Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, July 31, 2005


Over at Tilting at Windmills, Ian talks about the recent Canadian cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's desire to have outspoken marijuana activist Marc Emery arrested and (eventually they hope) extradited to the U.S., and puts it in the context of Canada's place in the world, and how the time has come to wean ourselves off being dependent on the U.S. for our well-being. Definitely worth reading.

I see that he cross-posted it to the e-group so it might get more comments there. Pogge has also linked to it as well (so it's not just me who thinks it's worth a read).

Update: As an aside, James Burns' post at the e-group has some more commentary on the Marc Emery case.

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It's the Same Old Tune?

There seems to be quite the media blitz going on for the movie version of 'The Dukes of Hazzard'. With it's release, I guess Jessica Simpson will then have to be considered a music star, a TV star, and a movie star.

Maybe it's snobbish to suggest that different routes to becoming successful have a different moral value and some are thus better than others, or that some people are more deserving of fame and recognition than others, but, looking at Simpson's body of work, I think it's fair to say that I don't think Waylon done it that way.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Electoral Reform Plan to be Tabled

From the green party website I see that B.C. Green Party leader Adriane Carr met with Premier Gordon Campbell who reportedly said that
"he will be publicly tabling a plan in late August or early September of this year to pursue electoral reform."

Sounds good to me - it will be interesting to see what he comes up with - hopefully something which acknowledges that STV got a much higher percentage of votes than he or his majority government Liberal party did in the last election.

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Good News From the 'War on Terror'

In Northern Ireland that is, not Iraq.

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10,000 Villlages / Story Hour at CAtO

While there's no doubt that I'm missing Timmy's blogging these days, at least Princess Monkey has been doing a great job filling in for him at Voice in the Wilderness. I enjoyed her recent snapshot of street life, involving the kind of situation most of us have probably encountered more than once - especially if we live in a city. And after my criticisms of the Maclean's article on Wal-Mart the other day, she posted a much more constructive response, which talked about 10,000 Villages - a chain of stores which I highly recommend and which was founded for the purpose of doing 'fair' trade and trying to improve the lives of the people whose goods are sold in the store (for more info, follow the link).

In honour of that post, I'm going to leave aside the politics today and just tell a somewhat humourous personal story involving me, my girlfriend and Ten Thousand Villages. It doesn't really have a point, or a moral, it's just a little story1.

The story takes place in Victoria, in the weeks before Christmas, sometime after the turn of the millennium. Me and my girlfriend (let's call her B for the sake of this story) were in the 10,000 villages store in the Broadmead Mall for the second time in a couple of weeks and B was looking for a gift for a friend. B was taking her time and was also pausing frequently to look at a brightly coloured set of matching scarf, hat and mittens from Peru. I was getting restless, as I tend to do in any store which doesn't sell books, and was passing time at the listening station, enjoying a Putamayo 'Mississippi Blues' CD. B found a gift for her friend, but, after agonizing over it for a while, passed on buying the scarf, figuring it was too expensive or maybe impractical since she already had winter clothes.

Being the observant boyfriend that I am (good thing B doesn't read this blog - or that line would have either made her laugh or gotten her angry - depending on what things I haven't been noticing lately :) I found time in the next week or so to sneak off to the store and buy the scarf and hat (the mittens were the wrong size) as a surprise Christmas present.

This was the point at which things started to go wrong. It was a few days later and we were headed out shopping to buy something or other (groceries perhaps). Then B says, 'We have to stop at 10,000 thousand villages because I've decided I'm going to buy that scarf after all'. It's true that I'm not all that observant, but I have learned to recognize a certain tone in B's voice, a tone that tells me that a decision has been made and nothing short of all out warfare is going to change it. I may have made some token effort to dissuade her (I don't recall) but if I did, it certainly didn't work. The situation clearly called for desperate measures. As we headed out the door, I feigned having to go the bathroom and darted back inside, surreptitiously grabbing the cordless phone and the phone book, locked myself into the bathroom, turned on the tap for a little background cover noise and called the store.

The lady who answered the phone (probably a volunteer) patiently listened as I explained my predicament. Somewhat to my surprise, she was even agreeable to my request that she take the scarf and hat off the shelves and hide them for the duration of our visit. I mentioned to the lady that B, having decided to buy the scarf, was likely to be quite persistent, so she wasn't likely to be deterred by a simple empty shelf. The lady assured that me she could handle it.

20 minutes later we arrived at the store and, sure enough, there wasn't a brightly coloured Peruvian hat or scarf to be seen. I had given the salesperson a description of me and B and she spotted us right off and was lurking helpfully nearby when B went looking for answers.

'No I'm sorry we're sold out of that item'

'Yes, I know we had some of them just the other day, but they were quite popular and they sold quickly.'

'Well, I could order it, but I think even the warehouse is out of stock so we'd have to wait and see if they're getting another shipment in'.

'No I don't think the other store [there are two 10,000 villages stores in Victoria] has any either - I'm sorry.'

It was a virtuoso performance which left B frustrated, but scarfless. I silently mouthed a thank-you to the salesperson, but I felt that I should buy something as a thank-you, especially since having the scarf and hat off the shelves for the half-hour or so could conceivably have cost the store a sale. So I decided to buy the Mississippi Blues album. B told me it probably wasn't any good and that it was a waste of money but I figured she was just cranky about the scarf, plus I couldn't tell her my real reason for buying it, so I just went ahead and bought it anyway over her protests.

We got about 10 steps out of the store, and I was breathing a huge sigh of relief at having been successful with the scarf deception when B confronted me. 'Why did you have go and buy that CD', she asked, 'you shouldn't buy things for yourself this close to Christmas.' It turned out that B, having seen me listening to the CD on our previous visit, had gone out and bought me a copy as a surprise Christmas present! She was pretty annoyed that I had gone ahead and bought a copy of my own, so we turned around and went back into the store to return the CD.

We were about two steps back into the store, when I suddenly froze. Thinking we had left, the salesperson had probably put the hat and scarf back on the shelf (which was located prominently in the center of the store). I looked over and, sure enough, there they were in all their brightly coloured - and hard to miss - glory.

'What's wrong?', B asked.
'Nothing', I replied, trying to keep my voice light, while simultaneously trying to subtly maneuver myself between B and the shelf with the scarf. She looked a little skeptical, but I made some excuse and hurried her to the counter to get our refund. It was a nervous couple of minutes, but I managed to stay between B and the shelf and get her out of the store without her seeing the scarf.

Needless to say, it was hard to hold my tongue when B gave me a hard time about buying the CD, but it was all worth it on Christmas day, when she opened the present and I could see how happy (and surprised) she was to get the scarf and the hat.

The End.

1 I've been listening to the brilliant CD, 'A Grand Don't Come for Free' by The Streets lately, a CD which documents a few fairly routine days in the life of a typical English 'lad', so perhaps this explains, at least in part, why I felt like people might actually be interested in hearing about the random details of my life.

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Was That a Cover Story or an Advertisement?

Back in January, commenter Spearin tipped me off that Ken Whyte, formerly of the much-loved National Post, might be taking over Maclean's and that the quality of the magazine (such it was) might suffer. Well it looks like Spearin was right on both counts. Via Bound by Gravity, I came across last week's Maclean's cover story, a thinly disguised love letter to Wal-Mart written by Steve Maich.

Regular readers know how I hate it when the mainstream media fails to provide links to the studies they quote, so when I read the following passages in the article:
"In 2002, Ryerson University completed the first major study on the company's impact on nearby small retailers, and found the opening of a new outlet is generally an economic boon for the whole area -- attracting other retailers and driving up sales at nearby stores."

"A 2004 Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce survey of more than 1,800 small-business owners across Canada found that just 16 per cent of respondents said they had been hurt by competition from big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. Five per cent said the big boxes had actually helped them, while the vast majority claimed little or no impact."

I went looking for the studies in question to see what they said for myself. But what I found was this:
A Wal-Mart 'talking points memo' from 2004 which states:
"In June 2002 Ryerson University published an independent study examining Wal-Mart's economic impact on Canadian communities. The study, "The Economic Impact of Wal-Mart Stores," covered a five-year period and concluded -- after extensive analysis -- that Wal-Mart has not put other retailers out of business and in many cases has increased sales at neighbouring merchants across Canada."

