Crawl Across the Ocean

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Mostly Soccer

1) Greg is right that Canada was on the wrong end of a bad call in it's semi-final loss to the U.S. (eventual winners) in the Gold Cup. He's also right that the overall result was pretty positive, with Canada showing promise for the upcoming (next year) world cup qualifying campaign with a 2-1 victory over Costa Rica and a 3-0 victory over Guatemala - 2 of the teams they will likely need to beat to qualify for South Africa in 2010. Nice the see a Canadian men's national team actually scoring some goals.

2) The U-20 World Cup opens today in Montreal, the biggest soccer tournament ever held in Canada, in terms of total spectators anyway. As I write, the Poles have taken an unexpected but not undeserved 1-0 lead over Brazil. Now we'll see what the young Brazilians have got. Meanwhile, the Canadian team takes the pitch for their first game against Chile tomorrow in Toronto.

3) The Canadian team will be playing on BMO field, the new soccer pitch in Toronto, which seems to have been proposed, designed and built in less time than it will take Vancouver city council to weigh the merits of having a new soccer stadium downtown vs. the obvious heritage value of the air above the railway tracks down by the Vancouver port. Generally, Vancouver planning is far superior to Toronto planning, but sometimes things can drag on a bit.

Outside of the U20 tournament, the Toronto pitch is normally home to Toronto FC, the wildly successful Toronto MLS franchise which debuted this year. The improvement of Toronto FC from their first few games of being held scoreless to their recent 4-0 drubbing of West leading FC Dallas has been remarkable. The team's success to date is a credit to everyone involved, I remember when I heard that they had picked Toronto FC I knew the team was on the right track, following a model (like the MLS itself has done) of modelling a North American soccer league more on the successful soccer leagues around the world, rather than on the other North American team sports. If they had been called the Toronto Transformers or been named after some other violent animal because it was profiled in a big budget movie, then I would have figured the team was in trouble.

4) I see that the TV ratings in the U.S. for the Gold cup final between Mexico and the U.S. were a lot higher than the ratings of the Stanley Cup finals. And that's just the rating on the Spanish Univision channel, not including the ratings for the English broadcast on Fox Sports. Something for Bettman and company to consider as they make the apparently difficult decision whether it make more sense to leave a struggling franchise nobody cares about in a city where only a handful of diehards know anything about hockey or allow a billionaire to put the team in Southwestern Ontario.

Of course, it now looks like the team will move to Kansas City (for now, at any rate) - after all, that worked so well last time, with the KC Scouts lasting 2 season before moving to Colorado, before moving to New Jersey, where the team has managed to combine the most successful record in hockey with mediocre attendance and fan interest. If not for Lou Lamoriello's shrewd management, the team probably would have moved on from there by now as well.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

If it Makes You Happy

The Globe has a big feature on happiness this weekend, helpfully spreading the word that, in modern societies, gaining wealth only really makes us happy to the extent that it covers off basic physical needs (food/health/shelter). After your personal GDP exceeds around $7,500 or so, the relationship between increased wealth and increased happiness breaks down, according to the research.

I'm sure that on Monday, the entirety of the Globe staff will revert to equating GDP growth with happiness, as is the their default condition, and indeed, the conventional wisdom in our society.

Personally, I've found that happiness takes work, just like almost everything else in life, and I can certainly believe the contention in this article by Charles Montgomery, that nothing causes more unhappiness than commuting. It's an interesting article in general, as Montgomery writes about some of the changes that have been made in Bogota, Columbia, where the former Mayor talks about how he championed pedestrian routes, bike lanes and transit, believing that the key to happiness for people was not to feel inferior (to those who could afford to drive a car), and that given how many years it might take before all Bogotans could afford a car, the quicker route to happiness would be just to place those without a car on an equal footing with car-owners.

Finally, for Seinfeld fans, the following quote from another article in the Globe on how junk food can make you happy,
"Margaret Morris, a professor of pharmacology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, found that stressed rats that had been separated from their mothers at birth got less pleasure from a sugary drink than a control group.

