canada

Lest we forget our freedom

On November 11th, 1918, in a train carriage outside Compiègne, France, an Armistice was signed, bringing an end to the war between Germany and the Allies, to be ratified January 10th, 1920 in the Treaty of Versailles. For 4 years, 3 months and 2 weeks before, 16 million people died, with another 20 million people wounded in battle. Poppies in a field.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow       Between the crosses, row on row,    That mark our place; and in the sky    The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,    Loved and were loved, and now we lie          In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw    The torch; be yours to hold it high.    If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow          In Flanders fields

So goes the poem by Canadian physician John McCrae in the Great War. McCrae was born in 1872 in Guelph, Ontario, some 30 kilometers from where I write this. On January 28, 1918 he died in Boulange, France.

At the time, it was the Great War, the War to end all wars. Yet war is still waged, on a daily basis. Different weapons are used, and certainly different language describes it. Surgical strikes, aerial suppression. Armed insurgents. Drone strikes.

How well have we done in carrying the torch for the dead? What freedoms do we protect, to keep faith with those from the past? Despite so much shared suffering in the past century, I think one of the greatest tragedies today is humanity's inhumanity.

We still live in a world where we are not judged solely by the strength of our character. The colour of our skin, our sex or sexual orientation, our national ancestry, where we live, our religion or lack thereof are still all used as justification for some of the worst forms of discrimination.

What gives me hope is that when a mosque is spray-painted with graffiti reading "go home", when a woman speaks up against sexual violence from a media personality, that there are those in the community who help clean the vandalism, those who will speak up for those suffering from acts of violence, saying that "I believe you".

This Remembrance Day, let us not forget the veterans who died on foreign soil, far from home. But let us not forget our ability to care for others who are different from us. Let us remember that we are all human.

Trudeau and the need for leadership

With news of Justin Trudeau's candidacy for leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, some polls are suggesting that Trudeaumania is about to descend on the country, enabling the Liberals to regain control of the government, draining support from the NDP. Justin Trudeau in 2010

How likely is a Liberal government now? Do they really stand a chance of winning back the support of voters who chose orange instead of red? The NDP had a strong showing in the last election, in no small part due to the efforts of the late Jack Layton. While Layton was clearly the catalyst for the so-called Orange Crush, I suspect the move towards the NDP was also due to a long-term frustration with the lack of credible Liberal policies. I'm not convinced that Trudeau can swing support back from orange to red.

The Liberals have faced a number of problems over the last few elections. Neither Ignatieff nor Dion had much in the way of charisma. In RPG terms, charisma was their dump stat. Their popularity was mainly as an alternative to Stephen Harper. Before Iggy and Dion, Paul Martin was beset by scandal, and the fallout from an internal power struggle in the party. The only Liberal leader in recent memory who had charisma was Chretien, and I'm still not entirely sure how he pulled that off.

Jack Layton, however, represented the spirit of change. He was a clear choice to the direction that Harper's Conservatives have taken, and he was a true parliamentarian. While many Canadians--particularly those who voted Conservative--may have disagreed with his policies, he was a popular figure. He was authentic, in a way that many politicians don't seem to manage.

Thomas Mulcair may not have the charisma of Trudeau or Layton, but he's certainly not the wet blanket that Dion or Ignatieff were. The NDP platform still resonates, in a way that the Liberal platform has failed to capture the attention of Canadians over the past several years.

Can Trudeau's charisma bring the Liberals back to prominence? I don't know. Trudeau as leader will revitalize the party, and attract new people. But why should Canadians put their trust back in the Liberal party now? Aside from Trudeau as a leader, what policies do the Liberals stand for, that differentiate themselves from the NDP? What policies does Trudeau himself hold?

This highlights the largest problem facing the Liberals. For Trudeau to win the leadership, and lead the Liberals back to form the government, he needs to start leading on policy, across the board. He has spoken a great deal about issues of social justice, but very rarely on matters of economic policy. In the current economic crisis, any leadership candidate needs to make their stance on economic policy clear. As journalist Andrew Coyne argues, Trudeau doesn't really have a public stand on many issues.

