12.31.2005

a year

What a year this has been. Big? The biggest.

In the first part of 2005, we were mostly just waiting. In January, we heard from Immigration: the request for additional documents. In February and March, applied for our FBI clearances, had our medical exams, collected whatever other documents were needed. End of March, mailed our second round of documents - although even much of that time was spent waiting.

I had a good amount of writing work, but not overload. I spent my time getting together with people I seldom saw, enjoying New York, making lists, waiting for the mail every day. Waiting, waiting.

"The Gates" came to town, I adored them (more here, and some little blips here and here), then: waiting, waiting.

Then the pace picked up.

Buster gets sick - and keeps getting sicker. A monster writing assignment falls into my lap - a major writing challenge, impossible deadlines, more money than I'd ever been paid to write anything in my life. And we hear from Canada. All at once.

And picked up again.

I am still involved with the Haven Coalition. I disentangle myself from that work in order to remain halfway sane.

And picked up again.

The stress of trying to diagnose and treat Buster's ever-worsening intestinal trouble, writing under intense deadline pressure for weeks on end, the emotional turmoil of knowing I am leaving friends and family. And then: the perfect place to live appears out of nowhere, and the next thing we know, we're moving.

The summer was so intense. All of the above, doubled and tripled, still working our day-jobs on the weekend, grinding out the Ancient Civs manuscript during the week, taking care of Buster (who is getting sicker and sicker), trying to wrap up our lives in New York, organize the move itself, and plan the essentials of our lives to come.

It was a pressure cooker.

Finally, some steam escapes.

In late July I finish my writing assignment.

In early August we get a breakthrough diagnosis for Buster (inflammatory bowel disease) and a treatment plan that immediately starts to work.

Three weeks to go.

Through our last weeks in the city, we are constantly picking up day-rental cars to bring Buster to appointments - including his final eye re-check, the glaucoma still holding steady with medications, sigh - and arranging schedules around his needs. (He can't be alone for more than a couple of hours.) My life is a long series of lists. Allan and I are constantly working through logistics and rearranging plans. People I haven't seen in years are self-absorbed enough to think that, two weeks before I move to another country, I have time to hang out with them. Two and three times a week, I say goodbye to someone I love.

My heart is a whirlwind of emotions.

Then, the big day. Our stuff leaves, then we do.

Then, calm.

The whirlwind stops.

We are busy, sure, but the pressure has dissipated, the turmoil has disappeared. We are here. I feel free.

Thanks to those insane deadlines before we left, we don't need to work for a while. We unpack. We fix up the house. We sit in the backyard. We walk by the lake. We take care of paperwork. We fix up the house. We meet new friends. We relax.

Buster continues to improve. Everything falls into place.

We buy a car. Our dogs have a backyard. We have a dishwasher - and a washing machine! The weather is beautiful. We walk by the lake.

I feel calm, and grounded. (And only then do I realize just how crazy I felt through the spring and summer.)

We start to work again. Life is normal. Life is good.

Then, mid-November, a shock. A loss. Our hearts break.

Our lives go on.

When this year started, there were four of us in an apartment in New York City.

As it ends, there are three of us, in a house, in Canada.

A big year, full of life. Thanks for being there, friends of wmtc. It would have been a lot tougher without you.

Goodbye 2005.

* * * *

I know many of you have had big years, too: lost loved ones, lost jobs, weathered life changes, both planned and unasked for. I hope, on balance, there's been more joy than heartache.

Here's looking forward: peace, love, happiness and fulfillment. Bring on 2006.

12.30.2005

offer

A generous friend of wmtc, Peregrinato, sent me some terrific reading material: "Peace, Order and Rocky Government: A Survey of Canada", from The Economist. Articles include:
* Alienating the west: Canada gets its very own Texas.
* A dream that does not fade: Quebec might yet quit Canada.
* Living with number one: Relations with the United States are fraying.
* A funny sort of government: Canada's dysfunctional politics.
* The perils of cool: Canada has everything, except perhaps ambition.
It's The Economist, so it's well researched and well written, although I think some of it leans too heavily on stereotype. I've been reading it for a while, trying to figure out how to blog about it, to no avail. There's too much of it, and no link. But I do recommend it.

So let me put it this way, if you'd like to read more, email me.

our

Several years ago, I trained myself to stop using the word "our" when referring to the United States. It was a change of habit I picked up from Allan and from other peace activists. I despised the way Americans referred to "us" in military terms: "we bombed Baghdad". You know the old punchline, "Who you calling 'we', white man?" That's how I felt. That's not me. Don't include me in that us.

Old speech habits are hard to break, but I got accustomed to referring to the US as that: the US. "We" might be women, or working people, or progressives, but not the country, and certainly not the government.

Obviously, it was something I felt very strongly, because here I am.

Now I've noticed how Canadians use the same word, and how different it sounds. There's an ad on the CBC right now for a show about Canadian comedy, and several times it says things like "our brand of humour" or "our comedy". I also hear hockey referred to as "our game".

And you know what? I really like it.

Part of it is that the population of Canada is so much smaller. It has a cozier sound. Like we're a family of 30 million people.

But it must be more than that. It must be related to my feelings about the Maple Leaf, as opposed to the Stars & Stripes. I suddenly don't mind the "us" - because I'm where I belong.

nye

We're not big on New Year's Eve in our house.

We never go out or even look for anything to do. We get a bottle of champagne, make popcorn, watch some comedy, and when the time is nigh, tune in to the ubiquitous countdowns. In 1999, I really enjoyed watching the celebrations all over the world as the big odometer clicked over to 2000. It was wonderful thinking of people all over the planet sharing this event. But other than that, I don't generally find New Year's Eve too exciting. Our anniversary is three days later, and we save the real celebration for that.

This year we've rented the first season of Corner Gas on DVD. It's become one of our favourite shows. (RobfromAlberta, do you know I have you to thank for that?) We watched the first three episodes last night, and were really impressed. Often, when you see early episodes of good comedies - even ones that became monster hits, such as Seinfeld or, going further back, MASH or Mary Tyler Moore - you find they weren't funny yet. The characters aren't formed, the show feels like a rough draft. But the pilot episode of Corner Gas was hilarious. So this year, it's a Corner Gas New Year's Eve.

Are there any Canadian New Year's Eve traditions? Is there a Canadian equivalent of Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve? (He's back, by the way, Regis is gone, praise the lord.)

12.29.2005

queen

I forgot to watch the Queen's Message to Canada on Christmas Day. It occurred to me that I've never heard the Queen speak, and my mental image of her is Scott Thompson!

So I just downloaded the Queen's Message from the CBC News website (Real Player only).

Well, very nice, Queen.

Very strange, this whole Queen thing. A figurehead monarch is a nice idea, I suppose. But a bit outdated, eh? I understand it in theory, but I'll never really understand it in my bones. Some part of me will always be American.

Speaking of royalty, has anyone seen the TV movie Wallis & Edward that CBC is running? Did you like it? I might try to catch a re-broadcast.

more canadosity

Once again, Canada is everywhere, and I don't mean outside my window or under my feet.

Yesterday we tested the new audio connection on our DVD player (it's finally hooked up to the stereo). What else would we choose for a test run but "The Last Waltz"? It's our favourite music movie - and one of our favourite movies, period.

I have no idea how many times I've seen The Last Waltz, but it must be dozens, dating back to 1978, when I skipped school and snuck into the city with friends to see it on the big screen the week it opened, on to all those video rentals when Allan and I were still long-distance, to our first VCR. When we got our DVD player, it was the first disk we bought. We know every word of dialogue, every squeezed-out guitar note, every drug-dilated pupil, and of course, when to fast-forward (Neil Diamond!).

So after all that, did I really never notice, until yesterday, that in the opening interview sequence, Robbie Robertson is sitting in front of a Maple Leaf?

I must have noticed, a long time ago, and forgot.

(Yes of course I know Robbie Robertson is Canadian. Along with the rest of The Band, minus Levon Helm. And Neil Young, blah blah blah.)

Only moments after the Canadian flag suddenly appears in our favourite movie, I flip on the TV and hear Montgomery Burns say, "There's more than one way to get to Canada!" The Simpsons is in progress, and we watch the remainder of what turns out to be a famous episode: "Rx Express".

There are (of course) a zillion fan sites about this episode, but none of them mention this hilarious line. Homer, Grandpa and Montgomery Burns have snuck over the Canadian border to buy a plane-load of prescription drugs. After "Johnny Canuck" helps them obtain crates of medications, Homer asks the Canadian if there's anything he'd like from the US. "Gee," he replies, "I've always wanted to see the state execute a man with the IQ of a child!" Homer is gleeful. "No problem! In America we do that four times a week!"

