Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Be cautious of contact with evangelical teenagers

I seem to be on something of a non-fiction jag at the moment, courtesy of the wonderful Toronto Public Library. Currently, I am working through "The Village Effect" by Susan Pinker, subtitled (and all non-fiction books have a sub-title these days) "How Face-to-Face Contact can Make us Healthier, Happier and Smarter". Sounds horribly self-help-ish, I know, but it purports to be a serious piece of social science.
Worthy as it undoubtedly is, I'm not sure that I would go out of my way to recommend the book. I think I may have read just too many of these kinds of books, and reached saturation level. By "these kinds of books" I mean well-researched but slightly over-earnest tomes, ploughing a lonely and narrow furrow of scientific research, which the authors are convinced is THE solution to some major problems with society and the world, or, it sometimes seems, ALL problems of society.
In Ms. Pinker's case, her current obsession is with the social, psychological and physiological benefits of face-to-face (as opposed to online) contact, particularly, it seems, contact with women. According to her research, it can allow us to live significantly longer, and can improve and often completely cure cancers and other life-threatening conditions. In support of her claim, she throws at us any number of statistics and studies and miraculous stories and case histories.
The one thing I did want to share, though, is only peripherally connected to her case, but it jumped out at me when I read it.
Apparently, although 75% of evangelical teenagers in America say they believe in no sex before marriage (a much higher percentage than other religious denominations), a huge US government survey has revealed that teens from evangelical and conservative Christian families have an earlier sexual debut, are more sexually active, are less likely to use contraception, and have higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy than other American teens. (For those who may be interested, the study is called "Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying", 2011, by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker.)
I suppose in a way it makes sense: such kids are unlikely to talk or learn about sex, or to actively seek contraception. But "sex happens" to them anyway, as it does to most teenagers growing up, despite their moralistic talk and holier-than-thou attitudes. They are just less prepared for it than most. And, it seems, they are probably even weaker in the will-power stakes.
Anyway, there: I've shared it now. I don't intend to review the book as a whole (any more than I already have done above). And I'm not going to suggest that you go out and join a book club, or volunteer at your local community centre, or even (heaven forbid) go live in a Sardinian village.
Just watch out for those holy rollers, kids.

Monday, April 27, 2015

We all have creative minds

I have been reading a thought-provoking new book by Kevin Ashton called "How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery".
Ashton, something of an inventor and scientific pioneer himself, begins his introduction by quoting from a famous and oft-quoted letter by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a bright young man usually considered a genius in his field. The letter explains how he, Mozart, envisions his music fully formed in his head, merely requiring the quick and simple task of writing it all down on paper. This is the classic image of a creative genius at work: a special person with a natural gift verging on magic.
Aston, however, then explodes the myth by pointing out that the letter, despite its strong currency among many illustrious commentators both new and old, was actually a 19th Century forgery, and that Mozart's actual letters to family and friends describe the long and painstaking process of sketch and elaboration, error and correction and revision, that represents the reality of his creative process.
This, then, is the main thrust of Ashton's contention: despite the myth of the individual genius established during the flowering of the Renaissance and honed over the centuries ever since, inventions and discoveries actually require long hours of hard work, building on the work of those gone before. Furthermore, great innovations do not come fully formed in a blinding flash of inspiration, but are composed of many smaller steps. As Ashton phrases it: "All great discoveries, even ones that look like transforming leaps, are short hops".
Even more importantly, in Ashton's view, the act of creation requires no special mental processes, and no superior type of brain: in theory, any or all of us are capable of the kinds of extraordinary achievements we normally associate with individuals of genius. He points out that there is no essential difference between the brains of modern humans and those of the homo sapiens of 200 million years ago, even though the first 150 million years resulted in almost no technological advance whatsoever. Likewise, in the light of 20th Century neurology, we now know that there is no essential difference between the brain processes involved in creativity and our normal everyday thought processes. Again in Ashton's words, "Put simply, we all have creative minds".
Most of the rest of the book is an examination - through analyses of well-known and not-so-well-known cases, and other scientific studies - of the idea that genius does not predict, and is not a prerequisite for, creativity, and that extraordinary outcomes may result from very ordinary acts.
Along the way, Ashton debunks many persistent myths about the creative process, including the so-called "aha!" moments of Archimedes, Coleridge, Kekulé, Einstein and others; the claimed efficacy of incubation; the spurious superiority of brainstorming over individual efforts; etc. He looks at creations and innovations as diverse as the Wright brothers' airplane (the "flying horse" of the title), the development of fighter jets during World War II, Kandinsky's ground-breaking paintings, the iPhone, the discovery of the structure of DNA, William Cartright's automatic loom, the development of Coca-Cola, and many more.
Part of the point of Ashton's approach is to demonstrate to what extent important innovations are the result of hard work, dedication, collaboration and "standing on the shoulders of giants", rather than the virtuoso solo effort of an individual of genius.
He also goes off on various peripherally-relevant tangents, including the discrimination against women in science and education, the so-called "Matthew effect" (whereby the well-known tend to receive a disproportionate amount of credit at the expense of the lesser-known), writer's block, the "marshmallow challenge" (in which kindergartners tend to out-perform adults and professionals), opposition to innovation by the Luddites, the Amish, etc. Most of these are interesting enough digressions in their own right, even if they are arguably just padding for the (rather slim) main argument.
While in the main an interesting read, I found myself becoming somewhat irked from time to time by Ashton's belabouring of some of his points. He has a tendency to repeat something in five different ways without really adding much in the process. An interesting point made in a short pithy sentence might be followed by essentially the same sentiment using different words. And then another. Much as I have just (deliberately) done here. This suggests to me that perhaps the material would actually have been appropriate to a much shorter book.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Toronto is pretty happy, but the rest of Canada is even happier

