Saturday, January 27, 2007

Mr. Wilkins and Civil Aviation

David Wilkins, the United States ambassador to Canada, has scolded Stockwell Day, Canada's minister for public safety, for raising the case of Maher Arar. In 2002, the United States deported Arar, a Canadian of Syrian origin, back to his country of origin based on a suspicion that he had links to terrorists. The Syrians jailed and tortured him. This week, in response to an inquiry that cleared Mr. Arar of any wrongdoing, the Canadian government compensated him. Stockwell Day then lobbied the United States government to take him off their watch list. Apparently on behalf of the Bush administration, the US ambassador, has described Canada's advocacy for Mr. Arar as an unjustified interference in American affairs.

In a less connected world, Mr. Wilkins would have a perfectly good point. However, not only do we live in a connected world, we live in a connected world where the United States government policy promotes connections in the form of free trade agreements, and undermines them by imposing national security restrictions. One of these restrictions looks set to undermine a basic foundation of the current international system: air travel.

The Bush Administration has not merely forbidden Mr. Arar to enter the United States, but have banned him from American airspace. This inconveniences Mr. Arar a lot more than simply denying him the delights of holidaying in Disney World. Very few commercial flights across Canada can guarantee they will not at any time enter sovereign US airspace, so Mr. Arar will find it difficult to find a commercial flight within Canada, to say nothing of the problems he will face should he wish to visit Mexico or points south. It also violates a principle of cooperation in air space and in maintaining the safety of flight that Canada and the United States, as well as most other countries, have shared for a long time. A series of treaties in force since 1944 govern access to national airspace by international flights. These treaties make provision for aviation safety, and enshrine the principle of equal and reciprocal access to national airspace. At least in principle, asserting that the United States can ban Mr. Arar from traveling in their airspace for any reason or no reason brings this principle into question. It undermines the understanding upon which international civil aviation depends.

If Canada decided to retaliate by picking an American at random, say Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and making him persona non grata in our airspace, Senator Lieberman would find it very hard to find a commercial flight from most parts of North America to Europe. But that kind of retaliation, or really any kind of retaliation, would undermine the cooperation upon which aviation safety depends. The international air travel system depends on people and nations making their choices based on safety, not what they happen to feel like doing. In that sense, the banning of Mr. Arar belongs to that class of acts, like counterfeiting, that people can only get away with because most people don't do them.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Credibility versus Relevance

In Balloon Juice yesterday, John Cole linked to a story in the New York Sun by an associate of Ahmed Chalabi, arguing that the insurgents in Iraq have started to collapse. Cole titled his post The Credibility Gap, which in my opinion misses the point. We have certainly seen so many breathless announcements that American efforts in Iraq have "turned a corner" that claims such as these merely remind us of a long record of disappointment and death.

But when I read about claims that the insurgents in Iraq have begun to despair, I do not look for errors or distortions in the facts. I welcome news, any news, that anyone anywhere has grown tired of killing people, and if even one insurgent in Iraq has given up planting improvised explosive devices, good for them. But in relation to overall American policy, this argument looks more and more like one element in a shell game. Put simply, the measures that many Bush partisans use to claim success have little to do with the goals they hold up for the project.

When the proponents of George Bush's policy in Iraq want to justify the invasion, they hold up the hope of a viable liberal democracy planted in the center of the Middle East and the Arab Muslim world. When they measure success, they speak of insurgents losing steam. But it seems quite clear by now that it takes far more than the end of an insurgency to bring forth a democratic government capable of dealing with the inter-ethnic conflicts in Iraq today.

Given the history of inter-ethnic conflicts, given the dismal success rates of democratic regimes implanted from outside, and given the record of overly optimistic claims of impending success in Bush Administration policies, I can only hope that this time, the insurgents have begun to put down their arms. But the winding down of the insurgency does not necessarily presage the emergence of a liberal democracy in Iraq, articles such as the one John Cole links have little relevance to the larger prospect of success for Bush in Iraq.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

We need a better vocabulary

Every cyclist regularly meets seriously rude drivers. Faced with a driver honking, screaming, or cursing at me, I have two bad choices: I can say, and do, nothing, and give them the impression that I agree they have no obligation to share the road with me, or I can use the one gesture universally recognized in traffic. Unfortunately, that one gesture does more than ask a driver to back off, or reconsider their actions. It communicates hostility, disrespect, and aggression.

We need a gesture that tells the driver we think he or she should smarten up, pay attention to the road, and stop honking or cursing at us for doing things drivers on four wheels do all the time. But we need a way to communicate that without getting aggressive or nasty, and escalating tempers further.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The OMB Makes a Decision

Among other things, OMB stands for Ontario Municipal Board, a court of last resort for scuffles between developers, city councils, preservationists, neighbourhood groups, and affordable housing advocates. Recently, the OMB handed down their decision on an appeal launched by a group of developers who want to build in the Queen Street West triangle. The OMB decision essentially gave the developers everything they wanted.