* * * *

L-girl trivia: The first time I saw The Last Waltz, 17 years old and a music fanatic, when Joni Mitchell came on stage and kissed Robbie Robertson, I thought, Oh. My. God. I want to be... both of them? It was a revelation!

To this day, every time I see that scene I sigh and think (or say - much to the dismay of my poor partner who has to listen to the same drivel year after year), Ohhh, Joni kissing Robbie, who would I rather be...?

You see, I've always loved Canadians!

at the movies

We saw a great movie last night, which I highly recommend: "I'm Not Scared" (Io non ho paura in the original Italian). It was directed by Gabriele Salvatores, who made the wonderful film "Mediterraneo", among many others.

I can't say too much about I'm Not Scared without giving away the movie's well-done susprises. (Trust me and don't read the plot summary.) It's part coming-of-age story, and part suspense-thriller. A 10-year-old boy in rural Italy taps into his innate courage and sense of morality, at great risk to himself, and in defiance of the corrupt adults around him.

It's beautifully shot and excellently acted. A great rental if you're home this holiday weekend.

12.28.2005

"...then the terrorists have won"

It's good to see numerous conservative columnists catching on. It's also good to see those headlines Google sends to Gmail coming in handy for something.

impeach

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, writes on her blog that "the I-word" is picking up some traction in mainstream media circles.
The I-word has moved from the marginal to the mainstream--although columnists like Charles "torture-is-fine-by-me" Krauthammer would like us to believe that "only the most brazen and reckless and partisan" could support the idea. In fact, as Michelle Goldberg reports in Salon, "in the past few days, impeachment "has become a topic of considered discussion among constitutional scholars and experts (including a few Republicans), former intelligence officers, and even a few politicians." Even a moderately liberal columnist like Newsweek's Alter sounds like The Nation, observing: "We're seeing clearly now that Bush thought 9/11 gave him license to act like a dictator."

As Editor & Publisher recently reported, the idea of impeaching Bush has entered the mainstream media's circulatory system--with each day producing more op-eds and articles on the subject. Joining the chorus on Christmas Eve, conservative business magazine Barron's published a lengthy editorial excoriating the president for committing a potentially impeachable offense. "If we don't discuss the program and lack of authority of it," wrote Barron's editorial page editor Thomas Donlan, "we are meeting the enemy--in the mirror."

Public opinion is also growing more comfortable with the idea of impeaching this president. A Zogby International poll conducted this summer found that 42 percent of Americans felt that impeaching Bush would be justified if it was shown that he had manipulated intelligence in going to war in Iraq. (John Zogby admitted that "it was much higher than I expected.") By November, the number of those who favored impeaching Bush stood at 53 percent--if it was in fact proven that Bush had lied about the basis for invading Iraq. (And these polls were taken before the revelations of Bush's domestic spying.)
Check out vanden Heuvel's informative post, full of links.

Writing in Common Dreams, Elizabeth de la Vega, a former federal prosecutor and a progressive writer, reminds us that we have to call for Bush's impeachment - and an end to the occupation of Iraq - despite the odds of success. De la Vega compares the fight to re-establish democracy in the US to her sister's decision to have cancer treatment:
Throughout her ordeal, one of my sister's persistent concerns was what other people would think. Would her medical colleagues consider her irrational, if not crazy, to pursue treatments that were so uncomfortable and painful, not to say unproven or improbable in terms of success? And what would her patients think? Kathy would call me regularly and ask just these questions.

In the end, though, she answered them herself. As long as there was uncertainty, the slightest possibility that she could land at the odds-defying edge of that bell curve and have a longer life, it made sense to her to do anything she could bear to do, regardless of what others thought.
Her interesting essay is in response to readers' reactions to an earlier piece she wrote:
I have to admit that some of the responses to my recent article The White House Criminal Conspiracy (published in the Nation and posted at Tomdispatch.com), in which I argued that the Bush administration should be brought to account in Congress or a court of law for defrauding the American people into war, kept me up at night. No, not the ones that questioned my sanity or sobriety. The letters that have given pause are from people who wholeheartedly agree that the Bush administration lied about the war. Yet there's "zero chance," these writers contend, that a completely Republican-controlled government will ever do anything about it, so it's pointless to pursue the matter. While lying awake beside my sleeping husband with my dog staring up at me in the dark, I've wondered, is that true? Is it futile, or foolish, to act when there is little apparent chance of success?
I struggle with this, too.

I believe in the eternal struggle for justice, in our responsibility to join that battle wherever we find it, in the importance of small symbolic acts, in the power of organized people to make change. At the same time, I despair at our odds. I don't go so far as to think, what's the point, we can't win, so why try. My activist sensibility is to strong to permit that. But regarding a goal like impeachment, I don't feel hopeful. What's more, I don't know if removing Moron from the White House would necessarily topple the junta.

But those are just feelings. They are easily ignored.

Who cares what our chances? The man living in the White House is a criminal. We must demand impeachment.

"Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." Mohandas K. Gandhi

Lots of impeachment info and links over at After Downing Street. Google "impeach bush" for lots of other good sites.

12.27.2005

anniversary

The extensive coverage of yesterday's anniversary of the Asian tsunami was extraordinary. We watched an amazing CBC Fifth Estate that had moment-by-moment interviews with several survivors. Their stories were harrowing and surreal, beyond imagination.

From my own experience, and from interviewing people who've survived many kinds of trauma, I know that anniversaries can be very meaningful, and very difficult. The first one - the first few - can be especially painful, but also especially significant. My heart really went out to the people gathered on the beaches of Thailand and Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and all the people struggling privately with their memories.

The tsunami anniversary was an odd juxtaposition with the endless ads for Boxing Day sales, and the glimpse of Boxing Day Sale Mania on the news. I notice many stores have invented something called Boxing Week as a way to extend the buying frenzy. In February in the US, not only have two Presidents' birthdays been moved to accommodate a three- or four-day weekend, many stores run "Presidents' Week" sales. (Although I'm sure they don't use the apostrophe, or else use it incorrectly.) (You didn't know I was a grammar nut, did you?)

Anyway, in this respect Canada is just like the US.

Meanwhile, as many as 80% of the people left homeless by last year's tsunami are still living in tents or other temporary housing. The rebuilding has been left almost completely to private aid organizations. The governments don't give a shit. Sri Lanka, Louisiana - it is ever thus.

games

Various observations on sport this morning.

I see that the Winter Olympics is much bigger here in Canada than in the US - which completely makes sense. I have a lot of mixed feelings about the Olympics in general. I'm turned off by all the nationalism, the IOC is notoriously corrupt, and the presence of professional athletes exposes a strange farce. Yet despite all that, it's fantastic to see people compete at that elite level, especially (for me) in sports that enjoy little or no widespread recognition.

In Canada, where the winter sports are much more part of the national psyche, and where nationalism isn't as offensive to me as it is in the US, I'm ready to get caught up in hockey, skiing, speed skating, and all the rest, even the crazy luge and skeleton.

I'll also be watching to see how much coverage, if any, Canadian media gives to the country's Paralympic athletes. The Paralympics, the Olympics for athletes with physical disabilities, is where the true flame of amateur sport burns brightest. (It's also one of the things I write about.) Coverage in mainstream sports media in various countries ranges from nothing to extensive. I'm very curious to see what it is here.

(Did you know there is a wmtc reader who is a former Olympic athlete? Cool, huh?)

Last night we saw - for the second time - the Corner Gas where the town holds its annual curling tournament. (So far it's my favorite episode.) I saw curling for the first time in the last winter Olympics, when there was supposedly a huge spike in interest in the sport in the US.

I found it strangely mesmerizing. There are some comparisons to baseball, my One True Sport - the arcane terminology, the stop-and-go pace, the long periods of quiet. And I like how curling is related to other games that people play all over the world, some of them very old, such as boccie, boules, petanque, or lawn bowls - ingeniously adapted to a winter climate. I'm going to try to watch it during the Torino Olympics.

Last night we also saw a bit of the first game of the World Junior Hockey Championships. I had been under the mistaken impression that the Juniors were kids, a la Little League (which also has an exciting World Championship). I was surprised to learn the players are up to 20 years old, and already professionals. I noticed several Canadian players come out of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), which is on TV in my area all the time.

I'm sure someone reading can fill me in. Are the OHL and similar leagues the equivalent of minor league teams in baseball, functioning as a farm system for the NHL? Or are they independent professional leagues operating in their own sphere, the way baseball once had a Federal League, a Pacific Coast League, or the surviving Northern League and Frontier League?

