Friday, December 25, 2009


Four hundred years ago, Johannes Kepler worked out the motions of the planets around the sun, and discovered a mathematical basis for determining the location of any planet at any time in history. In doing so, he plotted the positions of the planets back to 7 BCE, and discovered that in that year, the planet Saturn had passed behind Jupiter. Because of the motion of the Earth relative to the other planets, an Earth-bound observer would have seen Saturn appear to merge with Jupiter, then reverse its motion and pass Jupiter again, then move in regular orbital motion once more. Astronomers and astrologers call this a triple conjunction; they occur at irregular intervals. The last one took place in 1981, and the next one will take place in 2238.

In the Middle Eastern astrology of the time, the planet Jupiter had an association with kingship, and Saturn had an association with Judea.To the astrologers of the first century Mediterranean basin, and probably to the Zoroastrian astrologer-priests known as the Magi, a triple conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter would have meant the birth of a new king for Judea, then ruled by a puppet king and a Roman imperial governor.

The basic unit of astronomic distance, the light year, indicates distances and speeds that we find difficult to grasp. A single light year contains over nine trillion kilometres; if every man, woman, and child on Earth traveled the distance between Toronto and Winnipeg, we would cumulatively have traveled about one light year. Yet we can see the Andromeda Galaxy, two and a half million light years away, with our own eyes; and telescopes can detect the light of objects even farther away. Darkness does not overcome light.

These things we know from observation and from calculation; what Ursula LeGuin called "number the indispoutable". Other things we experience; the sense that the birth of a child brings a chance for redemption and renewal, and experience of birth as a spiritual, rather than just a biological, event. And sacred writings handed down to us over the centuries tell us still more:
But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
Merry Christmas, everyone.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Will someone save these people from themselves?

Last week I rented and watched The Queen, a superb performance by Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II struggling to come to terms with the changes in British and world culture that intruded into her life after the death of Princess Diana. In it, Tony Blair lets out a cry for someone to "save these people from themselves", after some particularly tone-deaf behaviour from Buckingham Palace.

That phrase sums up my response to the behaviour of the global environmental movement before and during Copenhagen. The conference itself, with its focus on long-range goals and dire threats a decade hence showed how not to address a problem in an international forum. It didn't help that a batch of emails that showed the environment movement and climate science in the worst possible light had surfaced right before Copenhagen.

George Monbiot took care to criticize the tone-deaf scientists who wrote up the climate emails. But if he wants to know why so many people eagerly bought the idea that these emails convicted climate scientists, and the whole climate movement, of fraud, he and fellow environmental campaigners should take a look in the mirror. Romantics who fantasize about "redefining humanity", or "changing our culture from the ground up" and forcing everyone into a life where less is more do more to convince millions of average people that their happiness and prosperity depends on cheap energy, and carbon emissions, than all the propagandists big oil and big coal can possibly buy.

Just to make things worse, Mr. Monbiot embraced the prospect of an alliance with NIMBY groups, not grasping (or not caring) that most NIMBY positions, as well as deeply inconsistent, also reflect the interests, economic and otherwise, of relatively privileged communities. The poor worry about literacy, schools for their kids, and jobs. The rich have the leisure and political influence to try to dump the airport on the neighbours.

If anyone really believed that introducing themselves as the people who will save us from ourselves would help the environment movement make progress, the fate of the Copenhagen Conference should give us all a clue that it won't. As someone who participated in one of the early green transportation experiments at the end of the seventies, I have three suggestions:
  1. Get the engineers together and have them start talking about what we can accomplish. technically, right now. Not ten years in the future, now. We have the technology to build windjammers and use them for slow freight, right now. We have planes in the air, today, that produce about 30% of the global warming effect of high altitude jets. Solve the problems; make lifestyle change the absolute last resort.
  2. Quit treating the issue as the supposed moral and philosophical failings of European culture. If you think life has a higher purpose than working for the weekend so you can head to Walmart and shop 'til you drop, make that case. Don't saddle the environment with all the hopes for personal, political, social and economic redemption you can't sell without the prospect of environmental apocalypse. The majority of the world doesn't live near a Walmart; their life savings would not buy a pair of fashionable running shoes, and they cannot afford to wait while we save the souls of over privileged Westerners.
  3. Let us see this as a problem we can solve, a challenge, even, dare I say it, as exciting, even fun. If Kennedy had tried to sell the prospect of landing on the moon by telling Americans to make do with less, go dumpster diving, and lament their profligate ways, the moon landing would have gone the way of the Copenhagen conference. We could afford not to send a man to the moon. If the scientists have thier climate predictions right, we cannot afford to fail on global warming.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Lies I tell to soldiers

I don't tell the lies directly, but politicians and poets tell them for me.
  1. We will remember your sacrifice forever. Since we ask for absolute sacrifice from soldiers, sailors, and combat aviators, we offer them unlimited memory. But while many of us make an effort remember the men and women who sacrificed their lives on our behalf, wars fade into history, and thus, sadly, irrelevance over at most ten or fifteen generations. Since most of the young men we send off to die in war give up any hope of making a mark on the world by something other than their sacrifice, we owe them the truth.
  2. You died in a noble and necessary cause. Most Canadian soldiers who died over the past century have died in worthy causes. But a dishonesty at the heart of this statement poisons it, because we would ask our soldiers to die even in bad cause. So many people just like ourselves have sent their children to die in manifestly unjust causes over the centuries that it would take extreme egotism to believe we would not do the same. I remember a Remembrance Day hymn from long ago: "tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved, your memory hallowed in the land you loved", that captures the problem perfectly. It implies that all soldiers fighting for a cause they love prove their virtue and earn the love of their compatriots. But in saying that soldiers who died for a cause they believed in deserve honour in memory, even if they died for Hitler's Germany, we contradict the argument that the soldiers we and our forbears sent to die did so in a noble, or at least a necessary, cause.
  3. We will put an end to war after this one. Fewer politicians have told this lie recently; I do not know whether I should welcome a break from hypocrisy, or despair at the thought that so many people seem comfortable at the thought of war as a means of settling political disputes going on into the indefinite future. Whatever politicians today have taken to saying, though, millions of young men still lie under graves in Flanders from two wars which politicians promised them would end war. Every time we go to war either reluctantly or eagerly, we break faith with two generations of young men, who went through horrors so that we could have lasting peace. 
I also tell soldiers two things that definitely are not lies:
  1. Thank you for your service. While I wish fervently and work for an end to all war, I know that it will take hard work and struggle to accomplish it. How can I not honour the impulse that leads men and women to service and sacrifice?
  2. I wish you safe return. May you come home whole in body and mind, to a warm welcome.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A religious argument for same-sex marriage

A few days ago, I posted about the temporal argument for same-sex marriage. Since the secular debate about same-sex marriage in Canada has pretty much ended, I thought I would take on the more important issue that still faces Canadians and others of faith: what does the Creator, who created us man and woman, but quite possibly also Gay and straight, wants for us.

I believe this: the Christian church should affirm and give thanks for loving and committed and caring relationships, same-sex and otherwise. In Mark 12:29-31, Jesus says: Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (NRSV) The Gospels make clear that no commandment can contradict these; that any interpretation of the scriptures that would allow us to act in a less than loving manner to our neighbour must necessarily contain an error. Luke records Jesus's answer to the question "who is my neighbour?" with an answer that takes us to the heart of the question: what does the Creator want us to do for one another. He says (Luke 10:30-37, NRSV) "...a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ In other words, Jesus sets the standard of love for neighbour as practical compassion. Nor does Luke speak alone here: Matthew, in one of the few places where the gospels record Our Lord speaking in uncompromising terms of condemnation and judgment, says that Christ will call out as blessed those who have visited the despised and the outcast in prison and in sickness, shared food and shelter with them, and by doing so will have done so to Him. (Matthew 25:31-46)

What does this mean when we confront someone in a faithful, committed relationship with someone whom they deeply love, asking for our blessing? Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan, the summary of the law, or Jesus's teaching us about how He will judge the nations: these lessons do not suggest to me that we should say to people, sorry, you do the wrong thing with your pelvis, and the person you love has the wrong chromosome. And I emphasize once again: these lessons go to the heart of the Gospel message. Mark and Luke both drive home the point that the Great commandments of Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19:18 make up the heart of the Christian ethical message. I do not believe that condemning two people in a loving relationship accords with the spirit of these commandments, or with Jesus's teachings about them.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A field guide to dud arguments: the temporal red herring

A long time ago, I used to participate in a usenet forum on capital punishment. That experience gave me an up-close view of all the common logical fallacies, and I eventually developed a list of "dud" arguments: arguments made (by both sides) which contained one or more logical fallacies.

