Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Political power for sale in Ontario and B.C.

Examples of, or at least media coverage of, priority access granted to top politicians in exchange for hard cash have proliferated in recent weeks and months, particularly in Ontario and British Columbia.
Usually, this comes in the form of exclusive, invitation-only dinners for corporate big-nobs, where the price of admission is a donation to the ruling provincial political party. In Ontario and B.C. at least, this method of selling preferred access to corporate lobbyists is entirely legal. So, for a bargain price of between $5,000 and $20,000 (depending on the exclusiveness of the affair), B.C. company heads can have one-on-one access to Premier Christy Clark, or to the Energy and Finance minsters of Ontario, or even Premier Wynne herself. Even more egregious, high-ranking Ontario cabinet ministers are routinely assigned individual annual fundraising quotas of up to $500,000, which they look to fill through just these kinds of events.
In provinces such as Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia, union and corporate donations to political parties is illegal. In one of its few democracy-promoting actions, even the Harper federal government banned such donations federally in 2006, although the individual annual donation limit of $1,525 per person per party is still rather high, and still slants political influence towards the rich. Ontario, B.C. and Saskatchewan are now the only Canadian jurisdictions of any size to allow union and corporate donations.
This should change now. Ontario's Kathleen Wynne has recently said that she will look to toughen Ontario's rules on political donations later this year, but probably fall short of an outright ban on union and corporate donations. Christy Clark has made no promises at all, and appears to see it all as just an integral part of the democratic process, although B.C.'s NDP opposition have vowed to ban union and corporate donations if they ever get back into power (as has Saskatchewan's NDP, even if their chances of election are much slimmer).
Many people are calling for a nationwide application of Quebec's rules, which ban corporate and union party donations completely, and limit individuals to donations of just $100 a year, with a further $100 allowed during elections. It is worth noting that Quebec brought in these donation rules after the Charbonneau Commission, in direct response to a series of political corruption scandals there.
Yes, I understand that, even were that to happen, corporations will probably find loopholes to exploit, as they always seem to do. But I think it has to be an important and necessary step in the right direction.

To her credit, responding to the intense political and media pressure in recent days, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has since announced that she will bring forward Ontario's legislation on the subject from the fall to the spring - i.e. very soon - and that it will probably involve the outright banning of political donations by corporations and unions. It is still not clear what individual donation limits might be set at (they are currently set at a ridiculously high $9,975 per year), and it seems unlikely that constituency associations, which have separate additional donation limits, will be included in the ban.
Ms. Wynne has also cancelled all her upcoming private fundraisers, and those of her cabinet minsters, and it looks like she really is taking the issue seriously, and not just concerned for the optics of the matter. I confess to have been sorely disappointed with the Ontario Premier, in spite of her early promise. But her reaction here has been spot on, and she presents a huge contrast to Christy Clark, who remains completely unapologetic and unrepentant on the issue.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Supporters of St. Joseph's Health Centre are cross(less)

My last diatribe for today, after perusing the day's news, is reserved (once again) for the Catholic Church.
St. Joseph's Health Centre, a Catholic hospital in southwest Toronto, has just announced their new logo, and - shock! horror! - it does NOT incorporate a cross. The faithful were predictably incensed, seeing this as a selling-out and a distancing from the hospital's religious history, and an online petition was hastily initiated. There were even suspicions (totally unfounded, as it happens) that the huge cross on the physical hospital would be removed.
Just in passing, I note that St. Joseph's Health Centre's sister hospitals in Hamilton and London have logos that do not feature a cross at all, and the Guelph hospital has a kind of stylized font-based cross-ette as part of its logo. But, for all I know, maybe there was major soul-searching and acrimonious protests accompanying these changes too.
Frankly, the whole concept of a Catholic hospital - like that of Catholic school boards, for that matter - is bizarre and anachronistic, and has no place in the modern world. OK, the hospital was originally opened by the Catholic order of the Sisters of St. Joseph nearly a century ago, and kudos to them for doing that. It clams a "tradition of care that reflects the universal values of respect, dignity and compassion", although such values are by no means exclusive to the Catholic Church, and I'm sure most hospitals would subscribe to such a description. The hospital serves people of all religions and cultures, as it has to by Canadian law, although it makes a big deal of the belief that "life is sacred from the moment of conception until death", and so it may be out of step with mainstream Canadian values as regards abortion and the new right to doctor-assisted death.
Anyway, my point is that, rather than listening to these people whining about political correctness and those poor nuns spinning in their graves over whether a logo features a cross or not, shouldn't we be bringing such institutions into the 21st Century (or even the 20th), and do away with archaic and outmoded ideas like tying basic public services like hospitals to specific religions and denominations? Isn't the point that a hospital is there to treat injury and illness, not to promote religious views?

Uber in Toronto? It's inevitable

I have also avoided commenting on the Uber ride-sharing service until now, but as Toronto City Council moves to draft new regulations which might allow Uber to operate legally in the city, the issue is becoming more and more urgent and unavoidable.
It's difficult for me to get too excited about Uber. I can't remember the last time I used a taxi in my own city - I use public transit, or, when that is impractical, I use our car. Rarely am I in so much of a rush, and without access to a car, that I need to employ the services of a taxi. But I do know people that use taxis, and some that swear by Uber.
Currently, Uber is operating illegally in Toronto, in contravention of city by-laws. This is partly what irks me about the service: there is a law that they are perfectly aware of, but they are happy to skirt around, and even to unequivocally break, that law for their own commercial gain. They argue that the taxi by-laws just do not apply to them, that they are a ride-sharing service not a taxi service, but they know perfectly well that this is completely spurious and disingenuous.
Uber has been unsuccessful in some places they have tried this (e.g. Calgary), and these cities have been able to regulate Uber into submission without requiring an outright ban. In other places (e.g. Edmonton and, very soon, Ottawa), they have succeeded in getting the city to change their regulations to accommodate the service. In yet others (e.g. Halifax, Winnipeg), where Uber deems that the costs may outweigh the potential benefit, or that the expected political push-back is perceived as being too strong, they have chosen not to force the issue at all. It is a very canny company.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, Uber's intention is to make itself all but indispensable to the people of the city, so that the populace will then rise up against their masters and insist that the service be legally allowed. And they have been very successful at doing just that.
I can see that Uber is indeed the way of the future, and its advantages, in terms of technology, convenience and efficiency, are quite apparent. That said, I also empathize with the heavily-regulated regular taxi drivers of Toronto (usually middle-aged, over-qualified immigrants, for whom nothing else is available), who are stuck with an antiquated and inequitable system of overpriced taxi licences, and who see their already precarious livelihoods trickling away towards the upstart Uber. Some taxi-drivers have sunk their life savings into taxi licences that would lose a large proportion of their value if Uber were to be allowed as competition.
The solution, though, should not be to ban Uber - thereby condoning and endorsing the existing ridiculous taxi system - but to reform that system, to do away with absentee plate holders charging an arm and a leg on the "free" market, in order to give drivers the privilege of working long, depressing and often potentially dangerous shifts driving rented taxis, all so that they can earn a pittance. Indeed, many taxi drivers now moonlight with Uber to supplement their paltry earnings.
As I see it, Uber (or something very like it) is inevitable. How we get there - with some measure of grace, or with strife and acrimony - is the issue now.