"As further evidence, in October 2004 a nationwide survey of close to 2,000 Canadian small-business owners found that the majority of small businesses in Canada are not negatively impacted by large stores like Wal-Mart. The survey was commissioned by CIBC and conducted by Decima Research. Key findings were as follows: 53% of Canadian small businesses said they do not compete with big box stores like Wal-Mart; 26% said big box stores have no impact on their business; 5% said big box stores like Wal-Mart actually have a positive impact on their business, and only 16% said big box stores have a negative impact on their business."

Sound familiar? Keep in mind that this is the cover story of our 'national magazine' here. I mean, if you're going to paraphrase chunks of someone else's work without acknowledging the source, it should at least be by somebody good like Richard Russo or something, cribbing from a Wal-Mart press release is just sad.

This is certainly the worst, but there's more. Further down we get this:
"The various campaigns to paint Wal-Mart as an avaricious and abusive employer simply don't hold up to scrutiny, says Elisa Sumanski, a legal analyst with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a Virginia-based group that represents workers in disputes with their unions, and which has received grants from Wal-Mart's founding Walton family. "We think it's really pretty simple -- if Wal-Mart is such a terrible place to work, then why are so many thousands of people so eager to work there?" she says."

True, Maich acknowledges the funding by Wal-Mart but he doesn't really give us a clear picture of what the 'National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation' really is, which is a right-wing operation funded (by big money right wing foundations such as the Coors family's Castle Rock foundation and of course the Waltons) for the express purpose of fighting unions in court. The article treats this quote as if it was an independent legal analysis rather than coming from an organization that's about as partisan as it's possible to be.

The consistent bias in the article (not to mention bad writing) can be seen in the characterizations of the people mentioned. Here are the descriptions of those who oppose Wal-Mart:

"Andy Grossman, however, doesn't buy any of that. Grossman is executive director of Wal-Mart Watch, a lobbying and publicity organization [note how this description wasn't applied to the 'Right to Work' crowd] that coordinates the efforts of several anti-Wal-Mart groups." ...

"This is a societal fight," Grossman explains. "Wal-Mart is a symbol, because they're so good at what they do, others have to emulate them. This company's reach is so broad, we need to change the relationship between it and the communities it seeks to do business in, otherwise it's going to continue to destroy our societies."

For Grossman, those are the stakes: social destruction. Never mind that most of the research refutes this view. Never mind that millions more consumers vote with their feet and their wallets every year, opting for the financial freedom Wal-Mart affords. The point is that Grossman, and thousands of others, believe with near-religious zeal that Wal-Mart is dangerous. And the war drags on."


"Tom Robertson is a guy who wears his passions on his sleeve.

Sitting in his wood-panelled office near downtown Cleveland, the head of the northern Ohio chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union lays out his objections to Cleveland's proposed Wal-Mart, but he finds it hard to contain his contempt."


"Shortly after, Wal-Mart received its second B.C. rejection in a week, this time when the town council of the Vancouver Island city of Campbell River voted 7-0 against a rezoning application that would have paved the way for the retailer. More than 300 people spoke against Wal-Mart during three days of hearings, most saying the proposed riverside site should be used for a park. Pushing the development was the Campbell River Indian Band, which was hoping to buy the parcel of land from a logging company and had applied to have its status changed. After being turned down, some band members said racism had played a part in the rejection."

Compare to the descriptions of those who support Wal-Mart:

"To Carol Foote, it [the war against Wal-Mart] just didn't make sense."

"As far as Bruce Bartlett is concerned, people who hate Wal-Mart don't understand it."

"So, last year, when Bruce Bartlett saw opponents in his own city of Washington defeat plans for a Wal-Mart, he shook his head."

"Back in Cleveland, Chris Ronayne is still a little baffled by the whole controversy."

"The company, as always, puts a positive spin on things. Pelletier says all the scrutiny will only make Wal-Mart stronger and more responsive. He says it will keep listening to the complaints, and acting to address what it can. But the one thing that will not change is Sam Walton's admonition to put the customer first, always."

So it's pretty clear isn't it, the people opposing Wal-Mart are passionate to the point of having a religious zeal, maybe a little crazy, maybe a little racist. But meanwhile regular folks just plain don't understand what the g'all darn fuss is all about, they just want to put the customer first and what could be wrong with that?

Here's another humourous bit:

"From Los Angeles to the Saguenay, from Hartford, Conn., to Vancouver, a broad array of activist groups and unions have launched protests, lawsuits and ad campaigns, all aimed at discrediting Wal-Mart, halting its growth, and unionizing its workforce.

Like most wars, it's about money and power, and the first casualty is truth. Because even after all the scrutiny and analysis of the Wal-Mart phenomenon, most of what we've been told -- about worker abuse, destroyed small-town economies, crushed suppliers and greedy management -- is wrong."

Yeah, the first casualty of war is truth. Brilliant. But only on one side of the war of course. Wal-Mart is so honest you can reprint their press releases practically verbatim without even adding any context!


All right, I think you've figured out my opinion on how the article was written, but that doesn't get at the substance of the argument. After all, just because the writing is biased doesn't mean it's wrong.

let's consider the Ryerson study (it can be found here, but you have to pay $40 to read it): Says Maich:
"In 2002, Ryerson University completed the first major study on the company's impact on nearby small retailers, and found the opening of a new outlet is generally an economic boon for the whole area -- attracting other retailers and driving up sales at nearby stores. In metropolitan areas, a new Wal-Mart was generally followed by an increase of $56.8 million in local sales, and the opening of 12.9 new stores. In rural areas, the commercial boost was $74.1 million and 16.7 new stores on average. Meanwhile, economic growth in areas with Wal-Mart stores far outpaced growth in places without them. The final line of the study said it all: "It is difficult to make the case that a Wal-Mart store actually puts other retailers out of business."

Maybe somebody can explain this to me. Wal-Mart is a retailer. People have a certain amount of money in an area and they spend some percentage of it on retail goods. How could having a Wal-Mart store in an area increase the total amount which people have available to spend on retail goods? If anything, by giving people the same goods for fewer dollars you would expect Wal-Mart to decrease total sales.

I haven't read the study so I don't know their methodology at all, but perhaps Maich himself provides the answer. He discusses bringing a Wal-Mart to Miramichi:

"To Carol Foote, it just didn't make sense. It was near the end of the summer of 2000, and most of her neighbours in Miramichi, N.B., were planning to drive to Moncton, an hour and a half away, to buy school supplies for their kids at Wal-Mart. Foote knew that many in town already made regular trips there to buy household goods, clothes and electronics. And she knew every carload took more money from the local economy. But the prices, they said, were just too good to pass up."

"Foote heard lots of grousing about Wal-Mart, but when she looks at what it has brought to her town, she has no regrets. "We weren't trying to hurt our city, we just wanted it to grow," she says. "The stores here charged so much, people had to go to Moncton. And when they did, they'd buy their fuel there, they'd eat there. All our money was leaving town. I thought, 'This has got to stop.'"

So we can see what happened. Wal-Mart (and other big box retailers) opened stores with low prices in Moncton. The people from Miramichi, who used to shop in Miramichi, now started making the drive to Moncton for the lower prices, driving the local Miramichi businesses under and depressing the local economy. But in the study, the new Wal-Mart in Moncton is generating new sales and the opening of new stores - in Moncton.

Faced with the prospect of all its citizens shopping out of town, Miramichi now has no choice (if it wants people to shop locally) but to bring in its own big box stores. The people who used to drive to Moncton now shop in Miramichi and the study shows an increase in sales and stores around Miramichi after the Wal-Mart opens!

But nothing really has changed except that the old inefficient retailers have been driven under by the Wal-Mart, which is what the study was purporting to disprove. It's not the area right around the Wal-Mart which suffers, it's the outlying areas that people drive to Wal-Mart from.

How about this Wal-Mart talking point:
"That [Ryerson] study confirmed what Wal-Mart had long claimed: that its stores are economic generators, not predators. And, it seems, even small-business owners are coming around to that view. A 2004 Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce survey of more than 1,800 small-business owners across Canada found that just 16 per cent of respondents said they had been hurt by competition from big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. Five per cent said the big boxes had actually helped them, while the vast majority claimed little or no impact."

It's a nice spin to say that a study which shows that 1 in 7 small businesses have been hurt by Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers means that small businesses are coming around to the view that Wal-Mart stores are not predators. I mean what percentage of small business are in competition with Wal-Mart (i.e. what percentage are non-specialty retailers)? Do they account for half of all small business - even then we're talking almost 1 in 3 being hurt. I can't find this survey online either but who knows what kind of response rate they got or what kind of adverse selection there might have been. Keep in mind that as a study chosen by Wal-Mart for it's press release it's probably the single most favourable result on the question which has ever been obtained. At this point, it's not looking like such great news.

