Saturday, December 22, 2018

Portuguese: like Spanish, but quite different

We've been spending a few days in Portugal, before the usual English family Christmas. Porto and Lisbon are both fine cities to visit: narrow, winding, steep cobbled streets, many petering out in vertiginous stairways; old churches dripping with gold leaf and ornate carvings; blue and white azulejo tiles, either abstract or painted with naturalistic historical scenes; grand and gracious squares and avenues; decadent pastry stores on every street corner. Oh, and lots of vegetarian and vegan restaurants for some reason.
I've been particularly interested, though, in the Portuguese language. I speak pretty good Spanish, so I thought, well, Portuguese is very similar, isn't it? How hard can it be? It turns out that, yes, Portuguese is pretty similar to Spanish in many ways, but it's also quite different in others.
The most immediate difference when listening to a conversation in Portuguese is all the shush-shush-shushing, from a hard zzhh to a soft sssssh. But there are several ways in which Portuguese is similar but not quite the same as Spanish. It seems that there has been some kind of consonant shift at some point in Iberian history. Many words using an n in Spanish, for example, use an m in Portuguese (e.g. Spanish una, Portuguese uma; Spanish Don, Portuguese Dom; Spanish bien, Portuguese bem). Except that some n's become o's (e.g. San in Spanish, São in Portuguese; racion in Spanish, ração in Portuguese). Spanish l's often become Portuguese r's (e.g. Spanish plaza, Portuguese praça), ñ becomes nh (e.g. baño/bahno; señor/senhor), ll becomes lh (e.g. batalla/batalha; campaña/campanha) or ch (e.g. llegada/chegada); etc.
To confuse things further, some Portuguese words sound the same as Spanish, but turn out to be spelled differently (e.g. t before e is pronounced as ch: e.g. Portuguese leite is pronounced lay-chay, like the Spanish leche). But some Portuguese consonants are pronounced differently for no apparent reason at all (e.g. verde is pronounced, at least sometimes, vair-jay).
So, Portuguese: like Spanish, but not like Spanish. And have I mastered it? Have I hell! Often, a carefully-constructed, painfully-practised sentence elicits nothing more than a smooth response in perfect idiomatic English. It has been a surprise that pretty much everyone speaks English, at least in tourist towns like Porto and Lisbon. And you know, after the first day, like most pampered English speakers, I'm just fine with that.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Huawei arrest circus could maybe have been avoided

Pretty much everybody else has weighed in on the on going circus around the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou, and the subsequent retaliatory arrests of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China, so I guess I may as well add in my own twopenn'orth.
I was initially amazed that Canada was obliged to arrest and extradite anyone the US wants to target at the drop of a hat, but apparently that is exactly what mutual extradition treaties are all about. The proviso is, though, that the crime in question must be one that both countries recognize. So, is there no argument to be made that, although the USA (since Donald Trump's recent policy change) has a policy of sanctions against Iran, Canada (along with most other major countries in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) has no such sanctions or beliefs, and so Canada is under no obligation to arrest or extradite anyone on such grounds? But it seems like the US has pre-empted that argument and ensured that Ms. Meng is being accused not of breaking US sanctions but of fraud in lying about the Iranian business dealings of a Huawei-connected company. So, no go there.
What does seem to be the case, though, is that the Canadian government has perhaps been a bit naive in not looking for what what ex-Chrétien advisor John Manley calls "creative incompetence". Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently was informed of the arrest plan well in advance of Ms. Meng's transit through Canada, and it would not have been difficult to arrange for a strategic warning to be sent to the Huawei contingent. This would not strictly have been in contravention of the extradition treaty but it would have avoided the mess that Canada now finds itself in with respect to the blow-hard Chinese government, which has, as usual, reacted poorly to the provocation. An article by legal scholar Michael Byers describes the example of the creative incompetence.of the British government in the arrest of Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet in the late 1990s, and explains how the Meng case would have been a much easier exercise, both practically and morally.
Anyway, that moment is past, and Canada is already in deep doo-doo with China. Trump, as usual, has made things worse for everyone by admitting that his plan (probably all along) is to use Ms. Meng as a bargaining chip in the US's trade negotiations with China. Unfortunately, Chinese President Xi Jinping also needs a trade treaty, and he will probably have a sneaking respect for Trump's tactics. So, China will probably take out it's frustrations on Canada, and go easy on the Americans. It all seems so unfair.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Sweden is a forest management model for the world, but...

