Friday, February 25, 2011

 

FEBRUARY CLEARANCE

Alas, the end of another winter's month; time to clear-out the bottom of the drawer before the onset of the cold season's final four weeks.

MICKEY'S YOUNGEST FANS: Statistics are clear. In President Obama's America less than half of the next generation is white. The prestigious Brookings Institute has analyzed the data from last spring's American census and whites are now the "minority" amongst the very young in at least eight states - Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and the District of Columbia. Though some might conclude that could be a problem...Without skipping a beat, the Disney Corporation sees it as an opportunity. Late in January Mickey's representatives began pressing the corporation's newest priority: "Disney Baby" in 580 maternity hospitals across the United States. A multilingual representative visits the new mother and offers a free Disney Cuddly Bodysuit and asks the new parents to sign-up for DisneyBaby.com. Disney expects to give away more than 200,000 baby bodysuits by the end of May.

IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE: A visiting scholar from the Sloan School of Management at the prestigious M.I.T. has warned Canadians that our own household debt may likely spark a "Made in Canada" recession. Post Christmas statistics have confirmed the Bank of Canada's fears that total household debt is now $1.5 Trillion, (or in simple terms) more than 3-times the National debt. It seems that politicians may have been a tad too cocksure in convincing Canadians that the 2008 recession was a mere blip on everyone else's radar. So we've borrowed ourselves to the eyeballs into debt. The result: Every family in Canada now owes more than $100,000 in personal debt.

EVERYWHERE A GRAM, GRAM: No one seemingly knows exactly why, but the international prototype of the "kilogram" appears to weigh less than it did when it was manufactured in 1889. No small mystery: In Sevres, France "THE" kilogram - the universal standard against which all others are measured - resides in controlled conditions in an underground vault than can be opened only with three different keys possessed by three different people. But, this pampered hulk of platinum and iridium somehow, someway has fallen down on the job and seems to have mysteriously shed about 50 micrograms over its near century and a quarter of existence. That signals, scientists claim, that it's time to find a new way to calculate the kilogram. They point-out that its cousin, the international prototype of the "meter" was retired from duty in 1960. Before you ask; What's a meter now? "The length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second."

NO FRET ABOUT THE TRAIN RUNNING LATE: Florida's new "tea party" backed Republican Governor, Rick Scott, has nixed the cornerstone of President Obama's signature high-speed bullet train proposal for the state. The President travelled to Tampa about a year ago to announce (with great fanfare) America's pitch for high-speed rail travel. Its showcase project was to be built in Florida with others to follow in Ohio and Wisconsin. Those three states elected tea party favored Republican governors in November, and each project has now been derailed. One of Governor Scott's ideas to replace the roughly 10-thousand jobs created by the bullet train plan is to open-up Florida to casino gambling. Las Vegas developers are chomping at the bit to bring casino gambling to South Beach (Miami) and Tampa Bay. Opposition from the state's parimutuel industry and (most especially) the Orlando based "family oriented" tourism attractions is expected to be intense. Perhaps one rare exception when the Mouse will roar louder than the President.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

 

REVENGE OF THE CRADLE

The theory really is not new. Back 80 years ago with the Catholic Church's total dominance over the French speaking province of Quebec, couples were encouraged to grow large families. Lest I digress...a concept not terribly difficult to apply in a province of near perpetual winter; before the advent of television. Six decades ago where I grew up, (near the Quebec border) it was not at all unusual for families of 10-12-15 children.

That emerging population boom eventually conceived Quebec's "Quiet Revolution" which led not only to the language's total domination of the province; but, an officially bilingual Canada, several French speaking Canadian Prime Ministers; and today Quebec's larger than life influence over Canada and Canadian politics.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United-States ensures that every person born in America is a U.S. citizen. In California a first and second generation of Hispanic American citizens, frequently born of illegal immigrant parents, now represent almost a quarter of voters in the state. Their impact became clearly obvious last November when California bucked the national trend in the United-States and elected a left-leaning "Democrat" Governor, Jerry Brown, in a stunning defeat of former eBay executive Meg Whitman that left the Republican party reeling.

As with Quebec's imposing role in Canada's politics; Americans know that their future happens first in California. Just last month the state hit a little noticed milestone that will have implications in politics for years to come. For the first time in California's history Hispanics account for more than half of the students in public schools.