The Queen West triangle, so-called because it sits in a triangle formed from the street grid and a railway that cuts through at an angle, has come into prominence as a fashionable area for artists and designers. Attracted by its convenient location, access to public transit, and hip reputation, developers wanted to build there. The developers, naturally, wanted the highest possible density. The community had other ideas. They formed a neighbourhood association, called Active-18, and fought the development plans tooth and nail. They called themselves YIMBY (yes in my back yard), and claimed they did favour development, just not the high density the builders had in mind.

Nobody doubts that Toronto will grow, or that it has to grow; indeed, very few people claim that Toronto's population should not grow. But the Ontario government has wisely ordered a green belt around the Greater Toronto Area, checking the sprawl that leads to choked congestion and smog. That means we have to build more and higher buildings in the city, and that, inevitably, means we need more tall apartment buildings. Everyone in Toronto will tell you that as a general rule, this makes sense. But many of them will also tell you that nobody should do it where they live. Everyone supports intensification; nobody really wants sprawl. But most of us have really good reasons to intensify somebody else's neighbourhood.

Either out of genuine support for affordable housing downtown, or else out of a desire to look good, one of the firms developing in the Queen West Triangle, one of the builders arranged with St Clare's Multifaith Housing to build 199 affordable housing units, including lofts suitable for artists' live/work spaces. Unfortunately, in order to build these units, they must demolish an old industrial building in which a number of artists have illegally established lofts. The neighbourhood group has rallied against this, despite a consultant's report, which notes, among other things, that the lofts in the old building not only violate zoning laws, but my also violate fire codes: protection of the existing structural elements may not meet the requirements of the Ontario Building Code." Opposition to the replacement of 48 Abell with expanded affordable housing also ignores questions about the affordability of the existing artists' lofts, and does not address the plans to more than double the number of available affordable housing units.

Someone who only read the comments on this project in Toronto's local press could easily get the impression that a tyrannical OMB had sided with money and profit over community. I did not see a single comment which mentioned that, whatever the problems with their decision, the OMB backed a plan to create 100 affordable housing units in a city starved for them. Nor did the many protests against the OMB decision address the real need for intensification in the Greater Toronto Area. Toronto politicians, commentators, and civic leaders have so much invested in the "neighbourhood" paradigm that they fail to note that sometimes, local interests must make some sacrifices for the greater good. As long as many influential people in this city refuse to condemn any NIMBY position, no matter how harmful or heartless, the city will need the OMB to provide adult supervision.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Catfish recipe

I recently discovered the pleasures of cooking and eating American farmed catfish. Fish experts consider catfish farming one of the most sustainable ways of raising fish for human consumption; the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program rates farmed catfish as a best choice for our health and the health of the environment. The Endangered Fish Alliance recommends farmed catfish as a sustainable food choice.

For this recipe, you will need to buy fish without marinade. For some reason, all the catfish available at supermarkets in Toronto come with marinade on them, so you will have to seek out a fish market. The fish shop in the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto sells excellent catfish. If you live outside a major city centre, you may have trouble finding catfish. When I went shopping for catfish in Kenora, I could only buy apologies.

Spicy baked catfish, for two:

1 fillet catfish (300 grams)
4 tbsp ketchup or tomato paste (59ml)
1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper (2.5ml)
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin (7.5ml)
1 tsp soy sauce (5ml)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce (2.5 ml or 2 drips)
  1. pre-heat oven to 450 F (230 C)
  2. mix ketchup or tomato paste with spices, soy and Worcestershire to make a sauce with a thick, slightly gummy consistency
  3. brush it on one side of the fillet, and place on a wire rack in a pan
  4. bake for 15-18 minutes, or until fish flakes.
You can serve the fish on a bed of rice or couscous.

For a less spicy version, reduce or omit the cayenne.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Off on the right wheel...

I have one New Year's resolution this year: drive less, cycle more. Thanks to a warm start to the year, I had ice-free roads and a chance to cycle on the first day, going to a party put on by a colleague in Christian Peacemaker Teams. I found that a sedentary fall had not left me unfit for cycling, and that I still enjoy it.

I would like to emphasise that most of all. Cycle, if you must, because bicycles do not contribute to global warming; cycle, if you choose, because it offers an easy and useful way to burn fat from your waistline. But if you want a reason to bicycle, do it because it offers more pleasure than most other forms of transportation.

See you, I hope perhaps more often, in the New Year.