As for the argument that conditions working at Wal-Mart must be great because there are always lots of people willing to work there, that's a great, flexible argument which could be used to justify the conditions that the Chinese imported to help build the railway worked under or the conditions miners have dealt with for most of the history of the profession or even to justify child labour. We're talking unskilled labour here, and if you can show me a society where demand for unskilled labour is running ahead of supply I can show you a society where the central bankers are driving up interest rates to put people out of work because they are worried about inflation (urged on by the same people who will tell you that they support Wal-Mart for the sake of the poor of course).

Another funny paragraph:
"Even in Canada, where the health care issue is largely moot, it would still be difficult to raise a family on an associate's wage. But very few are in that position. While the majority of Wal-Mart employees work full time, the company also employs many students, seniors and people collecting a second income. And Wal-Mart says only seven per cent of its staff are supporting a family."

Given that it would be 'difficult' to raise a family on these wages (i.e. your children might go to bed hungry every night, to put it a little less euphemistically) perhaps it is not surprising that people aren't doing it! I'd say the spread of jobs which pay too little to allow someone to keep their children above the poverty line does more damage to the family than gay marriage could do in a 1,000 years but that's just my opinion.


You know what the funny part is - I don't even really have all that much against Wal-Mart. As I see it, there are three ways (for the purposes of this discussion) that a business can compete. The first, is in ways which benefit both the company and society. Wal-Mart's famed drive for efficiency, it's unwillingness to waste money on a fancy head office or management perks, it's sophisticated inventory management systems and so on fall into this category and they are rightly deserving of praise.

The second is ways which society allows as fair play, but which don't really contribute to society. Paying workers less is one example of this. If I think that society is better off when I pay less for something because the person ringing it up at the till is making a lower wage, I'm kidding myself. This is a zero sum game. Similarly, the price at Wal-Mart might be lower because the externalized costs of all the pollution involved in shipping stuff over from China and having individual customers each drive 100km in their SUV's and trucks to pick it up aren't included in the sticker price. Wal-Mart's better off but society isn't.

Now, like I said, this is fair play and it's not Wal-Mart's job (in my opinion) to set minimum wage rules or apply carbon taxes, so I have no significant beef with them here either.

The third category is competing in ways which are harmful to society and hence illegal. Blowing up your competition's warehouses falls into this category. Some of Wal-Mart's actions fall into the grey area between the second and third categories. For example, their recent decision to shut down a store rather than negotiate with a union. If Wal-Mart really does have any competitive advantage besides low wages, it should be able to pay similar wages as its competition without having its stores become unprofitable like it claimed. This decision was a violation of the understanding in our society that workers have the right to form a union. Much in the same way that a company is not allowed to sell products at a loss to drive its competitors out of business, it's not really considered fair play to close a profitable store to drive a union out of business.

Some might argue that Wal-Mart's low wages, which force workers to effectively rely on the state for subsidization in some jurisdictions (and which make supporting a family all but impossible), border on immoral behavior. Not enough to have laws passed against it, but enough that some people might choose not to shop there.

Aside from economic concerns, there are other issues. A new Wal-Mart might bring traffic problems, noise problems and all the other hazards which make getting a big anything built in a city pretty tough. Sure, Vancouver turned down an environmentally friendly proposal for a Wal-Mart store, they almost turned down building a transit line with a billion dollars being contributed by sources from outside the city!

Another factor to consider is that some small businesses will suffer. No matter what a study might try to show, the simple fact is that people buy stuff at Wal-Mart that they would have bought elsewhere. Even a big box, former 'category killer' store like Toys 'R Us (which itself drove many small independent stores under) is blaming Wal-Mart for it's demise. And there's no doubt that Wal-Mart is more efficient than these old independent stores, but there's also no doubt that something is lost when old family business are shut down and people go from being independent proprietors to low paid wage labour forced to endure lectures on how often they need to smile to keep the all important customers happy.

Efficiency and low prices generally win out in our society and rightly so, but it is not irrational to weigh it against what gets lost in the process.

Anyway, perhaps I am asking too much, but I would have thought that if our national magazine was going to do a cover story on Wal-Mart, it could really do the story right. Consider all sides fairly and with sympathy for what they are trying to accomplish and look into the complex economic and social questions raised by the spread of Wal-Mart.

Instead we get an ideological diatribe where Wal-Mart is the noble, cheerful, energetic, saviour and defender of the poor and it's opponents are selfish, desperate , incomprehensible people who walk all over the poor in their 'war' against Wal-Mart. It's not a true picture, it's not an enlightening picture and it's not a fair picture. Maclean's readers deserve better.

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Telus Branching Out into Censorship

For the last little while, this blog has been the number one result of a google search for 'Telus Blog' (only 'Ocean Sex' brings more searchers my way) so I feel obligated to help my readers keep up with the latest Telus news1.

Now, regular readers will know that I'm not a big fan of Telus, but my biggest beef with them has been their terrible customer service. Via The Coast of Bohemia2, I see that Telus has moved beyond just providing bad service to actively preventing their internet customers from viewing certain sites - sites which, not coincidentally, portray Telus in a bad light in it's ongoing labour dispute (in which Telus has already been found by the courts to be bargaining in bad faith a number of times).

Poor service is one thing, but censorship is a whole other level. I'm glad I've already switched away from Telus for all services. Even if you don't find their actions offensive, you have to wonder how well managed a company that would do something this stupid is - the future isn't looking too friendly for Telus these days, through nobody's fault but their own.

1 I was going to add, 'especially when it's bad news' but news about Telus always seems to be bad news so I figured that would be redundant.

2 If you need to see the story in a 'reputable' media source to believe it, see here for the CBC take.


Sunday, July 24, 2005


Laziness doesn't get much respect in our society, but it seems undeniable (to me, anyway) that it has given birth to many more inventions than glory hogging necessity ever did. At any rate, in their efforts to accommodate lazy readers, both Andrew (of Bound by Gravity fame) and Jay Currie (of, uh, Jay Currie notoriety) have developed aggregation tools which allow the lazy reader to read multiple blog posts on the same topic from different Canadian bloggers.

Andrew's is open to all to submit whatever posts of theirs (or others I suppose) that they think are relevant/interesting, while Jay's picks up posts automatically from a predetermined list of blogs. Both are works in progress at this point (but isn't everything, really?). I'd tell you more, but laziness compels me to avoid reposting the wheel, and instead direct you to Mark (of Section 15 prominence - thanks Mr. Thesaurus) who did a great introductory post on CanConv (Andrew's creation) which then generated discussion of Jay's in the comments.

Note: For the time being, I have added links the aggregators in the dropdown box formerly known as 'Blogging Alliance HQs', now renamed 'Blog Aggregators and Alliances' - they may get reclassified in the future (we'll see how it goes).

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Friday, July 22, 2005

Leafs Strategy Session for Upcoming Season

So the list of rule changes for the upcoming NHL season has been posted.

There will be no more ties as all games which are tied after regulation will go to overtime and then a shootout which will go on as long as necessary to force a winner. A team which loses in overtime or a shootout still gets a single point.

So here's my proposed strategy for the Leafs this year. At the beginning of the game get together with the coach of the other team before the puck drops and agree to tie the game (through regulation). Of course, it may be necessary to make some pretense of playing for the purpose of entertaining the fans. In fact the two teams could play an entertaining wide open game subject to the unspoken rule that if one team gets ahead by 2 then they have to let the other team score. With 5 to 10 minutes left the game should be tied up and then the remaining 5 minutes played out with no effort to score by either team. Once regulation is over, the two teams can play a first-goal-wins game, safe in the knowledge that the 'loser' will get a point.

Assuming that the outcome of a short overtime followed by a shootout is pretty much random, a team following this strategy would expect to win half its games and get one point in the rest making for a total of 123 points (41 wins and 41 ties/one point losses). In the last NHL season, Detroit was first with 109 points. Assuming that they would have won 6 of their 11 ties that year in shootouts, they would have got 115 points under the new scheme.

So the Leafs can be expected to place first overall with this strategy despite only winning half their games. Failing getting agreement from the opposition to play to a draw on purpose, the best way to implement this strategy would be to play an extremely defensive, hyper-obstructionist game which forces as many low scoring games (and hence ties after regulation) as possible.

