Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Drive safely

Having read about how Canadian, and presumably other foreign troops, in Afghanistan drive their vehicles, I wasn't surprised at the bizarre traffic incident in Kabul on Monday. Apparently military vehicles routinely wheel through city streets at high speed, not daring to slow down for fear of being attacked. Some Afghans call them "mice," referring to their rodent-like habit of scurrying from hole to hole.

On Monday, an American truck scurried into a traffic jam, killing at least one person. The incident then exploded out of control. Afghans attacked the American convoy with stones, the Americans and Afghan police fired shots, and the city erupted in rioting and looting.

The collision seemed inevitable with heavily armoured military vehicles constantly driving recklessly on city streets. It also illustrates the Afghan dilemma. Theoretically, our forces are in the country to save the people from religious oppression, yet the saviours hardly dare show their faces in public. Nonetheless, we are constantly assured the Afghans want our soldiers there. If so, why are they forced to behave like mice?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Nice phrase, Scott

Ah, how I enjoy meeting up with a neat turn of phrase. I am indebted, therefore, to Liberal MP and leadership hopeful Scott Brison for his comment on Stephen Harper's muzzling of Conservative MPs regarding the impending marriage of two gay mounties.

Apparently the PMO has warned MPs not to comment on the upcoming nuptials of Constables David Connors and Jason Tree. Mr. Brison's comment on the gag order: "It shows that Stephen Harper does not trust his own caucus to avoid social Neanderthalism on these issues.''

"social Neanderthalism" -- brilliant.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Now we know

It's official, it was the egg.

Bankers and the merge urge

Like most Canadians, I have witnessed the persistent argument by our banking industry that banks simply must be allowed to merge if they are to survive in the new global economy. Scale, they insist, is now essential for success. I was, therefore, surprised to read in The Globe and Mail that our still unmerged banks are the most profitable in the world.

Over the past five years they have provided their shareholders an annual return of 15.5 per cent, better than those of any other country. American banks, often the model for their counterparts here, managed a measly 5.8 per cent. And things are getting better. Four of the banks posted record profits in 2005. Three, Bank of Nova Scotia, Royal Bank of Canada and Bank of Montreal, were among the world's top ten stock market performers.

The banks' "bigger is better" policy seems designed less for the benefit of shareholders and more for the sating of CEO egos.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Doing a Linux on King Tut?

When, in 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, opened a doorway into a 3500-year old tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, they introduced the world to a boy king whose face, represented by a gilded death mask, would become famous. Tutankhamun had emerged from the mists of history.

Thousands of objects were removed from the tomb and detailed notes, diaries, drawings and photographs taken as excavation progressed. Archived at Oxford University, most of the material has not been properly studied. In order to facilitate the work, Oxford scholars are putting the material on the Internet, expecting to have the entire archive on line in two years.

This is reminiscent of the GNU project for developing the Linux operating system. By making the source code freely available to the public, the GNU unleashed the skills of hackers around the world to improve the system, now used by millions. It was, in effect, a global co-operative. Now a global co-operative will be unleashed on King Tut and his times, revealing to all of us his ancient mysteries.

Energy eternal

Nothing to it. Just squeeze the nuclei of two hydrogen atoms together and -- presto! -- out pops a helium nucleus, a neutron and a bloody great burst of energy. It's called nuclear fusion and the sun does it all the time. If it can power the stars, why not your SUV?

The fuel is cheap and plentiful: part heavy hydrogen (deuterium), which can be easily extracted from water, and part super-heavy hydrogen (tritium), which can be made from lithium, a reasonably abundant metal. The process is safe, no possibility of a runaway reaction, it requires relatively little fuel, and the very limited waste is much less radioactive than that of fission reactors. And it produces massive amounts of energy. The heavy hydrogen from a few gallons of water and the lithium in one laptop battery could fulfill the average person's energy needs for 30 years.

There is one small hitch, illustrated by the experimental reactor, Jet, in Oxfordshire, England. Jet requires more energy to start the reaction than it produces. Getting those nuclei close enough together is not easy.

But a big effort is being made to develop viable power. Building on the lessons learned from Jet, a $14-billion joint effort by the EU, Japan, China, South Korea, India and the U.S. will construct Iter, a prototype fusion reactor, in Cadarache, France. It is expected to produce ten times the energy required to initiate the reaction.