And finally, there's a CBC hockey ad - not sure what it's for, maybe Hockey Day? - that shows two usually invisible hockey players: women, and sled hockey. Sled hockey (called sledge hockey in Canada) is an amazing sport, something you have to see to appreciate. I've never seen it at the elite level - I've only been to summer Paralympic games, never winter (yet) - and I'm hoping the CBC or even TSN will cover some of it in Torino.

12.26.2005

the personal touch

Another dispatch from the Land of the Free, brought to you by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. I guess the Cheney White House has pissed off even conservative writers now, by personally treading on their turf.

I found this at The Huffington Post, where you can find many good things to read.
Bush Presses Editors on Security
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005; C01

President Bush has been summoning newspaper editors lately in an effort to prevent publication of stories he considers damaging to national security.

The efforts have failed, but the rare White House sessions with the executive editors of The Washington Post and New York Times are an indication of how seriously the president takes the recent reporting that has raised questions about the administration's anti-terror tactics.

Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's executive editor, would not confirm the meeting with Bush before publishing reporter Dana Priest's Nov. 2 article disclosing the existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe used to interrogate terror suspects. Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, would not confirm that he, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman had an Oval Office sit-down with the president on Dec. 5, 11 days before reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed that Bush had authorized eavesdropping on Americans and others within the United States without court orders.

But the meetings were confirmed by sources who have been briefed on them but are not authorized to comment because both sides had agreed to keep the sessions off the record. [Emphasis mine.] The White House had no comment.

"When senior administration officials raised national security questions about details in Dana's story during her reporting, at their request we met with them on more than one occasion," Downie says. "The meetings were off the record for the purpose of discussing national security issues in her story." At least one of the meetings involved John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, and CIA Director Porter Goss, the sources said.
More editorial dissembling here.

strange and stranger

I always say: to be a Jew and an atheist at Christmastime is to know the meaning of "I was a stranger in a strange land". (I do always say it: I wrote the exact same thing last year. I am so boring!)

Even as a child, the sight of the Christmas tree at the White House bothered me, and I never understood why Christmas is a national holiday in a country that isn't supposed to have a state religion. Still don't.

So this bullshit that has the religious right in its latest snit - the notion that Christmas somehow needs "saving", this bizarre campaign to portray the vast Christian majority as persecuted - is beyond the scope of my imagination. All I can do is shake my head in disbelief.

Last year I wondered if I would feel just as alienated during Christmastime in Canada. Readers conjectured that I probably would, as the Christian tradition is predominant. The Christmas onslaught does seem more low-key here, but I'm shielded from large parts of the culture, working by myself at home, kind of living in my own world. Or maybe Christmas really is more low-key here; it is, after all, a more low-key culture.

Last year at Christmas, I was feeling sad about leaving New York. (Two posts: here and here.)

Yesterday, on a whim, we had dim sum - assuming that on Christmas Day, Chinese Canadians are very likely to be enjoying little bits of deliciousness from carts rolling by their tables. We were right. The dim sum palace recommended by Matt was hopping - crowded and noisy, as dim sum is supposed to be, and absolutely packed.

The most visible difference between Christmas Dim Sum in Mississauga and in New York was that, here, we were one of the very few non-Asians in the busy restaurant. In New York City, at least half of the people crowding into Chinese restaurants on Christmas are (presumably) Jewish, or at least white. Here, the diners were 99% Chinese. That was fun, and the food was great.

On the "who took the Christ out of Christmas" nonsense, here's an excellent post from Nick at Life Without Borders, by way of DU, by way of someone's reply to a chain email. One thing you can count on from the Fox News crowd: they never have their facts straight.

Why do these people feel so threatened by change? Isn't being the overwhelming majority good enough for them?

Don't answer that. Enjoy Boxing Day!

12.25.2005

tunes

I don't celebrate this holiday, but I do like some of the music we get to hear this time of year. Of course, some of it, I hate. I never need to hear another note of Winter Wonderland, White Christmas or Little Drummer Boy again, no matter who is singing. Other songs are fun and slightly less over played.

Here are my picks for a Christmas Music CD, with songwriting and performance credit, where they're different.

River - Joni Mitchell
2000 Miles - The Pretenders
Washington Square - Chris Isaak
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Blane/Martin) - Aimee Mann
[that gets the sad songs out of the way]
Blue Christmas (Hayes/Johnson) - Elvis Presley
Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree (John Marks) - Brenda Lee
Run Run Rudolph (Chuck Berry) - Keith Richards
Merry Christmas I Don't Want To Fight Tonight - The Ramones
Merry Christmas Baby (Chuck Berry) - Bruce Springsteen
O Tannenbaum (trad.) - They Might Be Giants
(It's Gonna Be A) Punk Rock Christmas - The Ravers
Rock And Roll Christmas - George Thorogood & The Destroyers
Christmas Day - Squeeze
Father Christmas - The Kinks
Happy Christmas (War Is Over) - John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Christmas Wrapping (Chris Butler) - The Waitresses

Yes, I'm aware that The Arrogant Worms, The Barenaked Ladies, Bryan Adams and many other Canadians (including Bob and Doug McKenzie) have recorded Christmas music. But my taste in music is not very patriotic.

Here's an excellent listing of Christmas albums and tunes, organized by era and type of music.

Your favorites?

In case you missed it, Happy Holidays!

12.24.2005

spies again

Since traffic will be light this weekend, I'll direct anyone who happens to come by over to Redsock's blog (now inexplicably re-named), so you can read about how the US government protects its citizens.

I know I feel safer knowing that vegans, peaceniks and same-sex kissers are being closely monitored. As President Cheney says, it must be working: the country hasn't been attacked by vegans in a long time.

12.23.2005

happy holidays

Since I can't send you all paper mail, I'll blog my holiday greetings.

Here are some of our homemade cards over the years. Shows you what limited imagination and even more limited skills can do! There were many years between these cards, so no one noticed the repetition...

1995

holiday card 1995

2002

[front]

holiday card 2002 front

[inside]

holiday card 2002 inside

2005

[front]

holiday cards 2005 front

[inside]

holiday cards 2005 inside

Happy Holidays to the whole wmtc crew!

proof

There is now proof that New York City used police-state methods to infiltrate and disrupt peaceful, legal protests against the invasion of Iraq and the Republican National Convention.

Long suspected but very difficult to prove, these blatant First Amendment violations were usually chalked up to protestors' paranoia.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have the gall to claim their right to violate citizens' rights because of - surprise, surprise - September 11th. It is beyond the pale.

The excellent journalist Jim Dwyer tells the whole story, including a brief history of the legality of such police-state tactics under the Handschu case. The text is here, but the original has photos and videos that you really should see.
Undercover New York City police officers have conducted covert surveillance in the last 16 months of people protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking part in mass rallies and even mourners at a street vigil for a cyclist killed in an accident, a series of videotapes show.

In glimpses and in glaring detail, the videotape images reveal the robust presence of disguised officers or others working with them at seven public gatherings since August 2004.

The officers hoist protest signs. They hold flowers with mourners. They ride in bicycle events. At the vigil for the cyclist, an officer in biking gear wore a button that said, "I am a shameless agitator." She also carried a camera and videotaped the roughly 15 people present.

Beyond collecting information, some of the undercover officers or their associates are seen on the tape having influence on events. At a demonstration last year during the Republican National Convention, the sham arrest of a man secretly working with the police led to a bruising confrontation between officers in riot gear and bystanders.

Until Sept. 11, the secret monitoring of events where people expressed their opinions was among the most tightly limited of police powers.

Provided with images from the tape, the Police Department's chief spokesman, Paul J. Browne, did not dispute that they showed officers at work but said that disguised officers had always attended such gatherings - not to investigate political activities but to keep order and protect free speech. Activists, however, say that police officers masquerading as protesters and bicycle riders distort their messages and provoke trouble.

The pictures of the undercover officers were culled from an unofficial archive of civilian and police videotapes by Eileen Clancy, a forensic video analyst who is critical of the tactics. She gave the tapes to The New York Times. Based on what the individuals said, the equipment they carried and their almost immediate release after they had been arrested amid protesters or bicycle riders, The Times concluded that at least 10 officers were incognito at the events.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, officials at all levels of government considered major changes in various police powers. President Bush acknowledged last Saturday that he has secretly permitted the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a warrant on international telephone calls and e-mail messages in terror investigations.

In New York, the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg persuaded a federal judge in 2003 to enlarge the Police Department's authority to conduct investigations of political, social and religious groups. "We live in a more dangerous, constantly changing world," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said.