Even if they only manage to force 41 low scoring tie games, they should get 62 points from those 41 games. Based on the 2003-4 standings and adjusting for the new no-tie regime, a team will likely need about 96 points to make the (still 16 teams for this year) playoffs. So in the 41 games not tied, the Leafs would only need 34 points, or a record of 17-24.

Now imagine if the Leafs run and gun and only end up tying (after regulation) 10 games. These 10 games would give them 15 points (5 two point wins 5 one point 'losses') and they would need to get 81 points from the remaining 71 games, which would require a record of 41-30.

So a record (through regulation) of 17W, 24L 41T is equivalent to a record (through regulation) of 41W, 30L, 10T. In other words - you don't need to win, just don't get beat. Certainly if a game is tied in the third period, you might hope that both teams could just ease up and wait until OT/shootout to decide things.

So congratulations to the NHL brain-rust who've decided to walk all over the beauty and simplicity of the game with shootouts and goalie trap zones and 2 line passes in their quest for more offense (and more money) while simultaneously (and presumably without even realizing it?) bringing in changes which will reward defense far more than offense.

Maybe some day in the future the league will have repealed some of the dumb rule changes and kept some of the smarter ones (smaller pads for goalies, discretion on unintentional icing) and we can look back at this era like some kind of teenage acne transitional phase but for now I'm just hoping there isn't too much scarring.


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Citizen Journalists?

Readers will likely know Antonia Zerbisias as the proprietor of the blog, Azerbic, but may not realize that she also has a regular column in the Toronto Star newspaper. In a recent edition of said column, she talked about the idea of citizen-journalism:
"We're a long way away from true participatory journalism. ... Not until "citizen journalists" do the tedious slogging through court records. Not until they attend news conferences and do interviews. And maybe not even then.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for citizen journalism. I have been agitating for it at the Star a long time, urging editors to hire or link to local bloggers, open up the process and let readers in.

Give the people access.

Because the bottom line is, journalism is about access. Access to information. Access to newsmakers. Access to the airwaves. Access to the means of distribution. And last but far from least, access to pictures."

Now as I see it, there are three stages of providing information to people (i.e. doing 'journalism'): Information gathering, information transcribing and information distribution.

The first step of gathering information has been vastly democratized by the internet. Whether it is the federal budget, the latest Statistics Canada report, the latest think tank study, the movement of the stock market, the latest poll or election results, the weather forecast or the stories on the newswire, this information is available to the citizen as never before. My long, slowly moving process of adding dropdown boxes to my sidebar has been an attempt to group together all these 'sources of information' for easy reference.

Of course not all useful information is published on the internet. Paid journalists typically have access to more information sources such as personal conversations with contacts on their 'beat', attendance at ceremonies, speeches, conferences etc., greater access to prominent people for interviews as well as being on the receiving end of press releases from various organizations.

The one advantage citizen journalists have (as a group) is strength in numbers. It is simply more likely that a 'citizen journalist' will be in the right place at the right time to experience / get a photo of a tornado or a terrorist attack. It is also more likely that a 'citizen journalist' will have specialized knowledge on some topic. Why read columnists in the Star or Globe regurgitating Michael Geist's take on the latest developments in intellectual property in Canada (of course Geist has his own column in the Star as well), when you can read what he has to say for himself directly? Why read some columnists interpretation of the latest news on global warming when you can get a take from an actual climate scientist at RealClimate?

The second step is to sift through all the information available, figure out what is important and make sense of it. Of course if you are just taking pictures of a tornado with your cellphone and sending them off to the local paper, this isn't so important. But if you a blogger (or a podcaster or a videocaster) then your ability to choose topics and to write (or speak) well is the most important aspect of what you do.

Typically, journalists have some sort of training in their field such as attending journalism school, being sent on courses by their work, learning from colleagues at the office or what have you. But, based on what I've seen, I'm not really convinced that this consistently translates into superior writing. I'm guessing that if I focussed on writing a couple of fairly short pieces a week, and was supported by an actual editor, you could slip my columns into most newspapers and nobody would say, 'hey that guy's writing isn't up to the usual journalist standard, he must not be trained as a journalist!'. And there are many, many bloggers out there who are much better writers than I am.

With video or audio transmissions there might be the odd issue with production values, but for the written word this doesn't seem to be much of an issue. Most blogs I know are just as easy on the eyes (if not more so) than your typical online 'mainstream media' outlet. Even for audio and video what barriers are left are falling fast.

So I don't think there really any significant obstacles to citizen journalism in the transcription step. If anything, many citizen journalist sites (Hullabaloo comes to mind) probably thrive because they are so much better written than most of what you find in the mainstream media.

The third and most troublesome area is distribution. Things are starting to open up with digital TV and radio but there is still a lot of inertia from the era when bandwidth limitations meant that only a chosen few companies had access to transmission of audio and video, and production costs ensured that the whole operation had to be staffed by salaried employees. Similarly, the natural convenience of having print information bundled together into an easy to handle package led to the formation of newspapers and magazines which again led to the hiring of full time staff members devoted to providing content.

Not having a non-journalist 'day job' is of course a big advantage in that it gives you a lot more time to both gather and transcribe information. I think an important milestone has been reached in that, in the U.S., blogging has become popular enough that some of the most popular bloggers are actually able to make a living at it. Of course, over time, we may find that the blogging world solidifies and starts to become as structured as the mainstream media. Perhaps in the future a blogger will start out their blogging career by submitting trial posts to the big name group blogs and hoping to get taken on as a writer for them. Or perhaps big 'brand name' sites like DailyKos will aggregate content, giving more exposure to anything which is recommended by enough readers.

Or perhaps blogging will be just a fad and will fade away leaving the same old mainstream media plugging along as always, just now online as well as on paper (or on air), but I somehow doubt it. Individual bloggers will come and go of course but I suspect there will always be lots of people interested in putting their thoughts out there for the world to see. And, as the old concentrated distribution models break down, the mainstream media will be able to afford fewer correspondents, fewer staff writers, fewer editors - that is, they will be less competition for citizen journalists and they will drive readers to seek out bloggers who are writing about the specialized topics people are interested in.

I myself first came across Jim Elve's BlogsCanada site because I was searching for information on the Green Party in the lead up to the last Federal election and couldn't find anything more than a couple of 'Hey the Green Party exists' columns in the mainstream media. I'm guessing this desire for specialized information is only going to continue to increase as new generations grow up expecting google to have both an answer for every question and an insightful (or at least animated) discussion of every topic.

So it's nice that people like Zerbisias are working to get the barriers knocked down a little faster but, given the trends in access to information, access to transcription tools and ability to distribute content widely and cheaply, I'd say the days of the citizen journalist are coming sooner or later, no matter what anybody does (short of destroying economic and technological progress that is). The biggest risk (as I see it) is that this new generation of citizen journalists may not have the same skillset (or resources) to follow trails, sniff out deception, dig up the truth and follow a paper or money trail that today's career, professional journalists do. And that means that stories which require a lot of background work may never get written. It's a risk, but I'm optimistic. It's a big world with a lot of people and I'm guessing that there will be those willing and able to do this kind of forensic reporting no matter what the structure of the market is.

It should be interesting to see what happens anyway - especially since I'm not someone who currently makes a living as a journalist.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Golden Age?

I'm always skeptical of claims that things were better in the past then they are now, but the distance from nature in our modern cities is one of those areas where I'd say that the past probably was better.

Over in the land of drivel, Doug talks about growing up in Vancouver in the 50's and 60's and links to some wonderful photos (by Fred Herzog) of Vancouver in that era. Fascinating stuff for someone like me who has only lived in Vancouver for a short time and has very little knowledge of the city it used to be.

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Monday, July 18, 2005

Om Sommeren

Between the release of 'Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince', the Vancouver Folk Festival and the belated (albeit just in time for folkfest) arrival of summer here in Vancouver, there hasn't been much time for blogging the last few days.

As for folk fest, it was as good as always; my favourite act was the Danish duo of Haugaard & Høirup, whose album 'Om Sommeren' (In Summer) gives this post its title. Haugaard plays violin and Høirup plays guitar and they take their instruments pretty seriously. According to the liner notes, Haugaard's violin was made in Mittenwald in (roughly) 1760 while Høirup 'plays two Canadian guitars made by Jean Lariveé, Victoria B.C. and William (Grith) Laskin in Toronto'.

