Monthly Archives: August 2013

Tinker, tailor, techie, spy


Amidst the swirl of revelations this summer about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) prying eyes and ears, a quote stands out to neatly summarize the hoi polloi’s rising sense of panic and paranoia.

The NSA’s intelligence “capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

In the wrong hands, this might even “enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”

This sounds like the sort of thing a civil liberties advocate, an apologist for the Julian Assanges and Edward Snowdons of the world, or even a Tea-Party Republican might utter in these nervous tween years of the 21st century. But the words aren’t theirs. They belong to a Democratic senator from Idaho by the name of Frank Church, who issued them in 1975 after he had concluded an investigation of the agency.

I came across them in a 2005 New York Times story whose author made his own observations about the NSA. “At the time (of Sen. Church’s scrutiny), the agency had the ability to listen to only what people said over the telephone or wrote in an occasional telegram; they had no access to private letters,” wrote James Bamford. “But today, with people expressing their innermost thoughts in e-mail messages, exposing their medical and financial records to the Internet, and chatting constantly on cellphones, the agency virtually has the ability to get inside a person’s mind. . .Originally created to spy on foreign adversaries. . .The NSA s original target had been the Communist bloc. . .(it) was never supposed to be turned inward.”

All of which proves, if nothing else, that people’s memories truly are short. Experts and activists have been broadcasting warnings about the NSA and other supposedly super-secret spy masters for decades. Apart from a few Internet-enabled advances in the field of information gathering, the abuses – or potential for abuses – they worried about then are the ones they worry about today. That’s because while technology may change, human nature does not.

Still, technology can stack the deck and up the ante. Somebody writing on once ruminated that the Internet might contain one yottabyte of data. That’s roughly 1,208,925,819,614,629,174,706,176 bytes of increasingly worthless chum and chatter. But unlike an old-school telegram or piece of reel-to-reel audio tape, it never decays, never goes away. It just sits there in mines located around the world waiting for some government-empowered slob to make some other slob’s life sheer hell.

Technology is also an irresistible force for mischief. The NSA, for example, is prohibited by law from spying on the UN. And yet, according to Reuters this week, “The (agency) has bugged the United Nations’ New York headquarters, Germany’s Der Spiegel weekly said on Sunday in a report on American spying that could further strain relations between Washington and its allies. . .Der Spiegel said the files showed how the United States systematically spied on other states and institutions. . .Der Spiegel said the European Union and the UN’s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, were among those targeted by U.S. intelligence agents.”

History demonstrates time and again that the tools we craft to make our lives easier or more interesting inevitably lead many of us into some kind of moral turpitude. Privacy may be a basic right. But if it’s easy to curtail and no one gets hurt (that we know of), then what’s the harm?

About the only recourse we who do not belong to the ironically termed “intelligence community” have is to bang our drums loudly. Consider U.S. Congressman Alan Grayson who intends to introduce his “Mind Your Own Business Act” in short order. The legislation, part tongue-in-cheek and part serious, demands that “none of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2014 or any succeeding fiscal year may be used to collect any information generated by a citizen of the United States while located in the United States.”

He and his Bill may be doomed. But, at least, he’s not going quietly.

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The high times of Justin Trudeau

Death in Dhaka...600 and counting

Politically, at least, it appears federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau can smoke pot and chew gum at the same time.

His admission last week that he partook in a celebratory exchange of herb at a party with friends three years ago generated not much more than polite applause among most Canadians, who care more about their mounting household debt than the recreational indiscretions of their elected officials.

The CBC’s “Community Blog” members seemed only too willing to forgive.

“So he’s human! It makes him even more likeable,” one posted.

Declared another: “And he’s honest. It raises him in my esteem, and I’m not even a Liberal.”

Added another: “I will vote for Trudeau on this alone. . .don’t decriminalize it, legalize, regulate and tax it. And I don’t even smoke weed. It makes sense.”

Indeed, one observed, “Name me one politician who hasn’t? Seriously, does this have to be an issue? I think issues such as honesty are a lot more important.”

In contrast (naturally) the federal Conservatives reacted less sanguinely to Mr. Trudeau’s confession. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the wayward fellow’s actions “speak for themselves”. Justice Minister Peter MacKay insisted the Grit honcho exhibited a “a profound lack of judgment. . .By flouting the laws of Canada while holding elected office, he shows he is a poor example for all Canadians, particularly young ones. Justin Trudeau is simply not the kind of leader our country needs.”

