Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Too many books

Having just finished a series of rather ‘heavy’ books – most recently Chantal Hebert’s French Kiss: Stephen Harper’s Blind Date with Quebec – I wasn’t up to yet another political, biographical, or military history book. It was time for a break, and so with the temperatures outside hovering around the 32C mark, it was off to the bookstore in search of some summer reading - a good page-turner. Robert Ludlum’s The Ambler Warning was on prominent display so the decision was easy and I’m now enjoying this classic Ludlum thriller. But that will only last a few days and then it will be back to the store to choose something else from the myriad titles available – truly a daunting task given the number of new books being published every year.

According to Bowker there were 375,000 English language books published in 2004 ( Of that number, approximately 18%, or 67,500 were “Adult fiction, poetry, drama and literary criticism”. With poetry, drama and literary criticism being, I assume, a small part of the total, let’s say that adult fiction accounts for 50,000 of those new titles. With a further assumption that fiction has, on average, a shelf life of two years, that means I will have 100,000 titles from which to choose a few books to keep me company on the dock this summer.

100,000 titles. Even if I had the time to read 2 books a week, I could, at best, read 100 books next year - 1/10th of one percent of the books that are available. Clearly the odds are stacked against me picking the best fiction out there so I will do what most of us would do, which is to go with what we know. It’s not unlike eating at MacDonald’s or staying at The Holiday Inn - it may not be 4-star, but you know what to expect. Ditto with the popular authors - Ludlum, Grisham, P.D. James, Follett, Crichton, et al. While the list of books published by these authors can still be somewhat overwhelming (and confusing when books are republished years later with different titles) it’s at least manageable.

So when I’m done with The Ambler Warning, I will return to the bookstore, head to the fiction section and look for authors I know. If, in the process, I happen to come across something by another author that looks interesting, I may pick it up, but that will be by chance only. A pity really, as I know I’m missing lots of good reading, but I’m also missing a lot more bad reading.

Life’s too short to waste on bad books, so we make our choices accordingly.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

More madness on the education front

According to Randall Denley in today’s Ottawa Citizen, it seems that the Ottawa Board of Education is actually considering a policy that will not only not punish students for plagiarising, but also cause teachers to “explore whether there are extenuating circumstances that led up to the academic fraud”. This follows on the heels of an existing policy that prevents educators from penalizing students for not delivering assignments on time, or submitting incomplete assignments.

The article continues, “School superintendent Jennifer Adams explains that modern educational theory suggests that students should be marked on work they complete, not on what they fail to do. That’s why, when a student is caught plagiarizing, “we’re saying it shouldn’t be an automatic zero,” Adams says.”

I assume this is the same ‘modern educational theory’ that has resulted in a younger generation that is largely incapable of stringing together a complete, intelligible sentence. It is the same ‘modern education theory’ that has resulted in an entire generation that has no inkling of the difference between their, they’re, and there. And it is the same ‘modern education theory’ that has graduated into the workforce thousands upon thousands of students whose spelling (in)abilities would have been embarrassing to a 10-year-old thirty years ago.

When we allow education theorists (as opposed to educators) determine how best to educate our young, this is what we get, a generation of self-serving illiterates who come out of our school systems with no concept of responsibility, accountability or commitment. Having seen ample evidence of this during my management years I am convinced, but if the reader is still in doubt about how bad it really is check out any blog, forum, or Facebook entry on the web.

It’s time to take away the keys to the vault and send these theorists back to academia where their damage will be limited to those few unfortunate souls who have them as professors. And in the meantime, don’t be surprised if we in the West continue to lose ground to graduates from those “unenlightened” countries (typically in the Far East) who still believe in the value of a proper education and student responsibilities.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Conservative contracting practices worse than Liberals

According to a story published today in the Ottawa Citizen, it looks like the actions of Canada’s Now Slightly Used Government are again at odds with Harper’s campaign promises.

Remember all the Conservative bluster and furious rhetoric about the Liberal’s spending habits on public-opinion contracts? It was even a campaign promise. "We will stop all partisan polling with taxpayer dollars," Harper vowed. "We will ensure open, competitive bidding for all public-opinion research."

Well, guess what? It turns out that, in the all too familiar pattern of this government, this is yet another broken campaign promise. Since the Conservatives were sworn in, they have spent approximately $40 million on polls and focus groups, compared to $43 million for the Liberals during a similar time period – hardly what one would consider to be “stopping all partisan polling”. Not only that, but of that $40 million worth of public-opinion contracts, only 12 per cent were subject to a competitive bidding process, versus 27 per cent under the Liberals. That’s right – a 55% REDUCTION in competitive bidding for public-opinion contracts.

