Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hypothetical question #2

Just when you thought the story about the woman who gave birth to octuplets, after she already had six children, could not get any more bizarre ... a major adult filmmaker in Hollywood, Vivid Entertainment, has offered Nadya Suleman $1 million plus a year of free health insurance for the family. That is ... if she agrees to start in a pornographic film, probably filed under their increasingly popular category of MILFs. (Google or Yahoo it if you don't know what that means.)

She may be tempted -- the hospital is still refusing to release the eight children until she can provide evidence she can provide them with an adequate place to stay, and as it is her present home is facing foreclosure for being behind about $23,000.

Whatever choices this woman has made -- and I am in no place to judge her -- she needs her children, she needs prayers, and she needs gifts, lots of them.

But -- and if I may be blunt -- this was not my idea of a "pearl necklace," if you know what I mean.

It's been a while since I asked my last hypothetical question (about sleeping with the boss or the boss's opposite sex significant other to get a long overdue promotion) -- so, folks: If the only way you could keep your children from going into foster care was to expose yourself to potentially millions of discerning men and women, both singles as well as crazy couples trying to spice up their lives -- and if you are already a mother -- would you take the money?

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Will Armageddon start at the North Pole?

A rather nasty confrontation last week as some Russian Tupelovs were dancing around in the High Arctic. It's not clear whether the planes actually entered Canadian airspace or were going to be in a holdover pattern -- in any case, two Canadian F18's intercepted the Russians and turned them back. Naturally, the Russians denied they were anywhere near our airspace. The timing, just before the Obama visit, was more than just curious.

This has been going on for quite some time but it is one of the rare ocassions we've heard anything about it. Is Stephen Harper just playing tough guy, saying we're here to defend our land -- land which most of the world, including the US, says is in international waters?

Or could this be the beginning of a potentially larger and more serious confrontation? Either way, we need to be very careful. We definitely have to defend our land -- but this is a case where it's better that the provocatoins be kept to a minimum. As it is, right now the Arctic nations are mapping out their ocean continental shelves and could declare any extensions to be their sovereign territory. The Russian had a claim which was rejected but is being resubmitted, meanwhile Canada has until 2013 to assert its claim.

If the Arctic Ocean beyond the 200 mile limit of all states was, as was Antarctica, international territory, then there wouldn't be an issue -- and making it nuclear free would require some long range missiles to be reprogrammed to go around countries' latitutdes, not longtitudes; making them less of a threat and giving more time to respond in case of a false alarm or launch.

Of course, hail to the good men and women who brave subzero temperatures months at a time to be our first line of defence. Let us pray they never have to take down an enemy in anger.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Fighting the drug wars, Harper style

Yesterday the Conservatives announced more stringent minimum sentences for gang-related activities, including a minimum four year sentence for merely firing a gun during a drive-by shooting. It also wants to introduce harder sentences for selling drugs related to gang operations. The opposition parties have said they'll go along but they want more done.

There is no question in my mind that we should be getting tough on organized and gangland crime, and for those who commit the crimes they should do the time. But once again, we're throwing a sledgehammer without attempting to deal with some of the root causes. There are kingpins who are incorrigible but many people turn to crime because they have no alternative means of making an income -- that doesn't make it right, of course; but it's like the old story about a man stealing bread to feed his family. Should he get the same punishment for doing the right thing as someone who steals a million bucks from his employees' pension fund?

It is good to see that first time offenders will have the option of going to drug treatment -- but kind of programs will be developed?

There's no mention of ending the two-for-one credit suspects get on sentences for pre-conviction custody. Some cases take so long to get to trial that the sentence is time served. Not acceptable.

Finally, what about fixing the "Broken Windows"? This is a bold and proven strategy to reducing gang activity, albeit a bit controversial. Why won't the Conservatives at least give it a try -- it's not like no one has tried it anyway. So once again, it's tough on crime, but not tough on the causes of crime. Cracking down on the latter is not a conservative or liberal issue -- it's a Canadian issue.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

"The government approved it."

There are bank losses, and then there are bank losses. Today, the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the biggest banks in the world (and one of the printers of currency -- or really promissory notes tied to pounds sterling -- in Scotland), announced a loss for 2008 of £24.1 billion -- or about USD 34.8 billion. Even more strangely is the former chair of the bank Sir Fred Goodwin, who is widely blamed for the record loss, is refusing to give up his £693,000 annual pension for life, claiming "the government approved it."

I don't know about you, but if a bank bleeds that much money, then the first thing affected are pensions -- and I think in that situation executives should be the first to pay their benefits back. It is simply wrong to make the employees or customers of a financial institution pay for the mismanagement of the bigshots. Especially, when the London government has loaned RBS £25 billion and agreed to carry about £325 billion in its bad debts ...

I don't know how some of these bank executives sleep at night. Oh yeah, "on a big pile of money, with lots of beautiful women."

As for the "government approving it" -- well, such a government should get fired.

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No commitment to local television

Good morning ... unless you're in Wingham or Windsor. Yesterday CTV announced that stations in the two communities -- part of the A-Channel net -- will shut down later this year. It's not clear whether the transmitters will go off the air all together or if they'll just become repeaters of the signal and newscast in London, but it's obvious that there is no commitment to local television anymore from the Conservative TeleVision Network. The excuse made, that the CRTC's decision last year to deny networks the right to demand carriage fees from cable and satellite, is just pathetic.

CTV is also threatening to shut down a station in Brandon, Manitoba that is owned by CTV but operates as a CBC affiliate. CBC says it will no longer pay its competitor to carry its programming, and would rather have a repeat transmitter to carry the Winnipeg signal.

Both, simply put, are unacceptable. The lack of commitment to community program is bad enough, but to tell people of an entire region that they no longer can have their fix of the state broadcaster they pay taxes into -- even temporarily -- is just plain wrong.

Not that CBC is any better, of course -- they're ending their suppertime newscast in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Just as bad, in my opinion.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Québec pension loss: 40 big ones

Pension plans have certainly taken a beating. But this is huge. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which manages public service pensions in the province as well as the trust fund for workers' compensation and automobile accident benefits -- and most significantly, the Régime des rentes du Québec (RRQ), had a huge loss last year -- $39.8 billion, or about 25% of its book value.

Perhaps most Canadians outside of the province have never heard of the Caisse, after all they pay into the Canada Pension Plan and not the RRQ as Québecois do. But the Caisse's investment strategy is behind a lot of the success of industries of all sizes and all sectors, primarily in the province but also across Canada. To be fair, it has made some of the same basic investment mistakes that private sectors plans have; but to lose that much public money so fast is quite embarrassing. And while current payments are of course protected, one has to wonder about the status of future benefits.

Some have repeated the accusation today that Jean Charest called the early election in the province last year to get ahead of what was going to be a nasty announcement. I highly dispute that -- most people in a minority situation would want to get out of it as soon as possible, no matter what the warning signs were outside the political realm. Also while the board is appointed by the Cabinet it does operate at arms' length and no one wants to be seen as being too interventionist when it comes to pensions. There has to be a lot of questions asked and it is good that they are going to be in a public inquiry.

But it's worth remembering that if someone tried to lose $40 billion on purpose in pension money in the private sector, those responsible would go to jail. I'm not suggesting criminal intent here, but I don't expect the SQ or the Mounties to be raiding Caisse headquarters any time soon.

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Joke of a "watershed"

It's just a thought, folks, but here's some brain candy for you -- for those who get SexTV, the sex education and soft-porn channel on satellite and extended cable, has anyone noticed they're now showing the "blue" stuff as early as 9:30 pm Eastern -- which is 6:30 pm Pacific? It used to start about 2½ hours later when it was owned by Moses Znaimer but now that it's owned by CTV ... I checked and it appears the watershed of 9:00 pm applies to all time zones, not just Eastern, and it also applies to cable as well as broadcast television. (Premium services are, of course, exempt.)

Look, not that I have anything against that kind of broadcast material, actually, even if the scenes cooked up are half-baked. But kids are a lot smarter than we think and they know how to get around passwords. In this case, it's often not even necessary to have a password. Maybe teens could have use for the material, but little kids? It's more than just a little worrying, especially since the private broadcaster's "self-regulator" has allowed full frontal nudity (both male and female) during day time as long as it's "non-sexual." Whatever that means.

