff's leadership to move us beyond the morass we've been in with Quebec, first nations, and pressures from new immigrants. The next election will be historic, and Canada hangs in the balance.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

There But For the Grace of God...

Rahim Jaffer's recent arrest for drunk driving and cocaine possession is a political scandal mostly because his wife is a cabinet minister. Jaffer himself lost his seat in parliament nearly a year ago.

When I read about the case, I'm struck by how vulnerable we all are to failure. Things are going well, we're competent and successful, and then something goes wrong and it causes a downward spiral. It's not uncommon. Although most of us get through the slump without ruining out lives, it's how some people end up broke, divorced, on the streets or in prison. Or worse.

When it happens to people in politics it's very difficult to recover. Svend Robinson had a super successful public life until he fell off a cliff while hiking and wasn't rescued for a couple of days; a short while later he inexplicably shoplifted a ring and his political career was over. Is Jaffer's story a similar reaction to his surprise loss in last year's election? I have no idea. I have never followed Jaffer's career and know nothing about him, but this story has a familiar ring to it.

Perhaps I'm just giving in to bleeding-heart liberal tendencies, but this strikes me as a time for compassion, not condemnation. If, as I suspect, this is a case of a person who's having a difficult personal time, then I wish him the best in getting the support he needs to get through it.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Helen Changed Everything

During a few decades around 1200 BC, many Mediterranean civilizations collapsed. Historians call the period the Catastrophe, and despite a great deal of theorizing there is no consensus about what caused it.

Some social scientists believe it was caused by years of drought or bad storms. Some think it was earthquakes. Many believe it was due to invasions (including mysterious attacks by a group that Ramses III called the Sea People), or mass migrations. There are theories of systemic problems. Robert Drews argues that improvements to the use of infantry, as well as the invention of more deadly swords and spears, made the old chariot-based system of warfare vulnerable.

We know that, in that brief time span, many cities and palaces were sacked. There is evidence of mass slaughter, looting, and fires that destroyed entire cities. In most cases the cities were not re-inhabited. It is odd that raiders would so frequently move on after sacking a city; or if they did, that local people wouldn't rebuild. That is also the problem with earthquakes or droughts as explanations: why then are the cities permanently abandoned? In some cases there were hidden hoards of jewels left by occupants before they either fled or were killed, hoards that were never recovered until archeologists discovered them.

The Egyptians managed to survive the Catastrophe, but the pharaonic system was crippled permanently. A few scattered cities survived, as did parts of Syria. Other than that, the entire eastern Mediterranean succumbed to whatever it was.

The really jaw-dropping aspect of the collapse was how rapid it was. During as little as 20 years there was a huge decrease in population over the whole area, and an even greater decrease in the number of people living in cities, towns and even villages. Ruling classes were wiped out, and no central authority replaced them. Written language vanished in most places. Artistic quality diminished. People started living in mud huts. The area entered a dark age that lasted for a thousand years in some parts, and 400 years in Greece.

Homer lived at the end of the dark ages, and he wrote about events set at the beginning of the dark ages. The sack of Troy in the Iliad describes the destruction of one civilization, and the threat to Odysseus' palace in the Odyssey describe the problems throughout the area resulting from having kings and armies away at Troy for nearly ten years. Homer would not, of course, have been thinking in terms of the destruction of the Mycenaean palatial civilization or the end of the Bronze Age. Nevertheless, he provides a plausible explanation for why civilization suddenly vanished hundreds of years before his birth.

In the Iliad, Homer describes 150,000 Greek troops at Troy. In addition to the Greek forces, the Trojans called in tens of thousands of allies to help defeat the invaders. At the time of the Iliad there were roughly 40 million people on the entire planet, so the armies alone amounted to nearly 1% of the world's population, and a hugely higher percentage of the population of the Mediterranean. In fact, it might be argued that Homer's numbers are impossible because they represent more fighting-age men than existed in the area at that time. The forces were deadlocked at Troy for nearly ten years.

