Monday, August 31, 2009

It's your money: OLG spending edition

Lotteries and casinos provide huge revenues for the government, but they are supposed to be put into a "locked box" for specific purposes. In most American states, the monies are used for education. The base is slightly larger in Canada, but the primary purposes are intended to be education, social service projects and environmental protection.
Of course, there is going to be overhead running a gaming commission. But we expect the commissioners, as public servants, to be reasonable in their expense claims. Apparently that message did not get through to the OLG, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. Today, the corp's chair was sacked and the entire board of directors also resigned.

Among the expenses claimed: Nanny services, pen refill cartridges, and car detailing. And remarkably, a deposit on a Florida condo (that was cancelled, but the charge should not have been made in the first place).
As usual, "maybe it's me," but I thought most business people and government officials normally have two credit cards so they can separate legitimate business expenses from the personal ones. Why was that not the case here? And why aren't auditors doing more strict scrutiny on this issue? It shouldn't take a FOIA request to find wrongdoing. Whistleblowers need the same kind of legal protections in Canada as they do in the States.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tide of change in Japan

For all but 11 months of the last fifty-three years, one party has totally dominated the political system in the Empire of Japan: The Liberal Democratic Party, which was anything but liberal or democratic. In its early years, it set up the conditions that allowed Japan to become the economic miracle it became after the devastation of World War II. But like many parties that keep getting re-elected time after time, it became stagnant and it went through Prime Ministers who had to resign amidst scandal after scandal.
Two years ago, the LDP lost its control of the Senate to the DPJ, the Democratic Party of Japan. If exit polls are to be believed, the DPJ is set to win an outright majority in the lower house -- and the new Prime Minister will be Yukio Hatoyama, heir to the Bridgestone ™ Tire fortune. Turnout was huge despite monsoonal rains pounding the island country today.

Hatoyama's main pledge was to end the massive system of corporate subsidies and to instead focus on social welfare issues. He also wants to review Japan's relationship with the States and make it a "more balanced" one.

As usual, you're going to see the televangelists saying this is proof that the US can't rely on its allies anymore, that Japan will cozy up to China, ths is the end of the world, yadda yadda yadda.
But come on -- many of America's allies regularly elect socialist governments. Does that necessarily mean a straining of ties? It's usually American actions that are the causes of strain, whether it is improper agricultural supports, trying to slam down a foreign policy that actually backfires against both the allies and the States itself, or trying to persuade the world that it is the only true beacon of freedom and that any form of government other than full separation of powers is Satanic -- even though we know that Congress has delegated so much of its powers to the executive since the Great Depression that it doesn't even exist in the US anymore.
The Japaense just want to try something new. They're looking out after their own best interests just as most countries do for themselves. I would rather think that this is the start of the process of creating a regional free trade area in the Asia Pacific region that will finally pose a challenge to NAFTA and the EU. I do think it would be in Japan's interests, however, to start only with those countries that are actually democracies and / or allow free expression -- including itself, India, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and the "free" Chinese cities of Hong Kong and Macau. Put in Mainland China which still has a totalitarian government and media and a totally un-independent court system and Japan really will be screwing itself.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Our new man in Washington -- Gary Doer???

Besides the Governor General's post or a vacant Senate seat, the ultimate patronage appointment in Canada is an ambassadorship to the UK, the US, France, Australia, Germany or the Holy See (i.e. Vatican City).
Imagine the surprise today to learn that "Steve" Harper has appointed one of his arch-enemies, the ND's Gary Doer (ex-prison guard and later head of the Manitoba public servants union, and who resigned this week from the Premiership of Manitoba halfway into a third four-year term), to be Canada's man in Washington. It's even more surprising considering that Mike Wilson -- Mulroney's long-time Finance Minister and later the President of the Mental Health Association -- gave absolutely no indication he wanted to leave the Canadian Chancellry before his six-year term was up; he's been in for only 3½.

You'd think that if Harper wanted to do away with an enemy, he'd give him one of the least desirable ambassadorships -- say, Zimbabwe. Or a Crown Corporation so hapless that its only option is to privatize. This kind of reminds of when Mulroney appointed Stephen Lewis to be Ambassador to the UN.
Don't get me wrong; Doer is an excellent choice. Given he's well respected (if not liked) by other colleagues of all political stripes and is already well known by most state governors as well as the governing mayor of Washington, he should have no problem making the rounds in the even more divided Beltway. But you can bet that there will be more than a few people in the Conservative caucus who feel they're owed such a privileged post. Not to mention grumbling within the career diplomatic corps that someone who's worked the ranks for years is due such an important job, especially during a continuing recession.

Trying to conquer the opposition via triangulation, when you're in a minority situation, may not necessarily be a good idea -- it could very well backfire.

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Lost then found -- eighteen years later

At the close of another weird week, comes a good news story and a shocking one as well. A young woman who was snatched from a bus stop on Lake Tahoe when she was 11 years old turned up alive and well at a police station near San Francisco, eighteen years later.