Something in my memory tugged at me with this last line and, sure enough, both Lariveé and Laskin were mentioned in a recent Globe article, 'Crafting Sound', the third in a series of ten articles celebrating Canada's most distinctive achievements. Says the Globe,
"Mr. Laskin is a Toronto luthier known internationally for his fine instruments and unique pictorial inlays. ... "Mr. Laskin's inlay art, which a California publisher celebrated in the lavish book A Guitarmaker's Canvas: the Inlay Art of William Laskin, is a visible symbol of Canada's distinctive place in the world of acoustic guitar-making. Several makers of Mr. Laskin's generation -- he's now 51 -- are creating instruments known around the world for their warm, balanced sound and impeccable craftsmanship.

"All patriotism aside, Canadian guitar builders are comparable to any I've ever seen," said David Wren, co-owner of The Twelfth Fret, a Toronto guitar boutique. "There's no doubt they're up there with the best."

Before devoting his energies full-time to his shop, Mr. Wren built guitars for the likes of Joan Baez, Jackson Browne and Roger Whittaker.

Mr. Laskin's clients have included Stan Rogers, Ottmar Liebert, Jesse Cook and kd lang."

and further down after mentioning a couple of other 'luthiers' (guitar-makers),
"All three luthiers studied with Jean-Claude Larriveé, a former Montreal auto mechanic who helped launch a distinctly Canadian approach to the craft in the late sixties.

At a time when most American makers felt obliged to follow the lead of C. F. Martin & Company, the dominant manufacturer of flat-top steel-string instruments, Mr. Larriveé decided to go his own way, and to share ideas with anyone who felt similarly inclined.

Mr. Larriveé was mainly interested in classical guitar, but could see that the market was headed in a different direction.

So, he adapted a classical model of construction to the needs of folk and pop guitarists, hoping to achieve a more integrated sound than was typical of the square-shouldered "dreadnought" guitars many players were using."

When I first read the column, I kind of skimmed it, said 'huh' and moved on, but obviously it stuck with me, and it seems like maybe the Globe had a point. Anyway, if you like Danish folk music, or really if you just like the combination of violin and guitar, I recommend Haugaard & Høirup.

It may not be fashionable to admit it, what with the series having become incomparably popular (as books go), but I've been a pretty big Harry Potter fan for many years now. I just finished reading the recently released (in case you hadn't heard) 'Half-Blood Prince'. Haven't had much time to digest it yet, but while I'd say it's unlikely to knock off 'Chamber of Secrets' or 'Prisoner of Azkaban' as my favourites in the series, it's still a very engrossing read.

One of the things I've always liked about the Harry Potter series is that it combines two of my favourite childhood genres, the fantasy series and the boarding school series. It's an interesting combination since fantasy series typically tend to have an almost travelogue-esque component, with a map inside the front cover and battles replacing museum tours as the hero(es) proceed to visit pretty much every place marked on that map. Whether it be Prydain, Middle Earth, Narnia, Fionavar, the worlds of the Belgariad or the Wheel of Time, or what have you, the basic pattern remains the same.

Meanwhile, the boarding school novel relies on the establishment of a single beloved place such as say Mallory Towers or MacDonald Hall. The first book introduces the main elements and rituals of the place and subsequent books in the series are like subsequent verses in a song, different words set to the same music and meter.

So bringing the two genres together must have posed a bit of a challenge for J.K. Rowling - getting a little tougher with each book, when each of the rituals of the school become a little more familiar and the need to graft the adventure of fantasy onto the static setting gets a little more urgent.

Warning: vague spoilers for various Harry Potter books ahead...

Rowling has dealt with this dilemma pretty well so far. The primary thing she did was to change the mechanism for driving the plot from moving from place to place (as in classical fantasy) to moving from clue to clue in the solving of a mystery. Of all the books, book two (The Chamber of Secrets) is probably the purest mystery, with hardly a single word spared for anything which doesn't drive the mystery plot forward. Book three, 'The Prisoner of Azkaban' is another mystery but also combines elements of a coming of age story with Harry learning more about his history and also being forced to deal much more with his emotions than in previous books.

After book three, the mysteries remain, but they are relegated to playing more of a secondary role in moving the plot forward, with Rowling moving to more traditional boarding school novel techniques. In book 4, 'The Goblet of Fire', a new event, the Triwizard Tournament, is introduced which basically defines all the major plot points for the entire book. This reminded me somewhat of Korman's 'Go Jump in the Pool' or 'Beware the Fish' - books where a new concept is introduced (raising money for a pool, and raising the profile of the school in these cases) and then the rest of the plot centres around a series of isolated incidents which are connected to that new concept / plot device.

Book 5, 'The Order of the Phoenix' is a real classic boarding school novel story. The beloved institution is threatened by some new person / change in management and gradually all the things which we love about the institution get taken away before our eyes. Demerit point systems get abused, classes get improperly taught, traditional sports are cancelled, favourite people get expelled/fired, and so on. While the background subject matter couldn't be more different, the structural parallels with, say, 'The War with Mr. Wizzle' are striking, right down to the band of loyal students who get pushed too far and rise up to defend the institution.

It hasn't really been long enough since I finished reading 'The Half Blood Prince for me to try and categorize the plot. In fact, on first reflection it's hard to even say what the main plotline of the book was. Perhaps this is in part because the Half-Blood Prince was in some ways only half a book, with a number of elements seemingly serving to set up the seventh book, rather than being resolved by the end of book 6.

So what's my point? Nothing really, I just felt like rambling on a bit about Harry Potter and how I've been spending some of my time, in summer.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005


I watched about 5 minutes of the misnamed show 'Brat Camp' yesterday. The premise is that a bunch of screwed up kids get sent by their parents to a non-nonsense camp to get their lives straightened out. I say misnamed since, from the 5 minutes I saw, the kids seemed more troubled than bratty.

At any rate, my five minutes encompassed two events:

1) Somebody at the camp decided not to use whatever rudimentary toilet facilities had been provided, but instead just took a dump in the open field. The cameras zoomed in on the offending feces, but the image was blurred in the same way that nudity might be.

2) Thanksgiving arrived and with one of the kids upset and homesick, the camp counsellors figured this was a good time to get them to open up to everybody else at the camp about their problems. Under questioning, the camper admitted to having been sexually abused by family members as a kid.


So profiting from arranging circumstances for troubled kids to talk about the horrors of their past on film is all good, but showing a clear image of the shit which comes out of all of our bodies every day is off limits. I know which one I find more offensive.

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Credit, Where Due

In a recent post, I criticized globe columnist Margaret Wente for only taking on easy targets, so it is only fair that I mention her most recent column, "Would You goto Jail for Karl Rove", in which she criticizes both Karl Rove, strategist for George Bush, and the media in general, neither of which can really be classified as easy targets, although criticizing Bush and company from Canada is not nearly as risky as doing it from within the U.S. Also, it's not exactly brave to pile on Karl Rove at this late stage and her criticisms of the media are fairly mild and indirect but it's still a step up from taking on scientists and unnamed activists, so I thought I should mention it.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A Quick Hockey Question

Now that the NHL has reached a deal between the players and owners, the focus will likely shift to what rule changes, if any, the league will make to try and make hockey back into the exciting fast-paced game that is used to be back in the 1980's.

So here's my question: what is holding the NHL back from switching to 3 points for a win instead of the current 2. Giving 3 points for a win encourages offense because it penalizes teams which tie a lot of games and defensive teams tend to tie a lot more games than offensive teams. In effect, as the clock ticks down in a tie game, teams face a situation where the reward from scoring (2 extra points) is double the penalty of being scored upon (1 point lost) which will (over time) make offensive strategies more successful than defensive ones.

I guess traditionalists might argue that it will skew the point totals for teams based on what they were in the past, but changes to the number of games in the season and the idiotic 1 point for an overtime loss rule have already done that. Mysterious.

OK, I have a second question. I see from some recent reports that the NHL is considering expanding the playoffs to 20 teams (with an extra preliminary round to see who makes the final 16). So my question is: are they insane? There probably shouldn't even be much more than 20 teams in the league, never mind 20 making the playoffs. Having the season end in July instead of the current June is not the right road to be on. What is wrong with these people?

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Right and Wrong: True Concept or Useful Myth? Does it Even Matter?

In response to a recent post about 'The Efficient Society', I got some feedback from Curt at Northwestern Winds suggesting I read, "The Abolition of Man" by C.S. Lewis (which he posted on here).

