Archive for September, 2009

#35 – In the valley that holds the sky.

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Much of older Babel sits in a valley running down to the water. Our aerie, in the middle of the valley, rises high above the lapping waters of the bay and serves as a leg to help prop up the sky. Occasionally the clouds slip and we get to look with wonder on the tops of the clouds made whiter by the unshielded sun.

It is the vagaries of weather that enthral us every day. It is a million dollar view. The water shows every shade of sparkling blues and greens in summer, the whitecaps and riffles raised by the breeze, the browns of runoff from the rains and the foreboding black of the depths before the freeze. The water, stretching to the horizon, is in sharp contrast to the surrounding hills garbed in the many greens of spring and summer, the cacophony of color of the Canadian fall and the snow capped evergreens of winter.

Sometimes blotted by early morning fogs off the water that are soon burnt off by the warming sun, each day starts with the light of the east coming across the water. As the sun follows its predetermined route to the west, the clouds gust mainly from the west to east. The occasional black clouds from the east crossing and tossing the water warn of the coming of a storm.

From the weight of soggy, overcast fall days to the bright promise of spring, we enjoy the vagaries of the Babel weather. When neighbours leave for the warmer climes of winter, we feel they leave the best of Babel for us to enjoy. How could we miss cocooning high above the piling drifts of winter white? How could we forego watching the ice boats, air boats, para-skiers, skidoos and ever interesting modes of transportation across the ice of the bay?

Babel is a city that accepts winter and its many challenges. It has nearby ski hills and a myriad of hockey arenas. Fishermen are not thwarted by ice as they create a hole to bring up their catch. There are piles of snow throughout the suburbs higher than the cars. More snow comes to be piled even deeper. Former Toronto drivers only go through one season before joining the line for snow tires.

And Babel is a summer place. The activities around the beautiful bay are intense and fill the summer with fun and color and music. Our fountain down below our aerie is a magnet that draws Babelites and visitors alike. Tour boats, power boats and sail boats of every kind mix with the Seadoos, kayaks and canoes to explore our bay.

From the frenetic actions of beach volleyball to the gentle Rorschach of the clouds, our home in Babel keeps us enthralled with what nature and humans choose to share.


#34 – Why broadcasters want our money.

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Canada’s English language television networks are launching their own television campaign to demand they be paid what are called ‘fees for carriage’ by cable and satellite dish TV providers. These fees are to be paid to local stations for carrying the local station’s signal. These are the channels that the cable companies originally picked up from their own television antennas and fed into their customers’ homes.

Fees for carriage only came into existence for channels that cannot be received with a television antenna. Channels such as the History Channel and Arts & Entertainment are a good example of channels that are not sent over the air but are fed by satellite to cable and dish resellers throughout North America. Instead of using just advertising revenue, these channels are paid a fixed fee for each cable or dish customer who includes that channel in their package.

The cable and satellite television companies have provided an important service to local broadcasters even though the customer did not necessarily need the intermediary to deliver the signals.  What they did was eliminate the rooftop antennas and improved the television signal quality to viewers. By the time the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) got around to regulating these resellers, the CRTC demanded that all local stations be included in their basic service.

It seems the television networks missed something in their capitalism 101 classes. It seems clear to most of us that if you are lucky enough to be awarded a broadcasting licence for a commercial television station, you become rich. It is that simple. How could the television networks get it wrong?

Realizing, of course, that there are good times and bad times and this might not be a really good time, did they hear about what Moses told the Pharaoh? In fat years you set aside something for the thin years. Did someone promise CTV and Global that there would only be fat years for them? Do they think they do not need to heed Moses’ good advice?

While back in Moses’ time, he would not be aware of how commercial television makes its money, it would be very easy to explain to him. It centres around the camel dealer who wants to let people know about the low prices and high quality of his camels. He talks to the representative of the television station and asks for a good prime time buy for his commercials to reach potential customers. In exchange for an appropriate number of shekels per thousand viewers, a deal is made. Moses would have no problem understanding that the television station makes money by providing an audience for the camel dealer’s commercials.