Even more shocking: Her abductor fathered two children with her. What kind of sick pervert would force his abductee to have children -- then keep them out of school?
This is just beyond belief. A very happy ending to be sure ... makes me think about how everyone gave up on Elizabeth Smart a few years back and she managed to survive. Chalk up another win for the gang at America's Most Wanted.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

RIP Edward Kennedy

The man known as the conscience of the Democratic Party in the US, or simply "The Lion," has died. Senator Edward Kennedy was 77 years old.

It would be pointless to try to eulogize him extensively as so many will do so today so much more eloquently than I ever could. Suffice it to say he was the reason the dream of a truly just society in America is still alive. Democrats loved him, Republicans feared him, but it could never be said that anyone truly hated him -- the terrible Chappaquiddick incident notwithstanding. It's because of Kennedy the debate over health care has been kept alive all these years, and that Net Neutrality has become a common cause for those on both the left and the right.
While organizationally President Obama had a far superior campaign to that of now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton there can be no doubt it was the endorsements of Mr. Kennedy and his niece, Caroline, early in the primary season -- as well as Kennedy's seatmate John Kerry giving him access to Kerry's huge mailing list -- that ensured Obama would get the nomination. By doing so the torch had been passed from the baby boom to Generation X.
It is now up to Massachusetts voters to choose a replacement in a by-election that has to be held later this year. One can only hope and pray they will choose someone who tempers justice with mercy and believes the most lowly has the same rights as a person as privileged as Kennedy.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dream team concept gone way too far

Training camp to decide who will be on Canada's men's Olympic team for the Vancouver Games in February is underway. 46 players have been invited. All are in the NHL. Nobody from the minors, no juniors, no university players -- Hockey Canada has made it clear they're personna non grata in Calgary right now.

Pardon me for being a bit cynical, but even until the early 1990s when the precedent was set in basketball (thanks to a ruling by that sports' governing body), the "no professionals" rule dominated. This didn't mean necessarily everyone had to live in poverty; simply they had to participate only in events sanctioned by the governing bodies either nationally or internationally. If they competed in a non-sanctioned event, their amateur status ended. The best example is figure skating -- the "amateurs" were making millions but at least they were careful enough not to compete in prime-time specials put on strictly for show.
We all know that the US "Dream Team" basically bought their gold medals in 1992 and 1996. With the NBA having more international stars now, the tournaments for both the world championships and the Olympics are more evenly stacked but the States still has an acknowledged advantage. Even there, however, basketball insists the national teams have a few amateurs -- not for show but to ensure fairness.
I think some pro players for soccer are allowed at the Olympics, too; but there is an age limit imposed by FIFA for that tournament and also an insistence there be a mix of pro and amateur players.
I happen to think that for the Olympics, there should be a cap on the number of pro players as well. To completely exclude those in the amateur ranks from even being considered is wrong from a sportsmanship standpoint as well as denying a golden (pardon the pun) opportunity for new stars to shine and hopefully land contracts with the NHL or the European leagues.
For that reason, I think that the final rosters for the teams participating should have a limit of 50% professional players (both majors and the most outstanding minors). The other 50% should be drawn from a mix of players from the juniors and the collegiate circuits.
Otherwise, Team Canada is just buying their way to the gold medal as they did at Salt Lake City. And I happen to think that's wrong.

Two other things: The games at GM Place will be played on the NHL rink which is 15 feet shorter in width than under international rules. The wider rink makes for a more open game and exciting game. Also stacking the deck in favour of Canada and the US. Maybe that's what the fans want -- a final with the two North American teams -- but also stupid if the deck is stacked from game one.

Also, Canada's university sports have to stop being so opposed to sports scholarships. We can insist on good academic standards as a condition of continued subsidies, but the brain drain to the States of players studying at NCAA schools is wrong.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

It wasn't just waterboarding

There is simply no way to express my outrage at the kinds of techniques the CIA and other intelligence agencies used to "extract" information from terror suspects. Simply stated, one should never use torture or blackmail to gather evidence. In the cases someone IS innocent, it only makes the suspect more likely to become a terrorist. So much for "we're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here." If even half of what today's declassified report said is true, it sullies what democracy is supposed to be about.

I note that the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, has referred the matter to a special prosecutor. This should not be a witch hunt in and of itself; but if officials at the CIA or the Dubya Administration aided and abetted the effort they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. That includes the President -- and executive privilege should not be a defence either.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Another bank bites the dust

Another bank failed last night in the States -- Austin based Guaranty. It was seized by the FDIC and sold to a Spanish based bank with 600 branches in the States. The feds have protected the depositors again, like they're supposed to, but the Treasury is going to lose $3 billion on the transaction. That makes the total number of failures this year 81. And we're still in August.

I continue to marvel not only at the record number of bank failures in the States, but the almost complete complacency of Canadians who think that because our institutions are inherently more conservative in lending policies (as well as required to have a greater amount of assets in relation to liabilities) that a major failure couldn't happen here. But I am convinced that, while the Big Six and the Desjardins Credit Union are in no danger of imminent collapse, a smaller bank with broad reach could fail and cause shockwaves across the country. At a time when we're in negative inflation, a massive deficit (by our standards) and an economy that's just barely starting to turn around, that's the last thing we need right now.