I hope to make this the first of a series of web-log posts exploring bad logic as I encounter it today, in issues of municipal government, in provincial issues, and national and international issues as well.

Over the past year, I have repeatedly heard variants of the phrase: "you can't turn back the clock". It frequently appears in arguments about modes of transportation, where opponents of cycling have attempted to paint the bicycle as a "nineteenth century" mode of transportation, and advocates for "developing" Toronto's port lands have attempted to argue that marine transportation has likewise had its day.

Like all really good duds, this argument does not advance a simple falsehood, so much as fail to apply an important truth in a clear manner. As circumstances change, the solutions we use logically have to change as well. And since all change happens as a function of time, we easily gravitate to the use of time as a substitute for change. But an argument based on nothing but time, such as referring to a technology as "nineteenth century", with the actual changes that have taken place since the nineteenth century unmentioned, qualifies as a dud. Arguments against relying on bicycles for transport may exist, although I have yet to read any good ones, but the words "nineteenth century" do not, in any sense, qualify. The same holds for marine transportation, and many other technologies and customs. The changes that time brings may indeed create good arguments for doing (or not doing) things in a certain way. The passage of time itself does not.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A disturbing juxtaposition

  • A motorist beats a cyclist so badly the cyclist loses a tooth. A passing class catches the incident on video. A judge acquits the motorist, on the ground that the cyclist impeded the motorist's "right of way", and the motorist feared the cyclist might "assault" his car.
  • David Chen, a shopkeeper in Kensington market apprehends a serial thief who has, earlier that day, stolen sixty dollars (almost a day's wages for one employee) worth of merchandise. The crown charges him with assault, forcible confinement, and kidnapping.
These two decisions seem troublesomely inconsistent. Our society might decide that citizens must never use force against one another under any circumstances; that even a shopkeeper, working on thin margins, may not use force against thieves who torment him. But in that case, a motorist would never have the right to use force in the case of a minor traffic dispute.

Alternatively, we could decide to allow citizens to use "reasonable force" to defend their right of way and their vehicles. But if a motorist has a right to beat a person merely out of a concern that this person may dent his car, surely a storekeeper has the right to use force against a person who has actually stolen from him.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms speaks of not bringing the administration of justice into disrepute. But those who administer justice have to do more than simply avoid dishonesty; they have to follow a consistent set of rules. They have to give those of us whom the system purports to protect reason to believe that if we act in good faith, and follow the law as the courts have interpreted it, we can expect the police and the courts to uphold our rights, whether we suffer an assault or stand accused of one. If the courts, meaning judges, crown attorneys, and the police, do not follow consistent principles, then people will simply stop relying on them.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11

To begin at the beginning: Basil Launcelot Cumpston, my great uncle, fatally wounded near Bullecourt, 1917; John Cox, my cousin, died in when his Dakota went down in Myanmar, 1945. George Weber and Tom Fox, CPT colleagues, died in Iraq, 2003 and 2006. Andrew Olmsted, a US Army major and a web log author I admired, died Iraq 2008. Relatives, colleagues and friends who have sacrificed their lives for a better world link all of us to war, and we have come around, once again, to the day of the year which we set aside to remember them.

The hardest part of remembering is reconciling our debt to the men and women who died with our determination to avoid sending our own children to die in the future. I and millions of others can say of our relatives who gave their lives in the Allied Cause during the Second World War, that they died in a noble cause. But then we come face to face with an uncomfortable truth: good men and women only die in noble causes because bad men find it easy to trick or force people to kill, and die, for bad causes. If so many men had not followed Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tōjō, millions of men and women would not have had to go off to war. And facing that truth, too, we confront another: advancing the noble cause Allied soldiers, sailors and aviators fought and died for required years of struggle that went on years after the war and well beyond the borders of Germany or Japan. The militarism of Imperial Japan or the genocidal fury of National Socialism were only extreme cases of racist ideologies that stained all Western societies. Denazification did not only happen in Berlin and Nuremberg; Martin Luther King's march on Selma, decolonization in Africa and Asia, First Nations struggles in Canada, all formed an essential part of the process which, we can hope, will prevent genocidal fascism from ever rising again.

The clash of arms only begins the process of building a better world. If we carry on most of the work without violence, we must still commit to it, give our all, and accept the reality that humanity will never move forward without struggle and sacrifice. And so today we will remember those who struggled and laid down their lives, whether with guns or with empty hands. And we too will pick up the task they laid down, and do our best to carry forward the work of building a better world.

Monday, November 09, 2009

A practical and secular argument for same-sex marriage

After the voters of Maine rejected same-sex marriage, a majority vote that restricted the rights of a minority, and one commentator has even suggested that majority vote determines the truth. It doesn't. And in truth, we have very good arguments, both practical and secular, as well as ethical and religious, that same-sex marriage makes sense for Gay and Lesbian people, and we should support it.

The simplest, and I believe the most compelling, practical and secular argument for supporting same-sex marriage goes like this: the alternatives don't work. We have tried the only alternatives to accepting and celebrating same-sex relationships: special status and repression, and both have failed catastrophically. Repression of Gay and Lesbian relationship through laws restricting acts of love between adults no longer passes constitutional muster in the United States (and nobody has even tried to get such a law past the Canadian Charter of Rights). But legal rights aside, repression has had such disastrous results that no responsible government, tasked with preserving a working economy, would engage in it. Consider the case of Alan Turing, the mathematician who laid the foundation of computer science, and later put his discoveries to work constructing the computers that broke the Nazi enigma codes. In 1952, the British police discovered he had a gay relationship, and hounded him to his death. That single act of misplaced morality cost the British the services of one of the twentieth century's great geniuses, and probably any chance at keeping the lead in computer development. Killing Alan Turing probably cost the British economy a trillion pounds over the last half century. Quite apart from the monstrous cruelty of the treatment Turing suffered, millions of other people lost opportunities because of what the British authorities did to him. Neither government nor industry will take these risks today, which explains why private employers moved ahead of governments in support of committed same-sex relationships; they want to attract and keep skilled and talented workers.

Most opponents of same-sex marriage no longer even try to defend the history of repression; they appear to accept the ugly images of police harassment and humiliation of Gay men and Lesbians belong to the same lamentable past as the routine humiliation of women and racialized people. But they still insist that recognition of the rights of Gay men and Lesbians must stop short of marriage. Regardless of the ethics of insisting that any group of people settle for second-class status, the status of outsiders for Gay men and Lesbians has not worked out well. Equality, after all, carries with it responsibility; if we choose not to accept Gay men and Lesbians as equals, we diminish their responsibility to the rest of us. We can hardly blame those we deny the institutions that foster permanent connections for behaving promiscuously. A line from the heartbreakingly beautiful movie Outrageous! contains a reminder, grim in hindsight, of the days of irresponsible promiscuity, when one character says to two handsome young men: "I'll have to take both of you; I'm too horny to make up my mind." In 1977, it seemed that the Gay community could indulge such behaviour; it seemed that the straight community could keep marriage as "our" institution, and indulge a sense of superiority into the bargain. Today, we know we never had that luxury: if we exclude anyone from the rights and responsibilities of life, everyone faces the consequences.

