Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, August 29, 2005

Random Thought for the Day

Billmon, considering the idea that the current constitutional process in Iraq is analogous to the drafting of the American constitution all those years back:

"The framers of the U.S. constitution expelled an occupying army. The founders of the New Iraq are guarded by one."

That one line pretty much says it all.

Too Bad They're Landlocked and they Already Have a Provincial Bird

Maybe I'm just cranky today, but does anyone else find that when Albertan politicians start talking about oil, they sound an awful lot like the seagulls from the movie Finding Nemo?

1. sound clip of the seagulls here

2. To be fair to Albertans, I think what really set me off was William Thorsell's column in the Globe ('The Great Alberta Challenge') in which he blithely assures everyone that, "We realize now that Alberta's good fortune is no threat to Canada -- quite the opposite." and one paragraph later,
"And, in any case, what does Alberta's good fortune cost the rest of Canada? We will all pay the world price for oil and gas, whatever its source -- all the better, then, that it be within Canada. And federal equalization programs to fund broadly comparable public programs from coast to coast can be adjusted to reflect Alberta's special situation, so Ottawa doesn't bleed billions to other regions just because Alberta does so well.

There is no politically meaningful "national envy" at Alberta's happy position. It is anachronistic to try to create some."

Apparently, Thorsell has never heard of 'Dutch Disease' in which revenue from natural resources (e.g. oil) drives a currency up making the nation's manufacturers uncompetitive. And it seems he also hasn't considered the potential impact of Alberta slashing taxes and luring businesses there away from the other provinces (maybe if head offices start moving and making donations to the Glenbow Museum instead of the ROM, Thorsell will reconsider his position). And he probably also hasn't considered how many measures the other provinces want to take to deal with their dependence on oil and it's impact on the environment will face opposition from Alberta (remind me again, what's Klein's take on global warming and the Kyoto Accord?). Sigh.

3. In case you're wondering, Alberta's provincial bird is the Great Horned Owl

Apparently it was voted on by children across the province in 1977. I think if we had another vote, in this post-Finding Nemo era, the seagull would have a shot. Although, thinking about it further, the Harry Potter vote would probably ensure victory for the incumbent.

Somewhere, An Economist's Head Just Exploded

I was reading the fine print on a ticket the other day, and it read:
"Everyone must have a ticket, including children. Babes in arms (6 months or younger) are allowed in free but are not encouraged."

Economics, meet Reality, I don't think you've been properly introduced.

In case I'm being overly cryptic (it happens, I'm told), a central premise of economic theory is that rational people will always consume more of something as the price gets lower, so the idea of making something (e.g. bringing babies to the theatre) free and simultaneously claiming to discourage it, is pretty much an impossibility in your average economic model which is unable to account for moral suasion (among other things).

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Saturday Fun

Timmy says: "All these quote and book and movie memes going around are too high-falutin' and serious. I'm going to see if I can start a intellectually worthless but fun meme like this. Choose your super hero name and what your powers would be. When you're tagged, tag five others."

As my girlfriend will attest, I love random, hypothetical questions -

The scene: A restaurant, me and my girlfriend are having dinner.

There is a lull in the conversation

Me: How high a pile do you think you could make out of scrambled eggs?

Girlfriend: (silence)

Me: I mean, if you had an infinite supply of course. If you piled it high enough would the eggs at the bottom get crushed into a solid surface you could build on or would you just have to keep expanding the base ever wider to keep the eggs from rolling down the sides of the pile. I mean, you could probably go pretty high either way, but I bet you could go a fair bit higher if it gets all solid so you can build straight up like a scrambled egg sky-scraper.

(a pause)

Me: Don't you think?

Girlfriend (coming to): I'm sorry, I drifted off there, were you talking about your blog again?

- so I'm happy to take Timmy up on his tag.

My first thought was that it would be fun to be a new addition to the Barbapapa family. Partly because being able to turn your body into any known (or unknown) object would be pretty useful, partly because you'd be a big hit with kids, but primarily because it would be great to be able to say, "Clickety-Click, Barba Trick1" and really mean it.

The drawbacks are, it's not very original, the sibling rivalry in the barbapapa family can be pretty intense and I'm not sure I'd want to be known as Barba-Dec.

My second thought was that, since Timmy chose 'The Flying Buttress' as his superhero name, perhaps we should make it an architectural theme, with possibilities including 'The Arch' (able to carry immense loads while making dry cutting remarks in a British accent, always battling with his 'arch'- nemesis, the feared 'Arch-villain') or 'The Crenellation' (able to squeeze through any opening, no matter how small, +2 versus ranged attacks), but I wasn't really satisfied with those either.

I think if I was going to have a superpower, it would be the power to turn spoken metaphors into reality. So when somebody says to their friend, 'You look like a million bucks', I could actually turn the person into a million bucks and walk off with the loot. My catch phrase would be 'Literally'.

Unsuspecting stranger: "It feels like a sauna in here"
Me (turning room into a sauna): "Literally!"

I would also have the power to turn people who use the word literally inappropriately into pumpkins.

Unsuspecting angry stranger: "What's the holdup? I'm about to literally blow a gasket here!"
Me: "Another day, another pumpkin"

I wouldn't have a superpower name. In fact it would be impossible to refer to me directly at all, with people only able to reference me using a metaphor.

Bad Guy Foiled by Me #1 "That guy is more annoying than 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife"
Bad Guy Foiled by Me #2 "He's like Batman, Superman, and the Cookie Monster all rolled into one"
Bad Guy Foiled by Me #1 "Yeah, literally!"
Bad Guy Foiled by Me #2 "Don't say that!, ah crap, too late."


Of course this is a pretty passive superpower, relying on the linguistic flights of fancy of other people for effect. A more active version would be the superhero known as "The Analogizer" who could make up his own analogies and bring them into being. Of course, the Analogizer would be pretty powerful, so he needs a Kryptonite like weakness. In this case the weakness would be that the Analogizer can be thwarted by the nitpick (and his enemy, 'The Nitpicker'). The nitpick is when somebody takes issue with one of the Analogizers analogies, pointing out the flaws in the comparison, suggesting that that grilled cheese sandwich wasn't *really* like a submachine gun or an escape tunnel. Successful nitpicking reverses the analogy and forces the analogizer to retreat into literalness for a brief period of time.

So those are my thoughts. Here are some optional tags for those bloggers who have been secretly wishing to announce their desired superpowers to the world and were just waiting for an excuse (no matter how flimsy):

Simon at By and Large, since I know he has lots of free time at the moment.
Mr. Mea Triarchy, since he needs to talk about something other than the Leafs for a while because I'm getting depressed.
Greg at Sinister Thoughts, since it might distract him momentarily from the impending ruin of our national health care system (plus, he has tagged me twice, so I owe him one).
Moebius Stripper at Tall, Dark and Mysterious, since I think a Mathematical Superhero could be interesting and finally,
James Bow, since if anyone should be up for a leap of imagination, it should be a soon to be published children's author.

