12.31.2011

happy new year: peace, love, revolution




Happy New Year to everyone in the wmtc community - friends and commenters, lurkers and loyal readers. Thank you all for being here.

I wish you health, peace, and joy in the coming year. I wish the world continued revolutions.

12.30.2011

we like lists: list # 13: it was the best of lists, it was the worst of lists

Few things in life are all good or all bad. Even though I dislike Christmas, I'm happy to enjoy some paid time off, and this year I reaped the benefits of holiday overtime.

Sometimes, the negative so grossly outweighs the positive that there's no point in searching for a shred of silver lining. Example: Jason Kenney. And some things are so joyous, that only a fool searches for a blemish. Example: the 2004 World Series.

But many things in life are downright contrary in evoking mixed emotions. That's what we're listing today.

In the spirit of our last list, this is another create-your-own. Name your five worst and your five best. The only rule is they have to be about the same thing.

I think it's better to start with the negative and end on the positive, but that's up to you.

In honour of turning 50 six months ago, here are the five worst and five best things about getting older, in the world according to me.

Five worst things about aging:

5. I used to have perfect skin. My skin was my best physical feature. Now my skin is... ordinary.

4. General physical breakdown. Creaky knees, easily-pulled muscles, weakening hands.

3. Less stamina. Longer recovery time. This may be more health than age, but the age isn't helping.

2. The ever-lengthening list of care required for maintenance. Orthotics in the shoes, complicated lenses in the glasses, medications, ergonomic equipment, screenings for various diseases. And that's not counting anything cosmetic, which I'm avoiding.

1. I haven't travelled enough. I feel time ticking away, and there are so many places I want to go.

Five best things about getting older:

5. No one asking me when I'm going to have children.

4. Freeing myself of self-created obligations. No longer spending free time on people I don't really want to see, things I don't really want to do, and other people's useless drama. Suffering less bullshit.

3. A longer fuse. More patience, less anger, more generosity, more compassion. More control of my temper.

2. Coming into my own as a writer. Becoming a better writer, but more than that, understanding and accepting my writing process, understanding my need to write as integral to my self, whether or not I write professionally.

1. Knowing what's most important to me. A deep understanding of my core values, my life goals, my purpose, which leads to a richer, more rewarding life.

Your turn!

12.29.2011

five items in search of a post (a list of sorts)


This has been a strange winter break. I've been working at the library, collaborating with Allan on some paid writing work, taking care of the massive number of appointments and personal chores that pile up while I'm in school, seeing a few friends... but also making sure I spend a fair amount of time on the couch either reading or watching DVDs.

The one thing I haven't been able to do is any serious writing for wmtc. My brain and my time management somehow doesn't get past scraps of notes and drafts. We leave for Quebec on Sunday, so chances are dwindling. On the other hand, my courses this term may not be too taxing. (I'm being polite. I think they're pure manure.) So I might actually write these posts in January.

Here are a few items that don't warrant posts of their own, but might be useful for someone Googling or stimulate conversation or provide a moment of entertainment.

1. How to make hard boiled eggs that peel perfectly.

Here's a great way to make hard boiled eggs that don't crack and always peel quickly and easily.

I really dislike struggling with a hard boiled egg, removing the shell in tiny little shards, or removing half the white along with the shell. This way, the shells zip right off in a few large pieces and leave the whites smooth and intact.

I've tried all different methods and this works every time. What you'll need:
- Eggs - I make a full dozen at one time, but you can make any amount this way.
- Pot large enough to hold the eggs and a lot of water
- Another bowl, like a mixing bowl or sturdy serving bowl
- Ice cubes
- Slotted spoon

- It doesn't matter if you use fresh eggs or eggs that are a few days old. The internet says fresher eggs don't hard-boil as well. I have not found this to be the case.

- Place the eggs gently in a pot, and fill the pot with warm or hot water from the tap.

- Place the pot on the stove, and put on the lowest possible heart for 5-7 minutes. Leave the pot uncovered throughout.

- Increase the heat a tiny bit (on an electric stove, to 2 or 3). 5-7 minutes.

- Increase the heat a bit more (to 5). Another 5-7 minutes.

- Increase the temperature to 7 or 8. Now the water should come to a rolling boil, but the eggs won't crack. I like my hard boiled eggs thoroughly hard inside, so I let them boil away for a good 10 minutes. If you prefer them slightly softer, adjust accordingly.

Now comes the cool part that makes the eggs peel easily every single time.

- When the eggs are almost done, place a large empty mixing bowl in the sink. Have ice cubes ready.

- When the eggs are done (after the water has been at a full boil for at least 10 minutes), turn the heat off and place the pot on a cool burner. Use a slotted spoon to remove the eggs from the pot and place them in the mixing bowl.

- Turn on the cold water, and when the bowl is partly filled, add the ice cubes.

The cold water will shrink the membrane that binds the shell to the egg. But other methods, such as running cold water from the tap over the eggs, don't work as well, because all sides of all the eggs don't get cold enough.

Hard boiled eggs will stay fresh in the fridge for more than a week. When you're ready to use them, firmly tap the large end once on a plate (or a paper towel on the kitchen counter), then lift off the peel, working your way around the egg.

2. Dietary cholesterol has no effect on blood cholesterol.

Speaking of eggs, did you know that dietary cholesterol has absolutely no effect on blood cholesterol? The long-accepted wisdom that egg whites are good but egg yolks are bad has been disproven. Egg yolks do not raise your total blood cholesterol, and in fact they raise your high-density lipoproteins (HDL), also known as "good cholesterol".

In fact, knowing the cholesterol content of any food is useless. If you're concerned about blood cholesterol levels for cardiovascular health, reduce your intake of saturated fat. As my doctor put it, eggs are fine - unless you fry them in butter, then eat them accompanied by bacon and buttered toast. But the egg itself, either hard boiled or poached, or scrambled in a nonstick pan with vegetables, is super good for you.

3. If we have an appointment, please don't call me to confirm. And if you do, please don't ask me to call you back.

When did the confirmation phone call begin? It seems to me that we used to make appointments and be expected to show up. Now every office - the doctor, the vet, the podiatrist, the hair salon, and so on - has people leaving messages confirming your appointment. I dislike this. I don't need calls telling me where to be and when. That's why I keep a calendar (or diary or appointment book, if you prefer).

I don't like receiving confirmation calls, but I can ignore them. What I really dislike is confirmation calls that ask me to call back. The hair salon I use leaves a message asking me to call and confirm my appointment. They're very difficult to reach on the phone; the front desk staff is harried and you're always put on hold. So for every appointment, they're essentially asking you to call twice - once to book the appointment, and a second time to confirm it, unless you happen to be answer their confirmation call, which I never do.

To avoid having to make this second phone call, I've taken to asking them to confirm my appointment when I book it. After I've made the appointment, I ask, "Could you do me a favour and mark this confirmed? I'll definitely be there, and if I can't make it, I always call to reschedule." It works. But I'd really rather not bother.

4. AlternativeTo

Do you know AlternativeTo.net? If you're looking for a type of software and want to see what's out there, or if you're using something you're not overly thrilled with and looking for an alternative, you can search here.

For example, Allan and I are wondering about an alternative to RefWorks, the research-management software I use through the University of Toronto. Once I get my degree, I won't have free access to it anymore, and it's probably not worth $100 per year for the license. Here's what AlternativeTo tells me. (Googling "alternative to refworks" also brings up this page.)

5. And you thought it was three kings and a donkey.

The last item in this list is another list. Thanks to my friend S, partner of M@, I bring you 25 awesomely inexplicable nativity scenes. Now this is the spirit of Christmas!

12.28.2011

does rick perry know something we don't know?

You know I never comment on US election campaigns, but this was irresistible.
Every barrel of oil that comes out of those sands in Canada is a barrel of oil that we don’t have to buy from a foreign source.

Rick Perry, in Iowa
At the rate Stephen Harper is shipping Canadian resources to the US, Perry may be on to something.

Thanks to AW1L.

happy new year from hsi canada

bradley manning hearing ends, public and media denied access throughout

Bradley Manning's pre-court martial hearing ended a few days ago, but for most media and the public, it might as well have never happened.

This story in The Nation outlines how the US military denied access to one of the most important cases of our time. All recording devices were banned from the courtroom, no transcript of the proceedings is being made available, media passes were revoked at will and without explanation, the overflow spectator area (where people could take notes on laptops) was closed down, and so on.

This shouldn't surprise anyone. Bradley Manning isn't being given a trial, which would imply fairness and a public record. He's being court-martialed. The military makes its own rules, and lives by them when it chooses.