After a predictably fractious and long day of debating, Uber is now technically legal in Toronto as of 3 May 2016. Mayor John Tory's observation that "there is no ideal answer that is going to satisfy everybody" was something of an understatement, and it looks like neither the taxi industry nor Uber itself is entirely happy with the outcome. Over 100 amendments were added to the initial motion, and the 27-15 final vote probably does not do justice to the level of uncertainty and tension within the Council.
The new rules are an attempt at compromise between two highly antagonistic camps. Uber is now allowed to legally operate under a new class of licence (a "private transportation company" licence), albeit with a higher minimum fare than it wanted, and with other regulatory rules, such as on mandatory insurance, etc. Taxis, on the other hand, will now be allowed to use Uber-style "surge" peak-hour pricing, or discounts at other times. However, some of the attempts to level the playing-field seem to involve a dumbing down of both taxi and Uber requirements - for example, Uber drivers will not have to take training programs in order to get a licence, and taxi and limousine drivers will no longer have to take CPR and first-aid training - which is not necessarily a good thing.
So, no-one is fully satisfied by the outcome, but would they ever be? Uber argues that the rules are still too restrictive, and will not allow the "ride-sharing" industry to grow (which seems unlikely to me). Taxi divers, meanwhile, say that the very existence of Uber will still cut deeply into their bottom line (which does seem likely).
But a full of day of negotiating and arguing has still done nothing to address one of the main problems with the taxi industry, the unregulated sale and rental market in taxi licences.

Please ... Rob Ford was no working class saint

I have resisted thus far commenting on the death of ex-Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who died recently of a rare form of cancer at the tender age of 46.
Over the years, I have spent more than enough time in this blog vilifying the guy, as have many others. He was, without doubt, one of the worst mayors Toronto has ever had, and has caused significant damage to the city, its institutions, and its reputation.
All of that still applies even though he is now dead. But it seems I am now suppose to suddenly mellow and forgive all the bad stuff, and admit that - aw, shucks - he wasn't such a bad guy after all, just misunderstood, and the victim of a vindictive press and his own personal failings.
Well, I am sorry, but I just can't do that. Yes, I feel sorry for anyone dying of cancer before their time. I can even empathise with those suffering from various addictions. But that is as a person, an individual, and I didn't know Rob Ford as a person, I only knew him as a mayor. And as a mayor, he sucked.
If he had addiction issues with crack cocaine and alcohol, I kind of understand that, but that just made it inappropriate for him to have continued as mayor of a huge city, and he should have stepped down. He only became mayor in the first place as a protest vote, a change-for-the-sake-of-change appointment, a serendipitous case of being in the right place at the right time. He was Toronto's Donald Trump of the period, and his appeal was to a similar demographic and political profile as Trump's constituency.
He didn't achieve half of what he campaigned on, and most of what he did achieve is unlikely to be remembered fondly in the clear light of the future. Personally answering constituents' phone calls is really not an efficient use of a mayor's time (even if it does make for good optics and PR), and Ford's "respect for taxpayers" mantra was a cynical twisting of what he actually offered the people of Toronto. A recent article by Marcus Gee provides an excellent perspective on Mr. Ford's (few) achievements and (many) failings as Mayor.
So, rest in peace and all that, but please, let's not resurrect Rob Ford as some kind of working class saint. He was a rich man's son with less interest in the working man than in his own career and media profile. He will no doubt be much missed by friends and family, but that doesn't mean that the rest of us have to follow suit.

Rob Ford's funeral yesterday was an appropriately bizarre mix of solemn service and raucous Ford Nation rally. Although the ill-defined "Ford Nation" is much reduced from its heyday, many of its more rabid supporters turned out to the funeral to say goodbye, some bedecked with flags and buttons and chanting slogans like "Best Mayor Ever" and "Mayor Rob Ford Forever", and in one memorable case, "Rob Ford, Son of God".
Ford's 10-year old daughter read a eulogy concluding with the cringe-worthy, "He's the mayor of Heaven now", and his brother Doug (failed mayoral candidate, and no longer even a councillor) used the occasion for a quick political plug, vowing to carry on the work Rob started.
All in all, it was a combination of earnestness and crassness entirely appropriate as a public farewell to a divided and divisive man.

Spring is the season for suicide

Contrary to what I (and probably most other people) have always assumed, it seems that statistically most suicides actually occur in the spring.
While this may be counter-intuitive to most people (spring being the season of new life, renewal, hopefulness, improved weather, etc), most longitudinal studies in Europe and North America seem to confirm it. In Canada, suicides tend to peak in May, with fully 21% more suicides than in the month with the lowest suicide stats, which turns out to be (again counter-intuitively) December. The spring suicide phenomenon even applies in the southern hemisphere, according to Australian data.
But no-one really seems to know why. Various hypotheses have been put forward to explain this phenomenon, including: that it is a delayed reaction after the gloomy winter months; or that the brighter, symbolically more positive days of spring throw a person's depression into even more stark relief; or even that it is due to sleep disturbances caused by the spring clock change. But none seems entirely convincing or definitive.
The latest hypothesis, still under investigation, is that suicide rates are linked to pollen counts from popular hay fever allergens like flower, grass and tree pollen, which also tend to peak in spring and early summer. Hungary is a particularly cogent example: it has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, as well as one of the world's highest ragweed pollen counts, and the suicide incidence in Hungary peaks notably at the same two times of year as peak pollen production.
This unlikely-sounding connection is not actually as far-fetched as it might seem. Allergies cause, in addition to the usual external nasal symptoms, a spike in the production of a kind of protein called cytokines, which are able to pass the blood-brain barrier, and which have been separately linked to depression and suicidal tendencies through a variety of possible mechanisms (including the suppression of serotonin production, and the activation of microglia immune cells).
At the moment, the link, which has been indicated by several, but by no means all, studies on the subject, can not yet be considered causal, and many more studies need to be done. But I was intrigued by the thought that something as apparently trivial as hay fever might be linked to something as dramatic as suicide.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A few observations on Guatemala

