Saturday, January 31, 2009

7, 8, 9 ... 14!

I have misgivings about some reproductive technologies, but I do understand how desperate how infertile parents get in having children -- and the state should be supportive of that.

What I have a big problem with is parents who already have children but think it's not enough and then get fertility treatments -- and deprive infertile parents of access to those treatments since the already fertile couples have money to get to the front of the line. Such is the case with a single parent who gave birth to eight children the other day. That would be fine, except she already had six! (And the woman claims, through her parents, that she only wanted one more child, a girl.)

Children, of course, are a blessing from God. But isn't there a point when so many children should be enough? Shouldn't those who don't have children get preferential access to fertility clinics? And really, how can a thirty-something single mother realistically raise fourteen children?

Even the most devout of my Catholic friends, who oppose any type of IVF treatments, say the issue isn't how the children were conceived but that they were at all. It is simply improvident, they say, for someone to have so many children if they don't have the means to do so -- and certainly it is stupid to even try to conceive if one has had so many children already since each subsequent pregnancy and birth puts more strain on the mother.

I agree. I am of course not saying it would not have been better for the children to have been not born at all -- simply that the mother's background should have been checked into. I fear that the mother will find she simply can't cope, and all fourteen children will wind up in foster care and apart from each other. That would be truly the worst possible outcome.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

North Korean rattle sabling, part 2450

Just when we thought things between North and South Korea couldn't get even more tense, Pyongyang said today they are ripping up all "military and political" agreements with Seoul. They claim that the South's current President, Lee Myung-bak, has "hostile intent" towards the North -- in other words, they don't like Lee's hard line and his rollback of previously unconditional aid to the North.

Among the agreements to be scrapped is the one dealing with the maritime border between the two countries, one the North has never recognized anyway and has led to several naval confrontations, most recently in 2002. And this comes after several South-owned tourist spots in the North were ordered shut down.

If this is just another attempt by the North to get bargaining power with Washington, especially with a new administration, I don't think it's going to work this time. Obama may not be a hawk like GWB but he certainly is not a dove. I'm sure he'd like to pull out the tens of thousands of US troops in the South, as well as the nuclear weapons, but as long as the North poses a danger and continues to starve its own people on purpose, they're not going anywhere.

As far as Lee goes, he's absolutely correct in his stance. You don't award dictatorships unless they make positive steps in the area of human rights and moves towards genuine democracy. And in that department, the North has no human rights and no prospect of anything coming close to a free election. Food and medical aid regularly is confiscated by the North and given to its favourite apparatchiks. And on TV, it's all Kim Jong-Il, all the time.

No one wants war, especially in Korea. (Look what's in the neighbourhood -- Japan, China, Thailand -- theoretically some of North Korea's missiles could even reach the eastern fringes of the EU which would bring NATO into play.)

But if that's what the North wants, it has way too many enemies so as to ensure its defeat and long-overdue liberation. Even Canada, one of the very few countries with diplomatic relations with the North, won't put up with the crap -- after all, we still remember the Korean War.

We need more democracies ... as a general rule, democracies -- real democracies which rule through due process and not through rockets or bullying -- don't go to war against each other.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blago ousted, banned ...

... and Rod's gone not a moment too soon. It wasn't even close, it was unanimous: 59-0 first to remove Blagojevich as Illinois' Governor, then another 59-0 vote to ban him from ever running for public office in the state again. I don't think it's so much the tapes that cost him, but rather the fact he had become a complete embarrassment to his state.

The last couple of months, they've had at least one joke per week -- some times even more -- on NPR's Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! I think each of the fifteen panelists, who rotate in sets of three each week, had something to say about Mop Top -- and it's worth pointing out both the liberal and conservative celebrities thought he was a joke before this crisis started after Obama's election. (WWDTM is produced in Chicago, and recorded there most weeks.)

Now let's see if Blagojevich can keep his big fat mouth shut during his criminal trial. If his lawyer dumped him for being indiscrete, not likely.

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Guess who came to the budget?

A source has informed me a very interesting detail about Tuesday's budget. No, not what was in it -- that's in the public record. Rather, who was there.

There's a group in Ottawa called the National House of Prayer, led by Ron and Fran Parker. Its stated purpose is to "establish and maintain an ongoing Christian presence in Canada's National Capital Region that will provide informed, focused and sustained prayer for Canada and its leaders." Rough translation -- make your own but many have accused it of trying to insert a very right wing agenda into the national debate.

The Parkers say they got their start when at the huge 9/11 memorial service on Parliament Hill where over 100,000 defiantly stood in support of the victims, no mention was made in the prayers offered about God or Jesus. Furthermore, it was claimed, army chaplains were restricted from using either of those words in their public addresses. The Parkers decided this was proof that Ottawa had become "Godless" and they decided to do something about it. Okay, fine. There's nothing wrong with having God-fearing people in Ottawa. Or with having prayer groups on the Hill -- which are attended by people from all of the parties.

But here's where it gets interesting: My source told me last night that senior members of NHOP were invited to the reading of the budget speech, and the after-party reception hosted by the government. How do we know this? Because someone called in last night to the not so infrequent telethons at Lethbridge, Alberta based The Miracle Channel and said as much on the air.

This is huge. What's so significant about that? Well ... no other religious group was invited, as far as my source has been able to find out. No representative from the Catholic bishops, no one from the United Church, none from the Anglican Church, no one from the major Jewish lobbies. No one -- except this one faith based group. Why did NHOP get special treatment and access that most churches might crave?

Now, keep in mind that this is supposed to be a registered charity. And, NHOP got a big part of its seed money from -- The Miracle Channel, an extremely right wing station in its political orientation. Some say it may have been in the range of up to $200,000. All perfectly legal. My source tells me that when the station's former manager, Dick Dewert, put up $25,000 of his own money (or was it the station's?) and challenged his followers to match it, they phoned it and did match it -- and then some.

What is NHOP's purpose? Is it simply to offer prayer? Or is it in the business of proselytizing? Even if it does just offer prayer, does that entitle it to registered charity status? I pray for a whole bunch of people all the time and you don't see me applying permission to do it tax free.

As my acquaintance pointed out to me, this isn't a case of a faith based group like the Salvation Army which makes a point of doing its charity work before attempting to offer religious services. That puts them entirely within bounds and is completely appropriate. This is a case of proselytizing before offering charity, putting the cart before the horse -- which is out of bounds. Or perhaps it goes beyond proselytizing and into politicking, and in the current environment it's often hard to tell the difference.

Groups such as the Council of Canadians and Greenpeace aren't allowed to be charities because they are clearly defined to be lobbyists. But under the cover of religion, we have a situation where profits are not only tax-sheltered but its leaders get preferred access to the most senior officials.

So the question is: How did NHOP manage to get such an invite to the budget speech, the hottest ticket in town that day? And was anything promised in return?

We've seen the Conservatives turn a blind eye to the trademark infringement when pro-life groups used the official Government of Canada service mark on their banners. Twice. How will they explain this one? And what does it mean for access for those of us who may want to lobby or petition Parliament but can't because the door has been shut to all but the most extreme elements of civil and religious society?