Daily notes from the courtroom were posted by diligent supporters who attended the hearing, but as determined and dogged those notetakers were, that is no substitute for media access. You can read the daily proceedings at the Bradley Manning Support Network.

12.27.2011

now blogging, david heap

My friend and comrade David Heap is now blogging.

Among other things, David will be writing about his experiences on the Tahrir, the Canadian Boat to Gaza, including his arrest and imprisonment. I am very much looking forward to reading that story and whatever else David writes.

You can find him here.

12.25.2011

barney frank's radical homosexual agenda and other greatest hits

We can say two things about Congress in the wake of the news that Rep. Barney Frank is retiring after this term: It’s about to get a little dumber, and a lot duller. So here, in appreciation for his years of service and entertainment, are some of Frank’s best YouTube-accessible moments
Thanks to Ezra Klein, via James. They're short and sweet. Enjoy.

(But excuse me, Mr. Frank, you made a boo-boo in that last vid. The US invaded Iraq with your party's enthusiastic blessing, and then continued to occupy that country after your party promised otherwise in 2006. Other than that, thanks for the memories.)

malalai joya, noam chomsky, afghanistan, and peace

This video of Malalai Joya and Noam Chomsky speaking in Boston is from March of this year, but sadly, is every bit as relevant today. Chomsky's analysis of the situation in south and central Asia is especially enlightening.

It's a long video, but maybe some evening you'll want to watch it instead of a movie, or keep it on in the background while you file papers (as I am) or cook or some other task.

Canadians, just substitute Canada for United States. It applies to us, too.


Chomsky also gives a brilliant historical perspective on the US's GWOT. You know, the one that's being fought since WWII.

12.24.2011

things i heard at the library: an occasional series

The most challenging part of being a library page has been not answering people's questions. Pages are in the stacks, shelving books, so naturally people are going to ask us questions. Plus people always ask me for directions and information, it's a lifelong MO. (That's a story for another post.) But we're not supposed to answer questions.

My natural inclination is to be helpful, but I'm not qualified to give good answers. Other library staff are way more qualified, plus if pages answered questions all the time, they'd never get their work done. So the only questions I'm supposed to answer are simple directionals, such as, "Where do I go to check out books?"

On the other hand, we're not supposed to just say, "I'm sorry, I don't know" or point people towards the desk. I'm familiar with this concept from my Reference course, and I like it. Many people find it difficult to ask for help. They're embarrassed, they're shy, they feel stupid. If they've worked up whatever it takes to ask you, and if you seem to be passing them off, they may not ask again. So instead of pointing, we're supposed to bring them over to the desk and introduce the question for them. (Librarians, in turn, are not supposed to point; they're supposed to get up and walk the patron to the proper section and help them find the book. This can't always happen, for many reasons, but it's the ideal.)

So this not-answering and desk-walking thing took some getting used to. But once I got my wording down - and when I saw how effective it is - it was fine. More than fine, it felt really good. It goes like this.

(A parent) "Excuse me, could you tell me where books for very young children are?"

"The folks at the desk will be happy to show you. Let's go over to the desk and ask."

I guide them over to the desk and say, "Excuse me, Jason, this woman would like to know where books for young children are."

Woman thanks me, Jason thanks me, Jason gets up to give the woman a tour of the different areas for different age groups.

Or it might go like this.

(A child.) "Where are the books on rocks and minerals?"

I took this to be directional, so I walked the child down the stacks, and pointed to the Dewey sign. "These are the 540s, chemistry, atoms and molecules, rocks and minerals."

He said, "Yeah, I know that, but I'm looking for this one book, I can't find it."

"OK, let's ask at the desk. They can see if it's in the library, or if it's out, or what." We walk over to the desk together, and I say, "Excuse me, Ann, this young man is looking for a specific book. Could you help him find it?"

Excuse me, do you have the fifth Harry Potter book?

Now, this wasn't strictly directional, but there was only one person on the desk, and she was very busy. I said, "Let's go over to the Harry Potter books and see if it's there. What's the name of the author?"

I asked this because I knew he would know. He answered instantly, "JKRowling."

"Great, so we go to the fiction section"... we walk over... "then over to the R's for Rowling, and let's look. Do you see it here?"

"No, I read all these."

"OK, so let's go to the desk and see if they can find it. It might be upstairs with the grownup books, or maybe we can get it from a different branch..."

* * * *

I'm thinking of a new occasional series: "things i heard at the library". Right now everything I hear is new and fun. Maybe after a few months it will all be routine and this series will fall apart. But for now...

(Mom, whispering) Go ahead, ask her. Go on, go on, it's ok, ask her.

(Girl, barely audible) Excuse me, Miss, do you know where mumblemumblemumble is?

I waited at the desk with her for a full five minutes until a librarian was free. Her mother thanked me profusely.

* * * *

(Boy, looking intently at the Series section, talking to himself.) Maybe I'll start a new series...

The intensity of his gaze, his seriousness of purpose, the importance of the decision - I had to smile to myself, as I could so relate.

* * * *

These are girls books! Let's get out of here!

* * * *

Gay guys are all so cute.

Shut up, you'll get us kicked out of the library!


(Tweens and teens sometimes hang out in the children's department. The library staff is not always very tolerant of them.)

* * * *

Persistent whining. . . whining . . . giving way to hysterical wailing and screaming

Child with finger caught in paper bin of printer/photocopier. Page to the rescue.

12.23.2011

annual i hate christmas post: top ten things i hate about christmas

It's a wmtc tradition: my annual I Hate Christmas post. This year, it's a continuation of what we started here. Feel free to post your list, too, of any length. Hate only, please. If you love Christmas, go off and enjoy it.

10. "Merry Christmas"

9. "It's A Wonderful Life"

8. Ads where people are dressed up as Santa Claus

7. Inane advertising for inane "gift ideas", i.e. products that no one needs and will likely never use

6. Ignorant people bemoaning the loss of traditional Christmas, not realizing that most of these traditions are pagan

5. All talk about whether there will or won't be "a white Christmas"

4. Being forced to listen to my co-workers recite what they are buying for each person on their list

3. People asking me, "Are you ready Christmas?"

2. Christmas muzak - everyfuckingwhere.

1. The fact that a religious holiday has become a universal holiday that we're all supposed to care about.

mayan ruins in georgia are "wild and unsubstantiated guess" that "no archaeologists will defend"

Have you heard that 1,100-year-old Maya ruins have been uncovered in the US state of Georgia? Did it seem a bit hard to believe? There's a reason for that.

If you haven't heard this, try Googling "Mayan ruins found in Georgia". You will find copious blogs, forums and tweets, all agog at this unlikely revelation.

Reading and re-reading the original article posted on Examiner.com, I thought the evidence seemed a bit thin, to put it mildly. Things like this:
the earliest maps show the name Itsate... Itsate is what the Itza Mayas called themselves
make little sense. Itza is a Maya language, now almost entirely extinct. A soundalike word on a map written in English is not evidence of anything. Another tidbit:
Also, among all indigenous peoples of the Americas, only the Itza Mayas and the ancestors of the Creek Indians in Georgia built five-side earthen pyramids as their principal mounds. It was commonplace for the Itza Maya to sculpt a hill into a pentagonal mound. There are dozens of such structures in Central America.
I don't know if the Creek and the Maya were the only people to construct pentagonal structures. But if both of those peoples did build five-sided structures, and the Creek lived in Georgia, and pentagonal earthen structures are found in Georgia, does that then point to the Maya? (I have brown eyes. African people have brown eyes. I must be African!)

Not a single archaeological journal or website, or a single science reporter for any news organization, has reported on this, to my knowledge. But I did find this:
According to the report, picked up from a fly-by-night Web pub called the Examiner, a small group of archeologists led by University of Georgia scholar Mark Williams discovered the 1,100-year-old city “on the southeast side of Brasstown Bald in the Nacoochee Valley.” Only, the report “is not true,” according to Williams, reached by email. “I have been driven crazy by this.”

The original story was written by one Richard Thornton — who claims that “like most Georgia and South Carolina Creeks, I carry a trace of Maya DNA,” and that his ancestors came to North America fleeing “volcanic eruptions, wars, and drought” — and it has certainly caught fire across the Twitter/blogosphere thanks to the general obsession with the 2012 Mayan prophecies. (Even the venerable Washington Post interrupted its regularly-scheduled news rapportage to alert readers that “a second brick found at a Mayan ruin also contained the Dec. 21, 2012, date.”)