The invading Greeks included scores of kings. Their absences from home caused all kinds of instability, as did the absences of the armies. In the Odyssey, Homer describes Odysseus's wife Penelope besieged by suitors trying to take her missing husband's place. The Odyssey (and other texts) describes the fate of Agamemnon, leader of all the Greek nations, whose wife took up with another man and killed Agamemnon when he finally returned home. Legends abound of similar fates among other kings who were bogged down in Troy.

The number of troops at Troy suggest that every adult male was away from home. That would include authority figures, experts, shop-owners, scribes, teachers, artisans, bureaucrats. In the society of the day, it is unlikely that women would have been able to step up and take over those roles.

As to the utter destruction and non-rehabitation of cities, in The Fall of Troy Quintus says that the invading Greeks completely destroyed the city and then immediately sailed away. In the Odyssey, Homer says that the Greeks "utterly destroyed the Trojans' city."

If the decade-long siege of Troy explains the regional instability that destroyed every civilization involved in it (and some beyond), then what caused the war in the first place? At the center of Homer's explanation is Helen. The war happened because Agamemnon wanted to get back his sister-in-law, who had run off with the Trojan prince, Paris.

You can argue that Helen isn't to blame: Eros hit her with a love dart, Zeus masterminded the whole thing to bring down Achilles, etc etc. More plausibly, there is some reason to think that Agamemnon wanted to continue his territorial expansion and used Helen as a pretext, although there are also indications that he was bound by oath to get her back, and in the end he didn't gain anything by the war. In any event, during the ten years of the siege Helen stayed with her new husband Paris and did not attempt to go back to Menelaus, which she could easily have done.

Helen isn't the only beautiful woman in the Iliad, or the only captive woman, or the only beautiful captive woman that men fight over. Apollo attacks the Greek forces because Agamemnon won't give Chryseis back; and Achilles refuses to fight because Agamemnon won't give Briseis back. Yet none of the other women are the cause of anything major.

When the siege is over and Troy is destroyed, Helen returns to Menelaus and goes back to her old life as Queen of Sparta, where Homer has Menelaus (in the Odyssey) describing her placidly as "my dear wife". The only individual in Homer who blames Helen for anything is Achilles - but that's not insignificant, as Achilles is the main character in the book.

Of course, poets aren't historical sources, but you don't have to believe in the existence of the Muses to see that poets sometimes tap some deep truths, or provide glimpses that lead us to insight. In the central causality of Helen, the truth is tantalizingly enigmatic. As Yeats wrote when describing the conception of Helen (the rape of Leda by Zeus disguised as a swan):

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow:
The great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in the bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?


"Propped Up by the Socialists and the Separatists"

In some ways my views are the same as the traditional Progressive Conservative party. I'm a fiscal conservative and want government to take a responsible approach to the budget and the economy. I want low debt and a healthy atmosphere for business. Like Joe Clark and John Crosbie, I'm strongly in favor of higher taxes at the pump.

But the defining characteristic of the Stephen Harper Conservative government is something that permits no common ground, and that is the politics of hate.

The politics of hate speaks to a small base and is scathing about anyone outside of that base. Stephen Harper is running the country for nobody but his base. When he compromises his extremist views, it is not because he wants to lead the country for everyone, but for reasons of political expediency.

Some notes about the leaked video of Harper's private address in Sault Ste. Marie:

* He says Liberal victory will only happen if they are "propped up by socialists and separatists." This is not off-the-cuff phrasing. He used exactly the same rhetoric last December-January.
* He makes reference to equal pay lawsuits by female civil servants, referring to them as "left wing fringe groups."
* He says "we've had to do a number of things not associated with Conservative governments" but makes it very clear that that was only for political expediency, to make it possible to win a majority.
* He continues to push the spin that Ignatieff wants to form a coalition. (How stupid can Conservatives be!!? Ignatieff is the one who killed the coalition.) He furthers that spin with the idiotic claim that the two options post-election are a Harper government or a coalition, ignoring the obvious option - the Liberals winning enough seats to form a government on their own. In fact, it's the "socialists", "separatists" and Liberals who are "propping up" Harper.