We must, however, be patient. Scientists predict that commercial viability is, most optimistically, at least 40 years away. But if it works, it will be energy heaven: cheap, reliable, safe, nearly waste-free and virtually limitless power. We will have captured the secret of the stars.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The deluded Mr. Howard

In Australian Prime Minister John Howard's address to Parliament, he effusively praised the United States, declaring that if Washington played a lesser role in world affairs, "It would leave a world more exposed to terrorism ...."

Mr. Howard exercises a peculiar logic. If by terrorism, he means attacks by Islamist extremists, the United States is in fact the major cause of terrorism. The extremists are not irrational. They attack those they see as enemies of Islam, and the Americans have presented themselves as such for a long time. From the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government of Iran, through massive support of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, to persistent intimacy with the Sauds of Arabia, they have severely provoked Muslim anger. They have made themselves a lightning rod for terrorist attacks.

If they had not aided in the overthrow of Mossadegh, if they did not exercise a powerful bias in favour of Israel, if they did not support oppressive Arab dictators, in other words if they played "a lesser role in world affairs," there would almost certainly have been no 9/11 and we wouldn't be obsessed with terrorism today.

More recently, the United States has created in Iraq a recruiting and training ground for extremists they could hardly have hoped for. Tactics honed there are now being used against Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

As Americans have suffered for their government's provocation of Islam, Australians have suffered for their government's fealty to the U.S. The bombings of Australian tourists in Bali were almost certainly a reprisal for Australia's killing of Muslims in Iraq. This is the price innocent Australians paid for John Howard's subservient foreign policy.

Others have paid similar prices. The bombings in Madrid and London were reprisals by angry Muslim youth for their countries' participation in the Iraq adventure. And Canadians died in the 9/11 attacks for no other reason than they happened to be in the United States. Collateral damage, you might say, in the Islamist-American war.

Howard couldn't be more wrong: American imperialism is a major cause of Islamic terrorism, not the shield against it.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Being British

Partly in response to the London bombings last summer, the British government is reviewing how teenagers can be given a stronger set of British values through citizenship classes. A sensible response was that of one 16-year old girl:
"Our citizenship classes are all right. I know how to be a good citizen. After finishing school I want to become a social worker to help old people. But the government should do its bit. If they didn't bomb other countries like Iraq, maybe there wouldn't be so much anger."
The young woman has a better perspective than her prime minister. Tony Blair, disingenuously claiming the London bombings had nothing to do with Iraq, refuses to accept the possibility that if you invade a Muslim country on the basis of lies, you just might inflame some of your own country's Muslims. Perhaps Mr. Blair should be taking the citizenship classes.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Liberals ... Canadians' party?

Apparently many Liberals are dismayed at their MPs splitting their support in the House vote to extend the Afghan mission. The media is all over it with one headline blaring, "Afghanistan vote reveals chasms in Liberal party." And of course the other parties were quick to exploit the "chasm," with Jack Layton telling reporters, "I think Canadians should be extremely concerned that a Liberal party can't get its act together on something as fundamental as the assignment of our troops for two years in a very dangerous place ....''

Far from being chagrined, the Liberals should be delighted. Canadians are split on their support for this adventure, roughly half supporting and half opposing. The Liberals simply represented this division, thereby illustrating they represent a broad spectrum of Canadians. The Conservatives were unanimous, illustrating they only represent one end of the spectrum.

While it is true some Liberals voted against the extension because of the Conservatives' politicization of it rather than because of its lack of merit, they showed nonethelesss they are the only party that represents a healthy cross-section of Canadians. This, one would think, is a very good thing.

But political parties, being the tribal societies they are, hate division, and so the Liberals will no doubt be more displeased than pleased with the vote. Pity.

Kyoto and the pollution province

Alberta might fairly be referred to as the pollution province. With only ten per cent of the country's population, it produces 27 per cent of the air pollution. Ontario, with 38 per cent of the population, produces 21 per cent. The major polluter in Alberta is Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant in the tar sands. And therein lies the dilemma. As the world's, and particularly the United States', thirst for oil increases, so will the production of oil from the tar sands, and so will Canada's pollution.

Confronting the demand for oil is challenge enough for our Kyoto commitment; the election of a Conservative government has probably put it beyond reach. Both the prime minister and the environment minister are from Alberta. An all-out assault on air pollution will be required to meet our Kyoto commitment and how can two Conservative Alberta politicians possibly be expected to take on the oil business?

Furthermore, this government seems determined to prove itself a good and faithful friend, if not servant, of the United States, and the United States is comfortable in its belief that our oil is their oil. This government will no doubt wish to maintain their comfort level.

Canadians support Kyoto, but satisfying Kyoto would be highly unsatisfying to the pollution province and therefore to our federal government. A dilemma indeed.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

You think you've got problems?