Like the States, we do have deposit insurance but it can only take so much strain. On the other hand, we should match the federal offer in the US and increase the limit to $250k. This might stem the flight of capital to the States.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Fly-ins don't cut it Steve

Today, PMS announced the feds are chipping in $71 million of the $160 million cost of building an upgrade to the Mayo dam in the Yukon. The project will add 6 megawatts of power to the territory's grid, enable the shutdown of several diesel plants, and theoretically make distribution of electricity more stable in the Klondike.

All well and good, it is clean energy and it is perhaps facilitated by the fact that nearly all of the First Nations in the territory have signed land claims agreements -- a perennial stumbling block for similar projects in Québec (made up for with huge sums of cash and self-government agreements) as well as here in Ontario where few if any facilities have been built.
But three things bother me. First, for a Prime Minister who comes from an ethical strain that denies that humans are the cause of global warming, it is a pretty blatant political stunt especially since we're almost certainly going back to the polls, maybe in November.
Second, there is no guarantee of long term jobs. As is the case with many work camps, it'll probably be migrants from the South who spend some time up north to take advantage of the huge tax breaks provided to isolated communities (all three territories plus Labrador meet this classification), do their job and then go back South when the job is done. No putting down roots. No looking for skilled labourers up North who might actually want the jobs first.
Dams do need to be maintained, but it's not like you need a thousand people on duty to run one -- maybe a dozen or so at most. And they're opened and closed by remote control in a command centre often from vast distances away.
Third, the territories elect only one member each at large. Every district matters, of course, but why is it the North only gets attention every once in a while? And shouldn't they be getting help in stabilizing prices for essential items which can be several times what we pay in supermarkets and department stores in the South. The northern tax credit doesn't even begin to cover the difference.
I don't know what I'd do differently. But flying around in a helicopter once a year isn't my idea of protecting our sovereignty in the true Great White North, which isn't so white anymore now the permafrost is melting and the treeline is moving further north by the week.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ann Leary: The NHS worked for her

Just a couple of hours ago, Ann Leary, wife of comic Denis, posted at HuffPo her story about going into labour in the UK at just 26 weeks while Denis was still an unknown comic. Her story about how the NHS came through for her and her child totally refutes Sarah Palin's claims about "death panels" for preemie and / or high risk births. Since she wasn't a EU national she of course had to pay out of pocket but she wasn't asked for her insurance information until well into her stay at the hospital. Even then, her cost was only -- only! -- £10,000, which her insurance fully reimbursed. And she got medical treatments that still hadn't been approved for use by the FDA.

Mrs. Leary then relates a nearly identical case in the States at the same time for an uninsured person. The cost? "Hundreds of thousands of dollars."

President Obama isn't pushing anything near to what exists in Canada. Not even a hybrid system like in France, or public with a private option like in the UK or in Australia. He's just trying to fill in the gaps of what exists in the States right now. For this he is vilified as a "socialist."

Even under the best of circumstances, a complication-free pregnancy, a woman in the States will be expected to pay up at least $5000 even with insurance and will be chased out of the hospital the next day. Here, a woman gets 48 to 60 hours of post-partum convalesence, in Europe it can be a week or more. And they get medicines which are considered too "controversial" in the States, no thanks to so-called "pro-life" groups.

If that's the price of "socialism" then I'll take it over the shitload US way any day. Our system is in desperate need of fixing, and it'll need more than just money thrown at it; but that green plastic card is worth its weight in the most precious of metals hundred of times over.

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Compassion to someone who showed none?

The decision today of the separatist-led Scottish government to free Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted in the Pan Am 103 bombing in 1988, after serving just eight years of a life sentence is very difficult to accept. It may be true that Mr. Megrahi has cancer and only has a few months to live. It may also be true this is being done on "compassionate" grounds, which Scots law does provide for and which the Scottish people have exercised since justice (among other fields) was delegated back to Scotland in 1999.

But there are two problems I have. First, Mr. Megrahi was convicted in a vicious terrorist attack that killed 270 people. He is a mass murderer and his release means he only served 11 days for everyone killed (259 on the plane plus 11 on the ground in Lockerie. Far as I can tell, he has never apologized for it nor shown any empathy for the families left behind. Certainly he showed no compassion since he planted the bomb in the first place.
Second, by allowing Megrahi free, it prevents a full investigation into what happened. The agreement between the US, the UK and Libya ensured that two and only two people would be tried for the attack -- under Scottish law and in a courtroom in the Netherlands that was temporarily ceded to the UK precisely for the purpose. As I noted last week, many felt more got away -- and Megrahi's sole co-defendant was acquitted. All evidence points to the fact that there are at least a dozen unindicted co-conspirators who got away with cold blooded murder. Under the terms of the release, Megrahi doesn't even have to name names; all he had to do to get off the hook was to drop his second and last ditch appeal which he did last week.

Compassion is a virtue shared amongst the vast majority of peoples on the planet, of all races, religions and ethnicities. Certainly it is one shared by the vast majority of Muslims. But Megrahi betrayed one of the key principles of Islam, not to harm a fellow human being. He got caught. And most importantly, he refused to name names.

For that reason, he should have served out his term and died in prison, or at least a prison hospital; after all, the NHS does cover even persons serving time in one of "Her Majesty's gaols" and the cancer could have been better treated in Scotland than it will be in Libya. Then and only then, after he died, should his body have been released to Libyan authorities.

