Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Specter sees poor spectre of re-election, jumps to Dems

I never thought I'd see the day, but it actually happened -- Arlen Specter, the long time Republican Senator from Pennsylvania and the author of the widely ridiculed "magic bullet" theory regarding the assassination of JFK, has switched to the Democrats. In a statement, he says he no longer recognizes the party that he was long a member of and the Big Tent created by Reagan has been destroyed. No kidding, most of us figured that out long ago. But this is also just plain opportunism -- he knows that he'd get creamed in the GOP primary next year, and would have a tough time running as an independent, a mostly liberal guy in a mostly conservative state.

It would have been better for him to either declare independent and caucus with the Democrats until next year's mid-terms, or just plain resign and run in a by-election to give people in the Keystone State a chance to ratify his choice or to put someone else in. At least he has offered to return campaign contributions to longtime GOP supporters, which is classy.

Still, Specter's move today gives the Democrats 59 votes (when you include Lieberman and Sanders). If, as expected, Al Franken winds up winning the Minnesota seat (and of course he has, it's just the state's governor who refuses to sign off on it), that gives the Democrats 60 seats in the Senate, and with that Obama pretty much has a free hand to push through his agenda. There may be a couple of liberal Republican Senators who may have been holding off but may also jump ship after seeing Specter so do. However one cuts it, the GOP appears to be in freefall and it's going to take a huge gaffe on Obama's part to turn it around.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Don't let fear overtake us

The global pandemic that many have feared might be coming, may finally be here in the form of swine flu. While the world is certainly much better prepared for it than, say, the Spanish flu crisis after the end of World War I, it's certainly not a time to be complacent about it. But neither is it a time to allow fear to spread, even though there are cases of swine flu here in Canada and as far afield as Scotland and New Zealand.

Just the other day, when it was confirmed it had started in Mexico, naturally the calls came to close the border with that country -- starting with, of course, a certain gentleman on CNN. Need we say his name?

The point is, folks, we should be cautious about the matter, but we shouldn't let fear overtake us.

During the SARS outbreak in Toronto back in 2003, I actually made a point of making a couple of trips to Toronto to show I wasn't afraid. One of those trips was to the Ontario Science Centre, and it felt like the place was a cavern as only a handful of other people were there in a normally busy place. Then came the Northeast Blackout, a totally unrelated but just as freaky event, and the major city was given another major setback.

I say we just go on living life. Go to the places we want to, but just take the normal precautions anyone would. And certainly, we shouldn't be overreacting by closing the borders to certain groups of people. After all, we need those temporary migrant workers, especially with planting and harvesting seasons.

About the only precaution I'd suggest is for people coming back from vacations and who fill in those customs declaration forms in-flight, the one question where they ask you if you plan to visit a farm within the next fortnight. Be honest about that one -- after all, most of us city folk do have friends in the country who we visit and we don't want to be The One that caused their livestock to die, and the price of food to skyrocket in already tough times.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Give the Taliban an inch ...

Since my last post on Friday, a lot's been going on in the world, but one story in particular has caused great alarm in the world. No, not the pirates ... the Taliban.

Many have suggested that the time has come to sit down with the Taliban and negotiate a peaceful settlement. Frankly, I thought the war in Afghanistan was taking down the Taliban, and making sure as well they couldn't find safe haven in Pakistan. Well, obviously, NATO has now failed on both fronts. Not only is the Taliban alive and well and giving Western forces a run for the money as well as the drugs, but now they've managed to control a big enough area of Pakistan that they are now less than 100 km from the capital of Islamabad, just weeks after the country caved in and allowed the Taliban to take over the Swat Valley without so much as a tear.

Should we be helping the government in Pakistan? Probably, we should -- except all this time they've done next to nothing in the search for Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, especially Osama bin Laden, so in a way the government there is getting what's coming to them, and the price will be a brand of Islam that isn't Islamic at all, but outright enslavement of an entire people.

And, as CNN points out on their front page today, Afghanistan is very much on Canada's mind as President Obama prepares to deploy nearly 20,000 troops to the country where they should have been in the first place.