But, as Williams says, “The Maya connection to legitimate Georgia archaeology is a wild and unsubstantiated guess on the part of the Thornton fellow. No archaeologists will defend this flight of fancy.”
To put it mildly, we need more evidence.

12.22.2011

old warriors seeing with clear eyes: bill moyers interview with andrew bacevich

I found this in a massive pile of un-read links. It's a conversation between progressive journalist Bill Moyers and Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War and The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Bacevich, a former military officer who served in Vietnam, is that rare breed of social critic who is widely published in both left-wing and right-wing venues. He's a truth-teller, and although I don't always agree with his analysis, I absolutely agree with many of his conclusions.

In the interview, Bacevich talks about Ronald Reagan as "modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption".
To understand the truth about President Reagan is to appreciate the extent to which our politics are misleading and false. Remember, he was the guy who came in and said we need to shrink the size of government. But government didn’t shrink during the Reagan era, it grew. He came in and he said we need to reduce the level of federal spending. He didn’t reduce it. It went through the roof. The budget deficits for his time were the greatest we’d experienced since World War II.
Here's an excerpt from the end, with Moyers' words in italics.
Here is what I take to be the core of your analysis of our political crisis. You write, “The United States has become a de facto one-party state, with the legislative branch permanently controlled by an Incumbents’ Party.” And you write that every president “has exploited his role as commander in chief to expand on the imperial prerogatives of his office.”

One of the great lies about American politics is that Democrats genuinely subscribe to a set of core convictions that make Democrats different from Republicans. And the same thing, of course, applies to the other party. It’s not true.

I happen to define myself as a conservative. But when you look back over the past thirty or so years, said to have been a conservative era in American politics, did we get small government? Do we get balanced budgets? Do we give serious, as opposed to simply rhetorical, attention to traditional social values? The answer’s no. The truth is that conservative principles have been eyewash, part of a package of tactics that Republicans employ to get elected and to then stay in office.

And yet you say that the prime example of political dysfunction today is the Democratic Party in relation to Iraq.

Well, I may be a conservative, but I can assure you that in November of 2006 I voted for every Democrat I could find on the ballot. And I did so because the Democratic Party, speaking with one voice at that time, said, “Elect us. Give us power in the Congress, and we will end the Iraq War.”

The American people, at that point adamantly tired of this war, did empower the Democrats. And Democrats absolutely, totally, completely failed to follow through on their promise.

You argue that the promises of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi proved to be empty. Reid and Pelosi’s commitment to forcing a change in policy took a backseat to their concern to protect the Democratic majority.

Could anybody disagree with that?

This is another one of my highlighted sentences: “To anyone with a conscience, sending soldiers back to Iraq or Afghanistan for multiple combat tours while the rest of the country chills out can hardly seem an acceptable arrangement. It is unfair, unjust, and morally corrosive.” And yet that’s what we’re doing.

Absolutely. And I think— I don’t want to talk about my son here.

You dedicate the book to your son.

My son was killed in Iraq. That’s a personal matter. But it has long stuck in my craw, this posturing of supporting the troops. There are many people who say they support the troops, and they really mean it. But what exactly does it mean to support the troops? It ought to mean more than putting a bumper sticker on the back of your car. I don’t think we actually do support the troops. What we the people do is we contract out the business of national security to approximately 0.5 percent of the population, about a million and a half people who are on active duty. And then we really turn away. We don’t want to look when our soldiers go back for two or three or four or five combat tours. That’s not supporting the troops. That’s an abdication of civic responsibility. And I do think there’s something fundamentally immoral about that.

Again, I think the global war on terror, as a framework of thinking about policy, is deeply defective. But if the global war on terror is a national priority, then why isn’t the country actually supporting it in a meaningful, substantive sense?

Are you calling for a reinstatement of the draft?

I’m not, because I understand that, politically, the draft is an impossibility. And to tell you the truth, we don’t need to have an army of six or eight or ten million people. What we need is to have the country engaged in what its soldiers are doing. That simply doesn’t exist today.
Excellent reading, if a few months late. Thanks to Eric in Stratford.

memo to jason kenney: that's not how multiculturalism works

Another take on Jason Kenney's bigotry, by Andrew Potter of the Ottawa Citizen.
It would be a lot easier to debate the tough cases of Canadian multiculturalism if people understood how the system actually works. That includes everyone from taxi drivers and barbers to those who spend their time trolling the comment boards of political blogs or loitering around the virtual water-coolers of social media. It includes radio and television hosts, editorialists and pundits. And it also includes the Citizenship and Immigration minister himself, Jason Kenney, who last week announced that henceforward, anyone who takes the oath of citizenship must do so unveiled and uncovered.

Announcing the new policy in Montreal, Kenney said that it is "a matter of pure principle, which lies at the heart of our identity and values with respect to openness and equality." The citizenship ceremony, he went on, "defines who we are as Canadians including our mutual responsibilities to one another and a shared commitment to values that are rooted in our history."

For conservatives, a Canadian immigration minister using words like "we" and "our" and making forceful references to "shared values" is like the scene in A Fish Called Wanda where Kevin Kline seduces Jamie Lee Curtis with his cannonball Italian: you could hear the moans of ecstasy of the right-wing pundits from Tofino to Torbay.

For the rest of us, it is another lost opportunity for our leaders to educate Canadians about how their country functions, what holds it together, and how we can think about how to reasonably accommodate newcomers. Because here's the plain truth: Canadians don't have shared values. We never have, and we never will. But that's not a problem, because the ongoing cohesion of Canadian society is not seriously threatened by deep pluralism. If it was, we would never have got past the sectarian, linguistic, and cultural divides of the 19th century.
Read it here. Thanks to pogge.

"are there terrorists? i just see kids!": police vs ows continues

This is happening in my hometown.
The cops chased us into City Hall Park. They followed us on their motorcycles as we ran into City Hall Park. Please keep in mind, we are a group of twenty people that were walking up the street. The only thing that separates us from anyone else is that we’ve been targeted because we are loud about our politics. Besides being a bit noisy, we were doing nothing illegal.

The park was full of unaware bystanders. NYPD is extremely lucky they didn’t sideswipe a kid… I watched in shock as they sped through the park.

And was even more dumbfounded when they sped out of the park and up the sidewalk. An old man shouted, “Are there terrorists? I just see kids! What in the hell are they doing?!”

Eventually the cops jumped off bikes and tackled two demonstrators. Both were beat up pretty badly. They threw them to the ground and punched them, slammed them into the concrete.

Other officers created a “human wall” in an attempt to block press and all photographs of their brutality.
It might be happening in your hometown, too, hidden by a human wall or a wall of corporate media.

See OWS In Solidarity with the Shutting Down of West Coast Ports + Police Brutality for video and more details.

the dirty truth we've been expecting: harper government takes the first step in destroying universal health care

So the Harper GovernmentTM finally uttered the words we've been expecting and dreading: health care.

We all know what they're up to. It's the standard reactionary playbook on public health care.

One, claim we can't afford to maintain publicly funded health care at the present levels.

Two, slash funding until the system becomes impossible to maintain.

Three, point to the system that they broke, and say, look, it's broken. Then dismantle it, probably by instituting a two-tier system, a privatized system for those who can afford it and a bare-minimum safety net for everyone else.

In other words, the Harper Government, in its usual stealthful fashion, wants to destroy what is left of the best of Canada.

But, according to this government, we can afford a massively expensive and useless crime bill, and fighter jets with a nearly unlimited price tag.

This is truly frightening.

Of course, it's not enough to be frightened. We have to be fighting, too. One big piece of the puzzle is already in place: 102 seats in Parliament occupied by the New Democrats, the government-in-waiting. The other piece is even more important: us.

Do we need a reminder of where this can lead?

A report has found that half of all people in the United States are living in poverty. This is calculated on the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which exists because the Official Poverty Measure hides tremendous numbers of people. This story in Salon does the math. Short version: it checks out.

The Detroit Free Press looked at the results of the housing foreclosure crisis - the direct result of deregulated banking, which still exists, and which left banks, lawyers and financiers counting their billions. The Michigan school systems now include 31,000 students who are homeless, a 37 percent increase over the previous year. And you know what? The US government, with Mr. Obama at the helm, is further cutting housing aid.

There are a handful of tangible differences between the United States and Canada, and those differences resonate deeply in the quality of life we enjoy here. Universal health insurance is tops on that list. We must be prepared to fight to protect it. We must constantly remind the party of Tommy Douglas what we expect from them - and that is not to become a slightly more progressive version of the Liberal Party.

