Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The end of party politics as we know it?

Today, some thoughts about idea bundling ---"the lumping together of unrelated causes," in the words of Jesse Brown on the June 16 Search Engine podcast.

Political parties take this to an extreme. If you're an NDP'er, you're assumed to want gun control, bicycle lanes, control of rents and gasoline prices, the end of the seal hunt, Canadian troops out of Afghanistan, a resurgence of the labour movement, increased levels of social services, single-tier healthcare, and public ownership of institutions.

Conservatives are expected to resist gun control, unwaveringly support the police, oppose abortion, support the war in Afghanistan, want lower taxes and smaller government, believe in God, be pro-business, believe that the market will solve most problems, and see the welfare rolls as a hideout for the lazy.

It's a complex world. Sometimes the components of such a bundle are inconsistent with each other. For example, defending the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan vs. abandonment by our military; supporting public service unions right to strike vs. interrupting important social services; resisting gun registration vs. reducing gun-related crime.

Few of us can accept the entire litany of either the right or the left, preferring a cafeteria approach where we choose values and beliefs that feel comfortable on a personal level. One can only speculate about what this means for the future of party politics. Some see proportional representation as a partial solution. Would this lead to a tsunami of narrow-agenda mini-parties? Would that be a bad thing?

It seems clear that something has to change. Brown notes the public's waning interest in voting and politics in general. Younger people are particularly disconnected from the political process, preferring to bring about change by supporting causes, volunteering, and so on.

Perhaps this is the generation that will force us to find a way.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Church congregation goes squirrelly

Today we get on the lighter side, and offer this video, guaranteed to get you chuckling.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Fatal attraction

Listen up, because I'm gonna lay a guilt trip on you. When you buy a new cell phone, laptop, video games system, or MP3 player, you are very likely contributing to the largest war-related death toll since World War II.

I'm talking about the conflict in the Congo that has claimed the lives of 6 million people, and displaced millions more to neighbouring countries.

As detailed on the Adbusters website, the tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold mined in the Congo, and used in our electronics products, are the chief source of financing for the armed militias that wage wars, terrorize and kill civilians, and rape women and girls.

The growing awareness of this is giving rise to a grassroots movement targeted at electronics companies that are using these "conflict minerals," sometimes unwittingly. A bill that would require greater disclosure by manufacturers is working its way through the U.S. Senate.

Pressuring technology companies is unlikely to have the desired result, however, because the mines are not the fundamental problem. They are a valuable national asset, and potentially an important building block in the country's development. The problem is the ongoing turbulence involving warlords, ethnic cleansing, and external interference. People continue to lead terror-filled lives, and die from disease and malnutrition, while the rest of the world stands aside and allows it to continue.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Climate change --- get on it or go with it?

Electric car, $21,000. Bamboo bicycle, $10,000. Saving the planet, hopeless.

Speaking to a Canadian audience of politicians, activists, corporate types and media in Toronto, British scientist James Lovelock advised us to enjoy it while it lasts, because it's too late to mitigate climate change, and our only option now is to adapt.

"Climate change is inevitable, proceeding and even accelerating," says Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis that the Earth is a single, self-regulating, organism.

He believes that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, it would have little effect because we're already past the point of no return.

Green Party leader Frank DeJong disagreed, believing there are still things we can do to turn things in another direction, while other speakers, such as Encana Corp.'s Subodh Gupta, were less pessimistic than Lovelock, recommending large-scale carbon-sequestration measures.

Update: June 10, 2009 --- International climate talks held in Italy this week ended with little progress. The rich industrial nations wouldn't promise to cut back their emissions in the near term. And China, India and the rest of the developing world wouldn't commit to cutting their emissions, ever.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wake up call for Dudley Do-Right

Despite the best efforts of the media and CSIS since 2001 to scare us into the same state of anxiety as our American neighbours, for most Canadians terrorism is something that happens elsewhere. Most of us have difficulty conceiving of a Toronto subway being bombed, a navy ship being sunk in Halifax harbour, or Anthrax spores being released in downtown Vancouver.

Until this week.

Earlier reports of 7 suspects released for lack of evidence, and the sentencing of an eighth to time served, gave the impression that there was more smoke than fire in the case of the so-called Toronto 18, and likely not much of a threat to national security. Now, what had seemed to be nothing more than a bunch of bonehead teenagers with overactive imaginations stumbling around in the snow near Orillia is suddenly shown to be something else.

Thanks to a guilty plea, we know there was a plot to blow things up, perhaps CSIS headquarters, the Toronto stock exchange, and a military installation. Ammonium nitrate was purchased. Serious stuff.