Today, it seems that the best way of expressing those responsibilities, and the sense of belonging that comes with them, comes with participation in, and affirmation of, marriage. To deny Gay men and Lesbians this choice seems, in the end, a self-defeating choice.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

NIMBY without the varnish

Downtown Toronto's local paper, the Bulletin, thinks Porter Airlines belongs at Pearson International Airport. No surprise there; they have generally opposed operations at Toronto City Centre Airport. But they make their case for an alternative in unusually bald terms: Porter belongs at Pearson. Their stated reasons have a well-worn ring to them: they refer to air traffic as a "blight", and they term the waterfront "residential" and "tourism oriented".

Calling the waterfront "residential" begs the question: what about the people who live near Pearson? Anyone with access to Google and the Canadian census (now on the web, although you have to work a bit to get the data) knows that 58,000 people live in the neighbourhood directly across the road from Pearson Airport, with houses considerably closer to the Pearson flight paths than any dwelling on the central waterfront comes to the Toronto City Centre Airport flight paths. If people live near Toronto City Centre Airport, which will at most handle 3% of Toronto's air traffic load, and people live near Pearson, which handles the other 97%, what makes imperative that we relieve the downtown neighbourhoods of any burden at all, and shunt it off to the people of Rexdale and Malton? The argument from tourism rings hollow; considering how many tourists get to their destinations, people who live near an airport have something to do with tourism as well. The Bulletin's argument seems to suggest that the downtown deserves all the jobs and the urban beautification that tourism brings, while Rexdale and Malton should get all the noise.

Needless to say, I disagree. I suspect most people who live under the Pearson flight paths would disagree. And I hope the more preceptive of the people who live on the downtown waterfront see they have more to gain from a city that at least tries to share environmental burdens than they have to lose by putting up with 3% of the air traffic that keeps this city wealthy and culturally vibrant.

Monday, October 12, 2009 much can you blame them?

The Obama administration would very much like to resettle the Guantanamo detainees their predecessors picked up in error; the innocent people (mostly men) caught in the backwash of the badly misnamed war on terror. In the frantic early days after 9/11, when so many of us thought al Qaeda had the resources to mount a whole campaign of terror against the United States, a terrorist was a terrorist if his uncle, or his tribal leader, or the bounty hunter who showed up with him in Peshawar or Kandahar said so. We all know the result that the Obama Administration wants us to help make up for.

And we ought to. We took part in the war on terror. To the eternal credit of our government and especially of M. Chretian, we wanted to see it waged sensibly, but we had, and have, troops and special forces in Afghanistan and ships in the Indian Ocean. Some of the people taken into custody by our forces almost certainly ended up in Guantanamo or some other, even more secret prisons. We didn't make the mess, but we helped. So why not help do justice now?

Well, for exhibit 'A', meet Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security for the United States, who eight years after 9/11 thinks Mohammed Atta and his fellow evildoers entered the United States over the Canadian border, and who has invoked that misconception in defending the expensive and highly disruptive program to require passports from all travelers at the US/Canada border. For exhibit 'B', consider Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen shipped to Syria by the Americans (with the apparent connivance of Canadian officials). The Americans have banned Mr. Arar from their country and their airspace, and still refuse to tell the Canadian government why. If Canadians have a real problem with the persistence of myths in the American public discussion, and if Canadians find the American government less than transparent in the war on terror, we have reason to.

And thanks to another ideology many leading Americans hold dear, the idea of the global economy, any Canadian government that fails of the border file has a lot to lose. We embraced continental economic integration with the Free Trade Agreement, and later extended it with NAFTA. Whether that made sense or not, we now have a fully integrated North American market. Should some American demagogue take advantage of the presence of the remarkably persistent myths of 9/11 hijackers coming from Canada, compounded by any so-called "gitmo terrorists" we accept to severely restrict the border, both countries will get shot in the foot; but the US, a country ten times as big, will take a lot longer to feel the pain.

So much as I like and admire President Obama, and as much as I consider Steven Harper at best a placeholder in the Prime Minister's office, I still have to admit that our government has real reasons not to want to take any Guantanamo detainees.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How issues work

Recently John Lorinc, a columnist with whom I often agree, raised the possibility that the cycling plan might emerge as one of the decisive issues in the 2010 campaign for the mayor's office. A year before the election, the decisive issue has yet to emerge, but clearly some conservative pundits and prospective candidates have started sniffing at possibility of making cyclists that issue. From time to time, a trial balloon floats by on the breeze; a reference dropped into a speech here, and column or two there. With all of this, John Lorinc fears, and a few people presumably hope, that some conservative will ride (pardon the pun) a denunciation of cyclists straight into the mayor's office.

To understand whether this will happen, and for cyclists to prevent it from happening, it might help to look carefully at the way issues work; how people make decisions based on particular political promises. David Miller did get elected mayor in 2003 largely on the strength of his promise to cancel the bridge to Toronto City Centre Airport, but why did that promise work for him? The common description of the bridge as a "wedge" issue doesn't fit very well. A wedge issue, according to the usual definition, splits your opponent's supporters. In Canadian politics, the gun registry functions as a wedge issue: it separates the worried urban middle class, that likes tough on crime policies but doesn't like guns, away from rural conservatives. For years, the gun registry made it politically impossible for conservatives like Stockwell Day to make common cause with anti-crime activists like Priscilla deVilliers. You have a wedge issue when two halves of your opponent's coalition (or potential coalition) will die on opposite sides of the same hill. But few people in the coalition behind Barbara Hall or, as far as I know, John Tory coalition wanted their candidate to persist in supporting the bridge if it meant defeat.

His stance on the bridge did not so much split David Miller's opponents as attract supporters to him. But how did opposition to the bridge work for him? Looking back on that year, I think the bridge and the airport brought David Miller's campaign two things: an issue that influential segments of civil society coalesced around, and a symbol. The idea of a bridge over the Western Gap offended boaters, an influential group in Toronto politics and society. Meanwhile, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health had concerns about the effects of aviation-related emissions on the waterfront. As a result, at least two large, elite groups came together in opposition to the proposed bridge, and their support had nowhere to go but David Miller's campaign.

Meanwhile, the coalition campaigning against the airport and the campaign to elect David Miller, both together and separately, worked to paint the bridge as a holdover from the Lastman years, and a product of corrupt lobbying by an unaccountable financial elite and a remote and uncaring Federal government. They worked to portray opposition to the airport and the bridge as a symbol of commitment to a livable city as opposed to a profitable business community.

The symbolism had a darker flip side, whether David Miller and his supporters intended it or not. Since the 1970s, a basically conservative elite governed Toronto by consensus. They had a positive influence on the city, exemplified by the "tiny perfect mayor", and later Conservative MP David Crombie. As immigration reshaped Toronto culturally, racialized communities, with their own issues and needs, migrated to the ring of suburbs around the city. The concentration on an issue of greatest interest to the central waterfront neighbourhoods signaled that the wealthy, educationally privileged "creative class" that dominated Toronto politics for thirty years would continue to shape city politics for some time to come.

What does this mean for cyclists?

For one thing, it suggests we do not need to panic. Most of the conditions that made stopping the bridge into a winning issue for David Miller do not apply to the attempts to make cyclists an issue. The well organized segments of civil society that opposed the airport bridge do not oppose cycling, and we may actually count on support from some of them. That leaves the risk that some demagogue may try to harness the inarticulate resentment some motorists feel against cyclists by attaching a meaning to it. While I do not like to underestimate risks to the cycling community, very few politicians have the talent to harness inarticulate resentment. Certainly, David Miller never did: he had strong and solid community groups pressing for a clear and limited measure. Nor have David Miller's failures turned the whole population of Toronto into clones of Mike Harris. The city as a whole remains progressive, concerned about livability, and receptive to anti-pollution measures. As a cyclist, I believe in staying engaged and concerned, but I do not expect opposition to my bicycle to emerge as anyone's winning issue.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Today, CTV News put the headline "American legislator calls Canada 'parasitic'", with the attached story, on their front page. Clicking into the story, I discovered that Dr. Carolyn Bennett, a Liberal MP and medical doctor, had testified before an American house committee, and one of the minority (Republican) members had regaled  her with codswallop about how the US does all the world's medical innovation. He didn't even single out Canada; he threw France in with his list of so-called "parasites" as well, although I seriously doubt the French media will take much note of what he said.