But if they were trying to have a field day at Mr. Trudeau’s expense, they soon recognized that few in the media or, indeed, the public at large were willing to play that particular game. In fact, this is becoming a pattern – as heartening to Liberal brand masters as it is worrying to their opposite numbers in the Tory encampment.

Justin Trudeau is gaining momentum as fast as Stephen Harper is losing it. Oddly, parliamentary prorogation helps the former far more than it does the latter. Although the prime minister may enjoy a short break from Question Period, his Grit rival is free to pontificate at length on social and economic justice issues about which, increasingly, Canadians care. What’s more, in sending his messages, Mr. Trudeau is using major and social media to marvelous effect.

Last week, he came out first and forcefully on the subject of Quebec’s decision to curtail expressions of religious affiliation among public servants in that province.  “I have enormous concerns about the limits that would be imposed on people, on their religion and on their freedom of expression,” he told reporters following a consultation with Premier Pauline Marois. “I don’t think it’s who we are and I don’t think it honours us to have a government that does not represent our generosity and openness of spirit.”

Online reaction to his remarks was swift and broadly supportive, if not uniformly for their contents then unanimously for their candor.

“Slowly but very deliberately Mr. Trudeau is showing Canadians that he is a different kind of of political animal,” one reader posted to the Globe and Mail’s website. “He is offering a potentially refreshing choice and is starting to prove that he is not afraid to run the risk of taking positions that may not appeal to everyone.”

Another pointedly observed, “I think it’s absolutely hilarious that after taxpayers have spent a lot of money paying for Mr. Harper’s strategically planned Arctic dog-and-pony show, he’s been bumped off the stage by Mr. Trudeau. Substance (no pun intended) prevails over photo-ops.”

This week, Mr. Trudeau launched another salvo into the hull of the Conservative dreadnaught by stating that the much-vaunted economic recovery, for which the Harper government adores taking credit, is unequal and, therefore, unfair to many middle-class Canadians. Speaking for himself (but clearly with his leader’s sanction, Liberal finance critic Scott Brison told The Globe’s Jane Taber, “The economic recovery has left behind a lot of middle-class Canadian families. Young Canadians and their middle-class families are facing real challenges, near-record levels of personal debt, some of the worst job numbers in decades.”

About which one commentator, representatively, posted, “Looks like we have a young leader who is getting better and better as he goes along. I’ll take that over Harper and his Band of Bucketheads any day.”

All of which suggests that Mr. Trudeau is riding high and in more ways than one.

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Kitting out for the Big Apple in the Hub City


This Christmas, I shall head to Manhattan – also known as Mecca to the world’s fashionistas – with she who must be observed (occasionally obeyed), the love of my life, my wife. So, naturally, we must head first to a small, wood-lined men’s clothier situated amidst brickyards, farm equipment dealers and drive-through coffee purveyors on a stretch of Moncton’s industrial west end.

“You’re kidding, right?” I whine one recent August morning. “What’s wrong with the two jackets I bought last year from Value Village? Together, they cost me a grand total of 15 bucks. One of them even looks like a Harris Tweed.”

Undeterred, she retorts, “Nothing looks like a Harris Tweed, except a Harris Tweed. Trust me, this guy has a great reputation. He knows his stuff.”

The guy, as it turns out, is Jeff Garcia, a slim, elegantly dressed man in his 40s (I’d guess) and the proprietor of Zachary Samuels (named, he says, after his two university-ensconced kids). Over the years, he has worked for the biggest, high-end chains in the business. For the past few, though, he’s preferred to run his own shop, which is as bespoke as the apparel, services and advice he proffers. In short, this guy does, indeed, know his stuff.

Casting his critical, yet still kind, eye over my torso, he says, “That lavender shirt you’re wearing is a good colour on you. . .only. ..well, it’s obviously too large for your frame. You’ll have to hit the mashed potatoes if you want it to fit properly.”

I begin to explain that it is a medium size, before he whips out a couple of truly fine garments and escorts me to the changing room. I’m skeptical. For years, I’ve been wearing Marks. I own so many items of clothing from that venerable warehouse that, if they were fungible in dollar bills, I could buy a new mattress (to, you know, hold my money).

