Sunday, April 29, 2007

Book review: Crichton's State of Fear

I just finished reading Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. At first I was somewhat put off by the online reviews which ranged from “a several hundred page rant” to “worst book I have read in a long time” to “it rivals and surpasses Gore's inane rant in its true science and rebuttal”, but given the storyline it’s not surprising there are strong emotions expressed in the reviews. In the end I decided to give it a shot.

Regardless whether you are a climate change believer or not, if you can put aside your own perspectives on the science and read it simply as a piece of fiction, then it’s classic Crichton with lots of twists and turns, life-threatening situations and improbable escapes, and the good guys winning in the end. It delivers what a Crichton reader has come to expect – both good and bad.

That’s not to say there’s no validity to Crichton’s underlying message. If nothing else, it should get the reader thinking about what we know for a fact versus what we know because we’ve been told it so many times by the media, by various celebrities (hence the reference in one review to Al Gore), by our political masters, and by some (most? many?) scientists about the nature of the current environmental crisis. Whether the earth is in crisis or not, and the extent to which such a crisis will affect mankind’s future, is something that few of us have the knowledge or skills to be able to make our own determination of fact, so we have come to rely on the environmental movement to educate and inform us. But keep in mind that they have a vested interest in maintaining a state of fear among the population – that’s what drives their government funding and charitable contributions and in fact, keeps many of them employed. So the message is to not simply take everything at face value but to question, question, and question some more. That’s not to say they are wrong, but keeping them honest is the only way we will ever get to the truth and be able to take whatever steps are required to manage our precious earth for generations to come.

Bottom line: If you’re a Crichton fan, you could do a lot worse for a good summer read, just don’t take the science too seriously as Crichton also has a vested interest.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Book review: Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things

This book had such great promise that it was with deep disappointment that I abandoned it half way through – an extremely rare occurrence for me.

The premise is that Canadian author Gary Geddes follows in the footsteps of a 5th century Afghan monk who fled Kabul to China, and who, according to legend, actually sailed to North America and back to China 1,000 years before Columbus. It sounds like a great adventure story, and it should be, but the telling of it left me absolutely indifferent. I felt no sense of empathy towards Huishen and what he might have experienced all those centuries ago, and Geddes’ own experiences were recorded in such a superficial and rapid-fire manner (I was here, and then I went there, and then I did this …..) that I was never engaged enough to care.

It was like your Uncle Albert and Aunt Ida showing you the pictures from their whirl-wind, 14-countries-in-7-days vacation trip to Europe - a series of snapshots with little in the way of connection other than the obvious time line, no tension and no drama. In a word, boring.

Life’s too short to spend it reading uninteresting books – give this one a pass, unless you enjoy Uncle Albert’s slide shows.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Once a pack rat ....

I don’t know if it was the influence of all those TLC shows where the professionals come in to help you reduce and get organized, or just the reality that we were downsizing to a house that was half the square footage and no garage, but whatever the reason, I was brutal in my determination to not move anything I would no longer need. And since we’d been accumulating stuff in that house for 16 years, it meant there was a lot that had to go.

The garage and basement were my playgrounds, so I got the pleasure of cleaning those out of anything that: a) was broken; b) we didn’t use; or c) just wouldn’t fit in the new place. Now I must confess to being a bit of a pack-rat as I rarely throw anything out because I know as soon as I do, I’ll need it for something, so there was a lot to go through. But I bit the bullet and started the cleanup. It was amazing what I uncovered as I burrowed into the back corners of the basement and garage: a 16mm film projector circa 1950 that still made whirring noises, but for which I had no spools and no films; hand made specialty tools for any one of the twenty or so motorcycles I’d owned but for which particular bike I had no idea; several hundred small scraps of various exotic and common hardwoods, none of which were big enough to be anything but kindling; maintenance manuals for every car I’d ever owned or worked on; power tools that had the guts hanging out or were otherwise defunct; used parts from said collection of motorcycles; etc.; etc. Excruciating decisions had to be made whether to keep all 23 v-belts in case the one on my drill press ever had to be replaced, or what to do with the curtain rods that we’d moved from our last house just in case they were needed but which were still stashed between the floor joists with 16 years of accumulated dust on them. It was agonizing work, but after several days and many beers the deed was done and we had one huge pile of good trash to dispose of.

