Saturday, December 30, 2006

How is the world a safer place?

So, Saddam has been topped, justice has been done and the world is a safer place. Thank you, Mr. Bush.
Of course, there is, as always, an alternative viewpoint. As a Globe and Mail article points out, not everyone is happy with this outcome, not even all Iraqis. Arguably, the country is a messier, less stable and more dangerous place now that it ever was under Saddam Hussein. And I can only see that getting worse, not better, after the execution. As for Iraq's new-found democracy, I see little evidence of it in the present climate.
Certainly, the Middle East as a whole has been destabilized, not that it was ever what you would call stable. Nor, in my humble and admittedly defeatist opinion, is it ever likely to be for any substantial period of time.
Anyone opposed to the death sentence on principle can't be happy, and I for one find it difficult to fathom how the gruesome, public killing one one more person can be expected to improve anything. It may go some way towards fulfulling some people's personal need for revenge, but revenge has rarely, if ever, had any positive influence on a situation, and usually leads to further recriminations and bad feeling.
The Yanks, Brits and Aussies are finally starting to understand what the rest of the world has been telling them for 3 or 4 years, that a military solution was never going to work in Iraq, however you try and justify it. Even the demagogue George Bush himself is toning down his rhetoric substantially as realism finally sets in (and the next election starts to focus the minds of his party members).
Iraq remains a basket case, both economically and politically. Whether it is less or more of a basket case is almost a moot point. Whether the nebulous benefits outweigh the huge costs in lives, infrastructure and the national psyche - who can say?
But I am pretty sure that the made-for-TV hanging of a bad guy is really not the way to go, and is nothing to be proud of.

Friday, December 22, 2006

My top 140 (or so) films

Maybe it's just the something about season that enourages nostalgia and sentimentality verging on the maudlin, but I spent a sheepish couple of hours the other day listing my all-time favourite films, insofar as my creaking memory allows.
So, just for the record, here they are, in chronological order (no apologies, no justifications, no explanations):