Will Trudeau's leadership of the Liberal Party bring them back to power? I rather doubt it. Until the Liberal Party can present a valid case, not just as an alternative to Stephen Harper's Conservatives, but also to the NDP, I think the Liberals will remain a secondary opposition party.

Movie Reviews for Remembrance Day

Whether you call it Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Veterans Day, or in Poland's case, Independence Day, November 11th of each year is kept in memory of the great wars of the twentieth century, and of the many sacrifices made in the fight for freedom.

Until relatively recently, movies about the two World Wars have focused almost exclusively on the heroic exploits of a few soldiers, with relatively little attention drawn to the horrors of war. This romantic view of modern warfare has changed more recently, with movies which are not nearly as one sided in their portrayals of armed conflict.

In 1993, Schindler's List was released, addressing issues of the Holocaust. This marked the first of many award nominated war films by director Stephen Spielberg. While some have complained that this film focuses on the 600 Jews who were saved, rather than the several million Jews who were murdered during the Second World War, it is an emotionally powerful film.

Spielberg followed up in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan. This was one of the first movies to portray the horrors of war as just that: horrifying. The landing scene at Omaha Beach is chaotic and deadly, with a frenetic pace as soldiers died to take the beachhead. Of particular note in this film is the framing device, the and elderly veteran visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, to honour his fallen comrades. There is a great deal of focus on what we do with our lives, and how to live them in a way which honours the fallen soldiers in these great wars.

In 2001, the HBO series Band of Brothers followed the men of Easy Company as they fought in WWII, along with interviews with the surviving members of Easy Company. This series goes beyond any other that I have seen in depicting the war, and the terrible toll it took on the soldiers who fought in them. It's a visually stunning film, and extremely emotional. Part 9, Why We Fight, is one of the most heartbreaking of episodes, and invariably brings tears to my eyes.

While I have not yet seen it, in 2010, the HBO miniseries The Pacific focused on the efforts of the US Marines in the Pacific front in WWII. This forms a counterbalance to Band of Brothers which focused exclusively on the European front.

There are a number of documentaries about the war as well. I've recently watched Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, a BBC documentary narrated by Linda Hunt, which uses multiply sourced historical documents to portray the Nazi's genocidal program at the concentration camps. It's a powerful documentary, in clinical precision detailing how the Nazi regime carried out the mass murder of over six million Jews and undesirables.

There are also films which show Hitler's rise and fall. The film Downfall has become famous for various YouTube spoofs where Hitler learns of some new event, for which he is then angry. The real film is quite powerful, showing a Führer out of touch with the realities of the war, and of his own people.

Another highly fictionalized portrayal is Hitler: The Rise of Evil. This film covers the period from the end of the Great War to the Night of the Long Knives. This movie was uncomfortable to watch, and not just because it was showing the beginning of the Nazi regime. The filmmakers made several decisions which seemed to make a caricature of Hitler, well beyond what would have been necessary. Choices in the film are entirely fictionalized, even contradicting historical evidence. This was a disturbing film to watch, slough perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intended.

There are of course many other recent films which depict the wars and the Holocaust. Passchendaele, by Canadian director Paul Gross shows the futile battles fought over fields of mud in World War I. Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas all cover stories of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Film plays a great part in remembering the past. All the more so today, when there are so few veterans of the Second World War alive today. Their personal testament to the horrors of war have gone silent, and these films, although they often contain fictional elements, are now the most vivid reminders of worldwide war.

Contempt of Parliament

I've got two major essays that I'm trying to write, so I'll try and keep this somewhat brief. Today, the Canadian Government (or should that be the Harper Government?) fell, after a non-confidence vote in the House of Commons about the recent committee findings of a contempt of Parliament issue. I am cautiously optimistic. I'm actually quite surprised that the 40th Parliament lasted the 2.5 years that it has. Traditionally, minority governments in Canada have been extremely short lived.

