Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Why Forcillo was only convicted of "attempted" murder

With all the media frenzy over the trial of police Constable James Forcillo for the 2013 streetcar killing of 18-year old low-life Sammy Yatim, I was forced to look up some details of Canadian law, which is not something I do regularly or lightly.
Forcillo was found guilty of attempted murder in the case, which I naively assumed just meant that the murder was second degree (i.e. not premeditated). But then I got to thinking, how can it be called "attempted murder"? Clearly, Forcillo "succeeded" in killing the boy, not just "attempted" (no fewer than 9 shots made sure of that). So, what, then, does "attempted murder" actually mean?
According to Wikipedia (and I have no reason to doubt it), under Canadian law, murder is a sub-category of culpable homicide in which a person causes the death of another either by an unlawful act, or by criminal negligence, or by causing them to bring out their own death (through threats, fear of violence or deception), or by wilfully frightening them to death. The other categories of culpable homicide are infanticide (the killing of a newborn baby by a mother) and manslaughter (killing a person in a manner considered less culpable than murder). OK, fair enough so far.
Within murder there are two types, first degree (in which the murder was either: planned and deliberate; contracted; committed during a hijacking, kidnapping or hostage-taking; committed as part of a sexual assault; committed during terrorist activity or while using explosives; or committed in association with criminal harassment or intimidation), and second degree (unhelpfully defined as being not first degree, but basically meaning not premeditated). So, no mention so far of attempted murder.
Again according to Wikipedia, attempted murder in the United States is an "inchoate" crime (meaning a crime of preparing for, or seeking to commit, another crime) where a perpetrator either tries to carry out a murder and fails, or takes a substantial step towards committing a murder (such as buying a gun and writing about their intent to kill someone). So, no one actually dies, which makes sense given the label "attempted". I can't find anything to suggest that attempted murder is anything different here in Canada.
None of this, then, appears to make any sense in the case of Constable Forcillo and our man Sammy. Or does it?
The best explanation I have found for the verdict was in the National Post (and also on CBC), and it all revolves around the rather bizarre circumstances of this particular case, some arcane legal technicalities, and probably an attempt at some sort of a compromise by the jury.
It seems that the jury acquitted Forcillo of second degree murder for the initial three shots he fired, the shots that actually killed Yatim, concluding that his reaction was justified in the circumstances and that he was acting reasonably in fear for his own safety and that of others (argue with that however you will). During the second volley of six shots, though, Forcillo was actually intent on murdering the guy, but given that (unbeknownst to Forcillo) Yatim was already dead at that point, it is legally impossible to make a conviction for murder, i.e. you can kill a guy who is already dead. Ergo, Forcillo was only attempting to murder Yatim with his final six shots, but did not actually murder him.
If that smacks to you of following the letter and not the spirit of the law, you may well be right. But, by the same token, it may well have avoided some Ferguson/Baltimore-style riots right here in Canada, and it may still be enough to chasten the police force into making some serious changes to their training and approach to tense situations.
And don't for a moment think that all this is over. There will be appeals, filings for stays of proceedings, and retrials, and in the meantime Constable Forcillo will be suspended on full pay (which is a whole other conversation we need to be having...)

Mozart 1 Haydn 0

Apropos of absolutely nothing at all, I came across this (much less contentious) snippet in my daily bathroom calendar, and I thought I would paraphrase it for all the world because it's kind of cool (in a non-contentious kind of way).
Back in the 1780s, Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were the undisputed preeminent composers and pianists of the day. Haydn, the elder statesman of the two, challenged the upstart Mozart to compose a piece of piano music that he, Haydn, could not play, but that Mozart could, and he sweetened the deal with the promise of a good meal and several bottles of champagne.
Mozart's response was an apparently simple little ditty, but one that involved a progressively wider divergence of the two hands, the left towards the bass notes and the right towards the higher tones. Then, Mozart inserted a single note right in the middle of the keyboard.
Haydn was dismissive, saying that of course it was impossible to play, but Mozart claimed that he most certainly could, and he proceeded to perform the piece. When he reached the supposedly impossible section of the music, he played the disputed middle note with his pointy little nose, thus winning the bet and ensuring his place in bathroom calendars throughout the world.
What a wag was that Wolfie!