UPDATE (8:58 am EST, 1358 GMT): Fixed a link to CJIL. The link I did have is to a site critical of The Miracle Channel -- if you still want that one it's here.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cold as ice

The proposed Liberal - NDP coalition isn't so much dead for now as it is on ice.

Michael Ignatieff appears serious about putting Stephen Harper on probation and wanting to see results from the so-called "stimulus" package in yesterday's budget. But it's still disappointing for me, as a Liberal, to give Harper even another week to prove himself worthy as Prime Minister. Harper is not worthy period, and Ignatieff needs to realize that.

The option of a constructive vote of no confidence (CVNC) -- that is, no confidence with a viable alternative government immediately available to take over -- must remain as an option and should be exercised as soon as possible if Harper won't talk deal. It's not that common in British parliamentary tradition but it does exist in countries with Parliaments instead of a Congress.

In fact, at least three EU members -- Germany, Hungary and Spain -- require an alternative government be ready to go before a CVNC is allowed. The most famous recent example was in 1982 when Socialist Helmut Schmidt was dumped for Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl after Hans Dietrich Genscher, who led the centrist Free Democrats, dropped one coalition for another. The main issue was the economy and Schmidt's mishandling of the recession.

Harper, in his minority situation, has turned a golden egg into one you can just crack and put in the microwave. There's no better time than now to get rid of him or to exercise the CVNC -- give him longer than a month or so, and when a simple no-confidence vote comes, the GG will call for a snap election which could be just as indecisive as the last one. We need that like a shot in the head.

The fact is, as has been the case around the world, so-called right wing governments aren't responsible when it comes to finances. They blow budget surpluses when times are good then start to bail water when times get rough. It's been centrist and leftist governments that have shown prudence, even if their priorities haven't always been the best ones. (Sponsorgate still rankles for me, just so you know.)

Our debt to GDP ratio is substantially less than it was in 1995, when Paul Martin started to tighten the belt and put some semblance of discipline. With reasonable growth prospects as things start to turn around -- and I am not nearly as pessimistic as some forecasters -- we can keep growth in debt below growth in the economy so in fact our interest burden continues dropping.

But the whole idea behind running surpluses, and having surpluses as big as possible (or at least containing deficits to below GDP growth), is to pay down debt to prepare for a rainy day situation. From each tax dollar, about 14 cents goes towards interest on the debt (at one point in the early 1990s it was about 33 cents). Not bad, but it would have been better if we only had to pay 10 cents and better still if it was less than that (meaning the end of foreign borrowings).

In the States, the interest bite was about 20 cents -- in 2006, before things started to slide. They're up to around 25 or 26 right now. And as they slide further, people will flee the dollar (which will impact our currency as well since we're so reliant on the US for exports) and flock to the Euro -- and despite its problems the Eurozone as a collectivity is actually better prepared for this crisis than the US was.

No wonder both the Liberals and Conservatives stocked up on Euros here as a buffer -- who can blame them? Or why we're now pursuing a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU even in these tough times.

We were getting close to freeing ourselves from the evils of sovereign wealth funds once and for all. Now, we're trapped again. Forget the anemic changes to EI rules, or the ongoing screwjob on equalization and transfer payments. Being further indebted to terrorists and communist governments that support genocide, is enough reason for Iggy to pull the plug, in my humble opinion.

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WaPo shutters book section

A couple of months back, the highly regarded Christian Science Monitor announced they were ending their daily print format and switching to a weekly news magazine with updated online content. Now, WaPo is ending their standalone book review section, Book World, and moving the content to other sections in the paper. That leaves the NYT and the San Francisco Chronicle with the only widely read book review sections left in the US.

The Fourth Estate is dying the death it so richly deserves.

But canning book review sections is a lousy way to save costs while bailing out of the storm. How do we expect people to think when the crisis is over? As for the CS Monitor, it also had great editorial content as well as pointed book and movie reviews -- changing to a weekly format debases its credibility and doesn't leave much room for those reviews.

All hail, Web 2.x!

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

They suspended Parliament for seven weeks, for THIS?

A quick glance at the 2009 budget, and I have to say that I am not impressed. Rather than cut the income tax rates (which would be more immediate in getting money into the pay stubs of those who are working), Jim Flaherty has increased the size of the brackets -- the 22% bracket kicks in at $40,726, (up from $ 37,885); and the 26% bracket kicks in at $81,452 (up from $75,769).

This means one has to actually earn more than $37,800 and change to get a tax break. Everyone else gets the offshoot from an increase in the exemption which works out to just about $4 bi-weekly. That doesn't even buy a bag of milk and most families go through three or more a week. And those who do get a cut, well they save about another $2 and change per paycheque.

Wow, $6. I can imagine it now: Those two characters on The Simpsons, Cletus and his wife / sister Brandine: "Hey maw! We got another six bucks this week on my paystub! Hows abouts we buy a porno on cable to spice things up?"


Wouldn't it have been better to keep the brackets where they were but cut the rate by 1% (to 14 and 21, respectively)?

Seniors get to keep another $150 per year, but many don't pay taxes to begin with so that's totally worthless to them -- how about giving those seniors an increase of $150 in the supplement? Nope.

There's $7.8 billion for new housing starts and renovations. Not bad, but consider the temporary credit for home renovations. $1350 sounds good, but it really only means $202.50.

EI premiums are frozen for the next two years. Probably inevitable as more claim benefits, but a payroll tax hits those who have the lowest earned incomes. If they're in a situation where they can reduce taxes to zero they should be able to carry forward those premiums to a future year when they earn more money so it can be deducted then. Nothing for that here.

Chalk River: $351 million for "safe and reliable operations" -- whatever that means. Chalk River is a joke, and it's interesting how valuable Harper sees it now after he fired the head of AECL for raising concerns about safety there.

Very interesting point: This gun-ho government did not make a single mention of the military in the budget document other than whatever appropriation they're getting this year. President Obama has said he hopes Canada can commit another 1000 troops to the more than 2000 we already have on the ground in Afghanistan, to compliment the 5000 or so Marines that are coming to Kandahar. I don't see anything for that contingency -- and the last thing we need right now is for Harper to piss off Obama.

I'd vote against this one. Too unfocused, not enough tax cuts, and our roads will remain in a state of bad and dangerous repair. I have to give Flaherty an F -- a first. But he blew it three years ago by cutting the GST, the revenues from which would have made this bailout budget unnecessary. Does it buy Harper time? Unfortunately, it does -- I think there are enough "sweeteners" for Ignatieff to take a pass for now.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

40th Parliament, take two

So here we go again ... after the first session lasted just thirteen days before Stephen Harper pulled the plug, we begin the second session today with a budget to immediately follow tomorrow. And this time we pretty much know all the details. Hard to believe it's been twenty years since 1989 when reporter Doug Small caused a storm by obtaining a copy of the budget the night before and read it on the evening news. Now, it's as if a budget leak isn't that big of a deal.