We need to clarify what is acceptable and what isn't. And no double standards either -- gay male sex should be as permissable as lesbian sex, male genitalia should be as "non offensive" as female. We have enough problems with gay and lesbian bookstores (like Little Sisters and Glad Day) running into trouble with customs over "obscene" books when the same books are sent without question to mainstream stores like Indigo. It's time we were clear about when we can broadcast sex as well.

I'm not saying three in the morning, but 6:30 in the evening is way too early.

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Morning notes (2009-02-25)

Today should have been a very happy day in the Mother Parliament, Westminster. They were going to unveil the official portrait for former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; and the ailing "Iron Lady" was going to be there for the ceremony and to be honoured by today's generation of politicians, perhaps for the last time as she continues to decline from dementia.

But that, as well as today's Prime Minister's Question Time, have both been called off -- owing to the death of the six year old disabled son of Conservative leader David Cameron. Ivan Cameron had cerebral palsy and epilepsy. I suspect the cancellations also have to do with the fact that the PM, Gordon Brown, lost a daughter himself (Jennifer, who was born prematurely and died less than two weeks later) and has a son with cystic fibrosis.

Of course, I offer my condolences. I don't know what it's like to have a kid, let alone a challenged kid, but I know families that do and every single day is a struggle.

Also in the news this morning, an airliner from Turkey crashed as it landed at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. Breaking up into three pieces it's hard to imagine how anyone could walk away, but the reports are that most did -- about 130 of the 135 on board. This comes one day after Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who with his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles made that now famous landing in the Hudson River, told Congress that due to major cutbacks in salary and pensions, and inexperienced pilots getting hired after just 300 hours of flying time (Mr. Sullenberger needed 3000 when he got hired 30 years ago) the next time might not be so fortunate. Even more shocking is that the flight crew has had to moonlight on weekends on a second job just to make ends meet.

A pilot or flight attendant should not have to do that in my opinion. Nor have to give up his or her pension just because of high fuel and structural costs at the airlines.

Finally, a growing number of states are seeing the economics of a death penalty regime as simply just not adding up ... and they are actively considering doing the politically unthinkable, just getting rid of capital punishment all together. Frankly I think the moral argument against far outweighs the cost-benefit analysis but at least someone gets it. They did in New Jersey and now it looks like seven more states -- Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire and New Mexico (a good mix of "red" and "blue" states) -- may be joining the abolitionist club.

In Rome, they have a custom of lighting up the Coliseum -- where the early Christians were fed to the lions -- in celebration of each time a country or sub-national jurisdiction gets rid of the death penalty. Wouldn't it be nice if all of the remaining retentionist states did so, so the famous landmark could shine for five weeks straight?

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

US troops coming home, or going somewhere else

Obama is set to announce this week -- maybe even during tonight's address to Congress -- that America will pull out combat troops out of Iraq by August 2010, about three months longer than he said he would have liked to during the campaign. This would leave about 30,000 or so "advisors" who are in any case scheduled to depart by December 2011.

Good news but the fact is the troops never should have been there in the first places. There were many ways to remove Mr. Hussein from power that would not have involved such a massive and reckless military operation that has cost so much that America now has to go cap in hand just to run the day to day operations of the government. And there are so many places in America that need to be guarded, chemical plants, ports and places of commerce -- places that could have benen protected without having to violate posse comitatus.

Imagine if the trillion dollars spent in Mesopotamia had instead been spent building infrastructure in the States ... but alas, hindsight is, well you know. And in any case many of those troops are going to be redeployed to Afghanistan which is becoming an increasingly hopeless campaign.

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A bit too "Ambitious" for Hamilton? (And Toronto for that matter?)

Hamilton used to be called the Ambitious City. I haven't heard that expression used here in a long time. Now they're trying to get the spark back -- but is this the way to do it?

Hamilton City Council voted 12-3 yesterday, after a marathon debate, to pledge $60 million towards the construction of a new downtown stadium and velodrome that would serve as one of the main facilities for the 2015 Pan American Games, if Toronto wins the bid later this year. The facility would replace the rickety Ivor Wynne Stadium which already needs $20 million in "emergency" repairs and as much as $86 million to be totally refurbished.

That's all well and good, that Hamilton could get a stadium that could actually host the Grey Cup again ... but there are a few problems. First, the money is coming from the "Future Fund," the surplus that was created when Hamilton Hydro was turned into a money making operation after deregulation. It started with $137 million but was quickly tapped into for all sorts of slush projects; this would nearly deplete the fund. It was never meant to be used except for major financial emergencies such as the present recession, and replenished when times got better.

Second, the stadium on paper is a bare bones facility, just enough to meet international standards. A real stadium will require a lot more seats, and a lot more corporate funding -- and right now the money just isn't there.

Third, while not much expropriation would be required for the preferred site on Bay Street, it is still a few blocks walk away from the proposed east-west light rail line along Main, and the north-south line on James / Upper James is still a long ways off after that. This has the potential of being a parking nightmare -- just ask the residents in the North End who have to have special permits so they can keep their spots during festivals at Bayfront and Pier 4 Parks.

Fourth, and this is most important, the legacy issue is all too often overstated. City Halls across the region point to the benefits that Victoria and Manchester got after their respective Commonwealth Games. True, but Victoria was already a government town that got icing on the cake with year round training facilities; Manchester had a derelict part of town that was rejuvenated, but now like most of the UK is reeling from the recession.

The Olympics: We know what happened in Montréal, the Big Owe was only paid off in 2006 and is a dinosaur, the adjacent Velodrome has been turned into an environmental museum about pollution in the Americas, and the only thing left worth anything there is an observation tower with jack-high admission fees. The good training facilities cost the provincial government an arm and a leg to maintain. Atlanta -- well that was a joke, it was an international city anyway. Athens -- many of their facilities are already rotting just five years after the games.

And for cities that have hosted Pan-Am Games -- Indianapolis? Winnipeg? My point exactly.

It's great to be part of a major showcase and to host it. But expectations should be made much lower than they are being made. Talk is always about assets being created, but these should actually be booked as liabilities as most accountants do.

And given a lot of A-list athletes actually pass up on Pan Am, saving their strength for the world championships for their respective sports (usually held the same year) and the Summer Olympics the following year, we and the rest of the Golden Horseshoe may very well wind up hosting second stringers. That's not my idea of a world showcase. Get someone like a dream team to play; or get Lance Armstrong or another top cyclist to compete in a real one day event and not a three week "tour" -- you might convince me.

If Toronto gets this thing, and when the facilities wind up half-empty in six years, don't expect me to say I told you so. I still can't figure out why Toronto didn't just go for the Big Kahuna and bid for the Olympics ... if they want this part of the world to be taken seriously; of course, that would have been an even bigger white elephant.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Question Period -- at the White House

Quite an unusual sight today at the White House. After a panel discussion about how to fix the ailing US economy, President Obama opened up the floor to Q and A. Not from reporters, but from business leaders, analysts and most notably politicians from the legislative branch both friend and foe -- and the opening question came from his opponent in last year's election, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). This is almost unprecedented in the American experience; we tend to see that thing in Question Period in Canada or the UK or Australia.

Very refreshing, and an indication that Obama is serious about a different kind of politics, one with more give and take and certainly more accountability from the executive branch than what we've come to expect since the Reagan Administration. And interestingly, McCain's question was about the Marines wanting to procure a new generation of helicopters to replace the fleet that currently serves the President -- the current fleet being, believe it or not, Sikorsky Sea Kings! (The 1960's era helicopters that are a constant source of irritation for Canada but seem to work just fine for Americans.) Obama replied every discretionary item is under review right now -- and by the way, he's quite happy with Marine One just the way it is.

Unfortunately, there's only so much you can cut on the discretionary side. Even in defence he only has so much room since he wants to refocus America on Afghanistan as it pulls out of Iraq.

Like Canada and most other developed nations, the US is bound and gagged by entitlement payments -- social security for seniors and the unemployed, Medicare for seniors, Medicaid for welfare recipients, farm subsidies, etc. That's not necessarily a bad thing, a developed economy should have a safety net for its most vulnerable.