I have visited most countries in South America and a few in Central America, but a week in Guatemala gave us the chance to experience another Mesoamerican culture at first hand.
Arriving in Guatemala City airport was no problem. Getting from there to the nearby old colonial capital of Antigua was another matter entirely. What should have been a leisurely 50-minute drive actually took us two-and-a-half hours. Because there was no left turn from the airport road to the Antigua road, we had to turn right followed by a whole series of u-turns, some of which were being disallowed by traffic police seemingly at random. We only passed one traffic light, which was being overruled by traffic police, again seemingly at random, much to the consternation of the drivers, who leaned liberally on their horns in response. It took us an hour and a half to get back to the airport road where we should have turned left. And all for want of a simple system of traffic lights.
Once on faster roads, our taxi driver Manolo made up for lost time by driving like a maniac on the vertiginous winding roads up into the mountains, all in the dark and while talking on his cellphone. It was quite an experience.
Chatting to Manolo, we touched tentatively on the political situation, knowing full well how Guatemala has always been one of those countries, full of potential and natural beauty, but left to teeter perennially on the edge of ruin and collapse by corrupt and selfish politicians. However, Manolo gleefully related to us how the last president and vice-president had recently been arrested for corruption and graft, and face up to 10 years in jail. In their place,  a new president has just been elected who just happens to be Guatemala's most popular television comedian. It seems, though, that, despite his rather lewd and tasteless comedy routines, Jimmy Morales is actually quite a bright guy, affiliated to neither the left nor the right wings, and people have high hopes for a little bit of political stability from him. I was just amazed that I had missed a news story like that in the mainstream news. But then I guess that Guatemala is not exactly a major player in world affairs.
The little town of Antigua Guatemala is the perfect antidote to the big, brash, noisy new capital city. All cobbled streets and pastel-painted colonial buildings, it is a serene and mellow town, nestled amid forested mountains and volcanoes. At 1,530m above sea level, it has an almost perfect climate, with warm sunny days and pleasantly cool nights. Many of the houses and restaurants have adopted the lovely old Spanish tradition of building around a shady and leafy green courtyard or patio, often with a water feature taking centre stage.
Many of the very old colonial buildings, like churches, monasteries and priories, have been decimated by a series of devastating earthquakes over the centuries, particularly two or three really big ones in the 18th century. But the ruins have been preserved and are open to the public for exploration, and the replacement buildings are almost as grand and majestic as the originals. There are churches and/or ruins almost on every street corner in the centre of town.
Antigua boasts the biggest Holy Week and Easter celebrations in the Western hemisphere and, basically by coincidence, our visit coincided with some of it. There were huge religious processions pretty much every day, with various Catholic icons and statues being paraded around the streets from various churches on extremely heavy-looking plinths or floats, often for hours at a time, and accompanied by the ubiquitous untuneful brass bands and drums, playing their lugubrious dirges and hymns. Apparently, the biggest processions, like those on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, can involve 10,000-15,000 participants (and many more spectators), and floats weighing 3.5 tonnes are carried by up to 80 men at a time, changing personnel every city block. And we are not talking about one or two processions here: there were several each day, early in the morning, late at night, sometimes mores than one at a time, and at times we were almost tripping over them. It is certainly quite a spectacle, whatever you may think of the religion behind it.
The other thing Antigua is famous for is the tradition of constructing alfombras (carpets) out of flowers and brightly-dyed sawdust during Holy Week. These carpets, involving complex geometric shapes and designs as well as religious images are laid out on the cobbled streets, and can take many hours to create (some in the churches also incorporate fruits and vegetables). The Holy Week processions then trample all over these meticulously-designed crafts - ephemeral art in the service of religious symbolism.
There were much fewer tourists than I expected in Antigua, although the shady Parque Central is definitely ground zero for gringo tourists. Consequently, it is also ground zero for tour touts and the ubiquitous indigenous women selling their trinkets, weavings and bracelets. As in so many Latin American countries, the undeniably cute native children, most of whom should really be in school, are unabashedly used for commercial purposes, but what can you do?
About 40% of Guatemalans are indigenous, mostly descendents from various Mayan tribes (as we have been reminded many times on guided trips, the Maya did not actually die out, they just moved away from their ancestral lands, which they had.exhausted due to unsustainable farming practices, and scattered throughout the country). About an equal number are mestizos or ladinos (mixed blood), with only less than 20% being "white" or of European background. This is particularly apparent in the smaller market towns like Chichicastenango or Panajachel, and in the smaller and less touristy mountain villages nearby, but it can be seen even in cities like Antigua.
What else will I remember about Guatemala? A riot of bright colours, from the vegetable and artesan markets, to the dresses of the aboriginal women, to the many different kinds of flowering trees, and even the brightly-painted houses. Vertiginous roads winding through a rugged mountainous landscape. A severe garbage problem: most country roads are just lined with it, even if tourist towns like Antigua are kept meticulously clean. Excellent coffee and chocolate, although the good dark chocolate with candied ginger or almonds is quite expensive. Friendly, polite people, speaking probably the clearest, purest Spanish I have ever heard. Almost NO-ONE smoking, in restaurants, in bars, even in the streets and parks, except for a few gringos. Restaurant bills that automatically include a 10% tip, which takes all the stress and calculation out of the tipping process. Little mountain villages exhibiting grinding poverty, but full of happy kids and sleeping dogs.
Alll in all, for a supposed perennial basket-case of a country, it is really a very pleasant place to spend some time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Is Mother Suu's position in Myanmar actually democratic?

I am a bit confused by Aung San Suu Kyi position in Myanmar, or, for that matter, her intentions there.
The diminutive pro-democracy icon is constitutionally barred from leading the country as its president, ostensibly because she married a British man and has children who hold British passports, but mainly because the military-drafted 2008 constitutional says so. It seems she is Burmese (Myanmarish?) enough to hold the position of MP, which she achieved in 2012, but not President. She is also the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which is the main opposition party to the military-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of ex-President Thein Sein, which held power in Myanmar for some 25 years until last November, in defiance of the national will and even election results.
However, regardless of the constitutional ban (which is still the law of the land, say about it what you will), Mother Suu came out with guns blazing last year, stating unequivocally that, "If the NLD wins the elections and we form a government, I'm going to be the leader of that government whether or not I'm the president. The leader of the NLD government will have to be me because I am the leader of my party."
Well, the NLD did indeed win the November 2016 election, by a landslide, and Myanmar finally began to see light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Then, yesterday, the legislature voted for Htin Kyaw (a childhood friend of Suu Kyi, and from a family with long-standing ties to the country's democratic movement) to take the helm as the country's new president, and he is expected to take his place on 1st April.
However, true to her word, Ms. Suu Kyi will apparently occupy some ill-defined position ABOVE the president, as Mr. Htin Kyaw himself confirms. So, Mother Suu will be wielding power through a man who is basically her hand-picked appointee, with Htin Kyaw just acting as a mouthpiece or puppet while Suu Kyi pulls the strings.
This is not a very convincing democratic set-up, and the political optics are horrible. Add to that the fact that the military retains a quarter of the legislative seats (courtesy of that same constitution), names three of the government's most powerful ministers, as well as even the first vice presidency (because the military candidate in the presidential election, Myint Swe, received the second-highest number of votes), political life in the Myanmar legislature is going to be far from pleasant, and probably much less productive than the frustrated population might want or expect.
The military also holds effective veto power over constitutional changes (like those needed to allow Ms. Suu Kyi to become president, for example), as well as maintaining huge economic sway from its extensive corporate holdings. Corruption is still rampant in Myanmar, and activists and journalists are still being imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Even the influential and radical (although theoretically non-political) Buddhist monks of Myanmar present a challenge to the country's nascent democracy movement, as they are vehemently anti-Muslim, and have been hugely supportive of recent "race and religion" laws passed by the military-backed government.
The story from Myanmar in recent months has been largely a happy one, with the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the triumph of the pro-democracy NLD in largely peaceful general elections. But the road ahead is rocky and uncertain, and the next couple of years will be crucial ones for the country's development and stability. Keeping the military in check, maintaining religious freedom, modernizing the country, and turning around its lamentable economy, will all be huge challenges for its young inexperienced government, and the expectations of ordinary people for rapid progress are unrealistically high.
Even given all that, though, I'm just not sure that this kind of riding rough-shod over democratic rules is the right way for it to start.

