Friday, July 20, 2007

Music while you work

One small item in today's paper caught my eye and raised my eyebows a little.
The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) is charging hair salons a minimum of $95 a year for the privilege of playing music in their salons. Apparently they already had a blitz last year on dentists, and this year they are turning their attention to hair salons.
Most hair salons (and presumably most dentists) have no idea they should be paying this "licence fee", and are justifiably upset.
And why would they know about it? It is one of the more ridiculous examples of the music industry's desparate attempts to claw back royalties.
Even more ridiculous is the rule that salons would also be charged for playing a radio if they play it over a sound system, but not if they play it on a standard radio.
Yes, I am aware of the arguments surrounding the whole royalties/downloading/performance issue. But if the hairdresser has paid good money for a CD, isn't that the end of the story? They are not charging their customers for the music they play, or in any way profiting from it.
Arguably the hairdresser is just playing it for his/her own enjoyment, and the presence of a customer is neither here nor there.
And where does this all end? How is this different from when I play a CD in my own home for a group of friends?
Now, if they were to charge supermarkets for playing those appalling "easy listening" radio stations, I would be much more in favour.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Torture-porn goes mainstream

Yet another film has been added to the growing catalogue of the so-called "torture-porn" genre. After the hugely popular "Saw" and "Hostel" movies comes "Captivity", probably no better and no worse than the others, but further evidence that the movie-going public are becoming more and more accepting of this kind of grossness.
In fact, "accepting" is something of an under-statement: there is clearly a burgeoning demand out there. I have always assumed that the audiences for such films mainly comprise older teens and immature twenty-somethings learning how to push their limits, but I am quite prepared to be wrong about that. I can't help but worry about the collective psyche of our young people (here I am sounding like a village elder), and I have disturbing visions of young kids in disadvantaged households illicitly obtaining the DVDs.
The slasher pics of the eighties and the scarey (as they were then considered) paranormal films of the seventies were also hugely popular, and some of the earliest movies ever made were horror films (I admit to a rather embarrassed enjoyment of old European silent films like "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"). So there is clearly something in us which delights in such perversity.
But these recent movies take violence and sadism to a much more disturbing extreme. Unlike slasher movies, the graphically-portrayed suffering, pain and humilation of the victim is the point of these new offerings, and actual death may be an irrelevant after-thought.
I have never actually seen any of these films - I am pretty sure I wouldn't be able to cope with them, nor would I find in them any kind of intellectual stimulus, entertainment or enjoyment, perverse or otherwise - but I do worry about a society where such fare can become mainstream.

A "hollowed out" Canada

As yet another major Canadian company (Alcan) gets sold off to an overseas investor, and commentators continue to discuss the "hollowing out" of corporate Canada, I have to admit that I just have an insufficient grasp of macro-economics to have any opinion on it.
In the just the last couple of years, foreign companies have taken over several big names in the Canadian industrial and service sectors:

  • Alcan (aluminum)
  • Inco (mining)
  • Falconbridge (mining)
  • LionOre (mining)
  • Dofasco (steel)
  • Algona (steel)
  • Ipsco (steel)
  • ATI (computer chips)
  • Four Seasons Hotels (hotels)
  • Hudson Bay Company (retailer)
Government policy has always been not to block take-overs, but supposedly to ensure that there are promises of job security, and apparently there are arguments that such take-overs can actually be good for a country (although I have never seen these arguments analysed).

Interestingly, the Investment Industry Association of Canada claimed recently that Canada is doing at least as much of the global hollowing out as it is receiving. According to them, Canadian companies bought 500 foreign companies worth $111-billion last year, while foreigners bought only 175 Canadian firms worth $84-billion, and that the number of Canadian head offices increased 4% between 1999 and 2005.
This was obviously before the recent Alcan deal, which on its own is worth $38-billion and single-handedly turns this argument on its head. But it gives me cause to wonder why a major Canadian investment organization would condone such events if they were not in the interests of the Canadian economy. Is this a case of globalization for its own sake?
My gut reaction is that it can't be a good thing for Canada. I suppose I don't really care whether the profits (or losses for that matter) go to rich shareholders overseas rather than rich shareholders in Canada. But I just have this woolly, non-economic and unsupported feeling that in the long run Canada would be better off retaining control of its assets.
"Hollowing out" is probably as good a label for it as any.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sovereignty in the High Arctic