(* = Top 6 )
Nosferatu (FW Murnau) (1922)
The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein) (1925)
*Metropolis (Fritz Lang) (1927)
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) (1942)
2001, A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick) (1968)
Kes (Ken Loach) (1969)
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick) (1971)
Aguirre, Wrath of God (Werner Herzog) (1972)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman) (1975)
Star Wars (George Lucas) (1977)
Eraserhead (David Lynch) (1977)
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola) (1979)
The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff) (1979)
The Elephant Man (David Lynch) (1980)
Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa) (1980)
Gregory's Girl (Bill Forsyth) (1981)
Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix) (1981)
Fitzcarraldo (Werner Hertzog) (1982)
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Stephen Spielberg) (1982)
Pink Floyd The Wall (Alan Parker) (1982)
Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio) (1982)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott) (1982)
Gandhi (Richard Attenborough) (1982)
Educating Rita (Louis Gilbert) (1983)
Nineteen Eighty-Four (Michael Radford) (1984)
A Passage to India (David Lean) (1984)
The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan) (1984)
Yellow Earth (Kaige Chen) (1984)
Birdy (Alan Parker) (1985)
* My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears) (1985)
Room With A View (James Ivory) (1985)
Kiss of the Spider Woman (Hector Babenco) (1985)
Ran (Akira Kurosawa) (1985)
Brazil (Terry Gilliam) (1985)
Jean de Florette (Claude Berri) (1986)
Manon des Sources (Claude Berri) (1986)
Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan) (1986)
The Mission (Roland Jofe) (1986)
The Name of the Rose (Jean-Jacques Annaud) (1986)
Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders) (1987)
Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Stephen Frears) (1987)
Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson) (1987)
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (Bruce Robinson) (1987)
Maurice (James Ivory) (1987)
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (Jack Clayton) (1987)
Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears) (1988)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman) (1988)
* Jesus of Montreal (Denys Arcand) (1989)
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Peter Greenaway) (1989)
My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan) (1989)
She-Devil (Susan Seidelman) (1989)
* Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton) (1990)
The Handmaid's Take (Volker Schlondorff) (1990)
Life us Sweet (Mike Leigh) (1990)
Wild at Heart (David Lynch) (1990)
Awakenings (Penny Marshal) (1990)
The Commitments (Alan Parker) (1991)
My Own Private Idaho (Gus van Sant) (1991)
Kafka (Stephen Soderbergh) (1991)
The Adjuster (Atom Egoyen) (1991)
Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou Zhang) (1991)
The Crying Game (Neil Jordan) (1992)
Peter's Friends (Kenneth Brannagh) (1992)
Orlando (Sally Potter) (1992)
Howards End (James Ivory) (1992)
Schindler's List (Stephen Spielberg) (1993)
Three Colours, Blue (Krysztov Kieslowski) (1993)
Farewell My Concubine (Kaige Chen) (1993)
Naked (Mike Leigh) (1993)
The Buddha of Suburbia (Roger Mitchell) (1993)
The Snapper (Stephen Frears) (1993)
The Piano (Jane Campion) (1993)
The Remains of the Day (James Ivory) (1993)
In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan) (1993)
Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot) (1994)
Three Colours, Red (Krysztov Kieslowski) (1994)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron) (1994)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell) (1994)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino) (1994)
Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee) (1995)
The English Patient (Anthony Minghella) (1996)
Trainspotting (Danny Boyle) (1996)
Fire (Deepa Mehta) (1996)
The Van (Stephen Frears) (1996)
A Life Less Ordinary (Danny Boyle) (1997)
Smilla's Sense of Snow (Bille August) (1997)
Oscar and Lucinda (Gillian Armstrong) (1997)
Wilde (Brian Gilbert) (1997)
Shakespeare In Love (John Madden) (1998)
Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur) (1998)
Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer) (1998)
Earth (Deepa Mehta) (1998)
American Beauty (Sam Mendes) (1999)
The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski) (1999)
Titus (Jule Taymor) (1999)
Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze) (1999)
* Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier) (2000)
Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry) (2000)
Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky) (2000)
X-Men (Bryan Singer) (2000)
A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard) (2001)
K-PAX (Iain Softley) (2001)
Iris (Richard Eyre) (2001)
Shrek (Andrew Adamson) (2001)
Winged Migration (Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud) (2001)
The Shipping News (Lasse Hallstrom) (2001)
* Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson) (2001-3)
Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha) (2002)
Hero (Yimou Zhang) (2002)
The Hours (Stephen Daldry) (2002)
Whale Rider (Niki Caro) (2002)
Bollywood Hollywood (Deepa Mehta) (2002)
City of God (Fernando Meirelles) (2002)
Spider (David Kronenberg) (2002)
Adaptation (Spike Jonze) (2002)
Spiderman (Sam Raimi) (2002)
The Fast Runner: Atanarjuat (Zacharias Kunuk) (2002)
Possession (Neil LaBute) (2002)
Ararat (Atom Egoyen) (2002)
Big Fish (Tim Burton) (2003)
Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola) (2003)
Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber) (2003)
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood) (2003)
21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) (2003)
The Incredibles (Brad Bird) (2004)
The House of Flying Daggers (Yimou Zhang) (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry) (2004)
Crash (Paul Haggis) (2004)
The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles) (2004)
Stage Beauty (Richard Eyre) (2004)
Bride and Prejudice (Gurinder Chadha) (2004)
Water (Deepa Mehta) (2005)
Sin City (Frank Miller) (2005)
Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright) (2005)
The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles) (2005)
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee) (2005)
Bon Cop Bad Cop (Eric Canuel) (2006)
Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro) (2006)
A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater) (2006)
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron) (2006)
The Queen (Stephen Frears) (2006)
Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris) (2006)
The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner) (2006)
Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre) (2006)
Last King of Scotland (Kevin MacDonald) (2006)

What? No "Citizen Kane" or "The Godfather"? Distinct paucity of Hollywood action blockbusters. Clear 1980's British bias? Like I say, no apologies, no justifications, no explanations. I am not a student of film, just a consumer. And I am a product of my age and my upbringing. And no, films are not necessarily getting better, it's just that, like most people, I remember more recent ones better.
The exercise did make me realize what a lot of good films I have seen in my time, though.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

What kids think

There was an interesting, if slightly depressing, British survey published recently about what kids under 10 years of age consider the best and the worst things in the world, and what they would change if they were "king" or "queen".
The main results were:

The best things in the world:

1. Being a celebrity 2. Good looks 3. Being rich 4. Being healthy 5. Pop music 6. Families 7. Friends 8. Nice Food 9. Watching Films 10. Heaven/God
(in 2005, this list was: 1. Being famous 2. My family 3. Football 4. Holidays 5. Pop music 6. God 7. Discos 8. Animals 9. Chocolate 10. Sunshine).

The worst things in the world:

1. Killing 2. Wars 3. Drunks 4. Bullies 5. Illness 6. Smoking 7. Stealing 8. Divorce 9. Being fat 10. Dying
(in 2005, this list was: 1. Bullies 2. Smoking 3. Litter 4. Wars 5. Drunk people 6. Death 7. Shopping 8. Being bored 9. Bad dreams 10. The Devil).

Rules they would make if they were king or queen of the world:

1. Ban knives and guns 2. Stop fighting and killing 3. Ban telling lies 4. Ban drugs 5. Ban bullying 6. Ban drunks 7. Ban smoking 8. Stop stealing 9. More holidays 10. More hospitals
(in 2005, this list was: 1. No fighting or killing 2. No smoking 3. No telling lies 4. More fields for playing 5. More holidays 6. More magic 7. Free sweets and ice-cream 8. No getting drunk 9. Pets never die 10. More days off school).