Whether things will turn out any different than what we have right now, or if Canada falls deeper into Harperland will be seen over the next several weeks. Sadly, I expect the political vitriol to fly, and have serious doubts about cooler heads prevailing.

Some of the issues I would like to see brought to the forefront of the election campaigns include some of the following:

  • Public accountability. Sadly, Harper ran on this in the 2004 election, but his government has been more secretive and restrictive than other recent governments.
  • Reform for health transfer taxes. Our healthcare system is hurting, and the provincial governments are unable to bear the costs on their own.
  • A strong focus on debating actual issues, rather than a descent into the madness of attack ads.

Unfortunately, I believe the Conservatives will continue their tactics of demonizing the opposition parties. The Liberals and NDP will likely follow suit. It's been proven that attack ads are effective.

It would have been nice to have seen the opposition parties vote in solemn silence to topple the government, rather than express their glee at finally forcing an election. This was a historic vote, and I think it would have sent a strong message to Canadians if they could keep their emotions in check. Their behaviour during the vote just fuels the claims that they're opportunistically seeking power.

In the meantime, we wait for Stephen Harper to meet with Governor General David Johnston tomorrow morning, in order to receive our election date. At least Harper didn't ask to prorogue Parliament again.

GG David Johnston

I recently reviewed the book Harperland, which others might find informative in understanding some of the changes made in Canadian politics in the past several years.  Also, leading up to the toppling of the Government was the Bev Oda/Kairos affair, which in my opinion, shows the lack of respect the Conservatives have for Parliament, and for Canadians.

The Conservatives and Kairos

In the news today were reports of a "doctored" document, by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which was used to deny over $7 million in funding to KAIROS, an organization dedicated to "respect for the earth and justice for its people". Yes, this is a faith-based organization. Many international aid agencies have a basis in religious faith. There are a number of things which I find troubling about this document. The document, as originally printed, allows the signees to approve federal funding over four years for KAIROS. There is however, an undated, and un-initialed amendment, adding the word "NOT" to the recommendation. I don't know about anyone else, but when I was signing back and forth on offers on my home, we had to initial any amendments to the purchase agreement made by both parties. That was for just little things, like "window coverings in the master bedroom are not included in the sale" kind of thing. Not anything worth $7 million.

KAIROS Defunding by CIDA

When you're dealing with money like that, if there really and truly was a misprint, you shouldn't just be adding stuff in by hand. Get a new copy printed, with the proper amendments. If it's another day or so until the signatures happen, so be it. After all, the signatures on the paper already span over a month apart.

This only adds to the concern that the Conservative government is cutting off aid from groups which it does not agree with. KAIROS has been vocal about Israel's treatment of Palestine, while the Conservative government has been unwavering in their support for Israel.

There are indications that this decision was based on policy. In 2009, the Toronto Star reported Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told some Israelis that KAIROS was cut off due to KAIROS' "leadership role in the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign" against Israel. In their response, KAIROS executive director Mary Corkery said that "If any group that criticizes an action by the government of Israel is called anti-Semitic by the government of Canada, that's very serious."

Bev Oda, Minister of International Cooperation, said at the time that the defunding was due to changing priorities of the agency, and that KAIROS no longer matched their priorities. With the release of this document, the appearance is that senior officials approved funding, before someone else amended the document to change the meaning.

What I find particularly troubling is that Minister Oda did not answer questions about who altered the document. I'm sorry, but it matters a great deal to know who altered it, and what their motivations were. Was this something done by a senior civil servant, or by an elected official? Who determined that this was what should be done? Did this come down from the Prime Minister's Office? After reading Harperland, I wouldn't be surprised if the answer was yes.