And right on the top of that pile – I remember it clearly – was the original shop manual for the 1972 Honda TL125 trials bike that I had owned back in the mid-90s. I no longer had that motorcycle and I had already shifted my spare parts inventory to someone else, so I had no use for the manual. Out it went.

Fast forward 18 months. We’re now in our new home and the property is ideal for trials riding – lots of rocks, hills, swamps and muddy creeks – and that’s just the driveway! So I get to thinking I should see if I can pick up a decent little trials bike for a few bucks – cosmetics unimportant as long as it runs. The word goes out and some time later the call comes in – there’s a guy who’s had an old trials bike (3 actually) in his basement for 15 years. Two are spoken for but number three is still available. It’s a bit battered but seems to be a good runner, and the price is right – just what I’m looking for. So I’m now the proud owner of a – you guessed it – 1972 Honda TL 125 trials bike.

And it didn’t come with a manual!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I don't really hate the Conservatives

I was at a function last night, and someone said to me, “You really hate the Conservatives, don’t you?”. In actuality, I have been a party agnostic all my voting life, casting my ballot for the party that I felt best shared my vision of a strong, enduring Canada. Sometimes that was the Liberals, and sometimes the Conservatives, but it was never the NDP.

No, I don’t hate the Conservatives. What I hate is the current Conservative leadership – Stephen Harper and his sycophants in senior cabinet positions. This is a group of parliamentarians who appear to have no moral or ethical boundaries when it comes to retaining power and scoring political points. Now you can rightly point out that the Liberals don’t exactly have a stellar reputation in this area either, but then they didn’t run on a platform of principle, trust and transparency. The Conservatives put themselves on a very high pedestal during the last election campaign only to since prove themselves to be no better, and in many ways worse, than the hated Liberals when it comes to dealing with the Canadian people in an ethical, open and honest manner.

It’s a shame really, because many of the Conservative policies resonate very strongly with the public, but their juvenile and arrogant performance on so many fronts simply continues to foster an anyone-but-Stephen-Harper-for-prime-minister sentiment among a very significant proportion of the electorate. So while the Conservative Party could potentially form a majority government, I don’t think Canadians are about to give them that privilege under Stephen Harper’s watch – much to his personal vexation I expect.

Monday, April 16, 2007

What is Stephen harper reading

On March 28, Yaan Martel (Life of Pi) and 49 other Canadian artists attended a special tribute to the arts in Parliament and was somewhat dismayed to find that the Prime Minister made not the slightest attempt to engage with, or even acknowledge, these famous Canadians or their achievements. So he has decided to send Stephen Harper – a man who he says “cares not a jot for the arts” – a classic piece of literature and an accompanying letter every two weeks for as long as he continues to be Prime Minister. The first book, The Death of Ivan Ilych, was sent today, April 16.

Martel is posting the name of the book, the letter, and the response (if any) from the Prime Minister on his web site: Aside from the obvious mischief factor and the interest in seeing what, if any, response he gets, the site will be of interest to all who do enjoy reading because it will give us a recognized author's view of what constitutes a good read and why.

Who knows, there may even be a hockey book in there one day if the classics get no response.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Zoom, zoom

Well, I’m back on the information highway.

I may not be driving a 300 kph Lamborghini (I wish!) but I am in the driver’s seat of a pretty quick Beemer that's giving me about a 30-fold performance improvement. I can now appreciate what it must be like for an Old World Mennonite to finally trade in old dobbin for four wheels and an internal combustion engine.

But there is a downside (isn’t there always?). Now instead of waiting and waiting and waiting for downloads, I’m logging in to every speed test site I can find to convince myself that I'm actually getting the advertised download speeds, and the cost of all the satellite gear and installation was worth it. So although I’m spending just as much time on-line as before, I have yet to see any productivity increase.

I can envision my Mennonite friend doing the same, driving down the road with his eyes being constantly drawn to the speedometer – 30 kilometres an hour, 45 kilometres an hour, 40 kilometres an hour. I just hope he keeps an eye out for his brethren.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Just what we need, another inquiry!