But when they were fed a high-fat diet, the stressed-out rats started loving the sugar water as much as the normal animals. Dr. Morris says eating junk food probably made them feel better, as seems to be the case with humans."

Or perhaps, it was just that those pretzels were making them thirsty.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

First Time for Everything

So empty at the airport
You don't set off the doors
We used to feel like chorus girls
And now we feel like whores

Reading the Globe today I was disturbed to find myself in agreement with both Margaret Wente and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). Wente figures that responding to every incompetent would-be terrorist plot with new restrictions like banning toothpaste and spot-checking shoes for bombs is idiotic and I agree. As for the no-fly list, I guess it's like they always say, innocent until proven guilty, or until placed on a secret government list for unknown reasons with little hope of appeal.

Meanwhile, Rodrigo de Rato, head of the IMF, is concerned about Canada's (truly ridiculous) lack of a national securities regulator,
"Canada is shooting itself in the foot because of its resistance to forming a single securities regulator, the head of the International Monetary Fund warned Tuesday morning.

"The Canadian economy is a very sophisticated economy, but in financial markets, you're not at the top, in the lead. It's not to your advantage," IMF managing director Rodrigo de Rato told the Globe and Mail."
Of course, given that we're talking about the IMF here, maybe it would be better if they just didn't say anything. We might as well get George Bush to intervene.

This isn't really an enormous issue, just one of those things that would have been taken care of by now in a properly functioning federation. Unless you think that public companies should generally just operate in one province and it's a good idea for anyone wanting to set up a business in Canada to deal with a whole pile of different regulatory regimes instead of just one, I suppose.

Of course, our federation isn't functioning all that well, as the latest bru-ha-ha over equalization demonstrates. And the Globe reports elsewhere that,
"The provinces have shot down Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's latest attempt to move unanimously towards a single Canadian securities regulator."

In other news, the Conservative party continues to try to appeal to the 5-10% of the population their focus groups have identified as normal (the kind of people who would vote for George Bush, apparently) and have decided to sponsor a car on the Canadian Nascar circuit (who knew there was such a thing - and I say that as someone challenging for the lead in my Nascar pool - stupid Ryan Newman...) in order to appeal to these good ol' boys. However, plans for key Conservative party members to star in a new Canadian comedy entitled, 'The Dukes of Sept-Iles' have been shelved after the party's Republican handlers determined it may not be advantageous to grant Stephen Harper's wish to play Boss Hogg, although they were reportedly disappointed not to be able to use Peter Mackay's acting talents in the role of Roscoe P. Coltrane.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Search Me

There's been a few occasions recently where I've needed to track down some feature of a piece of software I was using, and in every single case, it proved much faster to go to google and search there, rather than searching through the help function of the software in question.

Maybe part of that is that I use google all the time, and I use the help functions of specific programs infrequently, but still, that's pretty impressive.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Not His Shtick

So in case you missed it, last week Stephen Harper declined to meet with Bono to discuss aid for Africa. Said Harper,
"Meeting celebrities isn't my shtick. That was the shtick of the previous guy."

The natural reaction is to take Harper literally and to point out all the occasions when Harper has met with celebrities, noting his hypocrisy. And indeed, many bloggers have already done so. But I think we can gain more insight by stepping back a little and considering what Harper was really saying and how it wasn't as incoherent as it sounds when taken at face value.


If you're born into the developed world these days, into reasonably fortunate circumstances, you can't help but repeatedly come face to face with the dichotomy between your own success and comfort, and the struggle and hardship of so many others. Within our own country we have the desperately poor, the mentally ill, people addicted to one thing or another, and people who just don't fit in for whatever reason. Outside our borders there is a whole other level of hardship, in countries wracked by war, famine, drought, flooding, disease and on and on.

Broadening our view further, it is not just people who are suffering. From aquariums to factory farms, to disappearing habitat to poaching, the other animals that share this planet with us are suffering greatly as well, and at our hands. And not just other animals, the natural environment itself faces clearcutting, overfishing of oceans, draining of rivers, lakes and water tables, and of course a dramatic change in climate as well, again all at our hands.