But, Mr. Garcia is right, after all. The shirts are marvelous and, in them, I look fabulous (my wife’s words). “What’s next?” I ask gleefully.

Grabbing a sport coat, he says, “Give this a try.” It’s a navy wool-cotten blend, short cut and tailored slim. “Oh,” my love enthuses. “I like that.” Mr. Garcia is not so sure. “Please stand over here,” he says as he directs me to a raised platform in front of a mirror. “I think I’ll take it in along the sides, and maybe raise the sleeves a bit.” He proceeds with his pins, and I catch my wife grinning at the spectacle of her husband playing dress-up. Willingly!

In the end, I walk out having spent less than I deserve. And this, I realize, is the essence of superior customer service. Nothing beats true quality. And quality is all about research, experience and attention to detail.

I think about this as we drive down the street to pick up a bag of loose charcoal for our backyard smoker. Walmart is reinventing its one-size-fits-all retailing model for Moncton, just as Target sets its sights on The Northwest Centre mall. Neither, it’s safe to say, gives a sweet bippy about the drape or wove or stitching of the shirts it sells. Nor do they care about the fact that their global supply chains and economies of scale routinely murder independent businesses in cities and towns across North America just like this one. They will discount sacks of BBQ fuel just to keep me coming back for vinyl shoes, imported from Malaysia, fitted for my grand kids.

But not today.

At Maritime Fireplaces, congenial havoc rules the showroom, where staff happily navigate between customers, pellet-stove distributors and Big Green Egg grill sellers. Plates of hot dogs, burgers and cakes fill the crannies and crevices between winter stoves. The mood is festive; the atmosphere, thick with merriment.

“Are you an ‘egg head’?” a salesman asks about my outdoor culinary technology. “I am, indeed, and ever since 2009,” I reply cheerily.

“Well, then take a couple of these,” he instructs as he stuffs some branded cup holders into my hands. “You can never have too many of these.”

No you can’t, I muse. You can never have too much of a good thing, whether it’s Manhattan or, more durably, Moncton.

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What’s the cost of raising Cain?


Very occasionally, the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based think tank, issues a report that is not replete with errors, misinformation and ideological proclamations masquerading as dispassionate observations. Last Thursday morning was not one of those occasions.

In a paper entitled “The Cost of Raising Children”, the conservative ideas factory concludes that the tab for bringing up junior is equivalent to “what parents can expect to spend (on) the essential needs of their child. Using. . .this working definition. . .the ‘benchmark’ cost of a child in Canada is between $3,000 (and) $4,500 per year depending on the age of the child. This does not mean that lower income parents cannot successfully raise children on less than this.”

What it does mean, apparently, is that any other method deployed “to measure the cost of children is laden with political implications. . .There are vested interests in having high costs for raising children. The social welfare community, a broad coalition of public service workers, social activists, academics, and many journalists, is active in lobbying the state for more resources for families with children. This agenda, associated with left-liberal and social democratic positions, is part of a redistributionist perspective and it would be naive to ignore the influence it has on public policy. A high cost of children is consistent with this agenda.”

As one of those left-liberal, social democratic-minded journalists, the father of two, the grandfather of three (with another on the way), I am tempted to respond to the Institute’s findings with the simple, if inelegant, retort: Poppy-cock. So evidently flawed is its logic; so transparently larded with its own partisan agenda is its argument. But, in the interest of fuller discourse, I shall elaborate.

I am utterly certain that it is possible to raise a Canadian child on between $3,000 and $4,500 a year. Tens-of-thousands of families across the country are doing it right now. That doesn’t mean that such budgetary constraints are desirable. It certainly doesn’t mean that they comprise any sort of “benchmark” in a country where the actual costs vary wildly from province to province, city to city, village to village.

The cost of raising a child in downtown Toronto is in no way comparable to that of raising one in Antigonish, N.S. Even if one measures only the “essential needs” of a kid – food, clothing, personal goods, school supplies, and the like – the spending regimes are affected by situational factors, such as transportation infrastructure and available networks of family and friends.

In some locations, where the cost of living is higher than the national average, my $3,000 or $4,000 will stretch only as far as I am willing to raid Salvation Army bins for cheap hand-me-downs, stock up on powdered milk and processed macaroni dinners, and supplant cartons of fruit juice with less expensive bottles of soda. What, then, are the costs of raising a child who grows fat, listless and diabetic?