Why do we? Why do Canadian media seem to highlight negative comments about Canada by American Senators and members of the House, no matter how minor or marginal? I remember once CBC had an aide to Senator Helms trashing Canada's engagement with Cuba. I remember thinking that it would surprise me very much if any American network would give a second of air time to this ranting minion of the most controversial (read widely disliked) member of the American senate. Yet our national network duly gave him time and attention.

I think Canadians should pay serious attention to informed, intelligent criticism of our national policies. I do not think we should pay attention to comments just because a US legislator utters them. We should definitely have a conversation about Canada's contribution, both historical and ongoing, to medical innovation world-wide. If we discover that we don't contribute enough, we should increase our funding, and find ways to improve the incentives we offer to innovators. We have had this conversation before, in many respects, it goes on all the time. But we don't need to define ourselves by what other people say, particularly when those people have their own agenda: in this case, a health system that siphons 16% of the wealth produced by the world's largest and most productive economy, and delivers no more than medicre results.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Gentle angry people

The Star called it a "protest". The CBC, more accurately, called it a memorial.

Last Tuesday, like many other Toronto cyclists, I learned of the death of Darcy Alan Sheppard on one of Toronto's main streets. The next day, Wednesday, I pedalled downtown to take part in a memorial ride. I regularly take part in these rides; indeed, I ride in them much too often. This time, the extreme violence on the incident made it more compelling for me to attend. As I approached Avenue Road on Bloor, an increasing number of cyclists joined me. I spotted a cycling acquaintance from my end of the city, and expressed to him the incoherent grief and anger I felt. A knot of cyclists and cycle couriers had gathered at the actual site of Al Sheppard's death, and I worried for a moment that I had missed the actual ride. I asked a cyclist if people still planned to gather for the ride at Bloor and Bay, then rode, past an officer talking to a cyclist, and over to Bay. I looked on the wrong corner for a moment, saw very few cyclists, then noticed the south-east corner of the intersection, the open space in front of the Manulife Centre. Bicycles and riders covered every inch of it. I felt deeply moved, and the phrase "We are a gentle angry people" came to my mind.

A short while later, the ride began; we first rode east to Yonge Street, then south. As we rode down Yonge Street a thousand strong, bicycle police held up traffic on the side streets to ensure the safety of the ride. We turned west on Queen, and as we passed the cenotaph in front of Old City Hall, the trumpeter who often rides with us sounded the notes of Last Post. In a ritual four thousand years old, we sounded the horns in memory and honour of our dead. The ride went as far as University Avenue, where we turned north toward the place where Darcy Alan Sheppard met his end. As we turned, the ride caught up with a young man riding north on University in a suit. He asked one of the cyclists about the ride that engulfed. We explained, and I added another phrase that came to mind. In JRR Tolkien's The Two Towers, Gandalf explains that the two Hobbits Merry and Pippin have come to the forest of the Ents, the great tree shepherds, and adds:
A thing is about to happen which has not happened since the Elder Days: the Ents are going to wake up and find that they are strong.

Then we returned to the corner of Avenue Road and Bloor. First, we raised our bicycles in a salute to Dacy Alan Sheppard, then we observed a moment of silence. I saw the young man in the suit had stayed with us, and I thanked him. Slowly, the crowd thinned out. An ambulance came along, and we quickly cleared a lane for it. Then the police told us we could keep one of the lanes of Bloor, but they needed to open one eastbound lane. I decided to head for home.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

What is it with the end of August?

Yesterday, running errands on my bike, I rode West on Dundas West, when a small Golf came up on my left side and then abruptly turned into the parking lot. I braked hard, and as my bike skidded forward, the car turned right into me. The side of the car pushed against my leg and pressed my bike into the kerb, but as we converged at a sharp angle and I had nearly slid to a stop, I got out of it unhurt, and my pedal didn't even scratch the car door.

Not a bad outcome, for me; another Toronto cyclist fared far worse, but still, what is it with the end of August?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Time, space, and the suburbs

Last week I saw a movie at the Cineplex Odeon Queensway, a huge multiplex in Etobicoke. I have often enjoyed two pieces of sculpture on the property: a metal canopy by Jean McEwen entitled Between Heaven and Earth, and a soaring spiral tower (I don't know the artist's name or title) that has a weird resemblance to Tatlin's Monument to the Third International.

On this visit I noticed something I hadn't seen before: a row of beautiful old maple trees lining the parking lot to the northwest of the theatre. They were evenly spaced, with trunks I would guess about two metres around, and generous , spreading branches. From the leaf shape I think they were some less common type of maple, maybe mountain maple or striped maple.

I found it intriguing to speculate about who had planted them in such a regular way, and why. Had this row of maples lined the driveway of some vanished farmhouse? Unlikely, since there was no answering row of trees. Were the maples planted by some enlightened factory-owner to provide shade for picnicking workers at lunch? More likely, especially since this was, I believe, an important area for defence industries in World War Two. Or were the trees planted by the municipality to line a street, now swallowed up by the entertainment complex?

In any case, the trees provided a graceful link to an earlier time, a puzzling yet powerful reminder of the existence of the past amidst an instant landscape.

My second experience, somewhat related, occurred today. I visited Woodbine Racetrack (again, in Etobicoke) for the first time, accompanied by young lady, in order to watch the races and bet on the horses (we bet $40 and won $32, not a bad price for an afternoon's entertainment for two). The race track forms part of a very large complex. The building that houses the stands is a large, modern facility, impressive in many ways, with its horse-themed photomurals and super-efficient staff.

However, in some ways the building's slickness made it seem more like a mall--one felt this especially in the food court. It didn't have exactly the kind of rakish excitement that I associate with horse races in old Hollywood movies.

What fun then, to step out of the sliding glass doors, and find just the kind of simple, uncomfortable, outdoor stadium seats that one might see in a 1930s drama. The racetrack designers made a conscious design, in this part of the facility at least, to stick with tradition. We sat down, felt the cool breeze and we knew that our horse was going to win!

Drunk driving and the purpose of justice

In sentencing Garth Drabinsky, Madam Justice Mary Lou Benotto clearly appealed to a widely accepted principle: that the punishment for a crime has purposes that go beyond just the offender. We jail murderers even if we believe they will never in their lives kill another person. We jail perpetrators of corporate fraud to make the point that, as Ms. Benotto said in her sentencing, society does not allow individuals to make their own rules. In other words, the law employs retribution as communication. The courts express the displeasure of society with harmful actions, they communicate our prospective disapproval to any other people who might find the behaviour tempting. So many authorities have laid out these foundations of retributive justice, the expression of our collective outrage at a crime, and the deterrence of others, that they hardly need repeating.

Models of justice other than retribution clearly exist, and have much to recommend them. In his book Dancing with a Ghost, Rupert Ross describes the First Nations understanding of justice approvingly, and notes that we have the justice system we do because "we live in a society of strangers." He clearly finds the First Nations concepts or restorative justice attractive, and quotes a First Nations elder: "we know you have a legal system; we aren't sure it's a justice system." I worked in prison literacy for a long time. I have shaken the hands of child killers and taken flowers to the parents of murdered children. I know some of the limits of the justice system. Retribution does not bring anyone back. It offers catharsis, or "closure", more often in fiction than in fact.

But I know this too: that the justice system makes no sense at all when it makes distinctions not between harms but between instruments. The law ought to discriminate between harm done by negligence and harm done by malice. But the courts ought not to make a distinction between a child killed by negligence with a car bumper and negligence with a Glock. I have read about drunk drivers leaving a trail of death and getting lenient sentences, and of defence lawyers allowed to argue before juries that "any of us" could have driven drunk and killed. From time to time, I read a variation of the bitter comment that if you want to kill someone, you can best do that by getting drunk and running them over.