A report from Statistics Canada called "How’s Life in the City? Life Satisfaction Across Census Metropolitan Areas and Economic Regions in Canada" was released recently, which purports to rank Canadian cities according to their subjective well-being or "life satisfaction", i.e. how good the residents feel their lives are.
My own hometown of Toronto languishes down near the bottom of the list, with only Vancouver (yes, Vancouver, B.C., commonly referred to as La-La Land) below it, but both cities score at around 7.8 out of 10, which is still pretty happy. The top of the list is dominated by smaller cities, especially those in Quebec and Newfoundland, although, to put this into perspective, even the top scores are only around 8.2.
To put this even further into perspective, on a global scale, Canada now ranks the fifth happiest in the world, according to the latest World Happiness Report, up from sixth last year, and only narrowly surpassed by Switzerland (really?!), Iceland, Denmark and Norway. These five all had scores of between 7.4 and 7.6, as compared to the lowest five on the scale (Rwanda, Benin, Syria, Burundi and Togo), whose scores range from about 3.4 right down to a dismal 2.8 in the case of last-placed Togo.
This international index takes into account a variety of factors, including income, healthy years of life expectancy, availability of social support, generosity and charity giving, perceptions of corruption in government and business, and individuals' perceptions of their personal freedoms, and so is not necessarily directly comparable to the Stats Canada index, which is limited to subjective responses to a simple question, "how do you feel about your life as a whole right now?"
It kind of makes me happy I don't live in west or central Africa, though.

Parents with their heads in the sand

It is against my better judgement, perhaps, but I can't help but mention the recent developments in the proposed introduction of a revised sex education syllabus in Ontario's schools, as a group of parents opposed to the proposed changes are encouraging their children to go on strike for a week, or, rather, they are preventing their unfortunate children from going to school in order to further their own political and religious ends.
I hate to see adults using children as pawns in such political games, and I hate to see religion, and religious-based cultural views, being used as a sacred cow against which is it considered politically incorrect to argue. So, my position on this one is pretty clear.
After much research, the Ontario government has decided to alter their currently rather lame sex education syllabus to include such important issues as masturbation, same-sex relationships, online safety, sexting, and affirmative consent, and also to begin to tackle such issues at an earlier age than heretofore. This will being Ontario more into line with much of Europe, which has had such policies in place for years.
Some of the comments of the opposing parents are instructive, comments such as, "The sex curriculum that I read is completely age inappropriate, and it’s far too heavy for children at the age and maturity level that they’re in", and my personal favourite, "If you teach my kids at school, when he comes home I have to deal with him for the rest of the day". Well, sorry for the inconvenience, but that is part of being a parent, I'm afraid. And surely it is better that such issues are dealt with early than too late.
I understand that some religions are squeamish and blinkered about sex but, whether these parents like it or not, masturbation, homosexuality and teenage pregnancies are facts of life, and issues like online predation and sexting are products (however unfortunate) of the age in which we live. Better that a handful of at-risk kids, who may not have the benefit of hands-on parental involvement, are averted from a harmful path at an early and impressionable age, even if a few others have to hear some hard truths their parents would rather they not hear.
To be forewarned is to be forearmed; to stick one's head in the sand is to get a mouthful of dirt and to risk asphyxiation. I know which I would choose for my offspring.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Turtles vs. Wind Turbines