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Ted Olsen's about face on gay marriage

Abolishing slavery. Voting rights for women. The civil rights movement. Equal rights for women. All of these battles necessarily involved a broad coalition of activists, of all races and social strata -- and often made for strange bedfellows who would on most other issues be outright enemies.

The controversial Proposition 8 in California which banned gay marriage (although not civil unions) is being challenged in a federal court in San Francisco. And unbelievably, the counsel for the petitioners demanding the state constitutional amendment be declared illegal under the federal constitution is none other than erstwhile conservative hero -- Theodore Olson?

I made mention of this a few weeks back (when I wrote about the California Supreme Court's confusing decision to uphold Prop 8) but it looks like this guy's conversion really is genuine and I applaud him for fighting for something so fundamental to American life -- equal protection of the laws, guaranteed by Amendment XIV, Section 1 since its ratification in 1867.

The NYT story describes how the gay rights movement managed to win a most unlikely ally and how Olson has managed to alienate so many of his friends, not the least of which is Robert Bork.

All I can say is, good for Olson. Much as I oppose gay marriage, it is a matter of equal rights and it's a no-brainer: The US Supreme Court has no choice but to ultimately declare that opposite sex relationships are not the only legitimate partnerships. And the odds may be in Olson's favour: As Solicitor General, he argued 55 cases before SCOTUS (he has one white quill for each) and won 44 of them. An .800 batting average isn't too bad in the legal world.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Scalia v. Dershowitz

Unbelievably, a US Supreme Court Justice actually said the other day that a person on death row after a "fair" trial who quite possibly is innocent can be executed even if he or she can prove innocence. That justice, no surprise, is Antonin Scalia -- certainly the wittiest justice in writing opinions assigned to him but also completely ass backwards on the principle of due process. And, get this -- he's a Roman Catholic, as the majority of justices are. In fact, the other dissenter was Clarence Thomas, another Catholic!

Here's the money quote:

This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.

Needless to say, many have slammed this, including no less than Al Dershowitz, who is Jewish but certainly knows more about what it means to be Catholic, if you believe his op-ed piece in the Daily Beast.

Paul Campos, also at DB, writes his own opinion about what he thinks about Scalia.

Not surprisingly, Scalia got a stern rebuke from the Court's dean, John Paul Stevens, as you can read here in his order (the vote was 6-2) ordering the Federal Court for Southern Georgia to review the habeas petition of the man in question, Troy Anthony Davis, who is supported by no less than 27 former prosecutors and judges. Stevens, I note as well, also granted the petiton of numerous people supporting Davis to file amici curiae (friends of the court) briefs to everyone who asked for leave to do so, including no less than the maniacal Bob Barr (yes, that one!).

The death penalty is never fair, which is why I have personally opposed it since I was fourteen and I will until I die.

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Tepid support in US for Afghan war

WaPo reported today that only ¼ of Americans support increasing troop deployment to Afghanistan, after a July that saw record casualties for the States in the country that various nations have tried to dominate for over 2000 years. On the key question of whether the West is winning the war, the margin of confidence is only 42 to 36 with 22 percent not sure. Tomorrow, there's an election that many suspect rightly is a foregone conclusion -- Hamid Karzai will be elected to another term of office tomorrow and there will likely be a lot of corporate backed vote rigging to make sure it happens (after all, Karzai is the only leader who can ensure the continued flow of oil and natural gas through the country, which is what it really comes down to).
Is this is what NATO is supporting? At the ProgBlog picnic the Sunday before last, there was a general consensus that no matter who is in power in 2011 here in Canada, some excuse will be come up with to further extend our combat operations. A country that was actually a model for women's rights in the 1960s is increasingly more repressive against women even with the Taliban out of the picture. And opium cultivation is at an all time high.
We need to refind our purpose in the war, and make sure our men and women in uniform have the most up to date equipment to fight it. But even with the most sophisticated mapping, the natives of Afghanistan know the lay of the land better than the West ever will and that gives them a decisive advantage. Capturing Osama Bin Laden has almost become a sideshow now.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Steve and Robert

I've heard of diplomatic faux pas in the past -- such as the time when my alma mater McMaster University hoisted the Japanese flag when a delegation from China showed up in town. But how can Canada's PM forget how to spell the word Iqaluit? Someone in PMS' office added an extra "u" after the q, following the general spelling rules. But as we all found out, that extra "u" turns it into a very rude word in the Inuktatut language.

Sure, many media outlets have made the error. Even I have on occasion. But the guy who is primus inter pares? Lord Almighty.

Also, Bob Novak died today. Brain cancer. I generally disagreed with his politics, and his involvement in the uncovering of a CIA agent is still too terrible to contemplate. But many in the Washington inside crowd on both sides always spoke highly of him as an intelligent and compassionate human being. Another microphone has gone silent forever. Too bad.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

This time timber, next time -- nuclear fuel?

At least this ship piracy story has a happy ending, but the tale of a Russian-crewed and Finnish flagged ship that just disappeared into thin air with a huge load of timber worth about €1 million for three weeks raises much more questions than answers. Why was the transponder turned off? And why is it that spy satellites, which can peer into the bedrooms and offices where we type our blogs, couldn't find such a huge boat?!