York University mural pro-Palestinian but not anti-Semitic

I seem to make an inordinate number of posts about Israel in these pages. I'm not in any way anti-Jewish, or even particularly pro-Palestinian for that matter. It's just that, on a reasonably regular basis, the state of Israel and Israeli politicians have a tendency to make these sweeping claims about how everyone else is being so anti-Semitic and unfair to them, and then they go right ahead and continue their indefensible crusade against Palestine and the Palestinian people. And don't get me started on the use of the label "anti-Semitic", which I have covered before.
Anyway, this time it is a Canadian, not an Israeli, making the sweeping statements. Paul Bronfman, film and TV producer and member of the outspoken Bronfman dynasty which made its billions in the alcohol business, is objecting to a painting displayed in the student centre of Toronto's York University. The painting is one of about 20 murals adorning the student centre, which were picked by a jury of students and faculty, and which have been there for some time now. Legally, the mural falls under the jurisdiction of the York Federation of Students, and the university itself cannot force its removal.
Bronfman says he is "outraged" by the painting, which depicts Palestinian resistance to the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, and he has withdrawn his support from the university (one of his companies used to provide free filmmaking equipment to York students, and also invited them to training seminars).
The York Federation of Students has responded to Bronfman, saying that, “This painting is not anti-Semitic, as it is merely critical of the state of Israel and its continued occupation of Palestine.” But Bronfman dismissed this as “a bunch of political rhetoric … a bunch of political nonsense.” He blusters, “This mural has nothing to do with criticizing Israel. It’s purely anti-Semitic, hate propaganda. It not only infuriates me as a Jew but mostly as a Canadian. It should outrage Canadians.”
This seems to me to be just another attempt by a prominent Jew to deflect and distort anti-Israeli sentiment by recourse to the use of the epithet "anti-Semitic", which is often seen as a safe way of trumping all other concerns. You could almost call it a deliberate abuse of the collective guilt over of the Holocaust. It is a deliberate and disingenuous conflation of Israeli politics with issues of race and religion.
I think the best rebuttal of Mr. Bronfman's outrage comes from Lorne Sossin, the dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School and himself a Jew, who has strongly criticized “the idea that any group … should be able to unilaterally declare the views of others in our community as ‘hate’ and call on the university to censor them.”

Climate change more important than Islamic terrorism?

A Salon article today points out that substantially more people were killed in this last weekend's American snow storm than by Islamic terrorism in the whole of the 14 years since 9/11.
41 people were recorded as dying during January 2016's freak snow storm (dubbed Jonas) alone, mainly in car accidents, whereas a total of 40 Americans have died at the hands of Islamic jihadists since 2001 (this includes the horrendous San Bernardino attacks in December 2015, in which 14 were killed). Another 43 died in the extreme weather in December 2015, and the magazine made the same point then too. This, of course, also begs the question of the snow storm being a direct result of climate change, but there is compelling evidence to suggest that climate change is making extreme weather in general MORE extreme, and effectively supercharging winter storms like Jonas.
In fact, as the New York Times pointed out earlier last year, Islamic and Islamic-influenced terrorists have killed fewer Americans than non-Islamic terrorists (white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists), who have been responsible for 48 deaths in 19 separate attacks since 9/11 (that figure as of June 2015).
I am always a little suspicious of this kind of comparison for transparently political ends, but it certainly makes you think, and it presents a viewpoint distinctly at odds with the usual narrative we read so often in the press (especially the American press).
Salon's point is presumably to back up Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' argument that climate change is a much more important and immediate threat to American national security than Islamic terrorism (and indeed that Islamic terrorism is to some extent CAUSED by climate change).
I'm not sure that it is particularly beneficial to press the climate change-change-is-worse-than-terrorism line too far, but I have to say that it is quite refreshing to see an alternative view on the two subjects in American political debate.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sarah Palin's tour de force speech