Some of the more bizarre occupations in 1881

My bathroom calendar points out to me that, on this date in 1801, Britain carried out its first nationwide census (the Domesday Book notwithstanding). It was only in 1881, though, that the census included information on "rank, profession, or occupation", and some of the responses to this question - courtesy of the London Genealogical Society - are fascinating, puzzling, even sometimes a mite alarming:
  • Colourist of artificial fish
  • Knight of the Thimble
  • Disinfector of railways
  • Examiner of underclothing
  • Invisible net maker
  • Electric bath attendant
  • Proprietor of midgets
  • Fifty-two years an imbecile
  • Knocker-up of workpeople
  • Maker of sand views
  • Gymnast to house painter
  • Turnip shepherd
  • Emasculator
  • Sampler of drugs
  • Fatuous pauper
  • Drowner
  • Count as female
  • Fish-bender
  • Goldfish-catcher
  • Cow-banger
  • Running about
  • Grape-dryer
  • Beef twister
  • Random waller
Some of these make some of the more unusual modern jobs (professional cuddler, snake milker, professional bridesmaid, iceberg mover, professional mourner, dog surfing instructor, face feeler, ash portrait artist, dog food taster, chicken sexer, professional line-stander, fortune cookie writer, etc) seem downright normal!

Monday, March 14, 2016

The case against the Energy East pipeline seems far from watertight

I have been trying to figure out whether an Energy East oil pipeline is such a bad idea, and if so, why.
The proposed 4,600km pipeline would transport crude oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan's oilfields to ports and refineries in Atlantic Canada (St. John in New Brunswick, as well as Montreal and Quebec City). TransCanada Corp's current plan is to convert about 3,000km of existing natural gas pipeline, and add to this 1,600km of new pipeline. The completed project would have an estimated capacity of 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day, which represents an awful lot of road and rail tankers.
Now, I am not a big fan of oil and gas, and I am quite aware that we (Canada and the rest of the world) need to ween ourselves off it if we want to rein in destructive greenhouse gases. Having said that, the oil industry is not going to close down overnight, even in this new era of low oil prices. Large quantities of oil are still being pumped out of the ground, and this will continue for the foreseeable future even if we do start to act to reduce our reliance on oil and gas. So, we need to do something with it, preferably something responsible.
The Keystone XL pipeline to the USA is dead now (the US is gung-ho on becoming energy sufficient anyway), and the Northern Gateway pipeline to the west coast of BC is all but dead too after a recent ban on oil tankers along northern BC's coastline. Energy East therefore remains just about the only hope for the oil pipeline lobby. But it is beset by problems, not the least of which is the opposition, mainly on environmental grounds, of several key municipalities through which it would need to travel (such as Kenora, Thunder Bay, North Bay, Montreal), as well as of many of the First Nation territories on the route.
Opponents argue that converting the ageing existing gas pipeline would leave it prone to leaks and spills, which puts millions of Canadians and large areas of pristine wilderness and water at risk of a catastrophic spill. Added to that is the potential of a major oil spill from export tankers in the St. Lawrence Seaway, with its threatened beluga whale population. It is also argued that providing an easy outlet for Alberta's environmentally dirty oil sands would only add to Canada's already unsustainable carbon footprint.
The alternative to a pipeline is rail transportation, which, as we know all too well after the catastrophic rail crash at Lac Mégantic in Quebec in 2013, brings its own challenges, both economic and environmental. And, while I am not too keen on the idea of exporting large quantities of this oil from Eastern Canada to overseas markets in Asia and elsewhere, bringing Canadian oil to the eastern part of the country would help to equalize the current east-west price differentials within Canada, and also reduce our reliance on other foreign oil producers. It seems kind of crazy to me that Canada is importing oil from unpalatable regimes like Saudi Arabia, when we are producing sufficient oil right here in the country (in fact we import almost half as much oil as we export, which is kind of like taking two steps forward and one step back).
So, which is the better option? I still can't decide. Is the environmental risk of a pipeline greater or less than the environmental risks of shipping it by rail? Dunno. Would a pipeline actually increase oil sands development, or would it have little or no effect on how much oil is actually produced? Again, dunno. In a decision as intractable as this, the status quo typically wins out, but is even that a good option? Guess what, dunno.

Let's take all the faces off Canada's banknotes

Canada is grappling with political correctness again, and no doubt it will end in tears. Again. The powers that be have decided it is past time that one of Canada's banknotes should have a female face on it - other than the Queen who is already featured on our $20 notes - and of course no-one can decide which (face, or banknote). The USA recently went down this same route, and decided on African-American abolitionist and ex-slave Harriet Tubman, whose face now gaces the US $20 note in place of former president Andrew Jackson.
Given that the current faces on our notes are all ex-Prime Ministers, that automatically rules out women. And given that the "rules" dictate, arbitrarily, that banknote icons need to have been dead more than 25 years, that also automatically rules out most women that most people might have heard of.
Reformer and suffragist Nellie McClung is the name most often put forward, except that others take offence at her temporary flirtation with eugenics. And who - outside of Canada, and outside of feminist academic circles - has even heard of her? Ditto for many of the other suggestions like Harriet Brooks, Marguerite Bourgeoys, Viola Desmond, Jennie Trout, Annie Mae Aquash, Laura Secord, Elizabeth McMaster, Emily Murphy, E. Pauline Johnson, Louise McKinney, Charlotte Whitton and Agnes Macphail. Kenojuak Ashevak, anyone? There again, who outside of Canada has heard of Sir Robert Borden, or even Sir Wilfred Laurier...? Names like Lucie Maud Montgomery,  Emily Carr or Margaret Laurence may be better known internationally, but do they really qualify or deserve the honour.
Whoever is proposed (and whoever's image is deleted from our current stock of banknotes), someone somewhere will object, probably strongly. So, it seems to me that either we stick with the current set of dead Prime Ministers - in which case women will not feature on them, that's just how it is - or we do away with portraits completely.
Why not just take the politics out of it completely, and show images of, say, famous Canadian geographical hot spots? At least that is something Canada excels at, and even foreigners will probably recognize most of them. Yes, there will no doubt be arguments over which provinces are represented, whether rivers or prairies are unfairly being excluded, etc. But surely it is safer ground than political personalities.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The kids are probably alright after all