My comrade Dr. J has fleshed this out further: "Bad medicine: Harper's prescription for privatizing Medicare". On the US situation, my partner Allan's recent post at maps and legends is sobering.

12.21.2011

baseball history meets the information

The best part of James Gleick's The Information was, for me, his history of communication and information technologies. Here's a terrific article that applies that lens to baseball: "The History of How We Follow Baseball", by Philip Bump, writing in The Atlantic.
In 1912, the Red Sox played the New York Giants in the World Series. Here's how people in Washington watched that game:


And here's a close-up of what they were all gathered around to look at:

There's lots of cool stuff; definitely not for baseball fans only. Thanks to A, of course.

final thoughts on james gleick's "the information"

Two weeks ago, I wrote some impressions of The Information, by James Gleick. (If you read that earlier post, do also read the comments.)

I was hoping that the book would not devolve (or advance, depending on your perspective) into scientific concepts that are beyond my understanding. I was confident that Gleick wouldn't "pull a Hawking," and force me to give up on the book the way I did with A Brief History of Time. Now I must qualify this a bit.

The Information, true to its subittle "...A History, A Theory, A Flood," divides into three inter-related sections. I highly recommend the first and the third segments, but the middle of the book offered some rough going. I found myself reading about complex math theory well beyond my comprehension. That was I was able to follow this at all is a great credit to Gleick's writing. He is quite brilliant at explaining complex concepts in simple terms, often by employing elegant analogies.

I followed along much farther than I would have thought, but when Stephen Hawking himself entered the picture, and concepts from quantum physics - whatever that means - intersected with information theory to become quantum information theory, I was completely lost. For me, the final part of the book's second segment was incomprehensible. After that, it became understandable, enlightening and fascinating again.

If you're comfortable with higher theoretical science concepts, you might love the entire book. If you're more interested in the historical, social and personal aspects of our information universe, at some point you'll probably want to skim or skip pages, then resume careful reading with the final chapters.

* * * *

Based on published book reviews, it's clear to me that most reviewers didn't read this book. They wrote reviews based on the media releases and the first few chapters, at most. I'm familiar with the world of book and music criticism enough to know how those things work. Reviewers, even more than the rest of us, are deluged, and also under deadline pressure. Along with the book or CD, they receive summaries and hype, and many reviews are written using - to put it nicely - more of the summary and less of the actual work.

One of the most egregious examples of this that I recall were reviews of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. That book contains a story within a story, a book called Blind Assassin, which itself contains a story within a story. After I read the book and unraveled mystery, I realized that many reviewers never got that far. They must have relied on the press releases, and so mistook the frame for the picture, so to speak.

what i'm watching: old timey tv and old timey ads


One of my favourite comedies has always been "The Burns and Allen Show," the old TV vehicle for the comedy team of Gracie Allen and George Burns. The show's entire run (1950-1958) was finished before I was born, but in my days as an insomniac teenager and young adult, I would watch late-night re-runs, and I fell in love with this show.

Burns and Allen, who were married, began their act onstage in vaudeville, then moved to radio in the heyday of that medium, then had a popular TV show from the earliest days of television. Gracie was the comedian, playing on her supposedly addle-headed, ditzy, unique way of seeing the world, and George was her straight man. (Interestingly, their stage act originally featured George as the air-head and Gracie as the straight, but Gracie was getting all the laughs, so they switched roles.)

One of Burns and Allen's long-running gags was that George would be poor and unknown if it weren't for Gracie. This reflected real-life common wisdom that Gracie was the star, and George would have no career without her. Gracie retired in 1958 and died in 1964. As you may know, George Burns went on to have an entire second career making movies and doing standup, especially known for his role as God in the "Oh, God" movies. He died in 1996 at 100 years old.


"The Burns and Allen Show", although predictable, corny and dated (and hilarious), had some post-modern touches that put it way ahead of its time. George served as narrator, setting up Gracie's situations, and stepping in and out of the frame. The borders of the set were left visible on a proscenium stage, so George could walk in and out of the action. If you've seen "It's Garry Shandling's Show," where Shandling rode a golf cart to the fake sitcom set, that was an homage to Burns and Allen. The action also stopped for George to do standup on related themes, similar to the opening and closing frames of "Seinfeld". Later in the series' run, George would turn on a TV and watch Gracie and their neighbours, Harry and Blanche Morton - "Let's see what the Mortons are up to..." - while he smoked his cigar and addressed the audience.


I love The Burns and Allen Show, and I absolutely love Gracie Allen, a comic genius. I hadn't seen the show in years - decades - and I always wanted to re-watch it on DVD. A few months ago, Allan surprised me with more than 100 episodes on DVD, somebody's homemade package being sold online.

We started watching it, thinking we could go through the entire series in order, but we've been disabused of this completest plan. As is often the case with the early days of a great comedy, the beginning was rough. The show needed more time to develop, and was probably still making the switch from radio to television. So instead, we're going to sample various seasons until we find where The Funny begins, and watch from there.

In the early days of television, shows had a single sponsor that was strongly associated with the show, another holdover from radio. The sponsor often enjoyed top billing, such as "Maxwell House Coffee Time" or "Texaco Star Theater". This had mostly stopped before my time. The one show I remember that retained that type of title was "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom", which people of my generation grew up watching on Sunday nights - "before Disney," as we all said.

Not only did shows have single sponsors, but ads were part of the show, and much more conspicuous than current product placement or other forms of embedded marketing these days. The only analog that I can think of today is (sadly) the in-game advertising we are subjected to during baseball games, where someone sits in the announcer's booth for an inning, and the announcers and the guest "chat" about the product during the game. In these old shows, the ads were performed by the show's "announcer" - another radio holdover, and a precursor of the late-night co-host. This freed the show's star from unseemly shilling, and in George Burns' and other's cases, allowed them to distance themselves with irreverent snarky comments about having to do the ads.

The Burns and Allen Show was sponsored by "Carnation Evaporated Milk, the milk from contented cows". Each show contained two or more scenes in which coffee, or baking, or some form of cooking - or even Gracie receiving a bouquet of carnations! - figured in. Then the comedy stops and the announcer launches into a long spiel about the benefits of Carnation evaporated milk. (For Burns and Allen fans, this is Harry Von Zell*, except for the first season, I was surprised to learn a different announcer, Bill Goodwin, was part of the show.)

In some scenes, the characters themselves extol the virtues of having been raised as a "Carnation baby" or how wonderful the cake was because the icing was made with Carnation evaporated milk, or how silly Gracie wondered how you get milk from a bunch of carnations. It's a full-fledged commercial, but the show doesn't stop, break for ads, then resume, the way we're accustomed to. It's similar to today's embedded marketing, but much cruder. Although who knows, as we continue to mute and skip commercials, this technique might be revived.



* This made the Burns and Allen Show very unusual in having two characters with the same first name, Harry Morton and Harry Von Zell. The latter Harry was already referred to as "HarryVonZell".

12.18.2011

from newspeak central: frederick douglass, susan b. anthony, and the anti-abortion-rights movement

Paging George Orwell: a new US anti-abortion bill is named Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act.

Good story plus mostly good comments at the link, too. Thanks to James.

"you must fearlessly accept the challenge and aggressively spread the idea of war resistance."

Those who think that the danger of war is past are living in a fool’s paradise. We are faced today with militarism more powerful and more dangerous than that which brought on the World War. That is what the governments have accomplished! But among the peoples of the world the idea of war resistance is growing. You must fearlessly accept the challenge and aggressively spread the idea of war resistance. You must convince the people to take disarmament into their own hands and to declare that they will have no part in war or in the preparation for war. You must call on the workers of all countries to unite in refusing to become the tools of interests that war upon life. Today, in twelve countries, young men are resisting conscription and refusing military service. They are the pioneers of a warless world.

Albert Einstein,
at the meeting of the War Resisters’ International, Lyons, France, August 1-4, 1931
from Einstein On Peace

report from bradley manning hearing, day one

From NCF, at Bradley Manning's hearing:
And what the day it was! Manning's lawyer David Coombs (whose very nice wife is from TO) is a force to be reckoned with! After a half hour of grilling the Investigating Officer (not a judge) about his civilian job as a prosecutor with the Dept. of Justice, plus the fact that the IO only accepted 2 of the 38 witnesses for the defence (and a few other factors) Coombs called for the IO to recuse himself because of bias. And thus there was a recess - for two hours.

The IO refused to recuse himself and Coombs asked for a stay of the proceedings, thus another two-hour recess and on it went.