1 Clickety-Click, Barba-trick was what family members would say before turning themselves into some other object. I mention that because the link I provided doesn't really explain the phrase, but the site you get to if you follow it is just so wacky that I had to provide a link.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Collective Action Problem of the Day

I just thought I'd mention this article from the Globe today, "Klein Steps Up Sabre-Rattling on Oil Revenue".

I find it somewhat odd that Albertans feel it is totally natural that oil rich parts of the province should share their wealth with the rest of the province but that Alberta shouldn't share the wealth with the rest of the country. It's funny which particular lines on a map people choose to align themselves with.

But leaving that aside, the more interesting part is,
"Recently, the Canada West Foundation, a western think-tank, warned against that strategy [slashing (corporate) taxes] for fear it would disrupt the Canadian economy and set up Alberta as a "tax haven in the federation."

Mr. Klein said that concern is unfounded because other provinces could keep up to Alberta by using incentives such as subsidies and loan guarantees.

"The only incentive we have to sustain economic growth and prosperity is to have a very competitive tax regime," he said."

Its not interesting because of Klein's idiotic statement which I doubt even he believes or expects anyone to believe, but because the situation reveals another collective action problem. Corporations have the ability to set up in whichever province they choose and can move from one to another relatively easily. If oil revenue allows one province to cut its corporate tax rates below that of the others, then corporate offices will move there making an already unequal distribution of wealth even more unequal, not to mention reducing the effective corporate tax rate in the country below the average of what the people want it to be.

If you ask me, the provinces shouldn't even be collecting corporate taxes in the first place, this should be a strictly federal tax (and in the future, a global tax, but that's another story). Of course, getting Quebec and Alberta to agree to such a plan might be difficult, but the federal government could act unilaterally. It would simply announce that it was planning to raise corporate tax rates by, say 10% and lower personal tax rates accordingly so that the change was revenue neutral. It would then publicly invite provinces to remove their corporate taxes and raise personal taxes to offset this move. It would be in the interest of have-not provinces which have trouble competing on the corporate tax rate front to accept this offer, and once a few provinces had accepted and reduced their corporate tax rates to 0, the others would be forced to go along (or suffer).

In this way, the (federal) government could make the collective action problem work in its favour. This would serve the interests of Canadians (assuming that the people do want to collect corporate taxes which I think is a fair assumption), prevent unnecessary and destructive inter-provincial competition, and would also be much more efficient for corporations only having to pay taxes to only one level of government and for government having one corporate tax collecting infrastructure instead of 11.

A side benefit is that it makes more sense for corporate tax revenues, which are more volatile than personal revenues to be aggregated up to a higher level at which some of the volatility would cancel itself out (e.g. the Ontario based financial industry might do well in a year the Alberta based energy industry does poorly and vice-versa) and at a level where the government is in a stronger, more flexible (in terms of annual expenditure) fiscal position.

So what do you think the chances of the Liberals undertaking this plan are?
a) 0
b) 0
c) 0
d) All of the Above
e) Don't be silly, Paul Martin would never consider this plan.

Of course Stephen Harper and the Alliance have a grand plan of decentralizing things as much as possible, and I suspect that in all their years of thinking about policy, the concept of the collective action problem (i.e. the purpose of centralization) seems to have eluded them, so you could consider the Liberals the lesser of two evils here. Still, I'm not big on voting for evil.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Pat Robertson does Hugo Chavez a Favour

After all, there's no way the U.S. will assassinate him now.

How Right They Are

Via Pints of Drivel, I see that Canada now has a right wing alternative to the 'typically Canadian wishy-washy middle-of-the-road mediocrity' which the so-called right-wing Fraser Institute wallows in: The Frazier Institute.

Some of their 'studies' are especially well done with 'Eat the Whales' being my personal favourite. An excerpt:

"The species which are failing are those which became bloated and inefficient (whales, elephants, rhinoceroses), or else those which exploited a market niche which is no longer viable (the spotted owl, the panda bear).

If these species cannot downsize or evolve to meet the new global environment, it is inevitable that they will fail. Meanwhile, more efficient and adaptable species (pigeons, sparrows, squirrels, rats) are re-evaluating their roles and finding new markets, with the result that they are thriving in the new global economy."

Good stuff.

Science and Religion

I was walking out my door this morning when I paused to wonder: given that a) spiders generally only live for a year or so and b) humans have been building doorways for thousands of years, shouldn't spiders have evolved to not waste their time spending all night building an elaborate web across a doorway only to have it smashed to bits by some lumbering human in the morning? It doesn't say much for evolution if you ask me. Of course, it doesn't say much for intelligent design either.

What? You're disappointed that this post is titled 'Science and Religion' and all I have to offer is a personal anecdote? For my part, I figure that's already too much time spent on the topic. Science and religion are different and - given the gaps in our understanding of the universe, and the small probability that significant new gains in understanding are made and then widely disseminated, understood and believed - it seems likely that they should be able to peacefully co-exist for quite some time into the future. Given the differences between them, it seems logical that religion be taught in religion class and science be taught in science class.

Still, if we must have a battle between science and religion, I think I'll go with the side which has had pretty much every controversy encountered in the last 500 years resolved in its favour. This isn't really a fair metric of course, because religion, by its nature, is incapable of really resolving anything one way or the other, but then that's kind of the point, isn't it.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

I Think I Missed the Point

I always figured the online version of the Star was free because they were trying to build circulation, but maybe they just realized nobody would pay for stuff like this.

Paris Hilton?

It's a good thing I've given up clichés here at CAtO or I'd say something like 'Not Worth the Paper...', well, you get the point.

Coding Error, Lazy Attempt at Cleverness, Staff Writer with Tenure Suffers Mental Breakdown or just Condescending Crap. You decide.

Update: I went looking for info on Alan Marshall, the 'author' of the piece and found this:
"News Editor Alan Marshall has landed the new gig of Editor, New Ventures. This, to my mind, is the most important change of all because Alan will be working with Giles to, among other things, "map out an aggressive growth strategy for the" Alan is a sharp and creative guy who will dive into the job of pushing the Star further into the cybersphere."

Kind of amusing that I found that (the only useful info that google provided) here.

via Living in a Society.

How's My Writing? Call 463-8663

Any time I run across a well written site/post, it makes me want to improve my own writing. That feeling is compounded these days because I'm planning on taking a course on fiction writing (don't worry, I'm not planning on joining the blogging tories:) in the fall, and also because I've recently been reading 'Self-Editing for Fiction Writers', and 'The Elements of Style' - not to mention this post on annoying expressions from the Canadian Cynic: all of which have made me realize just how many cliches, awkward/wordy phrases, business/marketing expressions and so on infect (infest?) my writing, both fiction and this blog as well. At this time, I just want to finalize my habit of writing wordy, overlong sentences and due to the fact that two heads are better than one and notwithstanding the also true fact that too many cooks spoil the broth, the truth remains that I would hopefully be able to fruitfully utilize some assistance and feedback from my loyal customersreaders.