Amid all the doom and gloom in recent years about how modern parenting styles are spoiling children, leaving them unprepared for the contemporary world and open to all manner of mental illnesses, it is refreshing to read an article putting some of these claims into context, and concluding that actually we're not doing too badly after all.
According to recent bestselling books like Leonard Sax's The Collapse of Modern Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat The Like Grown-Ups, Jennifer Senior's All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood and Alex Russell's Drop the Worry Ball, as well as viral social media posts like Emma Jenner's 5 Reasons Modern Day Parenting is in Crisis, we are failing our kids. It seems that by giving our kids so much time and attention, we are allowing them to grow up to be "entitled, selfish, impatient and rude adults", damning them to an existence in which they are "less resilient, less physically fit, and more likely to become anxious or depressed - and far more fragile - compared with kids from the same demographic 30 years ago".
It sounds like a hopeless case, but, as Leah McLaren's article points out, the empirical evidence just does not always back up these claims. In fact, this may be the best time ever to be a middle-class kid in Canada.
The Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD) has produced many reports on childhood and parenting trends. One such report from 2012 concludes that children with engaged and involved parents tend to do much better at school, have higher personal aspirations, and are more likely attend and graduate from a post-secondary institution. This only makes intuitive sense, and is not necessarily counter to what they doomsayers are claiming.
Another common misperception is that modern children are chronically over-scheduled. CCSD reports that, in fact, 21st century middle-class kids are involved in no more activities than their equivalents a decade earlier. Indeed, they participate in fewer organized sports, and rates of other organized activities have remained more or less stable.
Certainly, it is the case that modern parents put more thought, commitment, time and resources into bringing up their children. They shout less, and are much less likely to hit their kids. We also now have seat belt laws, nutritional guidelines, rules about second-hand smoke, and playground safety regulations. As a result, various different studies show that modern Canadian kids are safer, healthier, smarter, more literate, more likely to stay in school, and less likely to become drug or alcohol addicts, or to commit crimes than ever before. Modern parenting is much more based on good science and solid numbers than it ever was in the past.
Not all the news has been good. Child obesity is up, despite the availability of nutritional guidelines, and child poverty is not yet quite a thing of the past (even if the number of children living in "abject poverty" has improved some). But in general, things are good for kids today. Behaviourists like Leonard Sax, though, might say: "Are they happier? Are they as well-adjusted as kids were in 'the good old days?' "
The reputable Vanier Institute of the Family suggests that this generation of children are much more emotionally open and connected to their parents and, crucially, they are generally better able to communicate. This is one reason posited for the apparent increase in childhood anxiety: today's kids are more likely to communicate their anxiety.
Part of the recent change in our approach to parenting is a movement away from old-style behaviourism, which generally involves the administration of consequences (time-outs, withdrawal of privileges or attention, threats of violence if not violence itself) for perceived bad behaviour. In the last 20 years or so, behaviourism has largely been supplanted, certainly in diagnostic circles, by more compassionate and child-centred "attachment parenting", which aims to teach children empathy and self-regulation. It is a philosophy backed up by modern advances in neuroscience and the understanding of brain plasticity, the development of the frontal cortex, and infant cortisol levels. Thus, modern mothers are encouraged to breast-feed on demand, not by the clock, and to avoid unnecessary crying and bad feelings. It might involve allowing a child to have a tantrum in a store or a restaurant, and merely explaining that this is not an effective method of protest. Some of the more extreme forms of attachment parenting (like co-sleeping, constant carrying, extended breast-feeding, etc) are outliers of this approach, and not necessarily to be recommended.
I'm not sure I am 100% behind this approach, personally. My childhood was very much behaviourism-based (complete with some actual violence!), and my own parenting was at least partially informed by that approach, maybe a kind of hybrid. But I still can't imagine asking a howling toddler to "name the feeling", or letting it scream at all hours of the night.
My daughter (20 years old now, and blasting through university) seems well-adjusted and happy enough, although she claims to have periods of depression, and clearly does have some anxiety issues which she is gradually dealing with herself more and more effectively. Was I happier and/or better-adjusted at her age? I have no idea. The childhood and teenage years are a trial for all kids, but most of us get through them one way or another, and learn to live in the real world and make our own contributions to society.

Erdoğan's take-over of Zaman needs our attention

The press has been curiously muted in its reporting of the recent government take-over of the influential Turkish newspaper, Zaman. Zaman was, and I suppose still is, Turkey's biggest and best-selling newspaper. It was also - but is no longer - openly critical of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
On March 4th, an Erdoğan-appointed Turkish court ruled that the newspaper should be run by "appointed trustees". Within hours, police used teargas and rubber bullets to intimidate and ultimately remove protesters who had gathered in front of the newspaper's offices, and they then forced their way into the building to raid the offices. The next day, the newspaper's staff arriving for work had to enter the building under tight police control.
The Turkish government is insisting that the move was not political, but Sunday's edition of the paper notably toed the government line, and the editor-in-chief of Zaman's English language sister paper has tweeted that: "In less than 48 hours, the new admin turned seized Zaman into a propaganda piece of the regime in Turkey". Former Zaman staff have since set up a new newspaper, called Yarina Bakis, meaning "look towards tomorrow".
The action seems to be just another heavy-handed move by Erdoğan to consolidate power and clamp down on any political opposition since his last election in November 2015. Soon after that election, the moderate news magazine Nokta was closed down and its editors imprisoned for "fomenting armed rebellion" (in reality, for criticizing Mr. Erdoğan's authoritarian approach). The most outspoken columnists from the newspaper Milliyet have also been fired or silenced, and some TV stations have been unapologetically shut down. In fact, more than 1,800 people have been arrested in the past year on charges of "insulting the president", which apparently constitutes an indictable charge in today's Turkey.
Like it or not, Turkey is an essential part of the puzzle in opposing the Islamic State in Syria, and in dealing with the Syrian migrant disaster. With this very much in mind, the EU in particular is treating the country with kid gloves and offering all sorts of financial sweeteners and offers of expedited entry in the EU. An increasingly psychotic Erdoğan is using this goodwill to establish something approaching a dictatorship in Turkey, and to also pursue his own anti-Kurd agenda after he himself suddenly and mysteriously abandoned his quite successful unity-building efforts back in 2013.
Whatever Erdoğan's motives, though, this kind of body blow to press and media freedom is not something the world should condone, or even conveniently ignore.

Just who or what is this Republican "establishment"?

Still unhealthily fixated on the US Republican primaries, I got to wondering just who or what this Republican establishment (or, increasingly, the capitalized Republican Establishment) actually is that I keep reading about, and that I talked about in a recent post on this very blog. I've a suspicion that many other people are probably in the same boat. This "establishment" seems to be a very faceless and protean entity, but an article in today's Globe and Mail has helped me, at least to some extent, understand what it meant mean.
We've all been reading about how the Republican establishment has been at first angry at non-establishment upstarts like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and then concerned, even worried, about Trump's continued domination in the polls. More recently, it has been more like resignation and denial, particularly as the only establishment candidate in the Republican primaries, Marco Rubio, has continued to fade. It's more a case of looking to how to get the party back after the election, not how to save it.
But what, then, IS this establishment?
Eric Andrew-Gee's article defines it as "a loose nexus of people with a stake in the fortunes of the Republican Party [who] still try to shape its agenda and strategies". That might still sound unavailingly vague and woolly, but it gives something of the flavour of the beast. That description would include most mainstream Republican politicians, current and past (heavy-hitters like Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have recently come out strongly against Trump); mainstream voters (there's that key word "mainstream" again); Super PACs that support the traditional Republican values of small government and free-market economies, but that also have a preference for dignified and statesmanlike behaviour in politics, and that care about the world's perceptions of the USA; and last, but far from least, the policy wonks who are at least nominally responsible for setting the rules, policies and campaign activities of the party as a whole, particularly the Republican National Committee.
Essentially, this amounts to what one might call Republican traditionalists, those who want to continue with the politics-as-usual that has seen the party enjoy substantial electoral success over the decades. They are also people who see extremists like Trump and Cruz - whether in the realm of immigration policy or religion - as a threat to the traditional order, and to the prospects of the party, and America itself, continuing to be successful and respected on the national and international stages.
Indeed, they are what one might even call "sensible" or "thoughtful" Republicans - however much one may disagree with their beliefs - as opposed to the impulsive, extreme and irrational wing represented by blood-and-thunder sensationalists like Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Ontario forges ahead with investment in competitive renewables