We're committed to 2011, and that's a commitment we have to keep. But the fact remains we're getting hammered in what is essentially a decades-long civil war we have no business being in, and the vast majority of our NATO partners simply are not pulling their weight. Keep in mind, we're in free trade talks with the EU right now, and it's not easy to put trade trust in long standing allies who don't understand the threat the Taliban poses to security in South Asia as well as Europe, especially since Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

If Pakistan goes, then the West faces an even greater uphill battle. Can we really contemplate an invasion of that country to "liberate" it from an Islamic caliphate? What security implications will that pose as the war spreads to India and China? We are paying the price for an earlier leadership's refusal to do the job when it was supposed to be done. All the Taliban needs is for North Korea to become allied to them, and it'll be World War III.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Middle aged somebody rocks world

Not much in the last couple of days worth writing about ... but I have to tell you, the big surprise of this past week was Susan Boyle of Blackburn, West Lothian, and her audition performance at Britain's Got Talent, which has to rank as big of a shock as Terry Fator's audition on the American version of the show two years ago when he did a spot-on ventriloquizing of Etta James (Fator, who has four hundred or so voices in his repertoire, went on to win the competition and now has a nine-figure contract in Las Vegas).

Most of you have seen the YouTube of Boyle's stunning performance of "I Had a Dream" from Les Misérables. Due to some copyright issues, embedding has been removed, but if you haven't seen it already you have to see Susan Boyle for yourself ... this is simply stunning. She's already the odds on favourite to win it all this year, and I won't be surprised if she does. Too bad I can't vote. But this Scottish dynamo certainly deserves a nine figure contract herself.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Concoct is the new "Is"

What to make of Karlheinz Schreiber's first day of testimony into the public inquiry about the no longer secret payments he made to Brian Mulroney? All I can say is that Schreiber's version of events gets more fantastic every time he tells the story -- except now he's under oath, and he's been directly accused of not telling the whole story when he did not reveal until recently he actually met with Mulroney at the Harrington Lake retreat.

Schreiber says he has a problem with the word "concoct," in describing the now infamous "Britan" account where he stashed a half million to be later withdrawn by Mulroney. What else does one call it? And was the withdrawal $300,000 or $225,000; and who in their right mind hands over that much money in an envelope without at least asking for a receipt?

"Concoct" is the new "Is." If you know what I mean. Both Schreiber and Mulroney have a lot to answer for. I can't wait to hear Mulroney's version of events -- under oath.

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Franken wins, again

Someone must have forgotten to tell some officials the American election was November 5, 2008. The race for US Senate is still going on in Minnesota, where just a handful of votes separates the Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman, and his Democratic challenger, comedian Al Franken.

Did I say a handful? A couple of dozen has now shot up to a 312 vote lead. And now a three judge panel in the state has ruled in favour of Franken. There's no question Coleman will appeal, but what are his chances? Besides, a senator is elected for six years. By the time this is all over, the seat will have been vacant for nearly one. The governor of the state, Tim Pawlenty, is doing a disservice to his people by continuing to refuse to certify the results based on pure partisanship.

It's time to put an end to the bull and seat Stuart Smalley.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Counting down the end for Global

It looks like the end may be near for Global as we know it. Today, Moody's downgraded the bonds of Global's parent company, Canwest Global Communications -- with Moody's saying that Global may not be able to make a $30.4 million interest payment tomorrow. Although the company says it has extended the deadline on some of its debt to April 21st, it's quite possible that in a little more than a week the once mighty Fox Lite could be petitioned into bankruptcy.

For most other families, I'd probably feel bad -- but not for the Aspers who got too big way too fast and at absolutely the wrong time. And quite frankly, a Canadian version of ET does not exactly cut the grade for CANCON for most of us Canadians even if it does meet the rules just barely.

Here's an idea: How about another public network, but one that's community operated rather than by corporate interests who decide willy nilly when to shut down local newscasts? And it could act as a balance between the definitely right-wing CTV and the usually left-leaning CBC. It could work, if some smart people were involved.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Donate now to the Italy relief effort

The Canadian Red Cross is now accepting donations for the Italian earthquake relief effort ... whether it's that particular NGO or another one of your choice, I urge you to make a donation.

Italy certainly has the resources to rebuild the infrastructure, which damage could easily top €400 million -- for those who have insurance, and the loss to the economy about €3 billion (nearly USD 4 billion) and in the middle of a recession too. But many people there don't have insurance, and even if they do they need temporary shelter and food now as well as just the logistical and emotional support from aid agencies to get through, especially in the high holy days on the Christian calendar. Passover also begins tonight.

So think about them, as we enter into this solemn period on at least two religious calendars.

With that, I will be off the blog -- barring something really weird -- until Monday. Happy Easter and Chag Pesach Sameach.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Talk about a joy ride ...

