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.