Not to mention, European Union waters are amongst the most heavily patrolled on the planet. What if this had been an al Qaeda operation? What does that say about the democratic world's ability to fight terrorists, if we can't protect free trade?

Somewhere in the mountains that separate Afghanistan from Pakistan, or in a condominium on Central Park West, OBL is laughing at the West displaying its ineptitude yet again.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

More trouble in Turks and Caicos

The Turks and Caicos are back in the news. The British outpost in the Caribbean which has been trying to become an alternate business centre as other tax havens such as the Cayman Islands have had increasing pressure to crack down on money laundering, has itself been wracked in allegations of corruption. Yesterday, the Premier of TC was fired and London announced it will directly rule the islands for a period of up to two years, in an attempt to clean up the mess.

I don't really know all the details, but this kind of hammer does sound on the surface quite strong. It's not like the islands are swamped by massive violence of the kind that plagued Northern Ireland for so many years. One can imagine the kind of uproar if there was an attempt at direct rule for other territories such as the Falklands or Bermuda. I also have to wonder if Gordon Brown has pulled the plug on TC's assembly to deflect attention however temporarily from his increasingly hapless administration in the UK.
Or could it be that the desire of some in TC to be part of Canada (in particular Nova Scotia) has started to gain traction after lying dormant for so many years and London, having lost much of its empire in the 1930's to 50's, and Hong Kong in 1997, doesn't want to lose whatever empire it has left and with it residual pride in its glory days.
Guess this kind of puts the kibosh on TC being annexed by Nova Scotia any time soon. At least there's a time frame for home rule to be returned, however -- there have been cases where direct rule has gone on indefinitely which would not be a good thing. On the other hand, this sounds like something the islands' residents should be able to sort out for themselves without supervision from afar.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Appeals court: Free Khadr

The Federal Court of Appeal has ruled the Canadian government has an obligation to demand the return of Omar Khadr, a Canadian national currently on "trial" at Gitmo. But given the 2-1 split on the vote it may give the Conservatives an automatic right of appeal to the Supreme Court.

It would be better to politely ask for Khadr's return to Canada than to extend the charade. That does not mean he should get a free pass. He should be put on trial in Canada -- a real trial --before a jury of his peers for his alleged terrorist acts, and face the consequences including possible imprisonment if convicted.
The Crown Prerogative on foreign affairs is not an absolute one. While Canadians certainly have to respect the law while travelling overseas, there is a case to be made where one is in an area where there are no laws at all and the rules of war ought to apply. Khadr's captivity was totally unnecessary and his extradition back to Canada should have been demanded when the Liberals were in power. Gitmo and the conditions therein constitute anything beyond what plausibly could be called "fundamental justice" and for Canadian officials to take advantage of Khadr was inexcusable.

That the so-called War on Terror is a different kind of war is self-evident. But just because terrorists or those accused of terrorism play by their own rules doesn't give nation states the right to make up their own.

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What price lottery fever?

When a lottery jackpot in Canada hits $20 million or more, it's a big deal. Multi-state lotteries in the States often give away ten times that or more (taxable of course and those who take lump sum payouts often receive only a third of the stated amount).
But in some parts of Europe, lottery fever has reached the point of insanity. Take Italy, where people are flying in from across the EU just to play that country's largest national game. With staggering odds of 622 million to 1 and no one having won since January (including last night), plus an unlimited rollover, Saturday's jackpot in Italy is going to get to at least €138.9 million, or USD 198.4 million. Tax-free.

Lotteries and casinos do raise much needed revenues for governments, even in the worst of times (they seem to be rather recession-proof). Unfortunately, they also play on the most vulnerable elements of society as well as the purely vain who just want to get richer and richer. In the present case, obviously you can't stop freedom of travel in Western and Central Europe nor should anyone want to; but at what price? Plus, isn't one just cheating their own government by paying a voluntary tax to another?
Often, a "use tax" is imposed on people who try to evade sales taxes by going to another jurisdiction and shipping the goods back which is why most of Europe also has a treaty on VAT to make sure the tax ultimately goes to the correct country (paid by the consumer, naturally). Shouldn't the same apply to lottery tickets?
A similar principle should, I think, apply to Canadians winning money in the States. Lottery winnings are tax free and Canadians technically could get their money back (eventually), but in a way we're greasing the palms of our neighbours so it would be easier just to impose a tax when the tourists come back -- I would suggest something equal to the GST or the harmonized sales tax in an increasing number of provinces. That would encourage Canadians to play their money in Canada where the money goes directly to the provinces and territories in the first place.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No free pass for Lockerbie bomber

Tonight, we are learning that the Scottish government may be considering early parole for the only person ever convicted in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. The worst mass murder in British history, Pan Am 103 was destroyed by agents acting for the Libyan government. Many are still convinced that there was a broader conspiracy and in the attempt to make nice with Colonel Khaddafi -- or his attempt to make nice with the West, depending on how you look at it -- those truly responsible got away.