And that is why an exception is made for the CBC in this story. The CBC is somewhat restricted in the commercial time it can sell and the publicly owned network sets higher standards than the really commercial broadcasters. And that is why CTV and others are always sniping at the CBC. They just do not like that holier than thou attitude from the public broadcaster.

But the CBC is going along with its fellow broadcasters in this circumstance. This is not because the CBC brass all want to be one with the boys but because it will take revenue wherever it sees an opportunity. With the current government slashing funds to the CBC every chance it gets, the CBC is getting a bit desperate. Carriage fees can help the CBC as well as the other networks.

But the problem is that carriage fees have to come from somewhere. There is no magic money tree around where we can go and pick up a few shekels. The cable and satellite dish people have made it very clear that if the CRTC legislates that there will be fees for carriage, it will be the cable and dish users who will pay. That is you and I folks! On top of outrageous fees, terrible service and autocratic billing from the cable and satellite dish providers, they will expect us to pay even more for channels that we might not want.

And that is the rub. We are talking here about a fee for channels that are mandated by the CRTC to be provided. As a customer, you have no choice: you have to take those channels. It ‘s not like Arts & Entertainment and the History Channel where you might buy one but not the other. You can now contribute to the cost, for example, of your local CTV news—an endless round of self-aggrandizing promotions of CTV shows and personnel wrapped around clips about the latest teenage murder.

Babel used to have a local channel but now one can argue that it is just an estranged appendage of the Toronto CTV station. It is sort of like an ex-wife to whom you owe alimony. This is the one that the silly local MP has been touting at his voters’ expense on behalf of CTV . This channel ran a program that built a strong and faithful audience over its first few seasons. Surprise, surprise, that program is now on the Toronto CTV station’s listing and the Babel station gets more old reruns. Did we mention that CTV owns our local station?

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#33 – At least Senator Kenny is speaking up on Afghanistan.

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

When writing in disagreement with our old friend Colin Kenny on June 26, there was little to really argue because he gave no logical support to his stand in a Toronto Star article on Canada/U.S. border needs. In writing today (Sept. 21) on Afghanistan, he uses better support for his position but he is wide of the mark in his reasons to withdraw our troops. He believes the cause for our troops to be there no longer makes sense. What he fails to note is that our troops should never have been there in the first place.

Senator Kenny says that Canadian troops went to Afghanistan to confront radical Islam. That is just about the silliest idea since the Children’s Crusade of the early 13th Century. The only people potentially capable of defeating radical Islam are fellow Muslims who want to bring peace and prosperity to their countries through effective political reform and industrialization. You would have thought that some people in the U.S. government would have been smart enough to tell that to George W. Bush before he started Gulf War II.

What are Canadians doing in Afghanistan? We are there to support our U.S. allies. That is our only excuse. It is a sorry excuse. We were committed to it by a foolish Paul Martin when Prime Minister and by his replacement an even more foolish Stephen Harper. Thanks to former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, we refused the American invitation to send troops to Iraq.

And when we got to Afghanistan, we found we had the dirty end of the stick in troubled Kandahar Province. Not only were we faced with an embedded enemy but we had the wrong equipment for troops who were untrained for counter-insurgency operations. While we might have learned a bit since the British first marched up the Khyber Pass almost 200 years ago, we were no better prepared.

Maybe the Afghan tribes are fed up with being constantly rescued from oppression by foreign troops. The British exploited them, the Russians killed them, Americans used them and now they are trying to figure out NATO troops from countries such as Canada. The sharia law of their Taliban is far easier to understand.

We need to realize that the Pashtun tribesmen we call Taliban are from both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border. They are recruited and trained at Pakistani religious madrasahs (colleges) and funded by the thriving opium poppy trade out of Afghanistan. The Taliban use the same safe routes across the border that the CIA used to travel to provide the Taliban with missiles to destroy Russian helicopters. And we are there propping up a corrupt group of tribal warlords as a government who want the opium poppy trade for themselves.