So the morning session was full of drama... The afternoon was another series of recesses and then it wrapped up for the day at 3:30 after Manning was read his rights. That was it for day 1. ...

Meanwhile, with all the downtime, plus the wait-time to get in in the first place, a community was forming amongst the public - which ranged from a classical music composer from NYC to Julian Assange's lawyer, a woman from the Australian embassy, oh, and also Omar Khadr's lawyer - great guy! Ann Wright came in for the afternoon session, along with folks from OWS (including the driver of the Wikileaks truck that went missing), various people from the Bradley Manning support network, quite a few Vietnam vets. ...

Security on the base of course is pretty intense: riot cops ready to go, lots of dogs etc. But I have to say all the MPs and Federal Police are very polite and it's very smoothly run. They have a (heated) trailer set up for visitors so that we didn't have to stand in line in the cold waiting to get in.

As for Bradley Manning himself, he's very very tiny but seemed very composed and spoke confidently (mind you, this was just 'yes sir, no sir'.) And has cool geek glasses.

12.17.2011

the daily show, all-american muslim and lowe's: watch, laugh, and write

The episode of The Daily Show that I mentioned here can be seen here. The part I found hilarious begins at about 6:00. Many thanks to David H for the link!

After you enjoy that laugh, please write to Lowe's.

Lowe's contact form here

Email: WeCare@lowes.com

Robert A. Niblock, Chairman and CEO
Lowe's Companies, Inc.
1000 Lowes Boulevard
Mooresville, NC 28117-8520

from out of nowhere, beautiful music transforms my night

Tonight on my way home from work, I had no music with me, and was forced to listen to the radio. To think I was once a radio addict; now I find it an annoying wasteland. In my button-pushing frustration, I stumbled on this. I was utterly mesmerized. It wasn't entirely safe - I was driving! I found this music transporting. Transcendent.

Fortunately, the host of the CBC Radio 1 show came back to tell me what it was, and I repeated "Glass House, Glass House, Glass House" all the way home in the hopes I might remember what to Google.

I give you: Christina Petrowska Quilico performing Ann Southam's Glass Houses Revisited #5. Thank you, internet!

12.16.2011

stand against islamophobia: boycott lowe's... and more

By now you've probably heard about the "All-American Muslim" TV show vs. Lowe's Home Improvement vs. Florida Family Association craziness. I know "The Daily Show" has been tracking the story (of course the video is not available in Canada). But in case you haven't heard about this particular bit of insanity from TGNOTFOTETM, this excellent column in The New Yorker's online edition will fill you in.
The Jaafars and their children form one of five Dearborn families featured on “All-American Muslim,” a reality show, on TLC, created by some of the same team behind “Real Housewives of New York.” The show has become the target of an ugly campaign by a group called the Florida Family Association, which calls it “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” That someone, somewhere, would yell at the television when presented with images of Arab-Americans getting married or ready for school or running a football practice is sad, but might not be surprising. What is more remarkable, and even alarming, is that the group’s campaign persuaded Lowe’s, the home-improvement chain, to pull its advertising from “All-American Muslim.”

The Florida Family Association says that Lowe’s is not the only sponsor it has driven away. That is hard to know, since ads are bought and sold all the time. Lowe’s, however, made no secret of its decision to walk away: “Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lighting rod for many of those views,” it said in a Facebook post. “As a result we did pull our advertising on this program. We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.”

That is, at a minimum, weak on Lowe’s part. Why would it be so responsive to a letter that contained lines like, “One of the most troubling scenes occurred at the introduction of the program when a Muslim police officer stated, I really am American. No ifs ands and buts about it.” Are those the sort of words that cause panics? The actual complaint that the Florida Family Association has is particular and peculiar: that “All-American Muslim” is dangerous because its subjects aren’t. The Florida Family Association isn’t pretending that these people—the Amens, the Aoudes, the Bazzy-Aliahmads, the Jaafars, and the Zabans—aren’t exactly who the program says they are. (It’s a fairly diverse group that includes, even within those families, women who wear the hijab and ones who don’t) When it says that the show is an effort to “inaccurately portray Muslims in America,” it is rejecting that reality in favor of stereotypes. In other words, the truth is false if it does not look the way one thought it would. It is seized by the fear of a bland Muslim. [I highly recommend reading the whole column.]
I've been pleased to see that a boycott of Lowe's is in full swing, with entertainment entrepreneur Russell Simmons buying the advertising that Lowe's gave up. That's excellent, but we need to do more. At a minimum, we can write to Lowe's and tell them we support the boycott, and why. What we need, though, is a large, public repudiation of this disgusting Islamophobia.

What is it like to live in a country your entire life, your family to live in that country for generations, and be singled out as The Other, have your basic values and loyalties questioned? Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians learned what it was like. European Jews learned. African-Americans were The Other for hundreds of years.

I keep asking myself, how can we show our Muslim neighbours that we abhor this kind of scapegoating and bigotry? What can we do that is more than lip service? I'm not asking this rhetorically: I'm really asking. If you have thoughts about this, share them in comments.

Meanwhile:

Lowe's contact form

Lowe's email

Robert A. Niblock, Chairman and CEO
Lowe's Companies, Inc.
1000 Lowes Boulevard
Mooresville, NC 28117-8520

there can be no justice for bradley manning

Today begins the "Article 32" hearing for accused whistleblower Bradley Manning, the first time in 18 months of incarceration that Manning will face a judge. Tonight there's a vigil outside Ft. Meade, Maryland, and tomorrow - Manning's 24th birthday - there will be a big rally in support.

The Article 32 hearing will determine whether Manning's case will go to court martial, or be decided by a military judge, or enter some other venue, at the military's discretion. Many people are referring to this as a "pre-trial hearing", and similarly referring to Bradley Manning's "trial". This gives the impression Manning will receive a fair, impartial hearing by an actual system of justice. But this is not the case. Manning is being court-martialed. That is, his accusers, his judge and his jury are one and the same. How can there be justice?

A friend of mine from the War Resisters Support Campaign will be at the vigil, rally and hearing, so I'll have a first-hand report to share. Meanwhile, the Bradley Manning Support Network now has a great site with lots of information and updates.

Tomorrow, Saturday, December 17, is an international Day of Solidarity in support of Bradley Manning. People will gather in towns and cities all over the world to show Manning he is not alone, that we stand with him, that we honour his courage and truth-telling.

In Toronto, supporters will gather at 1:00 across from the US Consulate, 360 University Avenue. For information on any city, go here.

12.14.2011

citizenship ceremonies now include islamophobia

Last week I learned citizenship ceremonies now include militarism. This week I learn they also include Islamophobia. I'm grateful I became a citizen before this hateful bullshit started.
Face veils banned for citizenship oaths

The government is placing a ban on face coverings such as niqabs for people swearing their oath of citizenship, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Monday.

The ban takes effect immediately.

As a result, Muslim women will have to remove their niqabs or any other face-covering garments, such as burkas, before they can recite the oath of citizenship to become Canadians. Citizenship judges will be directed to enforce the rules at ceremonies over which they preside.

It's a "public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family and it must be taken freely and openly," he said, calling it "frankly, bizarre" that women were allowed to wear face veils while they swear their citizenship oaths.

Kenney said he doesn't accept that it's a religious obligation to wear the veil, explaining that when Muslim women perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required by their faith, they are required not to cover their faces.

"It's a cultural tradition, which I think reflects a certain view about women that we don't accept in Canada. We want women to be full and equal members of Canadian society and certainly when they're taking the citizenship oath, that's the right place to start," Kenney said in an interview on CBC News Network.

Complaints from citizenship court judges

A directive posted on the department's website says if candidates aren't seen taking the oath, officials are to explain that they must be seen reciting it, and that they can't become Canadian citizens without it. They can return for the next citizenship ceremony, but "the opportunity to return to take the oath at another citizenship ceremony applies only once," the directive says.

Women who choose not to remove their face coverings can remain permanent residents, Kenney told CBC's Evan Solomon, host of Power & Politics. The citizenship oath is the last step before going from permanent residency to citizenship. Permanent residents can live in Canada but can't vote or run for office.

Kenney said he's had complaints from MPs and citizenship court judges that it's hard to tell whether people with their faces covered are actually reciting the oath of citizenship, which he says is a requirement to become Canadian. Wladyslaw Lizon, a Conservative MP from Mississauga, Ont., brought it to his attention, Kenney says. [emphasis added]

. . .

"I thought it was absurd from beginning to end," said Julia Williams, the human rights and civil liberties officer for CAIR-Can.