Before then, very few political organizations or activities were secretly investigated by the Police Department, the result of a 1971 class-action lawsuit that charged the city with abuses in surveillance during the 1960's. Now the standard for opening inquiries into political activity has been relaxed, full authority to begin surveillance has been restored to the police and federal courts no longer require a special panel to oversee the tactics.

Mr. Browne, the police spokesman, said the department did not increase its surveillance of political groups when the restrictions were eased. The powers obtained after Sept. 11 have been used exclusively "to investigate and thwart terrorists," Mr. Browne said. He would not answer specific questions about the disguised officers or describe any limits the department placed on surveillance at public events.

Jethro M. Eisenstein, one of the lawyers who brought the lawsuit 34 years ago, said: "This is a level-headed Police Department, led by a level-headed police commissioner. What in the world are they doing?"

For nearly four decades, civil liberty advocates and police officials have fought over the kinds of procedures needed to avoid excessive intrusion on people expressing their views, to provide accountability in secret police operations and to assure public safety for a city that has been the leading American target of terrorists.

To date, officials say no one has complained of personal damage from the information collected over recent months, but participants in the protests, rallies and other gatherings say the police have been a disruptive presence.

Ryan Kuonen, 32, who took part in a "ride of silence" in memory of a dead cyclist, said that two undercover officers - one with a camera - subverted the event. "They were just in your face," she said. "It made what was a really solemn event into something that seemed wrong. It made you feel like you were a criminal. It was grotesque."

Ms. Clancy, a founder of I-Witness Video, a project that collected hundreds of videotapes during the Republican National Convention that were used in the successful defense of people arrested that week, has assembled videotape of other public events made by legal observers, activists, bystanders and police officers.

She presented examples in October at a conference of defense lawyers. "What has to go on is an informed discussion of policing tactics at public demonstrations, and these images offer a window into the issues and allow the public to make up their own mind," Ms. Clancy said. "How is it possible for police to be accountable when they infiltrate events and dress in the garb of protesters?"

The videotapes that most clearly disclosed the presence of the disguised officers began in August 2004. What happened before that is unclear.

Among the events that have drawn surveillance is a monthly bicycle ride called Critical Mass. The Critical Mass rides, which have no acknowledged leadership, take place in many cities around the world on the last Friday of the month, with bicycle riders rolling through the streets to promote bicycle transportation. Relations between the riders and the police soured last year after thousands of cyclists flooded the streets on the Friday before the Republican National Convention. Officials say the rides cause havoc because the participants refuse to obtain a permit. The riders say they can use public streets without permission from the government.

In a tape made at the April 29 Critical Mass ride, a man in a football jersey is seen riding along West 19th Street with a group of bicycle riders to a police blockade at 10th Avenue. As the police begin to handcuff the bicyclists, the man in the jersey drops to one knee. He tells a uniformed officer, "I'm on the job." The officer in uniform calls to a colleague, "Louie - he's under." A second officer arrives and leads the man in the jersey - hands clasped behind his back - one block away, where the man gets back on his bicycle and rides off.

That videotape was made by a police officer and was recently turned over by prosecutors to Gideon Oliver, a lawyer representing bicycle riders arrested that night.

Another arrest that appeared to be a sham changed the dynamics of a demonstration. On Aug. 30, 2004, during the Republican National Convention, a man with vivid blond hair was filmed as he stood on 23rd Street, holding a sign at a march of homeless and poor people. A police lieutenant suddenly moved to arrest him. Onlookers protested, shouting, "Let him go." In response, police officers in helmets and with batons pushed against the crowd, and at least two other people were arrested.

The videotape shows the blond-haired man speaking calmly with the lieutenant. When the lieutenant unzipped the man's backpack, a two-way radio could be seen. Then the man was briskly escorted away, unlike others who were put on the ground, plastic restraints around their wrists. And while the blond-haired man kept his hands clasped behind his back, the tape shows that he was not handcuffed or restrained.

The same man was videotaped a day earlier, observing the actress Rosario Dawson as she and others were arrested on 35th Street and Eighth Avenue as they filmed "This Revolution," a movie that used actual street demonstrations as a backdrop. At one point, the blond-haired man seemed to try to rile bystanders.

After Ms. Dawson and another actress were placed into a police van, the blond-haired man can be seen peering in the window. According to Charles Maol, who was working on the film, the blond-haired man is the source of a voice that is heard calling: "Hey, that's my brother in there. What do you got my brother in there for?"

After Mr. Browne was sent photographs of the people involved in the convention incidents and the bicycle arrests, he said, "I am not commenting on descriptions of purported or imagined officers."

The federal courts have long held that undercover officers can monitor political activities for a "legitimate law enforcement purpose." While the police routinely conduct undercover operations in plainly criminal circumstances - the illegal sale of weapons, for example - surveillance at political events is laden with ambiguity. To retain cover in those settings, officers might take part in public dialogue, debate and demonstration, at the risk of influencing others to alter opinions or behavior.

The authority of the police to conduct surveillance of First Amendment activities has been shaped over the years not only by the law but also by the politics of the moment and the perception of public safety needs.

In the 1971 class-action lawsuit, the city acknowledged that the Police Department had used infiltrators, undercover agents and fake news reporters to spy on yippies, civil rights advocates, antiwar activists, labor organizers and black power groups.

A former police chief said the department's intelligence files contained a million names of groups and individuals - more in just the New York files than were collected for the entire country in a now-discontinued program of domestic spying by the United States Army around the same time. In its legal filings, the city said any excesses were aberrational acts.

The case, known as Handschu for the lead plaintiff, was settled in 1985 when the city agreed to extraordinary new limits in the investigation of political organizations, among them the creation of an oversight panel that included a civilian appointed by the mayor. The police were required to have "specific information" that a crime was in the works before investigating such groups.

The Handschu settlement also limited the number of police officers who could take part in such investigations and restricted sharing information with other agencies.

Over the years, police officials made no secret of their belief that the city had surrendered too much power. Some community affairs officers were told they could not collect newspaper articles about political gatherings in their precincts, said John F. Timoney, a former first deputy commissioner who is now the chief of police in Miami.

The lawyers who brought the Handschu lawsuit say that such concerns were exaggerated to make limits on police behavior seem unreasonable. The city's concessions in the Handschu settlement, while similar to those enacted during that era in other states and by the federal government, surpassed the ordinary limits on police actions. [More story here.]

12.22.2005

words

I hope you've all seen the excellent movie Spellbound. I'm referring not to the 1945 Hitchcock classic, but to the 2002 film about the Spelling Bee. This terrific little movie follows eight regional spelling champions, all under fifteen years old, as they compete in a crazy American phenomenon called the National Spelling Bee. If you haven't seen Spellbound, you must! You won't believe how a spelling bee can generate edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Having seen and enjoyed Spellbound when it came out, last night we saw a movie in a similar vein: Word Wars, about the National Scrabble Championships. Word Wars is about obsession and obsessive people more than anything else. It follows the "tiles and tribulations" (groan!) of four people who live, breathe and sleep Scrabble. They've memorized tens of thousands of words (not their meanings, just their existence), studied strategy, explored the upwards limit of mental endurance - and have given their lives over to the pursuit of the Championship. It's a window into a bizarre world, and a nice little movie. (It owes much to the book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis.)

The Word Wars movie also introduces you to another subculture: the Scrabble players of Washington Square Park, in New York City's Greenwich Village. Washington Square Park is home to a community of highly competitive chess, backgammon and Scrabble players, who play the "street" version of their respective games. Here are some good photos of the famous Washington Square Park chess players.

It was a great surprise to see this part of my beloved city. Like the news of the transit strike, it made me a little homesick - not in the sense of wishing I still lived there, just in a sweet, wistful way, a piece of my life I'll always treasure.

* * * *

Here's a great story for me, a lover of words, books, history and Canada.

It's been discovered that a Bible in the University of Manitoba's archives is in fact an extremely rare first edition, first printing of the King James Bible. I have a thing for very old books, and I especially love this collection of Christian mythology as a piece of Renaissance literature. The language is beautiful and evocative, and stands alongside its contemporary Shakespeare as some of the greatest writing in the English language.

How cool that a first edition has surfaced in Canada. Here are some pictures.

decency

There was another excellent court decision yesterday, as I'm sure you've heard. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that clubs that allow group sex do not harm Canadian society and should not be considered criminal.

This ruling marks a step forward in personal freedom and civil liberties. The court has rejected the vague, paternal notion of "community standards" in favour of treating Canadians as adults. They've said, in essence, as long as all participants are consenting adults, there isn't a problem - and it doesn't matter what the neighbours think, because no one's forcing them to participate.