So, no mention of the environment and no mention of disease and poverty; a depressing fixation with media personalities, image and money. Arguably, however, the changes indicate a greater recognition of the big, bad world outside.
Interestingly, when asked who was the most famous person in the world, God has been relegated from No. 1 in 2005 to No. 10 this year.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Off-shore wind - what's not to like?

Kudos to Britain for giving the go-ahead to two huge new off-shore windfarms off its windy east coast, enough to power over a million households within a couple of years. Little visual impact; no irate farmers or tourists; clean, serviceable power; short construction timescale - what's not to like?
There will of course always be detractors, whatever plans are hatched to alleviate our power problems, but this has to be one of the least reprehensible solutions. As for the usual argument trotted out by opponents of wind power, that it can't possibly supply all our needs, I don't think that anyone has ever claimed this. But it certainly can and should be a part of a sensible power generation policy. It may not be the cheapest method available either, but that is something we will have to get used to - as we have already seen to our cost, cheap is not always good.
At least the Brtitish government, whatever my overall opinions on Mr Blair and Co, have recognized the need to make some serious moves now, as opposed to in ten years time or after "more studies".
Take note, Canada: the studies have been done, the results are in, and someone out there is actually willing to put their money where their mouth is. Instead of being in the environmental vanguard (with all the potential economic advantages of being an innovator in what will undoubtedly become one of the most important sectors of the world economy), we are in danger of being relegated permanently to pariah status. Time to make a stand.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

You can’t please all the people all the time

A couple of articles in today’s newspaper brought home to me just how complicated modern politics and issue-based decision-making has become:
1) A bill has been introduced by Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice which would give natives living on reserves the right to object to decisions made by chiefs and band councils and to file human rights complaints in the Canadian courts. Sounds pretty reasonable at first hearing, but it seems to have split the native community down the middle.
It would give an avenue of redress for women who have seen their property rights trampled by the largely male-dominated band councils, and to some extent it might help to ameliorate the effects of nepotism and power abuse which apparently abound on Canada’s reserves.
But many First Nations people see this as just another move to assimilate them, and to deny their distinct native culture, and who are we to be doing that? Even the Native Women’s Association of Canada has come down against the bill.
So what at first sight appears to be a laudable extension of democracy can also be seen as a denial of minority rights. It is an example in small of the issues raised by the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (among other examples): should or should not a sovereign country be allowed to carry on in their own sweet way, however barbaric we outsiders happen to find their customs or their politics?
2) A planned extension in Ontario of the concept of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes has also generated more discussion that I would have anticipated. This is the idea, increasingly common in North America, whereby dedicated lanes on major roads are reserved for public transit and private vehicles with 2 or more passengers.
Surely a smart and laudable environmental move to reduce the wasteful practice of single occupant journeys? More people get from A to B quicker and with less associated pollution.
But there is another side to this coin too. Many environmentalists argue that this freeing up of the roads and the shorter travel times encourages more long distance journeys which would otherwise not have been considered, so we are actually encouraging urban sprawl in commuter dormitory towns ever further afield.
So, go figure. Whoever said “You can’t please all the people all the time” (Abraham Lincoln?) only had it partially right. It seems that these days you can’t please all the people ANY of the time.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Disproportionate media attention

Call me callous, but I have been a little disturbed by the amount of media attention granted to Laura Gainey, who is currently still technically missing, but presumed dead, after being swept off the deck of the tall ship "Picton Castle" while sailing in the Atlantic Ocean a few days ago.
I wish no disrespect to Ms. Gainey, who was from all accounts a nice enough young woman. Quite the reverse. If anything, I find the media coverage itself somewhat disrespectful, as she is described almost without fail as "Laura Gainey, daughter of Bob Gainey", i.e. as an appendage of a semi-famous Canadian sports personality, all but unknown outside the country. Presumably she was also an individual in her own right.
Then, when Canadian MP Ken Dryden pulls strings to have the Coast Guard search extended, purely out of a personal friendship with Mr. Gainey, you do start to wonder whether this kind of nepotism and preferential treatment, however well-intentioned, isn't misplaced.
Just to put it into perspective, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, an average of 1,354 Canadians die of cancer every week, the majority though no fault of their own.
It is of course a sad occurrence for any family, and they have my sympathies. But does the individual death of a little rich kid voluntarily pursuing a dangerous sport really deserve so much more attention?