Since I was in the market for a challenging read, I took him up on his suggestion. The Abolition of Man is a book (really a series of three lectures transcribed into essays) about the roots of morality or 'values' so let me start by stating where I stand on the topic. Then I'll look at where Lewis stands and consider a few of his arguments for why he feels that his is the only coherent position to hold.

Personally, I think that a lot of what we see as 'beautiful' or 'right' or 'correct' is a function of evolution, arising directly or indirectly through the 'desire'1 of our genes to replicate themselves. Layered on top of this individual desire for self-preservation lie the values which we learn from society, values which work towards the benefit/expansion/preservation of society. The primary mechanism through which this works is using our capacity for empathy to extend our consideration beyond just ourselves to include others: family at the most basic level, expanding to community, country, humanity or life itself as the capacity for empathy, buttressed by the knowledge that one life is not rationally more important than any other, even when one of them is your own.

In the same way that gene combinations that allow for successful reproduction of themselves come to dominate over those that don't, societies that instill values that lead to the success of the society will come to dominate over those that don't.

I'm no philosopher so I don't know exactly what you would call this position. It's not really moral relativism in that behavior can be judged based no whether it is beneficial to society or detrimental and on the level of empathy which a form of behavior displays. Of course, some might argue that if I really believe that it doesn't matter (in some objective sense) whether mankind survives or not why should I care about conforming to the (hence) 'arbitrary' goals of valuing empathy or ensuring society's survival but the simple fact is that I do. I am as much a product of my instincts and my upbringing as everyone else. I seek to do what feels right, even as a small voice in the back of my brain acknowledges the cosmically 'unjustified' nature of that feeling.

Lewis, of course, does not share my opinion. He argues that there is a universal, objective 'right' and 'wrong' and that societies around the world have acknowledged this universal code under various names. Says Lewis, "This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as 'the Tao'"

I was somewhat expecting Lewis to try and directly counter my worldview but after a couple of reads through 'The Abolition of Man', I realized that he had not really done that. In both 'Men Without Chests', the first of the three lectures which make up 'The Abolition of Man', and the third lecture (titled 'The Abolition of Man' same as the book as a whole), Lewis argues not that my view is wrong but rather that the consequences of too many people not believing in the Tao will be bad for society and for man (leading in the end to his abolishment at his own hands through the advancement of science).

From 'Men Without Chests':
"And all the time - such is the tragi-comedy of our situation - we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive," or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."

From the third lecture, 'The Abolition of Man':
"Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have non motive but their own 'natural' impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can overarch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery."

I suppose these concerns would come true if people took the absence of absolute morality as a license to just do whatever they felt like - in that case the consequences will understandably be bad, almost by definition. I say, 'by definition' since, in my view, the rules society generally lives by and which absolutists call the Tao are exactly those rules which have evolved for the explicit purpose of making society succeed. So, by definition, if people begin to violate those rules, society will suffer.

Presumably if people choose to live according to such morals as would support the continued existence of a healthy society, regardless of their belief in some absolute objective morality, then Lewis' fears would be unfounded.

At any rate, none of this actually gets at the question of whether the non-absolutist worldview I sketched out earlier could be an accurate assessment of how our morals came to be or not.

Only in the second essay, "The Way" does Lewis really take on people who reject the idea of an absolute morality. But even here, all his argument amounts to is saying that if you reject the Tao, then there can be no other source of objective reality, and if you subscribe to some moral principle such as 'society ought to be preserved' then that *is* the Tao,
"From propositions about fact alone, no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved ... are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself: or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of 'rational' value behind all the sentiments we have debunked. The innovator will not take the first alternative, for practical principles known to all men by Reason are simply the Tao which he has set out to supersede."

This is pretty much a self-fulfilling argument: if you believe in objective reality then you believe in the Tao and if you don't then there is no source of objective reality for you to base assessments of what 'ought to be' or 'what ought not to be' on - aside from your own feelings of what is wrong and right.

But in the end (from my point of view), what is the Tao other than the beliefs of some people about what felt right or wrong to them at some point in time? I don't really see a big difference between me saying that society ought to be preserved because the Tao says so, or me saying that 'society ought to be preserved' because that feels like the right thing to do.

At any rate, Lewis never really addresses the question of whether or not there seems to be a correspondence between what is considered moral in society and what is in the interests of that society's preservation and whether the evolution of societies through the ages might provide a more accurate explanation of how we come to have the moral feelings we have now than the existence of an omnipresent never-changing metaphysical Tao does.

It might have been interesting to have Lewis comment on the surprising coincidence that so many of the rules common to all societies also happen to be rules which help make societies prosper and grow. It might have been interesting to have him comment on theories in the vein of Jane Jacobs idea (backed by Plato) that we have separate sets of moral rules for activities based on trading vs. those based on taking and that immorality often stems from confusing these two sets of morals2. In the absence of this kind of direct consideration of my worldview, I was left a little disappointed by 'The Abolition of Man' (hey, I'm self-centred) but I can't complain too much.

Despite my disappointment, I'd say that if the topic sounds interesting (despite my stilted writing), I'd certainly recommend "The Abolition of Man" - it's quite short so it's not a big commitment (the full text is available online here), and it will make you think about what you believeand why. It is worth reading even just for Lewis' beautiful prose.

1I should note that the genes don't really have any desires. This is just a metaphor which suggests that the practical effect of evolution is as if the genes were working on some 'desire' of theirs to replicate themselves.

2Of course Jacobs book came much later than Lewis' but I'm just talking hypotheticals here, as in I wish he would have addressed something along those lines.

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Saturday, July 09, 2005

At the Video Store

I wonder if Canada is the only country where domestic movies either get put in their own section or get lumped in with 'foreign'. And to find them, you generally need to look in a back, dark corner of the store, often adjacent to the porn section.

Not that I'm disparaging this filing system - if anything it seems quite an accurate assessment of Canadian film. Still, I'm just wondering if this happens in other countries like the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, France etc.

On the topic of Canadian movies, I'm not going to write a review, but I thought that 'Seducing Dr. Lewis', a Québécois movie about a small (former) fishing village which goes to great lengths to try and get a doctor to come there, was pretty good. Some may find the premise a bit implausible, but not those who come from my hometown of Peterborough. That is because, while, of course, it pales in comparison with the mighty lift lock, there is a modest tourist attraction in Peterborough known as the Hutchison house.

One of the oldest houses in the city, it was built in 1836 as an enticement for the local doctor (Dr. Hutchison). Of course, back in those days, heading into the boonies to be a doctor involved more than just putting up with bad cellphone service and Dr. Hutchison died of typhus in 1847 while attending to stricken immigrants.

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Friday, July 08, 2005

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

Last week, over at Voice in the Wilderness, guest blogger Princess Monkey had a perceptive post up titled, "Sucks to be Her", in which she reacted to Margaret Wente's column which denigrated the efforts of Bob Geldof and his "digging a hole to nowhere".

Said Princess Monkey,
"Margaret goes on about "Saint Bob" and how his efforts to help the African people amounted to nothing. The only thing that amounts to nothing is her column - and perhaps her sense of basic human kindness. Thankfully, her kind of cynicism can't compete with whatever it is that drives people like Geldof and Bono to do what they do. She looks at them and sees "arrogance" - others look at them and see hope. Sucks to be her."

Whereas my immediate reaction was just to the nonsense of the words (in Wente's column) themselves, Princess Monkey looked a little deeper to wonder just how cynical someone had to be to write something like that.

Anyway, Wente was back earlier this week writing about the noble efforts of Bill Gates to use his considerable fortune to effect positive change, in Africa and around the world.

Now most people would just leave it at that, feeling that it was enough to write a positive column praising someone's good work, and maybe suggesting we try to learn from what works in their approach. But with Wente, praising Gates seems to be just a device which allows her to criticize others. She opens with, "Who's saving more African lives these days than anyone else? No, it's not Mahatma Bob. It's not the Western governments that keep funnelling billions into the Swiss bank accounts of arms dealers and African dictators, or even those well-meaning NGOs with their well-digging projects."

One paragraph in and she's already mocked the efforts of Bob Geldof, everyone who's ever been involved in development work funded by the government and everyone who's ever been involved in development work not funded by the government (condescendingly referred to as 'well-meaning').

Then she actually talks a bit about Gates before relapsing with,
"His appearance at last weekend's Live 8 concert in London left some critics frothing. "The super rich got their wealth by heading a system of exploitation and imperialism which shatters the poor and wrecks lives -- not least in Africa," frothed one. "Will feigning concern for those less fortunate provide some nice PR for your predatory software juggernaut?" frothed another."
Aside from the use of 'frothed' three times in one paragraph when zero uses would have sufficed, what is the point of quoting these unnamed frothers? Surely we could find a couple of unnamed people to froth about just about any topic, especially one as famous as Bill Gates.

