Sunday, July 31, 2011

Unmediated Passion For Libraries - A Cure For Cynicism

I defy anyone to remain untouched after reading this story and watching the accompanying video in which 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradan makes a passionate plea to Mayor Rob Ford not to cut library services in Toronto. As the spokesperson for a large segment of library patrons, both her arguments and her emotions should remind all policymakers that their decisions have impacts that go far beyond the fiscal.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Failure of Political Leadership

It is perhaps to state the obvious in asserting that our elected officials rarely represent our interests very well. Examples, far too numerous to list, abound. Probably the most prominent failure currently in the news is that of Rob Ford, who became the mayor of Toronto on the promise to cut the fat (he subject he appears to be intimately familiar with)) without touching essential services.

Of course, one could place most of the blame on the credulity of the voters who elected him, given given their apparent proclivity for magical thinking in accepting him at his word, but Toronto Star columnist Royson James has an interesting piece on how some people are reacting now that essential services such as libraries and municipal transportation are under serious consideration for cuts. Entitled Toronto wants its vote back, it is well-worth reading

Friday, July 29, 2011

Something To Start The Long Weekend

While driving to get my hair cut, and tuned to Canada's Premium Jazz Station this morning, I heard a song from long ago sung by the late Phoebe Snow, a woman possessed of such a lovely voice but who probably wasn't nearly as well-known as others of her generation. Called Harpo's Blues, it may be a song easy to dismiss until you consider the underlying emotion conveyed in Phoebe's voice, which raises it to an entirely new level, in my view.

More Evidence Of The American Right's Intellectual 'Limitations'

I have phrased this post's title as tactfully as I can, but I think if you watch the following video, you will be tempted to use other, more obvious ways to describe right-wing American cognitive abilities. You will notice that as soon as the Fox host asks scientist Bill Nye about climate change, Nye realizes he must talk in a much slower manner than he ever did when he hosted the children's science program, Bill Nye The Science Guy.

Thanks to my son Matthew for providing this link:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Revelations Of Further Charter Rights' Violation At G20 Summit

In what has become almost a routine posting to my blog, the Toronto Star has revealed yet another violation of rights arising from last year's federally and provincially supported G20 Summit. An article entitled Police wrong to question man with crossbow near G20 fence, judge rules, a few quotes will be enough, I hope, to persuade readers to peruse the article:

“The law makes clear that an investigative detention of that kind gives rise to a right to counsel,” provincial court Justice David Fairgrieve said Wednesday.

The judge also agreed with defence criticisms of Toronto police for continually denying McCullough’s rights to counsel while he was held at the Eastern Ave. detention centre for G20 detainees.

Just a timely reminder to all of us before we cast our vote in the Ontario election to carefully consider which political leaders have told us an inquiry is not necessary into what was the biggest breach of Charter Rights in Canadian history. No amount of political posturing diminishing its significance can alter the truth.

Such An Eloquent Letter

I have several times made reference to the enjoyment we derive in subscribing to The Toronto Star, a progressive paper with an official agenda that includes issues of social justice. Like the journalists in their employ, The Star's letter-writers tend to express thoughtful and well-reasoned views, a refreshing contrast and antidote to the mindless screeds that use stereotyped labeling and vile ad hominems to try to bully their point across.

I was especially impressed by a letter that appeared in yesterday's edition on the issue of pensions, a polarizing topic if there ever was one. Because of the ephemeral nature of readers' letters on newspaper websites, I am taking the liberty of reproducing in its entirety one by Tom Legrady of Toronto :

Re: Meagre earnings can’t fund retirement, Letter July 15

Sandra Snyder, unable to salt away a retirement on her meagre earnings, objects to teachers salaries and pensions. I find it unacceptable that people have to struggle to live on subsistence government pensions, but blaming workers who have done well is not the solution.

The rich and powerful have always deflected anger on to scapegoats. Poor southerners hated blacks for not being worse off than they, especially after the end of slavery put an end to the inferiority inherent in property. European and Russian anger was redirected on to Jews.

Do not hate unionized workers for having a decent living. Instead wonder why non-unionized workers are kept in abject poverty. All of us, union and not, can thank unions and the CCF and NDP for Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, Unemployment Insurance.

Labour campaigned from early in the 19th century for 16-hour days to be reduced to 10, and later eight, for weekends and for vacations. Do you think the owners extended those benefits out of generosity, because they felt they were too rich?

Their grandchildren certainly have no such compulsion to share their wealth, when they want to terminate union position and replace them with generous contracts to their industrialist buddies employing minimum wage labour.

Tom Legrady, Toronto

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Barbarians' Threat

Libraries have been a vital part of my life since I first learned to read. When I married and had children, my wife and I made sure to inculcate a love of reading in our children, and again, libraries were a vital part of that process. Even today, I will visit a library at least once a week to check out books, videos, etc.

For anyone who loves them and recognizes their immense community value, the threat of library closures is akin to waving the proverbial red flag in front of the bull. Therefore, the response to the barbarians who have breached the gates at Toronto City Hall is hardly surprising.

Yesterday, in an unseemly dispute with Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood over the prospect of closing libraries, Doug Ford, the Toronto mayor's brother and councillor representing Etobicoke North, said,

“Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected,” the Etobicoke councillor said, adding as an example that it “wouldn't bother” his constituents if the Northern Elms library branch at Kipling Ave. and Rexdale Blvd. were closed.

