Saturday, June 20, 2015

Is the Pope still Catholic?

So, the Pope (or his copy writers, at least) has brought out a papal encyclical on climate change, acknowledging that global warming is real, and that furthermore it is man-made, potentially devastating to the earth, and that we need to pull together as a planet and tackle the issue head on (and soon).
So, big deal you might say. Why should we get excited about the pronouncents of a failing institution that still believes in angels and miracles and a fiery hell, and which still disallows abortion and female priests? As a lapsed Catholic of some 40 years (and I mean very lapsed, read stridently atheist), that was my initial reaction.
But, judging by some of Pope Francis' recent pronouncements on matter such as homosexuality, poverty, etc, and now his willingness to wade into the quagmire of climate change, this new Pope does actually seem intent on dragging the Catholic Church kicking and screaming into the 21st - or even the 20th - century, and I think we need to give him his due (even given that some of his more provocative statements have been subsequently toned down, and his radical credentials may actually be overstated). Either way, a document such as this would surely have been unthinkable under any previous pontiff, and that in itself merits some attention.
And will this new radical pronouncement make any difference to the world? Probably not, but just maybe. And that is also important.
Whatever your opinions on the Catholic church and the various ideological holes it has dug itself into over the centuries, the Pope still represents the voice and conscience of a huge chunk of humanity. And, as Elizabeth Renzetti points in her Globe column, climate change these days is as much about belief as it is about science. The facts appear to speak for themselves, and yet there are whole segments of society that are entirely comfortable putting their own spin on these facts, often even using religious beliefs to justify their spurious interpretations. If someone of the stature of the Pope can lend his moral authority to changing some of these beliefs, then all power to him.
The movement to tackle global warming needs all the help it can get, and from whatever source that may come, however unlikely.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Impressive voter turnout in Denmark (shame about the result)

I couldn't help but be impressed with the voter turnout in the recent Danish general election. 85.8%!
And here we are in Canada with a turnout hovering either side of 60% in recent federal elections, and closer to 50% in Ontario provincial elections (although Alberta managed to hit a low of 40% in their 2008 vote).
Whether or not you agree with the result of the vote (a centre-right coalition group, with the strongly right-wing, anti-immigration Danish People's Party as the second-largest single party in parliament), that is still undeniably impressive. So, what do we have to do to achieve that?

Bend Sinister: a special (but flawed) book

I am constantly reading books (yes, books, not ebooks, books painstakingly tracked down in secondhand stores). I read quite slowly, but it is constant: as soon as one is finished, another is begun.
I mainly read what is probably called "modern literary fiction", along with a smattering of "classics" and a few other assorted genres. For example, in recent weeks I have ploughed through a couple of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus books (which were found abandoned on the sidewalk, and which were, I thought, appropriately pedestrian and forgettable); Michel Faber's excellent "The Crimson Petal and the White" (distinctly superior historical fiction); Andrew Pyper's "The Demonologist" (disappointing, despite, or perhaps because of, several good reviews); Milan Kundera's "Identity" (another of his unbearably lightweight books on being, but eminently worthy in a very European sort of a way); Thomas Pynchon's "Bleeding Edge" (by far his most accessible book, but still beautifully written, and just challenging enough); and many more.
I rarely bother to mention these books in this blog, but, from time to time, I do read a special one that I feel deserves some mention, or even a mini-review (such as "Infinite Jest", "Scenes of Clerical Life", "Cloud Atlas", "House of Leaves", "Daniel Deronda").
Vladimir Nabokov's "Bend Sinister" seemed to be just such a special book. I went through a phase a couple of years ago of reading Nabokov books, having been convinced by an article that he was one of the seminal authors of the English language (despite English being his second or even third language), and that I had skimped on him. While I don't find his earlier Russian language works, like "The Defense" or even the more highly regarded "The Gift", particularly arresting, some of his later (American) books, like "Ada" and "Pale Fire", are indeed veritable tours de force of the English language, and pull no punches in their self-consciously "difficult" approach to story-telling, exhibiting an almost Joycean level of complexity, innovation and wilful obscureness. Certainly, stopping short at "Lolita", as so many people do, does Nabokov a distinct disservice (good as "Lolita" admittedly is).
"Bend Sinister" is one of these "difficult" books, although perhaps not as difficult as some. It was written in 1947, just a few years after Nabokov moved from the Soviet Union to the United States, and is widely regarded as his most political novel (although Nabokov himself tries his best to refute this is his 1963 foreword to the book). It is often described as a dystopia, but is perhaps more of a parody of Soviet-style totalitarianism, and the vehemently anti-Communist Nabokov mercilessly mocks the "Party of the Average Man" and the "Ekwilism" philosophy that holds sway in the fictional European city of Padukgrad where the book is set.
It is by no means a universally praised novel, and early reactions to it were most definitely mixed. But, as John Updike notes on a back cover review, Nabokov does indeed write  "ecstatically". Whatever you make of the book's politics and its plot, for me it was the language and the quality of the writing that struck most as I began reading. Nabokov lurches vertiginously from the poetic and lyrical to the mundane and vernacular. An example of the former from the early pages:
"The many-limbed poplars cast their alembic ascending shadow bands up on it, in between their own burnished black-shaded spreading and curving limbs."
And then, just a few sentences away, the stark:
"The operation has not been successful and my wife will die."
The conversations of the characters are almost equally extreme and polarized. The philosopher-protagonist Krug tries to explain his predicament to the doltish bridge guards:
"I am going to put it as simply as possible. They of the solar side saw heliocentrically what you tellurians saw geocentrically, and unless these two aspects are somehow combined, I, the visualized object, must keep shuttling in the universal night."
"Now come on, do something."
By page 20, then, I was hooked, and settling in for a good provocative and challenging read.
A few chapters later, though, I was beginning to question whether this was a modern classic after all. The novel's early linguistic promise did not seem to continue, and it settled down into a more pedestrian, if slightly surreal, sub-Kafka effort, with elements of Ionescoesque absurdism and Orwellian doublespeak thrown in (although admittedly narrowly predating both of those authors).
That said, I can't help but tip my hat to a Russian émigré who is able to pull out English sentences of the quality of:
"The slow languid sounds and half-hearted thumps coming from the next room meant that Mariette [a maid] was engaged in expressing her vague notions of order."
"The window attempted a smile. A faint infusion of sunshine spread over the distant hill and brought out with a kind of pointless distinction the little farm and its three pine tress on the opposite slope which seemed to move forward and then to retreat again as the wan sun swooned."
All things considered, it may well be a classic, even if it did not, I thought, quite live up to its initial prospects.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Canada now has another climate change pledge to ignore