It's widely believed there are at least 12-million illegal immigrants already living in the United States. Obviously the government has urgent and important immigration related issues for its lawmakers to address, including workforce needs, border security and its duty to step-up efforts to stem the inflow of illegal immigrants most particularly along the southern border with Mexico. But; in the now Republican controlled Congress (influenced many say by Tea Party advocates) efforts are well underway to dismantle those very policies which grant automatic citizenship to children who are born in the U.S. to illegal immigrant parents. And; Republican legislators from Pennsylvania, Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida and other states are introducing bills to restrict "state citizenship" - and the issuance of birth certificates - to children with at least one parent who is a permanent resident of the United States.

Canada may be on the verge of yet another Federal election, one where lingering tensions from Quebec's "revenge of the cradle" will again play a significant role; as they have for the past 60 years. The United States are less than two years away from the next Presidential tilt. There are perhaps lessons to be drawn from Canada's experience and the implications of last November's California gubernatorial election. As America grapples with its difficult debate over immigration the discourse should follow President Obama's admonition last month in the wake of the Tucson shootings to talk..."with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."

The fervour over the liberties and the freedoms we North Americans already enjoy, which is sweeping across many of the Mideast's autocratic dynasties bears powerful testament to one overarching legacy: The two countries we share on this one continent should never abandon the spirit of inclusiveness that has made us the envy of the planet.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

 

MISSED AFGHANISTAN BY A LONG SHOT!

Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria - It's been obvious over the past four weeks that people who really want change will find a way (sometimes at great personal danger and cost) to make their wishes or something close to them happen.

On this; Day 3,421 of America's great adventure in Afghanistan, the movement sweeping much of the Muslim world has quite obviously missed inspiring the Afghans by some distant shot. At the very least it seems fair to ask whether North Americans are on their 9th year of involvement in Afghanistan; or perhaps (painfully it seems) just on the same first year for the ninth time?

Much before the onset of this most recent wave of democratic fervor elsewhere in the Muslim world, the annual report of the Berlin based "Transparency International Foundation" last October had already pegged Afghanistan and Iraq among the top four most corrupt countries in the world. (The other two being Somalia and Myanmar.)

I single-out Afghanistan and Iraq in particular as it is painfully obvious that unlike the several other countries recently overtaken by popular internal movements and uprisings favouring the rule of democracy: Those two nations are precisely where our western culture, either driven or encouraged by the United States, has sought to impose "our" notion of democratic rules and principles.

As "Transparency International" noted in its annual report: Corruption itself is an affront to democracy and unacceptable because it allows too many poor and vulnerable people to suffer its consequences.

Shortly after taking office as President more than two years ago, Mr. Obama gave the green light for an American military surge in Afghanistan along with a somewhat cloudy pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from the war zone in July of this year. Canada's own military commitments, though considerably smaller than America's, are pretty much following the same pattern though the Government of Prime-Minister Stephen Harper has been accused of flip-flopping on a previous commitment for Canada's complete unequivocal withdrawal from Afghanistan by this summer. To be fair: It was the Liberal Governments of Jean Chretien, and later Paul Martin who engaged Canada in the Afghan debacle in the first place.

In a speech delivered to the Asia Society in Washington just a few hours ago; American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton claimed her country is about to embark on a follow-up "diplomatic surge" to end the nine year old war. Mrs. Clinton claims the Taliban's only option will be..."to split from Al-Qaida, accept the Afghan constitution and join peaceful dialogue on the country's future". - Well, it's more eloquent (At least not quite as crude) but it sounds a lot like the American commander in Afghanistan's Hellman province quoted earlier this week in the New York Times: "With the (military) surge are we now beating the Taliban, or will we bargain with the Taliban and then decamp like the bowed British and Russians, confused about how the Stone Age socked modernity?" Either way, surely not the George Bush, Dick Cheney neoconservative vision elaborated in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

Ultimately while the American, NATO and western alliance's departure from Afghanistan may not be as painful as that of the Vietnam imbroglio; nor hopefully as long lasting as the still unresolved Korean conflict; it bodes increasingly certain that Afghanistan's historic nickname as the "graveyard of empires" will pretty likely remain intact.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

 

FALSE PROPHETS AND THE DECLINE OF DEMOCRACY

The Egyptian effect is reverberating across the Mideast and into the "Maghreb" along the north Mediterranean coast of Africa. Essentially one revolution ended over the past weekend; and another may soon begin in Egypt as elsewhere: Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, the Emirates, Iran...the circulating list seems just about endless.