Friday, December 08, 2006

How to stop the planet from burning

Just coincidental days after belatedly viewing Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" DVD (which I must confess I found a bit glib, and I have since found it to contain various half-truths and misleading statistics), a copy of the book "Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning" by George Monbiot finally arrived in my local libary.
Monbiot, a respected British scientist and climatologist, covers the whole of "An Inconvenient Truth" in Chapter 1 (after a withering "Foreword to the Canadian Edition" in which he lambastes Canadian policy-makers for fluffing the paltry CO2 reductions required by our ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, pulling no punches).
Having demonstrated that what we actually need is a worldwide reduction of 90% in CO2 gases by 2030, (94% in profligate Canada's case) as opposed to Kyoto's proposed cuts of 5.2% by 2012, he then goes on to show that, however unlikely it may sound, it is possible - something which "An Inconvenient Truth" made no attempt to cover.
It makes pretty grim reading, however, and the message is that, although all is not quite lost, the party is most definitely over.
Some of the solutions he suggests (well-researched throughout, deftly questioning all assumptions and the competing claims of both environmentalists and their opponents) are common sense and quite eye-opening in their simplicity and practicality. Some are much more drastic though; some are based more on reasonable but unknowable assumptions; and in some cases (notably air travel) he admits, after evaluating all the possibilities, that there just IS no solution, other than that we will have to do without some or all of those business trips, family reunions and exotic vacations.
By turns depressing and uplifting, this should be required reading for all politicians, teachers, SUV drivers and anyone else who has any influence at all on the future of our planet. I am more and more convinced that, in matters of climate and the environment, the the carrot approach has had its day and it is time for the big regulatory stick, and the sooner the better

Isn't life priceless?

A thought-provoking article appeared in today's Globe and Mail, articulating a tricky ethical debate which I have often considered over the years.
A couple of Canadian university professors tread the murky waters of medical ethics as they ask can we (or should we) justify the disproportionately huge amounts of scarce medical resources which are used up in the final years, and often the final weeks and months, of the lives of our old people when others in the prime of life are being squeezed due to lack of drugs, funds and beds. It raises the whole concept of opportunity cost in medicine, and of quantifying health benefits.
Among the many poignant questions the articles poses are:
"At what point is it no longer 'worthwhile' to provide funding for drugs and treatment to prolong life, or alleviate suffering for patients in the end stages of disease?"
"What is it worth to extend life by a few days?"
"What is the value of interventions that are not associated with improved survival?"
"Isn't life priceless?"
The article is rather heavy on questions and disappointingly light on answers, settling in conclusion for the rather wishy-washy "we need to generate more data on the cost effectiveness of alternative treatments". It does, however, mention a guideline of the British National Health system which "tends not to approve treatments that cost more than £30,000 (about $68,000 Canadian) per year of life gained (adjusted for quality of life)." A blunt instrument indeed, as the authors admit, but a necessary evil? A case of practicality over sentimentality?
I remember asking similar questions a couple of years ago when there was that whole media circus around an Afghan boy who was brought to Canada to have untold millions spent on a complex operation to cure an extremely rare disease, this at a time when hundreds of Afghans were dying from lack of basic facilities, and Canadian hospitals were complaining of lacking funds for cancer-screening MRIs and unconscionable waiting lists for certain procedures.
I think that anyone who has ageing parents (my own 79-year-old mother is in hospital in the UK right now), or family or friends with life-threatening illnesses, needs to seriously consider these propositions. I have a suspicion that these questions would not even get asked in the Bible-belt-dominated US, and I would doubt that any concrete solutions are around the corner here in tentative Canada, but it seems to me that at the very least we need to be generating that "data" with a little more urgency.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Over 1,000 people dead - who knew?

Buried under the media hype of the Liberal leadership convention, and the even less fascinating Albertan Premier election, did anyone actually notice that over 1,000 people are dead after Typhoon Durian swept through the Philippines (and is now headed towards Vietnam to wreak more devastation)?
How can it happen that a disaster on this scale merits hardly a mention? Even the BBC's coverage, usually so reliable and meaured, was distinctly muted. How isolated we have become in our cozy first-world cocoon!

Revenge of the "uncharismatic geek"

The Canadian papers this weekend were all, understandably, full of in-depth analyses of the surprise election of Stéphane Dion as the new leader of the federal Liberal party.
He is accused (or congratulated) on sneaking up, all but unseen, on the front runners Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. The words "geek", "nerd" and "uncharismatic" appear at some stage in almost every article. His command of English is criticized; doubt is cast on the political effects of his Québec pedigree; his one-track insistence on the environment as the single most important issue of the day is decried.
But, guess what? He managed to beat out the handsome and intellectual Ignatieff, and the seasoned and combative Rae.
My only worry is that he managed to do this mainly by the political expedient of teaming up with fourth place candidate Gerard Kennedy, like an underdog tag team. I can’t help but have visions of late-night back-room deals being struck, and shady underground dealings by paid minions.
Not that I have suspicions of anything illicit having taken place - Dion seems morally spotless. It’s just that I would have had more confidence in a Liberal leader voted in by a landslide (rather than one squeaking in by the skin of his teeth) to be able to beat the Tories out of office in a forthcoming election. The fact that less than 20% of Liberal delegates thought him the best leader in the first round of voting (before any political horse-trading and vote-transferring came into play) does not inspire confidence.
But we will see. The latest polls (although you know what I think of them!) show the Liberals under Stéphane Dion handily ahead of the Conservatives. And it is at least nice to have an environmentalist in a position of some power in Canada at last.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wherefore suicide bombers?