After yesterday's horrific earthquake in Italy, I thought what could possibly top that. Then came the story of a kid who steals a plane from a fight school in Thunder Bay, Ontario -- and flies south over several US states. He gets "escorted" by two F-16s who keep trying to communicate with the pilot who waves but offers no radio answer. Finally, the plane cuts out of fuel and lands on a rural highway in southern Missouri. Of course the pilot was arrested -- but for a while people were wondering what the hell was going on. Was this a sarin attack, or worse?

I really have not too much comment on that one. In this post 9/11 world, wouldn't there be reason to be worried? In this case, NORAD worked exactly the way it was supposed to and for that, I suppose we should be grateful. But we can't have too many close calls, or distractions from what could be an actual terrorist event.


As for the earthquake, I noticed that at this time the Red Cross here is asking Canadians to hold off on donations directed for disaster relief in Italy, until the CRC's Italian counterparts get a better idea of what they're dealing with. With this being a week where both Passover and Easter are marked, it's probably a good idea to give to the CRC or the charity of your choice anyway so the money can go to where the greatest need is. Just make sure your dollars go to a charity that has a generally low overhead and where its executives don't live high off the hog.


It happens in waves every few months, and I've been getting them again in my comments bin. "Nice blog. I will continue reading your blog." Then, there's a link on the bottom -- the top level domain indicates Western Samoa or Mainland China.

Folks, let me say this again: I'm trying to write a serious blog here (with maybe a hint of wit every so often). If you're going to advertise something, or if you're going to be a shill for the Beijing government, find somewhere else to write.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

"I am Kim Jong-Il, I launched missile and say F*@# You!"

To the surprise of absolutely no body, North Korea has launched the missile they said it would. This time out, two of the three stages were successfully fired. The third apparently failed meaning the "satellite" didn't make it to orbit. It's that third stage that would be needed to successfully launch a nuclear warhead -- which is what has so many countries on edge. Not surprisingly, Obama -- invited to a meeting of the EU leaders in Prague -- has called on the Security Council to do something. Expect quick vetoes from Russia and China to put an end to that talk.

If this is a cry for "help" for foreign aid, this is a hell of a stupid way to do it -- spending billions that could be used to FEED the people in North Korea instead of brainwashing them to goosestep everything they see their so called "Dear" Leader. TVs and radios in the country are already rigged not to receive signals from the South, and it's a capital crime to listen to foreign shortwave services such as the BBC, DW, Voice of America, and even Vatican Radio.

If the missiles the North wants could reach Alaska, it's just a bit more of a tweak before they could reach Canada. Turned the other way, they could reach Turkey or Greece -- NATO allies. As one of the very few countries that actually recognizes the North's government, we need to put our foot down and say we're not going to put up with the crap; and if they threaten our military partners in any way, the response from our allies and us will be furious. We still have veterans living from the Korean War who want the business from 56 years ago to be finished once and for all -- and the people of the North liberated.

If it means taking out the entire command and control of the North and the people that run it, then fine. Good bye and good riddance to the leadership of the north. Let freedom ring. Obama should not be afraid to act. The time to draw the line is now. No concessions.

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Is NATO still relevant? It is but ...

This weekend, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrates its 60th birthday with a summit in the twin cities of Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germany. That in itself says something -- two countries which fought multiple wars against each other over centuries have not only been in peace for so long but have also effectively abolished the border between them (although Strasbourg itself was in fact once German). Many have said that the organization really is no longer relevant. I disagree.

First: At a town hall meeting yesterday, Obama got huge praise for saying that America can be relied on again by Europe as an ally, but he did warn them that Al Qaeda's next major hit may not be in the United States but somewhere in Europe; which makes NATO more relevant than ever.

I think he's got a point. Frankly, eight years after 9/11, security at some key installations in and around the US remains a total joke. No one seems to be protecting nuclear plants, chemical factories, agri-food businesses, oil and gas pipelines. But the fact is, no one seems to be doing that in Europe either. In an area about half the size of the US and nearly 60% more people, one sees some of the most intensive concentrations of industry, agriculture and service providers. Sure, one sees much more reliance on CCTV but that can only cover so much -- you can't have eyes everywhere. And of course, the open borders which are a boon for the law-abiding are also an advantage for those who want to spread ill and fear.

We all know that Afghanistan has proven to be a fiasco and no matter how much Obama pleads with his allies there will be general reluctance to deal with AQ with both Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially with the growing economic crisis. But NATO needs to switch to a new focus, deterring terrorists from coming into their zone -- whether this means money, troops or just disrupting intelligence. Obama would of course like more in terms of military strength but he'd take more cooperation on the other fronts as well -- it certainly wasn't forthcoming with Dubya.