Actually it is, since it gives people a chance to profit from possible tax or loan guarantee changes before they are actually made. It's like someone benefitting from insider information except it's available for all to see -- but only usable by those who can afford to rearrange their financial situation.

But that's not the problem. Just three months or so after the election, the Conservatives have already run out of ideas, and what they're going to "officially" propose tomorrow probably won't help all that much. A billion here, a billion there, a few tax cuts but all in all just as disorganized and pointless as the bailout Dubya got through Congress around the same time and for what?

Ignatieff had better have a good reason for withholding a vote on the ways and means when the budget does come up for a vote. It can't be a weak-kneed reason like Dion kept coming up with which was about election readiness (and we all know how that panned out). A free pass has to be earned, not just given for grants' sake. Frankly at this point it's like Harper really doesn't care anymore how long he stays in power or how. He just wants the free residence and plane that comes with the job. He doesn't get it on the economy, on the environment or on human rights.

And that's not a leader. If Canadians voted the way they did because they wanted a change in the style of leadership, they got what they asked for. Besides which ... well, the way he smiles. He totally lost my trust the first time he released a picture of himself smiling. It looked contrived like something you see of the pics of the officers of a corporation in an annual report, not casually smiling like he's one of the people. Because he isn't, he's the boy of Big Oil.

That doesn't mean he's a bad man. But his connections with groups that promote policies contrary to the greater good makes him untrustworthy. Sure, the other leaders have that issue too to some degrees, but for him it's writ large.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

What about victims rights?

We've had the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms now for 27 years and it has been for the most part very successful. While we may gripe from time to time about the political effect and whether courts should always be picking their noses into legislative actions, there is no doubt that this is a different and better country. The advances in rights for the elderly, children, the disabled and homosexuals -- as well as better protections for illegal immigrants facing deportation -- are just a few examples.

Yet there is a glaring fact that while the Charter defines legal rights for suspects (individuals as well as corporations) there is none whatsoever for the victims of crime. Whether people have been deprived of a loved one or defrauded out of their life savings, there is often no forum for victims to speak their minds -- it is solely at the discretion of the Crown attorneys and the courts.

That is not to say that crime victims should have the right to overturn plea bargains or obstruct the course of justice. But their rights need to be recognized as being equal to those of who victimized them. The only way one can reasonably do this, is via a constitutional amendment.

More than a year ago, I sent a letter to PMS addressing this very issue and suggesting Parliament at least have a debate on the issue. As usual with anything that doesn't fit his very narrow agenda, even something that would be in general agreement with his law and order approach, I have gotten nothing but silence.

So I'm putting forward the idea right here, on my board. Here is roughly what I would include in such an amendment:

Victims Rights

14.1 (1) Victims of crimes of violence and other criminal and quasi-criminal acts that Parliament and the provinces may define by law pursuant to subsection 3, shall have the rights to notice of and not to be excluded from all public proceedings relating to the crime; to be heard if present and to submit a statement at a public pre-trial or trial proceeding to determine a release from custody, an acceptance of a negotiated plea, or a sentence; to these rights at a parole proceeding to the extent they are afforded to the convicted offender; to notice of a release pursuant to a public or parole proceeding or an escape; to a final disposition free from unreasonable delay; to an order of restitution from the convicted offender; to have the safety of the victim considered in determining a release from custody; and to notice of the rights established by this section.
(2) The victim shall have standing to assert the rights established by this section; however, nothing in this section shall provide grounds for the victim to challenge a charging decision or a conviction, obtain a stay of trial, or compel a new trial; nor shall anything in this article give rise to a claim for damages against Canada, a province, a political subdivision, or a public official; nor shall anything in this section provide grounds for the accused or convicted offender to obtain any form of relief.
(3) Parliament, and the provinces and territories, shall have concurrently the power to enforce this section within their respective federal and provincial jurisdictions by appropriate legislation, including the power to enact exceptions when required for compelling reasons of public safety.
(4) The rights established by this section shall be applicable to all proceedings occurring after ratification of this section.
(5) The rights established by this section shall apply in all federal, provincial and territorial, military, and juvenile justice proceedings, and shall also apply to victims of those persons outside Canada who may have had a act committed against them by a Canadian citizen or a person having the status of a legal immigrant or a legal refugee; acting in official capacity and commiting an act considered criminal under Canadian or international law or deemed criminal according to the general principles of law considered criminal by the community of nations.

What do you think about this? Give me your thoughts.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Gilli -- WHO?

Despite some misgivings about Caroline Kennedy it appeared all but certain she was going to be appointed to fill the Senate seat left vacant when Hillary Clinton was confirmed as President Obama's Secretary of State.

After Caroline Kennedy suddenly dropped her bid to be Clinton's seat filler (it now appears because of an alleged "nanny problem" instead of what she originally claimed, to be near her still frail uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy -- although of course Ms Kennedy denies there is any such problem and for now I'm prepared to take her word), NYS governor David Paterson has made a rather surprising appointment -- Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand. She represents New York 20, a quite sprawling district which stretches from the northern 'burbs of NYC through the Catskills and much the Adirondacks. Pretty much the bulk of the Hudson Valley.

She's certainly a resilient woman, refusing to take maternity leave when she was pregnant and committing to her duties as a Representative full time right up until she went into labour and getting right back to work soon after the birth. But she is also a favourite daughter of the NRA. NY20, being a mostly rural district, is also quite conservative and very adverse to gun control -- and that part of the world is a hunter's and fisher's paradise and reliant on tourism derived from that.

According to the NYT, Gillibrand's pro-gun pedigree (a continuation of the long time struggle that pits upstate and downstate NY against each other) could put Gillibrand in the sights (no pun intended) of a woman whose husband was murdered in the Long Island Massacre in 1993 and who won her seat on the issue of tightening gun regulations. Carolyn McCarthy has vowed to challenge Gillibrand for the Dem nomination for the by-election which will be held in 2010. (Again, that sucks -- I know NYS has budget problems but can't they afford to have a by-election in 90 days?)

Choosing Gilibrand is a calculated choice on Paterson's part. In these tough times he needs the state to remain united (to the extent that's possible) and by appeasing the pro-gun right-wing of the Democratic Party he may bolster his up ticket prospects in next year's election when he plans to run for re-election. Traditionally, the idea has been to have one Senator from upstate and one from down and after a very long long time of two bozos from NY Metro that balance may be restored.

I just don't know enough about Gillibrand to make a judgment about her -- on NYS issues, when I do read up on them, I mostly follow what goes on in Buffalo and NYC -- but the three most dangerous letters in America are N, R, A. They're still a very powerful force in American politics, and last time I checked even Michael Moore was still a card-carrying member.