Beyond this, what breathtaking arrogance drives the Institute’s determination to define a kid’s “essential needs”? Are organized sports, which train the body and temper the mind, mere frills? Are music lessons and technology camps unnecessary luxuries? What about books? Hell, what about sneakers, out of which tykes grow faster than a dandelion in springtime?

When we assess the degree of success we’ve had in raising a child, will our true benchmark have less to do with the amount of money we’ve saved and more to do with the condition of the final “product”? Imagine a grotesque simulacrum of Huck Finn: Not merely barefoot, illiterate and unkempt; but also corpulent, bored and disengaged. Welcome, citizen of Canada. Your room in one of the nation’s finer penal institution awaits your arrival.

Perhaps the most astonishing finding in the report concerns structured child care, which the Institute does not consider an essential need. That’s not because, as it says, it’s not a “legitimate expense”. It’s because “many families with children will have little or no daycare costs. For example, in some two parent (intact) families, one parent may decide to stay at home to care for a pre-school child or children.”

Some may, but most can’t afford the “luxury” of prolonged unemployment. If you don’t believe me, dear Fraser, check the latest Statistics Canada figures on subject.

Oh, my mistake. I momentarily forgot, that this isn’t something you’re actually prone to do.

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How to tame a vanishing wilderness


One item that seems conspicuously absent from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s wilderness kit, as he tromps across the Canada’s vast Arctic expanse this month, is a well-thumbed copy of Farley Mowat’s 1956 children’s classic, Two Against the North, also known in some publishing quarters as Lost in the Barrens.

The story tells the tale of a white boy, Jaime, and his Cree companion, Awasin, who overcome enormous odds to survive a season stranded on the brutal tundra. (Think Australian outback, except colder). During their sojourn, their cultural differences dissolve and heir friendship deepens. So does their respect for nature.

What’s not often mentioned in the literature reviews is that the book is also a pretty good survival guide for anyone who suddenly finds himself, say, needing to pitch a tent or light a pot of seal oil.

As the Globe and Mail reported last week, “An Inuit elder and Ranger dressed in traditional animal skins taught (Mr. Harper) how to build an inuksuk, the famous northern stone figure. They later erected a traditional animal skin shelter. Mr. Harper set up the pole inside the structure under direction from his wife, Laureen Harper. The Prime Minister was also instructed how to light a traditional carved bowl lamp – which uses seal oil – but was unable to set it afire. Mr. Harper remarked wryly: ‘I guess I’d die in the wilderness.’”

Sure, but what a way to go. Canadians’ – especially southern Canadians – love affair with their great boreal region grows more ardent in late summer, when the mug and grime of the urban landscape tests all but the most stoic, the Northern Lights crackle and dance in the imagination and the call of the wild is a primal scream.

“There is nothing worth living for but to have one’s name inscribed on the Arctic chart,” the 19th century English Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once remarked. Mr. Harper might well agree. Every summer, the glaciers continue their relentless retreat and the polar ice recedes into memory. Every summer, the prime minister is there to bear witness to both loss and opportunity, as if to say the north isn’t what it used to be and likely never will be again. But is that, he is wont to query, necessarily a bad thing?

“We recognize that the Arctic is growing more accessible to international shipping,” he said in Churchill, Manitoba, two years ago. “The various circumpolar countries are pressing claims that may conflict with our own. The global demand for northern resources is growing. . .The first and highest priority of our northern strategy is the protection of our Arctic sovereignty. And as I have said many times before, the first principle of sovereignty is to use it or lose it.”

Of course, the federal government’s commitment to the region depends on an essentially dialectical arrangement with the truth: Global warming is mostly hype, but that doesn’t mean we can’t exploit it. In this, the environment takes a back seat to geopolitics and whispering ski-doos.

“The Canadian military has been secretly test-driving a $620,000 stealth snowmobile in its quest to quietly whisk troops on clandestine operations in the Arctic,” reports The Canadian Press. “The Department of National Defence even has a nickname for its cutting-edge, covert tool: ‘Loki,’ after the ‘mythological Norse shape-shifting god.’”