It does not do to blame this state of affairs on the courts; the courts simply reflect a more general unwillingness to face up to the responsibility that operating a machine as potentially lethal as a car entails. We make excuses for drunk drivers that we would never make for someone who went into a convenience store to get the money and ended up shooting the clerk. Whether we want retributive justice or restorative justice, we should apply it fairly and consistently, and without regard for the instrument by which the criminal committed the offence. We should not have one law for a thief with a pry bar and another for a thief with a calculator and an account book. Similarly, we ought not to have one law for a killer with a gun and another for a killer with a car or truck.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Union buys future division to settle now...

I don't think the mayor won this strike. And I know the people of Toronto, particularly the children who went without pools and summer programs, the students who went without jobs, and anyone within smelling distance of an "emergency" garbage dump lost. So quite a few commentators argue that the union won, that the city "caved". In the short term, that may very well hold true. But in the long term, the unions signed onto deal that prolongs the problems with the sick bank by postponing a resolution. In effect, union negotiators, and the members who ratified the deal, have kicked a problem down the road to their successors.

The city negotiators who first accepted a contract with the sick day bank provisions might have hoped the city would prosper enough to fund the eventual payouts with no difficulty. Unfortunately, the union should have no illusions about the problems that the compromise they have accepted will create. Whether future contracts come up for renewal in good times or bad, in every future contract the union will have to face the option of giving up the sick bank for all employees in return for a larger pay increase, or perhaps even a smaller pay cut. In other words, until the union finally accepts the end of the sick day bank, members will face the same choice at each successive contract: fight to keep the benefit for some of the workers, or trade it for something for all the workers.

Allowing a contract clause that keeps a perk for some workers but not others flies in the face of what unions represent; it creates a permanent division and conflict of interest in the workplace. That would cause enough trouble, but for the next few contracts, the greatest conflict will take place between new workers and those hired in the 1970s and early 80s. Given the demographics of Toronto, this means a conflict between a young and very multi-cultural cohort entering the work force, possibly with an actual majority of workers of colour, and a more "white" cohort nearing retirement. Unless the poisonous legacy of two centuries of modern racism evaporates over the course of this contract, CUPE has bought a serious challenge to solidarity over the next two years.

I don't call that much of a win for the union.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A bad week...

One week ago, an irresponsible driver seriously injured five cyclists riding in a bicycle lane and then left the scene. Cathy Anderson, 45, Hilary McNamee, 26, Rob Wein, 35, Rob Harland, 45, and Mark White, 33, had all gone for a training ride in preparation for a half marathon. Their route, March Road, had a wide bicycle lane. Police investigators allege that 45-year-old Sommit Luangpakham plowed straight through the group at about 8:00 last Sunday morning. Police have charged him with leaving the scene of an accident, and will consider other charges as their investigation proceeds. As of the last news story available, Mr. Wein remains unconscious and in critical condition. Over the week following this horrible crash, at least two other motor vehicles have collided with cyclists.

I read about these tragedies and think about how easily they can happen, how but for the Creator's Grace I might end up on the side of a road, critically injured. At one of the ghost bike memorials I attended, one of the participants said "they kill us and they kill each other; what can we do?" I can think of many things we can do, but above all, I think we need to end the culture of entitlement that surrounds the automobile. When people comment on these stories, we read again and again that cars "always win" by simple physics; regardless of the law, a two-tonne car always beats a bicycle. Comments like this imply, or sometimes state outright, that motorists always ought to win because they have a big bomb. We will have a lot more peace on our roads when more people begin to understand that a bully with a car threatens the lives and peace of those of us who obey the laws as a bully with an Uzi or a Glock.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A scene from a garbage strike

Our family has (so far, touch wood) had enough room to store our garbage, bulk composting, and recycling. It helps that we paid for the largest size garbage and recycling bins. It also doesn't hurt that we have had a (vegetable) compost bin in the back yard of every house we have owned during our marriage.

But a couple of nights ago, the raccoons severely tested our preparations. I don't know if CUPE 416 has made Toronto's raccoon population honorary members of the local, but the longer the strike goes on, the more opportunity the raccoons have to get fat and make a mess. They certainly got through the bungee cords we used to close our green bin, and made a terrible mess of our shed. To prevent a repetition, we bought an extra bin, some contractor-grade 3-mil garbage bags, and three lengths of chain. We now have all the garbage a raccoon can eat (or the raccoons might think they can eat) in bins closed with chains and screw shackles. We'll see if the varmits can open that.

Where do my sympathies lie? 10% with CUPE and 90% with the ordinary citizens of this city, especially the young, elderly, poor and vulnerable. The city management botched the negotiations as thoroughly as possible: their initial offers to CUPE went way past inadequate. In the context of the contracts with other city workers, to say nothing of the pay raise the councilors voted themselves, the city's offer insulted the members of CUPE 416 and 79. The offer essentially amounted to a pay cut, told the workers they contributed less to the city than other workers (less even than city council). I find it hard to forgive the incompetence of the city politicians, particularly when I contemplate how easily my family has gotten through this strike so far, and what having the pools closed must mean to a family that can't afford to buy their kids a season's pass to Canada's Wonderland.

But the behaviour of the picketers, and the angry reactions of the local when the city made its offer public, raise the uncomfortable question: when a public service union goes on strike, who have they struck against? The managers and politicians, or us, the public, generally?

The time has long since come for Toronto politicians to make a deal CUPE can live with, or at least to make a solid, decent offer. And when the city makes a decent offer, the time has come for the unions to take it. I and my family have the resources to ride out a long strike; not all residents of Toronto have such good fortune.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Notes on a walk...

I went for a walk to get coffee. On Jane Street, just above Bloor, a crosswalk serves the students of St. Pius X school. I pushed the button, held up my hand-- and two cars promptly zoomed through the crosswalk. The first might have had an excuse; perhaps the driver found themselves too close to the intersection when I pushed the button. The second I can only fault for not paying attention (in fairness, most of us have committed this particular offence). I looked to see if the lights on the crosswalk had some problem, then waited until I saw vehicles approaching from both sides visibly slowing down.

I have often thought that if drivers need a reason, beyond the law and simple decency, for taking care at crosswalks, they should consider the following: because pedestrians face such serious consequences if a driver does not stop at a crosswalk, pedestrians will wait to cross until they see cars slowing down. That, of course, delays traffic. And the more drivers breeze through crosswalks, the more pedestrians will wait, just to make sure drivers have really prepared to stop. The more pedestrians do that, the more traffic gets delayed. So if you want to get somewhere on the roads in Toronto in a car, pay attention to the crosswalks and stop.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Notes on a ride

I rode downtown yesterday in the heat of the afternoon, not the best idea for someone recovering from strep throat and with a heavy load of antibiotics on board, but going without riding for too long makes me nervous, depressed, and then I can't function. And right now, I need to work well.

On my way downtown, I passed a side street with a Purolator van coming out of it, and the driver pushed the stop sign. He didn't stop on the white line, he edged into traffic. That got me thinking that I had no way of knowing whether he saw me and would have stopped well short of my path, or whether timing alone made the difference between me scooting past him and me ending up as a hood ornament on his truck. Another white bicycle and another motorist saying they just didn't see the cyclist. And that got me thinking that car and truck drivers have to remember how threatening their moves can look to cyclists. In a car, I have a steel cage, crumple zones, and air bags to protect me. In a bike, I have about a quarter millimeter of cotton. So when you see a cyclist (or a pedestrian) heading your way, and you have a stop sign, stop. Stop at the white line. You may see us, you may intend to stop well short of our path, but we don't know that. And if you don't stop, we end up getting badly hurt or killed.

Then on Bloor street, I rode downtown in company with a cyclist who jumped the stop light at every intersection. He headed out when the light for the street opposite turned red, a second or so before the light facing us turned green. That made me think, too. Partly, I thought about the disagreements in the cycling world; we can't seem to make up our minds whether to obey the traffic laws, and criticize cyclists who don't, or whether we want to flout those laws. It also made me think this: the second or so pause in the traffic lights in Toronto gives traffic time to clear the intersection; it gives everybody breathing room. If you make a habit of jumping ahead the moment the other light turns red, you defeat the purpose of a safety feature.