Look: I'm a Liberal. I'm neither a "socialist" nor a "separatist". But over 4 million Canadians voted for the NDP or Bloc in 2008, and they deserve better than to be dismissed with epithets by their prime minsister. The Prime Minister of Canada runs the entire country, even people who voted for other parties. This utter dismissal of a large chunk of the population is distressing. It makes Harper unfit to be leader of the Conservative party and prime minister of the country.


Friday, September 11, 2009

If You Build It They Will Come - Doesn't Work For Transit-Oriented Development

In urban planning there is an idea called Transit Oriented Development (TOD), which is pertinent to our discussions in Waterloo Region about LRT.

A famous example of TOD is Portland, Oregon. Like Waterloo Region, Portland built an LRT to create density nodes. However, while Waterloo is employing the faith-based "If you build it, they will come" style of planning, Portland actually developed the nodes. Around their stations they built streetcar lines and redeveloped a couple hundred acres of urban land. They got private enterprise involved to help pay for the streetcars and to do the development.

Waterloo is just creating the nodes with the idea that it will magically correct decades of sloppy planning that resulted in car dependency and urban sprawl. Some problems with this:

* The idea is to have high density housing and shopping at the nodes, to reduce the need for a car. We may end up with all housing or all shopping around our nodes.
* It's not clear that any of our nodes have the potential for redevelopment. Some proposed LRT nodes, principally Uptown Waterloo, are if anything in danger of being over-densified and are undergoing overly rapid growth. All other Waterloo city nodes, with the exception of Bearinger Drive, have little space left for development.
* Without the complementary transit infrastructure (like the streetcars in Portland), people may end up driving to LRT stations, resulting in parking headaches at LRT nodes and negating the goals of reducing car dependency.

There is just no substitute for proactive, intelligent planning. Waterloo Region still operates on the reactive model: developers make all the decisions, and local government runs after them, trying unsuccessfully to grab the tiger by the tail, ending up having only a cosmetic influence on the process. I'm all for private enterprise driving development, but there should be more proactive design of the big picture.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Some Thoughts on Elections

On the one hand...

1. When Ignatieff doesn't support the government, he's accused of forcing an election - causing support for the Liberals to drop a few points.

2. New leaders historically need a couple of years to get up to speed, even when they're more experienced than Ignatieff.

3. Our last election was less than a year ago, and we have had a lot of elections in the last few years.

On the other hand...

1b. When Ignatieff doesn't force an election, he is accused of "propping up Harper." There are lots of good arguments that can be made to the public for why an election is needed. Like these. We just need to sell it better.

2b. Ignatieff has been leader of the party for eight months now, and he's settling in pretty well.

3b. Under Harper, a minority government is bound to be unstable. Plus, he will call an election as soon as is politically advantageous for him - he's still working flat-out to get a majority.

The path to electoral success seems to hinge on taking control: in terms of setting the election date to an opportune time for us; in terms of being seen to be in control; and in terms of better framing the issues.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Ethical Responsibility and the Flu

I heard a debate on CBC's The Current this morning about the amount of money western countries are spending on preparation for the H1N1 virus. Some fellow has called it an "epidemic of indecency" to spend billions on a relatively mild virus while millions around the world are dying of malaria, TB and other diseases.

This is one of those cases where rational reasoning talks its way around to absurdity. We have to be able to hold to our own interest: first myself, then my family, then my circle of friends, then my community, my country, my country's allies. A flood in my town that kills two people is more important to me than a flood in China that kills a thousand people. It has to be that way: we each have to take care of our own, look out for our own, before we can reach out further.