But in the States, with the first flight of baby boomers set to start collecting their pensions in just two years, and far fewer people paying into FICA to pay for pensions and UI than those collecting benefits (the ratio used to be 8 payers for every payee, now it's closer to 2 to 1 and shrinking rapidly) this is a ticking time bomb. Obama is going to have to very courageous in the budget he releases later this week, and be willing to make major reforms on who qualifies and when. People who are about to collect should of course get their benefits; but people some years away are going to have to have their future entitlements slashed -- no two ways about it.

And in his speech to Congress tomorrow night, he'll have to say that "Yes we can" is going to mean major sacrifices across all classes and not just a rollback of tax cuts for the top 2%.

At this rate, I think Obama has to say as clearly as possible that America is going to need major shock therapy to recover. And it's not just the US.

How bad is it? We've seen major protests in Ireland this past weekend, where the right wing government now wants civil servants in the ex-Celtic Tiger to being to pay for their public service pensions -- which will mean a raise in the payroll tax of up to €2800 (about $3500) per year. On the other side of the EU in Latvia, the former Baltic Tiger has had to turn to the IMF, the World Bank and its EU partners for an emergency loan, upwards of €7.5 billion (about $9.5 billion) -- and just like the UK in the 1970s some embarrassing austerity measures have had to be put in. We still remember the protests in Greece and the UK as well.

And an unstable Europe will certainly lead to greater instability in America. It's incredible that some would say that the world is experiencing "tension" and not a recession. If tension this is, then I'd to know when the bottom's going to fall out from under all of us!

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Common sense on Cuba at last?

One of the strangest aspects of US foreign policy has been and continues to be Cuba. In 50 years, only one President -- Carter -- made any serious effort to try to stabilize the extremely difficult conditions Cubans live in due to the trade embargo, and even Carter was stymied by a very aggressive Congress.

Steve Clemons of the Washington Note, a long time opponent of the sanctions, reports that tomorrow Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will release a staff report saying it is time for a major rethink of US strategy -- pointing out sanctions have been effective against countries like South Africa, but totally ineffectual against Cuba. (Report in PDF here.)

The report was written in response to Hillary Clinton (now Secretary of State) and her testimony during her confirmation hearings that the Obama administration would take a fresh look at the status quo, in particular the fact that since the early 1980s Cuba has been classified a "state sponsor of terrorism." It notes that the dream of so many, including the Cuban-American "leadership" that democracy will just rush in to Cuba at the snap of a finger is extremely unlikely given how institutionalized communism is in the country.

Still, the report says, there have been very minor improvements in the last year or so -- including the fact that about a ⅓ of political prisoners have been released, cell phones which were long banned are now permitted, and lands long under "collective farms" but never actually exploited are now being turned over the private sector. This has raised Cuba from a 7 to a 6 in Freedom House rankings for civil liberties, certainly still a "not free country" but no longer on the bottom rung with such repulsive regimes as those which rule North Korea, Burma, and Sudan.

Also the report notes that while Cuba still views some programs being run by the States as "provocative," not the least of which is Radio and TV Martí, they do want to have a dialogue on issues such as drug trafficking and independence from OPEC oil -- something most countries should be cooperating on anyway. The saying goes that "Latin American policy goes through Cuba" and there's little doubt countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean view the US with suspicion because of the continued blockade.

The report does not say open the gates wide open right away ... but there should be easing of restrictions on sales of food, medical supplies and travel as well as remittances from families in America to Cuba as an act of good will.

There's no question this is going to raise the ire of the true believers. But the fact is Cuba has found other trade partners -- most notably Canada, Mainland China and Venezuela -- and while it is a hard slog in the island country it has managed to defy its enemies. America has lost out on a lot of trade opportunities over the last fifty years in the name of ideology. Opening up to Cuba would instantly give it a new market. People in the tourist industry or who are getting remittances are buying American products at hard currency stores -- which have to import the roundabout away via Mexico, Canada or other countries. Cut the import / export costs by allowing direct shipments, more people buy, more products sold -- a shot in the arm for the US economy. Some might call this a "zero sum stimulus" and it is exactly that.

The Castro brothers are total jerks, without question, but they're not the devil incarnate and they're certainly not the anti-Christ.

I think President Obama should heed Lugar's team's advice ... he is a voice of reason trying to break through a completely insane American policy. There is no chance at all that Cuba is going to launch missiles against the US any time soon, the evidence Cuba sponsors terrorist groups is specious to say the least -- and the war in Angola ended nearly a decade ago with Cuba pulling out quite some time before that.

If efforts were made to improve relations and better the lives of the people of Cuba then there would be a reason to engage the Cuban government and get it to further ease restrictions and move towards democracy. That in turn would have a major impact on the out migration issue. Keeping the country isolated continues to exacerbate the problem.

So kudos to some common sense in the legislative branch. I'm not optimistic that things will change overnight, but there's a ray of hope.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

One solution for CHCH?

Earlier in the week, I wrote about the joke that Hamilton's CHCH has become and whether it might be time to just shutter the station.

My blogging colleague Alexandra Kitty has a very interesting suggestion -- turn it into a true community station, owned by McMaster University. It's an interesting proposition, I have to admit; after all, many PBS affiliates in the States are linked to public or private universities. Not sure how the regulations would work here, for years college and university campus radio stations had been hampered by a rule that they could not have advertising that amounted to soliciting a sale of a product or service (I don't know if that rule still applies) -- they could only say such and such business existed, or run PSAs.

With the right kind of hands-on management and general editorial independence, the station could thrive again. If the station is to survive, find someone who will actually make the station mean something for a change. Maybe community ownership is what is needed, I don't know. Certainly the Aspers, and WIC before them, made the station pathetic beyond belief.

But some loans at CanWest are coming due any day now, and some of their unsecured debt is reported trading at about 20 cents on the dollar meaning bond traders are fully expecting a CCAA filing (i.e. bankruptcy protection). Then anything goes -- and it won't just be CHCH that goes down for the count. (Incidentally, I agree with Alexandra: You just don't loan $4 billion to a company when the advertising market is stretched even in the best of times, especially in the 500 channel universe that now exists.)

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Socks and Bibi

Okay, so it's not real news ... but I kind of liked having a cat as the First Pet in the White House. He wasn't the first, of course, but there was something about Chelsea Clinton's cat, Socks. Socks Clinton died today at the age of 19 from cancer. He will be missed.

I really can't have a pet -- too many bad memories from childhood that haunt me still -- but I kind of like cats more than I do dogs. Story goes that Socks and Buddy (Slick Willy's dog) just couldn't get along ... but you have to wonder if the cat knew something about Bill before Hillary and Chelsea found out.


On a far more serious note, it's not really a surprise but Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud has been given a shot at forming a government in Israel. Some of his coalition partners, including Avigdor Lieberman of Beiteinu and Eli Yishai of Shas, are definitely going to pull the puppet strings; and the peace process could be set back quite a bit. Not surpringsly, Tzipi Livni of Kadima, who narrowly won the most seats but has fewer coalition partners to choose from, says she is not interested in a unity government (if that's who Bibi's going to partner with).

Unfortunately, even those who want a two state solution (like me) realize that there's no peace to be had no matter who forms the government -- not as long as there are whole countries that still refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist, let alone home grown terrorist groups. I think a lot of Obama's political capital is going to be spent on the Middle East file and thus drawing precious resources from two folders -- Africa where there has to be a definitive turning point on development and aid, and the EU where he'll have to figure out how to balance the bloc as a competitor to the States as well as keeping it as a trading partner against the growing Russian threat.

Four more years of war ... all we really need right now.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bored by the visit

Okay, so no big "push" from Barack Obama on Afghanistan today. For now, anyway.

But am I the only one who was just totally BORED by all of today's events in Ottawa? Or maybe I really couldn't care? Sure it was nice for the President to drop in on us, but it would have been so much better if he had had a chance to address Parliament or something. A quick chat with PMS -- meh. As for the announcement about carbon capture and sequestration (CCS): Prove that it can be done!