You wouldn't think this topic has much to do with global warming, but Wente finds a way to work it in,
"The other meaningful thing Mr. Martin could do is take all the money we're wasting on our futile effort to stop global warming and turn it over to the Gates Foundation. Global warming may or may not threaten our way of life a hundred years from now; no one really knows."

There's more, including a rant against governments which are against genetically modified plants but I grow weary. I could spend all day talking about the good which has come from Bob Geldof's efforts, about the good work which has been done by people funded by the federal government's aid programs, about how global warming is already affecting people's way of life right now, how efforts to prevent global warming are critical, how in a 100 years global warming, if left unchecked, could be destroying our way of life (not to mention any number of species), how Gates foundation might not be so effective if it became politicized and about the risks of genetic engineering, and the reasons why many people feel genetically modified food is a technology which should be used sparingly, if at all, and on and on, but, having read Princess Monkey's post, I now simply wonder about Wente's motivation in writing such mean-spirited columns as she has been doing lately.

Perhaps she is simply emulating Rex Murphy, affecting the attitude of the contrarian who doesn't 'fall' for the conventional wisdom. The thing is, when I think of contrarians I think of a Socrates or a Voltaire, the brave soul who takes on the establishment and (as usually happens when you take on the establishment effectively) ends up being punished for their actions.

What's really sad about Wente is that, while she portrays herself as the outsider bravely taking on the powerful, in actual fact she somehow, unerringly, always seems to side with the powerful against the weak. Far be it from Wente to take on the oil companies and their propaganda 'science' or the biotech giants like Monsanto who seek to patent both food and life itself. Instead look for her to take on unnamed protestors who froth at the mouth, pop stars who try to improve the world, and of course, the easiest target of all, our federal government.

This is perhaps an overly personal observation, but I think Wente might benefit from spending some time in the arctic, seeing first hand how human and animal lives are already changing to keep up with the climate. Then maybe spend a couple of days following around Bono or Bob Geldof as they work tirelessly to use what influence they have to make what positive changes they can, even if they don't have billions of dollars of their own to spend on it. Best of all, maybe go to Africa and spend some time digging wells with those 'well-meaning' NGO's. And maybe when she got back she would have left her phony contrariness and her deep, unpleasant cynicism down at the bottom of one of those wells where it belongs.

At the risk of insulting my readers' intelligence, I should note that the title of the post comes from Oscar Wilde's famous assertion that, "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing."

I suppose Wente might reply (as the character in Wilde's work does), "And a sentimentalist is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of any single thing.", but I don't think Wilde was implying (nor do I myself think) that those are our only two options.

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London Bombings

One of the things I've noticed since starting blogging is that I rarely feel comfortable posting anything in the immediate aftermath of tragic events such as yesterday's terrorist bombings in London or the (far more catastrophic) tsunami of late last year.

Thinking it over, what I realized is that this blog tends to be a place for argument and debate and I don't think that the immediate aftermath of this type of event is really an appropriate time and place for argument and debate. What is needed in these cases (after direct action to minimize the damage, of course) are wise statements of principles and resolve. For example, this statement, issued yesterday by London mayor Ken Livingstone (as brought to my attention by Sinister Thoughts and One Damn Thing After Another):

"This was a cowardly attack which has resulted in injury and loss of life. Our thoughts are with everyone who has been injured or lost loved ones. I want to thank the emergency services for the way they have responded.

Following the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th in America we conducted a series of exercises in London in order to be prepared for just such an attack. One of the exercises undertaken by the government, my office and the emergency and security services was based on the possibility of multiple explosions on the transport system during the Friday rush hour. The plan that came out of that exercise is being executed today, with remarkable efficiency and courage, and I praise those staff who are involved.

I'd like to thank Londoners for the calm way in which they have responded to this cowardly attack and echo the advice of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair - do everything possible to assist the police and take the advice of the police about getting home today."

I have no doubt whatsoever that this is a terrorist attack. We did hope in the first few minutes after hearing about the events on the Underground that it might simply be a maintenance tragedy. That was not the case.

I want to say one thing specifically to the world today. This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at presidents or prime ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and
white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion or whatever.

That isn't an ideology, it isn't even a perverted faith, it is just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder and we know what the objective is. They seek to divide Londoners. They seek to turn Londoners against each other. I said yesterday to the International Olympic Committee that the city of London is the greatest in the world because everybody lives side by side in harmony. Londoners will not be divided by the cowardly attack. They will stand together in solidarity alongside those who have been injured and those who have been bereaved and that is why I'm proud to be the Mayor of that city.

Finally, I wish to speak directly to those who came to London today to take life.

I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others - that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail.

In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.

They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don't want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail."

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Productivity Puzzle

Jeffrey Simpson had a column (subscribers only but I've quoted the relevant parts) in the Globe last week on productivity. His main point seemed to be that politicians should spend a lot more time talking and worrying about productivity.

Says Simpson,
"One word should figure in every major political speech, whether from the left or the right.

The word scares people. It is poorly understood, or at least capable of multiple definitions. It isn't sexy. Nobody ever got elected talking about it -- at least not yet. But on this word, and on the ideas that lie behind it, depends our future prosperity and our ability to pay for social programs and to make our way in an increasingly tough, competitive world.

The word is productivity. Yesterday, for example, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper gave his end-of-session speech, chastising the Liberals, of course, and hinting at policy directions for his party. Not a word about productivity.

Mr. Harper is not alone. On the Liberal benches, only a couple of ministers such as Ralph Goodale or David Emerson dare mention productivity. As for the Bloc Québécois, forget it. Ditto for the NDP."

Now I don't deny the critical importance of productivity. After all, we all want to be paid more and the upper limit on how much someone can be paid is how much value they produce. And the two determinants of the value of what you produce are how long you work and your productivity. If you're like me, you'd prefer to make more money without having to work harder so productivity increases are generally the best bet for an improved standard of living.

But here's the thing: say I had to compare the importance to me of having a properly functioning liver vs. the importance of choosing the right clothes to wear in the morning. Obviously the liver is more important. But, given that I know very little about how my liver really works, that it seems to do its own thing without any intervention from me and that I wouldn't know where to start if I wanted to make decisions with my liver in mind, and that I wouldn't really know how much of an impact my actions would have, there's not much sense in me worrying too much about my liver on a day to day basis.

On the other hand, my clothing is fully under my control and I have a pretty good grasp of how some choices might work out and others wouldn't (although my girlfriend may disagree with this assessment).

As economic stats go, productivity is one of the most mysterious. Simpson is worried by the unexplained decline in Canadian productivity over the last few years (2000-2004), especially as compared to the U.S. Simpson seems to be especially worried by a study (which he of course doesn't provide a link to) by Andrew Sharpe and Jeremy Smith, of the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, and Someshwar Rao of Industry Canada - a study which specifically tries to figure out the source of this discrepancy. Simpson quotes the study authors,
"Current productivity developments are troubling, and if they continue, Canada's future prosperity is threatened, both in absolute terms and relative to other countries."

Simpson goes on from here to say,
"The core of better productivity is human capital development. Of course, it's also using materials more wisely, upgrading technology, working more collaboratively, restructuring work, ensuring competitive tax levels. But it's mostly about winning the battle of minds and skills in the global world.

Government policy should be measured against two questions: How does this improve our country's human capital development? Does this policy improve our connectedness and competitiveness with the global reality of tomorrow? To ask these questions is to throw out the window most of what the Martin government has done and what the opposition Conservatives propose."

But this series of abstract statements, while all very well, and a good summarization of the last 150 columns written by David Crane in the Star, doesn't really have much connection to the study he referred to earlier.

If you read the study (which, like always, I recommend - it's not that long and pretty easy reading) a different picture emerges. Here are some quotes:
"A definitive explanation for the recent interruption in productivity growth in Canada has proven elusive. But it would be premature to interpret recent developments as a downward shift in trend productivity growth.

In the last decade,Canada has suffered no major macroeconomic shock (excluding exchange rate shocks) and undergone no policy development or reorientation that would have had significant and long-lasting ramifications for productivity growth. Indeed, it can be argued that both the macroeconomic and micro-economic policy environments, characterized by stable inflation, falling debt/GDP ratios, budget surpluses, orporate tax cuts and increased federal funding for post-secondary education have become more, not less, productivity friendly."