Finally, I notice that several months after the city council voted for bike lanes on Annette, the parking signs still haven't changed, which means motorists endanger themselves and us by parking in bike lanes (with their cars sticking out into the high carbon emission lane).

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What took you so long....

...and have you really shown up?

Leah Sandals and Toronto Star reporter Murray Whyte describe the emergence of a new collective that calls themselves the "Creative Class Struggle". This group focuses on the flaws in the theory of the creative class, and the person of Richard Florida. I strongly support the first focus, but I have serious reservations about the second.

My reservations about making a particular university professor the focus of this enquiry involves two objections, one major and the other minor. The focus on a single faculty member concerns me, partly because I dislike a focus on one person on general principle, and partly because some the kinds of objections raised to Professor Florida's presence, his inadequate teaching load and his unconscionable salary, reminds me of other conversations in other places, part of a larger conversation that has gone around and around academia forever. Also, I do not believe Professor Florida represents a symptom of the problems in our society, or that any conceivable social change will dislodge him. Men and women gifted at expressing and affirming the hopes of their societies have prospered under every system known in history. From the praise singer of ancient culture to the Bards of pre-Christian Europe to theoreticians who found their place in the Soviet Nomenklatura, I cannot think of a society in which writers and thinkers have not both prospered and provoked rivalries.

But the greatest problem with the focus on Professor Florida lies with the way this focus distorts his relationship to our city. Richard Florida did not come to Toronto to make it in the image of his ideas; he came because the city already expresses his ideas, and has done so for some time. I would argue that if we want to make a serious try at addressing the influence of Dr. Florida's ideas, we have to address the way our city expresses them. And we'll know we have done the job right if it makes us very uncomfortable.

To start with the obvious, well before Richard Florida came to Toronto, our current mayor, David Miller, called the industrial waterfront a "wasteland", and declared that the skilled workers, the pilots, aircraft mechanics and others who work at Toronto Island (City Centre) Airport should have no place there. The group most vociferous in their demands destroy the airport, Community Air, once made the connection between their demands and their vision of a waterfront reserved for the "creative class" explicit, claiming that failing to destroy the airport would imperil the waterfront's "potential as a major tourist, recreational, cultural, knowledge worker, and residential area serving the entire Greater Toronto Area.... Film makers, outdoor entertainment venues, restaurants, boaters and other recreational users, condo developers, and high tech businesses would all begin to flee..." (emphasis mine)

If we push industry and transportation away from the waterfront, where will they go? The city has a vision for that, too; for some time, transportation planners have prepared a special train to take passengers to Pearson International Airport from downtown. So does anyone live near Pearson? It happens that many more people live right near Pearson International Airport and its flight paths than live on the downtown waterfront. It also happens (surprise) that the people living in the neighbourhoods near (in some cases directly adjacent to) Pearson have, on average, about exactly half the household income of the people living in the downtown waterfront.

This process got rolling long before Professor Florida ever arrived on the scene. He came because a large part of this city's official ideology suited him perfectly. When it comes to the ideology of the creative class, and the issues of privilege (at all levels), disenfranchisement (for a long time, some waterfront advocates refused to acknowledge that the people of Malton even existed, insisting that Pearson Airport had a large buffer zone) and equity in public policy.

But that raises a problem: many prominent leftists in this city actively participated in the efforts to socially cleanse the waterfront in favour of "clean" high tech, creative-class industries. If we want to truly address the ideas that Dr. Florida puts forward, we will have to look hard at why he found such a congenial home here, and that look will not necessarily feel comfortable or pleasant. If you truly want to take on these issues, then I very much look forward to exploring them with you. If you just want to scapegoat one successful academic, someone else will eventually come along and ask us to think about what about us attracted this individual.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Civic menaces

Last night, at a meeting in north-west Toronto, at a school near highway 400 and Jane Street, community police officers encouraged the community to use their parks and other public spaces. When people assert their right to use a park, they said, the drug dealers and hoodlums find another place. They don't like the light and they don't like traffic and they don't like having ordinary people going about their lawful affairs near them.

Meanwhile, closer to the south end of Jane Street, near Jane and Dundas, the neighbourhood I live in has had four murders in the past three weeks. The police suspect three of these killings have some relation to gangs and drugs. One of them probably involved mistaken identity. The most recent murder victim in the area, a fourteen-year-old, attended my kid's school last year. Two of these killings took place within half a kilometre of where two friends of ours live. At the same time, a park near the south end of Jane Street, once alive in the mornings, now stands largely deserted. But the people who use this particular park don't fear drug gangs much. People have avoided the park because the authorities have it up. They have the place under high-profile surveillance. This does not reassure people in the area, because the authorities here have a target other than drug gangs or child killers in mind: dog walkers. City bureaucrats, apparently intent on their annual spring meddle, have sent by-law officers to crack down on off-leash pets. The park, once home to dozens of people in the morning, now stands deserted. Intrusive signs have sprung up, ordering people to keep dogs on leash and on the paths.

The police, who have to deal with actual crime, want Toronto communities to claim their public spaces. The city bureaucracy sends exactly the opposite message: these spaces belong to us, not you, we will decide how they get used, the neighbourhood has no voice, and we will punish anyone who violates the ukase from downtown. This has put the neighbourhood on edge. Nobody seems to know where this impulse to disrupt the informal mechanisms of our community came from, we don't know how to deal with it, and we don't know how to resolve it. We just know that where a pleasant morning activity that did more than most other things to help people get to know their neighbours used to happen, now we have high-profile surveillance (men in black trucks lurking and taking pictures) and an empty park.

Needless to say, I completely agree with the real police: we have no better way of preventing gang activity than building involved communities. But when city bureaucrats insist that only their regulations matter, that the hundred informal relationships that make a community work do not matter, they make this process far more difficult. More than that, they foster an attitude that pits the city as a whole against the local needs of neighbourhoods. When I first came here, I stood up for a policy designed to improve the environment for the city, the policy of intensive development in areas near subway stations so that people would not need cars. I got called "Judas" for it. I have begun to see where this NIMBY impulse comes from. If those who claim to represent the "city as a whole" regularly meddle and disrespect the informal mechanisms that keep Toronto's neighbourhoods civil, why exactly should anyone, support measures designed to benefit parts of the city we don't live in?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Environmental fairness

The Globe and Mail quotes Cameron Doerksen, an analyst with Versant Partners Inc., as saying that because of competition from Porter Airlines, "WestJet... has actually cut back on capacity relative to two years ago." Capacity, in this case, means flights. Because of the establishment of Porter Airlines, fewer jets fly out of Pearson International Airport. Those of us who supported Porter on the grounds of environmental fairness, in the hope that traffic coming out of Toronto City Centre Airport might offer some relief to the people of Rexdale and Malton, who bear the vast majority of the environmental problems coming out of Toronto's use of air travel, may have seen the beginning of that change.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Running of the Pugs!

Every year, the Toronto Pug rescue organization holds an event called "the running of the pugs" to celebrate the joys and amusements of living with the noble pug. This video shows the 2009 running of the pugs. Enjoy.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

If the dry cleaner asks...

about those bite marks on the seat of Mayor Miller's trousers, he can tell them that his most fervent, and most demanding batch of supporters, Community AIR, ran out of patience with him. Again. The waterfront lobby claims they have never yet "gone public" with their frustration with Mr. Miller; that depends on what they mean by going public. Representatives from Community AIR have certainly seldom hesitated to make their desires known to the mayor and the city. And the limits of the mayor's ability to deliver have seldom failed to frustrate them.

Three stubborn facts continue to obstruct the members and supporters of Community AIR, and they remain stubbornly tone-deaf in their approach to these facts. First, the environmental effects of air traffic raise regional issues, and affect people in other cities beside Toronto. And that matters, because Mayor Miller will find it much harder to get support for initiatives such as regional transit if he has alienated cities on all sides of Toronto. The members of Community AIR can claim, as they did in their latest leaflet, that the aviation activities they find intolerable on the waterfront "belong" at Pearson International Airport. Community AIR, of course, has the freedom to claim that the aviation belongs at Pearson, and that the environmental effects of aviation belong in the ears and lungs of the people in Rexdale and Malton. But Mr. Miller has to get along with the politicians who represent the voters in Rexdale and Malton, as well as North Pickering, where the GTAA wants to build an airport. Community AIR can dismiss these people and their interests; the Mayor of Toronto, not so much.