The Japanese are facing a chopstick crisis. In response to a new tax and other costs, Chinese chopstick exporters have raised the price of chopsticks sold to Japan by 30 per cent with the threat of another 20 per cent to come. Sales may be banned entirely in 2008. With chopstick production devouring 25 million trees a year, the new tax and the ban are designed to help save China's forests. Each Japanese uses on average 200 pairs a year with almost all of them imported from China.

However, if you think having to eat sushi with a fork is tough, try dealing with inflation in Zimbabwe. At last count, and this will be out of date before I finish this paragraph, it was running at over 1,000 per cent. Something that cost one dollar US would have cost $100,000 Zimbabwean in April 2006 and $1,142,900 Zimbabwean in April 2006. Add that to 70 per cent unemployment, food shortages and a delusional president, and you have the recipe for abject misery. If Zimbabweans didn't have bad luck, they wouldn't have any luck at all.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Vietnam, anyone?

The similarity between our Afghan adventure and the American ordeal in Vietnam continues. One of the sorrier aspects of that sorry experience was the constant flow of optimistic reports from the field that all was going well and just a little more effort and a little more time would bring success. Of course, as the American people belatedly discovered, things were in fact getting worse.

Upon Foreign Affairs Minister Peter McKay's recent return from Afghanistan, he reported the situation is stabilizing and the Taliban are "on the run." There is, however, "a need for a longer-term plan and commitment." Indeed.

The Taliban may be on the run, but in which direction. The view among journalists seems to be the Taliban now control much of Kandahar and are advancing on the capital. The aid agencies recognize this. Eighty per cent of the agencies formerly working in the province have withdrawn out of fear of attacks. Mr. McKay's handlers weren't taking any chances either. During his time in Kandahar, like diplomats and aid-agency officials he wasn't allowed off the grounds of military bases. Only heavily armed patrols in armoured vehicles venture out. This is a curious interpretation of "stabilizing."

A power unto itself

It seems the RCMP in British Columbia have slipped the leash. Six months ago, a well-liked local 22-year old, Ian Bush, was shot dead in an RCMP station in the small town of Houston. The young man had been drinking a beer in the parking lot of the local hockey arena and when confronted by Constable Paul Koester gave him a false name. He was then frisked and arrested for obstructing an investigation. Twenty minutes later, after a fight in the detachment interview room, he was shot in the back of the head.

The RCMP admit an investigation has been completed, yet neither the family nor the public know the results and no action has been taken. Constable Koester is apparently still working in another detachment. As to the force's policies regarding the handling of suspects, spokesman Constable John Ward stated, "The public doesn't have a right to know anything."

The MP for the area, Nathan Cullen, has made enquiries on behalf of the family but has gotten nowhere. Asking where Constable Koester was now working, he was essentially told it was none of his business. So a community somewhere in BC may have a killer among them, a killer in a position of authority and carrying a gun, but in the eyes of the RCMP it's none of their business.

Apparently BC has a thorough and transparent police complaints process; however the RCMP, even though they are paid by the provincial government, refuse to be part of it. Indeed, the province's attorney-general admits they have "no real jurisdiction" over the force.

Regarding the RCMP motto Maintiens Le Droit (defending the law), in BC one might be tempted to ask, defending it for whom?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Goodbye Lewis, hello Ben

As a devoted reader of Harper's Magazine, I will sorely miss departing editor Lewis Lapham's "Notebook" essays. Consistently offering a delightful mix of erudition and wit, they were a refreshing tonic in this sound bite world. Fortunately, he isn't going far and will continue to write for the magazine.

His "Notebook" replacement, Literary Editor Ben Metcalf, is off to a strong start in the June issue, exuberantly writing about writing about strangling the president of the United States with his bare hands. (There are no typographical errors in that last sentence.) If you agree with him that, "George W. Bush is an ignorant, cruel, closed-minded, avaricious, sneaky, irresponsible, thieving, brain-damaged frat boy with a drinking problem and a taste for bloodshed" who has "earned confinement and conviction and perhaps even a request for that barbaric death penalty he so loudly supports," you might just want to give him a read.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Skimming the cream

Reading about Conrad Black, Ken Lay and assorted other CEOs allowing their greed to bring them into conflict with the law, one can't help but wonder why they do it when they can skim so much legally. A recent survey of the income of Canada's corporate elite released by The Globe and Mail illustrated the easy pickings available. In 2005, average CEO compensation for the 247 companies surveyed increased by 39 per cent to $4.3-million.