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has prostate cancer and in terminal condition, but the understanding between the States (who lost most of the victims) and the UK (where the crime took place) was that the sentence would be served in Britain. It had been a compromise, since most of the families were demanding the death penalty and of course the EU states don't.

This news about early parole really is a slap in the face, and pretty much ensures we may never know the truth about what happened all those years ago. Holding up a possible transfer is that Megrahi is taking a last ditch attempt at a second appeal, but it's hard seeing it holding water.
To defeat some of the worst enemies, we sometimes have to co-opt other countries or entities that we would normally consider an enemy of our own. But giving Megrahi a free pass, even on compassionate grounds, is not the way to do that.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Not changing mind about visa, Harper says

So just because there's an unexpected number of refugees (or persons who classify themselves as such) from Mexico and the Czech Republic, two countries with which Canada normally has very good relations, we need to impose visa restrictions on them? I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago but it is still maddening and perplexing; and no sign from Harper tonight that he's going to budge any.
Normally, doing something like this on such short notice would occur only if there was a serious terrorist threat. I acknowledge the drug wars in Mexico and the discrimination against some minorities in Europe, but don't both countries have civil processes for that? Do we really need to swing an axe at something that may only be a minor issue in the grand scheme of things?
Free trade should mean exactly that, the free movement of capital, goods, information, people and services with little to no scrutiny except where warranted. Having a visa requirement is, in my opinion, a form of guilty until proven innocent -- having to provide not just extensive documentation but in some cases criminal records checks. There may be reason to have visa restrictions on countries which are not entirely friendly to our interests, but fully fledged democracies?
Again, the European model of fully open borders in the West and Centre of the continent may not necessarily be appropriate (yet) for North America (and random checks still do exist, as well as temporary checkpoints during "special security" situations such as the Olympics or a world championship as well as for the most virulent border shoppers). But isn't there a better way to scrutinize possible fraudsters (or worse) while ensuring the right to travel for those who are law-abiding?

Harper and Co. just keep stigmatizing and singling out certain groups, and that is not acceptable. If the refugee processing system is as broken as Harper claims, then fix it from within Canada.

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Any good aggregators out there?

Off to church, then to Guelph for the annual ProgBlog get together. But I did want to ask you folks a question:

I had to uninstall SharpReader, my old RSS aggregator, this past week because it kept crashing on me and the app's creator hasn't provided an update to it in nearly three years. For now, I'm using the one in IE 8.0 and it seems to be doing the job quite well, although a couple of my frequent reads (on both sides of the divide) can't "read" the feed the aggregator fetches posts from that SR did.

So do you have any suggestions for an aggregator that works for you? Thanks, guys and gals -- and I look forward to seeing those of you who are also headed out to Guelph.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Military stupidity in the air

I'd like to meet the idiot who thought it would be a good idea to have the chiefs of staff of the Army, Air Force and Navy of Canada travel to the same destination, on the same flight. Apparently, they were involved in an almost tragic incident back in April when their Challenger jet had a near miss with a commercial airliner.

Having all the executives of the same company together on a flight would be stupid on its own. There has to be someone to continue the company if something were to go wrong. And it's very very hard to think of any other democracy where something so stupid would be tolerated. Aren't there always at least one MP and one Senator who sits out the Throne Speech, just in case "God forbid" happens? Why can't the military abide by a similar principle?

This isn't a Liberal or Conservative thing. It's just plain common sense, something that seems to be lacking no matter who's running the show. I don't know what the fiscal situation of the military is day to day, but was it so hard to find a second plane; or to have one of the three stars fly commercial?

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Gay to straight? Fuggedaboutit say psychs, go for it says "religion"

Some ministries just don't get it.
Late last night CNN reported that the American Psychological Assocation, meeting this week in Toronto, said that a peer review of 87 studies between 1960 and 2007 demonstrates it is just not possible to use psychiatric treatment to "treat" homosexuality or to try to transform someone from gay or lesbian to straight. In fact, trying to do so can actually cause more harm than good, in the worst case scenario loss of sexual identity all together, loss of appetite or even suicidal thoughts. It's worth pointing out homosexuality was dropped from the list of mental illnesses from the DSM back in 1975, thirty-four years ago, but the perception of wrong is still widespread.

(Report in PDF here.)

While there are cases where someone has themselves come to the conclusion that they are not homosexual but heterosexual -- or vice versa -- and I don't deny the personal stories that do exist along this line, the whole idea of coercion or even "counselling" for what so many see as an inherent "wrong" is just so unseemly that it probably wouldn't deserve further comment; were it not for the resurgence of religious groups who think one can be counselled out of what they still think is either a mental illness or even worse demon possession that must be driven "out", so to speak. Does anyone remember the late Jerry Falwell holding a "Coming Out of Homosexuality" event on the same day as "Coming Out Day"?
One of these groups is called Exodus International. Actually a coalition of some 250 ministries, it claims it has been able to "convert" about ⅓ of its clients. I have to wonder about that. Were the switches genuine, or were they forced? Personally, I think that it's mostly the latter.
The APA does note that some homosexuals who come to the conclusion that their choice of lifestyle is "wrong" for religious reasons do need counselling, but of the appropriate kind. This includes reducing the stigma associated with the lifestyle as well as respecting their religious beliefs and working that into the counselling rather than as a separate issue.
Besides which, people who are gay and lesbian offer as much to the community as heterosexuals. They live, work, parent, contribute to the communities they live in, even serve as police officers or combat personnel. Why do some continue to stamp people who are "different" with the badge of offence? Is it hatred, or could it be just the fear that they could actually be befriended by a genuine person with a good heart?
From the Catholic perspective, there appears to be a contradiction in the official line. Article 2357 of the Cathecism states outright that "homosexual acts are instrinsically disordered," but acknowledges how one becomes gay or lesbian in the first place is still largely unexplained. It calls for respect for homsexuals and that "every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided" (2358), but then insists those who are gay or lesbian should remain celibate (2359).