Secondly, most of the airport lands belong to Transport Canada, precisely because in Canada we depend on our transportation system for our country's economic and political health. More even than most nations, we cannot do without a system of transport that includes aviation. And while Toronto City Centre Airport can only play a minor role in the passenger transport system, reliever airports, including Toronto City Centre, typically play a much more prominent role in the medical transport system, And Toronto City Centre Airport handles, on average, ten medical flights a day. Transport Canada has no intention of ignoring the needs of those ten flights, nor will they hand the city title to the airport property for nothing.

Community AIR has one thing right: their rhetoric helped make Toronto City Centre Airport an issue that David Miller rode to victory in the Mayor's race, over at least two candidates who would, in my opinion, have done a much better job of governing. But overheated claims do not stand the test of time very well. The jet fleets pictured on David Miller's election posters in 2003 never materialized. His promise to cancel the bridge to the airport cost a great deal more than a twoonie to keep, and now, as Toronto weathers a severe recession, the success of Porter and Bombardier's Q-400 turbo-prop offers one of the few industrial good news stories we have. For a few years, the rhetoric of David Miller and his waterfront supporters captured public imagination, but Bob Deluce provided actual jobs, actual service, and some very deft branding.

But the issue does not simply involve promotion or jobs. Community AIR and their supporters have made a great many contentious claims over the years, and a good number of them have not come true. Consider the claim, made by Community AIR in the 2003 election, that Deluce Turboprops might take the Don Valley VFR corridor to go north of the city. It didn't happen. Or consider the oft-repeated argument that travelling in a Deluce turbo-prop causes more environmental harm than driving a hummer. By my calculations, based on the published fuel consumption figures for various cars, and on the published fuel load and range figures for the Q-400, flying on a Q-400 releases just slightly more greenhouse gasses than driving a car with average fuel economy, less than driving a light truck or SUV, and very considerably less than driving a hummer. Rhetoric may attract public attention, but to keep it, you have to meet actual needs, and make environmental trade-offs that make sense.

Still, Community AIR had so much to do with the election of our current mayor, and enough people have expressed frustration with our current mayor over taxes and services, that Community AIR might hurt him by withdrawing their support. But who, and how, how do they intend to replace him? As far as I know, Community AIR does not have a bull-pen full of Mayoral candidates with great hair. And the arbiters of taste in Toronto have take to gushing over Bob Deluce. By continuing to insist on maximal demands, Community AIR and its supporters have set themselves up for a very likely failure.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Abuse on a schedule...

Every spring, someone vents their rage at cyclists for violating the laws, both the actual traffic laws (red lights, stop signs) and the laws that exist only in their own minds (the ones that forbid us from filtering through stopped traffic because the sight of cheeky cyclists passing them annoys some motorists).

This spring, I find myself wondering if the papers that publish this nonsense might want, at long last, to move on. If the resentment some drivers feel at cyclists qualified as news once, it really doesn't any more. And reading the endless, dreary repetitions of the same set of grievances, I have to wonder if the papers might try to promote peaceful coexistence rather than fan the flames of resentment every year.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Yo, dude...

have you seen my bike lane?

Bicycle lanes in Toronto tend to disappear for four months of every year, under the stress of snowfalls, the problems of driving and parking in winter, and the general reluctance of the police to come down hard on cars illegally parked during the winter. And on Annette Street, where the city council only recently voted to install a bike lane and the street repairs have barely finished, the lane scarcely exists at all.

But now spring has arrived, and the city has painted stripes in preparation for the hard-won bike lanes. But the old parking signs have stayed up all winter, and as of the first week in April, when I took these photographs, the city had not changed the parking signs to reflect the presence of the new lane.

I know that in the spring, the city's traffic engineers have to make good a lot of the damage done by frost and motor traffic over the winter. But it can't hurt to remind the city, in a gentle way, that some work remains on the bike lanes on Annette.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The self-destruct button

Hilzoy, of Obsidian Wings, gets the essential paradox in the spectacle of investment bankers who lost trillions of dollars feverishly defending their bonuses:
If I were an investment banker making millions of dollars a year, I would be trying to convince the people around me to simply take the hit for a couple of years, the better to preserve our ability to go on raking it in in the future.
This raises the obvious question: why don't they do that? Whether you look on this as a matter of mass psychology, a matter of pure supply and demand, or a simple matter of justice, it doesn't matter. Employees who put their company in what amounts to government receivership can hardly claim to have "earned" large bonuses or even high salaries. The collapse of most of the investment banks on Wall Street means that many more traders need jobs than institutions need traders, so the logic of supply and demand argues for a pay cut. And the men and women of Wall Street made their money out-thinking the market; surely they can grasp the current public mood. So why do something that goes against their education, values, and experience?

A serious challenge to any idea will naturally tend to set up a particular dynamic among those who strongly believe in that idea: a tension between the impulse to allow our ideas to evolve, and a fear that compromise with an opposition will unravel them. Several factors can increase the rigidity with which partisans of an idea hold it: the perception that those who defend an idea derive personal advantage from it, or the perception of a connection between ideas that mean compromising one idea would lead to the compromise of other cherished ideas. Consider, for example, this story. I will credit the Vatican and the Brazilian Bishops with enough intelligence and compassion not to actively want a nine-year-old child to carry twins to term. I can only explain this judgement as an expression of fear, the fear that if the church gives any ground at all relating to abortion, they will lose all authority relating to reproductive rights and morality.

Yet nothing destroys an idea as quickly as rigidity. Rigidity confesses weakness. Strong ideas can withstand challenges. Strong ideas can survive compromise. When upholding the implications of an idea leads to harmful results, we generally insist on compromise rather than accept the harm, and good ideas can survive those compromises. We can take children away from parents who abuse them without compromising the ideal of parenthood. We can arrest corrupt politicians without compromising democracy. If the Vatican we cannot accept the actions of doctors who saved the life of a victim of child rape without having the whole edifice of their teaching on reproductive ethics crumble, then perhaps they should think about the apparent fragility of the ideas they teach.If bankers cannot cut their salaries for a few years to save their institutions and the credibility of the financial system, then parhaps they, and we, should reconsider the whole structure of economic inequity in our society.

Friday, March 20, 2009

New comments policy...

Now that blogger allows for the moderation of comments older than a certain number of days, I have removed the moderation requirement on all posts seven days old or less. As before, we welcome comments from all perspectives, as long as the authors follow two simple guidelines:

  1. Avoid all forms of abusive language. That means overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, and ableist language, personal attacks, and plain old profanity.
  2. Do not post spam

If you write with reasonable civility and decorum, you can feel free to challenge us on anything. Not everyone agrees with this choice, but I have three reasons for it. First, I want to make this a lively and challenging forum if possible. To do that, I need people to read and comment. If I invite people to write, to add value to this web log, it seems to me that I have an obligation to give something back, and freedom does not seem to me too much to expect. Secondly, I want my ideas challenged. I have every expectation that they will survive, and if they do, I will have more confidence in them, and probably better arguments for them, than I did before. Finally, I believe I have a responsibility to respect everyone I cooperate with, and that doesn't seem, to me, to include trying to control people's ideas.

So, welcome. I look forward to reading everyone's comments.

No more bull market, and no more excuses for cheerleading it...

Yesterday, the Toronto Star decided to run a column by Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. In it, Cohen objected to Jon Stewart's take-down of Jim Cramer. Mr. Cohen, apparently, has concluded that since the CEOs of companies like AIG and Lehman Brothers lost money of their own in the wreck, that nobody could have predicted the disaster.

