Saturday, September 29, 2007

Thank God for...nothing!

The recent news story about a woman in the US who was rescued alive after spending eight days suspended by a seat-belt inside a crashed SUV, tracked down by the dying peeps from her cellphone, was one of those heart-warming stories the media like to use as evidence that they don't just report the bad news.
But what really snagged my attention was her husband's reaction: "I cannot believe that God got her through eight days for her to die in hospital".
So it was through God's will that she survived? Whose will was it that she crashed in the first place, then? And then kept her hidden for eight traumatic days?
I'm tempted to say that "only in America" does this kind of selective attribution nonsense occur. But then I remembered another recent incident where a Canadian woman survived a fiery Thai plane crash, and the woman's sister observed "God was definitely watching out for her".
Too bad he wasn't watching out for her before she got on the plane, and that he wasn't watching out for the 88 passengers who died in that crash.

Dying for a token

The dramatic events unfolding in distant and all-but-unknown Myanmar (often still referred to as "also know as Burma" as if that clarifies anything) are really quite bewildering.
Few places remain quite as foreign and mysterious in this ever-shrinking world as Myanmar, and one thing the protests and demonstrations of recent days have achieved is to bring to the world's attention one of the most brutal and repressive military regimes still in existence.
One has to assume that this was the main goal of the protests, and commend and respect the Buddhist monks for their courage and determination, especially given their certain knowledge of the kind of reprisals and retribution they would face. So far, the death toll is pegged at anywhere between 10 (government figure) and 200 (dissident groups' figure). Injuries are anyone's guess, and the the country's monasteries are now under a state of government/army seige.
But...the plight of Myanmar (also known as Burma) is now front page news the world over.
Just as bewildering, though, is the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi (also known as "The Lady"), in whose name most of these protests are ocurring.
Even less seems to be know about her than about the country in general. The only thing the Burmese seem to need to know is that she is the daughter of Myanmar's assassinated independence hero Aung San. It was mainly for this, and almost against her own will, that she has been thrust to the forefront of Myanmar's democracy struggle, and has spent 11 of the last 18 years under house arrest, almost totally cut off from the changing world around her.
She seems to bear her role with surprising equanimity but, if democracy were to be granted to Myanmar overnight, it is far from clear what her role might then be, and what, if any, her policies might be on anything. So really she has been reduced to the status of a figurehead, an icon, a token.
And for this token, pacifist monks are dying by the score.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More junk mail, please

If you thought you already received a lot of junk mail, it looks like things are about to get even worse.
Canada Post are directing their letter carriers not to divert mail which they know to be incorrectly addressed, something the letter carriers have apparently been doing on a voluntary basis up until now. So, as well as the unaddressed junk mail, which usually gets delivered in spite of the prominent "No Flyers Please" notice on our mailbox, and correctly addressed junk mail (such as the monthly Sears catalogues we have been receiving ever since we were foolish enough to buy something from a Sears wedding list some years ago, and which they say they are not able to stop despite frequent requests), we will also be receiving someone else's junk mail.
And this apparently because Canada Post does not want to imperil their lucrative half-billion dollars of mass mailout contracts.
Letter carriers will not be allowed to divert mail that has the wrong name on it, "even if a customer has on 'many occasions' handed back mail, called a supervisor or made a formal inquiry through the corporation's customer-relationship management process", and even in the case of pornographic advertising.
How dumb is that? Public image shot to pieces in one fell swoop. I can see this issue as having the capacity to generate a groundswell of public opinion and all manner of protests and boycotts.
Maybe it might bring the whole junk mail issue to a head, though, which may be no bad thing.

Monday, September 17, 2007

MPPs to be elected by MMP?