You have to hand it to Canada’s Soiled Government (previously known as Canada’s Slightly Used Government, previously known as Canada’s New Government, updated to reflect recent events); they are certainly teaching us a thing or two about how the Republican political game can be played in this country as well as south of the border. I mean, really, putting an avowed separatist in charge of an unnecessary inquiry commissioned by an unelected Conservative bagman to review spending practices of a previous Liberal government in the middle of an election campaign in all but name is either a brilliant strategic move or a new political low even by Stephen Harper’s already gutter-level standards.

Can the “outing” of the spouse of some unfriendly political opponent be far behind?

Squirrels, nuts and politicians

As the snow fell and fell and fell – on April 12th no less – I was disconsolately watching the antics of a red squirrel helping himself to the seeds and nuts in the birdfeeders on the deck. It made for quite a pleasant diversion from all the bullshit spewing from our political leaders these days. It really is true that politics is a “game” – a blood sport – generally played by white men with big egos and small … well, you get the point.

So it was a pleasant interlude as I watched this small red creature dart in and around the feeders and in and out of the snow, always at breakneck speed. That got me thinking that I’ve never seen a squirrel walk. Sure, you’ll sometimes see them taking a kind of half step or so before they blast off down the path, but that’s more like the half step a basketball player will take to avoid a travelling call, jockeying for position before making a final decision whether to run or not, and to where. Of course the squirrel doesn’t usually have a ball, but the motion strikes me as very similar – a brief pause before continued frenetic action.

Perhaps they can’t walk at all, which must be really upsetting to mama squirrel if all the kids do is race around the house, or tree stump, or wherever they live, all day. What if junior comes racing around the corner and shoots out of a knot hole and blows the family’s entire years worth of stashed acorns all over the living room floor, or worse, out into a snowbank? Mama wouldn’t even be able to give him a whack upside the head for not running in the house, ‘cause he can’t not run. It would be like Stephen Harper curbing his vindictive mean streak.

Nope, some creatures are just born that way, and nothing or no one is going to change them.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Who needs camouflage in Ottawa?

What ever happened to dress uniforms at National Defence Headquarters? It seems that over the past few years more and more of our Ottawa-based military feel that camouflaged combat gear is appropriate for daily wear in the capital.

Having spent a few years in operational units, I fully appreciate the value of combat clothing for people who are out in the field doing the things the Canadian Forces does best. However that is not the case here where the only fighting that gets done is with the Ottawa traffic on the daily commute or with the vast military bureaucracy. And frankly, seeing all those out-of-shape officers and NCOs (there are no enlisted men or women at NDHQ it seems) strutting around the city in full camouflage not only looks ludicrous, it also, I think, brings the entire force into disrepute – let’s face it, most people look like unkempt slobs in combat uniforms. Consider this: How much respect would you have for the authority of the Ottawa Police if they patrolled the city in sweat suits?

So General Hillier, put the combat clothing back where it belongs – in the field as operational wear – and restore a sense of respectability to National Defence Headquarters.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Cabinet meets in Ottawa

Ottawa – Cabinet meeting room, April 11, 2007. Stephen Harper enters the room.

Flaherty: Hey Stevie. How was the trip to France?

Harper: Just awesome Jim. You know those French people are a pretty cool nation. The statue and ceremonies were okay and all, but the best thing was that I found out that a Canadian who fought at Vimy – Chabot-something-or-other – played in the NHL for the Rangers. How neat is that? I’ll have to include that in my book. Overall, an excellent few days except for the Leafs missing the playoffs. It's those damned Senators beating them all the time. Oh well, what's another year in the life of the Leaf Nation, eh? So, how was everyone’s little vacation?

Flaherty: Well I’m still getting flak over that whole income trust thing. People are demanding to know the financial justification for the decision. Like I said in October, we’d better make sure we have all our ducks in a row. We didn’t, and now I have to deal with this crap all the time. Can’t we just make something up?