Sweden, ah Sweden. Among other things the Scandinavian country is getting right, it is a forestry model for the world (including Canada).
Sweden now has about twice as much tree cover as it did a hundred years ago. And that is in a country that fells and exports an awful lot of trees. Over 70% of the country is forested; it possesses just under 1% of the world's commercial forest areas; and it provides just under 10% of the world's sawn timber, pulp and paper. Cutting down trees is big business in Sweden.
So, how then have they managed to increase their tree cover? Swedish forests declined alarmingly in the 19th century, when trees were harvested in a totally unregulated way for farming, house construction, fuel, charcoal for the iron industry, and paper production. In 1903, though, the first Forestry Act was passed in order to slow and even reverse the decline. Essentially, for every tree that is chopped down, at least one must be planted. Sounds like common sense, doesn't it? In addition, limits were set on the total amount of timber that can be harvested each year.
But all is not perfect in the Swedish garden. While total tree cover continues to increase, almost all of Sweden's forests are commercial, cultivated, managed forests, and only small areas of virgin forest remain in the northern mountains. As a result, biodiversity - of both trees and the animal and bird life that relies on it - is suffering.
Greenwash? Maybe, but from the point of view of climate change at least, Sweden can still teach most of the world an important lesson.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Deportation of "legacy refugees" is a blot on Canada's immigration system

I always thought that Canada's immigration system worked pretty well - not perfect, but good. However, the reporting of one case (and apparently it is one among many similar ones) has me second-guessing that.
The Montoya family arrived in Canada in 2012 as refugees fleeting the notorious Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Since then, they have integrated well into Canadian society: they own property, run a small business, and volunteer in their local community. It is apparently a text-book example of how refugee resettlement is supposed to work.
Now, though, a judge at Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) is revisiting their case, and intends to deport the whole family of seven (including two children who have never known any home but Canada) back to Colombia. And on Christmas Eve, at that! The IRB judge has argued that the situation in Colombia has improved over the last six years and that the FARC is no longer a threat to the family. The Montoyas know that this is not true, that the FARC is still searching for them, and that their lives would be in danger if they were to return.
Yes, the situation in Colombia has improved, and the FARC are no longer the force they used to be, but they are far from inactive, and I am inclined to believe the family. But, more to the point, what is the IRB doing reviewing old cases to check whether conditions have changed, and then reassessing claims as though they were being made today?
For one thing, don't they have enough work with current claims, without resurrecting old ones? But for another, the Montoyas, and others like them, have made a new and successful life in Canada: to disrupt this now would just not be fair (to use a distinctly non-legal term). The situation for Jews in Europe has improved since the 1930s - should we then deport refugees from the Nazi regime (and their families) back to Europe, using the same logic?
Apparently, there are currently about 900 such "legacy refugees" waiting to have their cases heard by the IRB - which has a huge backlog of such cases waiting to be heard, with delays mounting to several years - and recent years have seen a significant up-tick in "failed" asylum seekers. All this has come as complete news to me, and it has shaken my faith in the Canadian immigration system.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