The Arctic, today, is not only a proving ground for the armed forces; it is the site of previously undreamt economic development. Or, as Mr. Harper’s northern strategy declares, “From the development of world-class diamond mines and massive oil and gas reserves, to a thriving tourism industry that attracts visitors from around the globe, the enormous economic potential of the North is on the cusp of being unlocked.The Government is taking action to encourage future exploration and development by improving Northern regulatory systems and investing in critical infrastructure to attract investors and developers to the North.”

So much for the pitching of tents and the igniting of lamps. So much for the sentimentalities of the south. Soon, the brightest of the northern lights will belong to the derricks and diggers of industry.

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Common sense up in smoke?


Those who argue that marijuana should be legalized, though tightly regulated, because the prohibitions against its use don’t work are only half-right. It all depends on one’s definition of the word, “work”.

If we acknowledge that the law contorts the evidence that cannabis is safer than either tobacco or alcohol, that it succeeds in making criminals out of otherwise peaceable citizens, that it reinforces crusty stereotypes about shiftless stoners, and that it costs Canada’s judicial system millions of dollars a year that could be spent in more productive ways, then we must also acknowledge that the law works marvelously well to utterly ill effect.

Just ask any cop.

This week, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) passed a resolution that would give officers the discretion to levy fines for simple holding (pending, of course, federal approval).

The text of the ruling reads, in part, “The CACP believes it is necessary to expand the range of enforcement options available to law enforcement personnel in order to more effectively and efficiently address the unlawful possession of cannabis. The current process of sending all possession of cannabis cases pursuant to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) to criminal court is placing a significant burden on the entire Justice System from an economic and resource utilization perspective.”

According to CACP President Chief Constable Jim Chu in the accompanying news release, “It must be recognized. . .that under the current legislation the only enforcement option for police, when confronted with possession of cannabis, is either to turn a blind eye or lay charges. The latter ensues a lengthy and difficult process which, if proven guilty, results in a criminal conviction and criminal record.”

The Association stops short of calling for decriminalization. (In fact, it goes out of its way to support the legal status quo). Nevertheless, its declaration reflects what is increasingly becoming mainstream opinion about the drug in law enforcement, medical and even political arenas.

“As four former attorneys-general of British Columbia, we were the province’s chief prosecutors and held responsibility for overseeing the criminal justice system,” Ujjal Dosanjh, Colin Gabelmann, Graeme Bowbrick and Geoff Plant wrote in a commentary for The Globe and Mail earlier this year. “We know the burden imposed on B.C.’s policing and justice system by the enforcement of marijuana prohibition and the role that prohibition itself plays in driving organized crime.”

Indeed, they added, “Under marijuana prohibition, violent criminals are provided a protected market that enables them to target our youth and grow rich while vast resources are directed to ineffective law enforcement tactics. Meanwhile, Canada’s criminal justice system is overextended and in desperate need of repair.”

The solution, they insisted, is to regulate the “cannabis market”, which could, they claim, “provide government with billions of dollars in tax and licensing revenues over the next five years. These dollars are in addition to the enormous cost savings that could accrue from ending the futile cat and mouse game between marijuana users and the police.”

None of which would matter one iota if marijuana were the resident force of social evil that conservative ideologues claim. But the preponderance of evidence is, at best, inconclusive. Several recent studies have suggested correlations between mental illness in young people and cannabis use. Others conclude that the more likely causes of psychological disease are genetic and socio-economic, and that it is virtually impossible to select these factors out of the equation.

As long as the law prohibits marijuana use, we, as responsible citizens, are obliged to obey. Certainly, legal channels should never, under any circumstances, facilitate the drug’s availability to minors.

But in a responsive democracy, laws that confound common sense and good governance must be questioned. Especially when they work exceedingly well to achieve everything except that for which they are intended.

It’s not for nothing, perhaps, that health authorities in both Canada and the United States – where weed is also broadly illegal – report that pot smoking is up by several orders of magnitude since the turn of the decade.

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Is a change as good as a rest?


The mere fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proroguing Parliament for the third time since assuming office in 2006 matters less than what he manages to divine after gazing squarely into his Conservative government’s naval during the forced retreat.

His two other legislative session-enders (in 2008 and 2009) were clear attempts to undermine political opposition from the Liberals and the NDP. That’s not so obviously the case in this instance, coming on the heels of a long, hot summer recess.

In this instance, Mr. Harper faces a growing malaise both within and outside his  ranks and a palpable, though not yet politically fatal, unease among the electorate. Taking a break from the legislative calendar to reboot the Tory agenda seems both strategically wise and timely. But is it already too late to make much of a change?