My message to Ms Kennedy: If you're serious about wanting to succeed your Uncle Bobby, then run in the by-election to fill Gillibrand's now vacant seat. Prove you care about rural issues in NYS as much as urban ones, and then use that as a platform to make a Senate run next year. Otherwise, stop pretending you're entitled to be the "heir" to the Kennedy political dynasty.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

The $64 billion question

So we now learn that the budget deficit in Canada over the next two years could hit as high as 64 billion dollars, which effectively puts us back in the accumulated debt to where we were before 9/11. The Conservatives can't entirely blame the global economy for this, a big part was the irresponsible 2% cut in the GST when we still couldn't afford such a cut. But we have to deal with the here and now.

So how to spend the stimulus money? One word: Infrastructure.

Anyone who has seen the state of our roads and sewer systems would know that we are dealing with a ticking time bomb. Just the other day, we saw an over hundred year old water main burst in Montréal, and an "unexpected" flood blacked out a big section of Toronto. To think that some of our sewage is going through pipes built in the 19th century is simply unthinkable for a developed country like Canada. And let's not forget, the state of schools and water supply on First Nations lands.

Spend the money on a good state of repair program, fixing what we have and building only smart transportation projects for new roads and transit lines, and we'll have a major competitive edge so when times get better the goods get there on time and businesses actually want to do trade here because they know the roads are good.

Bail out the banks the way they did in the States and the UK, and it will be just money down the drain.

That's what Michael Ignatieff needs to set as his bottom line. If the money won't go to provident projects, and at that projects that can be audited for value for money, then the Liberals will pull the plug.

The least one can say is that despite it all, our situation is still less than half as bad as it is in the States. At the rate they're running up the bills, their debt to GDP ratio will soon hit 100% -- that is, they'll become a banana republic. Sweet justice after the way the Fed's screwed the Third World all these years. Our debt-to-GDP ratio is still quite low, according to the government about 28% (although it's probably about 5 to 6 percent higher than that since it probably includes the surpluses in the Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance which both should be segregated) but this is no time to be complacent about our state of affairs which are pretty bad.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

First business: Shutting down Gitmo

President Obama has wasted no time getting down to business. One of his first official acts, late last night, was a 120-day suspension of proceedings at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- with a view to ceasing the hearings all together. Obama has said that he would like the process replaced with something "better." Whether that winds up being courts martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice or civilian trials is yet to be decided and it will take about a year to wind up the current kangaroo courts and jails.

But at least the end is near. In one particular case, Omar Khadr can actually get something like a real trial and not one based on tainted evidence. At least now we know why Maher Arar still can't get into the US -- it's because Khadr apparently was coerced into saying Arar was in Afghanistan when in fact he was nowhere near South Asia at the time.

Frankly, it's hard to know what if anything the vast majority of detainees could be charged with if anything at all. Violating the "customs of war," maybe -- but don't most countries, even democracies, do that on a daily basis on the battlefield even if inadvertently? Why aren't Western countries held to the same standards? Do you see Canadian soldiers, or British ones, being held in stockades for years at a time without a set trial date? And are any of them facing a life sentence for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or for just joining an insurrection?

Most of the "terrorists" arrested during the Bush administration, the vast majority, were in fact not terrorists at all but people who were being held for immigration irregularities. The mean sentence in the so-called "War on Terror" against such suspects -- fourteen days. Not years, days. Is it possible that innocent people who were rounded up have become terrorists in that time due to resentment of being detained for so long?

They could only get six months for Osama's chaffeur, for heaven's sake!

I think this is the right place to start -- to say that America is a nation of laws and that it will abide by the rules of habeas corpus for everyone, even those accused of being the worst of the worst.

Promise made, promise kept. Good job, sir.

UPDATE (10:01 am EST, 1501 GMT): An earlier version of this post made reference to Barack Obama's driver. Of course, I meant Osama Bin Laden. That's as bad as getting Benny Hill and Benny Hinn mixed up -- which I have.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Welcome number 44

Barack Obama was sworn in today, and he gave an inaugural speech that was more hard-hitting than I expected. But that's a good thing, I guess. He's clearly very serious and knows that it's going to take more than mere words to get the job done in repairing the breaches created at home and abroad, but that he's ready to do it. He also made it clear he can't do it alone -- and reminded his listeners his unofficial slogan was Yes, we can. Read the speech for yourself if you haven't heard it -- it covered pretty much all that needed to be covered.

The hard work begins tomorrow and the road extremely rough in the months ahead as a lot of damage that has been done has to be repaired. Whether he can live up to the hope as well as the hype will depend on a lot including circumstances beyond his control. But he has a lot of goodwill on which to start which is important.

For now, all I can think of is, thank heavens the eight year nightmare is finally over -- except to think the guy who left office today gets a pension plus free mailing privileges for the rest of his life. Ugh.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Guilty pleas in Mountie killings

It was a bit of a shock when Alberta prosecutors charged two more people with involvement in the murders of the four Mounties gunned down during a botched drug seizure operation in Mayerthorpe in 2005. While an automatic first degree murder indictment is required when a cop killing is involved it was hard to figure out how the accused could face such serious charges when they weren’t at the scene of the crime.

Today in a plea deal, the prosecutors agreed to drop the charge to manslaughter in exchange for guilty pleas. Both defendants supplied James Roszko with the rifle and drove him to the farm. When they realized what might be coming, one wanted to call the RCMP to warn them but the other talked him out of it because of fear Roszko would retaliate.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty lousy excuse. If there’s danger coming, you call it out. This isn’t yelling fire in a crowded theatre where none exists. There was a firestorm coming and they had a chance to stop the rampage – or at least make sure the Mounties were better prepared.

The defence is asking for five years each, while the prosecution is asking for ten to fifteen. Under these circumstances, I’d set the sentence at twelve, with a strong recommendation that any applications for parole be denied. There’s simply no excuse for such cowardly behaviour, and while they may not have actually pulled the trigger they aided and abetted four murders which carries a great deal of culpability in my opinion.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday notes (2009-01-18)

Mr. Obama takes office on Tuesday. Besides the very touchy economy, a few things on the go that could spoil his party:

1) So it appears that Hamas will respect the ten-day ceasefire that has been declared by Israel in the Gaza campaign -- for at least one week. That may be good news, but after three weeks and 1200 lives lost one has to wonder what has been accomplished especially when one considers that a fire was rocket after the Jerusalem government declared they had "destroyed" the ability to fire those rockets.

Of course what had to be done to stop the terrorists had to be done, but was it really necessary to hit a UN school and a Red Crescent hospital? And of those killed, how many were actually militants in Hamas? General elections in Israel are next month and as always security will be at the top. Would Obama prefer to work with Tzipi Livni or Benjamin Netanyahu? And who will the spoilers be? These are things totally out of his control no matter what conspiracy theorists may believe.

2) Meanwhile, the sabre-rattling from Pyongyang continues with the claim that North Korea now has enough plutonium to build four nuclear weapons. Big deal -- the United States probably has a couple hundred of them stationed in South Korea. And the persistent rumours about "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il's health continues which should be of concern to everyone. He's a certifiable nutcase (by our standards, anyway) but will a worse come in his place?

