Monday, March 20, 2006

Ruling: No Wrongdoing in Emerson Floor-Crossing

Good.

Now let's get on with making rules that prevent the appearance of wrongdoing and save us all the time, energy, and tax dollars used up in dealing with this stuff.

While I'm happy about the ruling, I'm not so happy about Harper's reaction to the investigation. Show some grace under fire next time, will ya?


Thursday, March 16, 2006

Out of Context - or Out of Order?

Disclaimer: What I’m reacting to is possibly the choice of words of the newspaper article's author, and statements taken out of context. If anyone has an actual transcript of the event in question I’d love to see it.

Now that that’s out of the way, a report in the Toronto Star today set off all sorts of red flags:

Prepare for long Afghan stay: Powell

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke in Toronto yesterday at a Canadian-American Relations Conference, and as it appears in the report, and in all other reports I’ve been able to find online, told Canada that it

should prepare for an "extended" military campaign in Afghanistan and not put a time limit on its military stay there...

It’s those words “told” and “should” that set me off - when a non-Canadian "tells" us what we "should" do, my rebellious gene kicks in.

There is an ongoing debate among Canadians as to whether we should be in Afghanistan, and if so, for how long. The current commitment (to NATO) is nine months, and I would like to see a careful, open discussion about our role there weighing risks and rewards and perhaps a Parliamentary debate on whether and in what capacity to continue our involvement, given the nature of our military capabilities and other Canadian priorities.

What we don’t need is a failed American statesman telling us what to do.

I used to have a high opinion of Colin Powell, and even felt reassured in 2001 when he became Bush’s Secretary of State. However his credibility is now zero, for obvious reasons including that infamous speech to the United Nations shortly before the Iraq War began, three years ago.

While looking for another angle on this story, I came across a recent article in Slate Magazine that offers an explanation for the remaining bit of possible actual evidence Powell laid out that day: intercepted phone conversations interpreted as discussions about WMDs. It appears the conversations concerned cleaning up evidence from previous WMD programs, not any current ones.

There was a time when Colin Powell might have been able to be elected the first African-American President of the United States but now, when I hear his opinion of what Canada should do, all I can think to say is, “Who asked you?”

You Know You're Really In Trouble When...

...you invite Jessica Simpson to your fundraiser and she declines!

Ms. Simpson reportedly concluded that the publicity would do her own favourite charity more harm than good because it would be "politicized".

No photo-op for you, George W.

The sad thing is.. she's probably right. The other sad thing is - I'd vote for her for President over what the US has now.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What's Wrong with this Story?

By now, everyone who watches news or sports has seen the video: high-functioning autistic boy outperforms on the high school basketball court.

They sent in this kid, Jason McElwain, for the last four minutes of the season, probably to give him a happy memory, and he scored 20 points, breaking school records and setting off much celebration. Cool – but this thing has now taken on a life of its own and either I’m a heartless beast who doesn’t get it, or it’s being overblown to such a degree that it’s a bit of an insult to people with disabilities.

In the couple of weeks or so since that game, the story has yet to fade – on the contrary, it is still gathering steam: now corporations are vying for the rights to this story, with contenders said to include Magic Johnson and Oprah Winfrey for crying out loud.

And the kid isn’t even African-American.

Today, the networks aired film of Jason meeting with the President of the United States, who claims to have wept when he saw the video.
Or maybe that was the video of his latest poll numbers, inspiring him to arrange this meeting for the positive publicity, of which he can surely use some.

So what started out as a nice feel-good story is becoming a monstrosity and a mirror on society.

For starters – the kid can obviously play. So why wasn’t he better integrated into the team as a player, instead of being given a nominal title (“manager”) and a few pity minutes at the end of the season when his team had a substantial lead in that game? I already know the probable answer to that one – the competitive nature of even high school sports precludes such a risk.
Still, what does it say for the coach’s ability to spot talent, and for the school’s responsibility to its students – to the autistic one, to help him grow in any way he can, and to the others, to have the privilege to witness and be a part of it? How about the school’s responsibility to society? What’s more important, the school’s reputation in sports circles, or the impact it has on the community? (I know, don’t answer that.)

I’m also a little unnerved at the collective shock expressed at the fact that someone who is supposed to be handicapped – or is it “challenged” now – was actually able to function and even excel. People do this all the time, to a greater or lesser degree, to deafening indifference, and while it’s nice to see some appreciation, why don’t we spread it around a little more and recognize more of the “heroes” in our daily lives. You don’t need to have a diagnosable, visible disability to overcome challenges.