She said Kenney's argument that Islam does not require women to wear the niqab defies their charter rights.

"In Canada we also have religious freedom which is enshrined in the charter, and so long as she is not harming someone by her actions, she should be allowed to dress as she sees fit," Williams said.

"I can't think of anything more damaging to women's equality and women's rights than removing their freedom of choice. So I think it was an easy political point to score and at the expense of a vulnerable group of women."
My response so far, sent to my MP with a copy to Jason Kenney. More will follow.
Mr. Lizon:

I am a constituent in your riding, and I was deeply disappointed to see your name linked with bigotry and intolerance. A news story about the new ban on the wearing of niqabs in citizenship ceremonies said that you suggested this change to Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney.

There is no rational reason to force a woman to reveal more of herself than she is comfortable doing, or to force someone to violate religious precepts, in order to become a Canadian citizen. You may not like the niqab, Mr. Kenney may not like the niqab – I may not like the niqab. But our preferences are irrelevant. Canadians are supposed to enjoy freedom of religion and freedom of expression. A Muslim woman who wears a niqab has the same rights as a Jewish man who wears a yarmulke or a Catholic woman who wears a crucifix.

The only reason to ban the wearing of niqabs at a citizenship ceremony is bigotry. It is exactly that kind of bigotry that leads to incidents like the one that took place in the Sheridan Centre mall last summer. Mr. Kenney’s new regulation is a signal to intolerant people that such bigotry is accepted in Canada, and that Muslims in particular may be targetted for hatred.

As you well know, Canada is a multicultural country founded by immigrants. Immigrants and their descendants form the core of the Canadian population. Exclusion based on religious or cultural practices has no place in Canada – and certainly not at a citizenship ceremony.

I became a Canadian citizen in June of 2010. I’m glad this ban was not in place at the time. I would have been ashamed to participate in my own ceremony.

Sincerely,

Laura Kaminker, etc.

12.12.2011

we like lists: list # 12: ten best of anything

Lists are back! I was a little disappointed in the turnout for our last list, awesome art. Statcounter and Google Reader tell me that a few hundred people read this blog; I wish more of them would jump in the comment pool. But even if only from the core group of wmtc commenters... we like lists!

This list is down to you. It's a list of the ten best. Ten best... you tell me. Ten best baseball players. Ten best reasons to quit your job. Ten best varieties of apples. Ten best places to drink coffee. Whatever you like. The list can be fact-based, objective and debatable, or purely opinion.

My list is the ten best feel-good songs, laura k edition. You know what a feel-good song is - the music guaranteed to make you smile. Songs that make me want to grab an air-microphone and dance around the room.

1. Night, Bruce Springsteen

2. Sing, Sing, Sing

3. American Girl, Tom Petty

4. Steppin' Out, Joe Jackson

5. Domino, Van Morrison

6. Awaiting on You All, George Harrison

7. Rock and Roll, Led Zeppelin

8. Caldonia

9. Take On Me, Ah-ha (Yes, I love this song!) (Also: Funny!)

10. Down on the Corner, Creedence

Updated rule! No repeating other commenters' lists. You've got to make your own.

12.10.2011

worlds collide: the high line meets the information


This photo is used in James Gleick's The Information, in which I am currently engrossed. The building is Bell Labs, the hottest of hot spots for engineering and technology for decades, in one of its most famous locations, on the west side of lower Manhattan. (The building is now Westbeth.) The train passing through the Bell Labs building is running on The High Line. You may recall my enthusiastic post about The High Line. Worlds collide.

Looking for this photo online, I found a terrific post about The High Line by Phillip Lopate. Lopate is a writer, critic and thinker who writes about (among other things) architecture, city planning and design. I know him best from an anthology he edited, The Art of the Personal Essay. Phillip Lopate's brother is Leonard Lopate, the host of a long-running radio show on WNYC.

Lopate's story about The High Line begins:
When, in June 2009, the High Line Park opened to the public, it was declared an almost unqualified success. Some architecture critics nit-picked the design, but basically they endorsed it, and ordinary folk (I include myself in that category), less fastidious, greeted it with enthusiasm. Crowds lined up for hours to have the elevated promenade experience, it became a (free) hot-ticket item in New York City, which typically over-embraces a novelty for six months, then ignores it. Especially in hot weather, the challenge soon became to grab one of the reclining benches on the sundeck and tan yourself for hours, while envious masses stumbled by. The crowded, restless carnival-grounds movement of the park-goers above-ground rhymed the pedestrian conveyer-belt effect of the gridded streets below: Manhattan is a place where loitering in one place is done at your peril. Paris has boulevard cafes for cooling one’s heels, Rome comes to a rest at fountains and piazzas, but in Manhattan you keep moving forward. Well and good: I approve.
Fans of New York, The High Line, public art, great design, history and excellent writing should check out "Above Grade: On The High Line". At least go look at the photos.

write for rights: spotlight on reggie clemons

Black man. White murder victims. No physical evidence. Sentenced to death despite very compelling doubts about guilt. If this sounds like Troy Davis 2.0, that's because Troy Davis was not an anomaly. His death was business-as-usual in the US's sorry excuse for a justice system.

Meet Reggie Clemons. Like Troy Davis was, Clemons has been in prison for 20 years, waiting for the state to end his life.

Unfairness has dogged Clemons' case from the beginning. There was no physical evidence. There are allegations of police coercion, prosecutorial misconduct, and a stacked jury. Despite these questions, the state of Missouri plans to murder Reggie Clemons. Two young women were killed, but killing a man who may not be guilty will not bring their families justice. (Killing a man who is guilty won't bring them justice either.)

During this year's Write for Rights campaign, Amnesty International is spotlighting 15 priority cases. Each one of these 15 cases - including Reggie Clemons' - is an individual or group suffering human rights abuses. Several are at imminent risk of death or terrible mistreatment.

The Write for Rights campaign has actually saved lives in the past. Early next year, Clemons faces a hearing that could mean the difference between life and death. Our letters to Missouri governor Jay Nixon could push Missouri authorities to make the right decision and spare Clemons' life. At the very least, our letters attest that millions of people know that the state should not have the power to murder citizens.

Go here to read more about Clemons' case, and here to write a letter on his behalf.

write for rights: celebrate human rights day with amnesty

Are you participating in Write for Rights? This annual event is a simple, hands-on way you can stand up for global human rights at least once a year.

Be a part of the world's largest human rights event: Write for Rights.

international human rights day: mohamed harkat and indefinite detention

Today is International Human Rights Day, a day to work for and affirm human rights at home and abroad.

Today also marks 9 years since Mohamed Harkat, a Canadian citizen, was arrested under a so-called security certificate. Harkat spend 43 months in jail and was eventually released under the harshest bail conditions in Canadian history. Today, he still wears a GPS device on his ankle, one of many restrictions on his movements.

Harkat now faces deportation to his native Algeria, where he will be at great risk for imprisonment, torture and death.

Harkat has never been charged with a specific crime and has never seen the evidence against him. Harkat came to Canada in 1995, and was granted refugee status in 1997. CSIS claims Harkat is part of a terrorist sleeper cell, an allegation supposedly based on secret evidence that Harkat and his legal defense team have never been allowed to see. Is that the kind of justice system we want in Canada?

Harkat's wife, Sophie Harkat, fights tirelessly to keep her husband's case alive, both in the public eye and for funds for expensive court appeals. If you can help the Harkats, your support will go directly to their defense fund, but beyond that, it will help Canada become the advanced, enlightened, liberal nation Canadians believe it to be, not a nation that can detain and deport a law-abiding citizen without charge.

Please visit Justice for Harkat. Read, learn, share, and if you can, donate. At a minimum, please sign the statement against security certificates.

* * * *

Speaking of indefinite detention, I assume you have all heard of the most recent US human rights travesty: The National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that calls for permanent concentration camps, a la Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The bill gives the president - any US president - the power to order the military to pick up and imprison anyone, without charge or trial, anywhere in the world, including within the US. There is no exclusion for US citizens. The bill was drafted in secret and passed in a closed-door committee, without even a single hearing. It was, of course, a bipartisan effort.

Obama has said he will veto it. We shall see.

If this doesn't qualify for "fascist shift," I don't know what does. One perspective and many good links here.

12.09.2011

tell the senate: don't rubber-stamp the harper crime bill

From Leadnow.ca:
On Monday, Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative MPs voted for the cruel Crime Bill. That night, the NDP, Liberal, Bloc and Green MPs stood together against the bill, and many of them were wearing “Safer, not meaner” buttons in solidarity with our campaign.