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pakistan sells out to Taliban

In my opinion, yesterday's decision by the Pakistan government to capitulate to the Taliban and allow them to impose Sharia law in the Swat Valley region of the country is completely unacceptable and proves once and for all that Islamabad was never serious about destroying terrorism in all its forms. A terrorist is a terrorist whether he or she is Catholic and in the IRA, Jewish and in Kahane Chai - Kach or Muslim and in the Taliban.

But even some Islamic terror groups support equal or increased rights for women, such as Hezbollah. That doesn't really make them any better, of course -- but at least they understand women's liberty means liberty for all of us.

The Taliban, of course, does not support such a principle and for that reason alone they must be exterminated by any combative means necesary. These people cannot be educated, so we have to get rid of them. You don't negotiate with misogynists.

Never, ever, ever!

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Monday, February 16, 2009

In the navy you can crash into a nuclear sub; In the navy ...

This had the potential of being a huge disaster -- especially if it had been enemy nations. Thank God it didn't come to that, and it also involved two allies. But it's still inexcusable.

We learned this morning, and later confirmed by the UK and French governments that two nuclear submarines -- one from each of their fleets -- brushed against each other while both were conducting drills in the Atlantic; and even more bizarre their respective anti-sonar and cloaking technologies (meant to hide from enemies) were so good they didn't see each other coming (the systems are supposed to detect friends, supposed to anyway).

We can laugh about it -- I sure did when I heard it on CBC Radio One this morning -- but bear in mind both subs were carrying nuclear weapons at the time, each with multiple warheads (MIRVs or multiple independent re-entry vehicles in military parlance). Each warhead, capable of a blast over 1000 times bigger than Little Boy which blew up Hiroshima in 1945. While command and control of the MIRVs were maintained at all times and there was never a risk for an accidental launch -- nor were the nuclear reactors that run the ships compromised -- this raises huge questions about what kind of communications go on at NATO and the EU on a daily basis.

Obviously a huge ocean allows missile drills or war games to go on silently and without affecting commercial traffic; but you'd kind of think that countries planning those kinds of activities would offer a heads up to each other (quietly of course) so there are no misunderstandings. There have been several occasions where we've come close to doomsday, when a missile drill was presumed to be an enemy missile launch and a quick call on the Hot Line (actually a combination secure telex, voice and facsimile link-up) had to be made to clear things up.

In order to have peace and freedom, we sometimes have to have war -- and to prepare for that possibility we need as ready an armed service as we can muster. But we don't need stupidity especially when we're towing hardware specifically designed to incinerate the human race.

We know that Harper has long term aspirations for Canada's navy to eventually go nuclear (fulfilling a dream of Mulroney, who then scrapped the idea in the 1980s because of budget constraints) but this should really make all of us wake up. It's bad enough living in the shadow of a nuclear power plant on dry land; imagine having to spend three months or more on or under water and in close quarters with one.

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Katrina priest in Austria declines promotion

After the twelve month period of natural disasters a few years ago -- the Boxing Day tsunami, the earthquake in Pakistan and India, and of course Hurricane Katrina -- many wondered if God might be exercising His wrath on the world. In the Christian tradition, we dismiss that as crazy talk, after all one of Jesus' apostles said "The Lord does not deal with us according to our iniquities."

But some Christians and some who claim to be Christians think God does take an inventionist approach to the world and causes such disasters on purpose to "punish" us for our sins. Televangelists. The Westboro Baptist Church. Armstrongtists. And -- the Rev. Gerhard Wagner, a Catholic priest in Austria. He said in 2005, in a parish newsletter, that Katrina was retribution for brothels in New Orleans.

Not surprisingly, this is the kind of guy the present Pope, Benedict XVI (Joe Ratzinger), loves. So earlier this month he appointed him to the position of auxiliary (i.e. assistant) bishop in the Austrian city of Linz. Normally, parishoners just accept this with the typical Gallic shrug -- he's the bishop, there ain't nothing we can do about it, especially if he's an outsider (i.e. someone from outside the diocese). But in this case, Catholics in Austria were incensed and revolted. Chastened, Wagner asked Ratz to withdraw the promotion. Wagner's done his church a big favour by doing so.

Some of conspiracy theorists have long claimed the anti-Christ will arise from the Vatican -- and they claim Ratzinger (a former member of the Nazi Youth) is the perfect candidate. Well, one who clearly associates himself with Christ cannot be the anti-Christ -- which means the anti-Christ has to be someone who is not just non-Christian but an outright atheist.

The conspirists have also claimed this could be a huge year for the Church, especially in terms of EU elections where Catholic candidates are expected to make huge gains. Uh, yeah -- Catholics in Europe actually aren't that much different from Catholics in North America, they don't like church interference in politics any more than we do and aren't about to take orders from anyone.

And with two major media embarrassments in just a couple of weeks, the Vatican looks like it's in damage control mode and not as if it's planning to swallow up the European Union under its direct control. Keystone Cops aren't exactly viable candidates to be the anti-Christ.

I don't know what goes on at the Roman Curia on a daily basis -- they guard their secrets better than the CIA -- but you'd think they'd do better background checks. First, a Holocaust denier slips through the cracks, and now this? Catholics like myself have every reason to be concerned and outraged. Ratzinger needs to get a handle on things or he might may well be the Pope that saw his Church break up; there's only so much even conservatives in the Church will take.

The response to a Holocaust denier is not to silence him but to let him speak his fallacies then throw the truth back in his face. The response to someone who believes natural disasters are God's punishment is to withdraw donations from such narrow-minded people and redirect them towards disaster relief -- even if it is your own parish church that's caused the verbal ruckus.

UPDATE (8:12 am, 1312 GMT): Silly me, I forgot the link -- it's there now!

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Miep Gies at 100

One last word for today ... Miep Gies, one of the people who helped hide Anne Frank and her family hide from the Nazis during World War II and preserved Anne's famous diary for publication, turned 100 years old today. In a world where "hero" has become such a blasé word, Mrs. Gies was and still is one in every sense.

On Miep Gies' personal website, however (yes, she has one!), she continues to downplay her role:
I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did or more – much more - during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the hearts of those of us who bear witness. Never a day goes by that I do not think of what happened then.

We have allowed too many mass murders to take place since the Holocaust. Mrs. Gies is a reminder of the good we must do and to make sure it never happens again.

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Millionaire Life not tax free?

We take pride in our lotteries and casinos in Canada. No, not for the social damage they cause which is quite widespread -- even if they deliver badly needed and usually reliable revenues to government coffers for education, health care and community services. We're proud that the winnings are tax free, at least the principle is; if we put the money into a bank account and earn interest, dividends or capital gains then of course there are tax implications. By my searching, only the United States and Switzerland taxes lottery winnings from dollar (or euro) one.

Well, it's February, and once again all the regional lotteries in Canada have gotten together for the annual raffle called Millionaire Life. One lucky ticket holder is guaranteed in a random computer draw to win $1 million per year for the next 25 years. Tax free? Not quite. Because it's an annuity. The winner has a choice of taking a lump sum of $17 million, the present value of the prize. If you do, then it is tax free.

But according to the fine print, if one were to take an annuity, you'd have to pay tax on the remaining $8 million, spread out over time. That means if you take the annuity option you get $640,000 tax free then have to pay tax on $360,000 and at the top bracket. Assuming a 45% marginal rate (about the average in Canada right now for "high" income earners) that's $162,000 in taxes -- so the one million drops to $834,000.

So rather than saying, What would you do with $1 million for 25 years, the advertising should say, what would you do with $834,000 for 25 years.

Mind you, if you're in a group, the annuity doesn't apply, the group would get the lump sum.

Good luck, folks. I hope you win the Big Kahuna -- but if you've got a problem with this tax arrangement, yell at Canada Revenue Agency, not the lotteries or me.

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And another thing about the Conservatives (#978 and counting)

The old Reform Party, in its "Blue Book" platform, vowed to eliminate -- sorry, let's pronounce it like Preston Manning, eleeeeminate -- regional development agencies such as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Western Economic Diversification, FedNOR (for northern Ontario) and so forth. Actually, this is something I personally support -- I think that while paying attention to regional issues the services provided by all of these federal banks could be best rolled into the Business Development Bank of Canada, the BDC.