To suggest that I should be more worried about children in Africa than about my own child is simply not on. Yes, I know that children in Africa are much more in need than children in Canada, but it is my right and my responsibility to put my own first. We applaud Bill Gates for providing aid to people in need around the world, but we would also rightly condemn him if he neglected his own children.

In this case, there is a lot more riding on the preparations for H1N1 than just the fatality rate. The world has not yet come out of a global financial crisis and recession, and H1N1 could destroy our recovery - whether or not a single person dies. Even in its current "mild" form, H1N1 makes people very ill for a week or two. Look at the transmission rates in Australia and New Zealand during their flu season last year. Look at the transmission rates on US college campuses this fall. Now imagine your company: what would happen if 50% or more of employees, suppliers, and service workers were too ill to work for two weeks? Even if they weren't sick, parents would have to stay home if their kids were. What if schools closed, transit was curtailed (due to sick drivers), grocery stores went unstocked, banks shut down, we had electricity brown-outs? That's not even mentioning chaos at doctor's offices and hospitals, where staff unavailability could threaten people who require care for other sorts of ailments. And it's not taking into account the very real threat that the virus will mutate and become more dangerous.

It's not "indecent" for our government to spend a lot of money preparing for this year's flu season: it would be indecent if they didn't.

I am reminded of a small section of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird: a church group in the small southern town is collecting money for people in Africa while showing no concern for persecuted African-Americans in their own community. The reader's instincive response should be that it's appalling and hypocritical that they care for people far away more than for their neighbors.

Other than the ethical issues, there is a practical problem with caring more for the far-flung than the local: help is much more effective when applied locally. Parents have to be the ones to take responsibility for their children, and governments have to take care of their citizens. It seems absurd even to have to argue this point, but I increasingly run into arguments that deny the primal importance of the personal and local, and attempt to assign a universal guilt because of the mountain of suffering elsewhere in the world. Part of this line of reasoning is the fallacy that our own problems are somehow invalid because other people have bigger problems.


Monday, September 07, 2009

Labour Day

This Labour Day, I call on all workers to resolve to do their jobs better.

Unions, I call on you to root out corruption in your ranks. It is your right to defend your members when they're accused of wrong-doing, but it's your responsibility to safeguard against their doing wrong.

Government, I call on you to find a way to reform your relationship with civil service unions, and to make commitments to ensure that all Canadians get the same benefits as your unionized employees. Further, you need to strengthen employment regulations to protect workers - all workers, including part-time and contract.

Corporations, I call on you to operate for the benefit of shareholders, employees and society - not for the enrichment of the handful of people at the helm.

If we all took seriously the need to do better, what a world we could have.


Why a Fall Election is the Right Way to Go

1. It's time for a Prime Minister who can lead all Canadians, not just a narrow base in Alberta. Harper hasn't even bothered to unite his own party. He has repeatedly characterized Quebec voters as un-Canadian. He has expressed contempt for every citizen east of Manitoba. He reviles the values of most Canadians.

Harper is a formidable foe because his Alberta base ensures that his party has by far the most money to spend. He uses that money on negative, character-based attacks on his opponents, and these attacks have been very successful. As his mentors in the US Republican party have discovered, lies are very effective in undermining your opponents.

2. Last December, Harper pulled such an egregious stunt that he lost the confidence of Canadian parliament. Since he did this a month after an election, an immediate election was not an option and the opposition parties were forced to form a coalition to replace him. Unfortunately, the leader of the official opposition proved himself to be not up to the task of leading the coalition government and had to be replaced. The new leader needed some time to get up to speed. Ever since last December, Harper's government is alive only until Ignatieff is ready to go. Now, Ignatieff is ready to go.

3. To stay in power, a minority government must be propped up by the opposition. This requires that a minority Prime Minister must work with the opposition, or at least with some portion of it. Harper has chosen not to do that, and hence he has teetered during his entire tenure as PM. The instability of the government is all down to Harper. The Liberals and NDP have reached out to him, and in response he has spat at them. Consequently, the decision to topple him is forced on the opposition and their job is merely to pick the most advantageous time. As to when the most advantageous time is, the political experts seem to think it's now.