These letters about the ruling on the CBC News site show broad support and understanding, as well as a minority of misunderstanding and finger-wagging. That's exactly what makes the ruling so important. The finger-waggers can wag all they want, but they're not allowed to run other people's lives.

A quieter story involves a case more than 120 years old.
On a February night that was never fully forgotten among the Sto:Lo tribes of the Fraser Valley, a mob of 120 riders came north out of Washington State in 1884, took a native boy out of British Columbia police custody and hanged him from a tree.

It is thought to be the only lynching that ever took place in Canada -- and now, 121 years later, the State of Washington is drafting an official apology. The return to B.C. of a sacred Sto:Lo stone from a U.S. museum may also be part of the gesture of reconciliation.

At the same time, the province is expected to make a statement of regret for the B.C. government's failure to pursue the U.S. vigilantes who murdered Louie Sam, a 14-year-old Sto:Lo boy. [Globe And Mail story here.]
It is believed that as many as 10,000 people were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1964 (the majority before 1930). More than 4,700 cases have been officially documented, but that is likely a fraction of the total. This excellent site has a lot of information about the history of lynching in the US. I'm not linking to the most disturbing images - which were sold on postcards as keepsakes and mementos - but they're easily found, if you can stomach it.

Earlier this year, the United States Senate apologized to lynching victims and their families for the government's failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation. The vote to issue the symbolic apology was not unanimous. Guess who didn't cosponsor it?

12.21.2005

timing

Transit strike! I can't believe it! There's a transit strike in New York City and I'm not there!

During the last transit strike, in 1980 - legendary at 12 long days - I was in school in Philadelphia. Twenty-five years later, I leave the city, and they strike four months later.

This makes me homesick.

Yes, I wish I were there. It's exciting. It's a little extra insanity added to the everyday insanity. It's New York City history. Damn, I wish I were there.

It's interesting to see how the local media and most - although definitely not all - New Yorkers descend on the Transit Workers Union in a feeding frenzy of blame. To a person, New Yorkers loathe the MTA, the incompetent and corrupt agency that runs the city's otherwise amazing transit system. "I hate the MTA," is the shared language of all New Yorkers. Yet so few of them imagine having that hateful agency as an employer, and automatically blame the union for the strike. Self over solidarity every time.

Damn. Checking it out over the internet is just not the same.

* * * *

In other news from the Old Country, a Pennsylvania judge - a conservative Bush appointee - has rejected the "breathtaking inanity" of the anti-evolutionists in public schools.
Judge Rejects Teaching Intelligent Design

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that it was unconstitutional for a Pennsylvania school district to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in high school biology courses because it is a religious viewpoint that advances "a particular version of Christianity."

In the nation's first case to test the legal merits of intelligent design, the judge, John E. Jones III, issued a broad, stinging rebuke to its advocates and provided strong support for scientists who have fought to bar intelligent design from the science curriculum.

Judge Jones also excoriated members of the Dover, Pa., school board, who he said lied to cover up their religious motives, made a decision of "breathtaking inanity" and "dragged" their community into "this legal maelstrom with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources."

Eleven parents in Dover, a growing suburb about 20 miles south of Harrisburg, sued their school board a year ago after it voted to have teachers read students a brief statement introducing intelligent design in ninth-grade biology class.

The statement said that there were "gaps in the theory" of evolution and that intelligent design was another explanation they should examine.

Judge Jones, a Republican appointed by President Bush, concluded that intelligent design was not science, and that in order to claim that it is, its proponents admit they must change the very definition of science to include supernatural explanations.

Judge Jones said that teaching intelligent design as science in public school violated the First Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits public officials from using their positions to impose or establish a particular religion.

"To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect," Judge Jones wrote. "However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions."

The six-week trial in Federal District Court in Harrisburg gave intelligent design the most thorough academic and legal airing since the movement's inception about 15 years ago, and was often likened to the momentous Scopes case that put evolution on trial 80 years earlier.

Intelligent design posits that biological life is so complex that it must have been designed by an intelligent source. Its adherents say that they refrain from identifying the designer, and that it could even be aliens or a time traveler.

But Judge Jones said the evidence in the trial proved that intelligent design was "creationism relabeled."

The Supreme Court has already ruled that creationism, which relies on the biblical account of the creation of life, cannot be taught as science in a public school.
This decision is legally binding only for school districts in one area of one state. However, it will likely serve as both precedent and deterrent to other religious fanatics trying to impose their brand of superstition on everyone else's children. At least for a while.

12.20.2005

monday night food

Now that Allan is working long hours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and I'm trying to use those as my main work days, too, we've gotten in the habit of going out for dinner on Monday nights. I've been really into discovering good food out here in Mississauga, with the help of Chowhounders and wmtc readers.

Not long ago, Lone Primate and M@ told us where to get dim sum, and great Chinese food in general, close to home. So last night we went to the big Chinese shopping plaza on Dundas near Cawthra, instantly recognizable by the huge pagoda-like arch over the entrance.

The food was excellent. I was thrilled to find Chinatown-quality food, serious menus and typical dim sum banquet halls a short drive from home. I knew it had to be out here somewhere. There are far too many Chinese Canadians living in Mississauga for there not to be really good food. Same goes for great Indian food, which we had last week (although further away).

Port Credit is great for pubs and casual bar-type food, and there's an excellent Greek restaurant and some pretty good Thai. But my heritage - Jewish New Yorker - demands I eat excellent Chinese food on a regular basis.

The only thing we haven't found nearby is very good sushi. The sushi in our immediate neighbourhood is alright, but the restaurant seems to be in a permanent state of disarray, with one beleaguered sushi chef who is always at least 45 minutes behind. I've passed one or two other places, and several Chowhounders recommended a place on The Queensway. Although Toronto is apparently full of great sushi, it would be nice to find some close to home.

We timed dinner to be home in time for Corner Gas, but it wasn't on. I've been taping re-runs on the Comedy Network on Friday nights, I think from the second season. We're totally hooked.

"your retarded cousin"

Did you know that anybody in Canada "with any ambition at all, or intelligence, has left Canada and is now living in New York"?

What, you say, you are a Mensa member, brimming with ambition, and you live above the 49th parallel? No, I'm sorry, that can't be true. You and everyone you know has left for New York. I know this for a fact. And do you know how I know this?

Because Tucker Carlson said so.

Yes. Tucker Carlson, eminent sociologist, distinguished journalist, sharp-eyed trend-spotter. He said so.

Carlson knows. He's done no research, looked at no statistics, interviewed no one. He doesn't have to. He just knows.
U.S. pundits bash 'retarded cousin' Canada
By Beth Gorham
Canadian Press

Washington — Canada has been described lately by a conservative U.S. television host as "a stalker" and a "retarded cousin."

Another pundit recently asked if Canadians weren't getting "a little too big for their britches."

There's been a spate of Canada-bashing by right-wing media commentators in the United States ever since Prime Minister Paul Martin's complaints about lumber penalties and U.S. policy on climate change. His remarks prompted an unusual rebuke last week from the American ambassador.

The attacks on Canada have had web bloggers typing overtime and a non-profit group that's monitoring the trend, Media Matters for America, says it's disturbing.

Yet Paul Waldman, a senior fellow for the group, said Monday the criticism is confined to the usual faction that erupts whenever there's criticism of President George W. Bush's administration and it probably won't last past Canada's Jan. 23 election.

"There are always going to be occasions when it pops up. But Canada is never going to occupy an extraordinary amount of American thought," said Waldman.

"It's more like: 'Who can we beat on today?' It's never going to reach the heights of animosity toward France in the run-up to the Iraq war."

Last week, MSNBC host Tucker Carlson, a well-known conservative pundit, let loose with a string of anti-Canada rants.

"Anybody with any ambition at all, or intelligence, has left Canada and is now living in New York," he said.

"Canada is a sweet country. It is like your retarded cousin you see at Thanksgiving and sort of pat him on the head. You know, he's nice but you don't take him seriously. That's Canada."

Carlson also said it's pointless to tell Canada to stop criticizing the United States.

"It only eggs them on. Canada is essentially a stalker, stalking the United States, right? Canada has little pictures of us in its bedroom, right?"

"It's unrequited love between Canada and the United States. We, meanwhile, don't even know Canada's name. We pay no attention at all," he said.

The day before, Fox News host Neil Cavuto highlighted Martin's remark at a news conference that the United States is a "reticent nation" lacking a "global conscience" on climate change.