So I just thought I'd throw out an open invitation for people to comment on how they think the writing on this blog could be improved. That's a pretty narrow topic, so really, if there's any aspect of this blog at all (style, topics covered, writing, lack of pictures, font, presentation, layout, doesn't display properly in your browser, etc.) that you think could be improved, leave a comment or send me an email (gmdunne at Of course, you can do that any time, but consider this a specific invitation.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Round Up

Colby Cosh says, "Sometimes, when fans are ripping bad television sports announcers, you'll hear them express a wish that the games could be broadcast as-is, without commentary. There's good news for those who have always wondered what that would be like. Because of the CBC lockout, Saturday's network broadcast of the game between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Toronto Argonauts will be accompanied solely by the live public-address audio from Commonwealth Stadium"

I recall a few years back, I believe Radio-Canada was having a strike, so they were broadcasting Montreal Canadiens playoff games with just the sound from the rink. I loved it. Without the rink noise turned down so you could hear the commentators drone on, you could really hear the cut of blades in the ice, the rattle of the boards on a check, and the sounds of the puck moving from stick to stick and hitting the goalie's pads (not to mention the players and referees yelling at each other, which included a lot of swearing, but that didn't really bother me).

The one downside was that sometimes the play would be stopped and you wouldn't really know why, or there would be penalties and you'd have to wait for the P.A. to find out what was called, but it wasn't so bad.

This is just one man's opinion but I say down with all commentators.


A follow up to my recent post on body image. Kim, at Bacon and Eh's looks at the trend towards using 'real people' as models (let me guess, you hadn't noticed that trend either?) and links to an article on Nike ads featuring (what they call) a big butt.


A follow up to my baiting of the fruit and veggie cult. Dave, at 'How to Save the World' explains how, like other primates, humans were probably herbivores originally, only adapting to eat meat, grains and dairy as we migrated to live outside of our natural tropical habitat.


I haven't posted on the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes which is probably a good thing because the story keeps changing. He ran from the police - no, he didn't. He didn't stop when he was told - he wasn't told to stop. He jumped the turnstile - no, he used his pass. He was wearing a bulky jacket - no, he was just wearing a denim jacket. Now we hear that he was just sitting in his seat when he was shot repeatedly at point blank range, all because he resembled a suspected terrorist.

At this point, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that at the time of the shooting he was getting up out of his seat to give it to an old lady. This kind of gross ineptitude and ensuing cover-up doesn't do much for my confidence in the London police force. Hopefully the ongoing inquiry will lead to people being held accountable for this unnecessary and avoidable death.


Finally, I'm pretty sure there used to be a blog called 'The Blank Out Times'. But I can't remember for sure - I should have taken a screen shot!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

So Cosmo Says You're Fat / Well I Ain't Down With That

Over at Voice in the Wilderness, Timmy posted about the recent trend towards cosmetic vaginal surgery (???), and it led to a pretty interesting discussion in the comment section. After thinking about it for a day or two, I left a bit of a long comment myself, and I figured maybe it was worth pulling out my main point and giving it a post of its own (yes, this is a way to post without writing something new, and I am lazy).

I get the impression that many people feel that the trend towards overly skinny models and celebrities along with anorexia and generally negative female body image is being driven by men and our desire to have women look attractive to us. And I'm sure that there is some truth to this, but I'm not sure that it's really the driving factor.

When it comes to being skinny, in particular, I think a lot of the pressure on women is coming from other women or from society (the media) to conform to what is considered aesthetically pleasing - where what is aesthetically pleasing is, not entirely, but significantly driven by women and gay men, filtering down primarily from runways, through magazines.

Consider the Reality TV show, 'America's Next Top Model'. Now if you follow the conventional wisdom, you'd figure that such a show would be all about skinny models who look skinny to please men (so as to be attractive to men), and you would think that this show following a group of skinny models around would be geared towards, and attract, a male audience. But this isn't the case. I, for one, can't stand the show, while my girlfriend is a big fan (well, she likes it more than I do, anyway). And we're hardly an unusual case. Consider this (telling, in its incoherence) write-up on 'Top Model' from Reality TV World,
"Looking back, the biggest questions are probably why it took so long for viewers to begin tuning in to watch a show starring attractive young women competing for a modeling contract -- and why they appear to largely be other women rather than the expected male audience."

But if you watch the show, it's obvious that it is targeted towards women. I've watched (under duress) a couple of episodes and in one that I saw there was the usual collection of stick figures, and one healthy looking girl. Of course this was the girl who was kicked off by the panel of judges. They pretty much came right out and said that the reason she was being kicked off was not because she wasn't a good model or that she wasn't attractive, but that, with her full figure (i.e. big breasts / hips), she belonged more in a 'mens' magazine like Maxim, not on the runway.

Consider this headline, "Flabby celebrities caught on camera', Or this one: 'So-and-so's battle with cellulite'. Where would you expect to see these headilnes? In a supermarket tabloid, the prime source of the hyper-criticism of any extra weight or jiggle that drives celebrities into their anorexia - and again catering to a largely female audience.

In the comments at Voice in the Wilderness, Princess Monkey takes hope that maybe 'urban' music, a culture where the super skinny model isn't the ideal, will begin to influence society away from the unhealthy skinny ideal (although I'd note that it's been a long time since Sir Mix-A-Lot released 'Baby Got Back' (the classic rap song which gives this post its title) and little has changed). But of course urban music is one of the most chauvinistic, macho cultures around, so maybe it's not surprising that this is one place where we get away from the super skinny model syndrome. You could write that off as just an artifact of black culture but I think you see the same factors at work in the country music scene as well.

So you can blame men for a lot of stuff, but I'm not convinced we're the prime culprits in this particular case.

Of course there are lots of other, (probably more important), related questions such as 'what is driving our increasing obsession with our bodies and attractiveness', and 'where do we draw the line between what is considered healthy and what isn't?' (most parents would get braces for their children but they probably wouldn't get them a nose job - why is this?) but I'm not up to taking any of those on today.

The Fruit and Vegetable Cult

My blog abstract says I'll post on: "Canadian politics with digressions into international politics and anything else that seems relevant, interesting, amusing, or at the very least better than not posting at all," and, after some deliberation, I decided this post qualified (barely) for that last category.

Anyway, Marla Shapiro had a fairly routine article in the Globe and Mail today about rising obesity (she claims that 'fighting obesity is crucial to our society as a whole' - but if you ask me, given the coming demographic challenges, *not* fighting obesity might be our best bet - if we were only considered about the impact on society as a whole and not that on the individual people, but I digress).

I only bring it up (the article) because of the following paragraph,
"Fighting weight gain is simple math: The energy you take in (food and drink to fuel your body) must be offset by the energy you put out (through body activity and movement). It's no surprise that people who spend their leisure hours in a sedentary state are more likely to be obese, or that eating fewer fruits and vegetables correlates with weight gain."

The first sentence is, in my opinion, the first and last word on weight gain/loss. Want to gain weight? Take in more calories than you use during the day. Want to lose weight? Do the opposite.