Few seriously doubt the Harper government’s competence in managing the economy. Canada was one of the few western economies that fared relatively well during the global, financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent recession. It can thank its federal shepherds – Jim Flaherty and Mark Carney, among them – for a good deal of the official probity at that time.

Still, jobs growth across the country remains inconsistent, up sharply in some months, down dramatically in others. At 7.2 per cent, the overall unemployment rate hasn’t budged in more than a year.

For economists, that’s not bad news, exactly. As BMO economist Doug Porter told CBC News earlier this month, “Aside from providing great sport and serving as an eternal source of embarrassment for forecasters, do the wild gyrations in monthly jobs actually mean anything for the economy? Not really. The big picture here is that the unemployment rate is virtually unchanged from a year ago, and total employment is up 1.3 per cent, both broadly reflective of an overall economy growing modestly.”

But for just about everyone else – tradespeople, professionals, entrepreneurs, working students – it feels like stagnation. Worse, perhaps, some evidence indicates that Canadians, overall, are growing skeptical about the government’s commitment to the issues that matter most to them, specifically the economy, healthcare and vital social programs.

“Our research suggests that Canadians aren’t seeing those issues reflected in politics,” Jane Hilderman of the think tank Samara said in an interview with news media earlier this year. “Canadians sense that MPs are doing a great job representing the interests of their party, but not doing such a good job on representing their constituents.”

In fact, the Samara study states that while 55 per cent of Canadians say they are satisfied with the system, that response was off from 75 per cent in 2004 – a factor which may help explain why the Conservative government, compared to its Liberal and NDP rivals, has been stumbling in opinion polls throughout most of this year.

Of more immediate concern to Mr. Harper are the effects on party and government morale of a Prime Minister’s Office that runs the tightest ship of state in decades.

“There has been predominantly informal discussion about what is, or what is not, our rights, and MPs have to decide what’s wrong and what’s right, and what our rights are,” a Conservative Member told the CBC anonymously in March. The piece continued: “A series of tactics seem to have led to the rebellion, including PMO staff denying MPs the right to make statements in the House of Commons, and a move by a three-member subcommittee to deny a Conservative MP the right to bring a non-binding motion on sex-selective abortion to the floor of the House for debate.”

Then, of course, there is the Senate expense scandal which has implicated two formerly Conservative appointees and further tarnished an institution that several polls say most Canadians want abolished. Mr. Harper has promised major reforms, but he hasn’t proceeded. And that deeply offends his mostly Western base of voters.

Whatever the Prime Minister expects to achieve during his prorogue – whatever feats of party-building and consensus-gathering he hopes to engineer – the issues he faces today will be there to greet him upon his return.

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Raise three cheers for mere mortals


The Spanish conquerer who discovered Florida, now the western world’s largest home for old folks, was actually looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth. How’s that for historical irony?

No more exquisite, perhaps, than Martine Rothblatt’s statement at the Global Future 2045 International Congress in New York City this summer that “The first company that develops mindware (a kind of software that will render human consciousness eternal and eternally free of the human body) will have (as much success as) a thousand Googles.” Sitting in the audience was Ray Kurzweil, futurist, inventor and director of engineering at, you guessed it, Google.

Not that he could have been much annoyed. Mr. Kurzweil was among friends and acolytes, alike – people who dream of immortality through technology. Here’s what he had to say in the Times of India the other day: “It has been my consistent prediction that by (2029) computers will match human intelligence and pass the ‘Turing test,’ meaning that they will be indistinguishable from human intelligence. Once they can do that they will necessarily exceed human intelligence because they will be able to read everything on the web and every page of every book.

He added: “By 2045 we will have multiplied our intelligence a billion fold by merging with the (artificial intelligence) we are creating. That is such a profound transformation that we borrow this metaphor from physics and call it a singularity.”

Of course, such Utopian nonsense has been a feature of everyday life since Narcissus saw himself reflected in a pool of water, became entranced, fell in, and drowned. Some of us just can’t enough of ourselves, so we hold conferences for like-minded individuals and sit around all day gabbing about how neat it would be to live forever. Oh sure, what a wonderful world that would be.