4. Last fall, Harper broke his own rules and commitment to fixed election terms, and called an election at a time advantageous to himself - another month or two and he wouldn't have been able to keep the deficit figures from the public and the election result would have been quite different. The opposition must take control of the game or we're doomed to a series of weak, unpopular, minority Conservative governments.

5. Harper is still up to his Nixonian scheming, trying to subvert democracy. Years ago he let it be known that his strategy is to beat the Liberals by bankrupting them. He's still at it, with his latest scheme involving trying to force the Liberals to pay retroactive GST fees. There is no reason why the opposition should continue to let him pull these sleazy stunts. Furthermore, the incompetence of the Harper cabinet has led to serious consequences and it is the obligation of the opposition to put an end to it, for the good of all Canadians.

Under Harper's control, the Conservative party has become a gang of thugs, sleazebags and imbeciles. Harper's need to control everything has resulted in a weak and scandal-prone cabinet. Canadians died because of secretive attempts to reduce food safety inspections; the trust of our allies was diminished by a cabinet minister who left NATO document at his mafia-connected girlfriend's house. It just goes on and on, and Harper doesn't seem to be learning or improving. Time to go.

See also: My thoughts before last year’s election


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Annals of Crime

The Waterloo Regional Record covers Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, a metro area of over 500,000. Last week it had multiple articles about a roofer who fell off a roof, breaking a bone, and this week it's... Local Cat Killed by Dog.



Bike Couriers, Road Rage, and Tragedy

Following the death last night of a bicyclist near Bloor and University, the Globe & Mail is having an online discussion tomorrow about the issue of bike safety in Toronto.

Former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant is facing charges as a result of the death of bicycle courier Darcy Allan Sheppard. We don't know all the facts yet about the incident, but one thing appears clear: this is not a typical bike safety story. However heinously the driver reacted, the altercation started, according to witnesses, when Sheppard slammed the hood of Bryant's convertible with his pack and then grabbed the rearview mirror. It sounds like Sheppard attacked Bryant.

I'm not excusing Bryant, who then (again, according to witnesses) tried to knock Shepherd off his car, thus causing his death - but this isn't a one-sided tragedy.

I used to be a bike courier in Toronto (a long time ago) and I was appalled by the attitude and road behavior of some other couriers. The ironic thing is that the real insiders in the bike courier business get cushy routes and don't cycle that far. As a non-insider I was biking furiously all over town while the guys downtown had a two or three block radius of deliveries and spent a large part of their working day hanging out at a sandwich shop.

There are loads of horrible drivers in Toronto, and they're especially dangerous at rush hour when they're tired and hungry and want to get home. My life was endangered numerous times by drivers who were total jerks - who were essentially psychopaths in their utter disregard of the lives of bicyclists they shared the streets with.

But it's not going to make the roads any safer if we polarize the participants by misrepresenting this tragedy. Before we start drawing conclusions, we need to hear the whole story. This may be a case of road rage and a driver murdering a cyclist, or it may be a case of a driver in an open car fearing for his safety when attacked by a bicyclist. Or something inbetween, or something altogether different.

Update: Christie Blatchford wrote in the Globe tonight that "the cyclist will always physically lose in any contest with a car". That's simply not true. There was a case in Toronto a couple of years ago of a shouting match between a cyclist and a motorist, and the cyclist killed the motorist with a knife. If you're in a convertible and someone attacks you, you're pretty exposed. In this case, the developing story is that the cyclist was drunk and his girlfriend had called the police earlier in the evening because of aggressive behavior; a witness says that the cyclist tried to strangle the driver; and the driver called 911 before trying to shake off the cyclist.

Update nine months later, when charges were dropped: Prosecutor's report