Now, the struggle for Canadian justice moves to the Senate. The Senate’s job is to provide a “sober second thought.” Senators are appointed for life, and free to make their own choices. They can review the evidence, change the bill, and force another vote.

Every day, opposition grows as Canadians learn more about the Crime Bill, but Prime Minister Harper is putting enormous pressure on Senators to rubber-stamp the bill quickly so it can pass before Christmas. There is only one thing that can balance the scales: a massive public outcry from Canadians like you, right now.

Click here to send an urgent message to the Senators that represent your province, asking them to rise above partisan politics, look at the evidence, and make Canada safer, not meaner:

Tell the Senate: Don't Rubber-Stamp the Crime Bill

Together, you are taking on the strongest force in Canadian politics: a newly elected government with a majority of seats working to pass a core plank of its election platform on a hot-button issue.

And, thanks to your messages to your representatives, your letters to the editor, your local actions, and your phone calls, we have helped shift the national conversation decisively against this bill in a way that no one thought possible just a few months ago.
Don't waste time fretting over "this can't work" and "it's too late". Just click and do what you can.

how can we live without polar bears? bbc's planet earth gets political


In October, I blogged about my impressions of the BBC nature series "Planet Earth". I loved the show, but criticized the producers for making it completely apolitical. There was not a single mention of habitat conservation, climate change or any human-caused environmental disruption, which struck me as a terrible missed opportunity.

We put down the series for a while (because we got addicted to "The Wire") and just returned to the final three episodes. Now I must retract my criticism and give the series the highest possible marks for its politics, both in form and content.

The last three episodes of the Planet Earth series are devoted to humans' impact on the environment, and the debate about what can and should be done about that. The strategy of putting all the environmental content at the end was very interesting and potentially very effective. Had each episode contained environmental messages, many viewers would have turned away. The narration might have become repetitive, plus the environmental content might have had less impact it it were dispersed throughout the series, focusing on one environmental risk at a time.

Instead, we are first mesmerized and awed by the beauty and majesty of nature, and the incredible diversity of our beautiful planet home. And then, after being introduced to nature in forms usually unseen by human eyes, we learn of the dire threats, and the precarious state of the earth. And we learn it all at once, with facts and statistics piled one on the next - boggling the mind, and depressing the heart.

We are also introduced to the debate about what should be done. We hear the viewpoints of the leaders of large mainstream environmental groups, radical indigenous environmentalists, energy industry spokespeople (now forced to admit that climate change is occurring... we just don't know if it's caused by humans), indigenous people who have been hurt by some conservation methods, and independent thinkers such as James Lovelock and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The program has a distinct point of view, but is never preachy.

Here are some excerpts from the final three episodes. I'll tell you this: it broke my heart. The first of the three episodes, especially, outlines the threats to species around the planet. I am loathe to say this, but for me it brought on a crushing sense of despair.

* * * *



Right now, the world is facing mass extinctions not experienced since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. All species of big cats, elephants, several species of antelope - all threatened. Amphibians worldwide are in freefall: thousands of species of frogs have disappeared in the last 20 years.

And of course, there is the polar bear, our symbol of climate change, of the loss of the polar ice cap. Our symbol of what the endless quest for consumption and materialism has wrought. The struggles of the polar bear are heartbreaking. In the only overtly political piece in the series (before these final episodes), Planet Earth included a segment showing a polar bear attacking giant walruses - huge, dangerous animals living in large defensive herds - on dry land. This is not normal polar bear behaviour. The bear does not survive: wounded, exhausted, it gives up, lying down near the walruses to die.

You are then shown the same area - the same latitude at the same time of year - 10 years earlier. It was a frozen sea. Polar bears were hunting normally - small seals living alone under the ice. If nothing changes, 35% of polar bears will be gone in the next 50 years.

I kept thinking, How can we live without the polar bear? How can we live in a world where we have killed off these creatures?

The BBC Planet Earth film crew was continually shocked at the rarity of so many species. Not only the number of species going extinct is rising, but the rate of extinction is accelerating. A very large proportion of wildlife species will be completely lost in next 50 years. One of four mammals and one of three amphibians is on the threatened list. Half of all rainforests, wetlands, and grasslands are gone. Entire habitats are being systematically eradicated.

The forest elephants of Asia were presumed to be safer than their African cousins, as they inhabit a remote area and live under dense cover. The Planet Earth team learned that this was simply untrue. These magnificent creatures were just as threatened by poaching; their remoteness and vast forest cover made almost no difference to their vulnerability.

Poaching - especially hunting for an external luxury market, rather than a local consumptive market - can wipe out a species population in as little as 20 years.

In the Amazon River, freshwater dolphins were thought to be nearly eternal. A new market for catfish opened up in Colombia; the dolphins are killed for bait. Now these dolphins are threatened.

Fifteen years ago, filming another series, BBC film crews saw mass migrations of Saiga antelopes on the steppes of Central Asia - herds in the millions. When they returned there to film Planet Earth, there were only a few hundred animals left. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the opening of the border with China opened up new markets. Some antelope were hunted for meat, but most were slaughtered for their horns, which are used in Chinese medicine. Poachers reduced millions to nearly nothing within the span of 15 years.

* * * *


The question is posed: Why do we need frogs? Why should we care if a species of insects or coral is killed off?

The late Professor Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist, the founder of The Greenbelt Movement, who died a few months ago, answered the question this way.
The whole planet Earth is a system. And we, human species, are only part, a very small part, of the system. There are literally millions of species out there. We may not know them. We may not know their value, but we want to conserve them.

We should have a lot respect for the system, for the natural system, for the biodiversity. Don't worry if you don't know what good they are for. You didn't create it, so you don't know what it is for. Just let it be. Because, who knows, someday, down the road, our future generations might find that they can survive because of that aspect of biodiversity.
Several people weigh in on why we should conserve biodiversity, from the blatantly economic to the purely ethical.

There is much discussion of how conservation efforts must be locally directed, supported and sustained in order to succeed, and whether large Western conservation groups care more for animals than for the people in any region. Someone asks, is it good to invest in animals when people are starving? E. O. Wilson says, "You bet your life." He details why saving wildlife is an important investment, one that yields benefits on so many levels. Then finally, he concludes:
The expenditure of a few thousand, even a few million, if it can bring a species through, it has so much to give us, if we can keep it alive, in every sphere of human consciousness - the aesthetic, scientific, in relation to the environment. Yeah, that's a very good investment. It's sure a better investment than conducting wars.
I thought, There. At last someone says it.

Jeffrey A. McNeeley, Chief Scientist with the World Conservation Union, says:
If you look at the amount of money that we were able to generate for all kinds of other things, like invading Iraq, for example. Now what does that cost? What tiny proportion of that would it take to ensure that those species do in fact survive? Minuscule.
There is much discussion about humans being moved to save big, beautiful mammals, yet the bulk of life on earth exists as "bugs and weeds", the tiny organisms that keep the planet going - which are also facing mass extinctions. James Leape of the World Wildlife Federation says:
Think in terms of a brick wall. We are systematically knocking out bricks. Sooner or later, the wall collapses.
I have serious problems with WWF, ever since they partnered with McDonald's. Later in the program, Leape defends trophy hunting, because it promotes ecotourism. I could barely watch. But Leape does offer some important insights in this program, and WWF has done some excellent work.

We need the frogs and weeds, no doubt. But the large, beautiful mammals are what capture our imaginations. Without that appeal to the public, the movement is lost. Robert May talks about how this can be used to save an area, a conservation "hot spot", where saving one area saves several species.

* * * *


We hear that the only solutions that will work in the long term are the ones that come from within. In Ethiopia, after the iconic Walia Ibex was down to only 150 survivors, a national campaign was launched to save them. They have quadrupled in numbers. 600 animals is not many, but they are coming back.

The wild dogs of Africa were severely threatened by diseases, which they contracted from contact with domestic dogs. The people of the nearby communities keep domestic dogs and value them, but cannot afford to vaccinate them. When a conservation program offered to vaccinate the village dogs at no cost, the local people were very happy, as their community would be safe from rabies and other dangerous diseases, plus a safer environment increases tourism. The wild dog population began to rebound.

In one strange segment, someone from the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans talks about the zoo's program to save animal DNA in order to later clone them... so we can populate another planet. It's possible the BBC producers kept this bit - without comment - as a form of ridicule. The zoo spokesperson says cloning "is using human ingenuity to save a species. Something's going to have to be done." I have an idea. How about we save the earth we have right now, before we begin trashing another planet?