A tricky dilemma has arisen in eastern Ontario, as two issues dear to my own heart - species conservation and renewable energy - face off in the courts.
A project to install nine wind turbines in Prince Edward County, enough to power 50,000 homes and create 300 construction jobs, is in danger of being rejected due to its potential effect on the endangered Blandings turtles that are found in the area. The developer, Gilead Power Corp, are being as responsible as they can be, and indeed are bending over backwards to accommodate the problem, including setting aside 40 hectares of protected habitat (over and above the 8 hectares the development will disturb), funding a research project on the turtle at a Canadian university, monitoring the turtles for 20 years, and even building only between October and May while the turtles are in hibernation. The location was used in the 1940s and 1950s for testing air-to-ground bombs by the Canadian defence department, a traumatic episode that, incredibly, had apparently little or no effect on the local Blandings turtle population.
It's important to note that it is not the wind turbines themselves that are being taken to task here, although a cursory reading of the articles about the conflict might well give that impression. The problem is the 5.4 km of access roads needed, and the possibility that the turtles may cross the roads and come to grief, although the company are proposing to close the roads to the public anyway, and so only sporadic maintenance traffic would be involved.
It's interesting to note that there is also a distinctly similar argument going in British Columbia, where a wind farm development is at odds with a spawning stream for rainbow trout. In that case, the species in question is not endangered, and the risk is to a couple of sports fishing clubs, so I have less sympathy with the plaintiffs. However, one can see it becoming a common problems for an already beleaguered renewable energy sector, and it seems such a shame to see two eminently worthy environmental issues at loggerheads.
The outcome of the Ontario Court of Appeal case could have far-reaching implications for future wind energy projects in the province, or, in the event the development company wins the case, for future interpretation of the endangered species legislation. My own feeling, for what it is worth, is that, in this case at any rate, the development company is doing enough, and the risks to the turtles are sufficiently circumscribed and minimal, that the two could happily coexist.
To me, the ideal outcome would be for the wind energy project to go ahead, but with an explicit understanding - and, perhaps more importantly, a precedent for future projects of any sort - that endangered species and environmental considerations of all kinds are important and not to be trumped lightly, and that development companies SHOULD be ready to bend over backwards to accommodate such concerns, as I believe Gilead Power Corp are in this case.
The courts, however, may not agree. Watch this space.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The powerful poetry of Shane Koyczan

CBC has introduced me, rather belatedly I fear, to Canadian poet Shane Koyczan.
Koyczan is a big, bearded, bruiser of a guy, but he's a jolly gentle giant. Having survived a messed-up childhood in northern Canada, involving a broken home and extensive bullying, he gave up his early ambitions of becoming a professional wrestler in favour of ... poetry. To be fair, he actually calls himself a "spoken word artist" rather than a poet, and his work is more in the way of spoken word lyrics for stand-up performance than traditional poetry. Less reliant on intricate wordplay and literary obfuscation than most poetry, Koyczan's work focuses more on powerful ideas and heartfelt, often intensely personal, emotion.
And he's quite a performer. Check out his performance on CBC's "q" radio program - try to ignore the advertising, and skip to about minute 13 for his reading of "For Many", a recent poem about self-image and self-worth.
There are a bunch more Koyczan videos available on YouTube, including his famous ode to the bullied kids of the world, "To This Day" (which he has also performed on a recent TED Talk); "Heaven, or Whatever", his memories of his grandfather; "Shoulders", about the environment and the power of activism; and, perhaps my own personal favourite, "The Crickets Have Arthritis", his incredibly moving tale of time spent in a hospital ward with a young cancer victim. There are many more Shane Koyczan videos on YouTube, some live on stage, some backed by music, some featuring cute (and often poignant) animations. All are worth your time.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Tentative steps towards beer freedom