I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to and reading about Sarah Palin's endorsement of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and particularly that one wonderfully complex, but utterly nonsensical, sentence that provided its apotheosis (starting at about 3:25 in this video).
Here is that sentence, in all its glory:
"And he, who would negotiate deals, kind of with the skills of a community organizer maybe organizing a neighbourhood tea, well, he deciding that, 'No, America would apologize', and, as part of the deal, as the enemy sends a message to the rest of the world that they capture and we kowtow and we apologize, and then, we bend over and say, 'Thank you, enemy'...'
There were several other moments in the speech of almost equal distinction and literary splendor. It was a political speech almost certainly destined to take its place in the Pantheon of American Political Rhetoric alongside Donald Rumsfeld's "known unknowns" speech, and has been described as performance art, as a filibuster, even as slam poetry. I have no idea what she was trying to say, but in a way it doesn't even matter. It is a stream of consciousness tour de force that carries with it its own justification and (probably) its own peculiar internal logic.
Mr. Trump seemed pleased with it, though. Maybe he is more attuned to Ms. Palin's idiosyncratic mode of expression than us mere mortals. It is kind of difficult to understand why he would want the endorsement of a polarizing politician best known for losing rather than winning, and for the antics of her progeny. But The Donald's approach to politics does not follow the usual rules or conventions.
In many ways, they deserve each other.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Renewable energy sees a welcome paradigm change

According to a recent National Geographic article, the renewables industry is managing to remain reasonably robust, even in this new era of cheap oil.
Many economics commentators seem to have just assumed that, with oil languishing at below $30 a barrel, the demand for renewable energy will just dwindle away to nothing. Indeed, there does seem to have been an uptick in sales of air travel and gas guzzling cars, with 2015 setting a new record for new vehicle sales in Canada (and probably elsewhere), largely thanks to sales of SUVs, pick-ups and vans, with a concomitant decrease in the sales of electric vehicles. How fickle and self-serving Joe Consumer is!
The economies and stock exchanges of oil exporting countries like Canada, Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia have also taken a battering. But the renewable energy industry has, surprisingly, stayed remarkably buoyant. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 2015 saw a record $329 billion invested globally in renewables, as well as a record installation of renewable power capacity (up 30% from 2014). For example, 60% of the new generating capacity in the US came from renewables in 2015, and the figure is expected to be closer to 70% this year.
National Geographic points out several reasons for this.
Firstly, even as the prices of oil and gas have fallen, wind and solar energy has also become substantially cheaper, and they are likely to become cheaper still as the technology continues to advance. Renewables are now competitive with natural gas in most countries (oil itself, and gasoline, are not in direct competition with electricity generation sources like wind and solar), and many jurisdictions are actively trying to phase out carbon-intensive technologies like coal-burning, and are introducing stringent new regulations in order to achieve that.
Secondly, public opinion and public policy are finally favouring renewables, as more and more reports bring home the scale and the immediacy of the climate change problem. After the Paris accord, most countries now have obligations to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Some countries, such as India and China, are also looking to renewables to relieve their embarrassing and dangerous smog and pollution problems, and some developing countries just see it as a cheaper and quicker way of developing new generating capacity. Even some oil exporting countries are investing heavily in renewables in order to reduce home demand for oil and gas and thereby maximize stocks available for export.
Thirdly, there is also now strong support for renewables, no just from governments and municipalities, but from industry. Influence Map reports that half of the world's major companies now support taking measures to reduce greenhouse gases, and a third are in favour of some kind of a price on carbon. Whether this is purely out of self-interest and public relations is surely a moot point.
So, although it may perhaps seem counter-intuitive, there are many reasons why renewable energy is continuing to enjoy a boom, even in this age of dirt-cheap oil. Who knows, this may even herald a new era for wind and solar, and mark a welcome paradigm change in the way we produce and use our power.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Marco Rubio's goal is apparently "eternity"