The second sentence follows logically, if you use fewer calories, you'll trend toward increased weight.

But the third sentence is odd. It claims that if you consume fewer calories (eating fewer fruits and vegetables) then you will gain weight. Do fruits and vegetables contain negative calories? If not, then how does this sentence makes sense? Now, if it had been written, 'eating fewer fruits and vegetables and instead eating *more* other food will cause you to gain weight', then it would make sense. But you could also write that, 'eating less cheese and potato chips and instead eating *more* fruits and vegetables will make you gain weight' and it would make the same sense.

I'm sure there is a correlation between weight and fruit/vegetable consumption, but I suspect that is because the people who make the sacrifice of eating fruits and vegetables are more likely to be those who worry about health and fitness and stuff like that.

Anyway, I'm sure this post was pretty boring for everyone, but I just wanted to note how a received wisdom (the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables) can be so strong that it causes people to flat out contradict themselves / make no sense, even in the midst of an otherwise sensible, logical piece.

(or maybe I was just irritated by the title, 'Fat Chance of Being in Shape with Poor Eating Habits', given that I have terrible eating habits but am reasonably in shape, all the same.)

Friday, August 12, 2005

Secret Ballot? Who Needs It?

I ran across this statement by Matthew at 'Living in a Society' earlier today:
"...the G-G designate must put to rest immediately any speculation that she is a soveriegntist sypathizer.

All that is necessary is a simple and direct statement from Mme. Jean to the effect that she believes the place of Quebec is in Canada and that she voted 'non' in the 1995 referendum."

...and I swear to God I thought he was joking. But, looking at the Toronto Star, I see that maybe he was serious. At least, New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord is also calling for the proposed new Governor General to publicly state how she voted in the 1995 sovereignty referendum in Quebec.

I'm no expert on governmental procedure in Canada, but I'm assuming that there is some sort of oath or swearing-in ceremony for the Governor General position in which the person taking the job promises to do it properly. And that's good enough for me.

I figure that our ballots are secret ballots for a reason. If our voting choices are to be used to determine our job prospects, notwithstanding the special nature of this particular job, then perhaps we should put some identifying information on our ballots and keep track of everyone's votes in a voter registry database to be consulted before making any future appointments.

The demand that the new G-G state how she voted suggests that she is so morally bankrupt that she would willingly take on the role of figurative head of state and then use that position to try and break up the country, but yet she is so morally pure that she is unwilling to lie about how she voted in a referendum 10 years ago.

OK then.

Update: I see that the Globe and Mail is doing a poll on their website and so far 73% think that both Jean and her husband should reveal how they voted. I can only assume that if the question asked instead if people felt that they should reveal how they and their spouse voted on something 10 years ago at their next job interview and only get the job contingent on giving the right answer, the % saying yes would have been smaller.

Update 2: Just to be perfectly clear, Matthew doesn't suggest forcing the G-G to answer or that we actually should track ballots in a database. That was just me making an analogy to say that if we think the G-G should answer the question (or not get hired) then we might as well do that.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

But I Don't Wanna!

I don't really have anything to add to what Timmy, Greg and Andrew have already said about the latest evidence that when it comes to trade deals with the U.S., Canada gets to play the role traditionally played by Native Americans (i.e. the patsy).

To summarize, Canada won another trade panel ruling in the endless softwood lumber dispute and the American response was,
“We are, of course, disappointed with the (panel’s) decision, but it will have no impact on the anti-dumping and countervailing duty orders,”

Or to put it more bluntly, 'We don't wanna and you can't make us'.

No doubt Americans are working behind the scenes to fix the flaw in the trade agreement which allowed a trade panel to rule against the U.S., but, until they fix that error, the NAFTA agreement has less and less credibility.

I'm reminded of a classic Seinfeld moment at a car rental agency:

"Agent: Can I help you? Name please?

Jerry: Seinfeld. I made a reservation for a mid-size

Agent: Okay, let's see here.

Agent: I'm sorry, we have no mid-size available at the moment.

Jerry: I don't understand, I made a reservation, do you have my reservation?

Agent: Yes, we do, unfortunately we ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the reservation.

Agent: I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to *hold* the reservation and that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.

Agent: Let me, uh, speak with my supervisor."

The Americans know how to sign trade agreements, they just don't know how to *abide* by them. And that's really the most important part of an agreement, the abiding. Alas, the problem with dealing with the Americans is that when things go wrong there's no supervisor you can talk to.

The scene concludes:

"Agent: I'm sorry, my supervisor says there's nothing we can do.

Jerry: Yeah, it looked as if you were in a real conversation over there.

Agent: But we do have a compact if you would like that.

Jerry: Fine.

Agent: Alright. We have a blue Ford Escort for you Mr. Seinfeld. Would you like insurance?

Jerry: Yeah, you better give me the insurance, because I am gonna beat the hell out of this car."

What puzzles me are the Canadians who, in reaction to this kind of behavior from the Americans, would be more inclined to demand that Jerry apologize for his comments about beating the hell out of the car (because it might damage the relationship with the rental place) rather than looking for a way to make an uneven exchange (in which one side has all the leverage) more even.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Telus Picking Up Speed and On a Roll...

...downhill that is

Via, One Damn Thing After Another, (which seems to be a great source for telecom blues news these days) it seems like Telus is at it again.

Their latest PR adventure is a 'Telus Idol' video, sort of a team-builders gone wild kind of story:
"A Shania Twain look-alike sings a song to the tune of Up!, with lyrics about increasing shareholder value. A member of the judging panel tells her:

“I’m up. I’m up big time. You know that thing called the CN Tower? It’s right here in my pants.

“If I buy stock, would that be insider trading? Speaking of inside, do those pants come off?”

Another male judge suggests the Shania look-alike would go further in the competition if she had breast implants. The comment is greeted with shrieks, laughter and boos. There are penis jokes and the observation that a female contestant has “amazing lungs.”"

Lots more background and context (and lots of reader comments) if you read the whole story from the Tyee.

Seriously, does anyone out there feel optimistic about the future of this company?


Monday, August 08, 2005

Good Times?

The Globe and Mail was positively filled with good news today. Well, none of it was really news, but it was all good.

First off, Ottawa Flush With Surplus Cash. On current trends it looks like Ottawa will take in $5 billion more than forecast in the budget. People can criticize, but when the government is managing it's books exactly the same way I manage my own - conservatively - I'm not going to. I find it funny that, on the one hand, people bemoan how predictable this turn of events was. And on the other hand, people complain how it's impossible for people to rely on these budget estimates when they're always wrong. Either you can figure out an estimate of our fiscal situation based on the budget forecast or you can't - you can't have it both ways.

Anyway, for the last few years employment growth has been strong, commodity prices have been high and corporate profits have been at record levels. Under the circumstances you would almost expect the results to come in ahead of a forecast which has to allow for the possibility of an economic slowdown. So people can complain away but if Ottawa keeps piling up surpluses and putting them against the debt, we're all getting wealthier and that's fine by me.