This handsome remuneration was, however, peanuts for the truly creative. For example, the winner of the CEO sweepstakes, Hank Swartout of Precision Drilling who received $75-million. Here's how he did it:

He converted his company to an income trust. This triggered a "change of control," allowing the old CEO (Hank B. Swartout) to collect a severance payment of $12.6-million as the new CEO (Hank B. Swartout) took over. He was also able to cash in his stock options which amounted to $55-million. He ceded the title of president to his son-in-law thus becoming eligible for a retirement allowance of $2.9-million. (He remains CEO and Chairman of the Board.) All this in addition to his salary. And, oh yes, he got to buy his $74,000 company car for a dollar.

If people like Swartout could in any way be considered to have earned this windfall it might be acceptable, but most of his 2005 bonanza was a result of corporate manipulation and, most importantly, soaring commodity stock prices which he had nothing to do with. Even if the increase in stock price was due to added value to his company, Precision Drilling isn't a one-man outfit. Other employees surely made a small contribution to its success.

CEOs receive these grossly disproportionate payouts by the generosity of boards of directors who all too often tend to be incestuous, self-perpetuating bodies made up of local management and presidents and chairmen of other companies, usually chaired and dominated by the CEO. As a result, corporate salaries incline to be the largesse of good old boys taking care of each other. To quote from an editorial in the very corporate Globe and Mail, "an enormous sense of entitlement sometimes overwhelms common sense -- and those old-fashioned values like duty, honour and respect."

Monday, May 08, 2006

Graduate school

Prevailing wisdom has long recognized that the United States, by creating a chaos-fueled insurgency in Iraq, has established that country as the premier training ground for terrorism. Just how valuable a training ground is becoming increasingly apparent. Anthony Cordesman, an expert on counter-terrorism with the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, has identified 39 major adaptations in the tactics and capabilities of the Iraqi insurgency.

What jihadists could only learn in theory in bin Laden's Afghanistan camps, they can now learn by doing in Iraq. Indeed, expertise in such fine arts as roadside bombing has now shown up in Afghanistan, put into practice by the Taliban. Thus is the circle completed.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Darfur and deja vu

The American's reference to the Darfur tragedy as genocide has the ring of sanctimony about it.

The recent history of Sudan is indeed nasty. The south, possessing a different culture than the dominant north and feeling that culture under threat, attempted to secede. A bloody civil war ensued with the result the country, at least for the moment, remains united. In the meantime, the government faced insurgence in the west, an area where nomads and farmers compete over the same land. The government has unleashed great brutality in suppressing the unrest.

Pondering this bit of history, I realized we had seen it before -- in the United States in the late 1800s.

But then the entire African experience of the past 50 years is a recycling of the Western European experience when the Romans abandoned their empire in the fifth century. The European powers, like the Romans 1500 years earlier, pulled out of empire suddenly, leaving the colonized peoples with little capacity to run societies. Like the Europeans, the Africans were left without administrators to manage governments, without engineers to construct buildings and roads, and with largely arbitrary borders. In both cases, strong men filled the vacuum to overwhelm and exploit the benighted masses. The Europeans sunk into the Dark Ages, half a millenium of chaos and warlords, until they could slowly begin to create a new culture for a new time.

So what's to be learned by all this? Perhaps not much except history does repeat itself after a fashion. And that we should avoid being too self-righteous about the growing pains of young nations when we have experienced the same pains ourselves and not necessarily handled them any better.

We can, at least, hope the Africans will do better than the Europeans and not take five centuries to recover. Outside assistance and good examples are available today as they were not in the Dark Ages. Modern technologies can do wonders undreamed of in those times. And now, the international community recognizes we should act to alleviate suffering even if it means interfering in national sovereignty, something no one would have even considered from the fifth century to the 19th. But Africa will not recover in a generation or two. Our job is to help in every way we can, all the time maintaining a humility born of the knowledge of our own dark days and the knowledge also that we were the emperors that enslaved, exploited and then abandoned Africans to their present state.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The death of a great man

Passing away over the weekend was John Kenneth Galbraith, a great man and a great economist. He was rare among his kind in recognizing his was a social science, not a physical one, a science predicated on the behaviour of people, not of models. And because it is a social science, he recognized it has a moral dimension. He believed economies should serve first the public good, not the invisible hand. He could spark the dismal science with hope, even inspiration. He was, he said, "for a socially pain-free, decently egalitarian society." The poor and the progressives have lost a great friend and ally. We will miss him.