I’m especially saddened by a quote attributed to Jason’s mother, who is reported to have said,
"This is the first moment Jason has ever succeeded (and could be) proud of himself. I look at autism as the Berlin Wall, and he cracked it."
I really hope that was a misquote, or taken out of context, for if that mother really feels that her son has never succeeded in anything in his seventeen years before sinking a few baskets, then she needs more help than he does.

And has anyone considered how Jason must feel? If he’s enjoying the fuss, good, but if he isn’t, it’s time to call off the hounds. I’m reminded of the South Park episode where the school nurse, who had a visible disability (she was born with a dead fetus attached to her face – don’t ask!) caught the attention of the well-meaning townsfolk who rallied around her with parades and every sort of honour they could think up, all of which was devastatingly embarrassing to her, because all she wanted was to be treated as anyone else and be left to do her job which she was very good at.

The fact that this is SUCH a big deal reflects society’s abysmal view of the potential of handicapped people. A happy news story, sure – we can all use some of that. But it’s like telling an overweight person how great they look now that they lost twenty pounds: all it really says is how awful they looked before.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Harper makes surprise visit to Kandahar

Not a surprise that he made the trip - only the timing was secret, which is how it has to be.

There has been some debate lately as to whether there should be some debate about Canada's role in Afghanistan, but this particular mission is a committment Canada made to NATO.
While I'd like to see any further plans subject to parliamentary, and public scrutiny, we are there now for nine months and it's good to see the Prime Minister making this his first official foreign trip.

For an idea about what it's like there, check out this series of reports in the Toronto Star, by Mitch Potter who, with his cameraman, was recently embedded with Canadian soldiers.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Outrage du Jour

Just when you think it's as bad as it can get, the organizational disaster that is the response to Hurricane Katrina proves it's not done yet.

A few days ago CNN reported that the search for bodies in destroyed homes would finally resume. More than six months have passed since the hurricane, just the fact that this has not been completed defies credulity - this is the United States, not some third world impoverished nation.

However... yesterday, again from CNN, word came out that one of only three canine search teams would leave almost as soon as they arrived - because there were no hotel accomodations nor veterinary service arranged.
It's not a question of pampering pets - these animals do jobs humans physically cannot do and probably wouldn't want to if they could. There are hazards, too - one dog had to have glass surgically removed last time they were there.
And it wasn't that they didn't think providing a hotel room was appropriate - it was that something went wrong in the red tape process between the state of Louisiana and the infamous FEMA.

I don't know what else to say about this. If the United States cannot handle a natural disaster, how can it handle whatever else life throws at it? And why has it come to this?

Clearing out the Favourites File

A few stories that got buried in my links over the past week:

I especially liked this one...

Does democracy end tyranny?

...by Natan Sharansky, the Soviet Jew who spent nine years in prison as a dissident and then went on to become active in the Israeli government.
It addresses something I'd wondered about: why does it so often happen that emerging democracies hold elections that produce counter-democratic results?
(Or at the least, results that the West doesn't agree with.)

Sharansky says,

although elections are part of the democratic process, they are never a substitute for it.

He believes that democratic reforms come first, and elections later (he thinks at least three years later) in order for the "atmosphere to change" within the electorate.

Makes sense. After all, the governing process is so vastly different in western democratic countries, the people whose right and responsibility it is to vote need to become informed and need time to sort out the fear-mongering from the opportunities.
Lots of time.
Show them the reforms first and then let them decide if democracy is right for them.

A couple of articles from last Sunday's Washington Post, about the ongoing hijinks of the Bush administration:

Mandatory, If You Choose

...another word definition poser, with regard to whether there NEEDED to be a 45 day review for the Dubai Ports World deal, and whether the words mandatory and discretionary can be viewed as synonyms with the right amount of spin.
(In a word, No.)

and this one, which made a big splash in the media for a day or so but then disappeared:

White House Trains Efforts on Media Leaks
Sources, Reporters Could Be Prosecuted


This is scary. Limiting leaks by cracking down on those who hold sensitive information is one thing - but once that information does get out, it is the job of journalists to disseminate it, not something to be viewed as illegal, subject to prosecution.
The media is constantly criticized, in some cases rightly, but just think where we'd be without it!