Elsewhere, others are embarking on a more bite-sized project, though their motives are suspiciously similar to those of the “singularitists”. A Globe and Mail piece this week describes researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City conducting “anti-aging experiments” on mice. Such efforts and the early results “have scientists talking seriously about the average lifespan rising by decades, possibly to 120 years, and academics pondering the consequences. What would it mean for the solvency of the health-care system or public pensions? Would it change views on marriage (‘Happy 98th anniversary, Grandma and Grandpa!’)? And would anyone really want to live so long anyway?”

According to the story, “Versions of the latter question were asked in two recent surveys, one of Canadians, the other of Americans. In the Canadian survey, published last year in the Journal of Aging Studies, 59 per cent of respondents said they would welcome living 120 years ‘if science made it possible to do so in good health.’ The Americans were more reluctant. The survey, by Pew Research and published this month, asked whether people would prefer to live 120 years with the help of ‘medical treatments that slow the aging process.’ The majority – 56 per cent – said no.”

Naturally, they did and here’s why: These days, you have to be rich – or, at least, financially independent – to grow exceptionally old. Who, but you, is going to pay for the expensive treatments, tablets, procedures that will keep you from keeling over?

Just because medical science has figured out ways to keep people alive long past their otherwise natural expiration dates, doesn’t mean the other institutions that comprise society possess either the means or the will to democratize such technologies. Ours is, after all, a market-based economy.

Besides, as Brendan Leier, a clinical ethicist at the University of Alberta’s John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre, told The Globe, “It’s not the duration of life that’s the problem for us, but the quality of life. Quality is what makes it meaningful.”

It would be justly ironic, indeed, if the only old people left on the planet were rich ones, bored to death of their own long and lonely lives

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We’d better step up our scandalous game


There is nothing as disappointing, nothing that deflates the national self-worth as thoroughly, as a boring political scandal. We Canadians are lamentably proficient at manufacturing only the dreariest of all possible controversies.

Senator Pamela Wallin may or may not have bilked taxpayers tens-of-thousands-of-dollars either deliberately or unwittingly. Her colleague, Mike Duffy, improperly accepted a gift of $90,000 to pay off his debt to the Upper Chamber. Really? Is that all we got? Paper trails and chump change?

I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to do a lot better than that if we intend to enter the big leagues of global misconduct. Where are the illicit affairs, the love children, the hush money, the blackmail? Where are the tearful confessions, the bitter reproaches, the orchestrated displays of rehabilitation, the 24/7 news coverage?

More to the point, where is Anthony Weiner when we need him?

Mr. Weiner (pronounced “wee-ner”), you may recall, is the former multi-term U.S. congressman from New York’s ninth district who, in 2011, sent a picture of his underwear-clad private parts to one of his female Twitter followers. Initially, of course, he denied having done the misdeed. Then, at a press conference, he admitted that he had, in fact, “exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years,” adding: “To be clear, the picture was of me, and I sent it. I’m deeply sorry for the pain this has caused my wife, and our family, my constituents, my friends, my supporters and my staff. . .I lied because I was ashamed at what I had done, and I didn’t want to get caught.”

More recently, the apparently sexting-addicted politico, who is running for mayor of New York City, allows that he has continued his puerile ways even though they cost him his seat in Congress. In one of his tweets, under the nom de plum “Carlos Danger”, he reportedly describes himself as “an argumentative, perpetually horny middle-aged man”. Astonishingly, he refuses to drop out of the race.

All of which is enough to inspire The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg to marvel, in one recent issue of the magazine, “The saga of the transgressions of Anthony D. Weiner. . .is remarkable for many reasons. Chief among them is what the protagonist of the tale did not, as far as we know, do. He did not commit adultery. He did not break up a marriage, his own or anyone else’s. He did not employ the services of a prostitute. He did not stalk. He did not misuse public funds. . .He and his partners in sin have never been in the same room at the same time.”

In fact, he did nothing whatsoever except to reveal himself as a man who, in Mr. Hertzberg’s estimation, “is too unself-aware, too immature, and too narcissistic to be mayor.” Perhaps, but when it comes to processing scandals to remain perpetually in the public eye, this narcissist is a genius. Even the Brits could learn a thing or two from him.