Reading another depressing article about suicide bombers in Palestine, I have to stop and wonder what makes the suicide bombing of a great-grandmother more newsworthy than that of the more typical young bearded male. Are the lives of Arab women somehow more valuable than those of Arab men?
Even more puzzling is why the suicide bombing of an older woman, whose life is winding down, is portrayed as in some way more (rather than less) disturbing than that of a younger woman with everything to live for.
Not that there is that much to live for in Palestine, one of the most systematically downtrodden and impoverished ghettoes on this bleak earth.
I find it all but impossible to get my head round the concept of suicide bombings, though. However grim things may appear (and I fully admit that I am unable to imagine just how grim things must appear to a destitute Palestinian), I am still not sure how a 68-year old mother of nine thinks she is helping the cause of her family or her town or anything by blowing up (or failing to blow up, in her case) a few Israeli soldiers.
This is not some spiritual statement about her religion such as the warriors of Islam purport to make (however misguided, and however contrary to the teachings of their faith, they may be). This is just about desperation, and about revenge for its own sake.
Hamas may have, at root, a just cause. But sanctioning, and even encouraging, this kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and self-defeating.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Is Québec a "nation"? (Part 2)

Ah, politics! Don't you just love it? Well, not really...
With the Liberals deep into soul-searching over the Québec question (again!) and the Tories apparently nowhere on it, the wily Gilles Duceppe, in typical Bloc Québécois style, tries to drive a wedge between everything in sight by putting forward a motion that :
"This House recognizes that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada."

Interestingly, he doesn't ask whether Québec forms a nation, but the Québécois people themselves, which of course begs the question of how you define "Québécois", but let's put that aside for the minute.
The equally wily Stephen Harper cleverly restates the motion by saying:

"Do the Québécois form a nation within Canada? The answer is yes. Do the Québécois form an independent nation? The answer is no."

The vote was passed resoundingly, with all parties, including the very Liberal leadership candidates who have been agonizing over this for so long, swung by the adddition of these few words.
So, what happened?
Gilles Duceppe was frustrated in his attempts at fostering dissent. Stephen Harper earns a rather unfortunate reputaion as a statesman, at least temporarily. Most of the Liberal leadership candidates are severely discomfited, except Michael Ignatieff who sees this as an important step in the direction he wants to take the country (he would see this, and more, enshrined in the constitution). Stephane Dion grudgingly accepts the motion, but continues to insist that we are just talking about semantics (true).
How this will affect the Liberal leadership election, and indeed how it will affect Canadian politics in general, remains to be seen. But you do have the feeling that something mildly monumental has just happened (by the rather mild standards of Canadian politics, that is).

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Is Québec a "nation"?

With the Conservative federal government in disarray on several fronts at the moment, the opposition Liberals ought to be making hay. Instead, they seem to be in almost as much disarray themselves as they agonize over the election of a new leader.
It's not exactly compelling stuff, nor is it particularly edifying to watch. But unfortunately most of the agonizing is being restricted to one particular issue so that, rather than focussing on how to improve the lot of country as a whole and its inhabitants severally, the candidates are tearing their hair out over an issue which might never have reared its ugly, pointed, little head.
Is Québec a "nation"? Or is it a "province"? Or a "distinct society"? Maybe a "sociological nation"? Or even a "country"? Or ... so it goes on. Non-Canadians will be forgiven for absolute incredulity that such a topic could possibly be exercising some of the best minds in the country. Surely, it's just semantics? Who really cares?
Apparently the Liberal Party cares. Since front-running, Johnny-come-lately candidate Michael Ignatieff inadvisedly raised this spectre right at the start of his campaign, it has proved the most divisive single issue in the whole discussion, and has the potential, if not to tear the party apart, at least to reduce its effectiveness in fighting off the Tories in a likely Spring general election.
My own feeling is that Stephane Dion's approach is probably about right - play it down, make some concilatory noises, but don't allow the issue to drag the country into another Meech Lake-type quagmire. Been there, done that, solved nothing.
If they are worried about losing votes in Québec, I would have thought that most of the Québécois who are worried about the issue would likely be voting for the Bloc Québécois rather than the Liberals anyway, when push comes to shove (just a gut feeling, I don't have any evidence for this).
And, party politics aside, my own take on the subject is that Québec is just a province like any other, and no more constitutes a nation in the constitutional sense than Newfoundland or the Métis. The fact that most of them speak French as a first language is no more relevant than the fact that over a million Canadian have Chinese as a mother tongue. The fact that Québec's history has followed a slightly different route than English Canada's is no more relevant than the history of the Ukrainian population of Manitoba - French Canadians are immigrants like most of the rest of Canadians.
The various First Nations have a much stronger case for nationhood, but they happen to be spread all over the country and secession as a separate nation would be impractical and all but meaningless.
Maybe I'm just naive and ingenuous, but I don't really understand why we can't just play nice and all be Canadians together. Haven't we wasted enough time and energy on all this navel-gazing already?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