One should be aware that the branch singled out by Ford serves a rather poor part of the Toronto populace that has a high proportion of immigrants. It is perhaps not surprising that the forces of the extreme right, as they are wont to do, are targeting that segment in its search for 'new efficiencies'.

In today's Star, patrons of that particular branch respond passionately to Mr. Ford's assertion.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Cowardice Of Anonymous Online Commentary

Over the decades I have written many letters to the editor and articles that have appeared in both local and national publications; never once have I hesitated to use my complete name, as required by almost all publications, my logic being that I am not ashamed of anything I write for the public record.

Since the advent of online newspaper commentary, there has been a debate raging over whether people should be allowed to hide behind pseudonyms, the argument in defense of such practices being that anonymity ensures full and vigorous debate of a plethora of issues without fear of sanctions or reprisals.

I have never been in favour of anonymity or the use of pseudonyms because they frequently allow the cowardly to post vile and hateful comments with little restraint, the main reason I rarely even bother reading online remarks anymore.

Jack Layton's announcement of yesterday that he is facing a new cancer battle is the catalyst for this post. While the overwhelming majority of online comments have been positive, supportive, and sympathetic, a minority has issued forth with hate-filled attacks on the NDP leader, wishing him nothing but sickness and death because they disagree with his politics. I can't help but wonder how many of these cowards would have posted such a vile stream had they been required to identify themselves.

At a time when many newspapers are changing their policies governing online commentary, is is time for Canadian publications to follow suit.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How Useful Are Food Banks In The Longterm?

As a volunteer at one of the local foodbanks for the past few years, I have often felt ambivalent about their existence. While there is no question that they are heavily, even exhaustively used, they were never intended as a long-term solution to the problem of hunger in our society. And while I have met many people sincerely dedicated to feeding the poor, I can't help but wonder if there aren't better ways of addressing the problem, if we have the political will to do so, a big question given the current selfish emphasis by the right on the good of the individual over that of the collective.

Skimming over the Globe website, I came across an article written by Elaine Power entitled It's time to close Canada's food banks, which makes for some instructive reading.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Star Readers 'Weigh In' On Rob Ford's Performance

Although not a resident of Toronto, I always find it difficult not to pay attention to the goings-on in 'The Big Smoke,' as its citizens are fond of calling their city. Much has already been written by bloggers evaluating the disparity between the rhetoric and the truth of Ford's much-bruited 'gravy train,' but a series of letters in yesterday's Star under the heading of Where's the beef? which I have just gotten around to reading, are well worth perusing.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Stephen Harper: Pay No Attention To The Stats Can Man Behind The Curtain

The other day I wrote about the fact that statistics show serious crime in Canada to be at a 40-year-low. Despite this, of course, the Harper Government is marching headlong in its pursuit of measures to combat crime, including, of course, the building of super prisons that we neither need nor can afford.

In today's Globe, Jeffrey Simpson, in an incisive column entitled Tories judge evidence of falling rates inadmissible, explains why such statistics have no impact on our Conservative overlords. If you get a few moments, check it out.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Star: Police Strip Searches On The Rise

As reported in today's Toronto Star, "Toronto police strip searched roughly 60 per cent of the people they arrested in 2010, compared to 32 per cent 10 years ago, according to police statistics."

Given recent high profile incidents of this practice, some have suggested that the authorities are using the searches as a tool of intimidation and humiliation, yet another indication of a creeping authoritarianism insinuating itself into our social fabric.

But there may be another explanation. Given the high profile evidence of faltering police facial-recognition skills, and since we all come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and endowments, perhaps they are merely employing an adaptive strategy to more definitively and completely identify us for future reference, whether that be in a court of law or elsewhere.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Canada’s crime rate at lowest level in almost 40 years: StatsCan

Thus reads the headline in a story posted online by The Globe and Mail.

Amongst the latest Statistics Canada findings, the following facts are worth noting:

There were 554 homicides in 2010, down 56 from the year before. The decline in the homicide rate was largely driven by a decrease in British Columbia, where the rate hit an all-time low.
There were 693 attempted murders last year, down from 801 in 2009. This resulted in the lowest level in more than 30 years.

Nearly 93,000 vehicles were reported stolen last year, representing a 15 per cent drop and continuing a downward trend that started in the mid-1990s.

Nearly 153,000 youth between the ages of 12 and 17 were accused of a crime in 2010, almost 15,000 fewer than a year earlier. The youth crime rate declined by 7 per cent.

Three cities had increases in their crime severity index, which measures the seriousness of crimes: St. John’s, Sudbury, Ont., and Peterborough, Ont. The cities with the lowest crime severity indexes were Guelph, Ont., Quebec City, Toronto and Ottawa.

Of course, before we make the mistake of feeling reasonably safe, I suspect the Harper regime will remind us of the 'fact' of unreported crime lurking beneath the statistics like a great white shark trolling offshore for the unsuspecting - that is, if they even bother to comment after having achieved a majority in the last election with their wealth of scare tactics.