Unsurprisingly, Andrew disagrees, but that's OK since we've pretty much agreed to disagree on this topic.


Second, some encouraging results from an industry sponsored propaganda poll looking to drum up support for tougher measures against copying.

"the survey asked students about their attitudes toward theft and found that most did not put illegal software downloading in the same category as offences such as shoplifting.

About 96 per cent agreed that stealing software from a store would be considered a serious offence. By comparison, 40 per cent felt the same way about illegal downloading, file swapping or making copies of commercial software."

It's good to see that, despite industry funded advertising to the contrary, people were able to see the ethical difference between depriving the store of an item they were planning to sell (and causing them a loss nearly equal to the students gain) and making a copy of software (not causing any loss to the company).

The students also seemed to be able (unlike the study authors) to distinguish between plagiarizing (taking credit for someone else's work) and simple copying (making a copy of someone else's work but taking no credit for its creation),
"On the issue of intellectual property rights, about 87 per cent said they would have a problem with someone plagiarizing their own work. When it comes to downloading commercial software, however, just 40 per cent showed similar concerns.

The disconnect, the report said, was particularly strong among computer-science students."

Maybe the media literacy courses they teach these days are actually paying off! For a more useful bit of discussion on intellectual property than the industry poll, see this excellent column by Michael Geist in the Star on why the blank media copyright levy has outlived its usefulness.


Finally, it seems like Newfoundland & Labrador is moving forward with plans for the Lower Churchill project, a massive hydroelectric plant in Labrador. Personally, I am indifferent to whether it is done with or without help from Hydro Québec, but, what I do think is that, when we look back in 50 years, the people who started work on big hydroelectric projects now will be seen as having made smart decisions.

Already, Canadian provinces with well developed hydro resources have a competitive advantage over those that don't and this is only going to grow as a combination of dwindling supplies and increased environmental concerns drives the price (and volatility of the price) of fossil fuels higher.

I believe that if Ontario had taken the billions it has invested in the Nuclear sector and devoted it instead to developing a robust grid linking and developing the hydro capacity of Manitoba, Northern Ontario and Québec, the energy picture would be a lot brighter there. There are issues with hydro of course, such as the flooding of land and Native land claims, but my feeling is that these issues are the lesser of the evils you have to deal with to generate power and that, if dealt with properly, they don't really have to be evils at all.

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Sword of Damocles

Alan, from Gen X at 40, talks a bit about blogging today, but the part that alarmed me was his conclusion:
"And isn't it significant that there has not been a really bad movie - not a movie at all in fact - about blogging like email's 1998 You've Got Mail or that 1983 video game based classic WarGames?"

Now that Alan has brought it up, I suspect that it is almost inevitable that, at some point, a movie will be made about blogging. Now if it was just a film adaptation of Ender's Game, I could live with (even welcome) that, but I'm guessing it's going to be far more painful.

Some potential ideas:

Romantic Comedy

'You've Got Comments' - A winsome urban girl with a funky blog about problems with the local telecommunications company falls in love with a guy who leaves lots of witty comments on her site. It turns out that he is a telecom exec who is in charge of the lobby group which eventually gets all ISP's to block access to her site. She shuts down her blog, goes off to live with the telecom guy and they all live happily ever after.


Political Thriller

'The Blog Identity' - The President of the United States, a handsome, likeable man, swept to power on a progressive anti-corruption platform. But since taking office he has led the country into a military quagmire based on a pack of lies and deception, severely damaged the reputation of the once great U.S. of A. around the world, created a huge financial mess domestically, run rampant over the poor and the environment, appointed partisan corporate hacks to key positions of responsibility and generally been a huge disappointment. But, thanks to his political party's control of a submissive media, the public remains apathetic or even endorses his dangerous regime.

Then a new blog suddenly appears which seems to have access to insider information at the highest levels. The new blog begins fingering people around the President (the sell-out Vice President, the arrogant Secretary of Defense, the smear-tactic specialist political advisor). The media tries to ignore the new information but, despite their efforts, a feisty, ambitious, young (and beautiful) prosecutor is appointed to head a grand jury and start investigating the corruption. As the people surrounding the president start to get subpoenaed and one even goes to jail, they desperately hunt to find out who is running this new blog and where it is getting all its inside information.

The prosecutor gets closer and closer to her ultimate goal of bringing down the president himself, even as she finds herself falling in love with him (the president's wife died 2 years earlier) and wondering how he can go along with such terrible policies. Finally, we find out the truth, the blog is being run by the President's (incorrigible) 12 year old son. It turns out that, after his wife died, the president was so depressed that he allowed himself to be used as a figurehead to front for a corrupt cabal who only wanted power to serve their own selfish needs.

Once he saw the damage the policies were doing, the president wanted to change course, but he was in too deep and his cronies threatened damage to him and his family if he stopped following orders or said anything to anyone. With no other options, the President began confiding damaging secrets to his son, the only person he could communicate with without being eavesdropped on, and his son ran the anonymous blog.

In the end, the cronies are all thrown in jail, the president resigns in a tearful press conference to make way for the one honest member of his administration and he goes off to the ranch to live happily ever after with the prosecutor.

Because there can never be too many movies about the American president.


Canadian / Foreign - rural:

'Margeret's Musings' - A bright teenage girl is frustrated by the dead-end resource-based little town she lives in, the stupid mistakes the people make in their lives there and the fact she is not likely to ever escape to the big city and pursue her dream of becoming a writer.

In frustration she starts an anonymous blog which begins revealing some of the town's silly secrets and offering thinly veiled advice to town members. The people are upset about this nosy blog upsetting people's lives but, at the same time, once the secrets come out and people start taking the blog's advice, the town's old quarrels start to get resolved, people being to solve some of their personal problems and the people who are 'meant' to be together start to move towards ending up together.

Buoyed by success, the blog writer tries to use her blog to lure a handsome, sophisticated new stranger in town (from the big city) to fall in love with her, but foolishly resorts to the same silly deception and secret-keeping that she derided in others. All her efforts backfire and she ends up turning the handsome stranger against her, seemingly for good, as he decides to leave town. At the same time, her secret is exposed and she feels the wrath of her fellow townspeople.

The blogger confronts the handsome boy before he can leave town and tells him the truth and he confesses that he was secretly in love with her too. Not only that but his mother works as an editor for one of the big Toronto newspapers and he had told her to read the blog. Based on the quality of the writing in the blog, the editor wants the blogger to come to Toronto for an internship. Nothing big, but possibly the start of a promising career, and of course the handsome boy lives in Toronto too (and the townspeople realize how much she has helped them and forgive her).


Canadian / Foreign - urban (not rated):

'Sallow' - A number of strange characters who all happen to live in the same neighbourhood each run their own blogs. A seemingly happily married middle aged family man runs a blog about the local gay sex scene. A disaffected teenage boy writes a blog about sailing. A mysterious teenage girl runs a photoblog of pictures taken in and around the neighbourhood. A young couple blogs about their home renovations. A woman runs a blog which covertly passes on key times and dates for people running a human smuggling ring which tries to bring in refugees from failed states abroad.