Ontario has taken some tentative, stumbling steps into the 21st century with its plan to break the stranglehold the Beer Store has over beer sales in the province.
Soon I may not have to embarrass myself when I explain to confused out-of-country visitors that they can only buy beer from the beer store and liquor from the liquor store, oh, except for this inexplicable foible here and that inconsistent exception there... But don't get too excited: this is far from a transparent opening up of the alcohol retail sector, despite their #FreeTheBeer hashtag. It is more of a cash grab combined with an exercise in political optics.
Publicly promoted as a scheme to allow up to 450 grocery stores to sell beer (those "big enough to set up a separate area for the beer"), in fact only 150 stores in urban areas will be eligible to receive a licence at first, and that not until May 2017. I guess it will take a couple of years for them to get their shelves ready... Convenience stores, even larger ones like 7-Elevens, will definitely not be eligible.
Those stores that do receive licenses will need to sell the beer from physically separate spaces that keep the same hours as the Beer Store, employees will apparently need special training, pricing will be fixed so that the Beer Store does not experience any undue competition, and the stores will be limited to selling individual bottles or six-packs. To call this tentative would be vastly overstating the case.
The Beer Store, a syndicate run by three foreign-owned private beer companies, will therefore retain its monopoly over 24-packs (the Great Canadian Two-Four), and in general even over 12-packs, although it will have to open up its shelves a little further to smaller brewers, and is under orders to "improve the experience of its customers" in some way. Meanwhile, the provincially-owned LCBO, which currently restricts itself to selling 6-packs, is to take part in a special limited 10-store pilot study to investigate "the viability of offering 12-packs" (as though this required some kind of special skills). There is even to be a Beer Ombudsman - I kid you not! - "to hear complaints from brewers and customers regarding operational issues".
Oh, and, of course, there is an additional tax to be levied, equivalent to about $1 on a pack of 24, presumably for the privilege of our being able to buy beer from a regular store, like you can pretty much everywhere else.
Well, Ontarians have been waiting for some movement on this issue for decades, and finally we have something. But I not convinced that many people will be impressed with these half measures.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Conservative smoke and mirrors

The Globe's Jeffrey Simpson has treated us to a withering attack on Stephen Harper's fiscal policy.
He begins his salvo by reminding us that, what seems like an eon ago, the Conservatives inherited a large budget surplus, which they then proceeded to blow within the space of about three years, through a succession of tax cuts and high spending, so that by the time that surplus was actually needed (during the recession of 2008-9), there was none to be had. And they STILL got re-elected in the next general election...
Since then, they have complicated and distorted the Canadian tax code with a raft of small targeted tax credits, most of which, despite the positive spin that accompanied them, actually benefit well-off families rather than the "hard-working Canadian tax-payers" Harper is always spouting about. Universal Child Care Benefits, the "Family Tax Cut", income splitting, increased Tax-Free Savings Accounts, changes to RRIF rules, yada yada - the working-class actually get little or no benefit from these much-touted measures.
All the talk now, of course, is about a balanced budget, which is being re-branded as a revolutionary Conservative invention. This they hope to achieve by quietly slashing the national defence budget - not necessarily a bad thing in itself - even while increasing Canada's participation in other people's wars (Iraq, Syria, Ukraine) as a smoke screen, as well as by selling government holdings in General Motors, continuing to over-collect EI premiums, and almost certainly by reducing the federal contingency fund. Meanwhile, they continue to promote their high-profile tax cuts at the public expense, at an annual cost of about $75 million a year (with $7.5 million allocated to promote the up-coming budget measures alone).
All in all, Mr. Harper has raised the smoke-and-mirrors approach to politicking to something of an art form. The shame of it is that the Liberals and NDP are currently too weak, and too afraid of the optics of appearing to condone spending and tax increases of any sort, to provide any meaningful opposition to this process, so Harper gets away with it all scot-free.