New Mayor, same as the old Mayor

Two days ago, Toronto voted in a new Mayor, who is the same as the old Mayor.
Left-leaning David Miller easily won with twice the number of votes as his nearest rival, the pitiful, centre-not-leaning Jane Pitfield. Sounds impressive, but another way of looking at it is that he gained 57% of the votes in a sad turn-out of 41% of eligible voters. By my calculations that's all of 23%, which makes something of a mockery of his claim yesterday of "I have a mandate".
How did he get there? In a tedious election campaign, devoid of major issues, he basically got there through inertia. I sincerely hope he didn't get there through people believing his spiel about reclaiming for Toronto 1% of the 14% sales federal and provincial tax, and insisting that "we will not take no for an answer". Frankly the answer will be "no", and a resounding "no" at that, and he shouldn't kid himself or the electorate otherwise. It will become just another unrealized election promise, like Dalton McGuinty's "I will close all of Ontario's coal-fired power stations by 2007" or Stephen Harper's "we will not impose any new taxes on income trusts".
Don't get me wrong: I voted for the guy. But it was mainly as an alternative to the lame platform of Ms. Pitfield, a better-the-devil-you-know vote. At least his heart is in the right (left-of-centre) place, which is more than I would venture for "Calamity Jane".
In the last election, in 2003, Mr. Miller came out strongly to clean up the streets, clean up council corruption, re-develop the waterfront, stop the Island bridge. Well, the Island bridge was stopped, although Porter Airlines are still operating out of the Island, which was the main point of stopping the bridge. But there seems to have been very little action on most of the other isses, though.
Here's hoping that in his second term he can use his "mandate" to push through some more useful and effective policies, and not settle down to rest on his laurels.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Poor old Rona Ambrose!

Poor old Rona Ambrose!
Any non-Canadians will not have a clue what I am talking about, but the average Canadian will know that Rona Ambrose is our beleaguered Environment Minister, the one with the hair.
But wait, what am I saying? Poor Rona Ambrose? Whatever you think about her hair, the woman is a dope, either on her own account, or for blindly following the Conservative government's befuddled energy policies. What she is doing as Environment Minister, or even as an MP for that matter, I have no idea, as she is hopelessly lost and at sea, and apparently not even good at playing the kind of games politicians have to play.
So, it came as little surprise when she was totally upstaged at the current Nairobi climate talks by two other Canadian MPs who publicly and openly mocked her and her policies. Childish and inappropriate behaviour? Possibly, in the same way as the recent mocking of her hair by environmental organizations was childish and inappropriate (childish and inapproproate but not sexist, by the way, as some have claimed).
But it is important that the world understands that her views (and Stephen Harper's) on the subject do not reflect Canadian public opinion. Despite our horrible record on energy use, Canadians are concerned, and they are, in general, responsible world citizens who want to do the right thing. We are just lacking, and have been for years, firm and responsible leadership on the issue.
Ms. Ambrose (and Stephen Harper's Conservative government: she is not acting alone) has single-handedly decimated any environmental kudos Canada might ever have had. The preceding Liberal government were far from environmentally conscious, and presided over a 27% increase in greenhouse emissions since 1990 rather than the 6% decrease committed to when the Kyoto accord was signed.
But to come out and blandly say that Canada's Kyoto goals are just impossible and therefore will not be pursued is totally unacceptable. If we have obligations, then we should stick by them. The smoke screen of the Conservatives' proposed Clean Air Act, which claims to achieve smaller reductions and over a longer time frame (and that's if you believe the claims), are equally unacceptable.
And all this comes within a week or two of several stark warnings on the effects of climate change in the Stern Review, the GermanWatch Climate Change Performance Index (which puts Canada at No 51 out of 56!), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change report on rising emission trends, and the World Meteorological Organization's Greenhouse Gas Bulletin which shows greenhouse gases at a record high, and rising). It is increasingly clear that the Kyoto targets are just the tip of the iceberg, and that the cuts and lifestyle changes we need to make are actually much greater.
God, how depressing...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Reactions to Hussein's sentence

Predictably enough, Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to death after a trial that can best be described using Amnesty International's phrase, "a shabby affair, marred by serious flaws" (also predictably enough).
I'm no great fan of the guy - he has some serious psychological issues - but I can't help thinking that, given that large sectors of the the world insisted on making him their problem back in 2003, they should have followed through and insisted on an international tribunal to try him, in at least a token attempt at objectivity. Instead, after a dodgy local affair, which that nice Mr. Bush described as "a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law", we will end up with a tawdry, old-style stringing up.
What I found even more surprising, though, was the world reaction to the sentence. Bush's glee was to be expected - the Americans have never quite grown out of their Wild West penchant for capital punishment. Canada's Stephen Harper doesn't seem to have any views on the subject, or hasn't noticed yet (also expected).
But supposedly civilized Britain seems quite happy with the death sentence and most of the other European leaders have fudged the issue, with only Ireland and little Finland having had the guts to come out and denounce it and to remind people that "the EU opposes capital punishment in all cases".
Meanwhile, Hussein will become a martyr to the Sunni cause, and the destabilization of the country and the whole area caused by the US invasion will continue to worsen.
Some solution...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Canadian electorate receives another slap in the face