The various characters have some random encounters which don't lead anywhere. There is gay sex. Many melancholy looks are exchanged. The blogs are only tangentially related to the story. In the end, nothing much really happens, but the disaffected teenager leaves town to head for the sea.


Your turn - what would the plot be if you were making a movie about blogging? Or, if Hollywood was making a movie about blogging what would you expect / hope for?

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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Catching Up

Last week was pretty busy so I missed commenting on a couple of things.

First, via One Damn Thing After Another, I see that when Telus decided to block customer access to some anti-Telus websites, they also inadvertently (I assume) blocked access to a large number (at least 766) of other sites. That's Telus for you, you can count on them to not only do the wrong thing, but to do it incompetently.

Second, after first allying with then questioning the legitimacy of the Bloc Quebecois, shutting down parliament, playing on prejudices, entrapment, whining, whining , whining and more whining in their failed bid to gain power, the Conservatives despaired and hauled out their strategy of last resort: promoting sensible policies - in this case making transit passes tax deductible. We can argue about whether it is the best way to correct the market imbalance in favour of automobiles or whether it makes sense to fund this measure instead of Kyoto, but it is a reasonable idea which would make the country a little bit better - maybe Andrew is finally getting through to the Conservative brain-rust.

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Remind Me Again, Why Do We Own This?

Is it time to nationalize the tobacco industry? There were a few headlines made last week by a book which recommends exactly (or something like) that. You can read the preface and the executive summary of 'Curing the addiction to Profits: A supply-side approach to phasing out tobacco', at the site of the Center for Policy Alternatives. I haven't read the book, but based on the executive summary and the preface, the argument seems to be as follows:

1) It is in society's best interest to enact measures which will reduce the incidence of smoking.
2) It is in the nature of corporations whose product is cigarettes to fight any measures which would reduce the incidence of smoking.
3) If cigarettes were manufactured and distributed by a government agency this resistance would be eliminated / reduced.
4) Therefore, the government should replace tobacco companies as manufacturer and distributor of cigarettes.

I think it is fairly safe to assume that a majority of people would agree with the premises 1) an 2), so it is just premise 3) and the resulting conclusion (4) which are in doubt.


David Olive had an article in the Star the other day which attempted to explain why it makes sense for the distribution of liquor in Ontario to remain a public monopoly (under the control of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO)). I say attempted because, while I normally find Olive to be pretty good, this particular article seemed weak, as if Olive himself knew he was trying to make the best of a bad case.

Chris Selley does a pretty good job deconstructing Olive's article in detail over at Tart Cider, but the main point I want to make here is that Olive's approach to arguing for the existence of liquor stores is to argue that the government does a better (or at least as good) job running it's monopoly than the private sector would do if liquor could be sold by private retail outlets. That is, the government is more efficient than the private sector.

Regular readers will know that I'm a big fan of Joseph Heath's, 'The Efficient Society' which argues that, contrary to popular conception, most markets fail and there are many industries which can be more efficiently managed through other (non-market) means such as, in some cases, the government. Says Heath, "Markets tend to work very well when it comes to exchanging medium-sized dry goods. Other types of exchanges can be much more difficult - sometimes impossible - to organize."

But of course alcohol *is* a medium-sized dry good. And thus precisely the kind of item which you would expect the private sector to do well at managing the market for. There is nothing special about alcohol which makes it likely that a government could distribute it more efficiently than the private sector that couldn't also be applied to soft drinks, milk or bottled water and I don't see Olive ever arguing that 7-Up should e only sold at stores run by the Soft Drink Control Board.

Both theoretically and empirically, the argument that a government monopoly will do a more efficient job of distributing alcohol to the population than private enterprise is a non-starter. Even if one were to stretch and say that the current management of the LCBO is so good that they are more efficient than the private sector for the moment, any kind of organizational disruption could lead to a deterioration in performance. If this happened to a private provider they would just go bankrupt and be replaced by better providers, but with a government monopoly you are stuck with what you've got (see Ontario Hydro).

What puzzles me is why Olive would even bother arguing this way to begin with (and he's not an isolated example, almost all of the arguments I've seen opposing privatizion of the liquor stores are similar). I imagine that when the LCBO was setup after the days of prohibition, the founders did not set it up with the goal being that it should distribute the maximum quantity of alcohol to the population as cheaply and conveniently as possible.

I'm no historian, but it seems to me that the purpose of having a public monopoly in sales of liquor was so that it would be legal enough to shut down black markets and the associated organized crime, while at the same time trying to minimize the volume and convenience of alcohol sales.

Now you might argue that times have changed, people are more responsible than they once were (or people aren't as uptight as they once were) and there is no longer a need to treat alcohol as a social ill to be minimized. It involves weighing on the one hand the increased enjoyment of life people get from easier/cheaper access to alcohol and on the other hand increased loss of life from drunk driving / family disruptions due to alcohol addiction and so on.

People who argue that making it easier and cheaper to buy alcohol won't cause any increase in alcohol related social problems are (in my opinion) dreaming. On the other hand, people who argue that we should keep a public monopoly on alcohol sales because that is the more efficient approach have already conceded on the social impact side, choosing instead to argue on unwinnable ground.


In his rebuttal to David Olive, Chris Selley suggested that alcohol should be treated like any other controlled substance, citing cigarettes as an example. But cigarettes aren't really the most useful comparison. We can divide controlled substances (which are also consumer products) into two groups. Those which used to be considered perfectly acceptable but have gradually become less acceptable, and those which used to be considered unacceptable but are gradually becoming more accepted. In the first group we have cigarettes as the main example, with junk food as another candidate. Guns might fall into this group as well. The second group contains alcohol as well as gambling and marijuana and, arguably, sex (prostitution).

Given the substantial political inertia in our society, it is unsurprising that, if you take two products which are considered equally (un)acceptable at the present moment, it is likely that the one which was acceptable in the past is more likely to still remain in private hands while the one which was unacceptable in the past is more likely to be in public hands.

So a better comparison for alcohol than cigarettes is another product subject to a government monopoly: gambling - and the comparison is, if you'll pardon the expression, a sobering one.

I happened to run across this blog about issues with gambling around the world. The post in question is called, "Another Canadian Province addicted to Gambling" and it's a reprint of a Halifax Herald article describing the battle over Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) in Nova Scotia:

Nova Scotia should make it tougher to gamble, says the head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

Brian Lee Crowley says he's not proposing gambling be outlawed, just made more difficult to indulge in.

"I'm pretty sure we're not getting the difficulty the ease of access to VLTs has caused around the province," Mr. Crowley, president of the right-of-centre think-tank, said in an interview Monday.


Governments have to become more objective about gaming and its costs, he said.

"When you are getting as much money as they are from it, you can't," Mr. Crowley said."

At one point in time, government was in the gambling business, like alcohol, not because it was a nice stealthy way to raise money, and not because the government is 'more efficient' than the private sector at providing convenient access to gambling, but because a government gambling monopoly could provide enough gambling to avoid the creation of a black market, without just opening the doors wide open and ending up with countless lives ruined by gambling addictions.