Faced with the divide between their own good fortune and the ocean of hardship that good fortune floats upon, people have different reactions. A precious few are willing to give up most of their own good fortune, devoting all of their energy and resources to helping those less fortunate. Others simply attempt to ignore facing the divide too closely, more willing and able to empathize with the fate of Paris Hilton than with Aids sufferers in Africa. Most people just try to maintain an uneasy balance, pursuing their own pleasure and comfort but taking some measures to help others - whether volunteering at a local shelter, donating money to charity, becoming a vegetarian, selling their car and relying on transit or whatever.

But there is one group which, unable to simply ignore the problems of the weak and the suffering, instead feels compelled to even deny the existence of this suffering, or at least to deny any personal responsibility for or need for involvement with the situation. Ironically, it is these people you will see invoking the concept of personal responsibility as a means of arguing that those who are poor are to blame for their own predicament and therefore don't deserve any assistance. These are the people who, when faced with the suffering of the other creatures on earth, take refuge in an ideology which says that humans were created apart and in dominion over the other animals, of which we are supposedly not one. And when the scientific evidence suggests that we are just another animal, this evidence will be ignored. These are the people who endorse an economic theory that says trying to help the poor will do no good. For example, minimum wage laws will only hurt the poor, and if the evidence suggests that these laws actually work, that evidence can be ignored too. And when science suggests that our comfortable lifestyle is damaging the planet, they lash out at the scientists who are assumed to only want fame or grant money, at the environmentalists who want to destroy the economy for unstated reasons, and at the science itself, which is, of course, all wrong.

What these people are doing is building a wall between themselves and the reality of their own, our own, collective responsibility for what happens on the planet, and for the suffering and hardship that exists here. Every creationist theory, every site, every attack on Rachel Carson, every element of blind faith in neoclassical economics, every trickledown argument, every attempt to statistically downplay the reality of poverty, every statement that lays all the blame for people's suffering on those who suffer - every one of these is a plank in that wall.

So what, or who, is the greatest threat to those who have gone down the road of walling themselves off in this manner? Clearly, it is those who seek to break through that wall to make people see that they can and should take action. That if they feel guilty about their hoard of material possessions then maybe there is a reason for that. So the wall builders will attack anyone who seeks to take this task on. Why? - because those people are attacking them!

So we hear endless attacks on David Suzuki, and the fuel used in his bus, we get a never-ending barrage of incoherent insults directed at Al Gore, and Michael Moore and Bono and so on.

Normally, you might ask yourself: given two aging rock stars, one who keeps to himself, spending away his health and wealth on alcohol, drugs and prostitutes, and one who devotes a huge amount of his time to raising money and raising awareness for some of the most downtrodden people in the world, why on earth is it the latter rock star who comes in for an endless round of insults and snide remarks and accusations of hypocrisy and criticism. But the answer is clear, by trying to break down the wall of denial that surrounds these people, the activist rock star is attacking their world view, attacking the very intellectual foundations that allow them to function without being overcome by guilt or anger, attacking the wall that allows them not to care - so it is only natural they fight back with everything they have, even if they don't know quite why they are doing it.

Which brings us back to our Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Heading a government that cuts taxes for the wealthy and brings in a broad range of tax deductions for the comfortable middle class, but does precious little to help the poor, natives, gays, women, addicts or any other group which faces a disadvantage in our society, we know where he stands. When he says that 'meeting celebrities isn't my shtick' we know that what he really means is that meeting people who care about the poor and the suffering - and who want him to care too - is not his shtick, because at root, it is caring itself that is not his shtick. Taking his words for what they really meant rather than literally, it is not quite so easy to find glaring counterexamples.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Why? I'll Tell You Why

Andrew Coyne talks about government manipulating prices (e.g. via a carbon tax) in order to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions:

"Somewhere between now and 2050, we may get it through our heads that global warming, as serious a challenge as it may present, is not fundamentally different from the everyday problem of scarcity, the predominant concern of economics since its founding."