The actual 2015 Canadian federal budget presented few surprises, and all of the above still applies, with the added insult of a very un-Conservative assumption of a rebound in the price of oil. Additionally, several of the beneficial measures and tax-breaks offered are in fact post-dated, sometimes for several years, in the hopes that the Conservatives will reap the voter goodwill but not have to actually pay the piper.
And the budget was indeed balanced - largely though a series of accounting sleight-of-hand moves, including reducing the contingency reserve from $3 billion to $1 billion, assuming a rebound in oil prices, maintaining higher than necessary EI premiums, etc. - despite the broad opinion of many economists that the Canadian economy is under-performing, and that now would be the ideal time to take advantage of the current low interest rates and invest in job-creating stimulus projects in order to kick-start the economy. But the Conservatives stubbornly insist on balancing the budget, largely for the value of its electoral optics, and ignoring the possible benefits of strategic deficit funding.
What may prove to be even more important, though, is that the Conservative budget deliberately ties up the public purse for some years to come, so that, even were they to win the upcoming election, any putative Liberal or NDP government would be hog-tied and unable to carry out their own agenda without alienating segments of the electorate by rolling back some of these measures or substantially increasing taxes. Clever, but incredibly cynical.
So, to summarize: many small but loudly-touted sops to various niche-voter segments (seniors, suburbanites, immigrants and small business owners), the use of accounting trickery to balance the budget come what may, and a fiscal emasculation of any future governments. All in all, a Machiavellian exercise in political and economic cynicism par excellence.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Engage Russia? No contest

This year's Munk Debates, the prestigious Canada-based annual face-off on moral and political issues of our time, is entitled "Be it resolved the West should engage, not isolate, Russia", and from what I have gleaned from the preview in the Globe and Mail, I find myself siding with Gary Kasparov rather than Vladimir Pozner.
I don't think that I am giving a preferential reading to Kasparov, a chess player-turned-politician and something of a romantic renegade figure, as compared to Pozner, the dry journalist and Putin lackey. Kasparov's arguments just seem to make more sense, and be more convincingly and cogently argued.
Kasparov argues that, although sanctions need to stepped up, they are having some effect already, that Putin's high reported approval ratings are probably fixed (just like Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi used to do), and that the separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine is largely a creation of Putin's propaganda machine rather than a deep-seated desire for independence. He essentially argues that appeasement of Putin is just not an option.
Vladimir Pozer, on the other hand, appears very tentative. He has a habit of prefacing his answers with statements like "It’s a complicated question" or "This is a tough one to answer", which has the effect of automatically weakening anything he then goes on to say. He argues that Putin is largely responding to the threat Russia feels from an expanding and encroaching NATO, that Ukraine is essentially chauvinistic and fascistic in nature, that no one knows why Boris Nemtsov was killed or by whom, and that "might means right" (yes, he says just that, in so many words). He goes on to say that, if NATO can allow Kosovo to secede from Serbia, then Russia is justified in "taking back" Crimea and eastern Ukraine, so meh! He does not extend the same logic, however, to the Chechens, who he maintains have no right to Chechnya (nor China to some disputed parts of the Russian Far East), mainly because they are not strong enough to take it, and therefore do not deserve it. Wow!
This debate portrays such a clear dichotomy between an essentially Western way of looking at things (Kasparov's) and a Russian/Eastern point of view that seems so completely alien to us. It is difficult to see how two such different viewpoints can ever find common ground.
Coincidentally, I have just finished reading H.G. Wells' "The Shape of Things to Come". Written back in the early 1930s, Wells' utopian speculative history of the next 200 years, in which all of mankind puts aside their differences and comes together under a benevolent and freedom-loving World State, looks incredibly naïve and idealistic, especially when we look at the real shape of things in the world today - marked by a whole host of apparently intractible and deteriorating political and territorial disputes, incomprehensible religious terrorist attacks, and cut-throat competition between blocs and nations - some 80 years into Wells' future history.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Aboriginal families also need to step up to the plate