Just imagine, if you can, a provincial government these days actually trying to deter it's citizens from gambling. If gambling is a drug, then governments have become pushers extraordinaire, producing a seemingly endless barrage of (annoying) advertisements tempting you to part with your money for the sake of some imagined good life which you just might win access to.

I'm not one for ideology, most times, but I do generally believe in the principles of free enterprise, so I was blown away by this quote from the article,
"Last week, Premier John Hamm said there will always be gambling in Nova Scotia, and the best way to deal with it is to regulate the industry.

Mr. Hamm said the revenue the province receives from gambling is important.

"We would rather have (gambling dollars) going to government and paying for health care, education, than going to the private sector and making a number of Nova Scotians millionaires off of the proceeds of gambling," the premier said Thursday after cabinet."

First of all, there's a big difference between regulating an industry and owning it. But second of all, does Hamm feel that he'd rather have potato profits going to government and paying for health care, education rather than going to the private sector and making a number of French Fry millionaires even richer? Perhaps we was taken out of context but it sounds like he is literally arguing for communism.


So what's my point? My point is that, if we are concerned with efficienct production and distribution of consumer products, we are better off to leave things to private enterprise. If we are concerned with providing enough of a market to avoid a black market while still trying to minimize the long term consumption of something, then the picture is less clear.

On the one hand, having private players in a market can create powerful lobbyists who will try to increase consumption of the product and fight efforts to reduce consumption. On the other hand, having the government run one of these (highly profitable) markets can create a powerful lobby which will try to increase consumption of the product and fight efforts to reduce consumption. Furthermore, this approach combines the entity trying to reduce consumption for the good of society (government) and the entity trying to increase consumption for the good of health care and education funding (government) into one highly conflicted entity (as Olive noted).

Another angle to consider. On the one, uh, foot, having a number of smaller entities competing will tend to drive prices down causing consumption to go up while having a single monopoly player will tend to drive prices up, reducing consumption. On the other foot, small players competing fiercely with thin profit margins (think retail stores selling cigarettes and lottery tickets) don't make powerful lobbyists, while a monopoly or oligopoly firm will have lots of political and financial clout to lobby for rules to support increase consumption.

This is kind of a lame conclusion to come to after all this rambling, but, to be honest, I don't see a clear, universally applicable solution. In fact, the best solution might vary even for the same product depending on both the time and the place. I recall doing a school project investigating the feasibility of selling make-your-own wine kits in Europe. Looking into the existence of players already in the market it quickly became apparent that products were competing on different criteria in different markets. As you moved South in Europe, into countries like France and Italy and Spain, make-your-own wine kits emphasized quality, with the goal being that you could make wine almost as good as what you could get from a vineyard. Further North in Europe, and especially in Scandinavia, kits emphasized speed, with the goal being that you could get really drunk, really cheap. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that liquor laws are a lot stricter in the North of Europe than they are in the South.

So my answer is, no easy answers, each case has to be looked at on its own merits. For cigarette manufacturers, there is so much momentum already against the tobacco companies that I would be inclined to leave the status quo as is. Canada has declining smoking rates which are among the lowest in the world, and, as much as political interference and lobbying by the tobacco companies drives me crazy, I would be hesitant to break up a system which generally seems to be headed in the right direction.

For alcohol, I think Ontario is probably mature enough in its attitude towards alcohol that it could afford to ease the rules slightly without doing so much social damage that it offsets the increased satisfaction for consumers. Following B.C.'s example of allowing independent beer and wine (but not liquor) stores might be a good way to start.

For gambling, I think public pressure is required - like that being applied in Nova Scotia. This pressure needs to go beyond just having VLTs banned from bars, to banning advertisement for gambling period. Given the natural synergy between organized crime and gambling I'd be opposed to any privatization on this front, but I do think that as citizens we need to begin staging interventions to help get the government off its gambling addiction and make it remember why it is in that particular business in the first place - to reduce gambling not to increase it.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Mauritania - Freedom (from pro-U.S. policies) on the March?

I see that there has been a coup in Mauritania. I have to admit that I know next to nothing about Mauritania, but I figured this was as good a time as any to change that, so I turned to my friend google for help.

Mauritania, located in Western Africa, is a pretty sparsely populated place, with a population under 5 million despite a land area twice the size of France. Of course most of that land is either in or trying to avoid being in, the Sahara desert. Quality of life indicators are generally in line with its neighbours (Senegal, Mali, Algeria) but that's not really a good thing as this is one of the poorest parts of the world.

Lonely Planet has a fairly succinct history of Mauritania, along with one of the most unenthusiastic writeups (from a travel perspective) I've ever seen,
"The biggest attraction Mauritania offers is the very desolation that keeps so many people away. For those with the true spirit of adventure, Mauritania is one of the least trodden spots in the world - and even those who find it godforssaken agree that it's exotic.

To see more than sand outside the small, staid capital of Nouakchott (which has its fair share of sand too) requires some planning and some luck."

Politically, the country has (had) been ruled by Ould Taya, who himself took power via a military coup, since 1984. Although there are democratic institutions these are widely considered a sham with opposition parties often boycotting elections to protest massive vote rigging when they are not banned altogether. The best article on the current political situation I've seen was by Andrew McGregor, director of Aberfoyle International Security Analysis, in Toronto of all places. (I found this article in the blog of an American working in Mauritania for the peace corps for the last two years - the blog makes for interesting reading to get a sense of daily life in Mauritania). The article was written earlier this year, and has some interesting insights into the connections between the political situation in Mauritania and the 'Global War on Terror':

"Mauritania, the vast desert refuge of the Arab/Berber Moors in northwest Africa, may seem a distant front in the war on terrorism. Yet the pro-Israel/U.S. policies of its President, Maaouya Ould Taya, have sparked an Islamic revival in this traditionally moderate nation, a country that takes pride in being the world's first Islamic Republic. Mauritania has experienced no domestic acts of terrorism or known al-Qaeda activity, but the President claims Islamists with foreign connections guided three recent coup attempts."

But the coup leaders themselves claimed different motivations:

"Coup leaders Major Salih Ould Hanana and Captain Abdul Rahman Ould Mini entered guilty pleas. Hanana used his time in court to deny receiving foreign assistance and to describe the President as "[A] despot who doesn't respect the laws of the country or international conventions" I wanted to change a rotten and illegal regime by way of a coup, similar to that launched on 12 December 1984 by President Ould Taya." [1] Islamist rhetoric was noticeably absent from Hanana's address. Ould Mini cited the tribalism prevailing in the government and the injustices in the army as reasons for his leading role in the "Knights of Change". [2]"

The recent discovery of oil offshore is a complicating factor as well:
"Calls for change have also been fuelled by the discovery of large offshore oil reserves. Production is scheduled to start next year at an initial rate of 75,000 barrels per day. While the amount is not large compared to some Arab states, it has life-changing potential for impoverished Mauritanians who survive on an average income of US$1 per day. The leading company in Mauritania's new offshore oil industry is Australia's Woodside Petroleum, with major contracts for development awarded to the Halliburton Corporation. The opposition fears that the oil revenues will be swallowed up by a well-entrenched system of government corruption."