Police Facial Recognition Skills Continue To Decline

Whether it is a food, air, or water-borne virus, or a strange and hitherto undocumented brain condition, there is no question that police facial recognition skills are declining, calling into question their ability to accurately testify in criminal cases.

Perhaps the most public example of this dysfunction was evident in the case of Adam Nobody, the young Toronto man who was viciously assaulted by Toronto Police during last year's G20 Summit in Toronto. Despite the fact that he was swarmed by up to 15 officers, only one, Const. Andalib-Goortani, has ever been charged, the rest of the officers apparently unable to identify other colleagues who took part in the assault.

The affliction's latest known victims are members of the Hamilton Police Service who took part in a botched drug raid in May of 2010. Having broken into the wrong apartment (perhaps number recognition failure is a symptom of the disease's progression?) in their efforts to arrest a 36-year-old black cocaine trafficker, (colour-recognition problems?) they instead arrested a 5-foot-7, 130-pound 59-year-old refugee from Burma, Po La Hay, who wound up with facial lacerations, three broken ribs and a fractured vertebra.

As reported in today's Hamilton Spectator, Hay was the key witness Wednesday at the opening of the assault causing bodily harm trial of Hamilton police officer Ryan Tocher, who has pleaded not guilty. Despite Hay's testimony that he had been kicked in the ribs two or three times, and despite the fact that five officers were in the kitchen where the beating took place, no one seems to be able to identify Tocher as the assailant.

I can only hope, for the sake of peace, order, and our security, that Canada's best medical minds are currently and urgently researching this terrible malady that seems to be targetting our boys and girls in blue.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Thought On A Hot Evening

Confined as I have been to the house today and tonight thanks to the heat and humidity, I thought I would make a brief posting. I've been writing recently about the importance of critical thinking skills. Following is a link to a National Post piece that my son just sent me in which reporter Jonathon Kay justifies publishing articles by convicted felon Conrad Black. If you are interested, take a look at the piece and see if you can spot some of the shortcomings of logic within it and the likely real purpose it serves.

Some Insights On Rupert Murdoch's Troubles

My friend Gary, who has developed quite a talent for epistolary irony, sent me an email this morning on the Murdoch appearance yesterday before the British Parliament. With his permission, I am posting it here:

Hi Lorne:

I was pleased to see and hear that the people at the top are innocent of any wrongdoing, and it appears that they were either mislead, deceived, or simply let down by those in upper or lower middle management. Once the evil had been discovered and recognized they moved quickly to extend their apologies for the actions of those they had entrusted the everyday operation of the company to. The accountability buck stops at the top and they want the public, and especially the victims, to know that it will never happen again on their watch.

Rupert himself is a victim of a pie thrower and it was only through the quick actions of his trophy wife that he escaped embarrassment and shamed the police. A person who surrounds himself, both in his personal life and working life with such beauty and talent can't be held accountable for the actions of those who let such a great man down. A man who built his empire through his own personal strength and the wise words of his father. A man who even had the ear of the Prime Minister and perhaps other body parts. It is the bad, the ugly and simply those who are jealous of this man's greatness. Rupert is a true corporate soldier who even when facing peril wanted Parliament and the Public to know the truth. A very humble man indeed.

I have notice when flipping the channels how the Sun Station is playing this all down. The Sun keeps repeating how the wiki leaks, which they hammer, was far worse, has been suppressed by the left and their left leaning papers. Sun spokespeople, with their talk experts, keep repeating that it is wrong by other media to see this as an opportunity to pile on Murdock.

Our Canadian Papers Can Take a Page and a Lesson From This:

Canadian Conservative Media 101: Gary

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

More Evidence Of Bill Blair's Failed Leadership

The 'offer no apologies and accept no responsibility' head of the Toronto Police Services, Chief Bill Blair, has another facet of failed leadership to answer for. According to a report in The Toronto Star, a U of T student has documented at least eight occasions Toronto police have violated rules in place since 2006 requiring them to wear name tags.

According to the story,Vikram Mulligan says he was so troubled by police failing to identify themselves at last summer’s G20 summit he began photographing officers without proper name tags.

At a time when the Toronto force inspire more fear and loathing than admiration, this is hardly the moment for them to become de facto 'secret police.'

The rogue police behaviour the article describes is yet one more troubling indication that the lack of strong leadership and ability to inspire discipline is continuing to have widespread repercussions.

Once More, The SIU Cannot Fulfill Its Mandate

In what I can only construe as inept or complicit leadership at the top, the Toronto Police Service, thanks to massive obstructionism amongst the rank and file, has once again thwarted the SIU in fulfilling its mandate to properly and effectively investigate police wrongdoing.

As reported in The Globe and Mail:

Three officers investigated in a high-profile case of alleged police brutality at last year's G20 summit will not be charged after several peers, including supervisors, did not or could not say whether the officers had been involved in beating Adam Nobody, the province's police watchdog said Monday.

In my opinion, that lead tells us all we need to know about how much the Toronto Police co-operated with the SIU in its investigation. That after all this time only one officer, Babak Andalib-Goortani, has been charged, despite the fact that Adam Nobody was attacked by a phalanx of cops, means that the corrupt concealment of the truth by Toronto's 'finest' has been ongoing, and the person most responsible for facilitating that culture in the context of the G20, Police Chief Bill Blair, has much to answer for.