Yet now, the Conservatives wholeheartedly support the regional development agencies -- in fact, they're seen as plum cabinet posts. Whatever happened to Stephen Harper's contempt for Atlantic Canada, Québec and the "cycle of defeatism"? Oh yeah -- he realized there was a cash cow for the West too. He just decided to screw Atlantic Canadians and Québecois by slashing their equalization payments.

What a ...

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Would Hamilton be better off without a TV station?

There was a time when the community papers which serve Stoney Creek, Dundas, Flamborough, Ancaster and Hamilton Mountain were precisely that -- community papers talking about community events and providing a counterpoint to the near monopoly daily, the Hamilton Spectator. Now, those papers are owned by the same company that now owns the Spec (the Toronto Star) and they're filled with cheap advertising and very little in terms of news. Besides which, the 'burbs are all part of Hamilton now so their relevance has become less and less

But they have a slight amount of editorial independence -- for now. And so it was I read the weekly edition of the Hamilton Mountain News which comes out on Friday and the editor asked a question many of us in Hamilton have been asking for years but especially in the last few -- does Hamilton even need a television station anymore? The painful conclusion made by the paper, is that it is time to shut down CHCH.

It used to be a big source of pride for Hamilton, CHCH. The station that brought the WWF/E to Canada (after years of being committed to the NWA). The station that gave us Hillarious House of Frightenstein, The Great Debate, Party Game -- and even the cheesy Tiny Talent Time. It also hosted Smith and Smith which led to Me and Max and a character from both of those shows was later spun off into The Red Green Show which was on the Hamilton station before moving onto Global and then CBC.

The station that shook television when it bought the rights to The Godfather Part I months before it was scheduled to air on the US networks. The station that regularly broadcast major boxing matches, most notably the Mike Tyson - Tony Tucker boxing match in the 1980s when it was only available on pay per view in the States.

Oh yeah -- it also had the rights to some of the funniest shows ever, including Hee Haw, Mama's Family, Small Wonder; and the most hard-hitting, including Hawaii Five-O, the first couple of seasons of 21 Jump Street and America's Most Wanted. (I'm dating myself here!) And finally, it also hosted the weekly agricultural report from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture for years; which was not only useful for farmers but also tuned urban dwellers into the issues facing the rural and got us into the "local food" movement before the phrase was coined -- you know, "Good Things Grow In Ontario."

Even more significant was the station managed to compete in one of the most crowded markets of all -- Toronto - Buffalo. All the Canadian networks and indies, the US networks and indies. And it got major ratings even on the other side of the border.

It's not a question of the station remaining stagnant. It actually did change with the times -- but not necessarily in the right ways. The station that was once the quintessence of community programming, has now cut it down to barely three dozen per week and most of that is the newscasts.

Nor it is our being in the shadow of two major and great cities. Most communities of Hamilton's size would normally have two or three stations. Heck, small towns in the US and in the middle of nowhere (from an urbanite's point of view) has affiliates or at least twinsticks for all the major nets and serving a wide area.

So what was CHCH's issue?

A few things that caused the problems: First, back in the 1980s it paid $50 million for a multi-year syndication deal for major US TV shows that either quickly tanked or had audiences too small to justify the advertising rates. To make up for it, the station then decided to become a province wide superstation like Global Toronto with repeat transmitters in major cities -- this necessarily required its newscasts to have a more provincial focus, and Hamiltonians naturally felt betrayed. Even the familiar CHCH was only a legal name, its on air identity was OnTV, the Ontario Television Network (TV Ontario was taken by the provincially owned educational station it seems).

But it was when Global bought the station along with the rest of the WIC group (after a bizarre chain of station swaps that gave the former the presence in Alberta it always wanted) that things took a turn for the worse. Local news coverage returned but it was a joke compared to the heyday -- and of course that appalling virtual reality set that made one cry for the plain old green screen. There was more of a focus on celebrity news than hard national and world news.

Some of its bread and butter -- including Leafs out of town games, Saturday university football and pro wrestling -- had long migrated to the networks or cable. And the last insults; CHCH along with its "Global Two" sisters became E! Canada, and the pride of its newsstaff were let go (eg. Connie Smith) or constructively fired under the pressure (eg. Dan McLean, who simply resigned in disgust).

So would it be a big loss to lose the station? Yeah, sure -- but I don't think too many outside of the business would really miss it. Truth be told, not many people in Hamilton would care either.

It may also be ready for a buyer -- the Toronto Star would very much like a broadcast channel to compete with SunTV. Heck, I'd take Jimmy Pattison, who owns a couple of outlets in the BC Interior, over the Aspers (which says something) but he's mostly focused on the West Coast anyway.

But I just shudder at once was a fine channel. No local owners would dare touch it now. I thought some time ago what CHCH needed was competition, a second local station. But we're so saturated and most of us get our information on cable and the internet, that maybe it's better if we had one less.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Saturday night music retro: Thank You For The Music

At the end of a long week -- and just to prove I'm not a total sourpuss when it comes to V-day -- this classic song from ABBA: Probably my favourite cut from the group, in a rare talk show performance.

You just don't have harmony like that nowadays, unless you're listening to Southern Gospel. And in those days, you just didn't lip sync either.

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Czech - French spat: Just the beginning?

The other day, freelance journalist Alexandra Kitty wrote a post about the man who once the former Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, and how he held together what should have been an impossible country -- and how it fractured once Tito exited stage left in 1980 and there was no longer a personality cult.

I commented half-jokingly in the reply thread it seemed like back to the future, that a country put together by war, then torn apart by it, was in effect being put back together with Slovenia now in the EU (and more importantly the Eurozone) while Croatia and Serbia are on the fast track for membership as well. How odd, I thought, that in just a couple of years the borders that were put up in the 1990s are going to be torn down again and the former country is in a sense being reunited (although stitched to the rest of the continent). In reply Miss Kitty pointed out (correctly, I think) that the EU no matter how successful hasn't fully delivered on its promise; and while it has helped to maintain the peace in Western and Central Europe where it operates, it also operates on a big amount of ego and when times are tough (like now) it can't get its act together.

A "memo" in today's NYT sheds a bit more light along that line of thought, and it focuses on a row between two countries that are allies militarily but huge rivals economically -- France and the Czech Republic. The EU Presidency presently rotates on a six month basis between the 27 member states and right now it is held by the PM of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus. Previously it was held by the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy -- and lately the two leaders have openly exchanged insults at each other. To make matters worse, when Sarkozy tried to broker a ceasefire in Gaza last month, he only took along the diplomatic representatives from the "major" EU states. Even the EU Commissars were left out in the cold -- the Czech Republic had to contact Israel directly, then persuaded Germany to have one of their officials on the plane.

But diplomacy is just one of the problems. The economy is tanking, and with it some old habits are emerging. While Klaus managed to keep Bulgaria and Slovakia in line during the natural gas battle with Russia, he was unable to stop Sarkozy from promising huge subsidies to the French auto industry with a further promise to "repatriate" jobs -- and he specifically cited Prague as undercutting French autoworkers.

Unlike the 1930's, where beggaring thy neighbour during the Great Depression was one of many grievances that led to war, I doubt a war will erupt in Europe now -- the countries are too tied together for that to be a possibility.

The EU and the Euro have both been success stories, although I think there's more here than just countries who use the Euro (like France) and those who do not (like the Czech Republic). And I don't think it's a case of a former Warsaw Pact member suddenly finding itself at the top of the heap and being a fish out of water about it.

What I think it is, is the plan for a "permanent" EU President (with a 30 month term and a person not tied to any one member state), ending the current rotation. The big powers in the EU -- the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland -- want to keep running the show and under the present arrangement at least one of them gets the torch every so often. The thought of someone from Sparta or Malmo or even Vilnius telling them what to do must positively scare them -- and the spat between Paris and Prague is just the start.

It would be a shame for the whole thing to fall apart because they can't stay focused on priorities, while keeping arguing about the little things and making moles out of an ant-hill. Especially when the group as a whole is trying to welcome the remaining outliers in Europe to join the club so that the economic pain is more spread out and the pre-1914 situation of a continent without any borders finally becomes a reality.