Harper: Jimbo, like I said back then, we just wait it out. Keep up the bullshit and double-speak – you did a great job on that with the budget by the way – and eventually everyone will either get tired of listening to you or become so confused that they just believe you. Either way we're home free. Rona, how were things with you?

Ambrose: Oh wow! Like, I went to the Junos and met these really cool guys that were in the band! I got autographs and my picture in the paper with them! I even got to touch their instruments!

Harper: Yeah, yeah, whatever. Tony, how has the wait times announcement been received?

Clement: Not so good. It seems that Canadians recall your promises a little differently than you do.

Harper: Don’t worry about it. Like I’ve always said, the best way to win a losing battle is simply to declare success and leave the field. It’s working for Jimbo, it’ll work for you.

Clement: I know, but we haven’t actually done anything.

Harper: That doesn’t matter. Look at John here – he’s done squat but that hasn’t stopped us from blaming the Liberals for everything.

Baird: Speaking of which, we’re going to have to make a decision on whether we want to move forward with the modified Climate Change Bill or not.

Harper: Just maintain the course. Keep telling them we’ll have something to announce in a couple of weeks and do nothing. If everything continues to go according to plan, we’ll be in an election campaign then and we won’t have had to do anything to piss off Alberta or the oil companies. And Stock, what about your field trip over to Kandahar?

Day: Good. It gave me a chance to see how things are going first hand and talk to the boys. I was quite concerned though that the chapel didn't seem to get much use. Fundamentally, I think we have to reduce the number of Sunday patrols so the lads have more time to pray. Maybe we can ...

Harper: Never mind all that. How about the Americans? Did you talk to the Americans like I told you? I want to make sure George knows we’re pulling our weight.

Day: Well CNN was there.

Harper: Good. Now, what do the polls say?

Friday, April 6, 2007

Book review: Time to Say Goodbye

By Reed Scowen.

When I first started reading this book I was immediately impressed with how well it resonated with me – a Quebecer born and raised, who experienced the sometimes violent separatist activities of the 60’s and 70’s and the less violent but no less damaging separation threats of today. If you only read one book about Quebec’s relationship with the rest of Canada (ROC), this is the one. Written by a bilingual English Quebecer from the Eastern Townships who was for many years a member of Quebec's Legislative Assembly, Time to Say Goodbye is clear, concise and sometimes even funny. (When discussing Quebec’s requirement for English signage to be in a smaller font than the French equivalent, Scowen says: “It has not been proven that the English of Quebec have better eyesight than the French.”)

The basic premise of Time to Say Goodbye is that after years of talk about Quebec’s secession, massive infusions of cash into Quebec provincial coffers and Quebec-based businesses, enforced bilingualism throughout the federal civil service (and some provincial civil services), political concessions to meet Quebec’s aspirations as an international player in its own right, French immersion training in virtually all of Canada’s English-speaking schools, etc., etc., etc., we are no closer now than we ever were to satisfying the political elite, the academics and the majority of the population of Quebec. In what is perhaps the best quote in the book, Scowen says: “It’s time for the rest of us to understand and accept that Quebec has already left Canada. Their name still appears on the door and they send somebody around regularly to pick up a cheque. But they don’t live here any more.”

Scowen discusses the fundamental differences between Quebec’s perspective and the views in the ROC to illustrate how the two solitudes will never be able to come to a stable, long-lasting understanding. While we will never see or hear debate at this level, he claims that being a Quebecer (as defined by Quebecers) means being Quebec born and bred and living exclusively in the French language – anything beyond that is superfluous – whereas being a Canadian means being part of a broader, tolerant, multilingual, multi-cultural, and safe society. Certainly Quebecers want many of those things too, but only in a French context. In other words, language trumps all else in matters related to Quebec while language is virtually of no import whatsoever in the ROC.

So our response has been to encourage (or legislate) bilingualism across the country in the hope that Canada will become fluently bilingual and ergo, the problem will be solved. This will never work simply because it completely ignores the fact that Canadians outside Quebec have no incentive to become bilingual other than to appease Quebec or compete for a federal government job. There is no equivalence in the relative importance of the two languages – Scowen uses the example of an Airbus and a taxi as both being transportation, but certainly not equivalent – so there is no economic or other reason for Canadians in the ROC to learn and use what is, in effect, a dying language.