The bizarro religious advertising of Marco Rubio has to be seen to be believed, at least for those of us living outside the United States, and not accustomed to this kind of excessive religiosity in our politics.
Rubio is a Cuban-American mainstream conservative politician. He is currently lying in third place in the Republican primaries, and is considered a relatively sensible and moderate candidate (by Republican standards). If Trump and Cruz's campaigns implode, which is far from unlikely, he could be left as the official GOP candidate for the US presidency. He could even become the next President.
Rubio was brought up Catholic, became a Mormon for a while, and then a devotee of the Southern Baptist and vehemently anti-gay marriage "superchurch" known as the Christ Fellowship. Apparently, he now considers himself both a Catholic and a Christ Fellowship adherent (read into that what you will).
Like the other Republican presidential candidates, he is expected to wear his religion on his sleeve in an attempt to appeal to the fundamentalist Christian base of the Republican party. Hence this 30-second video.
Setting aside the cloying, sickly sweet impression the video leaves, some of the stuff he says is really quite alarming. It includes phrases like: "Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our creator for all time", "The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan", and "I try to allow that to influence me in everything that I do".
This may be fine for a Sunday morning minister speaking from the pulpit, I suppose. But are they appropriate for a politician who purports to represent real people in this world? Are these really the thought processes we look for in the so-called leader of the so-called free world? I think not.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A layman's guide to Parkinson's disease and its potential cures

I should give a shout-out to John Palfreman's 2015 book "Brain Storms: The Race To Unlock the Mysteries of Parkinson's Disease", which I recently finished.
Perhaps a book on Parkinson's disease is not everyone's idea of pleasant bedtime reading, but Parkinson's is so prevalent these days that almost everyone knows someone with it (in my case, my wife). As the general population continues to age, more and more people will succumb to the disease, so it behooves us all to gen up a little on what is, if not one of the nastier diseases or conditions out there, one of the most ubiquitous.
Palfreman himself is a respected American journalist, not a scientist, and yes, he too has Parkinson's. So, the book is well-written an easy to read, but it is also heart-felt and meticulously researched. He is, after all, facing down his own future, at the mercy of a progressively worsening, and currently still incurable, condition.
Most of the book follows the research into Parkinson's disease chronologically, from James Parkinson's monograph on the "shaking palsy", almost exactly 200 years ago, through the various new discoveries and attempts at treatment over the intervening years, right down to the most up-to-date contemporary understanding of the disease, and the latest avenues being explored in therapeutic treatment and searches for a definitive cure. Showing the hallmarks of a good journalist, Palfreman manages to make compelling stories out of these episodes, introducing interesting case examples as real people with real stories, and describing the various scientific breakthroughs and set-backs almost as gripping elements of an ongoing detective story.
Along the journey, Palfreman explains some of the complex biology and chemistry involved, and he does so in such a manner as to make it digestible and even quite intriguing. Concepts and scientific jargon are introduced gradually so that, towards the end, some quite convoluted scientific descriptions appear quite lucid and comprehensible.
He also makes it clear that, despite decades of promising but ultimately futile discoveries and developments, the detective story is by no means over. The culprit appears, at long last, to have been correctly identified, and his apprehension and defeat may finally be at hand. Even if you have read several books on Parkinson's disease, as we have, the final two chapters of this one make riveting, and refreshingly positive, reading. Without counting premature chickens, the medical promise of a humble phage known as M13 may be the best news in many a year, not only for victims of Parkinson's disease, but also for sufferers from Alzheimer's, Huntington's, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Yes, it may be too good to be true, and yes, the early promise may sputter and evaporate like so many promising solutions in the past. But 2016 looks like it could be a potentially historic year for those living with Parkinson's. I know I have my fingers crossed.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Nostalgic language on Downton Abbey

Having just finished binge-watching the last series of Downton Abbey (yes, the VERY last series), I am kind of nostalgic for some of the quaint and often bizarre phrases and epithets of my northern English childhood.
I was brought up in North Derbyshire, not the North Yorkshire of Downton, but many of the phrases and idioms used in the servants' quarters are very similar to those of my childhood, and the accent is not dissimilar (North Derbyshire's accent is perhaps a bit rougher, although not as rough as that of nearby Sheffield).
Among the phrases that took me back were:
  • 'as 'ee 'eckers like (roughly translated as "he most certainly has not")
  • trouble at t'mill (there's something wrong)
  • 'owd yer 'orses (wait a little)
  • 'e can lump it (he can just accept it)
  • 'ey up mi duck ("hello my dear" - maybe I didn't hear that one exactly on Downton Abbey, it is VERY Derbyshire, but something quite similar)
  • gerrof wi' yer (I don't believe you)
  • ta very much (thank you)
These days, my own accent has deteriorated into a transatlantic beigeness. English people think I sound "American", and Canadians think I sound English, which I suppose makes me truly transatlantic - somewhere substantially east of Newfoundland, but west of Ireland, maybe just to the north of the Azores? Whenever I go back to England, though, my accent gradually changes back to a Derbyshire twang: it just kind of feels less false. Now, I don't enter into the depths of dialect of my nephew Nick, who I sometimes think makes a point of being exaggeratedly demotic, but I am still at times quite capable of Derbyshireisms like:
  • mardy (spoiled, easily upset)
  • manky (grubby, dirty)
  • sluther (shuffle along, dawdle)
  • it's silin' down (it's raining hard)
  • 'utch up (move over)
  • yawpin' (shouting)
  • summat's up (something is wrong)
  • 'e's got munk on (he's sulking)
  • any road (anyway)
  • mytherin' (harassing, bothering)
  • ready for a mash (ready for a cup of tea)
  • nowt to do wi' me (nothing to do with me)
  • fair chuffed (quite pleased)
  • dunna wittle (don't complain)
  • I'll bat yer tab (I'll slap you around the ears)
  • well, I'll gu' to t'top of our road! (well, I'm amazed!)