Well, I have a link right here, to a blog post by a professor of ethics at John's Hopkins University, dated March 2007, just about exactly two years ago. In it, she looks at the subprime meltdown, and concludes, among other things:
Moreover, the whole business of collateralized debt obligations and similar financial instruments looks likely to contract in a pretty major way. If this spills over into the general credit market, as Nouriel Roubini argues that it will, we will have a credit crunch.
If an ordinary, educated observer with only the background in economics that most educated people with an interest in current affairs have, could write something like that in 2007, just what did the supposed legions of analysts and others at CNBC, and in the business press generally, do with their time between 2007 and the fall of 2008? The bloggers at Obsidian Wings did not have some unique insight; a lot of us looked at the numbers for the fundamentals of the American economy and found them worrying.

Mr. Cohen points out that the captains of this industry suffered personal losses, and suggests that this somehow justifies the failure of the business press to dig into the unfolding mess. Let us leave aside that when corporate leaders sell their stocks just before a crash, the government starts investigating concerns about trading on inside information and subpoenas, trials, and prison sentences often follow. Details such as that obscure the big picture: the leaders of the financial community obviously deceived themselves about the risks they took. That doesn't excuse the business press. They don't work for the CEOs, who have research staffs of their own. The business press works, or should work, primarily for the small investor.

I have no doubt Mr. Cohen actually knows this, but I'll say it anyway: a CEO with a (paper) net worth of two billion dollars can live more comfortably then 99.99% of the world's population after losing 1.9 billion. On the other hand, someone with their kid's college fund in the market who loses fifty thousand dollars has suffered a major reverse. So the business press has a more immediate and pressing moral obligation to the millions of small investors than they do to the few big-time gamblers.

And Jon Stewart spoke for these small investors.He spoke for the people who believed that their modest dreams, of educating their kids, of a good life in retirement, would also help fund the economy, and who got a rude shock when the markets collapsed, and a casino they had never heard of took all their money. Mr. Cohen should listen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Talking about racism: to do versus to be

This also applies to sexism, homophobia, and ableism. Everyone can have a lapse, and in fact, the way our culture works, it gets hard not to lapse into saying something you didn't mean to say. Our culture contains a lot of dark currents, and they get awfully easy to tap into, and then, often before people really know it, they've stepped into a deep dark pool that's lurked just under the surface of our society for generations. And then a lot of ugly assumptions come bubbling up.

For example, our culture has a lot of ideas about people with differences of various kinds as living symptoms of the vices in our society. We have people talking to themselves on the street because we have an alienated culture, or we have turned away from the true path, or we have the genocide of First Nations people in our past. In fact, most of the people who talk to themselves on the street have brains that work differently from those of the rest of us. But accept the idea that difference expresses and carries all the vague guilt so many people encourage us to feel, and some really ugly things can happen.

Or take privilege. We all value the ability to say what we want, and to strive for good things for ourselves and our families and our communities. And we've come to value local activism; in fact, many of us buy the green motto, think globally, act locally. But what many times, we look the other way when what happens globally works to our benefit, even if we would act locally to prevent those things from ever happening in our neighbourhoods. Plenty of people who would "act locally" to shut down an electronics recycling facility near them still buy the newest, greatest computer systems and ignore what happens when a truck takes their old system away.

That doesn't make us bad people, but it does make us people who have choices to make.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Liam Neeson takes us through a very bad script

Sometimes I suspect other actors envy Dustin Hoffman most for getting a major acting award for reading the phone book in "Rain Man". While a great script produces a better product, a mediocre or downright bad script leaves the audience, and the critics, in no doubt about where the entertainment value of a film comes from.

Whatever I think of his decision to bring the script of Taken to life, he has certainly turned in a profitable film that appeals to a large audience and a reasonable number of critics; having seen it, I would say that he had no help at all from the script. At some moments in the film, I found myself literally carried along; the intensity of the performance kept me from noticing the absurdity of the situation. For example, early in the film, Neeson's character finds the identity of a member of the gang, locates him, and then proceeds to try to interrogate him in the worst possible place. This pattern in the script, of making the character relatively clever, subtle and methodical when the action requires it, and utterly foolish and impulsive at other times, persists through most of the film. That may work for setting up certain kinds of suspense, but it does not help us believe in the characters.

The dialogue doesn't do much to entertain the audience, either. The script serves up lines used a hundred times before, sometimes so out of context it hurts to watch. In the lead-up to the penultimate scene, I had to wonder if they really, really intended to do what they did, and then even the legendary acting ability of Liam Neeson could not carry me any further. I found myself thinking that Lloyd Simandl does this kind of thing better. But even as I alternately cringed or laughed as the script went from preposterous to absurd and the remaining minutes of the film ran out, Neeson's performance had a separate life. The script writer may have had complete contempt for the audience, but the actor never stopped giving us everything.

Europe actually has a problem with sex trafficking, one that has absolutely nothing to do with American kids getting kidnapped from upscale Paris apartments (any Albanian gang that decided to try that would find themselves in prison, probably with serious injuries, before you could say Natalee Holloway). A writer with more talent and conscience could have given us a much better film on the subject: made Maggie Grace's character an aspiring journalist, followed the macabre dance of the real slavers, their enablers and victims, the reporter trying to expose them, and the reporter's father in the shadows, ready to protect her and spring his own trap on the villains. Perhaps someone will make that film, or one like it, that tells something like the real story of human trafficking in twenty-first century Europe. And if that film gets made and opens people's eyes, some of the credit may have to go to the people who proved that a bad film about human trafficking could make money, and to the brooding actor who made that film work.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Haven't we spent enough time on this?

I have to wonder how long the politicians in this city will continue doing face plants in an effort to cater to a well-heeled, articulate, and voluble interest group on the waterfront, that has now carried its losing campaign against Toronto City Centre Airport into its seventh year. Most recently, the city tried to levy a hefty tax bill against City Centre Airport, and a dispute advisory panel has ruled that the city can only tax the airport based on the number of passengers it carries. The city of Mississauga collects taxes from Pearson airport on exactly the same basis.

Needless to say, the politicians who want to close the airport want the taxes based on their claims about the value of the land, although in public they regularly claim that they want a park on the property, which would, of course, pay no taxes at all.

Surely the time has long passed to put the issue behind us. The waterfront dwellers, with their lobbyists and supporters, wanted environmental privilege; they lost. Bob Deluce started an airline that now stands as one of the few recent business success stories in Toronto. He won. Maybe we should just move on. Nobody can say the governments of Toronto, Ontario, and Canada do not have more important things to pay attention to.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Terror, courage, and justice

President Obama's decision to lead off his term in office by bringing his administration into compliance with the law has led to some hyperventilating from some quite predictable quarters.

I have written elsewhere about my conviction that the use of torture undermines the foundation of Western freedom, limited government under law, in a way that nothing else can. Preserving that freedom takes courage; a people that writes their government a blank cheque in the name of fear will eventually lose their freedoms to a leader who promises security.

But giving up freedom out of fear of a few hundred plotters in al Qeada does not only denote a cowardice that ill becomes the children and grandchildren of men and women who endured the horrors of battle against the Third Reich. It also shows a rather pathetic inability to evaluate risks. Consider this: in the worst years of the crack epidemic, from 1988 to 1992, homicide statistics from the US Department of Justice suggest that conflict over drugs may have led to over 9000 additional homicides. During that period, young drug dealers indulged themselves in expensive cars and lavish pre-paid funerals. Too often, they used the funeral services before they could legally drive the cars. And yet, with all this mayhem, with almost three times the number of deaths caused by al Qeada's attacks on the United States, the American government never considered suspending the rule of law. The perpetrators responsible for drug wars appeared in courtrooms and enjoyed the rights of any criminal defendant. And the rule of law prevailed; even with the terrorist outrages of 9/11, fewer Americans died violently in the year 2001 than in any of the worst years of the crack epidemic.

So people who fret that a civilised nation and justice system cannot handle a few fanatics hiding in attics and scribbling in Internet chat rooms really need to consider their recent history. The justice process has handled serious bloodshed before, and it can do so again.