They need to get their act together -- for their people's sake as well as the economy. I'm not saying it should be Kumbaya -- insults have to be answered directly. Nor should it be the so-called "United States of Europe," even most pro-EU people in Europe would revolt against that.

What I am saying that whatever personal feelings they have need to be laid aside, however temporarily, to focus on the big picture. Hurling potshots doesn't create jobs or assists those who have lost them.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Anti Valentine Brigade

This is not meant to be a swipe against people who have someone in their lives to love. If you do, all the power to you and may God bless you both. But many of us just don't like Valentine's Day, don't want anything to do with it -- period.

So, to those of you like who hate it, have no one to love or just wish it would go away -- all hail, Anti Valentine Brigade.

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Buffalo plane crash

Some sad news this morning ... a Bombardier Dash-8 commuter jet being flown by a charter handling flights for Continental crashed outside of Buffalo ... all 48 aboard, plus at least one more on the ground, were killed. Icing is an early suspect.

May those who died rest in peace.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abraham Lincoln

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. In view of what he accomplished -- and in light of all that remains to be done -- I won't comment further this day.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

About that drug plan ...

... that I blogged about the other day. I have some additional notes.

A couple of days ago I made a comment about how Canada as a whole should consider the Québec model for Pharmacare -- which combines "play or pay" (i.e. you have group or individual coverage from a private plan, or you must buy into the government's drug plan on your tax return) with a standard set of co-payments for public or private policyholders-- as a template for a national strategy.

There is one big problem that I would have with the Québec plan (which also is a common thread even with the "catastrophic" plans in other provinces): While there is a cap on the maximum an individual can pay each month, and people on social assistance or students are supposed to get their drugs with a lower to no co-pay at all -- the fact is the co-pay, up to when you reach the cap, is still 31%. So for instance, if a drug is $15 (with dispensing fee) you have to pay $4.65. (It started at 25% but has been creeping up ever since.)

Well, what if you have 10 or more drugs a month? Even if you're protected by the "max cap" it's still a big hit for people who have a fixed income each month. I mean, that's $77 or so each month that could go for groceries, utilities, etc. It's not as bad as the States where people are forced to choose between food and drugs -- in this case it's more like choosing which drugs you need the most to live.

While a universal plan does improve the quality of life for people in Quebec (as does universal day care -- real day care, not the $100 "take it and shut up" money Harper provides) this is still a big drawback.

It's pretty much the same in Britain, whose NHS was famously lauded in Michael Moore's Sicko. A great movie, but you would have to go to his website and his notes about the making of the film, where he discusses a fact he conveniently left on the cutting room floor for the print that went to theatres: The co-pay for drugs, which is universally applied regardless of income, really hits hard for the working poor who earn just enough to be above the low income cut-off to be exempt from the out of pockets. (Presently the amounts are £7.10 in England, £6.85 in Northern Ireland, £5 in Scotland and zero in Wales.)

Yes, poor Brits are still healthier than the richest American, but what's the point of having the drugs if you can't feed yourself -- or pay the BBC license for the "telly"?

So perhaps what's required for a Canadian solution is something that is more fairly applied across a larger segment of the "sandwiched" populace but still ensures universal drug coverage. The maximum that people would pay in a month would still be $100; but those with middle incomes -- for example those in the $30 to $50k range might pay a lesser maximum, say $50 or perhaps less, and so on down the line while indigents would get full coverage. And the starting point needs to be somewhere rather above the so-called low income cutoff.

The "devil is in the details." Obviously, we don't want everyone to suddenly become addicted to drug-treatment drugs, or to take out prescriptions for Viagra™ on the public tab.

But done right, I believe a national drug plan would put us one step closer to the "Just Society" that Trudeau spoke of.

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Another Israel stalemate

Isn't this 1984 all over again? A near deadlock in the Israel election yesterday with Tzipi Livni's Kadima and Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud neck and neck. Livni is just slightly ahead, but has few parties on the left to choose from as coalition partners, than does Netanyahu on the right. Livni suggested last night she offered Netanyahu the prospect of a national unity government but that the idea was rejected. Avigdor Liberman's Beitenu is third while the once powerful Labour under Ehud Barak dropped to fourth.

I remember 1984 when there were relatively fewer parties in the mix, and after a lengthy stalemate Shimon Peres and Yithzak Shamir agreed to a unity government and took turns as Prime Minister for two year stints. The partnership worked somewhat, in that the runaway inflation of the period was brought under control; but the "who's on first" game and the uncertainty created gave time for Yasser Arafat to reorganize, begin the first intifada and eventually to his 1988 "recognition" of the Israeli fact.

With the Palestinians torn asunder with divisions far greater than two decades ago, any length of uncertainty will only give Fatah and Hamas more time to cause more problems. Peres, now the country's President (a mostly honourary position) now has to figure out who has the best chance of forming a stable government -- not a role he's going to appreciate, that's for sure.

My sense? Even if Livni winds up putting something together, she's no Golda Meir. Her "Believni" campaign -- a rip-off of Obama's "Change we can believe in" -- falls short of credible. And Netanyahu, the darling of many US televangelists, is certainly no Menachim Begin. Neither it seems has what it takes to get the ultimate goal -- an Israel that can be at peace with all of its Arab neighbours and finally resolves the Palestinian issue with dignity. I expect another four years of flare-ups with Hamas and Fatah -- which can only be a bad thing for stability in the region. The way things are going it could even the opportunity for a Palestinian group even more hostile to the mere idea of Israel, than Hamas ever has been.

Which I think should be a cause of concern for people everywhere who believe in democracy -- no matter what side one is on regarding Palestine.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Israel 2009: The choice

It's election day in Israel, and if the opinion polls are correct, this could be a nail-biter as well as a game changer.

Ehud Olmert is out, of course, facing allegations in a corruption scandal. The two front runners are Olmert's replacement at Kadima, Tzipi Livni; and her main rival, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu. A big part of the picture will be to see who has a strong enough base to put together a viable coalition.

A possible spoiler is Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, an immigrant from Moldova. He's been pulling about 10% of popular opinion with his proposals for swapping Arab-majority Israeli lands as "compensation" for the Israeli settlements in the West Bank -- and demanding that Arab Israeli citizens take a mandatory oath of loyalty to the country or face expulsion. This is not quite as radical as the Kahanist position that no Arabs can be trusted and all Palestinians should be expelled to Jordan or Egypt, but it comes close enough to make a lot of people scared (not American televangelists who support such a position, however).

Israel is one of a very few countries that has pure PR, with a popular vote quota of just 2%, which explains why people vote for religious, ethnic or single-issue parties and why coalitions there are so unweildly. Most democracies with PR set the quota rather higher, say 5%. It's hard to say whether the recent Gaza Strip campaign improved the odds for Livni any, but I suspect any Prime MInister of Israel would try something to stop the rocket attacks no matter how many civilians were affected.

It's not my place to say who I think should win -- I don't know enough about their domestic politics other than the Palestinian "question." But I don't think President Obama is going to have a fun time talking to either Livni or Netanyahu if Lieberman or radical religious parties are pulling the puppet strings; and the prospects for peace rest solely on what to do with the settlements. It was hard enough for the US to deal with a half million refugees in its own country after Katrina, many of whom had to permanently relocate.

Now imagine dealing with about a half million who refuse to leave because the land they're on was they believe granted by the Almighty, and who have the right to vote while the people who surround them live in a virtual police state. We think democracy in North America and Western Europe is a farce at times but it's nothing compared to the contradictions of a country that is both religious and secular at once and who faces enemies on several fronts. One has to wonder how much longer the US will have the stomach to keep vetoing resolutions criticizing Israel at the Security Council, or give the country $3 billion per year in foreign aid when it's supposed to be a developed country. If I was Obama, I'd phase out the funding over a number of years and redirect it to states that actually need foreign aid.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Time to pull a Quebec on drugs

I learned from a friend the other day that even with her and her ex-husband being on the Trillium Drug Plan -- the drug plan of last resort for the uninsurable in Ontario -- they pay well over $10,000 in prescriptions each and every year; nearly a third of their income.