It's hard to feel sorry for Alberta

I couldn't help but agree with Barrie McKenna's piece in today's Globe and Mail about how Alberta needs to stop acting like a spoilt and whiny prima donna, and start dealing with some of its problems in a more proactive way.
Alberta's Premier Rachel Notley is constantly whining about how Alberta is going through such a rough time, what with low oil prices and an ongoing difficulty in getting pipelines built (and getting people to buy their oil, for that matter), and how the rest of Canada "wilfully holds Alberta's economy hostage".
Part of the problem is that Alberta has just had it too good for so many years. It did not put away money during the decades when it made out like a bandit from high oil prices. It has stubbornly insisted on not levying a sales tax (because its glut of oil meant that it didn't need to), which could have built up the government coffers quite handsomely in anticipation of leaner years. Just for comparison, while Norway had it good, it accumulated trillions in savings for the inevitable day that the oil runs out; not so Alberta.
Alberta built up its oil business without even being sure that it could get that oil to market. It just assumed that pipelines would somehow miraculously get built, despite opposition to them on many fronts, both north and south of the border. It insisted on building an economy reliant on a single resource, despite evidence that oil is an ageing and moribund industry. It did not pursue diversification even though the writing has been on the wall for years now. It has resisted phasing out coal-powered electricity generation with a similar head-in-the-sand attitude.
It's kind of difficult to feel much sympathy for Alberta, especially now that its one-time superciliousness has given way to a new victim complex.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Doug Ford is costing Ontario businesses and taxpayers money

Hydro One's proposed take-over of Washington-based energy company Avista now seems to be well and truly dead in the water. And the reason? Doug Ford.
The Washington state regulators have ruled that Ford's actions with respect to Hydro One make any involvement with Hydro One by a Washington company inadvisable, on the grounds that it too may become subject to random political interference by a loose-cannon Ontario politician: "Provincial government interference in Hydro One's affairs, the risk of which has been shown by events to be significant, could result in direct or indirect harm to Avista".
It doesn't get much plainer than that. Ford's expensive advertising campaign to convince investors that "Ontario is open for business" has been shown to be a hollow claim.  This is just dog-whistle politics taken to a new level: Ford thought he could pick up some votes by sacrificing some well-paid executive, however non-sensical such an action actually turns out to be.
When the new board finally does get around to appointing a new CEO, they will be paying at least $4 million a year for him/her, a saving of maybe $2 million a year. With the cancellation of the Avista take-over, though, Hydro One will need to pay out $103 million in termination fees, as well as $49 million in commissions to investment banks for financing a deal that is no longer going to happen, and untold millions more in legal fees. So, potential savings of $2 million a year have resulted in costs estimated at around $185 million. Duh!
Ford and Energy Minister Greg Rockford appear today unfazed by this, and are defending their decision as a good one for the Ontario taxpayer, and are convinced that electricity rates are somehow going to be reduced because of it. Back in May of this year, I was offering opinions as to why Doug Ford's obsession with ousting Hydro One's CEO Mayo Schmidt was probably a bad idea. It seemed obvious even then. Now, Ford's tunnel vision and pigheadedness has cost a private company (and, to some extent, the Ontario taxpayer) hundreds of million of dollars. And all in the misguided interests of supposedly saving those same tax payers a miniscule, and probably immeasurable, amount on their bills.

And now debt-rating agency Standard & Poor's is threatening to lowering the company's credit rating (having already lowered it once), specifically citing governance problems after the Ontario government's interference.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

In a #MeToo world, can we still justify Baby, It's Cold Outside?

The Star 102 radio station in Cleveland, Ohio has grabbed the public's attention by pulling the popular Christmas song Baby, It's Cold Outside from its playlist after receiving complaints from some listeners. In a poll on the station's Facebook page, 95% voted that it was a Christmas classic and should be retained, and you might think, "Oh, god what are they objecting to now?", as I did initially. But when you look at it more carefully, you know, maybe the station has a point.
The complainants pointed out that the song is basically a guy trying to force a girl to stay the night against her better judgement, and possibly against her will. At one point, she definitely says, "I simply must go ... the answer is no", only for the man to continue his pressing and wheedling. So, when did "no means no" become negotiable? Later, when she says, "Say, what's in this drink", the spectre of date-rape drugs raises its head for the modern audience (some people have tried to justify the line on contextual and historical grounds, but unconvincingly, I think).
The song, written by Frank Loesser, dates from 1944, when it was originally performed by a husband-wife duet, and it famously appeared in the 1949 film Neptune's Daughter, starring Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán. In 1944 or 1949, life was perhaps simpler, and certainly different, than now, but just because a song has been played on the radio for 70 or 80 years doesn't necessarily mean that it should continue to be played forever. In a #MeToo world, maybe we should be rethinking this kind of thing, and the message is portrays to the naïve and the easily-influenced.
It certainly made me think.