Finally, we have the furry lobster story:

This THING (so far not exposed as a hoax) reportedly found at a depth of over a mile in the Pacific Ocean south of Easter Island.
Click link for photo, it's worth it.

It's a crustacean, about the size of a "salad plate" but no word yet on whether it's edible, for humans anyway.
It's also blind, which is probably just as well.

Friday, March 03, 2006

When I Get Older, Losing My Hair, Many Years From Now...

I just finished watching quite a spectacle on CNN:

Larry King, with the McCartneys who are protesting the impending seal hunt, and Danny Williams, the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, there to give the official response.
It is anything but a calm and reasoned debate.

I don’t know if this is what Paul McCartney had in mind for his golden years when he wrote When I’m 64, which he will be this coming June:

A young wife with a rather hefty axe to grind who seems to be taking him along for a bumpy, chilly ride. He can hardly keep up.

He looks confused, and hardly bothers to get a word in – I suppose by now he knows better.
She, on the other hand, isn’t shy to harass both Larry King and the Premier of Newfoundland (or as Larry pronounces it, New Finland).
Saying her piece is one thing, but she hardly lets anyone else say theirs particularly if it goes against her claims. She shrieks, whines and talks right over everyone else.

I don’t know much about the seal hunt, never did get too worked up about it one way or the other... but if I had to make up my mind solely from the Larry King Show this evening, I would side with those who sound well-informed and rational and that is not Heather McCartney.

Paul does have a few things to say, mostly that the annual seal hunt is a blight on the reputation of the Canadian people.
Well maybe so but I’d worry more about other blights on our reputation. We need look no further than the recent federal election with regard to the behaviour of some of our officials and the sleaziness of some of the issues involved.
I'd also worry more about our soldiers being killed and injured in Afghanistan than about the seals, who, even the McCartneys had to admit, are not presently endangered.

I don’t know what gives these rock stars the idea that they can come in here and tell us what to do – but at least Bono seems to have his facts in order, is respectful and never ever comes across as out of his depth, reading from a script.

Paul, you should have married me instead.

I could be handy mending a fuse when your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside,
Sunday mornings, go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Today, a kirpan, tomorrow – what...

...A headscarf? A skullcap? A cross?

The Supreme Court of Canada handed down a very significant decision today.
It ruled – unanimously - that a Montreal teenager was within his rights when he wore a Sikh ceremonial dagger (kirpan) to school.

This case has been going on for about four years, and I’ve followed it in the local media.
It finally reached its conclusion after wins and losses through the court system.
Details of the case and background are on the CBC website; I don’t want to rehash the whole thing here, just comment on it.

This case is about an issue that speaks directly to the heart of society: what is more important, freedom or safety?
There’s no easy answer and compromises are made all the time. People have to submit to rigorous screening in order to board airplanes, and teens have to walk through metal detectors in order to attend a school dance.

Such measures, while inconvenient, are generally deemed worthwhile for the risk reduction that they bring.

Benjamin Franklin (not a Canadian but we respect him anyway) said,

the man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either.

That’s perhaps a little simplistic but Franklin lived in a simpler time.

These days, organizations have to take liability and civic responsibility into account. Public schools, for example, answer to taxpayers, parents, and society in general. They are expected to provide a safe, secure environment for learning and growth, and to teach students life skills of all sorts, not just the technical ones of the three Rs.

No easy task in today’s culture.

I understand the concerns of the parents who discovered that a twelve year old boy was carrying around a knife at school, but it would have been nice if educating the community about this particular custom were enough to allay those fears.

While the kirpan is technically a knife, sword or dagger, its significance is in its wearing, not its use. It is one of five distinctive symbols that must be worn by baptized Sikh men at all times, the others being uncut hair, a comb, a steel bangle and certain specific undergarments.

According to this UCLA Social Sciences website, the way the kirpan is worn is considered “ritually constrained”, to be used only to help others and in self-defense; to do otherwise would go against the tenets of the religion.

However, the argument put forward by the lawyers for the school board and the Quebec Government, that schools are so dangerous now that any potential weapon must be banned, reflects more than just concern for safety, but a myopic view of our society’s rights and responsibilities.

Potential weapon?

Potential weapons are everywhere. Some may be in the form of religious symbols; I could poke someone in the eye with my Christian cross medallion, or strangle someone’s neck with my Muslim head scarf.