After what has felt like something of a retrenchment in recent months, Ontario is once more forging ahead with renewable energy investment.
As reported in the business section of the paper, Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) has announced 16 contracts with 11 different companies to build 5 new wind turbine projects, 7 solar projects, and 4 hydroelectric projects, for a grand total of 455 megawatts of new power capacity.
These are relatively modest additions to generating capacity in the scheme of things, as the province is not really in need of much new capacity at the moment, but it is all part of the gradual shift towards clean renewable energy.
As a mark of how renewable power has come of age recently, though, these are not government price set projects, but competitive contracts awarded to those promising to sell power for the lowest price. Gone is the need to for the old Feed-In Tariff program for these kinds of large-scale projects (although I am more than happy to be still benefitting from those myself). The cost of wind and solar has fallen dramatically in recent years, so that they are now competitive on their own merits.
Finally, renewables go mainstream.

Maybe some native communities are just not sustainable

Indigenous suicides are in the Canadian news again, after reports from Pimicikamak Cree Nation (also known as Cross Lake) in northern Manitoba. In this isolated community of about 6,000 souls, some 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg, there have been six suicide deaths in the last three months, and another 140 have either attempted or threatened to kill themselves in just the last two weeks. 170 high school students are currently on suicide watch. It seems like a case of mass hysteria almost worthy of 17th century Salem.
It is an unconscionable situation for any developed country, and one that apparently plays out (on a less dramatic scale) in many northern indigenous communities throughout Canada. As usual, the blame has been laid on poor conditions and poorer prospects. Unemployment in the community is at 80% and, as in many northern settlements, the housing stock is poor, educational and medical facilities are substandard, there are large numbers of children in state care, and there is a perceived lack of youth recreational facilities.
Setting aside the issue of youth recreational facilities (I didn't have access to any "facilities" growing up, and millions of other kids in small communities further south seem to manage to amuse themselves, although I probably won't make myself any friends by pointing that out), these are serious issues that need speedy resolution, and the current government has committed itself do doing just that.
But, as has been repeatedly shown in the past, just throwing money at the problem is not going to solve it. Millions of dollars have been spent on these small northern communities in recent decades. Some of them have managed to use this money to pull themselves up; some have frittered and embezzled the money away (not a very politically correct observation either, but well-attested); some have just continued to molder away regardless.
So, it occurs to me to wonder - and here I am definitely courting outrage - should there even be an isolated community 500km north of Winnipeg if it appears to be completely unsustainable? Yes, I'm sure some elders will say that it is their ancestral homeland and "sacred", but has anyone even asked the majority of the population? Call me cynical, but somehow I doubt that a great deal of hunting and trapping gets done there these days, and some towns that may have been viable historically may not be now.
I'm not suggesting that the whole community be razed or anything like that, just that it could be maintained as a "sacred" homeland for the band members to visit whenever they like. They could go off and do the hunting and trapping thing for a while, organize a sweat lodge, or whatever. But they would not be stuck there for the rest of the year. In between times, they could live in Winnipeg or Portage La Prairie or wherever, earn a living like anyone else, and benefit from modern conveniences and facilities, and really not be any the less "native" for it, it seems to me.
Now, maybe all that is incredibly culturally insensitive of me, I don't know. As a transplanted European with no religion and no racial hang-ups of my own, it is perhaps too easy for me to make such sweeping suggestions. But it just seems that an awful lot of things are just verboten and not mentioned when these matters are discussed, mired as we are in the white man's guilt.
Frankly, though, the system as it stands is just not working for many native people, and I think we need to be exploring some more radical solutions. As I see it, these people are human first and native second (and probably Canadian third), and their basic human rights should take priority.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Where you live dictates what you buy, but it's all completely random anyway

Every Thursday morning, as I drive to my squash game, Terry O'Reilly introduces the always-interesting Under the Influence program on CBC Radio, in which he deconstructs the all-pervading advertising industry. The repeated refrain on today's show was "Where you live dictates what you buy", and among other things it presented a bunch of fascinating factoids about the Canadian provinces and US states and cities that spend most on various different consumer goods and services.
For example, did you know:
  • Yukon and Northwest Territories buy far and away the most beer per capita in Canada, and Ontario buys the least. But, although over 50% of the alcohol bought in Canada is beer, its market share has been gradually giving way to wine and spirits since 2004. Quebec is by far Canada's biggest wine consumer, followed by British Columbia, with Saskatchewan buying the least wine. The Northwest Territories and Yukon consume the most liquor, closely followed by Newfoundland and Labrador, while Quebec consumes the least. Overall, though, Quebec drinks the most alcohol, and Price Edward Island the least, and Canadians as a nation drink about 50% more alcohol per year than the average world citizen. In the USA, New Hampshire has the highest per capita beer consumption, followed by North Dakota and Montana. New Hampshire also consumes the most spirits, followed by Washington D.C. and Delaware. Washington D.C. consumes the most wine, followed (perhaps unexpectedly) by Idaho, and then - you guessed it - New Hampshire (the "Live Free Or Die" state).
  • British Columbia is the number one Canadian province for the purchase of luxury cars. In Toronto, status is more likely to be expressed though expensive houses, and Toronto is now the world's fastest growing market for luxury home sales of over $3 million dollars, ahead of wealthier cities like New York, London and Paris. In New York, on the other hand, where car ownership is not such a big deal and real estate is at a huge premium, the big status symbol is luxury watches (it buys 171% more luxury watches than the national average, and no other state comes close). In Boston, the status symbol is tuition to private schools; in Dallas, it is home décor; in San Francisco it is club memberships; etc.
  • Women in Atlantic Canada spend more on cosmetics than other areas of the country, followed by Alberta and Ontario. In the States, the biggest spenders on cosmetics are not places by New York and Los Angeles, but Phoenix, Houston and Minneapolis. Boston and Baltimore spend the least per capita.
  • The Canadian province that spends the most on lotteries is Quebec, followed by Ontario. In the US, little Rhode Island is the top spender on lotteries per capita, and South Dakota ranks number two. North Dakota, on the other hand, although just next door, spends the least in America.
  • The two Canadian cities that spend the most on their dogs, Regina and Saskatoon, are both in Saskatchewan. Kitchener, Ontario spends the most on cats. But Canadians in general spend much more on dogs than the they do on cats, from memory foam bedding to doggie hiking boots, jackets and sweaters to jewelled collars to Halloween costumes to canine hydrotherapy. In America, the biggest dog spenders are found in Phoenix, and then Cleveland.
  • Vancouver spends more on books than any other city in Canada, followed by Calgary and Saskatoon, although Saskatoon buys more books by Canadian authors. Calgary buys the most e-books, followed by Regina and ... Saskatoon. In the USA, Seattle (just down the road from Vancouver, is the biggest book-buying city, followed by San Francisco and Philadelphia. Miami buys the least books.
  • The recent Ashley Madison hack provided the information that Toronto (pop. around 3 million) had the most marriage cheaters in Canada. Perhaps no surprise there, although it also ranked number four on the list internationally. Second on the list in Canada, though, was Lloydminster, Alberta (pop. 24,000). In the USA, the most cheating cities were New York, Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago. The least cheating cities were Atlanta, Philadelphia and, unexpectedly, Las Vegas.
  • The Canadian city that buys the most sex toys per capita is little Kentville, Nova Scotia, followed by Colwood, B.C. (which is hardly much bigger), and Fort McMurray, Alberta. The top city for Bondage, Discipline, Submission and Masochism products is Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia (not a million miles from Kentville, and even smaller), followed by Fairview, Alberta, and 100 Mile House, B.C. Much bigger cities like Toronto and Montreal do not even feature in the top 100 of these lists.
  • And just a few more random snippets: Atlanta spends 230% above the national average on motorcycles, but 45% below average on men's underwear; Boston spends a staggering 330% more than the national average on alimony payments; Detroit spends the most per capita on both dating services and GPS systems; Cleveland spends the most on wigs; Miami spends significantly less than the norm when it comes to women's underwear.
Sure, these stats probably show that where you live dictates what you buy. But, more than anything else, they show just how random the whole thing is. Big Data can get as big as it likes, but just what are we supposed to make of data like this?