To deter on such a massive scale requires a coordinated effort at the military level. On the off chance they make it into the "red zone", that is home turf, neutralizing them before they have a chance. In this case, it then switches to civilian police forces, also coordinating with each other. For that, however, there needs to be better communication between military and civilian authorities.

While it is important to respect national sovereignties, one also needs to recognize terrorists of any religion have no boundaries and recognize no country's right to exist at all. They do not recognize freedom of religion, freedom of thought and freedom of movement. Certainly, most do not recognize the rights of women either.

Second: The main reason why NATO was created, to deter the Soviet Union may be gone; but its successor state, Russia, is still a very significant threat to Western security. Note that it has consistently objected to the Warsaw Pact countries as well as the Baltic States from joining NATO. It has made a very illegal incursion into Georgia, has made no secret of the fact it wants the Crimea back from the Ukraine, and it is effectively suzerain over the dictatorship Belarus. It also continues to chafe at the fact that one needs a special permit from to travel to and from the exclave of Kaliningrad (since doing so one crosses over the open border zone in the rest of the Europe).

Over the last few years, it has retaliated the only way it was able to -- cutting off gas and oil supplies and forcing the rest of Europe into embarrassing concessions. But the time of games may be coming to an end, and the threat much more than just one of resources. It will become one of weapons, again. There may come a point where both the European states in NATO and the European Union (whose memberships are not entirely contiguous) will say enough is enough.

The fact is, for all intents and purposes, Russia is a democracy in name only. There is no more perestroika, no more glasnost. It is, in point of fact, a dictatorship and desires nothing less than to impose its style of dictatorship throughout Europe and the Middle East. While I do not believe that it will lead to a cataclysmic event as some doomsday televangelists do with their Bible and newspaper waving, I think someone has to put their foot down. In my opinion, NATO has to do this as a collectivity. Now with France fully back into the command -- and with it, their nuclear deterrent -- a message needs to be sent that the West will not put up with the crap. The open borders of Europe, the free economy and freedom of thought are there to stay, permanently and it will not tolerate the sable rattling. Of course, one must never use a nuclear launch as a first strike option -- the goal should be total nuclear disarmament -- but if Russia wants to push it to a regional war then the West should be ready for it at all times.

Of course, Canada and the US will have to find some way to reconcile Europe's wish to have its own common defence policy. That is fine, of course, but there should also be agreement that we stand with free Europe in their desire to stay free. We also need to say to Russia as we hold the line against them that terrorism is just as much a threat to them as they are to us -- and there will be peace only as long as they help us track down and neutralize the evil-doers once and for all. At the same time, we expect a move back to genuine democracy and the changes so permanent that they become irreversible and the possibility of a personality cult impossible.

Then and only then -- when all of Europe is free and when terrorism no longer exists -- will NATO no longer be relevant.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Transit Utopia (sort of), G-20 idiocy (definitely)

Yesterday, the McGuinty government here in Ontario tried to get back "on track" (so to speak) and announced about $9 billion in public transit improvements. Some money being spent, I question -- such as the $3 million to study the "feasibility" of light rail versus bus rapid transit in Hamilton. Tunnelling options for highways considered but then cancelled in the past indicate the escarpment in this part of the world should be solid enough to avoid a cave in for a tunnel which would have to be built to connect St. Joe's Hospital to Mountain Plaza for the "A line." So "feasibility" is really a wash.

The people's choice here is clear, it's light rail. We should be getting the shovels in the ground as soon as possible, and make the Hamilton Street Railway mean what is says again.

The biggest announcement was for upgrades to VIVA, the bus rapid system in York Region, including dedicated rights of way for buses along several busy stretches of Highway 7 and Yonge Street; as well as several new lines in Toronto, the biggest one a light rail line on Eglinton Avenue from the airport to the Kennedy Road station. The trickiest part will be the underground portion from Leslie to Keele Streets. York City (as it used to be called) went through this before, when a hundred million or so was built to dig a hole in the ground only to have it filled up when Mike Harris cancelled a subway line along a small portion of Eglinton.

Hopefully there is enough good will to ensure that this time there is no turning back. People want rapid transit. Whether it's subways, rapid buses or trams, people will use it. Find the most appropriate means in each area, get it done -- and get the seamless fare system in place as soon as possible too.