And we should not forget oil. The West does nothing in that part of the world unless there is oil involved. We should bear in mind the persistent claims that Hamid Karsai, the erstwhile president of that country is bought and paid for by American oil interests. His previous employer, if that was the case, had him arranging for an oil pipeline through Afghan and Pakistani territory to bring oil from former Soviet republics.

Nobody can claim intimate knowledge of that part of the world without years of study and involvement. We are all dilettantes, casting our limited knowledge before a confused public. Colin tells us he has been to Afghanistan three times. That hardly means he is more knowledgeable than someone who has been there twice.

In writing about the failure of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, he must have sent a chill up people’s spines by putting the cost in lives and dollars in the same sentence. The lives lost to the insurgents in Afghanistan can never be replaced nor forgotten. We are above staying there for revenge.

Canadian troops have proved in world wars and in police actions that they are among the bravest and most disciplined soldiers of any country. We do not need to prove it again in a country that so desperately needs to choose its own destiny.

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#32 – The tarnishing of the golden arches.

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

It was a couple decades back when our local city councillor came to a ratepayers meeting and told us smugly that he had voted against having a McDonald’s at our small local plaza. Why did you do that, he was asked. The questioner went on to tell him that we needed a franchise such as McDonald’s at the plaza to raise the standards in cleanliness and to set a good example for other retailers. We were thinking of this the other day realizing how times can change.

McDonald’s has gone down the slippery slope of the no longer caring. What used to be high standards of cleanliness and conscientiousness has been replaced by carelessness by the incompetent and the lazy. Where at one time you could expect the same high standards throughout the world-wide chain, today it is hit or miss if anyone at that location cares.

McDonald’s, once a bastion, a caring franchise, set standards that you could count on. Whether in the streets of Tokyo’s Ginza district or off the canals of Amsterdam, you knew the taste and delight of a Big Mac with fries. Sure, you knew the calories could do you in but you deserved a treat that day and you could fast for the next week to make up for the excess.

What is changed is not so much the flavour of the Big Mac but the surroundings and the attitude of the staff. And it is the attitude of the staff that affects the surroundings. It is the attitude that says whatever is wrong is somebody else’s problem.

We went into a McDonald’s the other day because it seemed to be the only place to get something to eat on that stretch of our trip. We regretted the choice. The franchise was on a stretch of road that links two major highways and must be a prime and profitable location. We expected better than we got.

When going up to the counter to place our order, we found the manager had one massive hip resting on the counter as she kibitzed with her staff who seemed to be lackadaisically looking after drivers at the service window. It took a few polite “excuse me’s” and one of her staff pointing behind her for the manager to finally turn around and acknowledge that she had customers to serve. We soon wished she had left us to her staff.

My wife is a coupon saver. No matter where we shop, if it is a place that provides coupons, my wife probably has some. We have to check for expiry dates when using them but she saves us quite a bit of money. She always has McDonald’s coupons because she knows I like the grilled chicken and she likes wraps. (She talks me into Wendy’s occasionally because she says they have the best salads.) I did not read the details on it but this time she produced a coupon that gave us the second sandwich free. I gave it to the manager and placed our order.

When the manager asked for $14 and change, it seemed excessive. “Did you take off the coupon,” I asked.

“Oh,” she answered and picked up the coupon from where she had left it on the counter. Without apology, she found the real price was just over $9. I realized that this was the second time recently that a person at McDonald’s had ignored the coupon I was using. Was the cost of the coupon coming out of their pocket?

My wife had gone to the restroom while I waited for the food and she did not give a good report on that experience. I can only add that the bloom was off the McDonald’s sandwich, the fries like salted cardboard and the drinks must have been 90 per cent ice, soon just watery.

Maybe it’s age. The length of time between visits to the golden arches seems to be getting much longer.


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#31 – Learning about political twitters, tweets and twibes.

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

The most trouble was from the greybeards. There was an age barrier in the hotel meeting room and the chair was ready for the jibes, jokes and jaded comments from us older attendees. We were there to learn about using the Internet’s newest social media for political parties, candidates and office holders. What the chair was not ready for was that some of the older attendees knew far more about Internet use than they were letting on.