This is Canada? Well, yeah ... but it's Ontario. Many provinces, like Manitoba and Nova Scotia for instance, have catastrophic plans as well but people are still getting hammered even if they "only" have to pay 20%, after a deductible which can run anywhere from 3 to 20% of net income.

Curses they aren't living in Québec which has a pay or pay system of compulsory drug insurance -- if you don't have it as part of your benefits, you are automatically in the government plan. Regardless of if you're public or private, the most you pay for drugs (presuming they're in the formulary, and there are about 5000 of them) for the entire year is $1497 -- a premium of up to $570 (based on net family income) plus $927 in co-payments. Is it expensive to operate? Yes. Does it ensure healthier results and get people to get drugs they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford? Absolutely. And that lowers health care costs in the long term.

There are a few catches: Some drugs do require an extra contribution by the patient (to cover the difference between the manufacturer's price and what the government is willing to pay) but it is still way less expensive than paying the whole amount out of pocket. As well, you do have to cover the difference if you insist on a brand-name drug and a generic of equivalent efficacy is available.

Be that as it may, imagine how much of a burden would be lifted off everyone's shoulders if everyone in Canada had access to something like that. Least of which is that people with limited incomes could be freed from their burdens and be allowed to spend their resources elsewhere.

How about it, "New" Steve? How about a real drug plan as your legacy?

If Pharmacare is good enough for Québec and for British Columbia (which has a less generous but still viable universal plan) it is certainly good enough for the entire country of Canada. This, along with accessible day care, should be the among the next planks in our social safety net.

UPDATE (6:30 am EST, 1130 GMT): In case you were wondering, what I wrote at the top is not a misprint -- I did say the woman's ex; they live in opposite units of the same duplex and share both halves with their still growing children, and while both work neither have group insurance. So their kids get hammered too. All the more reason to have public drug insurance.

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Global warming, license to kill

Yesterday, I wrote about global warming is a major factor in the huge bush fires plauging Down Under right now. Today, and with anger, I also have to note that some hooligans have used the excessive heat in Australia to start some of those fires -- on purpose. The death toll has skyrocketed in the last 24 hours to 130.

This is no time for leniency. If those responsible are caught then they should be charged with murder. I simply cannot understand how people can use an opportunity like this to make a real crisis so much worse -- draining already strained resources away from such things as crop failure insurance as well as getting a country used to a new reality that may very well be permanent.

This is wildfire season Down Under, and such fires come just as surely as the change of seasons. But there is no comprehension. None whatsoever. I can't say for certain if cooler temperatures would have meant fewer people dying. But the tinderbox should not have been put there in the first place giving cowards the opportunity to potentially make things that much worse.

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Big Dryyyyyyyyy

The wildfires in Australia just keep getting worse. The "Big Dry" is now into its seventh year -- and drought caused by global warming is only exacerbating the current cycle of forest fires which have now killed at least 84 people, including a former news anchor of the Nine Network and his wife. Temperatures in some parts of the country have now hit a whopping 47°, and even in major centres like Melbourne water reservoirs are about 40% or more below where they should be.

A country like Australia, which covers areas from temperate zones to the tropics is one of the proverbial canaries. Canada, going from mid continent to the Arctic is another; Eastern Africa is a third (and extensive drought there explains a lot of the problems in places like Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia); the fourth is the EU trade bloc where subtle shifts in the starts of seasons have wreaked havoc on nesting periods and farming seasons. Europe is a particular concern; relatively mild winters and warm summers have given way to huge snowstorms in the winter and scorching sizzlers in the summer with no respite for days on end -- and in a continent not as used to air conditioning as North America is, people are dying in the heat waves.

Since we're currently getting the blow-back from excessive growth the last two or three years, maybe the current recession (hopefully brief) will give the world a chance to take a breather, and for things to temporarily return to what we've come to expect as normal; but unless we have a major change in our lifestyles and understand we can't keep taking without giving back, we really are screwed. If a developed region experiences an irreversible catastrophe, then it will be a march to Armageddon not made of Israel vs the rest of the world (as the dispensationalists claim), but an ecological one of our own making.

For Canada's part, Stephen Harper needs to read the whole bible, not just the passages selected by his pastors, and understand the Scriptures require us to be stewards of the earth, not its exploiters. The West -- Canada's breadbasket -- had extended drought before and it was also during a period of major economic decline over which they had no direct part in creating. Trying is not enough. We really do need action. Environmentalism is not a personal virtue. It's a moral imperative, whether it's a few score people in Australia or 2 million refugees in Africa. What we do in the developed world affects the rest of the developing world, and hits like a sledgehammer in the developing world.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Pizza radio gaffe

At the end of a long week, where there was even more bad news on the unemployment front in the States, comes this slightly weird one: John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John's ™, said that it's not a good idea to have too much pizza. This just days after one of the worst snowstorms the UK has ever seen, and his and rival pizza outlets had record sales with so many people homebound.

The quote (in response to a question from BBC 4's Adam Shaw): "No. Pizza's actually healthy for you if you don't eat too much of it. You can't eat five or six slices but if you eat one or two slices it's very nutritious."

Hmm ... you're the third largest pizza chain in the world and you tell your customers to take it easy when eating your own product?

Guess what would happen to the price of truffles if the growers told chocolate eaters to take it easy? Half of Belgium would be on the unemployment lines.

Wish I had the money to open up a pizza franchise -- in the current market, owning one of those or a chain coffee shop probably is a license to print money, even with people getting smaller portions. But sometimes it's just better to keep one's mouth shut.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

It just gets worse (Feb 5 '09 edition)

More signs of just how much trouble the world is in right now.

The European Central Bank kept the interest rates in the 16 (+3) nation Eurozone at 2% today, but bank president Jean-Claude Trichet indicated that he may cut the rate next month if the economy doesn't show signs of bouncing back. He did say, however, a zero rate which is what The Fed is working on right now in the States is "not considered appropriate" -- yet. Nor is there any sign that the ECB is considering the radical steps that both Fed and the Bank of England (the latter which cut its rate today to 1%) are trying to get banks to pump money back into the system, although Frankfurt has printed billions of Euros in the last few months to try to get things moving.

The Eurozone is not as burdened by debt as is the UK or the US which is why the Euro has been doing relatively well on the 4X market (it hit a high of $1.45 a couple months back but has since settled around $1.27 and will probably go to $1.15 as more ex-Soviet bloc countries announce their readiness to join the common currency in the next couple of years -- but still higher than the 83 cents it bottomed out at in 2001).

But clearly Frankfurt doesn't want EU citizens (both inside and outside Euroland) to get complacent. There is definitely a risk that as people around stop buying stuff, prices may decrease so much we get into a deflationary spiral. It happened during the Great Depression and it could happen again unless the hemmoraging stops real quickly. And with 19 countries tied together so tightly (a good thing in many ways, but a time bomb in others) people are going to get restless real quick. The protests in Greece in December and January are just the start.

Meanwhile, initial employment claims in the United States last week hit a breathtaking 626,000 (the worst since October 1982), and the number of people collecting UI on a continuing basis is now 4,788,000 -- a record high. A "good" week is only 325,000 and 2.5 million, respectively.

I don't need to comment much more there. I guess even with the switch to DTV in the States off till about June 12 (it was going to be on February 17), people aren't going to buy LCD or plasma TVs unless the price is cut to about $400. That is, if they have a job so they have the money to spend.

It's heartening to see President Obama taking the approach that "beggering thy neighbour" will make the recession only worse (understanding a strong central and western Europe is vital to American security interests) but I still would like to see what his approach actually is and what level he thinks the greenback should be against the euro. Remember on his goodwill tour of Europe last year during the election campaign, he snubbed EU officials in Brussels.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ratzinger says whoops

It's not that often that the Vatican admits it made a mistake. But today it pretty much did just that, and demanded that one of the four "bishops" excommunicated back in 1989 but reinstated back into the Catholic Church last month -- Britain's Richard Williamson -- to recant his position about the Holocaust being "exaggerated" and that only 300,000 Jews were murdered, not 6 million; if that bishop wants to ever be assigned a diocese.

Turned out Williamson made the comments on Swedish state television some time ago but somehow that completely eluded the Roman Curia who decided to let bygones be bygones with the Society of St. Pius X, an ultra-conservative Catholic faction that rejects all of the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s; including the introduction of local languages in the liturgy, and making peace with other religions, in particular Protestantism and Judaism.