Big kerfuffle here in Canada about the major "flip-flop" (as the media insists on calling it) by the Tory federal government on taxation of income trusts...
I know it may sound like a pretty esoteric subject to be causing such national indignation, but this has the potential to bring down the government even if, paradoxically, this is one of the very few occasions where I actually agree with them and applaud their courage in tackling the issue.
Income trusts are, let's not beat about the bush, a tax dodge, a scam. When huge companies like Telus and BCE realized that they could beat the system and avoid paying corporation tax on their huge earnings by converting to an income trust, they obviously had no compunction in doing so. This is big business, the spirit of the law doesn't come into it.
When the Conservative government got wind that major oil companies, maybe even banks, were also considering the move, they obviously had to act to plug the gaping loophole, despite their specific election pledge of less than a year ago that they would not change the taxation of income trusts.
We are talking here about many millions of dollars in taxation revenue. I never thought I would be saying this, but kudos to Jim Flaherty for having the cojones to stand up to big biz, even at the risk of his job.
The only down-side to it all is that the Canadian electorate is now probably even more cynical about the ability of its elected governments to stick to their brief. Arguably, it may be no bad thing that those who switched to vote Conservative last January as a protest against the Liberal "culture of entitlement" wake up to the realization that, surprise, surprise, they are all the same really, when push comes to shove.
The Conservatives will no doubt be fervently hoping that the voting public will have forgotten all about this by the time a spring election comes along, as seems likely. Or maybe they want to precipitate an election while the Liberals are still in disarray over their divisive leadership campaign.
I just hope it doesn't reflect in an increased abstention rate at election time from an already apathetic electorate.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"It doesn't matter to me whether they can be separated or not"

I can't help thinking of the recent report of conjoined twins born in Vancouver on 25th October 2006.
The twins are craniopagal, which means that they are joined at the head and share just one brain, and so any separation (and I don't think anyone is suggesting that they should not be separated, which is interesting in itself) will result in either one or both losing out on that brain.
The mother, who has her own health problems and lives on welfare, seems distressingly vague about it all, and she is quoted as saying
"It doesn't matter to me whether they can be separated or not".
Doesn't that seem a little strange to you? The grandmother describes them as "kinda cute". The father hasn't been seen or heard of since the birth, and I can guess why.
Despite the mother's vacancy and the father's absenteeism, the moral issues seem to be exercising the thoughts of the medical profession and the media, and you have to wonder whether it wasn't ill-advised to allow the birth (especially given that the circumstances were well-known at a very early stage).
There has been very little focus on just how much the separation procedure would cost the tax-payer (although, from what I can gather, we are talking about $4-5 million) and what that kind of money could have been used for.
Tricky moral territory, I know, but I had the same qualms when an Afghan boy was brought over to Canada about a year ago for some incredibly complex and expensive medical treatment not available in the wasteland which remains where Afghanistan used to be. Even then, there seemed to be little or no discussion over whether this wasn't a callous mis-allocation of scarce funds, and over such incidentals as how many people had died in Afghanistan while this sentimental media circus was going on.

Friday, October 27, 2006

"Cutting-Edge" Drivel

I really do think that the time has come for the Globe and Mail to dispense with Margaret Wente.
Over the years, she has developed her stereotypical SUV-driving latte-drinking persona ("the person people love to hate") presumably as a means of appearing "contentious" or "cutting-edge", and I can see the promotional attraction of that for a newspaper, despite the drivel she actually writes.
But when that "cutting-edge" persona clearly runs out of things to say and becomes repetitive, surely her value is lost, and she just becomes shallow and tedious. How many more of her "thought-provoking" columns on how pointless it is for Canada to pursue Kyoto targets because we are so insignificant in the eyes of the world do we really need? In addition to presenting a bad role model and a defeatist attitude, it is a spurious argument anyway, and one not worthy of the Globe even the first couple of times she pitched it.
You could argue that the fact that I am writing about her at all proves her worth, but I think that everyone really knows that "any publicity is good publicity" was always an unsound doctrine, especially for a newspaper or a politician.
In the absence of a better Canadian national paper, Ms Wente's fatuousness is unlikely to make me cancel my subscription, it just seems a bit of a waste of a column.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A daunting read