Despite his unwillingness to acknowledge any responsibility for his officers' actions or their subsequent concealment and obstructionism, Chief Bill Blair needs to resign as the first step in beginning to heal the massive breach in public trust that arose from the G20 police actions. To do anything less is to put career above the public good.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Late Afternoon Thought On The Murdoch Scandal

I just read a post by The Disaffected Lib discussing the mounting number of resignations resulting from the Rupert Murdoch scandal. Both the Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan London Police (Scotland Yard) have resigned because of the disrepute they have brought to the organization through their actions and omissions.

Its a funny thing about the British, isn't it? I remember years ago when they were involved in the Falklands War, Lord Carrington, the British Foreign Secretary, resigned because he hadn't anticipated the conflict.

Meanwhile, in Canada, whenever something goes awry, a politician or public official may say he or she 'accepts full responsibility,' she retains her job, and everyone moves on as if nothing happened. Or to bring it even closer to home, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, who apparently apologizes for nothing and accepts responsibility for nothing, continues in his position despite the atrocities committed by the police under his control during last June's G20 summit.

Only in Canada, you say?

An Ethical Dilemma - One Posible Answer

Yesterday I posed a hypothetical ethical dilemma sent to me by my son; briefly, it outlined a situation where a friend would be attacked by a bear, his injuries not known, but they could range from life-threatening to superficial. The only way to save him (her) from that fate was to accept a fate of your own, which was to live the rest of your life in rain. Here is the answer that I sent him:

This is the sort of vexing question that seems to have no right or wrong answer.  In considering the seemingly selfless option of saving your friend from an uncertain fate, you must also consider the consequences of that act of altruism against the misery that you will inflict, not only on yourself, but on those around you.  For example, if you were married, would it be fair to consign your partner, who presumably had no say in your choice, to a lifetime of rain? Indeed, wouldn't that lifetime of rain also have an effect on everyone around you, perhaps sending them into deep depression, disability or even death through suicide? 

When you think about it, the dilemma involves all of your neighbours, friends, and fellow citizens. Because of the related nature of the world, none of the choices we make are truly made in isolation, so the premise of the original question is flawed.  Is it more altruistic to save your friend, or is it more altruistic to consider the possible repercussions of your act on a much wider range of people?

Reminds me of the saying that no good deeds go unpunished.

I will return to this in my next post as to why recognizing this inter-relatedness is vital if there is to be any hope for humanity's future.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

An Ethical Dilemma

Although the following might seem rather tangential to what I usually discuss on this blog, an email recently sent to me by my son is, I think, highly relevant for a number of reasons, which I will discuss tomorrow.

Here is the ethical dilemma:

Think of someone who is your friend (do not select your best friend, but make sure the person is someone you would classify as "considerably more then an acquaintance"). This friend is going to be attacked by a grizzly bear. Now this person will survive the attack; that is guaranteed. There is a 100 percent chance that your friend will live. However, the extent of his injuries is unknown; he might receive nothing but a few superficial scratches, but he also might lose a limb (or multiple limbs). He might recover completely in twenty-four hours with nothing but a great story, or he might spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Somehow you have the ability to stop this attack from happening. You can magically save your friend from the bear. But his (or her) salvation will come at a peculiar price: if you choose to stop the bear, it will always rain. For the rest of your life, wherever you go, it will be raining. Sometimes it will pour and sometimes it will drizzle-but it will never not be raining. But it won't rain over the totality of the earth, nor will the hydrological cycle de disrupted; these storm clouds will be isolated, and they will focus entirely on your specific where-abouts. You will also never see the sun again. Do you stop the bear, accepting the lifetime of rain?

He sent me the response given by a friend of his, and closed the missive with the following:

Dad, what would your response be?

I sent him a response, but won't post it until tomorrow in case anyone would like to weigh in on this scenario.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Ever-Increasing Importance Of Alternative Media

After reading Rick Salutin's column yesterday about the very real limitations of Canadian journalism even when juxtaposed against the scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch's publishing empire, I had the opportunity to read a story from that confirms the need for the independent voices working in alternative media. Entitled CUPW: A cautionary tale of union-busting, with a little help from the media, the article underscores the frequently lazy journalism practised in MSM while amply demonstrating how the conservative forces in our country use it to propagate and perpetuate its message.

The following excerpt provides a brief overview of a few of the fictions about Canada Post promulgated by those eager to whet the newly-awakened appetite for union-busting rife in North America: the strike loomed, Canada Post announced that it had calculated the union's demands would cost $1.4 billion. When the union demanded an explanation of this eye-popping figure, management refused. But the figure appeared in many media stories.

Another widely used figure was a 17 per cent drop in mail volumes that supposedly occurred between 2006 and 2010. This number received massive media coverage and was cited to support the myth of financial crisis....Prior to the strike/lockout, the union was informed that admail and parcels were rebounding. Between 2006 and 2009, letter volumes decreased by 7 per cent, not 17 per cent. But the fake 17 per cent is still being bandied about by the media, despite union requests that this misleading figure be corrected. Nobody who reported the 17 per cent, including reputable academics and columnists, ever bothered to publicly correct their misleading statements, despite being contacted.