And it gets worse. About 26% of Conservative government contracts overall were non-competitive, compared to about 14% under the so-despised Liberal contract handlers. And at National Defence, 32% of Conservative contracts were non-competitive versus 16% under the Liberals.

So, netting it all out, these guys are, on average, twice as bad as the Liberals ever were when it comes to playing fast and loose with taxpayer money. I can’t wait for the boys in blue to come down from their exhaust fume-induced NASCAR highs to explain this one. But you can be sure they will find some bizarre spin that will make it all St├ęphane Dion’s fault.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Conservatives + NASCAR = ???

The Conservative Party of Canada has chosen to market its brand by sponsoring a car in the Canadian Tire NASCAR racing circuit. This has to be right up there in the “what the hell were they thinking” category as it’s wrong on so many levels as to be laughable.

As has been pointed out by dozens of bloggers already (and many with much more wit than I can muster), this was just plain dumb. Not only does it fly in the face of environmental concerns, but think of the opportunity presented when (it’s always when, not if, in NASCAR) the cameras, in slo-mo, track the big blue logo of the PC party crumpling as Number 29 crashes into the wall or another car at some race this summer.

And what demographic did they think they were reaching with that sponsorship? Certainly not women, which is probably the one big demographic they need to reach in order to improve their chances of a majority next time around. No, they’re reaching out to their base again, which means this is more about financial support than gaining votes – topping up the war chest.

Yup, just dumb. They have given the opposition a freebie - the perfect metaphor for Canada's Now Slightly Used Government: a gas-guzzling (5 miles per gallon, leaded) Dodge Charger, racing around in circles, making lots of noise yet ultimately getting nowhere. The opposition parties script writers will have a field day. Imagine the House of Commons the next time John Baird stands up to proclaim the Conservative's commitment to the environment. The laughter and cat-calls are as predictable as they will be loud.

Now, in an apparent fit of sober second thought, the government has started to back-track with Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon claiming it’s strictly a party initiative, and "there's a difference" between the government and the political party. "I don't think it's something that is related directly with the government of Canada”.

But hold on a minute, wasn’t it four Conservative cabinet ministers that launched the sponsorship as Mosport Park this weekend? As they say in NASCAR circles, “That dawg won’t hunt, sonny”.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Monday, June 18, 2007

OPP Officer saved by "miracle"?

On Friday, under the sensational headline, “'Miracle' saves officer from death on roadside”, the Ottawa Citizen Online published a story about an OPP officer whose carelessness almost cost her serious injury, if not worse.

Provincial police are calling it a "miracle" an officer wasn't seriously injured last week after a truck carrying a wide-load narrowly missed striking a police officer on Highway 417.

Police said the officer had activated the emergency lights and stopped her unmarked cruiser at about 8:35 a.m. on June 7 to assist a motorist whose car had broken down on Highway 417 near Highway 416.

As the officer got out of the cruiser, a passing tractor-trailer carrying a load of roof trusses caught the driver's side door, police said. Ottawa OPP Const. Eric Booth said the officer, who saw the truck out of the corner of her eye, was able to lean back against the vehicle and dodge the trusses, which passed within inches of her face. The officer suffered minor injuries after the damaged car door struck her on the arms.

The item goes on to say that the trucker was subsequently stopped and charged with a number of offenses: “ … with failing to slow down and proceed with caution for an emergency vehicle, failing to wear his seatbelt and failing to comply with conditions of wide load permit.”

What’s missing in all of this is any indication of the officer’s own responsibility for the situation in which she found herself. It has always been my understanding that the onus is on the driver to: a) make sure that they are well off the traveled portion of the roadway when making an emergency stop; and b) carefully check for upcoming traffic before opening the drivers’ side door. It’s obvious that this officer failed to do at least one of the above - both, if the trucker was not actually traveling on the shoulder of the roadway. Flicking on the flashers and swinging the door open do not constitute due care, and by subsequently chasing down the truck driver and charging him with a couple of minor offences strikes me as being a matter of the best defense being a good offence, and a way to deflect attention from the officer’s own culpability in this regard.

It's like the 4-year-old whose first reaction when he's done something he shouldn't is to blame someone, anyone, else, except that in the case of the police, they actually have the power to do so.