This came one day after Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel (a Lutheran but who leads a party with strong Catholic roots) demanded Pope Benedict XVI (a.k.a. Joe Ratzinger), a German national who spent time in the Hitler Youth, should make it clear that there can be no ambiguity when it comes to the Holocaust.

No surprise she took her position, but it shouldn't be really -- Germany is still trying to come to grips with how it allowed Hitler to ever come to power, as well as completely bungling the 1972 Munich Olympics. Since Germany arose from the ruins of World War II, much of which self-inflicted on fellow countrymen, Holocaust denial has been specifically outlawed in Germany.

Moreover, but unreported by most media outlets, I believe she wants to send a signal that the European Union has absolutely no intention of ever being ruled by a Pope, even if all 27 Prime Ministers turned out to be Catholic. It's worth pointing out that the EU issued a directive to its member states in 2007 that if their criminal statutes didn't outlaw the denial or trivializing of genocide, it should -- and recommended a minimum sentence of 1 to 3 years, indicating propagating hate should be one of the rare cases when freedom of speech becomes "yelling fire in a crowded theatre."

It took the Vatican 400 years to exonerate Galileo. As a Catholic, I have to ask how long it will take to unseal the secret archives dealing with its true wartime role and how much of a role it played in turning a blind eye to atrocities right in Rome as well as in the rest of Europe. Ratzinger's about face is welcome, as was his turnaround on the sex abuse scandal after he became Pope, but like the other it doesn't go near far enough.

As I've pointed out a couple of times, the Vatican is one of three non EU states that mints Euro coins (the others being Monaco and San Marino) and like the other microstates they make a "mint" selling the very low circulation coins well above face value. I doubt the Eurozone countries will kick the Vatican out of the grouping (what currency would it use then -- the lira is spent) but this pushback is long overdue; at least it got a measured response for the first time in ages. They need to keep pushing back if the separation of church and state will mean anything and there's no better place to start than standing up for God's Chosen People, the Jews.

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Is The End coming near for Global?

I heard on the radio this morning that CanWest stock dropped to about 40 cents yesterday. They may be in violation of debt covenants as early as this month -- if its debt exceeds five times EBITDA (earnings before interest, depreciaton and amoritzation). And it's getting dangerously close to that threshold. I thought, could this really be possible?

Yes. Maybe it is.

It's hard to believe that it was over three decades ago in 1975 that a maverick Winnipeg businessman took a bold gamble in television in an era where in many parts of Canada it was just CBC and CTV and nothing else. "Izzy" Asper bought up the facilities of an endangered station in North Dakota, trucked them over to the Canadian side of the border and switched the first two call letters -- thus, KCND became CKND. (This became possible when the CRTC announced a new license for Winnipeg and KCND, which relied almost completely on Canadian advertisers, realized they would lose them and go bankrupt, because the Canadian companies could then no longer advertise on American stations and deduct the costs for taxes -- so they just sold out.)

What was the first show they broadcast when the station relocated to Canada? Believe it or not, the Jerry Lewis Telethon.

From this base, he bought up one station at a time and had the nerve to also put up repeat transmitters to bring the signals in the big centres to the smaller ones -- something CBC has been doing almost from the start. The stations pretty much had their own identities although it was understood they were part of a larger whole -- even though the CRTC tried hard to maintain the Anglophone duopoly. But eventually, when Asper finally succeeded in getting stations in Alberta, he had close to a national network (Newfoundland is still the odd man out -- you can only get Global on cable or satellite there). He christened it with the name that had always given to the Ontario station, Global (which was started in 1974 but got scooped up by Asper when it ran into difficulties).

Odd thing, it mostly carried American shows. They had some original programming -- most famously What Will They Think of Next, Super Dave, Jake and the Kid and Ready or Not -- not to mention the wackiest news team until CityTV switched from their black box studio to their "environment" and videographers. Who can forget Bob McAdory on the same set as Thalia Assuras and Peter Trueman and Bill Brahman -- I think that's what his name was, he had that kind old face and did human interest stories well into his nineties. But it make them tons of cash by keeping it simple.

The Aspers were also quite restless and wanted to be kingpins in print media as well. In a complicated game of musical chairs, they eventually got hold of Southam News which they promptly renamed CanWest Media.

They've tried integrating print and television media. Out west, they've been successful -- with both major dailies in Vancouver as well as a local edition of the National Post they have 87% of the market in the Lower Mainland. A similar story appears in major centres in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where thanks to the Aspers neither the local newspapers nor the local Global stations can even mention syllable one of the name "Gwynne Dyer."

A completely biased approach to reportage on Israel. And no good news about anyone who's a Muslim either or has family connections to Shias, Sunnis or the Druze -- not even Casey Kasem. (Ironic, since Global ran the Scooby Doo cartoons for years and we all know Kasem was the voice of Shaggy!)

At least there they have to complete with the local Suns -- if you can call a tabloid competition. (Sidebar, both companies need to learn from outside Canada, where some tabloids such as the Chicago Sun Times and the LA Daily News in the States, and the Times of London and the Daily Mail in the UK, are actually quite well laid out in content.)

In Central and Eastern Canada, however, it's been a disaster. Because the market is so much more crowded, especially in southern Ontario, the NP has lagged in fourth place from the start and the profits from the TV station have essentially been used to bail out the paper -- which also explains why just about the only original shows they have left is that silly phone in quiz show in the mornings where you pay two bucks to be put on hold for a half hour then get hung up on, and ET Canada. (We don't need Mary Hart light, thank you very much.) Do they really think they can fund a newspaper by slashing their morning news show in Toronto?

Why is the NP dying? No, it's not its neo-con orientation. The simple reason: Not much in terms of classified ads relative to other local and regional papers. If you wanted to sell something, would you put the ad in the Star or the Post? Exactly.

The NP actually started out as a pretty good paper, in my opinion, but it has gone downhill to a joke. It got bailed out as long as Global had the Canadian broadcast rights for the NFL but it lost that to CTV some time ago -- and that's a huge loss of advertising revenue. And that was before the recession really hit, which could reduce revenues even more,

The only good thing left in it is the Financial Post, a long standing paper of good repute and which was in very good hands when it was published by the Toronto Sun (although even then I really couldn't care less what Terrence Corcoran or Diane Francis have to think). At this point, the only way to save the whole thing from collapsing is to make the FP the front sections, and strip down news to perhaps a four page summary (like the sports section was in the old days). It might pigeonhole the paper back to the Bay Street crowd, but at least it could focus its resources on financial reportage and become a serious competitor to the Globe and Mail again.

If the Aspers have to sell off either the papers or the stations -- maybe even their foreign assets such as Aussie's Channel 10 -- that would be a good thing. Global is in major need of a reboot, and one that puts some kick back into Canadian programming and news content that is relevant. And I don't mean ET Canada or Gameface (or whatever that show is called). We need fresh voices and open-minded ones, not the closed ones at the CanWest board.

As for the papers -- well, I'm glad my local paper is owned by the Star and not the Aspers although reading it lately one couldn't really tell the difference except for the fact I can actually read Dyer's columns.

About the only way to save Global now is to run couple oriented soft-core porn late night (sad but true) -- except that market has already been taken by City and Québec's TQS!

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Evening notes (2009-02-03)

A couple of items before I call it a night ...

First, Ignatieff gave six Newfoundland and Labrador MPs a "free pass" to vote against the budget. He should have given it to all of his MPs but at least those six had a chance to give their thumbs down to cutting next year's transfer payment to the province by a billion six and so I give him partial credit.

Second, Russ Germain, the longtime co-anchor at CBC Radio 1, died today at 62. His was an authoritative voice and will be missed greatly by those who appreciate the real CBC for what it used to be.

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Daschle out

Looks like Tom Daschle decided it wasn't worth the trouble and he withdrew his nomination to be Obama's Health and Human Services Secretary.

Overall he's a nice guy, but HHS needs more than just a nice guy to fix America's health and welfare systems especially in these times. His tax problems didn't help but his incest with the health care lobby was a much bigger issue.

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