I hope you will take a few minutes to read the entire article. The more information we have from all sources, the more effectively we can think for ourselves - a much preferable option, in my view, than the Pavlovian slobbering the conservative agenda is designed to elicit.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Rick Salutin on Rupert Murdoch

For those exulting in the ongoing misfortunes of Rupert Murdoch (and I readily and enthusiastically admit to being one of them), Rick Salutin has a thoughtful column in today's Star warning us that we really have little room for self-righteousness when it comes to the state of journalism in Canada.

Offering a brief historical overview of the craft, Salutin calls into question the traditional notion of journalism as a noble calling. Considering the decline in news quality we have witnessed over the past several years, especially in CBC television news, I think the columnist is once more spot on.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tory Lite - McGuinty and Public Sector Cuts

Dalton McGuinty, the Ontario Premier who, as I mentioned in previous posts, will not be receiving my support in the October election over his shameless disavowal of any responsibility for the police abuses during last year's G20 Summit, has often been called Blue Lite, a reference to his conservative proclivities. Today, its seems that he has stolen a page from his rival Tim Hudak's 'Changebook' by announcing that between now and next March, 1900 public sector workers will lose their jobs.

As reported in The Star, the first round of cuts mean the province will stop verifying local social assistance distribution, reduce staffing that monitors collection agencies, and lay off 57 people with technical expertise in water safety and air quality in the environment ministry.

Not to worry, according to Environment Minister John Wilkinson, who says these 'staff reductions' will have no impact on the public, and that the cuts were the type of “pruning” people expected.

Orwell warned about the political misuse of language, including euphemisms, as a means of defending the indefensible, but I cannot help wondering whether this 'pruning' will have an impact on the McGuinty 'harvest' in October.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How The Harper Government Defines Efficiency At The CBC

While it will likely come as no surprise to many, the Harper Government has within its sights the CBC, the sometimes irksome public broadcaster that the right-wing so often loves to hate. As reported online in today's Globe, the Heritage Minister, James Moore, says that a 5% federal funding cut should not be onerous for the Corporation.

Perhaps part of the larger Tory agenda, not just for the CBC but the country as a whole, was revealed in the following statement by the Minister:

“The truth is the CBC is finding efficiencies. The CBC used to have nine unions. Now there are six. They’ve sold assets that, frankly, they weren’t using.”

So, it would seem that union-busting and asset sales form an important part of the long-term strategy of these self-proclaimed master managers of the economy.

One can only shudder when considering the future shape of this country.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Critical Thinking: Do We Get The Kind Of Political Leadership We Deserve?

In many ways, I suspect that we get exactly the kind of political representation that we deserve. A population that is either largely disengaged from the political process or lacking in fundamental critical thinking skills invites our elected representatives to treat us with disdain, safe in the knowledge that few will rouse themselves to object. The effects of this kind of passivity and lazy thinking are most evident when politicos are campaigning for our vote, making outrageous promises and guarantees that show how little they really think of us.

Take, for example, Rob Ford's successful bid to become the mayor of Toronto, based almost exclusively on the promise to “end the gravy train” that was, according to the mythology advanced by the true believers, sapping the Big Smoke of its monetary resources and bleeding the taxpayers dry. So, in a mass Pavlovian response, the people elected the big fellow, only to now learn that the putative rich diet of the metaphorical locomotive never existed.

In an excellent piece by Roy James in today's Star entitled Rob Ford's gravy train running on fumes, we learn that, after spending $350,000 on a consultant telling them things they already knew, the City spends most of its money on core services, nary a gravy boat in site (forgive me for mixing my metaphors):

As on many other files, the civic leader was missing in action. So, too, was the anticipated list of huge savings to be found in bloated departments. And the hit list of waste and gravy.

It turns out that if Ford is going to find “savings” from the city’s water, garbage and transportation departments he will have to convince city council to keep the blue box out of apartments and condos, reduce snow clearing, cut the grass and sweep the streets less often, and end fluoridation of Toronto’s drinking water — all politically explosive issues.

For that — and a list of nickel-and-dime, nip-and-tuck manoeuvres — Toronto could potentially, possibly, save up to $10 million to $15 million in departments that spend $1 billion, one-third of which comes from taxes.

City councillors didn’t need to pay a consultant $350,000 to tell them where to find those “savings.” Council considers them every year — and often recoils from implementing them.

The mayor has fed the general expectation that the consultants from KPMG would use their fresh eyes to uncover bushels of low-hanging fruit that nobody had identified before — the “gravy.”

They haven’t.

Can this reality actually come as a surprise to the voting public? I would like to say no, but sadly, for the aforementioned reasons, the answer has to be yes.

I hope you will take a few moments to read the entire article.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Netweeper Inc. - A Canadian Company That Facilitates Internet Censorship Abroad

In an age when regulation of shoddy business practices seems to be rapidly eroding, the ethos today being that anything inhibiting growth is bad, it may not come as a surprise that both the Federal and the Ontario Provincial Governments are complicit in inhibiting the free flow of information in countries with repressive regimes.