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The status of women - progress and stagnation

In recognition of International Women's Day, the Globe and Mail has produced a spread on the status of women in different areas of the struggle for equality, and Canada's showing leaves much to be desired. We pride ourselves on being inclusive and egalitarian, but that is not really how the comparative numbers show us, and not all of this can be blamed on ten years of Tory mismanagement.
In the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index - a sort of combined index of all sorts of different factors, which essentially constitutes a list of the best places to be a women in today's world - Canada languishes back in 30th place (albeit out of a field of 144). This is a substantial worsening from 2014's ranking of 19th, even if the country's actual "score" is not significantly lower, suggesting that other countries are improving their conditions while Canada is not - we getting left behind. The main areas of concern leading to Canada's poor ranking are the male-female wage gap, and the proportion of female politicians.
As has been the case for several years now, the best performers are Iceland followed by the usual Scandinavian trio of Norway, Finland and Sweden. So, in general, Scandinavia is the best place to be a woman. Then things get a bit less predictable with countries like Ireland, Rwanda and the Philippines rounding out the top 7, and then some somewhat more predictable candidates like Switzerland, Slovenia and New Zealand.
A bunch of other metrics from various other sources collected together in the same Globe report makes quite interesting reading:
  • Iceland is also the safest place to have a baby, with a tiny infant mortality rate, as well as having the lowest mortality rate for children under five years of age.
  • Estonia is the country with the longest paid parental leave (3 years, fully paid for the first 435 days, partially thereafter, compared to Canada's one year, partially paid, and zero in the USA). Korea and Japan offer a year's paid leave to new fathers (Canada zero).
  • Slovenia and Denmark are the countries in which men do the most housework and child care. Canadian men's contribution in this area is respectable but not exceptional.
  • The country in which it is considered safest to be a women is Singapore, although Singapore's percentage of women reporting domestic violence over their lifetime is very similar to Canada’s (about 6%). This is, however, a metric notoriously open to cultural skewing - Sweden and Denmark, for example, countries known for their progressiveness and gender equality, have the highest reported domestic violence rates in Europe, but this is mainly because women feel more comfortable coming forward to report such crimes there.
  • New Zealand has the smallest gender wage gap among OECD countries, with Kiwi women earning just 5.6% less than men on average. This is the area where Canada performs worst, ranking 28th out of 34 (with an 18.97% wage disparity), with only Turkey, Netherlands, Israel, Japan, Estonia and Korea ranking lower. Statistics Canada put the Canadian gender wage gap even higher at around 26.5%, although there are various different ways the stat can be calculated.
  • Canada may now have a 50% female cabinet, but Finland beats that handily with 63%. However, in the House of Commons as a whole, female MPs make up only a paltry 26% in Canada, below the UN goal of 30%, and well below the case of Rwanda where women make up 64% of the national parliament.
  • Iceland wins again in the category of most female board members, with women holding 44% of the seats on boards of publicly-traded companies, well ahead of Norway's 36%. Canada appears in the middle of the pack with around 20%, but still substantially better than Japan's embarrassing 3%.
  • Portugal has the highest share of women inventors (18%), and Greece has the highest percentage of female entrepreneurs. Canada performs poorly in both of these metrics.
  • China is home to the richest self-made woman, as well as to about two-thirds of all the self-made female billionaires in the world. China has three times the number of female billionaires in the USA, even though the USA has about twice as many billionaires of any gender as China.
  • South Korea has the highest percentage of university-educated women between the ages of 25 and 32 (millennials), with 72% compared to Canada's 67%. Women in both countries far outstrip their male counterparts.
  • Women make up 67% of the doctoral-level mathematicians in Estonia, as compared to less than 25% in Canada. Nearly 70% of students graduating with a degree in computing in Colombia are women; the equivalent statistic in Canada is just 17%.
Some of these statistics may well be cherry-picked for effect to some extent. But it does seem clear that Canada cannot rest on its laurels as regards its treatment of women, and much work still remains to be done.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Fludd is an early gem from Hilary Mantel

Long before Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and long before the best-seller lists and the international literary prize circuit, Hilary Mantel (now Dame Hilary) wrote a book called Fludd.
Writing back in 1989, Mantel (who hails from my own neck of the woods, in northern Derbyshire) sets the book in a dreary northern English mill town in the 1950s, a milieu instantly familiar to me, but one that is nonetheless sketched out in insightful and almost derisory detail by Mantel. The short novel (a slim but compact 186 pages) also deals with the fading but still self-indulgent Catholic Church, represented here by the hapless and faithless old Father Angwin, the brash and bullying Bishop, the bitter and flirtatious Mother Perpetua, and the earthy, restless young Sister Philomena. Into this mix arrives the mysterious Fludd, ostensibly to act as Father Angwin's curate, but whose short visit in fact succeeds in shaking up most of the sleepy little town and its religious bourgeoisie.
Out of this base material, Mantel crafts a kind of low-key, northern English, magical realist novel, brimful of wry humour and pithy, cutting observations on the everyday world. To give just a few representative examples from the early part of the book:
"It will not do to call them lavatories, for there was no provision to wash. To wash would have been thought an affectation."
" 'They have an Orange Lodge. They are all in it, Catholics too. They have firework parties in Netherhoughton. Ox-roasts. They play football with human heads.'
" 'At some point you exaggerate,' the Bishop said. 'I am not sure at which.' "
"Then he [Father Angwin] remembered that he did not believe in God, and he went into the church to supervise the removal of the statues from their plinths."
"After the concluding prayers the other Children were at liberty to go to the school hall to conduct the social part of their business: strong tea, parlour games, and character assassination."
This is not a laugh-out-loud slap-the-thighs comedy, though. It is a taut and melancholy little novella, peppered with enough dark wit to cause many a wry upturn of the mouth at a well-turned phrase or an unexpected epithet. Fludd is painted on a much smaller canvas than her better-known Cromwell novels, but it is nevertheless sharply-etched and incisive, and a thorough pleasure to read.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