Across the pond, reports that Prime Minister David Cameron’s “flagship law to end Britain’s lobbying scandals is a ‘useless dog’s breakfast’ and the Government should urgently postpone its current fast-tracked progress through Westminster, according to the head of the Commons committee that has scrutinised the reform. Graham Allen, who leads the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, has taken the unusual step of recalling his committee ahead of MPs’ return to Parliament next month, to hold special evidence sessions involving leading figures from the UK lobbying industry.”

As Mr. Allen told the news source in an exclusive, “The new lobbying law is rushed and ridiculous. Instead of addressing the Prime Minister’s promise to ‘shine the light of transparency’ on lobbying, this flawed legislation will mean we’ll all be back in a year facing another scandal. It is a dog’s breakfast.”

Important? Sure. Boring? Absolutely.

For our part, we Canadians deserve far better from our public officials. It’s been some time since we’ve been truly outraged. This is late summer, after all. The weather shouldn’t be the only thing that stays hot and steamy.

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The search for intelligent life is alienating


We sat, my wife and I, amid the purple Coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans in the garden, which we lovingly tend, idly discussing the news of the day – Egypt’s unravelling proto-democracy, the Senate expense scandal in Ottawa, Moncton’s summer road construction schedule – when, just above the tree line, a fleet of brilliantly white lights, appeared in the eastern sky. We shrugged with mild contempt and returned to our conversation.

That’s the trouble with ET. It’s not that he doesn’t phone home; it’s that he never phones ahead.

Apparently, he’s been conducting a lot of annoying, unannounced pop-ins recently. According to a Winnipeg Sun item in May, “More Manitobans than ever before reported seeing unidentified flying objects last year. A survey on UFO sightings in Canada released. . .by Ufology Research reveals there were 124 reported sightings in Manitoba in 2012, up from 81 the previous year and the most sightings recorded in a single year since records started being kept on the topic in 1989. Seventeen of those sightings emanated from Winnipeg, the report states.”

The “sightings” in the province were part of a growing tendency among Canadians to spy space aliens from the comfort of their patio furniture. In fact, the folks at Ufology Research counted nearly 2,000 reported sightings across the country in 2012  – more than double the number in 2008. Ontario boasted the most (822) and PEI the least (2). Oddly, as a per capita proportion of the population, New Brunswick ranked close to the head of the class (41).

In fact, this summer has been a busy one for alien-spotters in Westmorland County. On July 31 at 10:45 pm local time, two “credible witnesses” in Shediac “saw a series of reddish orange balls coming across the sky from the southwest, in a straight line,” reports Ufology Research on its website. “We’re on a common flight path for transatlantic flights here, but the men, retired engineers, could also see airplanes in the sky that had no connection to these objects. The sighting lasted about 15 minutes. No noise or other lights as you might see on aircraft; nothing but the balls of light themselves, about a dozen in number.”

Some weeks ago, the Moncton Times & Transcript lent editorial real estate to claims by residents near Pointe-du-Chene of seeing luminous objects hovering silently in the starry night. Were these a precursor of invasion or just a couple of Chinese lanterns that had slipped their moorings? The investigation, I assume, continues.

In any case, no less esteemed an expert on all things cosmological than astrophysicist Stephen Hawking – the size of whose brain pan is reputed to be second only to that of the late Albert Einstein – has suggested that if extraterrestrials exist, and if they pay regular visits to our humble orb, they may be “nomads, looking to conquer and colonize”. In a 2010 documentary for the Discovery Channel, he said, “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.

The remark earned a mild rebuke from former Canadian defence minister Paul Hellyer, who told The Canadian Press, “I think (Professor Hawking) is indulging in some pretty scary talk there that I would have hoped would not come from someone with such an established stature. . .I think it’s really sad that a scientist of his repute would contribute to what I would consider more misinformation about a vast and very important subject.”

He continued: “The reality is that they’ve (aliens) been visiting Earth for decades and probably millennia and have contributed considerably to our knowledge. Microchips, for example, fiber-optics, they are just two of the many things that allegedly – and probably for real – came from crashed vehicles.”

In other words, the truth is not only out there; it’s all around us.

Meanwhile, as my wife and I continued to mourn the passing of intelligent life on Planet Earth, much less the universe, we watched as the fleet of white lights noiselessly transformed themselves into a flock of seagulls whose wings had caught the dazzling glow of the slowly setting sun.

We breathed a collective sigh of relief. Given the news of the day, we were in no mood for company.

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