Fat chance; back in high school during the 1980s I knew for a fact quite a few of my classmates were homosexual and were even openly affectionate about it on school property, and nothing happened to them. Nor did the majority of us who were straight think any less of them or that they didn't have it all "up there." This was at a time when sexual orientation had just been added to Ontario's Human Rights Code, despite the very open opposition of the province's Catholic bishops. (Did they even bother to read the Cathecism in seminary when they were training to be priests, or just listening to what they wanted to hear? I have to wonder.)

Like on many other issues, such as the HPV vaccine (which I wrote on here and here), the bishops are so out of step with the laity on currents that it way past the point of being funny anymore because it is not and never has been; and even the Catholic school boards in the province have acknowledged the necessity of the vaccine for teenage girls -- knowing that despite teaching about abstinence before marriage most of their students are sexually active and it protects students who are both straight and homosexual, not to mention as acting as a line of defence against some STDs if a teenage girl is unfortunately raped.
It's not a stretch to imagine that some bishops still think that having an attraction to someone of the same sex is a mental illness. The same bishops who kept moving priests around so they could avoid prosecution for raping altar boys and persons of both sexes at schools of all sorts, who may have in fact contributed to those students become gay or lesbian in the first place. What utter hypocrisy. Let's not forget, at least one of them, Cardinal Bernard Law, the one-time civil rights activist and former archbishop of Boston who was forced to resign in disgrace over this, and who faces possible prosecution in Massachusetts for obstruction of justice, now has a top post at the Vatican (pratically a reward for what he did) and as a citizen of the Holy See while he acts for the Pope has diplomatic immunity. Give me a break, and talk about talking out of both sides of the mouth!
If someone is gay or lesbian, then just let them be that way. Throwing religion into the mix makes it so much worse that it defeats the purpose, which after all is supposed to be about compassion and accepting people of all kinds even if we individually disagree with their personal beliefs or lifestyles.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Women, get mad

If we think the struggle for equality of the sexes is far from over here in the Western World, imagine what it's like in Africa, where in many countries women are in general treated like scum or worse. But it also seems some goverments there have a very different definition of what constitutes pornography. No, I'm not talking about the difference between soft core and hard core porn, which is unfortunately getting increasingly blurry. I'm talking about pictures of a woman trying to giving birth.

I kid you not. The news editor of the largest paper in Zambia, Chansa Kabwela, whose paper (the Zambia Post) is a frequent critic of the country's president Rupiah Banda, is facing trial and five years in prison. The background: The paper received pictures of a woman in obvious agony while trying to give a breech birth -- the kind when the baby is turned and coming out of the vagina in a butt- or feet-first position. The woman, turned away from two clinics because of a nurses' strike, went to a third. By that time, the baby had suffocated and died. The pictures were not, I repeat, not published.

But Kabwela was outraged enough that she sent the pictures to the country's health minister and the vice-president as well as some women's groups with a letter demanding an end to the nurses' strike. The VP's private secretary was also shocked and, by his own description, even "aroused" by the pictures -- but thought the issue was important enough to pass the pictures on to the president. It was at that point Banda pressed charges against Kabwela, calling the pictures pornography. It should be pointed out, Banda is currently facing possible impeachment and trial on totally unrelated corruption charges.
I'm writing this post strictly from a guy's perspective, and also as someone who's not yet a father. But I think there is something seriously wrong with society if we're going to prosecute anyone for trying to rectify an issue by speaking to the truth with facts no matter how uncomfortable. In my opinion there is absolutely nothing pornographic or even erotic about child birth, especially in a high-risk situation -- it is very much a public health issue. And in a country that bans abortions in most circumstances, it's highly hypocritical for the government to say they're trying to "protect" women whilst doing nothing to protect their or their unborn children's health.
This is the problem I continue to have with the pro-life movement's leadership, nothwithstanding that I personally am pro-life. In the most extreme, those would force women to have their children offer no alternatives except adoption -- they oppose increased funding for pre-natal care or nutritional programs for infants and young children as well as nursing mothers, oppose welfare for unwanted children and their mothers, oppose retraining opportunities to help women who most need it. And of course, if the nurses (mostly women) go on strike, they are either ignored or even imprisoned.
To further classify childbirth or mere breast-feeding as "pornographic" is not only an insult to the women who give birth and / or care for the women and their children. It also should insult the conscience of men like me who believe that a government should be behind women and children every step of the way. If one is truly pro-life then he or she should also support a seamless web of life from implantation to natural death. Letting the mother hang out to dry is as much an insult as charging the reporter with spreading "porn."
One has to wonder if there would be a similar visceral reaction here if our laws were as strict as they are in many parts of the world. Many on the right still wish for the 1950s when married couples were shown in separate beds and the word "pregnant" could not be used. Even now, many neo-cons would like nothing less than the legal imprisonment of women in their own houses and the ban on martial rape repealed. Not to mention, have all the progress we've made so far annulled as well.
The correct and proper thing to do here in this situation to a) drop the charges against the reporter, b) change the law so something so ridiculous never happens again; and c) compensate the woman for the loss of her child which was totally unnecessary. But I'm not holding my breath.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What "quid pro quo" did Clinton offer?