The dance of diplomacy

I was struck by what a complicated dance must be going on at the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, almost literally.
I guess that what happens at the beginning of a meeting like the G20 is a grand reception where the various leaders circulate around, schmoozing, giving each other manly pats on the back, that kind of thing. The universal greeting is of course the hand-shake, but there are many variations on it, and the press corps is well-versed in the potential implications of each. So, people's initial reaction to the current international bête noir, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, becomes a thing of major import.
Well, it comes as no surprise that Vladimir Putin (Public Enemy No. 2) barely suppressed a bear hug, offering MBS something awkwardly between a hand-shake and a high-five, and the two grinned at each other like naughty schoolboys, chatting amicably. India's Narendra Modi and China's Xi Jinping were also photographed being at least cordial with the Crown Prince (what an awkward phrase that is - is there any other kind of Prince?). France's Emmanuel Macron (never one to hide his light under a bushel) and the UK's Theresa May (who desperately needs some good publicity) were about the only two that appeared to take MBS to task over the Kashoggi affair and the war in Yemen, although he seemed unfazed by their attentions. President Trump, one of MBS's most vocal supporters, limited himself to a terse, ambiguous nod, reserving the right to side-meetings later during the weekend, well away from the bright lights and the (fake news) press.
Pretty much everyone else, I assume, managed to basically ignore the Crown Prince, either avoiding any eye contact, or being steered judiciously away by aides in order to avoid any potential diplomatic faux pas. I have this image of a kind of swirling dance, as friends and foes contrive to come together or move apart, as realpolitik dictates. The reality, I'm sure - I hope - is probably far removed from this little fantasy of mine.

The Nylander Catch-22 (aka The Nylander Saga, The Nylander Crisis, etc)

It's December 1st, the day before my Mum's birthday, and the deadline for signings in the National Hockey League.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, sitting pretty in second place in the Eastern division and playing their best hockey in many a year, have one more decision to make: William Nylander. Nylander is a fine young talent and fun to watch, even if he doesn't produce as many points as some other players, and Toronto currently has a good young roster that seems to be gelling and enjoying playing together. They are getting the job done pretty well without Nylander (and even without star scorer Auston Matthews for most of the season). Matthews, Mitch Marner, Jake Gardiner, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnson, John Tavares, and several more that could be mentioned, are all firing on all cylinders at the moment.
But, you might say, why not take on Nylander as well if he can be bought within the hard salary cap that NHL teams now operate under? Nylander - or possibly his father Michael Nylander, another hard bargain-driver during his day in the NHL, and the man who is rumoured to be behind Nylander Jr's stake-out - is thought to an asking for around $8 million a year, and Toronto still has about $17 million of their approximately $80 million kitty for this year.
So, yes they could afford him. But the complication comes next year, when a few other key players become restricted or unrestricted free agents. Can they afford Nylander then? In addition, fitting Nylander into what is already operating as a well-oiled machine might be tricky this far into the season - such chemistries are easily disrupted - and who knows what resentments might be triggered among the players. And if the Toronto management put a spoke in that well-oiled machine by inserting Nylander, they will not be easily forgiven by thousands of armchair managers in Toronto.
So, not an easy decision. But Nylander's brinksmanship rankles with me, and I would prefer not to take him - and, hopefully, discourage such behaviour in the process - than to risk disrupting the fine balance that, after all these years, the Maple Leafs appear to have attained.

At the 11th hour, or more like 11:45, the Maple Leafs did in fact re-sign Nylander, for approximately $45 million over 6 years. That's a lot of money, and I hope it proves wise.
Nylander's first game back was ho-hum (on the part of the whole team), resulting in the end of a 5-game winning streak. It would be easy - but probably misguided - to blame that on disruption from Nylander's return. Well, let's wait and see...