With the case of Egypt: In our western world it's uncharted territory and a moment that may prove as decisive to the Middle-East as the Suez conflict in the mid-fifties; the 1967 Arab-Israeli war; or the war between Israel and Egypt in 1979. Little wonder then that the President of the United-States has dispatched the American Joint-Chief Chairman, America's senior military advisor Admiral Michael Mullen, to reassure crucial allies, Jordan and Israel. Mullen is scheduled to meet this week with Israeli President Simon Perez, and later with Jordan's new Prime-Minister Marouf Bakhit. Mr. Bakhit himself is being forced to implement political reforms demanded by protesters who forced King Abdullah to shuffle his ruling cabinet.

In addition to the democratic movement which seems to be sweeping the Middle-East, Admiral Mullen's mission is said to be prompted by a blistering private phone call from the Saudi King last week to President Obama accusing the American administration (in no uncertain terms) of literally abandoning its ally of 30 years, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak's ouster; like America's attitude towards the fall of the Shah of Iran (Reza Pahlavi) on February 11, 1979; is a bitter painful reminder in the "holy land" of the unforgotten and far reaching political, economic and social impacts of the "Great Crusades" of the middle-ages. Impacts which have lasted into contemporary times. As with Germany in the two World Wars, and Japan after 1945; It may be the clear nature of "our" western culture to decide; act; move-on; forget about it and forge new relationships. This is not always (perhaps never) the case in the deeply rooted historic relationships within the Middle-Eastern culture.

Of course there is some delicious irony in our North American rejoicing and hoopla on the triumph of democracy over the autocratic rule of the Egyptian President and whichever ones may follow over the coming weeks. As the thousands celebrate in Cairo one can't help but wonder about the state of our own North American democracies which pundits and critics (far better qualified than I) are wondering out loud are in real and serious danger of becoming democracies in name only.

In my home and native land; Canada's ruling Conservative government is accused of giving tax cuts to fat cat corporations and wasting billions on toys for the military and prisons that turn scared kids into hardened criminals. All the while keeping Parliament and the rest of Canadians in the dark about their true plans. South of the 49th parallel, millions of U.S. citizens struggle with unemployment and the declining North American standards of living, while the true levers of power have been but all completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. North Americans (we) may be celebrating the triumphs of democracy in Egypt and the Middle-East; but back here: The wealthy and well connected call the tune - And; the politicians dance.

The four great crusades of the "Middle Ages" from 1095 to 1204 may be ancient history. In the past century, as I was reminded a few days ago - From the Great War at Vimy Ridge, through the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 and frequently in between during some of the planet's darkest moments and perhaps a few times thereafter, Canada developed and nurtured a stellar respected engagement for the promotion of peace, and our willingness to engage constructively (including in the Mideast) with peoples who aspire to keep the planet a place without conflict.

Alas! Now relegated to watch from the very back row as the history of the modern world unfolds: My (our) country has been abandoned to play a marginal role without any say, or any more imminent prospects of influencing the events which shape the destiny of human kind.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

 

BE AFRAID; MAYBE EVEN VERY AFRAID

There's unrelenting talk of a spring Federal election in Canada's capital. It's generally anticipated that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's national budget which is expected by mid-March will set the tone for the political discourse leading into a national election.

The general expectation is that "security" will play a significant role in setting the stage for any heated battle for the hearts and minds of the Canadian electorate. It may boil down to a clearly defined three pronged agenda.

The Prime-Minister's visit with President Barack Obama a week ago has already established the benchmark for a debate over "perimeter security": A plan which critics complain could see Canada sacrifice some measure of its sovereignty in order to soften American border restrictions imposed over the threat of cross-border terrorism.

The Flaherty budget itself is expected to offer a road map for Canada's long range "economic security" in the face of the country's spending deficit and mounting national debt. The turmoil since the economic crisis began has not only erased Canada's pre-2008 annual national surplus of close to $15-Billion, but the deficit for the current fiscal year could top $50-Billion.

As defined by the Federal Government, "personal security" too is to be included as a part of the lead-up to a potential election in the spring. the ruling Conservative Government is intensifying it's multi-billion dollar get-tough on crime agenda with currently close to twenty proposed crime and justice bills winding their way through Parliament. Some estimates predict this energized crime policy will cost billions of dollars and significantly increase the prison population. Parliament's budget officer has predicted the crackdown on crime will mean additional expenditures of $2-Billion just to build more prisons.

If adopted by Parliament, the various get-tough-on-crime measures would be implemented despite a 33-year low in Canada's national crime rate. Faced with a looming election the Liberals in opposition have already signalled they are prepared to take this fight over crime directly to Canadians. Just a few days ago Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said one of the proposed Tory measures..."isn't tough on crime, it's dumb on crime."