Snowpocalypse

Last Wednesday was supposedly going to be a really big snowstorm, if you believed the weather reports. It was one of the top stories throughout southern Ontario. It probably hit somewhere hard, because when it finally arrived in Waterloo Region, it was a light dusting. The most annoying thing about the snowfall was the duration. A tiny dusting spread over what seemed like 18 hours eventually adds up to something worthwhile, and it also tended to cause snow removal efforts to stall, as the snowplows continued up and down the major routes. All the other roads in the region were slippery and icy. As Shakespeare writes in Henry the Fourth, Part 1: "The better part of valor is discretion" (V.4.118-119). I followed Falstaff's example, and counterfeited being at the office. That is, I decided it would be best to work from home. The VPN is a technological marvel.

Yesterday was a different matter. While I was aware that there might be snow, the weather reports I remember only expected around 1cm. So I was a little surprised to look out the window and see that around 10cm had already fallen, with another 5 to follow before it finished. Perhaps the difference was that this new snowfall occurred on a weekend, or maybe the forecasters didn't want to create a panic again. Either way, there didn't seem to be much coverage of the event until well after the snow had started. Really, it's all just part of winter. Neither event seemed out of the ordinary. Now we seem to have about the average snowfall for this area.

This snow fell in a much shorter period of time, and was considerably thicker and heavier than that which fell earlier in the week. Today, I was out clearing the snow, just like earlier in the week. On my stretch of street, five of the neighbours were also out with snowblowers or shovels, clearing everything off. Alas, it was not a snow event day in Kitchener, so someone was parked on the street when the plow came by, leaving a mess on the road.

I'm reminded of how awesome it is to have a wide lot, as well as a snowblower. All of my excess snow can be shot twenty feet into my yard. My snowbanks are three feet high, while some neighbours with narrower lots have banks seven feet high, threatening collapse onto their driveways.

I also took some extra time to remove all the snow the plow piled on top of the fire hydrant. Not only is it a legal requirement to keep it cleared, but it's also good sense. You really don't want there to be any extra difficulties should the fire department ever need to use them. Sadly, from a drive through the neighbourhood early this afternoon, I'm one of the few people who have done so.

The Chilling Effects of Usage Based Billing

The internet has been all atwitter with news about the recent CRTC ruling about Usage Based Billing. While Stephen Harper has tweeted that this really unpopular decision will be reviewed, I wonder how much of his concern is with the outrage with the voters, rather than a true understanding of the impact this change will have on Canada.

There are several important issues at play here, most of which are interrelated. The most immediate factor, and likely the cause of all the uproar, is that of consumer cost. Some existing internet plans, such as the "High Speed Internet Premium" plan from TekSavvy for $31.95 a month previously received 200GB of bandwidth. According to the new rules passed down from the CRTC, the 200GB limit is being reduced to 25GB, with a hefty rate of $2/GB of data beyond those limits. The difference in bandwidth: 175GB. To make up the difference in data would cost an additional $350. See a little difference in price there?

The next point I'd like to address is that of competition, and the lack of top-tier providers. There are very few ways in which households can get internet access. ADSL service uses phone lines, and almost always uses the telephone lines provided by Bell Canada. Cable services, by the regional cable provider, such as Rogers, Shaw or Cogeco. In some very select areas, fibre internet is available when the fibre infrastructure has been installed. In other areas, people are able to get line-of-sight wireless access. All of these provide high-bandwidth broadband connections. The most basic service, sometimes the only service available in remote communities, is dialup internet. For most, the only real choice is between cable internet, and ADSL internet.

In either case, the infrastructure in place (phone lines or cable lines running to your house) is owned and operated by the big telco/cable companies. Laying down this infrastructure is usually done when a neighbourhood is being built, and there is considerable cost. Laying down a fibre connection after a community has been built is even more expensive, as streets would need to be ripped up and repaved. Already we can see that new entrants as a top-level provider are at a serious disadvantage. While it is true that there are a number of other internet providers, most of whom provide ADSL service, they are using the existing infrastructure, provided in most cases by Bell Canada.