I have been manfully ploughing through George Eliot's "Daniel Deronda" in recent days (OK, I admit it, weeks!).
Generally speaking, I am a modern fiction sort of person (Julian Barnes, Thomas Pynchon, Peter Carey, that sort of thing), but I do still have a soft spot in my soul for the older classics, and George Eliot (along with Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and others) is still among my favourites.
"Daniel Deronda", often considered her pièce de résistance, is however a daunting read. We are at page 700-odd before Daniel even meets his mother, and there are still 200-odd pages to go (the length of many complete novels). And it is not just the sheer weight of the book which daunts, but it's density. There are beautifully constructed sentences which take up most of a page, and by the time you reach the end (of the sentence, I mean) you are wondering what the first half was all about. Just a random example of a sentence from page 685:

Many nights were watched through by him, in gazing from the open window of his room on the double, faintly pierced darkness of the sea and the heavens: often in struggling under the oppressive scepticism which represented his particular lot, with all the importance he was allowing Mordecai to give it, as of no more lasting effect than a dream - a set of changes which made passion to him, but beyond his consciousness were no more than an imperceptible difference of mass or shadow; sometimes with a reaction of emotive force which gave even to sustained disappointment, even to the fulfulled demand of sacrifice, the nature of a satisfied energy, and spread over his young future, whatever it might be, the attraction of devoted service; sometiomes with a sweet irresistible hopefulness that the very best of human possibilities might befall him - the blending of a complete personal love in one current with a larger duty; and sometimes again in a mood of rebellion (what human creature escapes it?) against things in general because they are thus and not otherwise, a mood in which Gwendolen and her equivocal fate moved as busy images of what was amiss in the world along with the concealments which he had felt as a hardship in his own life, and which were acting in him now under the form of an afflicting doubtfulness about the mother who had announced herself coldly and still kept away.

The meaning comes through, but you really have to work at it, much as you have to work at Samuel Becket or James Joyce. The grammar and puctuation is impeccable (all those colons and semi-colons - who knows how to use those correctly, nowadays? - parentheses, sub-clauses and sub-sub-clauses, you name it!), and the vocabulary erudite (this, in the days before thesauruses).
But not what you would call beach reading.
I think the next book on my "to-read" shelf may be "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" by Salman Rushdie. I like to be made to think (and Rushie ensures that), but these days I can only cope with so much hard labour in my reading.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fashion arrogance

There was a glossy unsolicited magazine called The Look in today's Globe and Mail. Normally it would go, unopened, straight into the recycling, but today I idly flicked through it, and came across an editorial which included the sentence
Nowadays you really would have to be a narrow-minded, two-faced, ignorant scab not to appreciate the rich diversity in the men's fashion sent down the runways of the world.
Now, I am a broad-minded sort of a guy, of average or above-average intelligence, and, so far as mirrors allow, I am only aware of having the regulation single face. But I absolutely don't appreciate men's fashions nor, from what I saw in the magazine, the diversity thereof.
Which I guess leaves me as a "scab", insofar as I am now even more disposed to boycott any kind of fashion world which engenders that level of arrogance and, let it be said, narrow-mindedness.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Solar power blues

A year ago or so I installed solar hot water heating in our house (a solar panel on the roof and a heat exchanger in the basement which heats the water for the regular hot water tank). Supposedly it will supply about 50% of our hot water over the year which, with the rather spartan amounts we use, may (or may not) pay back its cost in about 20-25 years, if we are still alive then, still in this house, etc, etc. Anyway, it seemed like the kind of thing a good global citizen should be doing, (especially in country like Canada which is now 30% over our Kyoto targets for greenhouse emissions, and getting worse), and and it does have a certain undeniable coolness factor.
So, I have recently been looking into generating solar electricity with a photovoltaic (PV) array on the roof. What prompted this was the upcoming Ontario legislation called the Standard Offer Contract (SOC) whereby they will pay 42¢/kWh for power generated by PV, which compared to the 8.3¢/kWh we pay Bullfrog for our electricity at the moment seems like a pretty good deal. It's still a 20 year payback period according to my calculations but, hey, we're not going anywhere for a while...
However, the more I look into it the more I come across vaguely-worded small print about Ontario Energy Board fees, possible large costs for new meters, new utility account fees, etc. To be fair, the program is still in the planning phase (although an official definitive release is supposed to happen "this fall"), but what initially sounded like a good, green investment is starting to look distinctly shaky from a financial perspective.

Luke's very first blog

Finally, I have my very own blog!
I could have done it from scratch, I guess, but there is something appealing about using a blogging service like so many other people.
Now, of course, I have to think of something worthwhile to put on it.
I don't intend to keep a diary or anything as naff as that, and it is unlikely to be updated on a very regular basis. I will probably just use it to muse on Canadian politics, world events, environmental discussions, books, etc, as the mood takes me, and to find an outlet for all those letters I send in to the Globe and Mail, and which they (almost) never publish. Maybe even stuff about what music I am listening to? Who knows?
Anyway, watch this space - it may or may not change from time to time...