Measures already implemented in a 3-year-old $400-million plan to put more policemen on the streets of the country have reduced the incidents-per-officer ratio for Canadian police officers to 32. Meaning that each of the country's 69,000 police officers handles an average of just 32 cases per year, the lowest ratio in close to 50 years. But nationally, police operating costs have double to $12.5 Billion / year in just the last 25 years.

In other countries and at other times crime statistics have been used irresponsibly or even misused to argue in support of get tough on crime agendas. Some experts caution that there is frequently little correlation between building more jails, or putting more policemen on the streets and a falling crime rate.

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

 

SPICE OF LIFE

About 27,000 people have logged-on to this blog site since I posted the very first comment late in 2007. The statistics available through Google's Blogspot confirm that more than 500 have read "The Enigma In Fowler's Mission To Niger", (Feb, 1/2009) about seven times more than the next most popular post.

Canadian Ambassadors Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were kidnapped in the African nation of Niger in December of 2008 by al-Qaeda operatives. They were released several months later, and returned to Canada.

In Africa, perhaps more than anywhere else, it has become a frequent occurrence that foreign travellers, emissaries, and tourists are kidnapped regularly by supporters of AQIM, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - The North African branch of the radical Islamic group which has been operating with impunity in the vast desert area across Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger where it's been carrying-out attacks, trafficking and the kidnapping of westerners...including high profile foreign Ambassadors Fowler and Guay slightly more than two years ago.

And this month just as Wiki-Leaks released secret documents are seeing the light-of-day; special forces from Canada's elite counter-insurgent JTF-2 are being assigned to a U.S. led mission to train and assist soldiers in North Africa fighting against al-Qaeda.

The Wiki-Leaks released secret cables, transmissions and documents make it abundantly clear that our allies were none too happy about Canada's surreptitious payment of a substantial ransom (Reportedly five-million euros) as well as arranging the release of four jailed "mujaheddin" fighters. Of course all of this contradicts statements made by the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, when Fowler and Guay were released after 130 days in April 2009..."but as you know, the government of Canada's position is clear in these things: We do not pay ransom and we do not release prisoners."

Two years hence sending elite forces into the "heart of the matter" as part of an American led effort dubbed Operation Flintlock clearly is the Harper Government's effort to make amends to its allies who (so it's claimed) were somewhat displeased with Canada's decision at the time regarding measures to secure the release of Ambassadors Guay and Fowler. In light of the Wiki-Leaks documents now available it's obvious that major allies: The United-States and the United-Kingdom were not "on-board" with whatever insight led Canada to follow the secretive ransom payments route.

Obviously, it is unclear what fate would have ultimately awaited Robert Fowler and Louis Guay had the kidnappers' demands not been met. Within the same time frame, the British Government still had a hostage in the hands of the AQIM who was subsequently executed.

The problem for Canada, as I explored in what has turned-out to be the popular post of February 2009, is that Robert Fowler wasn't working for us when he fell victim to his al-Qaeda kidnappers in Niger in December of 2008. He was there on a somewhat nebulous mission as a personal emissary of the Secretary-General of the United-Nations, Ban Ki-Moon. A mission that neither Mr. Fowler nor certainly the Head of the United-Nations have ever explained. At the time, while Secretary Ban Ki-Moon professed many pious concerns for the welfare of the kidnapped Ambassadors; he seemed perfectly happy to dump the entire mess on Canadian laps. And - Mr. Harper's government, anxious to secure a Canadian seat in 2010 on the U.N.'s Security Council, seemed only too happy to oblige. Costs be damned!

Mercifully, Rabert Fowler and Louis Guay are now safe on Canadian soil. But: Ban Ki-Moon did not deliver. Canada flamed-out to an embarrassing defeat by Portugal at the Security Council. We're left with making amends for the lingering resentment of our allies for caving-in to ransom demands from al-Qaeda.

Me thinks someone has some 'splainin' to do!

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

 

MR. HARPER GOES TO WASHINGTON FOR A COUPLE OF HOURS

God bless us little ones! Prime Minister Harper travels to the centre of the known universe to bargain from an increasingly weakened hand with President Barack Obama over trade issues...



Pundits, commentators, journalists and politicians from the Great White North are all over themselves about Mr. Harper's three (or so) hour long visit to Washington where, but for Canadians, hardly anyone else will notice...certainly not the American media.

Writing in the "Toronto Star" earlier in the week, columnist James Travers notes..."Canadians are delusional if they believe commerce will again flow freely across the border without significant security compromises."