Barn roof religion

While driving through the Ontario countryside on the weekend one particular farm attracted my attention. It wasn’t the obvious pride the owners took in their home and property, or the pastoral scene of cattle in the field and a couple of horses in the paddock. That was all very pleasant of course, but what caught my eye were the messages, painted white, in 6’ high (at least) block letters on the roof of his barn. On the one side of the roof was written: “JESUS DIED FOR OUR SINS”, and on the other side: “JESUS SAID YE WILL BE BORN AGAIN”.

Now while I would never paint such messages on the roof of my garage, it is his barn and he can put whatever he wants up there. And as far as marketing techniques go, it’s pretty effective as his messages are eye-catching, crisp, and direct. They will catch the attention of virtually every motorist passing by, which is more than can be said of most road-side billboards.

As anyone who has driven through rural Ontario can attest, this farmer is not alone, “JESUS SAVES” and “REPENT NOW” are also relatively common barn roof messages. But consider for a minute, why do we only ever see Christian religious messages on barn roofs? Surely there must be some Buddhist farmer out there who would be inclined to paint “THE ENLIGHTENED ONE IS LIBERATED THROUGH NOT CLINGING” on his roof. Of course it would have to be a much larger barn, or smaller font, but it’s just as valid a message. And I know there are lots of Sikh farms scattered around Ontario, but I’ve never seen “GOD IS ONE” painted on a barn roof. Nor, for that matter, have I ever seen an “ALLAHU AKHBAR” or expressions of faith by any other major religion.

Nope – only Christian messages. Curious.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Proposed land claims legislation shows Harperites can get some thing right

Finally, after 18 months, something truly innovative and positive out of this government. Jim Prentice’s announcement this week of a revamped land claims tribunal offers a glimmer of hope in what has been a sadly mismanaged and ineffective process that goes back decades (and in at least one case, for more than a century!).

Whatever the merits of any individual land claim, Canada’s First Nations deserve the right to have their claims heard and then processed quickly and fairly. Unfortunately, over the past many years, delays, legal wrangling, blockades, civil disobedience, etcetera ad nauseum, have allowed this issue to degenerate into an antagonistic, vitriolic, virtual stalemate.

There is a school of thought that believes – not without merit – that this has become an industry and the negotiators on both sides have more to gain personally the longer it takes to resolve the issues. Just consider the countless lawyers on both sides whose daily bread and butter depends on being able to bill another couple of hundred hours every month to either the Indian bands or the government. Or consider the thousands of federal civil servants in the Department of Indian Affairs – what will they do if there are no more land claim issues? A perfectly good, future-assured, civil service job up in flames. And then there’s the Mohawk Warrior Society. Does anyone seriously believe they have any desire to see these issues come to closure? Of course not. No outstanding land claims means there’s no reason to hide behind a camouflaged mask, wave a powerful weapon in the air, and shout slogans. (Does this remind anyone else besides me of Hamas?)

And don’t forget the opposition parties. Surely they will all take a crack at it, but one hopes that they can stop the partisan bickering for a moment (granted, it’s a faint hope) and even contribute positively to the upcoming legislation.

All of which goes to say that there will be many obstacles to Jim Prentice getting this legislation in place any time soon, but if ever there was a non-partisan issue, this is it. To Jim Prentice and Phil Fontaine: Get the legislation together and table it at the first opportunity. And to the opposition parties: Contribute positively or shut up.

Get it done!

Universe now unbalanced - thanks a lot!

The universe is held in a delicate tenuous balance, dictated by various and sundry rules. The centrifugal force of the earth spinning through the solar system is countered by an identical centripetal force exerted by the gravitational pull of the sun. What goes up, must come down. The egg preceded the chicken. And no one gets out alive (at least as far as we know).

These rules all have their place in maintaining the order of the planet and the cosmos. A little too much of this, a little too much of that, or a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo can all cause a disturbance that will upset the balance, with unpredictable consequences.

And these rules are not limited to the physical laws of nature. As occupants of this small, blue planet, we humans also have our rules that maintain the orderly and natural progression of human kind. Many of them were the mantras our mothers repeated endlessly: Don’t run with scissors; Sure it’s fun, until someone loses an eye. Others are dictated by those we choose to lead us: Pay your taxes, or else; Be good or go straight to Hell with no stopping for a double-double and a box of Tim-bits on the way. Still others come from experience: Wow, that was REALLY stupid!

But now the universe teeters on the brink as one of the most basic rules, one so basic even God didn’t think it was necessary to write it on a tablet, has been broken in Kitchener, Ontario. Yes THAT rule. The one that says the older brother is supposed to own the first Harley in the family. With little care for the potentially catastrophic disturbance he is about to unleash on an otherwise oblivious world, a younger brother, showing contemptous disregard for the rules, has just bought a 2000 Harley Davidson Road King.