Thursday, January 07, 2016

New elements make for a nice neat periodic table

Hot on the heels of recent news that four new elements have been accepted into the periodic table, Ivan Semeniuk has produced an excellent guide to the periodic table's history and the new elements for the Globe and Mail.
The periodic table is essentially a depiction of all the different types of atoms (elements) that make up the universe around us, as well as a few man-made ones, listed in order of increasing mass (basically, the number of protons they contain).
When the universe began, with the Big Bang, the energy released created all the hydrogen (the simplest and lightest all the elements) in the universe, plus a much smaller amount of helium (the second-lightest element), and tiny trace amounts of a few others. The other heavier elements were created in the nuclear reactions of the first stars and in their cataclysmic deaths as supernovas.
In the 1860s, when only 53 different elements were known, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev realized that they could be arranged in a table of increasing atomic mass, and that this arrangement also grouped together elements with similar chemical properties. For example, the alkaline metals are all in the first column of the table, the noble gases in the 18th and final column, etc. Because of the recurring similarities in these groups, he called his chart the periodic table. At that time, there were still gaps in the table, and Mendeleev confidently predicted the subsequent discovery of new elements with particular properties, predictions which started to come true within just a few years.
As our chemical knowledge and scientific techniques improved over time, more and more elements were added to the table. Eventually, elements were created in laboratories (by smashing together atomic nuclei at extremely high speeds) that do not exist in nature, elements that are heavier and more unstable than the heaviest naturally-occurring element, uranium (atomic number 92). The first of these were neptunium and plutonium, which were discovered in the 1940s. The race to synthesize new elements has become highly competitive, even though these new elements are generally very unstable and short-lived, and do not offer many practical benefits.
Recently, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, the body that oversees the periodic table and the naming of elements, has accepted the discovery of four new elements for inclusion in the table, neatly finishing off Row 7. These elements, the first to be accepted into the table since 2011, do not have names yet, but are just known by the names unumtrium (113), unumpentium (115), unumseptium (117) and unumoctium (118). All four only last for milliseconds, and disintegrate and decay almost as soon as they are created. In a sharp break with the generally very Eurocentric periodic table, the discovery of element 113 is credited to a Japanese team, and the other three to a US-Russian collaboration, which may make naming them somewhat contentious. The teams have five months to submit names for the new elements to the IUPAC, names which can only refer to mythological concepts or characters, minerals, places or geographic regions, chemical properties of the element, or the names of scientists.
With the completion of Row 7 and no obvious gaps, the periodic table has probably never looked so neat and tidy, but efforts to create elements beyond 118 are ongoing (no claims have been made thus far). Helping to drive this effort is the tantalizing possibility, first theorized in the 1960s, that there may potentially be a group of very heavy but long-lived, elements that exists like a stable island in the midst of a sea of instability. Such stable, heavy elements could have important scientific applications, but for now at least they remain pure conjecture.