He obviously goes into much more detail on these points, supporting many of his arguments with hard statistics, personal experience, and anecdotal evidence, but the bottom line is that regardless of how debilitating the relationship is (on both sides) Quebec will remain part of Canada “… as long as the rest of the country provides them with an appetizing buffet and an open bar”.

If he's correct (and I believe he is), it's now time for Canada to close the bar and pack up the buffet. The sun will still come up tomorrow, except that it will now signal the dawn of a new and brighter future for both Canada and Quebec. Au revoir. Bonne chance.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A big boy's toys

In recent months, and especially with spring coming, it seems that the latest must-have guy toy is the pressure washer, and today I joined the crowd – 6 HP Honda engine, 3,000 PSI, special this, extra that – woo hoo! Now I can’t wait to spray something and all the mud on the truck from our dirt road will be a good place to start. Tomorrow.... God willing.... If it doesn’t rain.... And if the creek don’t rise.

Anyway that got me to thinking about my ever growing collection of tools – air-powered, gas-powered, electric-powered, man-powered – got ‘em all. I do use them – and to good effect if I do say so myself – but truth be known I use the tools because I’ve got them; I don’t get the tools because I need them. It’s a subtle difference, but it explains why my long-suffering wife thinks that my hobby is wood-working and other handy-man type activities, when my real hobby is collecting wood-working and other handy-man type tools. But it makes her happy to think I’m enjoying all this woodworking and stuff, and I get to keep buying tools. A symbiotic relationship, I think you call it.

Women aren’t immune either though. Let’s talk about cookbooks. My wife and a few of her friends could easily fill the municipal library in any small Canadian town with the extra cook books lining their shelves (space that could otherwise be put to good use for auto mechanics guides or woodworking how-to books). These cookbooks were probably purchased for one specific recipe (Mmmmmm, doesn’t that sound good dear? I think I’ll buy the book.) which may or may not have ever been prepared, and which may or may not have actually been any good. Regardless, there are now dozens of them lying around when everyone knows one good cookbook is all you should need. That’s all my dear old gran had, and as I recall she could whip up a pretty good pot roast on a Sunday. So I figure all those extra cookbooks are just the female equivalent of my power tools, but as long as she keeps putting those great meals in front of me I’m not going to ask too many questions about that.

That's all for now, I have to go and assemble my pressure washer.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Building a better Canada, without Quebec

The constant threat of Quebec separation has, for decades now, forced this country down a path that weakens both Canada in general and the province of Quebec in particular, and like many Canadians, I have long despaired of ever seeing an end to the ongoing demands of its political elite.

In my view, the Clarity Act of 2000 was a cop-out. Instead of trying to legislate the nature of The Question and what constitutes a majority decision, our federal politicians would have better served the interests of all Canadians (Quebecers included) had they tabled an act – call it the Clarity Act if you will - which recognized Quebec for its contributions to Canada and expressed a strong desire for it to remain a part of this great country, but which also outlined, in clear, unambiguous terms, the terms under which the relationship would continue, the most important of which would be that Quebec would no longer be treated as first among equals – no special powers; no international presence; no political “arrangements”. The province and its people would be entitled to the same rights and the same privileges accorded to every other Canadian and every other province - no more, and no less.

Part II of that Act would outline the manner in which Quebec’s secession would be affected in the event that Part I was unpalatable to the majority of people in the province – a very distinct (pardon the expression) possibility.

While discussions surrounding The Quebec Question in the ROC (Rest of Canada) often elicit exasperated responses such as “Let 'em go, the sooner the better." or "Here’s the bill, please pay the cashier on your way out.”, there has been little in the way of cogent, public analysis of the results of such an action – until now. Reed Scowen’s book Time to Say Goodbye: Building a Better Canada Without Quebec offers exactly that – a calm, rational case for a Canada without Quebec.

I have just started to read this book but I have to say that the number of “right on” moments in the first 50 pages indicates that this is a book that every thinking Canadian should read and consider.

There is a better, more prosperous Canada out there, but it may not include Quebec.