I'm not in the habit of defending Conservative ministers, but it seems like my gut reaction to Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt's rather rash recent claims were in fact justified. Back on March 20th, he made the assertion that 70 per cent of murdered aboriginal women were actually killed by indigenous men, and, despite a predictable outcry from native leaders, it turns out that the RCMP have now confirmed that figure.
My gut reaction when I first heard it was, "that sounds about right", although I was surprised that a top-level politician would put himself in the position of having to defend such a statement. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson also seemed surprised that M. Valcourt would publicly air this previously-unreleased statistic, but he nevertheless confirmed that 70 per cent of the offenders were indeed of aboriginal origin, 25 per cent were non-aboriginal, and five per cent were of "unknown ethnicity". Of course, native leaders still do not believe any of this, and were, are still are, in high dudgeon.
It is just an unfortunate fact of life that the vast majority of murders of women, whether native or non-native, are perpetrated by spouses, family members or some other intimate relative, which is how the RCMP happens to know the racial profile of these murderers. The equivalent percentage for other (non-native) Canadian women who were murdered is actually even higher, around 74%. The Minister's comments are therefore not necessarily of a racial character, just stating facts.
M. Valcourt's other related comment at the time, though, that the deaths and disappearances of native women come down to a lack of respect among aboriginal men on reserves for aboriginal women, and that chiefs and councils need to take action to address this, is perhaps a little harder to justify, especially given the above-mentioned statistics for deaths of non-native women, although I actually think he probably has a point to some extent.
When I read these murder reports, I often wonder why so many young native women are walking the streets of Saskatoon and Winnipeg in the wee hours of the morning. But then it often comes out that the young woman's father has been M.I.A. or in jail or otherwise avoiding parental responsibility for most of her life, and that her alcoholic or drug-addled mother lets her do pretty much whatever she wants, whenever and wherever she wants, with next to no supervision or moral education. It's an all too common tale, and it needs to change.
Also today, a separate study in B.C. suggests that young aboriginal women are more likely to be victims of violence if they were sexually abused as children, or had a parent who attended a residential school. Probably no big surprise there, although I think we should be wary of using residential schools as an excuse for everything bad that happens on a native reserve. I don't mean to make light of the experience and plight of natives in Canada, despite the cash being thrown at them by various governments, but the buck can not be passed indefinitely, and some kind of responsibility needs to be claimed by someone, just as we would expect from any other segment of society.
Yet another article reports how the Misipawistik First Nation and Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in northern Manitoba have adopted a novel policy whereby they remove the parents, not the children, from dangerous home settings, or where the parents were demonstrably not taking proper care of their children. Usually, the child goes to stay elsewhere on the reserve for a few months, typically with friends or family, and the removed parents spend a period of time receiving counselling or treatment (most often for alcohol dependency). In the vast majority of cases, the parents eventually return at some point to assume their parenting duties. It is not a perfect solution, but it seems to work better than the more common alternative, and helps to instil some sense of responsibility in the parents.
One only has to read the books of Joseph Boyden to know that peace and gentleness and family values are not necessarily mainstays of aboriginal culture, despite the romantic image of the noble native living in harmony with nature that we are brought up with. Yes, we stole their country many years ago, just like Europeans stole Australia, and the Romans, Vikings, Saxons and French stole Britain at various periods in its history, and one indigenous culture ousts another in a never-ending cycle of change. But, given the situation in which we all find ourselves, excessive political correctness may not always be the best way forward, and sometimes we do have to tell it like it is, even if the truth is sometimes less than palatable.

Currying favour with India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is modish at the moment in the Canadian press, partly because of his upcoming state visit here, but partly because of the uranium deal he hopes to strike with Canada, either before, during, or soon after that visit.
In what is usually described as a "rapprochement" - but what is in fact much more than that - the Harper government overturned 40 years of cool distance between the two countries when it struck the Canada-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement back in 2013. This agreement effectively opened the way for Canada to recommence exporting nuclear fuel to India for the first time since this was banned way back in the 1970s (when India tested a nuclear bomb using plutonium produced by a CANDU reactor). This agreement could finally come to fruition with a uranium deal during Modi's upcoming visit.
Of course, this is happening at a time when Modi, an outspoken Hindu nationalist, has recently come to power, and the world has very little idea of just how stable (or unstable) he will prove to be. Modi is often described as "wildly popular" and a "rock-star politician", but Sikhs throughout the world hate him vehemently for his part in the violent repression of Sikhs in Gujurat state after the riots of 2002, and it is anyone's guess how his relations with next-door Islamic nemesis (and fellow nuclear power), Pakistan, will develop.
Modi is already making moves to ban the slaughter of cows throughout India in order to placate Hindu religionists, even though India is the world’s second largest beef exporter and its fifth biggest consumer. How he deals with Pakistan is still very much up in the air. And, remember, neither India nor Pakistan have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty...
Personally, I wouldn't trust the guy further than the end of the street, and this seems to me to be a really bad time to be extending nuclear trade relations to India in an attempt to curry favour (sorry!) with Indian-Canadian voters, and to make a few fast bucks for the languishing Canadian uranium and nuclear power industry.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Art and politics collide (again)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's recent cancellation of a performance by controversial pro-Russian Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa has opened up a proverbial can of worms, hornet's nest, dog's breakfast, Pandora's box, call it what you will. The Twittersphere and social media in general is a-buzz, apparently mainly in Ms. Listsa's defence, but the reality is far from clear-cut and unequivocal.
Valentina Lisitsa may be a good pianist - and I really hope she is, after all this fuss over her - but she is also a notoriously outspoken, polarizing and contentious figure, with a huge following (and an almost equally large opposition) on social media. Frankly, the feckless TSO should probably have left her well enough alone in the first place, however good she is.
Her online pro-Russian, anti-Kiev rants flirt with hate speech, and certainly qualify as intemperate, ill-advised and irresponsible. Of course, like so many of these things, there are grey areas here too. Ms. Lisitsa claims that many of her Russian-language tweets are being misinterpreted in Canada, and that one particular image, of a heap of holocaust victims associated with the phrase "strong medication works", was cropped and its intended meaning skewed. Anyone using such imagery, for whatever political message, surely has trouble written all over them.
But, when all is said and done, is it the function of a respected arts organization like the TSO to wade into these matters at all? Many have argued that the TSO's cancellation amounts to censorship, which is frankly ridiculous: Ms. Lisitsa is free to say whatever garbage she likes online (indeed the TSO's cancellation has probably just increased her online profile many-fold); she is merely being told not to play the piano for the TSO's patrons, even though she is apparently still being paid for it.
Having already booked her, the TSO would attract flak from one side or another in the dispute whatever they did. Their mistake was in booking her in the first place. Let's just chalk it down to a learning moment, and put it behind us.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Ontario moves to tackle greenhouse gas emissions - but is it the right move?