I think I’ll just barricade myself indoors and await the coming apocalypse.

Or at least a visit so I can take it for a spin! Good on ya, Bro.

Monday, June 11, 2007

"So sue me" says Stephen harper

Just so we’re all on the same page here, in campaign promises and previous discussion with the provinces, Stephen Harper committed verbally and, on several occasions, in writing, that there would be NO changes to the Atlantic Accord as part of a revamped provincial equalization scheme. In other words, no matter what happened, the Atlantic Accord was to be the baseline – a rock as solid and hard as Newfoundland itself.

Then comes Budget 2007 – the most liberal Conservative budget ever, the mother of all budgets that was touted as putting an end to the bickering over equalization once and for all. Except for one small thing – it made changes to the Atlantic Accord, modifying some clauses and adding others. Jim Flaherty (with HRH Harper behind him) then had the audacity to insist that the Atlantic Accord was “unchanged”. Except for the changes, I guess.

Now Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey (hooray for at least one MP who acts with the power of his convictions) has been turfed from caucus for pointing out the emperor had, in fact, no clothes on this point (man, there’s a scary visual image). Gerald Keddy, another Nova Scotia Conservative MP, is on the fence considering his options – expect some news on that in a day or so. These are not stupid people, which makes it even more unlikely that they would put their careers on the line over a frivolous or nonexistent issue. Also in their corner is Nova Scotia Premier MacDonald, who continues to pressure Ottawa to come clean and admit that they will change the Accord under the covers of the budget.

Folks, this is not a debate over shades of grey where perception can be reality. We are talking about contracts, with clauses, sections, sub-sections, appendices. Legal opinion is pretty clear on the issue – you change a clause, section, or sub-section in a contract and the contract has changed. There can be no question about it. It has changed!

So now that HRH and company are being shown – yet again – to be somewhat less than trustworthy, how do they respond? With a typically arrogant, “so sue me” response. How asinine, juvenile, and just incredibly stupid of them. Canadian taxpayers will be thrilled, I’m sure, to be paying legal fees ad nauseum plus the salaries of hundreds of finance department gophers to drag this case through the courts over the next several years. And during all that time the Harperites get a ”get out of jail free” card that they can play whenever anyone legitimately asks about Flaherty’s equalization deal – “Sorry, I can’t comment. It’s before the courts.”

It’s enough to make one sick.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Book review: Oil on the Brain

Well I’ve been somewhat remiss in the past week, not keeping my blog up to date. My only excuse is this nasty summer cold which has made me feel about as much like writing a blog entry or two as getting a root canal without anaesthetic (and I’ve had two of those so I know whereof I speak). But on the good news side of the ledger (mom always said to look for the silver lining) I have been able to spend some quality time reading my latest book – Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline by Lisa Margonelli.

Now this isn’t a book that would tend to jump out at you from the shelf – the cover is somewhat nondescript and the title is, well, not a real grabber, but recently while I was waiting for the spousal unit at the local Chapters, I picked it up and started browsing. Hooked!

The author takes the reader on a global tour of the oil business, literally from the pump back to the well and the oil-producing countries that are the source of this “black gold”. It's quite a trip, described with humour and spotted with interesting and fascinating facts. For example, did you know that it takes 1 ½ gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of gasoline? Or how about the explanation of how a US gallon of gasoline that weighs only 6 pounds manages to pump 19.5 pounds of CO2 out of your exhaust pipe (it’s in the way the carbon atoms link up with two oxygen atoms after combustion).

But most compelling are her descriptions of how oil has shaped, and some may say ruined, the social structures in countries where it has become the premier, or only, source of external revenue, generally in US dollars. Countries like Venezuela, where the national oil company PDVSA is actually larger than the state and provides schooling, housing, and medical services to the population – services that rightly should come from the state. Or Chad, where Exxon signed sweetheart deals with illiterate leaders as the country spirals into civil war. Iran, Nigeria, China, Saudi Arabia – it’s a long list and the author visits each of them in turn to uncover the corruption, graft and sundry abuses heaped upon the populations by, variously, oil multinationals, their local governments, and western governments (i.e. U S of A) quenching their unending thirst for oil at any cost.

It is an easy read, but a disturbing one, and it certainly gives one a far different perspective on the entire business than one gets at the pumps at the local Esso station.

Highly recommended.