Will Obama stand up to Kim, or will he roll over? Can he continue to count on reliable allies like Japan and Australia or will they urge a different path to solving the Korean issue? This isn't a 100 day issue -- this could heat up in the next two weeks.

3) Finally, another "deal" to allow natural gas to flow again in Europe; but this is a major security headache for the West. While most of Europe is in the EU and therefore America's competitor, most of the EU states are also American allies in NATO and Russia's shutting off the gas again could, in these tense times, be tantamount to an act of war. If that happens again, will Obama stand by America's old friends or will he let them freeze in the dark -- after promising to restore the bridges that Dubya destroyed?

I want to be optimistic about the answers to all three, but these are crazy times we live in. And there could always be a domestic crisis -- Clinton had to deal with WTC attack #1 and the Waco Whacko in his first few months.

Stay tuned.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

4 more days ...

Four days left before Dubya finally leaves office. And there are huge expectations for Barack Obama. Frankly, I think a lot of people are expecting way too much too fast of him and him alone especially in the middle of a recession. After all, didn’t Obama say, “Yes, we can”? That’s “we,” not “me” – something American political discourse simply isn’t used to; that’s “socialism,” after all.

On the other hand, Obama doesn’t exactly have 100 days to put his best foot forward, it will be more like 50 or less. Clinton’s early stumbles may have been later overcome but it cost him a majority in Congress. Obama can’t afford that, not at a time like this.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Blame Camp David (and what it didn't say)

I'm 36 years old, but that's old enough to remember when Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat signed the Camp David Accords. Even then I understood how significant it was that an Arab state had finally made peace with Israel and the Jewish fact. But while I was barely six at the time, I noticed a big problem from what the news reports were putting out. While the agreements called for ultimate self-government for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, there was no definitive timetable, unlike the schedule for Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula -- nor was there a specific recognition of the "Palestinian problem."

There was a classic editorial cartoon a couple of years later, when the issue really began heating up again. I can't remember the byline, but it showed Begin saying basically, "We do empathize with the Palestinians. After all, we Jews were in the same position as them before 1948; so we suggest they do what we did -- wander around the desert for 2000 years." Ouch!

The issue of the West Bank is not completely simple, but there is broad consensus that the final border needs to be at or near the "Green Line" -- the pre 1967 border -- with perhaps some recognition of legal settlements. That's partly because the territory technically belonged to Jordan (albeit questionably) until it renounced its claim in 1988, around the time the first intifada started and while there is the issue of the settlements an enclavated country is not without precedent as I've noted in some previous posts.

But Gaza is a different story. It doesn't belong to any country -- not legally. Far as I know, Egypt wiped its hands of the territory decades ago after Israel chased it out back in 1967 and it did not ask for it back in 1978. Maybe this is because it worried about and still does the radicals in the territory nearly as much as Israel (although for different reasons -- many in Gaza, like in the rest of the Middle East, want a region-wide caliphate to replace the "apostate" secular governments). Not to mention the intractable refugee problem -- of those who live in Gaza, over a million, nearly ⅔ of the population in the territory, meet the accepted definition of a "displaced person." Have that many refugees in such a small territory, of course you're going to have rocket launchers.

I never thought I'd live to see the day where Carter and Pat Buchanan agreed on anything, but when one calls present Israeli policies "apartheid" and the other calls Gaza a "concentration camp" (using the same terminology a Vatican official used last week) -- well, I'll let you draw your own conclusions, but clearly 1978 was a missed opportunity to resolve some key issues.

Of course, Carter deserves a lot of credit for turning the tide and for beginning to move the process forward. He got Egypt to recognize Israel, which eventually paved the way for Jordan to do the same (sort of). But he still could have done more including an insistence that self-government for the Palestinians be front-loaded and all armed groups disarmed -- as well as ensuring those smuggling tunnels were never built in the first place. By not doing so, he's made what could have been a 4 year plan (which would have been concurrent with the three-stage withdrawal from Sinai) a 31 year stalemate which still goes on.

We know what happened to Sadat and Begin. One almost wishes Arafat was back -- as stupid as he was in not accepting Camp David II, he still would have kept the waring factions in Palestine in line. Even King Hussein of Jordan was a voice of reason, who could have pulled people together, until his health problems caught up with him.

Instead, we can look to 2000 more years of armed conflict, 2000 more years of blood and tears, 2000 years of wandering -- and even more despair. And that doesn't help anyone. Certainly not the Gazans who got shafted in 1978 and left in a no-man's land. The West Bank, impoverished as it is, almost seems like a paradise by comparison -- no wonder the Palestinians are divided as they are.

I don't like saying it, because I really respect Jimmy Carter -- but he really dropped the ball and the world's paying the price for it now. Sometimes, a half-assed agreement can be worse than none at all. And when it's the world's most contested region, everyone pays the price.

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The bigger they are, the harder they fall …

… and few companies have fit that description better than Northern Telecom. Simply Nortel in recent years, the corporation that was the backbone of more than half of the telephone receivers and switching equipment in Canada and the United States has filed for bankruptcy in both countries, to avoid paying a crippling loan payment of $100 million. While the company has about $2.3 billion cash on hand, it is actually barely worth a $¼ billion on paper yet owes more than 20 times that. Even more breathtaking, Nortel once traded at a whopping $1265 a share (after factoring in a reverse split of 1 for 10 a couple of years ago). Today’s close: 12 cents; a drop of 99.9905%.

The problem in my opinion: They should have stuck to what made them famous and improved on that. Instead they scooped up one company after another in leveraged buyouts, then got caught when the marketplace was simply saturated with fibre optics products. And of course, they got caught up in serious accounting irregularities.

A truly sad day for Canada – a homegrown success story that turned bust. What will we say to our children, if Nortel winds up being sold off to a foreign competitor – Alcatel or Nokia for instance? We barely have a railroad anymore – what if we don’t have a telecommunications firm to call our own? No bailout but we must ensure it stays in Canadian hands. Obviously, there are going to be big job losses on top of what there already have been so that's not good news either.

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Oops ...

In writing up one of my posts yesterday, I made somewhat of a goof. I provided a link to a news article on which I was commenting. While the story was bylined the UPI newswire, the link was to a news agency in Cuba. I've gotten some e-mails about this, some not too pleasant. Point taken.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Seneca tribe plans their own tolls

It's not just in Canada where relations between the federal and governments on the one hand and the First Nations on the other are strained even at the best of times.

In New York State, they have been simmering for years, not just with the feds but also the state government, and now are about to explode. The Seneca Nation, one of the tribes of the Haudenasonee, says they're trying to see if there's a way to collect their own tolls on the New York Thruway, the largest toll road in the Northeast, to be imposed on cars that drives partly through Seneca territory on the stretch running from Buffalo to the Pennsylvania state line. And Chief Barry Snyder says that's just one option in his playbook.

The flashpoint? Facing a huge budget crunch, the governor of New York State, David Paterson, is saying that he will put a stop to the shipments of tax free cigarettes to reservations in the state -- or at least force the wholesalers to collect the taxes that would be charged off-reserve.