100% renewable energy for Canada (and the world)

Stanford University engineering professor Mark Jacobson has followed up on his ambitious 2009 plan for the world to get all of its energy (including transport, heating fuel and electricity) from wind, water, solar and other renewable resources by 2050.
Although the plan seemed hopelessly radical and fanciful at the time, the world's perceptions of renewables and our understanding of the potential consequences of global warming have changed so much in the intervening 6 years, and particularly in the last year or two, that it is now considered quite mainstream. But more importantly, Jacobson has now fleshed out his plan and provided detailed scenarios for no less than 139 countries (smaller countries, like Singapore and Gibraltar, just do not have the land to provide their own renewable resources, and must needs import much of their power).
His scenario for Canada in 2050 includes 21.2% from solar power, 37.5% from onshore wind power, 21% from offshore wind, 2% from wave energy, 1.9% from geothermal, 16.2% from (existing, not new) hydroelectricity, and 0.2% from tidal turbine power. He estimates this would generate 293,000 construction jobs and 463,000 full-time operation jobs (to be provided largely by retrained oil and gas employees), and result in $107.6 billion in avoided healthcare costs per year and 9,598 avoided deaths from pollution each year.
Interestingly, Jacobson's model does not even require nuclear power, which, although clearly much better than gas or coal, still results in 9 - 25 times more carbon emissions and air pollution than wind and solar power per unit of energy generated (and which also has other drawbacks in terms of potential for catastrophic accidents and security breaches, radioactive waste and cost).
Jacobson's goal is to get to 80% renewable energy by 2030, and 100% by 2050, a goal he sees as eminently technically and economically practical. However, whether it is politically tractable, as he himself admits, is a quite different question.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle East is really just about politics

A recent article on does a pretty good job of explaining the ever-shifting sands of Middle Eastern politics, and in particular the place of Shia-Sunni religious differences within it.
The Shia-Sunni split originally occurred back in the year 632, when the prophet Mohammed died without leaving a surviving successor. This led to a schism between the followers of Mohammed's companion Abu Bakr, who was elected first caliph by the Muslim community after Mohammed's death, and the followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, who some believed was explicitly named by Mohammed as his successor. As a group, Abu Bakr's followers came to be known as the Sunnis, and Ali's followers became known as Shiites.
Both Sunnis and Shiites are of course Muslims, followers of Mohammed, and their religious differences are actually few, probably much less than in the later Christian schism between Catholicism and Protestantism (which itself led to significant bloodshed and strife). Sunnis have held power throughout most areas of Muslim history, with the Shias as their ever-present opposition. Today, some 85-90% of the world's Muslims are Sunnis, and they represent a majority in most Muslim countries and communities throughout the world, with the notable exceptions of the Shia-majority countries of Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan (plus a sizeable minority in Lebanon and Pakistan).
So, given that the schism arose nearly 1,400 years ago, largely out of historical and political differences rather than religious ones, and given that Shia and Sunni religious practices and beliefs are only differentiated by a few, relatively cosmetic, elements of ritual and custom, why does it appear to have such an important influence on various Middle Eastern struggles? Among others, it seems to be at the root of the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the recent (and escalating) face-off between the Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and the upstart Shiite power Iran.
But, in reality, these conflicts are not religious in nature, but purely political.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are using the ancient schism as a tool to further their (very modern) political aims. The Saudi-Iran cold war has been heating up since Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979, and has much more to do with Iran's staunchly republican opposition to Saudi Arabia's monarchist traditions than it does with ancient sectarian differences over who should have succeeded the Prophet Mohammed. Prior to the Iranian Revolution, the two countries managed, for the most part, to co-exist quite peaceably.
Iraq is another case in point. For much of Iraq's history, Sunnis and Shias have lived generally peacefully, often side by side in mixed neighborhoods. Under Saddam Hussein, the Shiite majority population was dominated by a powerful Sunni minority, which managed to maintain a precarious balance within Middle Eastern power politics. When the US toppled Hussein in 2003, that balance was destabilized, and Iran, Saudi Arabia and a weakened Iraq all tried to assert themselves, using Shia-Sunni sectarianism as a convenient proxy for their political designs. When the Arab Spring of 2011 began upending governments across the Middle East and North Africa, both Saudi Arabia and Iran again tried to fill the vacuums and assert their own influence, often supporting violence and amping up Sunni-Shia sectarianism in order to promote fear of the other side.
Much the same thing has happened in Syria, although in Syria's case a majority population of Sunnis are ruled by an Alawite Shia minority, which dominates the country's government (including President Bashar al-Assad) and its key military positions. What was initially a secular internal civil war of a disenfranchised people against a tyrannical despot, though, has gradually morphed into a sectarian struggle, with Iran and Saudi Arabia once again interfering and arming their own interests.
The political turmoil in the Middle East is routinely reported, even in the most reliable of outlets, in terms of a religion-based struggle between Shias and Sunnis (Jeffrey Simpson's article in todays' Globe is just one example), but I just don't believe that is appropriate. While I often rail against religion in these articles, here is a case where religion appears to be the culprit, but is actually probably not. Here is a case where religion is actually being cynically exploited by politics. There again, I should also point out that I also tend to rail against politics.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Gun culture in Texas gets another boost