Maybe we were the ones old enough to know that when you attend conference sessions on familiar topics, you are sure to learn at least one or two things you did not know before. I certainly do and I did again this time. I probably made the harshest comments about twits who twitter but I was also willing to admit that I really wanted to understand how Twitter can be used more effectively.

Twitter is still a newcomer among the growing list of social media and seems to have been designed for the Blackberry age. The limitation in any posting on Twitter is that you cannot exceed 140 characters and that makes it a special challenge. It grates me of course that an entirely new language is emerging to thwart this limitation. If you can use a “U” when you mean “you,” two characters have been saved. In the same way 2’s are ‘two, to’s and too’s’ which works well for the illiterate. Using the 1001 variations of smiley faces is not required.

Facebook is second only to MySpace in the social media field but is more adaptable to political needs. Both have their roots in the American university scene where the main exchange of social information previously was in noisy bars. The recent complaints and concerns about invasion of privacy by Facebook tend to work for political users as much of the data has to be able to bear close scrutiny anyway.

Other major players in social media are You Tube and flickr. Which came first, You Tube or the camera/cell phone is the question but they are certainly made for each other. Politicians have to recognize that the person in the audience holding up a cell phone as the politician is speaking is not checking the service bars on the phone.

The flickr website adds something like 7000 pictures to its albums every minute of every day. The dirty old men who used to open their raincoats for the unsuspecting now have unfettered competition as people expose their bad photography to world-wide scrutiny. Quality is forgiven though if the pictures are of your grandchildren. To a politician, the ability to be linked through artful tags and the linkages to blogs makes flickr a very handy tool to improve exposure.

And that leaves blogs. Please do not say you do not read blogs: this is a blog. One of the most important points made at the conference was that people who are elected or hope to be elected write blogs at their peril. The reason is simple: nothing that appears on the Internet can ever be truly erased. There are too many repeaters, nodes and people storing for the supposed big brother to correct history for us. And while the original material might be erroneous or designed to mislead, the anarchy of the Internet will soon correct the situation on our behalf.

It should not disillusion you to learn that elected people do not write their own blogs, send tweets, add pics or clips, comment or otherwise expose themselves to the bruising elements of the Internet. When a professional on their staff does them for the politician, they are usually much better reasoned, often more interesting and, most important, deniable. And while Stephen Harper might have 30,000 crazed Conservatives avidly following his tweets, you know that the paid staffer who does them will be fired the minute he or she makes an error in judgement that reflects negatively on the boss.


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#30 – Shouldn’t attack ads attack something?

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Now Bob Hepburn at the Toronto Star is giving unsolicited advice to to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. In an oped column today (Sept. 10), Hepburn tells Ignatieff how to overcome the Conservative “just visiting” advertising. That would be helpful if Hepburn did not misunderstand the effect of the advertising: to-date, there is no reason to think that the money spent on this is harming the Liberals.

If the advertisement is designed to show Ignatieff as some kind of elitist, it fails. The Conservatives did not make that point. Canadians are very proud of fellow citizens who achieve recognition for themselves and their country outside of Canada. To suggest that they are jealous of this success is an insult to Canadians.

In hopes of something more effective, the Conservatives have leaked their intent to add attack ads that tell Canadians about the Ignatieff ‘villa’ in France. Michael should have a good laugh if they do. The summer place that his father purchased in Les Martins, Provence many years ago pales in grandeur and financial appreciation beside many similar retreats in Muskoka. It was an astute buy for a diplomat who travelled so regularly around the world. Others in his family will have to make decisions about the future of the place. Michael has an election to win.

Hepburn makes much of Ignatieff having to cancel a planned trip to China in early September. This cancelation is regrettable but is obviously because of the heavy workload in getting ready for Parliament to meet. The Conservatives failed to deal honestly and openly with the task force on Employment Insurance since June and that was the last opportunity that could be afforded a lacklustre Tory administration. What Prime Minister Harper does not seem to understand is that issues at home come first.

What Mr. Harper’s brain trust also fail to appreciate is that there is no fairness or truth in attack ads that are cut and paste from many different situations. They should realize how ridiculous Mr. Harper could appear if the Liberals decided to fight fire with fire using the same technique.