The G-20 met today and agreed to $1.1 trillion in new stimulus money, including $500 billion in more foreign aid and a huge chunk, $250 billion in "special drawing rights" (a basket that includes the greenback, euro, pound and yen in weighted averages that is the "currency" of the International Monetary Fund) that the IMF's members can use to help out its neighbours as it wishes. At the same time, the European Central Bank cut the overnight rate in Euroland to 1½%, which indicates just how desperate it is getting from France to Slovakia and Italy to Finland. Seems Frankfurt is running out of options when the average rate for depositing money is now just a ¼% -- if any banks will pay that!

There's still a bit of a dispute between the Eurozone and much of the rest of the world over whether there should be even more stimulus or take a wait and see attitude to see if present "stimulus" measures work.

My suggestion to stimulate the economy, something that would really restore the confidence of ordinary people and not the institutional investors that routinely play Russian Roulette with other people's money: Any executive who significantly exposed his or her bank or brokerage to the sub prime market and other risky investments to the point where they had to get stimulus money -- should go to jail. Period.

Put real people in who know how to manage money, in other words Joe or Jane Blow and not Shaughnessy and Anderson Bigshot -- and you will give people faith again to spend their money.

The good news is that the countries have also agreed to go after countries that are tax havens. After a long time Lichtenstein has agreed to cooperate with the EU on tax evaders. The G-20 has specifically singled out four entities for sanctions: Uruguay, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and the Malaysian city of Labuan. (Notice they are all in the developing world?)

But the bad news is that there are other questionable places to hide money and a lot of double standards. There are the obvious ones: Switzerland, Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, and the Cayman Islands. But what about the Crown Dependencies (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man), Luxembourg (an EU member no less!), Heligoland in Germany, and Livigno and Campione in Italy? Don't hear anything about dealing with tax havens in the first world. "The Man" talk about sanctions against them but don't want to do anything to them.

Stupid hypocrites. There should be no place to hide money illegally, especially in times such as these.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Karzai: "It seemed like a good idea at the time ..."

I wish this was an April Fool's joke, even a sick one ... but it's not a joke, and it's women being played for fools.

These days, running an election makes one make all sorts of promises. In a country where there are long running tribal conflicts like Afghanistan, one has to please two sets of masters -- the tribal chiefs and the occupying armies. In this case, and in running for re-election as President, Hamid Karzai made a tactical error that has ended up making everyone upset. In backing away from it, he's looked like even more of an idiot. Which is to be expected since he used to work in the oil business as an executive, where the collective IQ in those board rooms seems to be less than ... well I won't finish that sentence, but as a man I'm pissed about this.

At issue is a proposed law (or it may have already passed) which would apply only to the Shia minority. That's bad enough, having two sets of laws. But consider this: It would make it illegal for a woman to refuse to have sex with her husband, forbid her from leaving home without his permission, and automatically grant custody rights in disputes to fathers and grandfathers.

Mind you, this historically wasn't an exclusively Muslim problem. Many Christian majority nations like Canada used to have laws like that. Until 1983, a married Canadian woman couldn't refuse to have sex with her husband. Until the 1970s, in case of divorce, property was presumed to go to the man even if he was responsible for the breakup of the marriage. Some so called Christian countries still give women a legal second class status, and sad to say, many women are still treated like crap de facto here. A close woman friend of mine barely survived a severe beating at the hands of a man last week -- and like in a lot of cases no one knows where he is now, not even the police.

But when we're told one of the prime purposes of the Afghanistan mission is to ensure the safety of women and legislators there pass a law that put women and girls in jeopardy of mass femicide, then the fact is our soldiers are fighting for nothing at all. And even though Karzai has appeared to back off (for now anyway), he has really forfeited his right to govern the country. Not that he should have been there to begin with but he was the only one the West could ensure would build a pipline from the gas supplies in Uzbekistan to a terminal in the south of Pakistan.

This, therefore, was never about women. It was about energy. And that's not a war worth fighting for. Just as the liberation of the concentration camps in World War II was an afterthought, so too appears to be the liberation of women in Afghanistan. And for that we should all hang our heads in shame. Canada should withhold any development aid until this law is cancelled or withdrawn. Otherwise, we shouldn't even be there.

And worst of all we get this news on a day when Croatia and Albania officially join NATO. Neither has a good historical record when it comes to women's rights either. One is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the other has about a 70% Muslim majority. When it comes to women, very few religions if any seem to get it right.

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