* * * *

In these three episodes, no one ever utters the word "capitalism," but a few people do describe the profit motive as the biggest threat to the planet.

In the segment on population, one expert says, "The bigger threat is growth in our economy and the way we use our wealth." Someone else says that citing over-population - usually conceived as being too many people in Africa and India - is a way of saying, "It's not about us."

Considering 5% of the world's population consumes 35% of its resources, and half the world's population lives on two dollars a day, blaming population growth for environmental problems does not stand up to scrutiny. Anyway, if we want to reduce population growth, we already know how: educate girls and women, and give people access to free, safe contraceptive and free, safe, legal abortion. Meanwhile, the first world with its zero or negative population growth continues to consume and trash the Earth.

Robert Watson, Chief Scientist of the World Bank, says (emphasis mine):
It's not simply an issue of the number of people - it's the number of people and to what degree those people can buy biological resources, energy resources, use water, and so forth. The bigger threat is growth in economy and the way we use our wealth. It's how we live on the planet, not just our numbers. If we all lived on this planet the way Americans live, we would need three planets to support the current population.
* * * *

There was a lengthy segment on the economic value of conservation, and programs that attempt to make it more valuable to preserve land than to destroy it. Several successful programs are highlighted, including ecotourism in Kenya and the government of Costa Rica paying farmers to let land return to forest. It's a viable strategy in some areas, but capitalism is all about short-term gain, and in many situations, it's way more profitable to destroy or deplete an area with extraction than to preserve it. Yes, there is great economic value in bees pollinating plants, trees keeping a water system functioning, plants keeping our air clean. But the people who profit from environmental destruction are not driven by a concern for clean drinking water.

* * * *

In the excellent segment on climate change, in which we meet indigenous people and others who live close to nature, like farmers and ranchers, who see the effects of climate change on a daily basis. The Planet Earth team was in Antarctica ten years earlier. Now it is warmer, greener. David Attenborough:
It was perfectly responsible 20 years ago to be a climate change skeptic, but not anymore. Powerful economic forces are at work, industries that are concerned that action on climate change may be to their disadvantage. So in the end, it's not that surprising that some still voice doubts.
* * * *

Roger Payne, the first person to record the songs of humpback whales, is interviewed. Humans hearing whale songs for the first time was a watershed in the environmental movement. Like Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring, Payne's whale recordings led to a shift in consciousness. Payne says that people think whales are safe, because of the international moratorium on whaling. But they are not. They are being slaughtered at sea. They are also being poisoned, as the female whale's breast milk is the equivalent of toxic sludge, because the plankton and krill she feeds on is poisoned. Payne says, "I'm seeing my life's work being undone in front of my eyes, and it's a horrible thing to see."

* * * *

What about "sustainable development"?

A mainstream environmentalist says it's the most exciting thing to happen to the movement in decades. It's what we're all working for. It's the way forward.

An government shill for the oil industry says it's a sham. He says environmentalists talk about sustainable development, but they want no development. "So-called environmentalists want to leave the people of developing nations in the energy dark ages, so they can't advance as a people." He's a half-step away from calling "those people" backwards darkies. So the oil industry is actually doing missionary work!

Wangari Maatha says:
Sustainable development must mean that we develop in a way that we can thrive on this continent [i.e., Africa]. Africans have thrived on this continent for very many years - without airplanes, without trains, without skyscrapers. Without all the modern development that we think, when we look at the West, that's what development means. To me, development means staying alive. Having a quality of life. Not so much a life that is surrounded by goods, things. But a life where you can live in a clean and healthy environment.
James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, says:
There is no such thing as sustainable development. It's a contradiction in terms. What we need now is a sustainable retreat from the mess that we're now in. Solutions like renewable energy are not really solutions. Perhaps 100 years ago, that would have been fine. But it's much, much too late now.
David Attenborough, the series narrator, counsels that what's needed is
for humans to change their view, to know that gross materialism and the pursuit of material wealth is not the only thing in life.
Former UK MP Clare Short, who resigned from Parliament in protest of the invasion of Iraq, says:
It is impossible and unacceptable, and won't work, to say to the poor of China and India, you can't have what we've got. So the only way that we can get a deal with the people of the world to preserve human civilization is to say, It's not any longer going to be economic growth for economic growth's sake, but a more equitable world, where everyone has the basic things that human beings need, and then we cease to find the meaning of life out of more economic growth and more and more consumption. Because in our kind of society, where that's what's happening, it's not only plundering the world and unsustainable, it's making people miserable.
* * * *

Of course the producers of Planet Earth try to end the series on a hopeful note. After watching these three episodes, I felt anything but hopeful.

To me it's clear that there is no such thing as sustainable development, not as development is presently conceived. Capitalism is wholly incompatible with a healthy Earth and, at this point, with the continuation of life on Earth.

There is only one way forward. We have to share the resources of the planet so we can all live. Not to help the world's poor become the world's consumers. Rather, a different system where we all have enough. Many of us would have much less. Many more would simply have enough.

12.07.2011

what i'm reading: the information, by james gleick

I've started reading a book that I cannot put down: James Gleick's The Information.

The book's full title is The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, and it is indeed a book of many intentions: a history of communication and information technology, a history of information theory, a historical perspective on our own information age, and predictions on where that age is going. It's a complex and multifarious book, and to spare myself the challenge of writing it about for you, I'm going to cop out and link to people who have already done so. Here are reviews in The Guardian and The Globe and Mail.

The New York Times reviewer has the same problem I do: this book is really difficult to write about.
“The Information” offers this point-blank characterization of its author: “James Gleick is our leading chronicler of science and modern technology.” This new book goes far beyond the earlier Gleick milestones, “Chaos” and “Genius,” to validate that claim.

“The Information” is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly. Imagine luxuriating on a Wi-Fi-equipped desert island with Mr. Gleick’s book, a search engine and no distractions. “The Information” is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.

In this relaxed setting, take the time to differentiate among the Brownian (motion), Bodleian (library) and Boolean (logic) while following Mr. Gleick’s version of what Einstein called “spukhafte Fernwirkung,” or “spooky action at a distance.” Einstein wasn’t precise about what this meant, and Mr. Gleick isn’t always precise either. His ambitions for this book are diffuse and far flung, to the point where providing a thumbnail description of “The Information” is impossible.
I've just been reading about a few people and things I encountered in my first semester of iSchool, in those dreadful "information and society" lectures: course: Ada Lovelace, a mathematical genius, the biological child of the poet Lord Byron, and the first programmer, from the time when a "computer" was a person who added up numbers; the Jacquard Loom, a mechanical loom that was a proto-computer, the pattern of an weave determined by punchcards; and the visionary Charles Babbage, a man so far ahead of his time that he said he would exchange all his remaining years to live only three more days, five centuries in the future. Babbage was trying to construct a true computer in the Victorian age - steam-powered, running on wheels and cogs.

So far, though, I must disagree with the Times writer's assessment that readers need "the mettle to tackle" this book. That is, unless The Information is subject to what I think of as The Hawking Effect. Years and years ago, I tried reading A Brief History of Time, deciding I could handle the science if I read slowly and carefully enough. Concept A. OK, got it. Concept B, I'm still with you, Stephen. Concept B is followed by... Concept F. Hmm, that was a bit of a leap, but I think I'm OK. Concept F is followed by Concept QZW4t589TZZXpft. I'm gone. Can't understand another thing. Although that book, supposedly, was meant to be understood by people without a hard science background, it was beyond me.

But if Gleick continues walking the reader through math and engineering concepts with elegant analogies and well-chosen quotes, I'll read every word of this 425-page book. Because where else will I read about cuneform tablets, the first dictionary, the effect of the internet on lexicographers, the talking drums of Africa (the world's first technology for complex long-distance communication), and how language contributes to the formation of consciousness, all in the first 50 pages?

I used to be an avid reader of Gleick's "Fast Forward" column in the New York Times, where he helped me understand the case against Microsoft. I remember him as the first writer (that I knew of, anyway) to understand the value of the simple URL: he still lives at around.com.

While writing this post, I checked out Gleick's website for the first time in years, and who do I see staring me in the face but my friend Samuel Pepys! Gleick reads Pepys Diary online, as I do. He is also a union man (my words, not his), on the board of the Author's Guild, and has been known to stand up publicly for the rights of writers.

I have not read Gleick's best-known book Chaos, although I might one day, and I tried but couldn't get into Faster. So far The Information feels like a must-read. OK Gleick, don't pull a Hawking on me.