French immersion is not for everyone

An interesting conundrum is arising in Canadian education circles. French immersion teaching is becoming so popular in some areas that school boards are finding it difficult to keep the English stream going.
Canada-wide, French immersion (where all lessons are taught in French, rather than French being just one class among many) has increased by around 40% over the last decade. Even in traditional hold-outs against French influence like British Columbia and Alberta, enrollment in French immersion has grown by 18% and 12% respectively over the last five years.
French immersion is being increasingly seen as the mark of a good education. Which all sounds well and good, but it is also being seen as a way of selectively streaming brighter and high-achieving kids with others of their ilk, to the extent that the traditional English stream in some areas is becoming regarded as exclusively for low-achievers and special needs kids. The trend also carries with it its own momentum, so that parents feel increasing pressure to have their kids in the "good" stream, whether or not it actually is good for their particular child, and there is an increasing stigma associated with having a child in the English stream.
In Halton District - a leafy, affluent commuter town outside Toronto, an area full of well-heeled, well-educated, over-achieving young parents with school-age kids - this phenomenon is approaching crisis proportions. In many Halton schools, the French immersion enrollment vastly outnumbers those in the regular English program. In Grade 1, some schools are seeing French-English ratios like 53-4, 31-2, 60-8, etc. This is often necessitating split or joint classes of different grades for Engliosh program kids (which has its own set of pros and cons), or even bussing them to other schools (which has very few pros). Some schools are trying to stem the tide by offering core French classes starting in Grade 1 rather than Grade 4 (I confess I have never understood why the Ontario curriculum waits until Grade 4 to start basic French), but really these are desperate measures, not cogent solutions.
I'm kind of glad our university-age daughter is past this stage. We did consider French immersion for her briefly, back in the day, but it was our daughter herself (a pretty high-achiever, with a facility for languages) who balked at the idea. She was worried, as were we, that she might have problems keeping up in other subjects, or that what she learned in other subjects might be dumbed down in some way. At the ripe old age of 20, she has no regrets about not going down the French immersion route. It does worry me, though, that education is subject to these kinds of fashion trends.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

How did the Republican Party get into this fix?

I seem to be writing more about the American presidential nominations than anything else at the moment, but it is undeniably fascinating, albeit in much the same way as a slow-motion train crash is fascinating.
To read the thinking media, particularly the Canadian media, one gets the impresssion that almost everyone, including what is usually referred to as the "traditional" wing or the "establishment" of the Republican Party, is against Donald Trump achieving control of the GOP.
Attitudes range from distaste to indignation to outright fear or incomprehension. But hardly anyone has a good word to say about the man, save a few fellow outliers like Sarah Palin and Chris Christie. And yet, Mr. Trump remains far and away the candidate to catch in the Republican nomination primaries.
So, how does that work? Who are these people who are in the process of voting Trump into a position of huge power and influence?
A brief perusal of the Vote Smart Government 101 web page on presidential primaries reveals that this is actually far from simple, and varies significantly from state to state. Some states use a caucus systems, most use primaries, some even use a hybrid of the two; some of these primaries may be closed, some open, some blanket; some ballots show the candidate's name, some just the name of a delegate who may or may not represent a candidate; some states award delegates on a winner-takes-all basis, some on a proportional basis. Quite honestly, it is a bureaucratic nightmare of a system, making results almost impossible to predict, and, in my view, rendering the whole thing of frankly dubious democratic value.
But the short answer to the question is that the people voting for Trump are Republican voters who have registered with the party, essentially party members. Of course, even how to become a registered voter seems to vary from state to state, but typically it is not particularly onerous and does not cost any money, so any Tom, Dick or Harry with a political bent can get themselves a vote in the process, which I guess is all as it should be.
But these people seem to be distinctly at odds with "establishment" Republicans. There are signs that many stalwart Republicans will actually vote Democratic for the first time ever rather than vote for the GOP with Trump at the helm, fully realizing that this may hand Hillary Clinton the presidency, and even swing the Supreme Court membership towards the Democrats for years to come. They would prefer to vote against the Republican Party than to vote for Donald Trump - there ia a whole movement building under the Twitter hashtag #NeverTrump - and many would admit that the GOP as a whole is in some kind of existential crisis or limbo at the moment.
Why, then, are so many willing to vote for Trump, despite his obvious failings in some of the most important requirements of the job, and despite repeated warnings from prominent Republicans and media outlets?
This is not easy to answer, partly because Mr. Trump's support does not necessarily follow logic. For example, it turns out that Donald Trump is the candidate of choice among Muslim Republicans, despite his prominent anti-Muslim platform! Indeed, if you read some of the reasons people give for supporting Trump, most of them make very little sense, or at least bear little relationship to reality (many of these people are, I fear, not particularly well-educated).
But what comes through most is a general feeling of disillusionment with the status quo, an impatience with political correctness in all its forms, a bold defiance of orthodoxy (to a fault), an underlying fear of immigration and diversity in general, and an undercurrent of respect for a self-made businessman (whatever you might think of Trump's achievements in that area). He represents for many the image of a strong, authoritarian figure, one that is willing to tell it like it is, in simplistic terms, and without concern either for anyone who might be offended, or for his own political masters. That may be all there is to it; policies and thought processes are very much secondary, or even just plain redundant.
Trump supporters tend to be relatively poorly-educated, working class, white, male and older, people who feel they have been let down and left behind by the new realities of 21st century, multi-racial progressive America in a globalized world. Paradoxically, these people would be better served by the Democratic Party, which is committed to reducing income inequality, expanding healthcare, etc. But, crucially, these are people whose deep-seated racism and nativism outweighs more logical economic and political reasoning. Mr. Trump is the only "mainstream" politician willing to pander to these instincts.
Whatever your opinion of Donald Trump, these are heady days indeed for political pundits, and the Internet is a-buzz with comments of all political stripes, some guarded, some not so much. But it remains to be seen how the whole thing - both the nominations, and the subsequent presidential vote - will play out. Who knows, it may have the very positive effect of a short sharp shock to wake up the American electorate, but let's all hope that we don't have to actually live through a Trump presidency for that effect to become apparent.