Apparently our government is planning to spend $7.4 billion on half-a-dozen ice breakers to patrol our northern waters and particularly the NorthWest Passage which, in a warming world, is starting to become a more viable trade route.
I'm not dismissing out of hand the whole idea of protecting our sovereignty of the area (it is probably safer from abuse in Canadian hands than in the hands of many other countries I could mention), but several things occurred to me during the reading of the article (in no particular order):
  • How can anything cost $7.4 BILLION? I know they are big, rough, tough ships, but they are just ships. Surely billions are for country GDPs, Pentagon budgets and the like.
  • Oh, and by the way, do we actually have $7.4 billion?
  • It seems pretty ridiculous to me to apply the UN rule of sovereignty extending 12 nautical miles (22km) from a nation's coast to what is clearly the interior of a country, thousands of miles from any other country. The legality of territorial waters is a hugely complicated field with considerations of contiguous zones, continental shelves, economic zones, special cases, etc, etc, but is it really relevant here?
  • The 'use it or lose it' principle seems somehow quaintly anachronistic in a modern litigious world. Does Mali use the miles of desert in the interior of its country or Denmark use the interior of Greenland? It seems duplicitous then to insist that we use some of the more-out-of-the way bits of Canada in order to lay claim to them.
  • Having a few ships patrolling the High Arctic waters does not seem to me to offer much assurance anyway. What do they propose to do if an American nuclear sub or a Russian fishing boat decides to pass through the area regardless? Shoot at it? Give it a good telling off?
  • From what I can gather, the main thing driving all this is actually the ownership of rights to possible oil and mineral exploitation, rather than trade and tourism routes.
  • That nice Mr. Putin has apparently declared the North Pole Russian territory due to a new reading of the continental shelf rules. Do these people sit up in bed thinking up new ways of antagonising the rest of the world and creating new arguments where none existed before?
  • Wouldn't it be much more sensible (and much cheaper) to just negotiate a binding international treaty, or am I just being naive?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Harry Potterism gone crazy

Is it just me, or is anyone else bemused by the whole Harry Potter phenomenon?
I like the movies well enough for a bit of light entertainment in the company of my 12 year old daughter. I did try reading the books, but I'm afraid I only managed part of Book 1 before concluding that it was overrated: not exactly drivel, just nothing special.
I have tried to take an interest in some of the more critically acclaimed books among my daughter's favourites (such as "Eragon", "The Golden Compass", etc) and I usually come to similar conclusions. Maybe I should give it another go.
I take the point that the series has been single-handedly responsible for a significant upsurge in juvenile reading habits. But I find it a little difficult to take seriously as quality adult fare.
Call me a literary snob, but the recent establishment of Harry Potter courses at some American universities is just plain silly.
Likewise, the commercial and media frenzy which accompanies each new book and film release. A chain of Canadian convenience stores has recently been denied permission to sell the final book, due out on July 21 2007, after they accidentally released some copies of the last book early, causing a "security breach" and a hurried restraining order slapped on those who had inadvertently received an advance copy. A spokesperson for Rainforest Books, the Canadian distributor of the books, was quoted as saying that "Security is our absolute, paramount concern".
What's wrong with this picture? This is a kids book, for God's sake! And what's with this 12.01am release time anyway? Wouldn't 12.01pm be a little more practical for bookstores (and for our little 12 year old darlings, for that matter)?
I don't have any references for it, but I clearly remember JK Rowling, after the success of the early Potter books, claiming that she would never sell out her professional integrity to commercial interests. Ms. Rowling (I can't call her "JK") is now reportedly a billionaire and richer than Queen Elizabeth, and she is at the helm of a worldwide multi-media industry. Oh, how things change!

(Barely) Live Earth

Personally, I thought the Live Earth concerts were a bit of a damp squib.
Not that I expected much in terms of the music. The line-ups were uninspired, and from what I saw only the Foo Fighters, Bloc Party and the Red Hot Chili Peppers put much energy into their shows, and Melissa Etheridge gets a mention for political commitment. Some of the big-selling CD stars were clearly not that used to live performances, and several were desperately missing their pitch correctors.
But as a P.R. exercise for the anti-global warming movement, I thought it something of a wasted opportunity, despite the massive worldwide hoo-hah about it.
The main environmental message I gleaned (from the Canadian coverage at any rate) was that we need to use compact fluorescent light bulbs and recycle our plastic bags. I'm not really sure where the constant mention of plastic bags came from - not really a global warming issue, commendable though it may be - but a distinct impression was given (presumably unintentionally) that CFLs are the answer to all our problems. Other issues were touched on in passing, but with nothing like the insistence or regularity as CFLs. "So what can we do about it?" "Well, we can all start by changing some of our light bulbs." Yes, and then? Oh, yes, we can recycle our plastic bags.
Much criticism has predictably also been levelled at the carbon footprint of the concerts. Despite the use of green energy, energy efficient lights (of course!) and carbon travel offsets, the Live Earth concerts apparently saved only around 20-25% in carbon emissions compared to the profligacies of regular concerts.
Ah well, I suppose I shouldn't grumble. Such an event would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Airline food for thought