Even before the casinos opened up in the Buffalo area, the Senecas were actually doing quite well for themselves, especially on tobacco sales. Of course, many of their customers are non-native NYS residents who don't want to pay excise taxes, which add up to several dollars a package. The Senecas say they don't have to demand that someone show ID to prove they're a native to get the native price -- and I think they're absolutely right on that.

The Senecas have revolted before in 1994 and 1997 and both times NYS backed off. But that was when the economy was good and the state was getting a fair share of the revenues, not unlike other tribal casinos in other states. Now with gambling revenues down, the thought by the state is now's a good time to get the money while they can.

Ticking off a sovereign people in the name of fiscal management? The standoff in Caledonia and Oka will be teddy bear picnics compared to what might happen in WNY if Paterson pushes this one. I'm with the natives on this one. While I agree there's no way the Senecas could be smoking 68 packs a day each (based on recent sales) there has to be a better way to raise revenues in hard times without causing provocations.

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Harper stands alone, again

It's been more than a day, but it's interesting that Canada once again has stood out at the Human Rights Council, refusing to condemn the excesses of Israel's military campaign against the leadership currently controlling the Gaza Strip. Many European countries (most of them EU members but all with significant Muslim minorities) simply chose to abstain while a large number of countries voted for the non-binding resolution. The final vote was 33-1 with 13 abstentions.

What explanation is there for this, other than Mr. Harper is solidly in the hands of the extreme religious right who equates any hint of opposition to Israel's policies as "anti-Semitism"? This is a truly disturbing sign. At a time when we're about to have a US President who while supporting an undivided Jerusalem also wants the Palestinian "question" to be settled once and for all, we have a Prime Minister who leans towards the extreme that there is no such thing as a Palestinian.

I'm half expecting him to next unban Kach - Kahane Chai, long listed as a terrorist group in Canada. Or to openly declare, as do most televangelists quietly but not openly, that the real goal of the Government of Canada is to convert the Jews in Israel to Christianity?

To suggest -- even insinuate -- that civilian Palestinians who oppose terrorism must nonetheless be punished as part of collective guilt is just as crazy as when we legally persecuted Jews, even here in Canada, for their "collective guilt" in executing Jesus (when there was none to begin with) or when blacks were discriminated against collectively not just because they were different but also because they weren't seen as the true heirs of the covenant -- the old and racist British Israelism heresy which teaches among other things that the Queen of the United Kingdom is a direct descendent of King David and the Scone Stone is really Jacob's pillow.

Harper certainly isn't like that, in the camp of the Armstrongtists, Arnold Murray, Pete Peters and so forth. But the way he's going, soon that may very well be official government policy; and all the gains we've made since World War II both in international affairs as well as race relations here will go down the toilet.

We must oppose anti-Semitism by every means possible. I do. But there is a distinction to be made between the government of Israel and the Jewish people who live in the State of Israel.

Many people within Israel itself opposes the current campaign or questions where this is going. Does that make them anti-Semitic?

The rocket attacks from Gaza must stop. There is no question of that. But is killing hundreds of civilians, many of whom may actually oppose Hamas, the way to do that? Are we to suggest that a thousand Palestinians is worth one Israeli? Isn't every human being on our planet of equal worth? And is it really worth making a million and a half people jammed into an area barely twice the size of DC and already in misery suffer even more, just to round up a couple thousand fanatics?

For what it's worth, most people who claim they "support" Israel can't find Israel or the Occupied Territories on a map. They can't even find America, and it's got problems enough of its own. We know which televangelists they support and how they vote. That says enough. At least more people who support reason voted the other way in November for the first time in ages.

Even Brian Mulroney would have a better perspective on the Middle East problem than what we're getting now which is saying a lot. Harper needs to be clear on this once and for all -- where and when will he find the time to criticize Israel where appropriate? If he can do it for dictatorships, he certainly can do so for fellow democracies -- as most leaders in the free world do. Heck, the heads of government within the EU go at each other, let alone at countries outside the bloc.

But Harper can't be bothered to be critical even for ten seconds with a juggernault like the US or a beacon of hope like the Promised Land for fear of sending the wrong signals.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Thank God, only eight more days

Shrub had his final news conference as President today. He actually admitted he made some mistakes today, not the least of which was the now infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner just two months after the war started and which the White House later attempted to censor on pics of the event at its website.

Bush isn't as stupid as many of us would like to believe. An idiot just doesn't come off the street and earns an MBA and / or runs a professional baseball team.

His initial leadership in 9/11 was quite admirable, but then he fumbled it. Out of the worst disaster to befall America since Pearl Harbor, he could have brought the country together but instead decided to go on the foreign money markets to finance a disasterous war that has made the world much less safe and a relatively stable country a failed state. As far as Afghanistan goes, well he gave Osama Bin Laden a six week head start and seven years later he's still the world's most wanted man -- and even with bounties from over a hundred countries totalling well over $100 million no one is yet willing to rat Voldemort out.

Rather than seek to make America energy independent, Bush made the world even more dependent on oil sheiks who fund terrorists. Nice way of shooting us in the foot, sir.

There were warning signs that the economy was also in trouble, but Bush chose to ignore what was obvious to most. Rather than make lemonade out of a lemon, he tried to make plywood out of sawdust and instead turned it into muck. History may be kinder to him, as it was to Herbert Hoover, but for now he's going down as the worst President that America has ever had.

Even his father wouldn't have made the kind of risks that Dubya did. I don't pity the man, but this was the most pathetic presidency of my lifetime.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Toronto (black) school question

In other news, the number of applicants for the proposed "Afro-centric" school in Toronto was, at least as of a couple of days ago, way below expectations. Only 15 students had enrolled and the Toronto school board saying it needs at least 40 students to be viable. We don't know what the final enrollment numbers will be but it may still fall short.

I said some time ago it was a very bad idea to begin with. I still think it is if it actually goes ahead. Our schools should be teaching our kids to be Canadians period, not Canadians of a certain ethnic or racial origin. Aren't we segregated as it is?

On the one hand, we have our education system to blame. When I was in school (a predominantly white school), they made a point about teaching about the Underground Railroad, Africtown in Halifax, and the dangers of prejudice overall.

They even taught us about the infamous Regulation 13 which was an attempt to ethnically cleanse the French from Ontario in the pre World War I eara.

Now, they only teach Canadian history past World War II. That's it. No underground railroad, no Confederation, no Louis Riel, no Manitoba School Question, no Reg 13 and squat about Africtown and the Holocaust. Only "multiculturalism." We cannot understand why we came to that policy if we don't understand the history behind it. I don't blame the teachers who want to teach the truth, I blame the jackasses at the Ministry of Education who's forcing their hands.

And then the government blames us for ignorance?

Where's the pride? And it's not a black problem -- it's our problem. And by us, I mean all of us.

Bill Cosby was right on this one -- this whole notion of a "black" education or teaching "ebonics" is baloney. The kids do have their share of the blame but so do the parents who would rather, as he said, spend $500 on shoes rather than less than half of that teaching phonics. His "Poundcake" speech is still controversial five years later but it goes right to the point. And while he was speaking mostly to blacks I think the message applies to all of us.