"So have the Canadians gotten a little too big for their britches?" Cavuto asked.

"Could our neighbours to the north soon be our enemies?"

Douglas MacKinnon, a press secretary to former Republican senator Bob Dole, also recently accused Canada of harbouring terrorists.

"Can Canada really be considered our friend anymore?" he asked in a recent commentary in the right-wing Washington Times newspaper.

"What other question can be asked when the Canadian government not only willingly allows Islamic terrorists into their country but does nothing to stop them from entering our nation?"
What is wrong with these people???

Don't answer that. Rhetorical question.

Retarded cousins, indeed. Apologies to developmentally disabled people everywhere. I have infinitely more respect for all of you than I do for the Tucker Carlsons and Neil Cavutos of the world.

12.19.2005

the inevitable

Among the catcalls I used to hear from wingnuts, outraged that someone might actually want to leave the US, was "Enjoy being taxed to death!" or words to that effect. Several American friends - decidedly non-wingnuts - also mentioned that Canadians pay very high taxes. And many Canadians have the impression that Americans pay significantly less taxes than they do.

If this were true, Allan and I had no problem with paying higher taxes in return for living in a decent society. The main question for me has always been, Where do my taxes go? In the US, my money was supporting foreign wars and no-bid contracts for billionaires. In Canada, a portion of my earnings support health care - my own, and everyone else's. This is a simplification, of course, but there's truth in it.

However, the wingnuts' comments begged the question, Don't you pay taxes, too? We paid taxes in the US - plenty of them. And since starting work here in Canada, we don't see much of a difference.

There's the GST, of course, and I'm inclined to view a consumption tax as regressive. My freelance income is paid in flat fees, so I don't yet know what Canada Revenue is going to take. But Allan's paycheque has the standard withholding, and it doesn't look all that different from his check in the US. In fact, he takes home a greater percentage, because we no longer have massive deductions for health insurance. We had decent health insurance, but, like most working Americans insured through their employers, we paid a small fortune for it.

This Op-Ed in today's Globe And Mail argues that Canadians shouldn't be looking for tax breaks. (I agree.)
By international standards, however, Canada is a low-tax jurisdiction, and increasingly so. In 2004, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, tax collections by all levels of government absorbed one-third of our GDP. That ranked us 21st out of 30 industrialized nations, and fifth among the seven largest. Moreover, we have already engineered among the deepest tax cuts of any country since 1999 (when our deficits were vanquished): a decline in the aggregate tax burden that's worth $40-billion a year, and growing. We place firmly in the lowest-tax third of the industrialized world, and are slipping quickly down the list.

So we pay less taxes than most -- and we have less to show for it, too. Our education programs (including postsecondary) are underfunded compared to other jurisdictions. Our poverty is worse, and increasingly ghettoized. Our health system is stressed. Our public housing is abominable. Even our basic infrastructure (roads, bridges, and other mundane facilities) is tattered.

Most Canadians would have trouble even noticing the incremental cash from another tax cut.
Then there's the issue of corporate taxes. Most US corporations pay no taxes at all. Is this the case in Canada? I searched a little online, but didn't come up with anything solid. This article by progressive writer Thom Hartmann has been reprinted on many Canadian websites, but it doesn't say anything specific about Canada.

Perhaps come tax time, Revenue Canada will ask for a big chunk of money that we don't have, and we'll discover the wingnuts were right. Or perhaps "Canadians are taxed to death" gets filed under Persistent Myths, along with "liberal US media" and "Jews run the world".

Thoughts?

12.18.2005

secrets and spies

This story has been out for a few days, but a recent comment from Redsock reminded me to mention it.
Bush admits to approving secret spying
CBC News

U.S. President George W. Bush has acknowledged that he authorized secret monitoring of "people with known links to al-Qaeda." But his admission has drawn heated criticism from politicians who say Bush overstepped his authority.

. . . .

In an eight-minute radio address on Saturday, Bush said he personally approved the interception of communications more than 30 times since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on our nation, I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to Al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations."

He called the program a "vital tool" in protecting American lives against future attacks.

Bush criticized a news media leak drawing attention for the first time to a program he called "highly classified" and crucial to national security.

The New York Times reported on Friday that the National Security Agency has monitored the e-mails, telephone calls, and other communications of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people inside the U.S. without warrants during the past three years.

The Times said it delayed publishing its story for a year after administration officials said the disclosure would harm national security. [Emphasis mine!]

Bush defended the program and said it is used only to intercept the international communications of people inside the United States who have been determined to have a "clear link" to al-Qaeda and related groups.

He vowed the program would continue for as long as those organizations threaten the U.S.

Several U.S. lawmakers accused Bush of trampling on civil liberties and democracy.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said "it is time to have some checks and balances in this country. We are a democracy ... not secret orders and secret courts and secret torture."

"This shocking revelation ought to send a chill down the spine of every Senator and every American," said another Democrat, Senator Russell Feingold.

Even Arlen Specter, the Republican chair of the Senate judiciary committee questioned the legality. "It's inexcusable to have spying on the people of the United States, without court surveillance, in violation of our law, beyond question."

The admission comes as Bush is pushing the U.S. Congress to re-approve the controversial Patriot Act, which makes it easier to get court approval to spy on Americans. The original act runs out in two weeks.
From the New York Times this past Friday:
Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts

Washington, Dec. 15 - Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

. . .

The Bush administration views the operation as necessary so that the agency can move quickly to monitor communications that may disclose threats to the United States, the officials said. Defenders of the program say it has been a critical tool in helping disrupt terrorist plots and prevent attacks inside the United States.

Administration officials are confident that existing safeguards are sufficient to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans, the officials say. [Ed note: Just how dumb do these people think we are???] In some cases, they said, the Justice Department eventually seeks warrants if it wants to expand the eavesdropping to include communications confined within the United States. The officials said the administration had briefed Congressional leaders about the program and notified the judge in charge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret Washington court that deals with national security issues.

The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.
The illegal spying doesn't surprise me. After all, it's an illegal government, and they've made it very clear that democratic agreements - the Constitution, the Geneva Convention - don't apply to them. But now the New York Times, long known by many progressives to be a government mouthpiece (and not, as the wingnut hoax would have you believe, a liberal tool), has shown its true colours.

Ironically (is there no end to the irony?), the Cheney Administration is using this disclosure as ammunition to get the so-called Patriot Act extended! We've been spying on you all illegally anyway, so you might as well make it legal? I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

The inevitable wingnuttery argument that the government only spies on terrorist threats reminds me of three words: Martin Luther King.

Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, his hands tied by the truckloads of dirt FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had on his brother, the President, was blackmailed into allowing Hoover to step up his surveillance efforts against King. (What dirt, you ask? Hoover had the incredibly long list of JFK's girlfriends, including an East German spy. Apparently Kennedy's White House romps would make Clinton look like a boy scout.)

Anyway, the FBI and the "Justice" Department used a roving wiretap on King, listening to his conversations wherever he traveled. This helped them round up King's criminal associates (peace protestors, civil rights organizers, ministers, rabbis) and thwart his master plan (equality and justice).

But don't worry, I'm sure they're only using it on bad guys this time.

12.17.2005

follow-up

A follow-up for folks reading the ever-scintillating heating oil thread.

I learned from our landlord that the oil tank capacity is 935 litres. The recent fills were 351.3 litres and 423.5 litres. The tank wasn't empty, but the oil company doesn't let you get more than half-empty in the winter. So we actually had not drained the tank in three weeks, which would have indeed been alarming.

The landlord also had the furnace and tank checked just before we moved in. They were given an 84% efficiency rating, which is considered excellent:
80-85% Excellent
75-79% Satisfactory
71-74% Marginal
Below 70% Wasteful Condition

So, we'll see if we can tighten things up at all: weather-stripping on the doors and sealing up the attic entrance are two likely culprits. And we might be able to decrease our night-time temperature a little. Other than that, the moral of the story is: oil heat is expensive. The end.

insanity, twice

Two clips from today's Globe And Mail, both subscriber-only, so here they are.

First, a poem by book editor John Allemang.
Arnie the barbarian
by John Allemang

News report: Tookie Williams, gang leader turned activist, was executed in California after beleaguered Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to commute his death sentence.

In Terminator: Judgment Day,
You never had to stop and say,
"If I don't kill this low-life freak,
Will soccer moms decide I'm weak?"

Death's simpler in your movie roles,
Where no one stopped to check the polls
When Conan made revenge seem sweet
And gangsters ended up dead meat.

But now the swing vote plays a part
In firming up your hardened heart,
And you send Tookie to the grave
Because you've got a job to save.