Kudos to the province of Ontario for (finally) going ahead, subject to cabinet approval, with a fiscal program aimed at tackling greenhouse gas emissions. Given the size of Ontario's economy, even in these times of relative economic gloom, it would represent one of Canada's single largest endeavour against climate change, on a par with Ontario's recent phasing out of all its coal-fired power stations, and the money raised (up to $2 billion a year) can be ploughed back into public transit or energy conservation programs.
The model they have chosen, however, is a cap-and-trade system, similar to and linked with those of Quebec and California. I understand the advantages of cap-and-trade - as compared to the other main alternative, a carbon tax, like the one being so successfully administered in British Columbia - and there is much to be said for it. For one thing, unlike a carbon tax, it caps the absolute amount of carbon emissions, which might help Ontario in its ambitious and aggressive goal to reduce emission to 15% below 1990 levels in just five years.
However, it is a much more complicated system that a straight carbon tax, and more potentially prone to manipulation and fudging, especially if it is applied, as it usually is, on an industry-by-industry basis (for example, Quebec's energy-hungry aluminum industry is exempted from the scheme on the grounds that it would put them at a competitive disadvantage!). Plus, exactly how and where the caps are set is a horribly fraught and contrived process, and notoriously prone to the influence of powerful industrial lobby groups, and I can imagine they are as likely to be relaxed by future administrations as tightened (which is the stated intention). Cap-and-trade also puts all the onus on industry, and does not work to change the bad habits and preferences of individuals.
Furthermore, cap-and-trade systems are notoriously subject to the vagaries of the market. As we have seen in recent months, with the sharp fall in oil prices, the trading price of carbon credits has likewise fallen precipitously, thus weakening the system's effectiveness.
Perhaps the main reason it has been chosen over a carbon tax, though, is the worst reason of all: it is probably much easier to sell to a skittish electorate, simply because nowhere does the word "tax" appear in its description. People seem to object to a carbon tax on knee-jerk principle, even when it is specifically explained to them that the system would be revenue neutral, and they would receive rebates on their income tax for every penny collected by a carbon tax. I imagine that some behind-the-scenes politicking also occurred,  and apparently it was seen as more politically astute to curry favour with Quebec than with B.C.
My own feeling is that carbon taxes do a better job of educating the general public on the real environmental costs of their habits, something I consider essential in the long run. I also intuitively tend to trust a prescriptive, fixed tax over a complex system that relies on the machinations of the free market. Instead, it looks like what we will actually have is a cap-and-trade system that changes nobody's propensities towards a high carbon lifestyle, but nevertheless maddens the business community and risks an industrial investment backlash.
Interestingly, the vast majority of the commentaries I have read since the announcement favour a B.C.-style carbon tax over cap-and-trade, but there are almost certainly other political considerations and wheelings-and-dealings going on behind the scenes, so I can't imagine this decision being reconsidered any time soon.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Some wisdom on the modern television series