We need to take our schools back, and our kids, before things are too late. Even if open to all, schools that teach from a narrow point of view -- which they do already -- is the worst place to start.

This isn't an issue of black and white. This is our problem, our responsibility. We need to be teaching tolerate to our children but we don't have to add insult to injury. It's not the education that's the problem; it's the parents and society that doesn't fix the broken windows the moment they're broken. Why is it that some pizza chains don't serve whole neighbourhoods after a certain time? It's not the blacks, or Arabs, or whatever section of society. It's because after that certain time, people of all races, all religions -- at least the troublemakers within their respective groups -- that go in and cause the problems and make us live in fear.

I'm a progressive, but I will not accept fear as the price of progress. Progress should mean hope. This is one issue we should be standing up with our conservative brothers and sisters -- even if we don't necessarily agree with the means, I think we agree on the ends of making education better and reducing crime. But it starts with good parents who make sure their kids keep their sticks on the ice rather than sliding on thin ice right into the prisoner's box of a courtroom.

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Sweet justice

Is it possible there may have been some sweet justice in the oil tanker hijacking case after all? After hijacking the Sirius Star, carrying the equivalent of a third of the daily output in Saudi Arabia, and demanding $25 million only to see the price of oil drop -- the hijackers settled for just $3 million and released the crew. Fortunately, the crew is safe.

The money was dropped by helicopter and the pirates left of their own accord. Now it looks like five of the terrorists got caught up in a storm, their boat capsized and they went down -- along with their share of the $3 million.

Good riddance. And screw anyone who would impede peaceful international traffic.

The waters of the Gulf of Aden, indeed all international waters, are open to all and we need the assurance of peaceful trade ... the Law of the Sea needs to be ratified by those countries which have not (especially the United States) and navies given the power to apprehend pirates for trial in the countries where the ships are registered. As far as Somalia goes, nearly 20 years of anarchy is enough -- it's time for a peace deal and a normalized government again, one that would have the authority to stop this kind of banditry.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

How bad can it get: Here are today's canaries

1694. You have to go that far back to find a time when interest rates were lower in the UK than they are today. Ever. Voltaire was born that year, and Queen Mary II died. The new interest rate that banks can charge each other -- 1½%, down from 5% just three months ago. Maybe it's me, but that's a real sign of desperation that they have to cut rates that low, practically giving it away -- that is, if the banks are in the mood to release credit.

Meanwhile, the new Dante that will lead us into the next golden age, Barack Obama, is saying it's going to be worse before it gets better. Like we needed to be told that. The new price of his stimulus package: $800 billion. You could buy 800,000 MRI machines -- pretty much one for every 375 Americans -- for that money. Or you could feed the entire planet for several years.

UPDATE (8:14 pm EST, 0114 Friday GMT): For those who were wondering about my comment about Obama being the next Dante, I was being sarcastic, folks. It's a line from one of the many "prefaces" by Freddy Engels to the Communist Manifesto.

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Finally, arrests against the FLDS

It's about damn time, but two rival leaders of the British Columbia branch of the FLDS "church," Winston Blackmore and James Oler, have finally been charged with polygamy.

My question is, why didn't Bill "Fantastic" Vander Zalm, a social conservative worthy of Rush Limbaugh, didn't put a stop to the bullshit in Bountiful when he was Premier 20 years ago?

What about it, Bill -- or anyone else in the Socred administration at the time? Freedom of religion doesn't apply here, because freedom of religion cannot be used a shield to create unsustainable families. That in and of itself violates the social order which is why the law says only two people at a time can be married, whether they are of the opposite or the same sex.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Calling Surgeon General ... Gupta?

I had to read this one myself to make sure I wasn't reading it wrong. But yes, Sanjay Gupta of CNN (also serving as a practicing neurosurgeon and professor of medicine at Emory University), may get the job of Surgeon General under Sen. Obama when the latter takes office as President in less than two weeks.

The Office of the US Surgeon General, who is the titular head of the US Public Health Service and hold the rank of a three star admiral, is one of those positions that's very hard to define; usually, it has been the Surgeons-General that have done that. The Office was created by Ulysses Grant in the 1870s but it doesn't really have a direct impact on public policy although it does have the force of persuasion.

The most famous examples are Luther Terry who warned in 1964 about the link between tobacco and cardio-respiratory problems and which led to the first warning labels on tobacco packages and in advertising two years later; and C. Everett Koop in the 1980s who confounded paleoconservatives in actively promoting the ABC agenda to fight AIDS and Hepatitis-C (abstinence first, being monogamous, contraceptives).

Then of course, there are the duds like Jocelyn Elders who suggested decriminalization of drugs ought to be pursued and that masturbation should be taught in schools as a way to reduce VDs. While she was right on both counts, she proved to be too hot to handle even for Slick Willy Clinton and he promptly fired her.

What kind of mark could Dr. Gupta leave on the office? That's up to him of course but I think he could be a powerful advocate. He certainly is the kind of doctor most people would want -- obviously they can't even hope to afford him the way things are now.

However, he famously confronted Michael Moore on CNN and questioned the overall accuracy of Moore's documentary, Sicko. It turned out Moore had the facts on his side even if he did downplay the negatives of the public health care systems in Canada, the UK, France and Cuba -- and even Gupta was forced to concede to Moore he'd rather want to make medical decisions for his patients himself rather than rely on a call centre 1000 miles away to get "approval." Not that I totally agreed with Moore about the film either -- but Gupta didn't come out looking good on that one.

That beef aside, Obama needs a "devil's advocate" or advocates rather than just relying on a choir of the converted as Dubya has done over the last fourteen years of his executive political career, and Gupta is an entirely appropriate countervoice going forward.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How many more scandals, OLG?

This must be one of the craziest stories I've heard in a while, but given the corruption at the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation in denying rightful winners in on-line lottery games in favour of insiders for so long before they were finally called out on it by the MSM, this one doesn't surprise me.

Seems that because of a misprint on some four scratch and lose tickets, one unfortunate Ontario man thought he had won the grand total of $135,000. What did he win? SQUAT!

You would think there'd be some better quality control in manufacturing tickets, especially after all of the controversy they've already faced. This one has class action lawsuit written all over it -- about 1100 misprints are out there -- and it will be us, the Ontario taxpayer, who picks up the tab if it's successful.

I'll get back into the political thing soon -- right now, I'm at a loss for words on more important stories.

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Ground war begins in Gaza

What will Stephen Harper's position be now that Israel has begun a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip? Will he demand a pullback, or say sublimely that he "supports Israel"? Or will he just say, there's no such thing as Gaza or the West Bank -- it's all Israel; just like most televangelists do?

Let's be honest, a ground war will not stop the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel proper. Of course, they must be responded to since they're not stopping. As well both Hamas and Egypt share the blame for not sealing up the underground tunnels between the two. But will a blockade, invasion, and imposing a collective guilt punishment and starving people to death really solve anything? This looks like it could go on for months, not just days.