The latest Canadian salvo against human rights is revealed in a story appearing in today's Toronto Star. Entitled Canada needs clear cyberspace censorship policy, watchdog says, the piece reveals how both levels of government virtually endorsed a Guelph-based company that produces content-filtering software that it sells to repressive countries to control what is available to their citizens on the Internet. In the United Arab Emirates, Netsweeper Inc., which has received Canadian government grants, presented a domestic telecom called Du with an award for its use of green technology. Representatives of both the Harper and McGuinty governments were on hand for the ceremony, but as reported in The Star, the problem is this:

Du uses Netsweeper software to block content from UAE Internet users, including political, religious and human rights material, according to the Open Net Initiative, a collective of researchers that track Internet censorship and surveillance.

The question we, as Canadians, have to ask ourselves is whether it is right to both fund and endorse companies that make it easier for such countries to repress their citizens. Do we take a stand based on common principle, or do we hew to the egregiously amoral philosophy that markets will decide the fate of such enterprises?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The State of Journalism

Thanks to Dr. Dawg for posting this link to an essay by Kai Nagata, who writes about why he recently quit his job as a reporter for CTV. His observations about the current state of television journalism are instructive, and will be of interest to anyone who worries about the increasing vapidity of news content these days.

Unions - Part Two

Thanks to fellow-blogger Orwell for providing this link to the Australian version of the video I wrote about yesterday:

Saturday, July 9, 2011

What Have Unions Done For Us?

I just came across the following video on You Tube. Although directed toward an American audience, its message is completely applicable to Canada as well. Enjoy!

Critical Thinking: The Assault On Reason

The following is a review I wrote about four years ago of Al Gore's book, The Assault on Reason, a work that addresses many of the problems arising when the populace at large lacks the capacity for critical thought. Although geared to an American audience, Gore's points are universally applicable, and especially germane to my previous post on critical thinking, the only real defense we have against government manipulation of the electorate:

Having just completed Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, I have to confess to being profoundly disturbed. If his thesis is to be accepted, the greatest threat to the foundations of American society comes not from some shadowy terrorist organization but something much closer to home: the American government itself. It is an assertion that deserves to be taken seriously.

Drawing upon the beginnings of the American Constitution, Gore tells us that the Founders placed a heavy reliance on two interrelated notions: reason and a well-informed citizenry. These, plus the checks and balances implicit in the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), were believed to provide the greatest chances of survival for this new experiment in democracy. However, under the current Bush-Cheney Administration, Gore suggests that these safeguards are failing

In an obviously well-researched effort, the author takes us through a variety of means whereby that administration sidesteps, circumvents, ignores or otherwise contemns the constitutional strictures on the executive branch. Were this a work of fiction, the reader would find the narrative implausible. Sadly, what Al Gore conveys is all too real.

This tale of administrative malfeasance has many facets: there is an indifferent legislative body more intent on raising money to get reelected than debating in Congress; there are the machinations of George Bush and Dick Cheney to reward their friends while at the same time ensuring that the average citizen is ill-served; there is the manipulation of people’s fears as opposed to appealing to their reason; all are grim reminders of what happens when people take their government for granted. Whether Gore examines the sinister repealing of pollution laws or the insidious misinformation put out about climate change, the reader quickly realizes that unless citizens promptly re-engage in the democratic process, there is little hope for the future of America’s grand experiment.

He does, however, end the book on a note of real hope. Although the historical notion of the marketplace of ideas, where people shared information and communicated with government in a meaningful way no longer exists, Gore suggests that a new infrastructure has arisen and is evolving whereby that marketplace might once again thrive. It is called the Internet. He points out the current egalitarian nature of the Web, whereby anyone with an opinion can form a group and invite others of like mind to join, whether it is a blog, a community forum, or a national meeting place. Its advantage is the absence of geographical or travel obstacles to forming or joining such groups, meaning that they are open to everyone. The potential to be once again well-informed and active is there, although I think the author downplays the difficulties inherent in having such a cornucopia of choice. How, for example, doe one separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff? Nonetheless, his underlying point is sound, namely that citizens now have a means to begin reinserting themselves in the democratic process in a meaningful way.

This is a book that has implications for all democratic governments and therefore should be widely read. As a Canadian, I couldn’t help but think of my own government under Stephen Harper which has, for example, severely restricted the flow of information about our troops’ mission in Afghanistan; facts that were previously widely available are no longer so, the justification being ‘national security issues,’ but more likely is a response to widespread criticism of the mission amongst Canadians.

A good first step on the journey to becoming an informed citizen who can work toward a renewed democracy is the reading of The Assault on Reason; it is a book alternately disheartening, inspiring, informative and provocative. At no time is it boring.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Is This A Quest For Justice, Or A Thirst For Revenge?

While I doubt that I will ever be accused of being 'soft on crime,' agreeing with the view held by many that the Canadian judicial system tends to be too lenient in too many cases, my belief in the deterrent effect of stern sentencing and less liberal parole provisions is trumped, when the two areas come into conflict, by my deep desire to see justice done and fairness practised. In the case of the 15-year-old who stands accused of killing Officer Garrett Styles, it seems the Crown is motivated, not by a quest for justice, but a thirst for revenge.

As reported in The Star, the Crown is seeking not only to charge the teen as an adult, which may or may not be defensible, but also with first-degree murder, which, upon conviction, would require a minimum 25-year-sentence before parole. From my perspective, this charge is unwarranted and indefensible.