The one thing Ignatieff is not going to do if we are into an election in the next few weeks is to let Harper’s people define him. This time, the Liberals are on the attack and they smell blood.

Under Harper’s Tories, Canada continues to lose manufacturing jobs that can never be recovered. We have lost the lead in serious areas of communications technology that we might never recover. We are continuing to bleed jobs. Fixing Employment Insurance is a stop-gap to help people. Building Canada’s future is the challenge.


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#29 – What the Liberals have to offer.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

David Crane of the Toronto Star has always been one of my favourite writers on economics. He usually takes a left-of-centre approach and I find I am more often inclined to agree with his positions than not.

But not today (Sept. 8)! His commentary in an oped for today’s Toronto Star, entitled: What do the Liberals have to offer? reads like something a junior editorial writer would cobble up on the curt instruction of a dyspeptic editor. The effort might please the editor but it sheds little light or reason on a complex subject. David is far too good a writer to be digging up clichés to support someone else’s headline.

He starts from the premise that nobody wants an election. David needs to live for a while in a country where people are unable to vote when there is a need. Stephen Harper called an election a year ago because he saw an opportunity to savage then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and win a majority government. He failed. Now Michael Ignatieff sees an opportunity to fight it out with the Conservatives with a level playing field. David needs to explain what is wrong with that.

And, how dare David complain that the Liberals are not explaining their platform before the election? Dion did that last summer and the Tories spent the summer and millions of dollars to vilify him and his policy ideas. What rule is it that says that the Liberals have to give the cash-rich Tories an unfair advantage?

He complains that it is remarkable that the Liberals have not explained their new thinking on Canada’s future and that Ignatieff is not bound to resolutions from the convention the Liberals held in Vancouver that acclaimed him. David knows very well that the Liberal party directs with a very broad policy brush and it is up to the leader to refine and articulate the direction to those goals.

He wonders why the leader appoints critics for different ministries of government such as John MCallum and Bob Rae. As skilled as those people are at examining the subject matter, David knows how little attention the media pay them. It is very much our media’s fault that all the attention runs downhill into the leader’s office.

We were all amused during the 1993 federal election when Prime Minister Kim Campbell claimed that election time is no time for serious debate on the issues. It is quite another matter when a supposedly knowledgeable economics writer repeats the comment in an article for the Toronto Star.

David concludes that “Unless Liberals can come up with compelling and credible policies, there is no reason to have an election this year.”

What he ignores is that not only our country but the world is in the worst economic slump seen in the past 50 years. We cannot and must not leave the solutions to right-wing ideologues currently in power in Ottawa.

And the problem is not just Employment Insurance (EI). The economic need is to get the critically needed stimulus funds into the hands of the people who will spend it immediately and help the economy recover. We have to stem the flow of jobs out of the country. We have to stop the fire sale of Canadian technology. We need a party in power that has a balanced view of all of Canada.

The Conservatives have proved that they are not adept at that. The Liberal attitude is to be aggressive and help people weather this recession. Not because the Liberals have already told us that is what they will do when in office but because they are the people who have shown us time and again that they can put people ahead of ideology.


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#28 – In defence of the incandescent light bulb.

Monday, September 7th, 2009

There have got to be people in Ontario who can take a stand. They have to be able to say to Dalton McGinty and his cabinet cohorts that enough is enough, stupid! While the defence of the incandescent light bulb might appear to be of less than life-threatening concern, there are principles at stake, freedoms at issue, conflagrations to be prevented and our eyesight to save.

In the rash foolishness of the Ontario government trying to save us consumers from ourselves, the banning of incandescent light bulbs by 2012 is a ridiculous and unnecessary step into the realm of big brother. The government has managed to put itself—once again—into the position where it will have to backtrack and overrule itself as it has in the case of banning coal-fired power generation. If there is no adequate replacement for the old technology, banning it does not work.