As we cruise into the Canada Day weekend, good old Canada feels just a bit different.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A bit of bold biking back when

So, you think your kid is a whiz on his BMX? Check out this Edison video from 1899.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The sun goes down on the California dream

It was fun, fun, fun 'til their bankers took their T-bird away.

And staying with this ornithological theme...

When the swallows returned to Capistrano in March, there were ominous signs that vultures would also be winging in soon. Now, with the terminal stage of the California death watch officially beginning next week, even the guvernator's Samson-like strength is looking to be inadequate as the California edifice crumbles. Yes friends, the sunshine state will run out of cash by the end of July, and its own constitution obligates it to balance its budget (in the red by $24 billion) by July 1.

To do so would change things in almost unthinkable ways --- major cuts to social services and programs that directly impact millions of people, early release from prison of non-violent offenders, layoff of 60,000 state employees, closing of state parks and beaches, cutting $750 million from budgets of the University of California and California State University. It goes on.

All of this is like watching an inevitable, slow motion collision of the "nothing's too good for us" crowd and the "starve government through tax cuts" mob.

We needn't be too smug about this. It's an overdue warning for all of us that bills come due. For decades, many have ignored Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s tenet that "Taxes are the price we pay for civilization," and Milton Friedman's caution that "There is no free lunch."

Standard operating procedure for our politicians has been to posture as tax-cutters while bribing us with borrowed money. The result, a Canadian national debt of $472 billion (your share: $14,000.00).

Friday, June 19, 2009

The global homeless

What must it be like to have no home?

I can not imagine this --- having no place to return to at the end of the day, no place to close out the world, to be with loved ones. No sanctuary.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, tells us that "global displacement stood at 42 million at the end of last year." Forty-two million! More than the population of Canada!

And now that has swollen to an estimated 44 million due to the conflicts in Sri Lanka, Somalia and Pakistan.

"Global displacement." What a bureaucratic, clinical euphemism for heartache, disorientation, fear, rape, hunger, thirst." Innocent victims of the silly vanities of local tyrants, the misguided movements of religious zealots, the well-intentioned initiatives of foreign leaders, and the hapless consequences of natural disasters.

But not always hopelessness.

See what I mean in some of these short videos showing their lives.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How are we really doing?

"If you don't count it, it doesn't count."

That is Roy Romanow quoting economist John Kenneth Galbraith on TVO's Agenda Tuesday night as he rolled out the First Report of the Institute of Wellbeing.

Yeah, I know, pinko quoting lefty, but give this a chance.

The whole idea here is to provide a Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) as a measurement of the quality of life in Canada, something not done adequately by purely economic yardsticks like Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Until these factors are understood, they can not be addressed through public policy. In other words, government is flying blind, guided by pressure groups and ideology.

The CIW will consolidate 8 "domains" into an index number that can be plotted over time. These domains include Arts, Culture and Recreation; Civic Engagement; Community Vitality; Education; Environment, Healthy Populations; Living Standards; and Time Use.

So what have they learned so far about this? Between 1981 and 2008:
• Income and wealth increased.
• Income and wealth inequality increased.
• Labour productivity growth exceeded real wage growth.
• Little progress was made in reducing poverty.
• There was an overall improvement in labour market conditions.
• The social safety net continued to fray, providing less support for the disadvantaged.
Overall, the report says, "Canada became a much richer country, but it was the top 20% that received the lion’s share of rising income and wealth."

Nothing here that we haven't heard before. The novelty is the attempt to put a number on it. This will come when the CIW framework has been fully developed. The Institute seems to have done a pretty good job of finding quantitative indicators for what are largely qualitative concepts. You can sift through all the details in the PDF report.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cyber battle in Iran

Is Iran potentially the Spanish Revolution of cyber war, a place where new weapons and tactics are tested on a laboratory-scale battlefield?

Both sides are employing online strategies to disrupt their opponents' communications in the current disagreement over who should run the place (Caveat: Neither of these guys is Thomas Jefferson).

According to Wired, it started with an attempt by those protesting the recent election results to attack a few official web sites. It then expanded to news outlets perceived to be pushing the government line.

Matthew Burton, an ex-U.S. intelligence operative who got involved in this said “We turned our collective power and outrage into a serious weapon that we could use at our will, without ever having to feel the consequences. We practiced distributed, citizen-based warfare.” (Read that again, this time using the voice of Darth Vader. Chilling, eh?)

Now the government is fighting back, filtering text-message traffic and Secure Socket Layer-protected web sites, to disrupt communications among the pro-democracy people, and their messaging to the outside world.