I suppose I have to register the supposedly landmark pledge by the G7 group of top industrialized nations to cease burning fossil fuels by the end of the century (yes, some 85 years from now). Hidden deeper in the communiqué is an official recognition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s finding that, to keep the global average temperature increase to just 2°C, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by the “upper end” of a range of 40%-70% by 2050 (as compared with 2010 levels).
So, the word "decarbonization" has finally been uttered by some people with real power. But the statement, much watered-down and de-focussed from Angela Merkel's initial proposal, largely though the machinations of Canada and Japan, is hopelessly vague, non-binding and distant. Each country can put its own interpretation on whether the goal is to be achieved closer to 2050 or to 2100, or even whether to actively pursue the matter at all.
It's also pretty clear that hardly anyone expects Stephen Harper - who did his level best to steer the discussion away from climate change and back towards Russia and Ukraine, and only went along with the final communiqué in order not to appear totally isolated - to actually take the commitment seriously. Predictably, a Canadian government official was at pains to point out after the meeting that Canada sees this pledge as purely "aspirational" (read: ignorable).
Presumably, the Conservatives see Canada's previous pledge, to reduce carbon emissions by 17% from 2005 levels, as equally "aspirational". Certainly, even they have admitted recently what everyone else already seemed to know: that, despite the positive efforts of individual provinces in the face of federal inaction, there is little or no chance of Canada actually achieving this pledge.
Somehow, I can't see Stephen Harper suddenly biting the bullet and admitting that the future is in renewables, not in oil and gas. I really can't see him having an epiphany and taking the initiative, and investing large sums in renewable research. He's not that kind of guy
Ah, it's all too depressing.

Naked tourists vs. Malaysan authorities (0 - 0)

I don't know who to despair about more, the Malaysian Department of Foreign Affairs or the feckless bunch of foreign tourists who have been blamed for causing a 5.9 magnitude earthquake and landslide which has killed at least 16 trekkers and trapped scores more.
It seems that Mount Kinabalu is "sacred", and the naked cavortings of the tourists on its summit were such an affront to the mountain that it responded by causing an earthquake. This apparently is the Malaysian government's official line. Yes, in 2015.
Whether the tourists (including two twenty-something Canadian siblings) were expected to know that the mountain was sacred is almost a moot point. In their single-minded pursuit of salacious selfies, they have to be considered almost as ignorant and half-baked as the Malaysian authorities.
No-one comes out of this report looking good.

43 years of solitary confinement comes to an end

It has been a long time since I made a blog entry (trips abroad and all that), but I was absolutely gobsmacked by a BBC article today about an American guy who has just been released from jail after an unbelievable 43 years in solitary confinement.
Albert Woodfox has been incarcerated in a maximum security facility in Louisiana since April 1972, where he was sent after an armed robbery charge. He was also one of the so-called Angola Three, members of the militant Black Panthers group against police brutality and racism in the 1960s. Woodfox was subsequently tried twice in the case of the murder of a prison guard (with a lawnmower blade, no less!), but was acquitted both times, and has always claimed he was innocent of that incident.
Nevertheless, he has apparently spent almost his whole prison term in solitary confinement, which amounts to 23 hours a day in his cell, with one hour a day to "walk alone along the tier on which his cell is located". In addition, he was allowed to exercise three times a week, and had severe restrictions imposed on "personal property, reading materials, access to legal resources, work, and visitation rights".
Louisiana Judge James Brady has ordered Woodfox's unconditional release, despite the vociferous opposition of Louisiana state prosecutors.
I think what is so astounding about this story is that it comes hard on the heels of some deep soul-searching in Canadian society about whether solitary confinement of any kind constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, or at the very least is all but useless as a correctional technique.
Apparently, some 80,000 inmates are estimated to be held in solitary confinement in the USA (and around 6,000 in Canada), despite the dire warnings of psychologists and efforts for its banning by UN torture rapporteurs.
Amazingly, Woodfox seems to be psychologically intact (although, of course, only time will tell), claiming to a local reporter that he is merely "excited and nervous".