Canada could be acting as a broker in this present crisis, should be doing so in fact, but the Conservatives have abandoned all pretense of neutraity on the issue of the Middle East. Their position is in a sentence: Jew good, Arab bad. It's not that simple as that -- not all Palestinians in Gaza support Hamas and its terrorist aims; they want an end to the rocket attacks as well. Not all Jews support Israel's democratic government; Kach-Kahane Chai (while banned in the country as well as by Canada, the US and the EU) is still a very dangerous force in the country and some US and Canadians evangelicals quietly support this terrorist group. A small minority amongst evangelicals (the majority of which wish for naught but peace) but it's the bully pulpit that seems to have the ear of the PMO these days.

And we in Canada are going to get the blowback from that sooner rather than later. I support the State of Israel, and I always will -- let that be made clear again if I haven't made it clear before. But it looks like for the second time in about 30 months the Promised Land is shooting itself in the foot once more. Harper needs to be both strong as well as pragmatic. But being fair doesn't come easy to a bully.

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Travolta's son, 16, dead

16 year old Jett Travolta, the son of actors John Travolta and Kelly Preston, was found dead in a hotel in the Bahamas where the family was vacationing. It is believed he died from a seizure. It is not clear right now if he was taking medication for his seizures which he has had since he was two ... but given the parents' well known association with the Church of Scientology, one has to wonder.

Of course, I offer my condolences to Mr. Travolta and Ms Preston as well as their daughter, Ella. Losing a son and brother must be almost unbearable.

I also write this to point out that if I had a child and he or she was getting seizures -- in fact even had just one -- I wouldn't rely on a regimen of vitamins or food prescribed by a think-tank. I also would not blame seizures on chemicals in cleaning products unless there was peer-reviewed scientific proof and not just anecdotal evidence. I would go to one or more doctors to get the help he or she needed, in hope of curing or at least minimizing the seizures.

As a Christian I believe in the power of prayer, and the effect that the mental can have on the physical. I also support the exhortation of Jesus that those of us who are sick need a physician, literally (Matthew 9:12). Thus, if I'm ill I seek medical help but also ask God to give my doctors and nurses the guidance to find what's wrong with me so I can get the best treatment. When my father was in a coma a couple of years ago, I didn't call someone who said, inject him with some herbs and let's see if he wakes up. I called 911 and prayed that my father would wake up. Fortunately, he did -- even if it took eleven days in the ICU before he did.

I know that medicine without faith and vice versa is impossible -- and that one can't buy one's way out of an illness (i.e. by tithing to a false televangelist). While natural supplements may offer an alternative they need to be subjected to the same scrutiny as drugs. We know many things that are all natural but have very harmful effects.

Don't forget, one of Jesus' possé was Luke who was a doctor -- the rest of the travelling company with the Man from Galilee, both men and women, couldn't obviously ask their master to heal every single nick or scrape. They let their in-house medic handle those and delegated only the heavy-duty stuff to the boss.

This tragedy will no doubt raise even more scrutiny on a certain castle in Los Angeles. But if physicians are willing to put themselves and their treatments to review then so should the Church of Scientology and its members; if it has nothing to hide then now's as good as time as any to show that.

In no way do I blame Scientology for what happened to Mr. Travolta; obviously the earlier regimen the parents relied on must have done something beneficial -- however, if Kawasaki disease is supposed to subside by eight or nine and Jett was still having seizures into his teens, then the parents need to be asked if they had taken all prudent steps to ensure that this was a tragic accident and nothing more.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

RIP Claiborne Pell

This was a forward thinking and really progressive guy. Claiborne Pell, the longtime former Senator from Rhode Island who was as close to nobility as it gets in America. His bloodline included people who fought on both sides of the Revolution, a vice-president and five members of Congress. He was one of the heirs of a tobacco fortune and he married into a family that controls a major supermarket chain.

But he also had a genuine affection for blue-collar Schmos (unlike the faux sympathy exhibited by the Kennedys). Pell died yesterday at 90.

Sen. Pell was big on funding arts, education and the humanities; but is best known for introducing the Pell Grants in the 1970s, which offered subsidies for lower income students to attend university. As well he fought to expand student loans guarantees for everyone else. This was during the Nixon Administration, it should be pointed out, but here was a Democrat who was able to play in Nixon's royal court and win. Sadly, those grants -- one of the key planks of higher education in America for more than 30 years was slashed brutally in 2006 as part of massive budget cuts needed to fund the Iraq misadventure and the grants are about 20% less than what they should be right now.

However, his important contributions in seeking out the best in us rather than the worst is truly noteworthy and for that I salute him. Hopefully, in the painful cuts that Obama will have to make when he takes over the White House in less than three weeks there will be room to bring back Pell funding to where it should be (it would take about $12.5 billion more to do that). In this job market, retraining should be available to the maximum number of people and not just those who can afford it via their own means.

Having physically fit students is important (hence the need for sports and recreation) but also important is developing the arts and social sciences. We need well rounded people who can enjoy the opera or live theatre as much as NASCAR or ice hockey. And they need to come from all classes, not just segregated into one group that likes this and another that likes that. Pell understood that.

If we only had that kind of vision in Canada. If only we had someone who saw the big picture and saw the long-term rather than short term expediencies. Iggy may have a better idea about that but even he's not quite fully there. Of course, Harper is content to be "a fruit," as he himself put it, and is willing to see younger Canadians turn into fruits as well.

And we all know what happens when we squeeze most fruits.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Negative Option CD-ROMs

Happy New Year to one and all. Let this be a good year and may good triumph over evil in whatever form it may take.

For the last number of years or so, we've all seen those commercials for something called "Video Professor." You know, get a "free" CD-ROM instructional video that teaches you anything and everything you wanted to know about 80 or so computer programs, or how to buy and sell on eBay. The pitch -- once you try one of their products, you'll want to keep buying more stuff.

I've been wondering what the catch could be? Then I did a simple google and it became obvious: It's set up like one of those book or CD clubs. Every month, you're offered a new lesson. If you don't mail that card back in time saying you don't want it, you get dinged on your pre-authorized credit card -- up to $80 US a month. Yes, the continuity sales model or what we call "negative option billing."

Certainly, they're entitled to run their business that way -- it's not illegal. But has it turned me off from even wanting to try it? You bet it has. No question, some people actually get something out of negative option billing -- I have a friend who actually wanted to get children's educational books that her kid benefited from, until her then husband cancelled the subscription without informing her he'd done so. You can imagine how the kid felt when he found out daddy took away his books.

But it should be stated up front in bold, not in fine print, what the terms and conditions are. There's no such thing as a free home alarm (there's usually a four year minimum contract), any more than there is a "free" instructional video -- it doesn't cost all that much to mail a CD-ROM, just oversize postage and it costs, what, 50 cents to burn a disk?

It's the old, I wish I'd thought of that ... so yeah, I respect the guy for that. But there's no such thing as a free lunch.

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