I was thinking recently that perhaps there ought to be some sort of a rule against television series dragging on for more than two or, I am even tempted to suggest, one season. I am not a big TV watcher, but I flatter myself that maybe that gives me an outsider's objectivity and perspective.
Some of the best series, and here I might mention Lost (now the archetypal the model for many modern TV series) and Breaking Bad, seem to be able to more or less carry off multiple seasons, but even there it is far from effortless. When we get into the realm of second-rate series of the ilk of, shall we say, Arrow, or True Blood, or even, dare I say it, Girls, the original concept, which may be a very good one, gets watered down to such an extent as to be just too thin and diluted to hold the show together.
Self-contained episode series, like Star Trek for example, are obviously exempt from this phenomenon, as are slice-of-life soap operas like Coronation Street (now 55 years old and still going, as characters literally live and die within the all-enfolding medium of the show).
In the ultra-competitive and cut-throat business of modern television, advertising is king, and ratings metrics and audience reactions become the whole raison d'être of a series, artistic integrity be damned. Thus, those series that don't, for whatever reason, grasp the audience's ever-contracting attention, or tap sufficiently into the current Zeitgeist, get summarily cancelled, regardless of where the storyline happens to be at the time. By contrast, those series that can prove their worth in this dog-eat-dog world get artificially extended, often receiving word of an extension towards the end of a season, requiring an abrupt (and often more or less random) plot change or character substitution. This even extends to individual characters: if a character becomes too unpopular among focus groups, they run the risk of being killed off (perhaps we can blame Doctor Who for this idea); a popular character may be given more prominence, or suddenly discover greater hidden depths to their personality.
What gets lost in this process is the old-fashioned idea of story arc. At the start of a series, the developers will usually (although not always) have an idea of how the main story should develop, and probably of how it will end. Suddenly faced with an additional 15 episodes to fill, that story necessarily becomes warped, often beyond recognition. The usual methods employed are unexpected plot twists (although in some shows twists, and double- and triple-twists, becomes the norm, and you begin to expect them), or beefed-up sub-plots, or the dreaded flashback (thank you, Lost!) Eventually, you realize that the main plot of the show has veered off on an unrecognizable tangent to the original one, or that a whole episode has passed without advancing the plot at all. This is usually a good time to stop watching, because you know that there is no way back, and hardly ever is a series able to regain its balance and integrity.
I always think that being a television series producer must be a rather depressing gig. You are entirely at the mercy of the whims of the market, and any artistic vision you may have pretensions to just do not figure in this scenario. But then, I suppose it is a job, and it pays the bills.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Nigeria's political coming-of-age moment

I have to say that, probably like many others, I am surprised, nay, shocked that Nigeria's elections have concluded apparently without bloodshed. Call me cynical, but what were the odds against that?
I imagine most betting people were expecting outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan to throw a tantrum, allege massive voting irregularities, and launch an all-out civil war/coup d'état. In fact, the election seems to have been remarkably free from the usual vote-rigging, manipulation and intimidation, despite being so closely fought.
I'm not totally convinced that Muhammadu Buhari - a 72-year old Muslim ex-general and oil minister during the military dictatorship of the 1970s - is the best thing that has ever happened to the country. But, given that this is the first time in Nigeria's supposedly democratic era (since 1999) that a leader has actually accepted democratic defeat, I think we should probably be grateful for small mercies. This may even be Nigeria's political coming-of-age moment.
Nigeria is the most populous and also the wealthiest country in Africa, and ranks 30th in the world in terms of GDP, although these statistics hide some huge discrepancies in income. It is the tenth largest oil producer in the world, and 70% of its government revenue comes from oil. But it has always been somewhat benighted politically, and regularly appears towards the bottom of the international corruption listings. The country also has the complication of being composed of around 250 different ethnic groups (Charles de Gaulle once complained "How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?", but imagine governing that many different ethic groups).
A quick perusal of a map of the voting by states shows an almost complete geographical split, with Buhari claiming the mainly Muslim, Hausa-speaking and less-developed north (which is also where most of the Boko Haram terrorist activity has taken place), and Jonathan taking the more developed Christian south. That in itself sounds like a recipe for disaster. But Buhari was voted in on a pledge to fight corruption and to "deal with" Boko Haram, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt, and give credit to Goodluck Jonathan for stepping down with some grace.