Stay tuned at Wired's Danger Room.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Moses has a Vision

From the "What's up with that?" file ...

Moses Znaimer, after wandering the desert of Canadian TV for almost 4o years, has journeyed from the profane (Baby Blue Movies) to the divine. This new state of grace is via ownership (through his company ZoomerMedia) of religious channel Vision TV. Along the way, Znaimer's eternal chutzpah and everlasting inspiration conceived CityTV, MuchMusic and Bravo!

Canadian financial deity Prem Watsa is a convert. When Moses passed the collection plate, Prem's firm, Fairfax Financial, threw in for 28% of Zoomer, which is focused on entertaining and enlightening the demographic formerly known as boomers.

Zoomer commandments include "We demand zip," and "It's still about us."

So what's next? Don Cherry takes over the W Network? Will Advanced Shirt Laundering make it to air?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bunch is best biker buffer

Some things are counterintuitive.

Like the fact that bicycle injuries and deaths decrease as the number of bicycles on the streets increases. Apparently, the more bicyclists and pedestrians on the street, the safer biking and walking become.

Take a look at this graph from TA Streetbeat, which says "With more cyclists out and about, more drivers are accustomed to sharing the road."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fishy advice worth taking.

I usually don't give health advice here, happily ceding that territory to Oprah. But this bit of advice seemed worth passing on, as it is a simple remedy for an eye disease that plagues many as they grow older.

The disease, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), destroys central vision. Think of a TV screen with the centre of the picture blocked out. This eventually makes simple activities, like reading and driving, impossible. Many older people develop this, and it is life-changing.

The remedy, Omega-3 fatty acids found in mackerel, salmon, and other fish, apparently slow or even halt the progress of the disease. Experts think this may even reduce the risk of getting AMD by a third.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Do something

There are largely-invisible, unpaid, people who make our communities work. No, not the leprechauns.

The minor league coach who showed you the fundamentals of the game. The candystriper who made your hospital stay a bit less unpleasant. The hospice worker who held your grandfather's hand in his final days. The volunteer firefighters who saved your home.

12.5 million of them, fellow Canadians with busy lives who do stuff for their fellow citizens, things that otherwise would not get done.

Mentoring, coaching, counselling, driving, translating, visiting, performing, writing, chatting, tutoring, flying, gardening, cooking, planning, managing, fundraising, comforting, feeding, designing, instructing, renovating, building, travelling, programming, advising, and thousands more essential roles in a million places.

Volunteers give more than 2 billion hours of time each year, equal to 1.1 million full-time jobs.

Without all this, what would life be like where you live?

Do you have a skill? Do you want to develop a skill? Do you want to make new friends? Do you want to learn something about yourself? Do you want to share your experience with others? Do you want to explore new interests?

Do you want to feel good?

Contribute to a cause that you care about. Improve the community where you live. Improve someone else’s life. Change something you care about.

A couple of hours a week, or every day. Whatever you like.

Go here and find something you will do.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Perambulating perils

You're in a strange place. People are speaking a strange language. Sometimes they look at you strangely. Then a strange thing happens.

You get arrested.

Craig McQueen has rounded up many ways that tourists can run afoul of the law. A small sampling from Craig:
In Switzerland, a man may not relieve himself while standing up after 10 pm.

In Liverpool, it is illegal for a woman to be topless in public, except as a clerk in a tropical fish store.

In New York, having sex with a porcupine is illegal.

In Italy a man may be arrested for wearing a skirt.

In London, commuters on the tube can be fined £ 2 for not queuing.

In Thailand, it's illegal to drive without wearing a shirt.

In the UK, it is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a suit of armour.
Enjoy the sights, but keep your lawyer on speed dial.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A dark future

Thomas Friedman discusses the concept of "energy poverty" in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded.

In the 21st century, electricity is a fundamental building block of modern civilization, and yet one out of four earthlings have no dependable supply.

I experienced this first hand on a visit to Bangladesh last fall. When the sun sets, the country villages go dark. In the city, open fires contribute to the choking air pollution.

More than 70 years after the rural electrification of North America, 1.6 billion people around the world still spend half their time in blackout.

For these, there is no electricity to pump water for drinking and bathing so it must be carried, often for a considerable distance. Classrooms can not be lit, so there is no adult education. Firewood must be collected for cooking and heating. There is no refrigeration for food and drugs. There is no energy to operate medical equipment. There is no television or internet, and therefore no current knowledge of the outside world. There is no light by which a child can do her school homework. It goes on.

Imagine, if you can, how much this impedes advancement on every level.

The tools of progress are unavailable to the very people who need them most, and little is being done to remedy that.