"I'd like to let him off, I would,
But clemency's misunderstood
As weakness in the face of force,
So I'll just say he lacks . . . remorse."

It took him quite a while to die.
Like you, he was a bulked-up guy,
Which made it hard to find the vein
That adds the killer to the slain.

And so you end as you began,
By proving you're no girlie-man:
While Tookie's muscles feed the worms,
Strong governors seek second terms.
Next, an Australian now living in Canada writes about the anti-immigrant violence in his home country, and the culture that fostered it.
Surfer Madness
by Jonathan Bennett

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Locals only. If you're a surfer from Cronulla, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, these are two words you know. Your beach is your church, the sand sacred, the waves passed on to you by birthright. At least that's the way it's presented to you by your closest friends -- your mates. And with them you are thick as thieves.

This past week saw 5,000 -- what shall we call them? -- recalcitrant thugs take to Cronulla Beach in an act of vigilantism. They are sick of gangs of "Lebs" (immigrants largely, but not exclusively, from Lebanon) threatening their beach way of life. Make no mistake, they are bona fide gangs; they are responsible for their fair share of violent crime in Sydney.

Yet, in contrast, the pictures of 5,000 drunk "shire boys" (the Sutherland Shire is Cronulla's surrounding district) bashing anyone with skin that was not darkened by the sun alone was disquieting, to say the least.

Especially for me. I grew up in Cronulla.

This fall, the world watched as France was ablaze with racial tension. Now, it's Sydney's turn. Could it happen here in Canada? Surely thousands of Canadians of whatever stripe would never take to the streets of Burlington or Oshawa draped in the Maple Leaf, singing O Canada, looking to beat up anyone they came across with skin a different shade from their own?

So why in the name of Australian nationalism did a crowd take to the beach where I used to surf as a kid? Why did they drape themselves in the flag (an uneasy mix of Southern Cross and Union Jack) and sing Waltzing Matilda as they attacked anyone they came across who looked Middle Eastern?

Australia is a country Canadians are always telling me all about: They were there on holidays for a month back in '89, or their cousin lives in Melbourne or maybe Perth -- perhaps I know him?

To be fair, I've been here for a while now. I'm a dual citizen. I know why they, we, talk like this. Because Australia is about the last place left Anglo-Canadians feel safe in making sweeping and often ignorant statements about. Because, really, who are they going to offend? I'm the rare Ontarian without a diaspora. There is no "little Australia" somewhere down College Street.

Like Canada, Australia is a destination for immigrants. From this premise grows the mistaken belief that the two countries are alike. They're simply not. The irony is that newcomers to Canada, especially those from cricketing or rugby-playing nations, often have a much better understanding of Australian culture than do previously arrived Canadians.

Race riots like the one last weekend are new to Australia. With the logistics aided by text messaging calling on local residents to "reclaim the beach" and the fires fuelled by jingoistic politicians, Cronulla found itself lawless within hours.

Some commentators now are saying it was only a matter of time before a largely white enclave such as Cronulla boiled over.

Tensions between youths of Arabic descent and white Australians have been rising, largely because of anti-Muslim sentiment spurred by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and the bombings on Bali that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, in October, 2002.

They also were heightened by a gang-rape case in 2002 in which prosecutors and witnesses said members of a Lebanese gang hurled racial abuse at their white victims.

In Cronulla, the outburst was sparked by an incident a week earlier in which a pair of volunteer lifeguards were assaulted by youths of Middle Eastern appearance who had been ejected from the beach for alleged rowdiness.

Like most crowds, this one, drunken and high, did truly unpardonable things. The racial hatred that was shouted was deplorable.

Know that the riots have been widely condemned as a national shame in Australia. Yet, horrifyingly, there is a segment that sees them as a good thing. Gangs have grown in Sydney's outer suburbs over the past 15 years. Politicians and police alike are seen as ineffective in curbing the violence. Last weekend's riots were what it all came to.

The hand-wringing, the blaming, the shaming has begun. As you might expect, it has fast become a pox on all houses.

Cronulla is the southernmost suburb of Sydney. The Shire is an enclave cut off, geographically by sea and bush. But it's the end of the train line, one of the few beaches that is easy to get to by public transport. The beach culture there has always been hostile to outsiders as a result. You need only read the Australian cult classic novel Puberty Blues -- set in Cronulla -- to see how little the surfer attitudes have changed since the 1970s.

Eventually, all discussions of Australia come back to mateship. It's a uniquely Australian bond. Unless you have lived within that kind of cultural fraternity, it's hard to describe its influence. My having done so, sadly, it's easy to see how Cronulla Beach became the battleground it did. Even still, this dual citizen will have to work to incorporate, slowly, last weekend's riots into my appreciation, my explanation, of my "home."

For now, as I try to make sense of events, I will lie to myself a little. I will vainly hope that "locals only" is undertow, the last pull of a bygone Australian era, and not the first surge of larger waves growing ever powerful offshore.

Jonathan Bennett is the author of three books, including Verandah People, a collection of short stories set in Sydney. He lives in Peterborough, Ont.

ouch

This is the wallet kind of ouch.

We live in an old house. The appliances are new and it's been well maintained, but it was built in the 1940s: it's heated by oil, and not well insulated. I knew that would mean an expensive winter, but no one could tell me even approximately what kind of expense we were getting into. Our landlord lived here briefly, and he showed us his old heating bills, but the price of heating oil has changed a lot since then, and he wasn't working at home. In any case, even if we had known the exact figures, we still would have taken the house, so it barely matters.

Three weeks ago when we came home from our little Thanksgiving trip, there was a receipt in the mailbox informing us that the oil tank had been filled in our absence. That alone, however, is meaningless. The real test is how long that tank lasts.

Well, two days ago I was shocked to see the oil truck pull up again. Three weeks?? That fill-up lasted only three weeks? Gulp. The plastic has been on the windows only one week, so perhaps this oil delivery doesn't reflect that yet. Plus, some of those windows were only shut on the inside, and were seriously drafty - and now that's fixed. Will this make a big difference? We hope so.

We've also lowered the thermostat by one degree, and I'm using a space-heater near my desk. (I bought the heater for Allan when he still lived in Vermont! We used to jokingly call it "the fireplace". Who knew I'd be glad we kept it all these years?)

I don't know if there's anything else we can do? If not, this is going to be a very expensive winter. Oh well. I'm grateful we can afford it and are in no danger of actually freezing, like so many poor and elderly people in the US. But: ouch!

debate

I watched the English-language debate last night. Apparently the four candidates were more peppery in English than en Francais. (Is that true? Did any wmtc readers watch the French-language debate on Thursday night?)

I can't say I learned anything new, but I did enjoy seeing the Fab Four in action. As much as I think Paul Martin is a grandstander and a gladhander - not quite Clintonesque, but aspiring - I do agree with much of what he says. Yes, I'm aware of the disconnect between what politicians say and what they do. I am from Planet Earth.

I think Jack Layton is really cool. Or maybe what's cool is that there is an NDP - a active, viable, left-of-center party. One more reason to apply for citizenship when I'm eligible.

Giles Duceppe strikes me as completely bereft of ideas. Maybe he doesn't need any. All he has to do is stand there and repeat, "Referendum. Liberals stole money. Referendum. Liberals stole money."

The Sponsorship Scandal doesn't bother me at all, nor would it if I were voting. Politicians stole some money? Gasp, stop the presses! Are we to believe that there's a party comprised entirely of the squeaky clean and honest? It's a ridiculous notion. Power corrupts, and proximity to large amounts of money is very tempting. This is the way of the world. The amount of money was fairly negligible, and the country doesn't seem to be suffering under the Liberal government. Just the opposite. Other than political hay for the opposition, I don't think it's important.

I'm incredibly glad Stephen Harper is the leader of the Conservative Party, as he's got to be their kiss of death. I'm counting on you, Canadians. Don't let me down.

What did you guys think? First of all, did you watch? If not, why not? And here's a question for anyone reading? Is there any chance the debates - or anything else you might see or hear during this campaign - will change your vote?

12.16.2005

anniversary plans

We decided that a special dinner was the way to go for our upcoming anniversary. Perhaps in 2007 - number 20! - we'll go away for a few days, but for 2006 we'll be wining and dining in T.O.

For the very special restaurant experience we're looking for, the consensus at Chowhound was Splendido. I got names of several other restaurants that sound very good, but Splendido seems to be the favourite.

They're closed during the holidays, so our anniversary dinner will be a week late. No problem.

So just now I called to make a reservation.