Although Canadian law allows for the laying of a first-degree murder charge when a police officer is killed, one of the hallmarks of a fair and compassionate system of justice is the consideration of the circumstances surrounding the death. Clearly, from what I do know of the situation, the teen panicked when stopped by Officer Styles and foolishly tried to flee, dragging the officer along with him, his actions culminating in the van overturning, leading to Styles' death. Without minimizing the loss to the family and the larger community incurred by his death, it was clearly unintended, caused by a stupid thing a kid did.

And I think that is the lens through which this tragedy should be viewed. A foolish kid, engaged in foolish behaviour without consideration of consequences, the sort of thing teens have been doing for millennia. Should a stiff sentence be sought? Perhaps, but justice will not be served by ensuring that a 15-year-old who made some stupid choices does not get out of prison until he is 40.

Shame on the Crown for pandering to the public and the police for the choice it has made.

The Real News Commentary on G20 Summit Police Crimes

As always, The Real News offers a refreshing perspective rarely found in the mainstream media. Anything that continues to keep the G20 police abuses of Charter Rights in the public forum can be nothing but good for our democracy.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A New Anti-Hudak Ad

Putting aside for the moment my concern about critical thinking skills, I must confess to deriving considerable pleasure out of the latest ad calling into question Tim Hudak's plans should he win the October Ontario election. Enjoy!

Developing Critical Thinking Skills – Travelling A Road That Never Ends

Even though I consider myself reasonably-well-educated and reasonably well-read, one truth I have come to realize is that the journey toward critical thinking never ends – it is always a work in progress, if I may mix my metaphors. I very much doubt that any of us can say that we have become the consummate analyzer of facts and information, dispassionately assessing information for its objective truth. No, because we are human, our values, our passions, and our prejudices will always be factors in how we process the information that bombards us daily. However, I think we are making real progress when we can recognize the role those factors play in our lives, and even just occasionally are able to stand outside of them and give another viewpoint some respect and consideration.

I mentioned in my previous post the ingredients I believe are necessary in this journey toward better thinking. Today I'd like to address one of those requirements, the need to read widely, something that I realize is a problem for many people. During my working life, I would always try to read a couple of papers, one local and one national, but otherwise the bulk of my reading, both fiction and non-fiction, was confined to bedtime and weekends. I know that for many, because of such time constraints, reading is not a priority. Yet there can be no substitute. It is surely an irony of the times that we have access to more information than any previous epoch, yet have so little time to consider it.

With that in mind, I would like to recommend a book that I recently read: The Trouble with Billionaires, by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks.
Now, the reactionary (one with whom I associate a reluctance to think widely and honestly) would immediately and simply reject considering such a work because Linda McQuaig is a 'leftie.' A more open-minded person would see the opportunity to learn new things or see issues from a new perspective. And that is precisely what this book enabled me to do on a number of issues including progressive taxation, corporate donations, the disproportionate influence the wealthy have exerted on government policy both historically and contemporaneously, and the problem of rising inequality in North America.

One small illustration from the book will serve to exemplify its value in widening one's perspective. Increasingly, corporate donations are being pursued and relied upon by universities. However, beyond the obvious danger that over-reliance on such funding sources can pose for program development and content, the authors reveal something that I have never considered:

The public also has an inflated sense of how much financing wealthy donors actually provide through philanthropy. For instance, there was much celebration in April 2010 when it was announced that a new $35 million donation from Peter Munk would enable the University of Toronto to establish a school of global studies. The new Munk School of Global Affairs (incorporating the existing Munk Centre for International Studies) is to be housed in a century-old stone building on fashionable Bloor Street West, and feature an elevated pixel board flashing the latest world news headlines.

But, although it wasn’t mentioned in the announcement, Munk will receive a $16 million tax reduction for his $35 million contribution, reducing his actual personal contribution to $19 million. So he will really be paying just a little more than half the cost of his contribution, while the government (Canadian taxpayers) will be paying just a little under half. For that matter, if Munk made his donation in the form of shares in publicly traded companies — as most donors do — then his tax savings will be considerably larger (possibly by millions of dollars) and his personal contribution far smaller than $19 million.

The Ontario and federal governments also announced that they would each contribute $25 million to the new Munk school, bringing the total contribution of Canadian taxpayers to at least $66 million. But when it came to naming the building, the taxpayers’ $66 million simply disappeared; only Munk’s $19 million (or less) counted. 

The authors then go on to talk about the influence Mr. Munk will have on the sorts of programs offered there. For example, is an examination of the role of multi-nationals and their sometimes nefarious behaviour in African gold extraction likely to be welcomed by Mr. Munk, head of Barrick gold?

I know that I have come no closer to answering the questions originally posed by fellow-blogger Orwell, but I will return with more thoughts on the development of critical thinking skills soon.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Problem And The Power Of Critical Thinking

Fellow blogger Orwell recently wrote a post entitled The capacity for critical thought – how do we build it? In it, he was challenging readers to brainstorm ways in which this vital ability can be inculcated.

I posted the following as a comment:

While I am glad you asked the question, how to inculcate critical thinking skills is a tall order, one that I have wrestled with for several years. 