Precisely why President Obama's adversaries have been so vocal over the release just a few days back (On Tuesday) of an American Government Accountability Office (GAO) report which appears to highlight serious lapses of security along vast expanses of the Canada - United States border. Released just three days before Mr. Harper goes to Washington the GAO report feeds the generally held paranoia south of the 49th parallel of the myth that crazies from Canada were responsible for the attacks of 9/11; and may yet be ready to strike once more if given the right opportunity.

As long as our American partners remain edgy, they are going to keep coming-up with new ideas to "thicken-up" their side of the border. The world's largest trading partnership which is worth more than $1-million every two minutes 24/7 is, as Jim Travers notes..."far more important to us than to them." Given the prevailing paranoia since the events of September 2001 the cross-border test of interests has condensed (in Travers' description) into a bumper sticker: "Security trumps trade."

Liberal Senator Colin Kenny speaks with an admittedly partisan bias; but he is not wrong to claim that any demand on the Obama administration to ease restrictions on Canadian goods, services and visitors entering the United-States will fall on deaf ears unless the Americans are somehow convinced that Canada is spending a whole whack more on intelligence, front-line border inspectors and electronic screening.

From Canada's perspective that likely means difficult, perhaps tough, compromises on matters of personal privacy and civil liberties; as well as loosening-up national rights of sovereignty at the same time that our country attempts to preserve its claims over the resources of the arctic and Canada's ownership of the northwest passage. Both of which are also of considerable interest to our American neighbours.

That is why the very best Mr. Harper will achieve over his brief visit with the President is a compromise comprehensive shared review of our borders' security to be carried-out by a mid-level working group over the next 6 months or so. Since Canadians are just about the only ones who care about the issue; in the event an of eventual spring Federal Election at home, Mr. Harper has thus bought time to once more "back-burner" the issue, while he bids to sell his partisan supporters on what may be one more flawed attempt to appease America's pursuit of destiny.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

 

FINAL FRONTIER

Just a few miles east of here the Space Shuttle "Discovery" has been rolled-back to the launch pad it abandoned in the fall for its rescheduled final departure on February 24. The flight is more than 3 months late because it was sidelined by a pesky hydrogen fuel leak.

After its 11 day mission, "Discovery" will be mothballed, as will the other two remaining space shuttle aircraft, "Endeavour" and "Atlantis" currently scheduled to undertake their last flights to the International Space Station on April 19 and June 28 respectively. After that the partner nations in the space station project, including Canada, will be hitchhiking aboard the 40 year old Russian "Soyuz" technology.

Strapped for cash, America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is terminating the shuttle program. The return "man to the moon" missions announced with fanfare a couple of years back by President George W. Bush have also been axed. The State of Florida with its unemployment rate still above 12% can ill afford to lose the several thousand jobs associated with the shuttle program on its central east coast. It's unlikely though that the newly minted Republican controlled Congress would re-establish the funding cuts of the Obama Administration as the GOP has made budget cuts a central national political policy.

Ironically it seems NASA's most significant space research vehicles are also its oldest. The twin-explorers "Voyager 1" and "Voyager 2" have been in space for more than 33 years. The spacecraft were designed in the hope they would fly by the planet Neptune and transmit data back to earth. They accomplished the mission in 1989 and kept on going. they are now about 11 billion miles from us on the edge of the solar system. They continue everyday to transmit back home from their 23-watt transmitters: Radio waves that now take more than 12 hours to reach back to earth. The technology so old that the "Voyagers'" memories are about 1-million times smaller than the computer on which you are reading these lines...and their scientific data is recorded on 8-track audio tape machines.

It's too late to change the status of the shuttle program so scientists may have to rely increasingly on the antiquated data being returned by the "Voyager" probes to confirm the news that the star "Betelgeuse" (beetle-juice) is about to explode and appear as a second sun in our sky...



"Betelgeuse" is the bright red star positioned in the right shoulder of the constellation Orion and may be easily seen in the night sky rising in the east right after sunset. The news that it's about to become a supernova, that is: Explode so spectacularly that it will appear as a second sun in our sky, has been floating around the Internet for several months. Some physicists believe the time is near. Only once before has history recorded such a phenomenon, in 1054 when the Crab Nebula exploded.

The possibility of a supernova adds weight to those who believe in the Mayan apocalypse prophecy foreseen in the lost civilization's ancient calendar which mysteriously ends on December 21, 2012. Many already believe the world will end on that date.

For the time being, perhaps some NASA thinkers could hold back on parking away the shuttles as museum pieces come next summer. The rest of us may just otherwise have to load-up on an awful lot of extra SPF sunscreen and hope for the best.

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