It’s not that we are Neanderthals who do not want to save our planet. There is no question but that a clear majority of Ontario citizens respect and support sensible efforts at energy conservation. We contribute with heroic efforts at recycling. We have been buying energy-conserving appliances and low-flow toilets for years. We are the very best recyclers of beer bottles in the world. We want to do our bit.

But that does not mean we should be saddled with a technology that is basically crap! And that is the only suitable term for the present state of development of the compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb. By no stretch of the imagination is this technology ready to replace the faithful incandescent bulb. Any light bulb that takes time to come up to full lighting capacity is a step back in time. While the amount of mercury in these CFL bulbs is miniscule, it is still a unique recycling problem. And once they have come to full luminescence, CFL bulbs are not much to read by. We could get closer to the damn things but they still have a tendency to blow up and that discourages us from getting too close. Even when they are only smoking and sputtering, you are wary about getting near enough to remove the source of power to them.

We should also note that some of the so-called weaknesses of incandescent bulb technology are also strengths. The incandescent bulb gives off heat as a by-product of the energy it uses to give us light. That is why the bulb can be used as a safety measure to prevent freezing in water lines, to warm incubators and to add additional heat where needed in washing areas. It is a highly developed and versatile technology.

CFL technology is not as developed. Not, we should note, that CFL problems cannot be solved in time but that we do not know the cost. Maybe we should bet on a combination of light-emitting diode (LED) and CFL technology to meet our long-term needs. Whatever we do, there is no forgiveness for people who threaten us that they are taking the incandescent bulb off the market. There are carrots and there are sticks. We do not take kindly to people who think they can use a stick on us.

Mr. McGinty and friends, take heed.

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#27 – Retail politicians and ward heelers.

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

When writing recently about ward heelers, someone told me that my term was old-fashioned and the new term for ward heeler was retail politician. I was going to correct my previous article but first I did some research.

What I learned was that a ward heeler and a retail politician are not the same concept. A ward heeler came into being in 19th Century America as the local eyes, ears and legs of the political bosses and, in exchange for hard work and delivering the votes, the ward heeler’s reward was some minor job through city hall or state legislature, wherever the party had power. Some ward heelers supplemented their pay and social status by being the local insurance debit collector or by being the local numbers runner.

‘Retail politician’ is a much newer concept that applies to an elected politician. This is a politician who is adept at working at the lowest common understanding of the voters. In effect, they are very good at merchandising themselves to appeal to the broadest possible segment of their potential voters. Two very different American politicians are held up as examples of this talent. The very best in this category was believed to be Lyndon Johnson, long-serving Congressman and then Vice President and then President. The second, more current, American example, is Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and candidate for Vice President with John McCain. While some political pundits will bristle at combining these two very different people, there is no question but that they were outstanding in working political crowds. Johnson never lost touch with the voters until, as President, he was unable to compromise his communications style to deal with the realities of foreign affairs. Palin certainly works her magic at the lowest common denominator but it will be her ability to learn that will determine where she will be on the political scene a few years from now.

The very best in Canada was the senior Paul Martin who represented Essex East in the House of Commons for 33 years. His son, Paul Martin Junior, who became Prime Minister briefly, something his father failed to accomplish in three tries for the office, always appeared aloof and lacked the warmth his father exhibited in dealing with people.  He was never the retail politician as was his father.

So, they are not the same. I stand by my earlier story about a specific ward heeler. He is also a Member of Canada’s Parliament, but that can be fixed.

What I also found out in my digging about retail politicians is that an American researcher had discovered that more people who shop at upscale stores prefer to vote Democrat than those who prefer to vote Republican. This, once again, proves that researchers still like to waste money proving the obvious.

It is no surprise to political observers that the upscale shopper is often better educated. They also know that better educated voters tend to be more democratic or liberal. The poor voter tends to be more right wing because of ignorance. The ignorant are more apt to accept the mindless slogans and prejudices of the political right.

The researcher found that Barack Obama won the hearts of more than 50 per cent of the voters at Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus and other upscale stores. At the same time, John McCain was ahead at Walmart and Sears. I always wondered why McCain got the best response on the David Letterman late show. Now I know where Letterman’s producers get his audience. I should find better quality late night TV.