As part of an ongoing series on American gun culture (see previous posts like this, this, and this), another article caught my eye today, specifically about the gun culture in Texas.
Apparently, the Lone Star Sate allows licensed gun-carrying lawmakers and members of the public to enter the state Capitol in Austin through a faster, no-wait security lane, while regular, unarmed visitors must line up and go through the security metal detectors. Which of course, begs the question of what those metal detectors are actually looking for...
Then, just this last week, a new law took effect in Texas allowing handguns to be worn on the hips in holsters, or in Dirty Harry-style shoulder holsters, in a so-called "open carry" display of machismo. Apparently, in doing so, Texas joins more than 40 other states that already have some form of open carry law, although Texas is the most populous.
The pro-gun group Open Carry Texas claim that more public weapons will deter would-be criminals. What is even stranger (to me at least) is that the law applies to Texans with active state-issued concealed handgun permits, so that, if they have a licence to carry a concealed gun, they are now allowed not to conceal it...
Next August, additional legislation will come into force allowing students and faculty members at Texan universities to carry concealed handguns on campus (although prohibiting openly carried guns). Well, that's going to help, isn't it?

Why would Syrian refugees not want to come to Canada?

An article on why some Syrian refugees don't want to come to Canada makes interesting reading. At first blush, we Canadians see moving to Canada as a no-brainer (I did it myself). But it seems that at least 70% of Syrians in Jordanian refugee camps contacted by the UN with an offer of relocation to Canada are not interested in taking up the offer.
Some of the reasons given are perhaps reasonable, others not so much. Many who refuse do not want to split up their families still further, or do not want to move so far away from their homeland. Many are just not willing to leave behind their native language and culture, or are expecting to be able to move back to their Syrian homes soon, when the civil war ends. Some, mainly the less well-educated, just don't feel they will ever be able to learn a new language, or earn enough to support a family. Some prefer the poverty and squalor of the refugee camps, where they are at least surrounded by fellow-Arabs, to a life of relative comfort in an unknown and possibly hostile land. Often, the prospect of losing the UN food aid and cash assistance they receive in refugee camps (about the equivalent of $290/month) is enough to dissuade them from trying to move. Some even doubt Canada's commitment to the resettled refugees, and worry about a possible backlash.
Most of those that are accepting the move are the better educated and informed, who see an opportunity for their children to be safe and to better themselves, even if they themselves may have a hard time adjusting.
Essentially, the main obstacle is fear of change, fear of the unknown. I can kind of understand that, except that change has already happened. Their homeland is in turmoil, and it will not be resolved any time soon. Life in the refugee camps is unremittingly grim, and I find it hard to get my head around the idea that some people are choosing that life over a life of relative freedom and comfort in Canada (even if the temperature did just drop to -13°C). When all is said and done, beggars can't be choosers, can they?
So, it occurs to me that, rather than selecting refugees from the Jordanian refugee camps, maybe we should be offering places to those who are trekking across Europe in search of a life in the West. These people are also suffering from harsh conditions, especially as winter sets in. But, unlike many in the camps, they have shown a commitment to leaving and starting afresh, a vigorousness and get-up-and-go spirit, maybe even a level of desperation, that would make them good immigrants who are more likely to make a positive contribution to Canadian society.
Obviously, we can't force people to come here against their will. But maybe some of those Syrians making their hazardous way across the Balkans and central Europe might make better citizens than those who are stuck in refugee camps.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Despatches from Athens