I am convinced that one of the absolute necessities that by no means guarantees success is a broad-based education, not merely the skills-training that often passes for education today. In that objective, both high schools and universities fail more than they succeed. Most provinces, I believe, require only one secondary school course in history, usually Canadian, and that is wholly inadequate for providing the kind of contextual knowledge that is needed in making critical assessments. 

One also has to have the time and willingness to read widely, refusing to allow only that which appeals to our values and prejudices to determine what we expose ourselves to. That in itself is a tall order.

There are, to be sure, methods to help us analyze arguments. To become familiar with and on the lookout for common fallacies of reasoning can help us detect b.s. more readily, whether the b.s. is based on absolutism, ad hominems, or straw man arguments, to name three common fallacies.

I look forward to reading what others have to say, and wish you luck in this noble quest.

As a teacher in my former life, I realized a long time ago that most of us are inclined to what might be called 'lazy thinking;' the act of simply accepting and regurgitating what one has been taught or told is much easier than actually having to think about and analyze situations. Let's face it, real thinking is hard work, forcing us to consider a variety of sources of information, the biases of those who produced that information, the role that our own values and prejudices play in interpreting that information, being open to alternative views, etc.

Yet what is the alternative? To be manipulated and ruled by those who talk and rant the loudest? (Think Fox News or Sun News.)

Inspired by my blogger colleague Orwell, I would like to examine some aspects of critical thinking in upcoming posts. Some will be original, while others adaptations of articles I wrote in the past on my other blog.

As always, all comments and suggestions are welcome.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Right - Rarely Gracious, Even When In Power

One thing that I have noticed about the far right, and I think this applies both to those in the United States and in Canada, is that they have a winner-take-all attitude that rarely permits them a moment of serenity or grace. For example, even though they have largely won the battle of the airwaves, Fox News and their rabid supporters frequently grow almost apoplectic when any of their views are challenged. An examination of almost any Bill O'Reilly interview or utterance from the likes of the witless Ann Coulter offers ample confirmation of my contention.

That this affliction of spirit has permeated the Canadian political landscape is undeniable. The latest manifestation is found in Toronto City Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti who, like a prudish class monitor, videotaped the Dyke Parade this past weekend during which signs critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians appeared. The witchhunt is now on, and, as reported in today's Star, Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday wants to examine the possibility of rescinding funding for Pride activities, and also opens the door to scrutinizing the funding of arts groups:

Holyday said art grant recipients — which are paid out of the same city fund as Pride — will also need to be scrutinized, but he isn’t sure the same rule should apply to them.

“I do think it extends to all communities, but I’d need to think a little bit more about that,” he said.

Quite an interesting position of outrage to take, given that no city official that I am aware of even raised a whimper of objection over the Islamic conference also held this past weekend which, although not publicly subsidized, saw two speakers talk about how gays would be killed in Islamic countries for their orientation.

It seems like freedom of expression in the Ford administration extends only to those whose views do not offend or threaten their personal beliefs. Or is that too harsh?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Toronto Star Readers Speak Out On Police Abuses

I have written before about how much we are enjoying our subscription to The Toronto Star, one of the few newspapers that still seems to be doing the job that the press traditionally performed: keeping the public well-informed and reminding the powers-that-be of ongoing scrutiny, functions vital to the maintenance of a healthy democracy. While much of the mainstream press has largely abandoned these roles in deference to their corporate masters, The Star, as they say, 'keeps on truckin.'

Part of that mission is well-fulfilled in the publication of readers' letters, something that reassures those of us in the progressive blogosphere that we are not alone in our thirst for societal fairness and justice. Three letters in today's paper, critical of the Toronto Police and the judiciary that treats them so differently from others, are well-worth reading.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Exploding the Myth: Conservatives as Able Managers of the Economy

Well, we have confirmation by Thomas Walkom in today's Star of two facts about Conservatives:

a) They are ideologically opposed to government being in the business of business
b) They are inept managers of the economy.

Both facts are evident in Walkom: AECL saga shows Conservatives have no business being in government, whereby the veteran journalist reveals how, in their haste to dispose of Atomic Energy Canada, they have concocted a sweetheart deal for their corporate sector friends at SNC-Lavilin Inc. that other 'free-enterprisers' can only dream about: in exchange for the $15 million purchase price for $1.1 billion in assets, Mr. Harper and the gang are paying SNC-Lavilin $75 million and placing AEC's $4.5 billion in liabilities solely on the shoulders of taxpayers.

Reminiscent of the time that other paragon of financial rectitude, former Ontario Premier Mike Harris, gave away for a pittance to a German Consortium Highway 407.

No doubt, to the true believers, such deals make sense. The rest of us can only ponder the truths revealed.

Friday, July 1, 2011

To Vote Or Not To Vote

Next to Stephen Harper achieving a majority government, for me the deepest disappointment in the recent federal election was the relatively poor voter turnout. Despite some really creative efforts to mobilize young people to become participants in the process, and despite warnings from pundits that the key to Harper's fate lay in the Conservative ability to mobilize their cadre of supporters, less than 60% of eligible voters turned out.

I mention these facts because of a thought-provoking column by Tim Harper in today's Star in which he poses the question of whether or not we have become a conservative country. His analysis is well worth reading on this Canada Day.