Of note, the government's foreign policy has shifted dramatically over the years, from being a supporter of Saddam Hussein in the 1980's, to being one of the few Arab countries to have diplomatic relations with Israel:
"Ould Taya's shift in alignment from the Arab/Islamic world to the U.S. and Israel has created a wide gulf in Mauritanian society. The French and Arabic speaking Mauritanians feel a natural attachment to France (the former colonial power) and the Arab world. The Islamic opposition warns that allowing Israel to establish a presence in the country is to open the door to Israeli intelligence activities in North Africa. The U.S. and NATO are both interested in developing Mauritania as a cornerstone for anti-terrorism operations in North Africa."

The quite prescient (as it turns out) conclusion of the article is that the army would play a key role in deciding whether the pro U.S./Israsel Taya government would remain in power or whether he would be overthrown with the support of the marabouts, the traditional moderate Islamic leadership in the country:
"Ould Taya sees an opportunity to solidify his rule through participation in the war on terrorism, even if it means creating Islamist threats and external aggressions where none exist. Hanana and some other rebel officers come from warrior tribes that traditionally work closely with the marabouts. There may be further cooperation between these two castes to restore the customary balance of power within Mauritania. This local reaction to Ould Taya's tribalism and authoritarianism remains open to exploitation by Salafist extremists but no evidence exists that this process has begun. Growing ties with the U.S. and Israel are isolating the Ould Taya regime, which will increasingly have to rely on the loyalty of the army. Furthermore, Ould Taya may see a U.S. military presence and Israeli security assistance as insurance for the survival of the regime."

It's possible that Taya will find a way to regain control of the country or that the leaders of the new coup will just pick up where Taya left off and nothing will change except who benefits from the corruption, but there are other more interesting possibilities. From the globe article:
"The group, which identified itself as the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, announced the coup against President Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Taya, who was abroad, through the state-run news agency.

"The armed forces and security forces have unanimously decided to put an end to the totalitarian practices of the deposed regime under which our people have suffered much over the last several years," the statement said.

The junta said it would exercise power for two years to allow time to put in place democratic institutions."

If the new leadership decides to turn it's back on the pro U.S./Israel/war on terror stance of Taya and return to a more pro-Islamic, pro-Arabic position, then this would have to be seen as a setback in the 'battle for hearts and minds' in the Islamic world.

If (believe it when I see it) the new leaders are actually serious about creating a legitimate democracy (one which would almost undoubtedly lead to Islamic-oriented parties taking control) then this would be highly ironic. I can't put it any better than the sphinx does, "If they turn out to be genuine democrats who really do plan to hand over power to an elected civilian after two years, which seems by far the least likely option, then I suppose we should all be grateful. That would also be a bizarre outcome -- democrats overthrow a military ruler, backed by the United States because of his anti-Islamist activities, even as the United States advocates more democracy as an antidote to Islamism. Go figure."

Update: An interesting account of the events here. Seems like the locals (in the capital anyway) are pretty happy about the turn of events (and they ought to know).

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Monday, August 01, 2005

Sitting and Waiting For Events To 'Run Their Course'

This comes via James Wolcott, via Energy Bulletin, via Roger Pielke Jr. so you may have seen it already, but just in case you haven't, I thought it was worth mentioning.

Global warming is a complex, controversial issue and it can be hard to find good sources which provide a detached overview of both the politics and science involved and a clear, calm assessment of where we're at and where we're headed. Which is why a paper like this one, by Tim Dyson, professor of Population Studies at the London School of Economics, which can provide this kind of overview in 15 largely non-technical, jargon-free pages is worth linking to.

Since, no matter what I say, I know only a few people are likely to actually follow the link, I'll quote from the abstract,
"Essentially, five main points are made. First, that since about 1800 economic development has been based on the burning of fossil fuels, and this will continue to apply for the foreseeable future. Of course, there will be increases in the efficiency with which they are used, but there is no real alternative to the continued - indeed increasing - use of these fuels for purposes of economic development. Second, due to momentum in economic, demographic, and climate processes, it is inevitable that there will be a major rise in the level of atmospheric CO2 during the twenty-first century. Demographic and CO2 emissions data are presented to substantiate this. Third, available data on global temperatures, which are also presented, suggest strongly that the coming warming of the Earth will be appreciably faster than anything that human populations have experienced in historical times. The paper shows that a rise in world surface temperature of anywhere between 1.6 and 6.6 degrees Celsius by the year 2100 is quite conceivable - and this is a conclusion that does not require much complex science to appreciate. Furthermore, particularly in a system that is being forced, the chances of an abrupt change in climate happening must be rated as fair. Fourth, while it is impossible to attach precise probabilities to different scenarios, the range of plausible unpleasant climate outcomes seems at least as great as the range of more manageable ones. The agricultural, political, economic, demographic, social and other consequences of future climate change are likely to be considerable -indeed, they could be almost inconceivable. In a world of perhaps nine billion people, adverse changes could well occur on several fronts simultaneously and to cumulative adverse effect. There is a pressing need to improve ways of thinking about what could happen - because current prognostications by environmental and social scientists are often rather restricted and predictable. Finally, the paper argues that human experience of other difficult 'long wave' threats (e.g. HIV/AIDS) reveals a broadly analogous sequence of reactions. In short: (i) scientific understanding advances rapidly, but (ii) avoidance, denial, and reproach characterize the overall societal response, therefore, (iii) there is relatively little behavioral change, until (iv) evidence of damage becomes plain. Apropos carbon
emissions and climate change, however, it is argued here that not only is major behavioral change unlikely in the foreseeable future, but it probably wouldn't make much difference even were it to occur. In all likelihood, events are now set to run their course."

As the paper notes, the Canadian record on greenhouse gases is especially grim:
"It was noted above that in the last decade or so virtually all countries have continued to burn greater amounts of fossil fuel. This also applies to those that have arguably been most prominent in supporting the Kyoto process - notably Canada, Japan and those of the EU. Many of these countries are unlikely to meet their CO2 reduction targets agreed under the Kyoto treaty (which finally came into force in 2005). Thus comparing 1990 and 2002, it is estimated that Canada's emissions increased by 22 percent and Japan's by 13. While the CO2 emissions of the EU(15) remained roughly constant, this was mainly due to reductions in Germany and Britain - both of which gained fortuitously from a move away from coal towards natural gas (which emits less CO2 per unit of energy)."

At least the Ontario Liberals plan to close the provinces coal plants (largely replacing them with natural gas in the medium term) should help bring our emissions down. Aside from that I think our best bet is to combine a carbon tax with substantial long term per/kwh incentives for renewable power and significant investments in new hydro capacity, both small and large scale. But I've been over that ground before. Anyway, there's lots more good stuff in Dyson's paper beyond what I've quoted, so I recommend giving it a look.

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