We are spending a few days in Athens, Greece before going on to spend Christmas and New Year with family in the UK. So, I thought I would pass on a few thoughts and observations on Greece and Greek life, as perceived by a first-time  tourist.
For a country that is supposedly deeply mired in a financial crisis, life here seems to be tootling along quite nicely, thank you. The restaurants are full (mainly with Greeks at this time of year), and the young people are well-dressed and conspicuously brandishing their cellphones and other electronica. We are certainly not seeing any price slashing, at least not in the tourist areas. In fact, the shopping streets and markets are absolutely thronging with people: it has been a long time since I experienced quite such a crush of people in one place as downtown Athens on the Sunday before Christmas.
It is relatively rare for us to be in a place where we have quite such a poor grasp of the local language, but I have found Greek to be all but impenetrable. This is exacerbated by the strange alphabet, so that just deciphering a signpost, character by character, becomes a challenge in itself. My feeble attempts at basic Greek have been met with pitying looks and replies in idiomatic English. All kind of embarrassing. Luckily, almost everyone in the old town, from shopkeepers to the proprietors of the smallest café, speak at least basic English, to make up for our lack. We soon settled into an American-style "I-only-speak-English-and-just-assume-you do-too" approach.
The Athens Metro system is very nice - apparently, like so many things, a legacy of the 2004 Olympics, which almost bankrupted the city, and which the residents are still paying for - although it still has its idiosyncrasies. On our first day we managed to get ourselves well and truly lost for a while, and we ended up in deepest Athenian suburbia (the suburban trains share tracks and platforms with the Metro in places, and signposting is not always what it might be).
The Greek people are pleasant and friendly, almost to a fault, from the little old lady on the subway who was fascinated by my daughter's knitting project, to the unfailingly cheerful restaurant cooks and waiters. Obviously, competition is fierce on a street with 20 restaurants, all of which sport more or less identical menus, so they try to distinguish themselves by their service and their attentiveness, which can be a bit much at times. The cook from one such restaurant came out to explain to us how he had lived in Toronto for a while, and had personally taught "all the best cooks" in Toronto's Greek Town. He maintained he could never go back to Toronto, because he would not be able to find a restaurant big enough for all the people who would be desperate to taste his cooking again.
Incongruities and contradictions abound in Athens. The smart new EU-funded Acropolis Museum co-exists side-by-side with dilapidated houses and pot-holed sidewalks. The tat and clutter of Monastiraki flea market is right next door to two-and-a-half thousand year old temples and the favourite haunts of Socrates. The pomp and circumstance of the Parliament's military guards (with their pleated white skirts, pom-pom adorned hobnailed boots and silly walks) are right across the road from lively-but-slightly-seedy Syntagma Square, which was featuring an urban breakdancing demonstration while we were there. There are solar hot water heaters on roofs of a good proportion of the houses and apartments (and many wind farms and solar power installations out in the countryside), but at the same time there is so much gas wasted in the heated outdoor terraces of most restaurants.
But, all in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our few days in Athens (and particularly the day-trip to Delphi), even if it didn't turn out to be as cheap as we had hoped. And the contradictions and incongruities are all part and parcel of the experience.

A few more short observations, while the experience is still reasonably fresh in my mind:
  • Athens has a serious car problem. Despite gas prices of nearly $2/litre, the streets in the centre of town can be gridlocked at any time of day or night, particularly at the weekend, when a good proportion of suburbia appears to exercise their right to drive into town and parp their horns at each other. Even emergency vehicles have to take their chances in the crush of traffic, because opportunist cars are clogging up the roads and the emergency hard shoulders.
  • Parking has also been developed into an art form, and the locals are able to squeeze their small cars into the tiniest of spaces on the steepest of streets. Even street corners are fair game, with cars jigsawed together at crazy angles. 
  • There is a refreshing absence of Christmas-ness in Athens. Other than a few decorations and lights, and a church-based bazaar we had to walk past several times a day that insisted on belting out karaoke-quality American Christmas songs, one might almost forget all about it. Even the weather seems far from Christmassy, despite a certain nip in the air at night.
  • Greece is one of the last hold-outs in the civilized world of smokers' rights. It still seems slightly shocking and transgressive to encounter people smoking in cafes and other public spaces.