At the upcoming Ontario provincial election on October 10th, we also get to participate in the first provincial referendum since 1924, this one not on the prohibition of alcohol (as in 1924) but on the introduction of proportional representation in Ontario elections.
So, an electorate which is hard pressed to decide who should govern the province, also has to decide on the relative merits of the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and the proposed mixed member proportional (MMP) system.
My feeling is that a huge majority of people will have no clue what it is they are being asked to decide. Elections Canada apparently has television ads, an ad on YouTube and a website devoted to the issue, but the animated ad on YouTube, starring Billy Ballot and Nina News, produced by the Citizen's Assembly which proposed it, is probably the best explanation of how the proposed MMP system would work.
However, I have to wonder how many will either watch or understand it. And having watched and understood it, how many will be able to make a confident and informed decision between two different systems, each of which has something to recommend itself?
I think most people understand the current system, even if many do not consciously think about its implications when casting a vote.
The proposed MMP system, very briefly, would work as follows:
  • The election ballot would be in two parts: one to vote for a "local member" for that constituency, and one to vote for a political party (which may or may not be different from the local member's party).
  • The number of members in the legislature would be increased from the current 103 to 129.
  • 70% of these seats (90 seats in total) would go to local members elected under what is basically the same as the current FPTP system (the constituencies would be redrawn to reduce their number from 103 to 90).
  • The remaining 30% (39 seats) would go to "list members", who would not be responsible for a particular constituency area, but who would represent the values of their political parties. These members would be elected based on the overall popular vote each party achieves in the election. For example, if Party A had an overall popular vote of 35%, they would be entitled to 35% of 129 seats, or 45 seats. If they only won 40 of the 90 constituencies, then the top 5 members from that party's list would be included as list members, to top them up to 45.
Still with me?
In the last provincial election, the Liberals ended up with 70% of the seats with only 46.5% of the popular vote, the Conservatives earned 23% of the seats with 34.7% of the votes, the NDP 7% of the seats with 14.7% of the votes, and the Greens no seats at all despite accumulating 2.8% of the popular vote.
So, under the MMP system (which is being used with varying levels of success in Germany, New Zealand and Mexico), there is much more chance for smaller parties such as the Green Party to achieve representation in the legislature though their share of the popular vote, and the leading parties are not excessively represented. The cause of democracy does appear to be served by it.
However, in practice it would be almost impossible for any one party to achieve a working majority, leading to the kind of bargaining, horse-trading and legislative paralysis inevitably associated with minority governments. And the whole idea of a member of parliament who does not represent a constituency of voters (and does not actually have to "win" his or her election) sits slightly awkwardly with me, as does the idea that political party leaders could designate "yes-men" as party list members. Is this democracy?
The referendum requires a 60% overall adoption of the proposed new system (as well as at least 50% in each of 64 constituencies) to pass as law. Recent proportional representation referendums in PEI and BC have both failed, and I can't really see this one flying either.
I think that on the whole I am in favour of the change - although I am not 100% convinced, I am more than 60% convinced.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Issues with facial coverings

I'm still not entirely sure why the federal Conservatives (and, more recently, also the Liberals) are making such a big issue out of people voting while wearing "facial coverings", even to the extent that the Prime Minister made a specific and rather embarrassing reference to it in front of the Australian parliament during an official visit.
Certainly, the Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Mayrand, seems to be intent on just carrying out the law as it was passed after full debate earlier this year. It seems a little strange that every political party and his dog is suddenly turning the vitriol on him now.
If they now believe that they messed up the original law, then put a revised law before parliament for due consideration. Don't just ask the Chief Electoral Officer to break it.
This is an issue which surfaces from time to time, most recently in the last Quebec elections, but frankly I'm not convinced that it is something on which the general populace has particularly strong views.
It seems to me that if people can vote by mail from abroad, or by proxy, in neither of which cases are identities physically checked, then it is a bit pointless getting upset about people wearing facial coverings, whether it be a niqab or a Batman mask.
If the tiny number of traditional Muslim women involved have not already been well and truly put off the voting process, then can we not just do what India and other countries has been doing for years and make sure there are women elections officer available to check identities (from my experience, most of the officers helping at the polling booths are women anyway)?
Do we really have to make such a song and dance about it?

Cow patties and pig farts

As a vegetarian of some 25 or more years, I was intrigued by a report in the well-respected medical journal The Lancet that a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved by a reduced reliance on meat in the developed world.
Apparently, as 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture (comparable to the contribution of industry and more than that of transportation), and as livestock production accounts for 80% of those agricultural emissions (mainly in the form of methane), then a proposed 10% overall cut in global meat consumption by 2050 would slow down greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, as well as having all sorts of other health benefits like reduced heart disease, obesity and cancer.
In order to achieve that innocent-sounding 10% cut, though, the report proposes that those in rich countries would need to halve their meat intake from the current 200-250 grams per person per day, while those in developing countries would increase theirs from current levels of 20-25 grams per person per day.
Well, I'm doing my bit - how about you?