To hear the news that President Bill Clinton has won the release of two journalists, both women, from their captivity in North Korea is indeed heartening and speaks to Clinton's powers of persuasion, even with governments that the US offficially refuses to recognize (in the North's case, Sweden, as a neutral power, acts as a go-between in representing US interests).

I do have to ask, however, what exactly did the States concede to the "Hermit Kingdom" in exchange? I do not believe for a second what current President Barack Obama claims that this was strictly a "private mission," otherwise the North would have not only refused the American request for mercy but also increased the sentences imposed on the women or even executed them. It couldn't have been food aid, because the armed forces in the North regularly seizes it then sells it to the people for whom it was intended as a gift. And as for nuclear concessions -- well, there aren't going to be any, not until North Korea absolutely and irrevocably commits to non-proliferation and using nuclear power for peaceful purposes only (i.e. electricity and legitimate medical research).
So what was given up? If the six nation talks are "dead" and the North insists on direct contact with the States, does that mean the US will finally establish direct diplomatic links? That's sure to rile up the hawk wing of the Democrats. It's worth thinking about -- Canada only finally recognized North Korea's government in 2001 but neither has set up embassies in the other country yet, eight years after.
Or is Bill Clinton gunning for the Nobel Peace Prize, hoping to share the same honour as Jimmy Carter and Al Gore and Teddy Roosevelt?
There may also be a third possibility. We all remember the agreement in 1994 that Carter got with Kim Il-Sung, one month before the latter died and some time after that the North reneged on its commitments. It's generally acknowledged that Kim Jong-Il is also ailing and he just might be gasping for air before he dies, and whichever of his sons takes over the Clinton concessions are also unilaterally cancelled. (The PDRK already broke several promises it made to Dubya, after all -- while the latter was still in office!)
I'm not much on conspiracy theories, but there's more to this story than what we've been led to believe. I think we all want a united and nuclear weapons free Korea, but it's going to be a long wait. The DMZ is not the Berlin Wall, the latter of which was destined to fall.

Quid pro quo? Yeah, I think so. And when we all find out what it is, the US and most of its allies -- both inside and outside of NATO -- are going to be pissed, as will the voters in all the countries concerned. All humans lives are sacred and the two reporters should have been freed on day one, but Slick Willy didn't get called Slick for nothing.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Schreiber out of Canada, finally

So Karlheinz Schreiber has finally been extradited to Germany to face corruption and tax evasion charges. Now, he's claiming that the charges could lead Angela Merkel, Gemany's Chancellor, to electoral defeat in a few week's time.

This guy doesn't know when to shut up. Two major former world leaders -- Brian Mulroney and Helmut Kohl -- had their reputations destroyed by Herr Schreiber and his propensity to manage to make secret payments to them, while still serving in high office. The leaders at least admitted they took money from Schreiber, although the admissions were well after they resigned their posts and they insist what they actually got was far less than what Schreiber claims it was. What does he have to possibly gain by trying to sully Frau Merkel, unless he can actually prove he made an illegal donation to her?
"Seven scandals in one"? Try one and a half, at most. Maybe just a half. Good riddance -- twenty-one appeals must be a new record in the annals of Canadian justice. As for Mulroney and Kohl, well, we'll just have to wait and see.

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sarah and Todd NOT divorcing

It sounded like a plausible theory at the time: When Sarah Palin gave her rambling farewell speech a week ago today, many were thinking what was the real reason she was quitting into her first term in office, a year and a half before the election? Then rumours started spreading in the last couple of days that she and her husband, Todd, were divorcing. Palin's spokeperson said yesterday that the divorce rumour definitely is false as is the rumour she's bought land in Montana or Long Island or wherever. Still, there are a lot of questions about her sudden departure. Why would she leave one of the most lucrative gubernatorials in the US? And what is she planning for her comeback, whenever that is?

Hard to believe the election was back in November, and a year ago most Americans still hadn't heard about Palin. Then she became all the rage, and all the ridicule. This video clip from NPR's hugely funny show Right Between the Ears, shows a "conversation" between Palin and alleged lothario Antonio Banderas. (This is a running gag on the show, where "Banderas" manages to p-off any of his guests, men and women alike, about sleeping with the women with their lives in the case of the guys, or with the women themselves when the guest is a woman.)

Note how "Palin" and the sound effects person can barely contain their laughter when it turns into a confrontation between Antonio and "Tod-d"

Seems like Mrs. Palin is one of those stories that just won't go away, I suppose.

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