There was a thought-provoking article in last weekend's Observer about just how guilty we should feel about our air travel in these days of global warming hysteria.
While claims from the pilots' union Balpa that planes are greener than trains and Airbus' promise "to save the world, one A380 at a time" should be treated with the scepticiem they deserve, it's by no means clear just how damaging air travel actually is. As with all global warming discussions, it very much depends on the assumptions you make and the position you start from.
For one thing, according to the influential Stern Report, air travel only accounts for around 1.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 24% from power generation, 18% from deforestation and 12% from shipping, rail and road transportation).
The article further argues that the positive benefits of eco-tourism to employment and economies in third world countries (over and above the other negatives which eco-tourism admittedly brings), more than justifies the additional carbon footprint. This is comparing apples with oranges, but food for thought nevertheless.
What the article does best, though, is to show how statistics can be bent to prove opposite hypotheses, how drastically different assumptions can skew the resulting conclusions, and how dangerous quoting out of context can be.
The article concludes, sensibly enough, that in the absence of other categorical imperatives, we should:
"choose airlines with greener, newer fleets, and thus encourage plane makers to prioritise environmental performance; to travel to destinations that help local communities rather than destroy them; to take the train where possible; to reduce carbon emissions at home; and, above all, lobby politicians to tackle deforestation and to switch to green forms of energy."

Some things stay the same

While visiting the UK just recently, I was reminded of just how good a newspaper The Guardian is, both in terms of its general standard of journalism and in the breadth of its local and worldwide coverage of events, and also its balance of objectivity and progressiveness. There is really nothing to touch it here in Canada, where the Globe and Mail is the best we can offer.
I was also struck by how down-market The Times, and particularly The Sunday Times, has become. Once almost as stuffy and conservative as The Daily Telegraph, it was at least heavy-weight and endowed with a certain gravitas. Nowadays, though, it sports a new tabloid format, and the journalism appears distinctly dumbed-down.
Plus ├ža change...

I.E.D.s - Q.E.D.

Hot on the heels of M.A.D. and W.M.D. comes I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device) into the acronymic lexicon of the modern world.
I.E.D.s - roadside bombs, land-mines and suicide attacks - are the current tactic of choice among the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, and are proving particularly effective in recent months against Canadian soldiers (I won't say peace-keepers, I don't think that describes their role very accurately any more).
According to the Globe and Mail, Canada has about 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan (fourth behind the US's 17,000, the UK's 6,700 and Germany's 3,000). But, upto today, they rank second in deaths, with 67 after the US's 408, (not including the innumerable Afghan soldiers, police and civilians, of course - some reports suggest about 8,600 Afghan soldiers and 3,500 civilians, although the figures are necessarily unreliable).
19 of the 22 Canadian deaths this year were from I.E.D.s, compared to 7 out of 37 in 2006, which bodes ill for the rest of the year.
As the Canadian death toll mounts, calls for a pull-out become increasingly loud with the NDP's Jack Layton being the most outspoken, calling for an immediate recall, despite Canada's NATO obligation to remain there for at least 2 more years. Words like "unwinnable" and "pointless" are increasingly bandied about.
My feeling (as it is on most issues for that matter) is similar to that of John Moore of CFRB NewsTalk 1010, that, whether or not we should be in Afghanistan in the first place, we are committed to NATO until 2009. After that, we have done our bit for a cause which is looking more and more lost, and pulling out would be no shame but more analogous to the end of our shift and the start of some other poor country's shift.

News from Dog-Walker Central

Well, I go away for a couple of weeks and events of world-shattering importance take place here in Toronto. I'm talking of course about the People, Dogs and Parks Off-Leash Policy, which is supposed to take force in 2008 at a cost of $1.6 million (which Toronto doesn't have).
Living as we do in the Beaches area of Toronto (Dog-Walkers Central), dogs have always been at the forefront of local discussion, and I would say that, in any given week, at least two-thirds of the letters section of the our local paper is given over to ongoing diatribes between the opposing factions.
As one cynical observer at the negotiations noted: "If you can solve dog problems, you can fix the Middle East".
Now, we don't have a dog (although we do have a cat - I believe there is a local by-law here in the Beaches stipulating that residents must own at least one or the other), and I am not a big fan of dogs. Noisy, smelly, boisterous things. But I understand that dogs like to run free, and so the concept of leash-free areas in parks makes sense to me.
The new policy will add several more - say a dozen - to Toronto's current 32 off-leash dog areas, of which two are on our beach. All of which doesn't sound too revolutionary to me.
And, to placate the anti-dog lobby, 10 more by-law officers will be hired to reinforce the current 11 beleaguered officers who are supposed to be patrolling Toronto's 1,470 parks. There is a $125 fine for failing to have a dog on a leash, and a $365 fine for a dog running in a non-designated area (I'm not really sure what the difference is).
Again, a sensible carrot-and-stick approach, I would have thought, although I have very limited expectations as to the efficacy of said by-law officers, which I suspect is just tax-payers' money down the drain.
Of course, some dog-owners are more responsible than others, but most are still a breed apart, and most have an implicit belief that everyone loves Sasha and Buddy just as much as they do, whatever their behaviour, and that the draconian laws preventing Walnut from romping wild don't really apply to them, because after all he's such a little cutie.
I am not expecting much to change as a result of all this. I am still expecting to see dogs running riot in the park outside my window, while their owners sip their take-out lattes and gesticulate into their cell-phones, blithely oblivious to their Schnauzer depositing little packages in the playground, and their hulking Great Dane gallumphing up to small children in expectation of a warm welcome.