...we could just leave it to prices. I mean it when I say that scarcity is no less urgent a problem than climate change, and requires the same universal social commitment to frugality that is now urged upon us in the name of carbon neutrality. And in fact that is exactly what prices extract from us. No matter where we go or what we do, in any sale or purchase we make, prices are there, forcing us to economize in our use of scarce resources -- in effect, to take account of the needs of others, whether we wish to or not.

Prices are the remorseless regulators of a market economy, incorruptible and inescapable, with a reach that the most totalitarian-minded gauleiter could only envy. And they work: where prices are left to do their job, shortages are unknown. We have enlisted them to good effect against scarcity, so much so that we are hardly even aware of it. Why will we not do the same for global warming?"

Unfortunately, just when he gets to the interesting question, Coyne finishes his column. I'm sure he has a world length restriction and maybe answering this question will be the subject of a future column, but in case not, here are some of the reasons why we aren't yet tackling greenhouse gas emissions by manipulating prices:

First of all, Coyne is clearly (as is his intention, I'm sure) glossing over the most obvious difference between allowing a market to set prices and having government intervene to change the prices which are set in the market, which is what he is (sort of) proposing. But aside from that, what are the reasons why government won't introduce some sort of market mechanism (emissions quotas, carbon tax, etc.)?

1) There is a portion of the population which does not believe global warming is real / or that it is caused by humans / or that there is anything that can be done about it / or that there is anything that can be done without 'destroying' the economy.

2) There is a large number of people who instinctively distrust the use of 'market' solutions to problems the market has so far failed to solve on its own. Even worse, there is very little overlap between the first group of people who deny the problem is real and the second group who deny that market-based measures (government manipulation of pricing signals) can/will work.

3) Disconnect between actions and consequences

There are multiple disconnects at work here. First, there is the basic disconnect that the burden of global warming falls with little connection to the emission of the gases themselves. Canadians, for example, are among the greatest emitters of Greenhouse gases in the world, while the people of Bangladesh are among the smallest. Yet poor, low-elevation Bangladeshis likely face a much greater impact from the problem than Canadians do.

Second, there is the temporal disconnect. Our actions now affect future generations more than they affect us.

Third, there is the complexity disconnect. Because the climate is so complex, it is difficult to ever point a finger and say that hurricane X, flood Y or drought Z was a direct result of global warming / climate change. More and more bad things will happen but in many cases you'll never now for sure which ones would have happened anyway and which ones are a result of global warming.

4) Collective Action Problem with too many actors

Global warming is a yes, global, problem, but the largest actors capable of reaching an agreement on taking action are individual nations. With 150+ countries in the world, many of which have only a tenuous authority in their own country and many more of which are authoritarian regimes with little interest in global problems, reaching a global agreement is difficult. Additional complications such as negotiations over allowances for population growth, export of energy, purchasing of energy credits, creation of carbon sinks and so on makes agreement even more difficult.

But for one country to take action while others do nothing is for that country to place itself at a competitive disadvantage vs. those other countries (in theory anyway).

5) Inequality

There is a large group of people in the developed world who are unwilling to take any action to reduce their own emissions unless those who already have emissions 90% smaller than theirs take the same action (the 'what about China and India' crowd).

These people generally oppose any deal in which India and China don't set emissions targets based on their current per capita emissions, but refusing to take action unless these countries to agree to freeze their emissions at 1/10 the levels of the developed world is tantamount to rejecting action altogether.

6) Vested interests

Presumably more headway would have been made by now if not for the effort of those such as Exxon Mobil and all the other people with a vested interest in the status quo.

7) Selfishness, Greed, Ignorance, etc.

Self-explanatory. Some majority of the population claims to believe that global warming is a serious problem but how many would vote for higher gas taxes?

8) Regionalism

While the rest were problems that apply everywhere, this one is somewhat specific to Canada. Jeffrey Simpson had a column in the Globe the other day talking about why it is tougher for Canada to meet country-level emissions targets than it is for many other countries, but he left out this one.

In a weak federation where the region which has the highest and fastest growing emissions is also still bitter about some energy industry related event that happened a generation ago, bringing in new rules of any kind to limit emissions is always going to be tougher.

So now you know why the government hasn't yet implemented something like a carbon tax to help solve global warming. Does that help?