After taking our information, the man asked, "Will you be celebrating a special occasion?"

"Why yes," I said, "it's our anniversary - our first in Canada."

And he said... "Ah, I saw your post at Chowhound. Thank you for choosing us."

!!!!

How small is this town? Or perhaps the question should be, how big is Chowhound?

the krugman report

Well, I didn't get sick, or not sick enough to need a doctor, so I don't have a report on a walk-in clinic. In fact, I don't have a report on anything today. Cody woke me up late (we've got to re-set that dog's internal clock!), and I must get to the pool before Allan needs the car for work. So I'm taking the lazy way out this morning, letting Paul Krugman do my work for me.

Here are two of his recent columns, now accessible only through the Times's pay service, reprinted here in their entirety. (Freelancers hate the New York Times and their anti-writer policies. Any excuse to subert them.)

Here's Krugman on two of my favorite topics: Wal-Mart, and Iraq New Orleans. Please read and discuss - the columns, or anything else.
The Promiser in Chief
By Paul Krugman
December 9, 2005

Sometimes reconstruction delayed is reconstruction denied.

A few months after the invasion of Iraq, President Bush promised to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and economy. He -- or, at any rate, his speechwriters -- understood that reconstruction was important not just for its own sake, but as a way to deprive the growing insurgency of support. In October 2003 he declared that "the more electricity is available, the more jobs are available, the more kids that are going to school, the more desperate these killers become."

But for a long time, Iraqi reconstruction was more of a public relations exercise than a real effort. Remember when visiting congressmen were taken on tours of newly painted schools?

Both supporters and opponents of the war now argue that by moving so slowly on reconstruction, the Bush administration missed a crucial window of opportunity. By the time reconstruction spending began in earnest, it was in a losing race with a deteriorating security situation.

As a result, the electricity and jobs that were supposed to make the killers desperate never arrived. Iraq produced less electricity last month than in October 2003. The Iraqi government estimates the unemployment rate at 27 percent, but the real number is probably much higher.

Now we're losing another window of opportunity for reconstruction. But this time it's at home.

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush made an elaborately staged appearance in New Orleans, where he promised big things. "The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region," he said, "will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

Such an effort would be the right thing to do. We can argue about details -- about which levees should be restored and how strong to make them -- but it's clearly in the nation's interests as well as local residents' to rebuild much of the regional economy.

But Mr. Bush seems to have forgotten about his promise. More than three months after Katrina, a major reconstruction effort isn't even in the planning stage, let alone under way. "To an extent almost inconceivable a few months ago," a Los Angeles Times report about New Orleans says, "the only real actors in the rebuilding drama at the moment are the city's homeowners and business owners."

It's worth noting in passing that Mr. Bush hasn't even appointed a new team to fix the dysfunctional Federal Emergency Management Agency. Most of the agency's key positions, including the director's job -- left vacant by the departure of Michael "heck of a job" Brown -- are filled on an acting basis, by temporary place holders. The chief of staff is still a political loyalist with no prior disaster management experience.

One FEMA program has, however, been revamped. The Recovery Channel is a satellite and Internet network that used to provide practical information to disaster victims. Now it features public relations segments telling viewers what a great job FEMA and the Bush administration are doing.

But back to reconstruction. By letting the gulf region languish, Mr. Bush is allowing a window of opportunity to close, just as he did in Iraq.

To see why, you need to understand a point emphasized by that report in The Los Angeles Times: the private sector can't rebuild the region on its own. The reason goes beyond the need for flood protection and basic infrastructure, which only the government can provide. Rebuilding is also blocked by a vicious circle of uncertainty. Business owners are reluctant to return to the gulf region because they aren't sure whether their customers and workers will return, too. And families are reluctant to return because they aren't sure whether businesses will be there to provide jobs and basic amenities.

A credible reconstruction plan could turn that vicious circle into a virtuous circle, in which everyone expects a regional recovery and, by acting on that expectation, helps that recovery come to pass. But as the months go by with no plan and no money, businesses and families will make permanent decisions to relocate elsewhere, and the loss of faith in a gulf region recovery will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Funny, isn't it? Back during the 2000 campaign Mr. Bush promised to avoid "nation building." And so he has. He failed to rebuild Iraq because he waited too long to get started. And now he's doing the same thing here at home.

Big Box Balderdash
By Paul Krugman
December 12, 2005

I think I've just seen the worst economic argument of 2005. Given what the Bush administration tried to put over on us during its unsuccessful sales pitch for Social Security privatization, that's saying a lot.

The argument came in the course of the latest exchange between Wal-Mart and its critics. A union-supported group, Wake Up Wal-Mart, has released a TV ad accusing Wal-Mart of violating religious values, backed by a letter from religious leaders attacking the retail giant for paying low wages and offering poor benefits. The letter declares that "Jesus would not embrace Wal-Mart's values of greed and profits at any cost."

You may think that this particular campaign - which has, inevitably, been dubbed "Where would Jesus shop?" - is a bit over the top. But it's clear why those concerned about the state of American workers focus their criticism on Wal-Mart. The company isn't just America's largest private employer. It's also a symbol of the state of our economy, which delivers rising G.D.P. but stagnant or falling living standards for working Americans. For Wal-Mart is a huge and hugely profitable company that pays badly and offers minimal benefits.

Attacks on Wal-Mart have hurt its image, and perhaps even its business. The company has set up a campaign-style war room to devise responses. So how did Wal-Mart respond to this latest critique?

Wal-Mart can claim, with considerable justice, that its business practices make America as a whole richer. The fact is that Wal-Mart sells many products more cheaply than traditional stores, and that its low prices aren't solely or even mainly the result of the low wages it pays. Wal-Mart has been able to reduce prices largely because it has brought genuine technological and organizational innovation to the retail business.

It's harder for Wal-Mart to defend its pay and benefits policies. Still, the company could try to argue that despite its awesome size and market dominance it cannot defy the iron laws of supply and demand, which force it to pay low wages. (I disagree, but that's a subject for another column.)

But instead of resting its case on these honest or at least defensible answers to criticism, Wal-Mart has decided to insult our intelligence by claiming to be, of all things, an engine of job creation. Judging from its press release in response to the religious values campaign, the assertion that Wal-Mart "creates 100,000 jobs a year" is now the core of the company's public relations strategy.

It's true, of course, that the company is getting bigger every year. But adding 100,000 people to Wal-Mart's work force doesn't mean adding 100,000 jobs to the economy. On the contrary, there's every reason to believe that as Wal-Mart expands, it destroys at least as many jobs as it creates, and drives down workers' wages in the process.

Think about what happens when Wal-Mart opens a store in a previously untouched city or county. The new store takes sales away from stores that are already in the area; these stores lay off workers or even go out of business. Because Wal-Mart's big-box stores employ fewer workers per dollar of sales than the smaller stores they replace, overall retail employment surely goes down, not up, when Wal-Mart comes to town. And if the jobs lost come from employers who pay more generously than Wal-Mart does, overall wages will fall when Wal-Mart moves in.

This isn't just speculation on my part. A recent study by David Neumark of the University of California at Irvine and two associates at the Public Policy Institute of California, "The Effects of Wal-Mart on Local Labor Markets," uses sophisticated statistical analysis to estimate the effects on jobs and wages as Wal-Mart spread out from its original center in Arkansas.

The authors find that retail employment did, indeed, fall when Wal-Mart arrived in a new county. It's not clear in their data whether overall employment in a county rose or fell when a Wal-Mart store opened. But it's clear that average wages fell: "residents of local labor markets," the study reports, "earn less following the opening of Wal-Mart stores."

So Wal-Mart has chosen to defend itself with a really poor argument. If that's the best the company can come up with, it's going to keep losing the public relations war with its critics. Maybe it should consider an alternative strategy, such as paying higher wages.
Thanks, Mr Krugman! Now I'm off to swim.

12.15.2005

murder in miami

After I blogged about the shooting of a mentally ill passenger in the Miami airport, faithful wmtc readers Kyle_From_Ottawa and Redsock posted some links about the murder.

Here, independent journalist Lila Rajiva asks some questions, and a blogger at the Lew Rockwell site adds some of her own.

An article on Prison Planet, which documents creeping totalitarianism, takes an in-depth look at the shooting, and compares it to the killing of Charles de Menezes in London.

Prison Planet might look a little out-there, but the writers are engaged in an important task: documenting the disintegration of democracy, civil liberties and human rights before the stories fall down the memory hole. (If I use that expression, do I owe Russ Kick a nickel?)

Kyle also pointed out that soon US train, bus and ferry passengers will also have air marshal "protection".