Power generation and transmission require lots of capital investment. Investors require peace and stable governments, both lacking in most of the so-called "developing world" that is more aptly described as just "deprived," as any real development is agonizingly slow.

Of course the moral dilemma is that, if electricity comes to the dark world from generators powered by fossil fuels, the climate change consequences would almost certainly be catastrophic for all of us.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Join the smovement

Another stupid day at the same stupid job with the same stupid crap from stupid people. Whoa! Rewind. Three minutes. Get a coffee and click.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Liu si

Liu si, 6/4, June 4, 1989. Tiananmen Square.

A time for courage. Hundreds died. What would you have done? Really.

Would you have stood in the path to the square? Tried to dissuade the soldiers sent to stop the protests? Confronted the tanks? Risked career, prison, exile, death?

These were the prices paid by those who stood up 20 years ago.

It took guts, and in the end the sacrifices were in vain. So far.

Those under 25 have no real memory of this. It has been ploughed under, erased by the Chinese government, their people bought off by the promise that the economy will deliver the fruits of affluence as long as they don't rock the boat.

Be a good cog in the machine, and you will enjoy prosperity. A house, a car, a television set.

A powerful argument. A bargain accepted by the majority.

But some will not forget liu si. Hope lives.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Zen and the art of lawn maintenance

"Find a need and fill it," the mantra of the entrepreneur, is the driving force behind an amazing arsenal of dandelion-fighting weapons developed by the Rittenhouse company of St. Catharines, Ontario.

This ordnance is in demand here as homeowners defend their lawns against the dandy invasion that has predictably followed the banning of chemical weed killers.

Take, for example, the Electro-Weeder, which uses electricity to heat a small ceramic heating stone to a temperature of approximately 400°F. This "disrupts the normal functions of the weed causing death," according to Rittenhouse.

Then there's the Weed Dragon Torch, which is essentially a personal 100,000 BTU flame-thrower with a flame temperature of 2050 degrees F . Note that it is "for outdoor use only."

If you have a really big dandelion problem, you might consider the Green Steam Weed Killer, the heavy artillery of lawn maintenance. This four-wheeled machine has a Steam-Thrower which shoots 660° steam that quickly kills weeds, and a 7-gallon water tank for 3 hours of continuous operation.

Lock and load.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Photographs spot the divorce-prone

Big surprise! The kids in high school with the big smiles are a better bet for domestic bliss than those who sport perpetual pouts.

According to research by a team led by DePauw University associate professor of psychology Matthew J. Hertenstein, it is possible to predict whose marriages will fail by looking at youthful snapshots, including photographs in high school yearbooks.

"Smile intensity predicted whether or not participants divorced at some point in their lives," the researchers write. "The less intensely participants smiled, the more likely they would be divorced later in life."

The 650 subjects surveyed ranged in age from 21 to 87. Those with the weakest smiles were more than three times as likely to have been through a divorce as those who flashed the pearly whites when the shutter clicked.

Say "cheese."

Monday, June 1, 2009

Guys, listen up

Women have their own language, indecipherable by the male mind.

Until now.

Today, your faithful servant is back with intercepted dispatches captured in the battle of the sexes, a modern-day Rosetta stone that cracks the secret code. Gentlemen, enlightenment dawns.

Here are the 9 key expressions you need to know for your own protection as you feel your way through the minefield of inter-gender discourse.
"Fine": This is the word women use to end an argument when they are right and you need to shut up.

"Five Minutes": If she is getting dressed, this means half an hour. Five minutes is only five minutes if you have just been given five more minutes to watch the game before cutting the grass.

"Nothing": This is the calm before the storm. This means something, and you should be on your toes. Arguments that begin with "nothing" usually end in "fine."

"Go Ahead": This is a dare, not permission. Do not do it!

Loud Sigh: This non-verbal statement is often misunderstood by men. It means she thinks you are an idiot, and wonders why she is wasting her time standing here arguing with you about nothing. (Refer to the meaning of "nothing" above.)

"That's Okay": This is one of the most dangerous statements a women can make to a man. "That's okay" means she wants to think long and hard before deciding how and when you will pay for your mistake.

"Thanks": Nothing to worry about here UNLESS she says "Thanks A LOT." That is pure sarcasm, and she is not expressing gratitude. DO NOT say "You're welcome." That will bring on a "whatever."

"Whatever": This is a woman's way of saying "F---YOU!"

"Don't worry about it, I'll do it": Another dangerous statement, meaning this is something that she has told you to do several times, but is now doing herself. This will later result in you asking "What's wrong?" She will say "Nothing."
Pass it on.