Monday, September 10, 2007

The foot-shooting contest

The candidates for Ontario's upcoming October election are falling over themselves to shoot themselves in the foot.
Hot on the heels (so to speak) of John Tory's potentially disastrous championing of state funding for faith-based schools (including a hastily withdrawn comment about the freedom to teach creationist theories), Dalton McGuinty comes up with his own throw-away idea: a day off in February to solve all our problems.
So desperate is he to distance himself from the one thing which it is widely thought the people of Ontario will never forgive him, namely breaking his campaign promise not to raise taxes, that he has sunk to such thinly-veiled bribes: a new public holiday.
Presumably thinking "how can people possibly object to a day off", his campaign team may have lost touch with reality here. Even the least educated among us can see that this is an unabashed election sweetener with no economic or even social value attached. In fact, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimate that it may have an economic cost of up to $2 billion in lost earnings for self-employed individuals, which seems somewhat exaggerated to me but I take the point that there is some economic cost involved.
Keep it simple, Mr. McGuinty, otherwise we may be saddled with a Tory government again. If you felt you had to increase taxes to straighten out the books once the extent of the previous Conservative regime's mismanagement was revealed, then just say so and move on. Don't try and fool us with useless sops.
Not that I'm particularly trying to protect the guy. Is it possible that, if the others persist in shooting themselves in various parts of their anatomy, the NDP may yet rise from the dead after all these years. It's a bit of a sorry state of affairs, though, where those who say the least stand to gain the most.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

My home is my castle, but my garden...?

I don't seem to have found much to rant and gripe about just recently. Politicians at all levels in Canada seem to be in something of a holding pattern in anticipation of elections (even if a federal election has not actually been called, you can feel it in the air). The continuing hot weather is fooling us into thinking that the newsless dog-days of summer are still here.
But one article caught my eye. Our normally sensitive and relatively sensible City Council apparently descended on a suburban Toronto garden sometime last month and razed it to the ground because a neighbour had complained that it was a blight on the neigbourhood. The garden was described as a tiny pesticide-free jungle of native prairie grasses, brown-eyed susans and milkweed, which took the owner a decade to plant and cultivate.
I had thought that we were long past the stage where we could be compelled to have identical gardens with green lawns and neat little beds of flowers, especially in these days of pesticide control and water conservation.
We've been through all this before. A 1996 Ontario case ruled that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms gave people the right to garden as they saw fit. A 2002 case went all the way to the Ontario Supreme Court and upheld the same ruling.
So where did this come from? Ms. Dale is seeking $10,000 in compensation for the destroyed plants. But I am hoping that someone will back her in a fight to establish the bigger issues.
All over again.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Anniversary of a fairy tale

I thought the media attention given to the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana was mercifully understated, at least here in Canada. I was expecting a half-hearted renewal of the embarrassing scenes and eulogies which greeted her death. There may have been more of an outpouring on the television (I rarely watch it, so I really wouldn't know) and the more populist newspapers (likewise), but what I saw seemed reasonably sober and measured.
I am no monarchist, and I am certainly no celebrity-watcher, but I have always been bemused by the mass hysteria that Diana seemed to generate. I vaguely remember being drunk in the Virgin and Castle pub in Kenilworth while the "fairy-tale marriage" was going on, and thinking that anyone willing to marry into the publicity glare of the British royal family was either a grasping gold-digger, a manic self-publicist or quite as "thick as a plank" as Diana claimed herself to be, and good luck to them.
When she came to her sticky end after several years of soap opera antics, we were living in Colombia, but even there the television carried the funeral live, accompanied by endless regurgitations of scenes from her life (Diana visiting hospitals, Diana being a mother, etc, etc) and soft-focus pictures of her pallid and rather cloying mugshot.
I have always regarded her as being pretty but not particularly striking, zealous enough at her job (which after all should be regarded as including visits to hospitals and the patronage of charities) but not a saint, and just as flawed as both a human being and a mother as most other human beings and mothers. I was never quite sure where all the adulation came from.
I'm not sure of the details of the death, but it seems to me that you could just as easily argue that she left a couple of kids motherless while out partying, as that the life and career of a great woman was cruelly cut short. There's the real fairy tale in my opinion.