Looking into the puzzle in more detail, we can see that while productivity (output/hour) has grown faster in the U.S. over the last 4 years than in Canada, the change in output has been almost the same between the two countries. Which of course means that the big shift has been towards Canadians working more hours than Americans. From the study:
"Business sector hours worked in the United States actually fell at a 1.0 per cent average annual rate over the 2000-2004 period, compared to a 2.1 per cent average annual rate of increase in 1996-2000. This decrease in total hours worked also lies in stark contrast to the increase in total hours in Canada,especially given that both countries experienced on average the same output growth over the period.

Total hours worked fell more than 2 per cent in both 2001 and 2002,with the loss dropping to 0.5 per cent in 2003 before reverting to an increase of 1.1 per cent in 2004. The decline in business sector employment in the United States after 2000 was less dramatic than that of hours. Employment fell at an average rate of 0.5 per cent from 2000 to 2004, well down from the robust 2.1 per cent rate of employment growth in 1996-2000 and in marked contrast to the 1.7 per cent increase in employment in Canada after 2000. Again, the employment loss was largely concentrated during the first two years of the period (-0.8 percent in 2001 and -2.2 per cent in 2002).

It's not hard to see why this gap in employment/hours might have occurred:
"Since 2000, profits have been at record levels in Canada, averaging 12.4 per cent of GDP. In contrast, profits have been at low levels in the United States, averaging 8.7 per cent. It may not be coincidental that during this period labour productivity growth decelerated in Canada but accelerated in the United States, as profitability affects firm behaviour, which in turn influences productivity.

The near-record low profits in the United States appear to have prompted employers to undertake workplace reorganization and to downsize employment levels in an attempt to reduce costs. The declines in U.S. employment in 2001, 2002, and 2003 attest to this desire on the part of employers to run a lean operation. Indeed, Gordon (2003:247)cites the unusual degree of downward pressure on profits as one of the two most compelling hypotheses to explain the post-2000 productivity growth acceleration in the United States.

As for the explanation of the difference in profits between Canada and the U.S., the obvious candidate is the big difference between our economies - Canada's is much more dependent on commodity prices. As the study notes, commodity prices have been 'booming' since 2000. Not only does increased profits reduce the need for companies to fire people, but it also depresses productivity in another way as well,
"As commodity prices rise, natural resource extraction industries have an incentive to exploit ever more marginal resources,since even minimal increases in production can have a large positive impact on profits. In general, profitability trumps productivity as an objective for firms. Normally the two objectives go hand in hand, but when they diverge,as for example when commodity prices are extremely high, the productivity of the natural resource sector suffers. This feeds into poorer productivity growth in the natural resource sector as a whole and,in turn, at the aggregate level (CSLS,2004). It is important to not however that a productivity deterioration arising from higher commodity prices is not necessarily bad for
income because of the improvement in the country's terms of trade."

Other possible culprits from the study are a slowdown in foreign direct Investment and a slowdown in business investment in technology (especially in IT).

Even with all this reasoning, the study authors remain, as quoted above, somewhat mystified by the numbers and even seem skeptical that they are right.
"It is important to underline that the productivity estimates discussed in this article are subject to revision, and these revisions can be significant. Indeed, in the six years between 1997 and 2003,there was an average annual upward revision of one percentage point between initial and current productivity estimates (Kaci and Maynard,2005)."

..and later,
"These conclusions should be considered tentative for two main reasons. First, as noted earlier in the article, Statistics Canada has in recent years revised its productivity growth estimates in an upward direction and to a considerable extent. Although this article employs the most recent data available at the time of publication, future historical revisions could significantly affect productivity estimates for the 2000-2004 period. Thus, our analysis and conclusions are subject to change if significant data revisions take place."

Talk about hedging your bets!

So what's my point? My point is that it's easy for Simpson to say that politicians should be talking about productivity and shaping policies around improving it, but it quickly gets hard when you actually look closely at productivity and try to understand what drives it. Simpson himself gets confused when he says that,
"[we have had essentially zero productivity growth over the past two years], that's fact. And zero productivity means zero growth in real incomes, jobs, prosperity."
If the study demonstrates anything it's that growth in jobs and too much prosperity (for companies) is a big part of what's keeping productivity down!

Maybe a politician is going to go out to the summer barbecue circuit and say,
"We have to increase productivity growth in Canada. That means driving down commodity prices and corporate profits so that companies need to lay people off and get lean and efficient. Plus we have to intervene even further in the market to bias business towards investing in machinery so they can get more productive instead of hiring so many more workers. Of course we're not sure if our numbers are even right, or if our suggestions will even work, but still, productivity is king, and I'm talking about it, you bet I am..."
Maybe, but I doubt it.

The study concludes as follows,
"..future trends in living standards in Canada are largely in the hands of Canada's private sector, as there is little governments can do to force businesses to pursue productivity improvement when this is not consistent with profitability objectives. Nevertheless, Canadian governments can facilitate productivity-enhancing investments by fostering a highly competitive business climate."
(emphasis added)

I'm sure our business leaders (led as always by Thomas d'Aquino) will be sending out the message loud and clear that what Canada really needs in order to be prosperous is a more competitive business climate. Look for the bosses at Westjet and Air Canada to be promoting the opening of the skies to foreign carriers. Look for the big bank heads to be asking the government to say 'No' to mergers and 'Yes' to more foreign competition. Look for all business leaders to agree that record high corporate profitability (and the accompanying record high CEO compensation) has been dragging down productivity and that something must be done.

Simpson may want politicians to talk about productivity all the time, but on an issue this murky and complex I wouldn't be surprised if they just continue to generally avoid mentioning it for the most part, sticking to things that they understand and that they can actually change for the better - and to be honest, that's fine by me.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

For All You Vancouverites...

Summer? What Summer?

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Monday, July 04, 2005

The Missing Link(s)

In the comments to a recent post, I mentioned my desire to start writing more letters. I'm starting small with the following brief (but wordy, as I always get when writing letters for some reason) note which questions why the media (the Globe and Mail in this case), so stubbornly refuses to provide links to the studies/reports etc. which they mention in their stories - even when these sources are freely available on the internet.


Dear Globe and Mail,

In reading your paper I have noticed that articles and columns therein often make reference to external reports, papers and studies. For example, Doug Saunders' column on July 2, 2005, "To make poverty history, remember the history of poverty" has the following passage, "The G-8 leaders seem to have made a similar realization, and the report of the Commission for Africa (available on the Web) is actually a brilliant distillation of this discovery."

My question is, why include the text "(available on the web)" instead of providing the address directly

I don't intend to single out Saunders since this is by no means an isolated example and indeed, mentioning that the study is available on the web at all seems to go beyond the usual standard practice of complete silence on the availability of the report.

I find this behavior especially irritating in the online edition of your paper, for which you can assume that everybody reading the article in question has internet access, and for which the text of the article itself could be hyperlinked, thus avoiding concerns with long, cryptic URL's.

Presumably, if the reader is expected to be interested in the commentary on the study/report in question, it seems reasonable to think they may want to read the study/report itself. Perhaps there is a legal concern with linking to outside sites (although I don't see how this would apply to sites like 'The Commission for Africa') or perhaps there is concern that the links might change or disappear over time, but I think anyone who uses the internet regularly appreciates that old links don't always work.

Speaking for myself, I would strongly prefer if you provided URL's for the studies/reports you refer to and saved me the trouble of tracking them down myself. When writing on my blog, I always make an effort to provide links to the material I am discussing - it is only common courtesy. For an organization such as yours which should always be looking for easy ways to provide greater value to readers, it would seem to not only be courteous but good business sense as well.

I await your response, in puzzlement at why the nation's largest media outlets seem incapable of meeting standards which even the humblest of blogs takes as a matter of course.

Declan Dunne,


While I'm writing, I should mention that the article by Saunders was worthwhile, tracking the failure of various ideologically driven economic movements in Africa through the decades and coming to the unsurprising conclusion that poverty is a complex problem which requires complex, pragmatic, experience-driven solutions in order to be successfully addressed:
"African states could now look at their once-blighted neighbours in the Indian subcontinent, in China and in South America, all of whom had used a smart mix of government redistribution, regulatory control, and economic freedom and open trade to bring themselves out of poverty." ... "For Africa, it marked the end of almost 60 years of theories, all of which led to more poverty."

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