Other potential weapons come disguised as everyday objects long tolerated - even encouraged - for use in schools, such as the geometry compass (very pointy!) and the pencil (good for causing messy, infection-prone wounds.)
We won’t even go into the issue of sports equipment.

But when you get right down to it, closed fists are weapons. Do you tell your child to check his hands at the door?

Clearly this argument is absurd. There IS a problem of violence in schools but eliminating “potential weapons” is not the way to deal with it if for no other reason than it is impossible to do. This way of thinking is part of the reason why people today have so much trouble with personal responsibility – because it has been withdrawn from the educational curriculum. All children are automatically assumed untrustworthy, aren’t given a chance to prove otherwise, and never learn about accountability, earning privileges, and consequences of mistakes.

If the kirpan-carrying child, or one of his peers, uses the kirpan in a violent manner, that is a behaviour problem, not a religious one. It has to be addressed, but it’s much easier to ban objects than to instill values and mold social skills. Unfortunately, the banning, besides being useless, sends the wrong message to students. It teaches them that differences are to be treated with suspicion, and are to be feared until proven otherwise. It reinforces the childish tendency to discriminate against others who don’t fit in with the majority, whether they be too large or too small, differently-coloured, differently-clothed, speak with strange accents, or whose parents don’t drive the right type of car.

What an opportunity was missed by that school board, to educate, to celebrate diversity, to open up students’ minds to another culture, to teach not merely tolerance, but acceptance.

WAY TO GO, SUPREME COURT OF CANADA!

Religious freedom wins over racism and paranoia in Canada. Yes.

More comments later.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Moving Finger writes...

I admit, it’s a good idea - the LongPen machine:

A remote control pen-type device that enables people to write things (such as signatures) long-hand... remotely.
It has applications in many fields, anywhere that a signature might be required, such as a doctor’s prescription or a legal document.

If surgeons can perform operations from afar, why not be able to send a signature? We have the technology, as the saying goes.

Strangely, though, the impetus for this specific invention came from...

Margaret Atwood

the renowned Canadian author.

She even started a company for the purpose, according to this news report, and is set to launch the product at the London (England) Book Fair next week.

That seems to me to be a lot of effort for one person not in the technology field, for the sole purpose of being able to do her appearances... remotely?

The LongPen and a webcam for that personal touch, that’s all you need.

I once attended one of Atwood’s book signings, at Eaton’s downtown in Montreal - must have been in the late 1970s. She had written a few novels by then and I had nothing for her to sign, having already purchased everything of hers I could find, but wanted to meet her in person.
After waiting in line, I finally got to gush out my enduring admiration of her and her work, and what did I get back?
A withering look, the likes of which I will never forget.

My mind has since forgiven her. I suppose she was tired/annoyed/shy/fed up/stressed, whatever. But I have never been able to get through anything of hers again.

That’s why I find it rather amusing that she of all people was the one to develop the remote control book signing device.

The first question that springs to my mind is, why bother? It’s easy enough to set up a webcam connection so that an author can meet with fans in places where travel would be impractical. Why do you need the remote pen thingy?

When an author signs in person, the creator has touched the actual book, which gives it that emotional appeal. Will the same connection exist with the LongPen even if it is the author’s signature? Is it the touching, the eye contact, this personal connection that makes a book signature worthwhile, or just the ink-scrawl done in the author’s unique fashion?
I guess that depends on the reader.
I think I'd rather have the signed book mailed to me, than autographed with a robotic instrument.

For the more mercenary among us, would a LongPen signature be worth as much as a direct one, on the memorabilia market? I wouldn’t think so - assuming there would be a way to tell the difference, and I suspect there would, forensic science being what it is.

I can absolutely relate to the discomfort that Atwood and other authors must feel, being trotted out and exhibited far from home for reasons having nothing to do with their outward nature. I’m sure I’d have a few nervous breakdowns myself, on a book tour. But it’s part of the job, it’s part of promotion, without which books wouldn’t get sold or read and authors wouldn’t make a living and would have to go back to flipping burgers or even worse, teaching English to junior college students.

Atwood claims the purpose is to make authors more accessible to readers in remote locations, not to do away with book signings altogether, but I can’t help but feel that authors, who are often by nature and necessity rather solitary people, might take advantage of the opportunity to remain ever more remote from their readers.

I fear it’s just the first step down the slippery slope of disengagement.