They have up until now been paying a base rate per line, and were able to attract customers by offering cheaper prices. Some companies were able to provide considerably better customer service than Bell as well. Presumably, the profits these companies have been earning could be used to expand their businesses, possibly by buying their own infrastructure. With the changes to UBB, their available margins are trimmed down to make a small profit, but certainly not large enough to make any large capital investments. It also forces them to play on the same field as the larger telcos. They have much less to differentiate their services from the big guys. So we can certainly see how UBB has a detrimental effect on smaller ISP providers, such as TekSavvy.

The real chilling effects that I see, will be on online media services. Online movie rentals are getting popular. Netflix is advertising heavily on TV these days, and while their library of videos isn't all that great here in Canada, the idea is certainly intriguing. We don't have access to Hulu here in Canada, but many people are able to stream TV shows from Canadian networks, like CTV (owned by Bell's parent company BCE). Somehow, I don't think as many Canadians will be looking to stream video if UBB becomes reality.

There are other services which use video. Who posts videos of their kids onto sites like Facebook so grandma and grandpa can see them? Yeah, that's not going to happen as much in Canada. Many games can be purchased on Valve's Steam, and downloaded to your computer. For example, the Grand Theft Auto 4 bundle is 32GB. This is already 7GB over the 25GB limit. We're already talking $14 in download costs, assuming nothing else is downloaded for the entire month. Online backup services onto the cloud, like Dropbox are terribly convenient for sharing files across networks. Canadians are going to think twice about things like that.

More to the point, businesses looking to develop streaming technologies for sale to the end consumer are going to look elsewhere in the world to roll these services out. They likely won't even develop them in Canada, instead settling down somewhere in the United States. It can be demonstrated that when products launch in the US, it can take a long time before they're available in Canada, assuming they ever do. This will directly impact research at Canadian universities in new experimental digital media projects.

In mandating Usage Based Billing, the CRTC is not just hitting Canadian wallets now, but is also harming small ISPs, and will have a chilling effect on the Canadian digital economy.

Why Isn't This Available In Canada?

I was browsing some free, public domain science fiction ebooks on Amazon. While I don't have a Kindle ereader, the Kindle app is available for the Mac, the iPad, and the BlackBerry. To my surprise, a number of these titles are not available for customers from Canada. Seriously? Get with it, Amazon. Books of interest that are unavailable in Canada include, but are certainly not limited to:

A Journey to the Centre of the Earth [Kindle Edition]. Jules Verne.

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea [Kindle Edition]. Jules Verne.

The War of the Worlds [Kindle Edition]. H.G. Wells.

The Time Machine [Kindle Edition]. H.G. Wells.

A Princess of Mars [Kindle Edition]. Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions [Kindle Edition]. Edwin Abbott Abbott.

All of these are available free of charge to American readers, and are in the public domain in the USA and in Canada. While it's understandable (although extremely frustrating) for books still under the original copyright protection to be unavailable in Canada in electronic form, such as Robert Fagles' translation of Homer's Odyssey, it's simply baffling as to why these works are unavailable in Canada. I would suspect that the party responsible for formatting the text in the kindle file format has added an extra layer of red tape. Perhaps someone forgot to check a box. Either way, it's an inconvenience.

Perhaps there is far more involved in properly typesetting these works for the Kindle format than I realize. However, the text has already been completely digitized, and included in multiple formats already on the Gutenberg site, in multiple formats which also include kindle-ready files. I'm suspicious of any moral rights to these "official" kindle editions over and above any work done on the Gutenberg site. I recognize that Gutenberg does not assert any copyright over the text of the works, even going so far as to say that "If you strip the Project Gutenberg license and all references to Project Gutenberg from the ebook, you are left with a public domain ebook. You can do anything you want with that."

When republished with new material, such as a new introduction or forward, placing the work in context, the work can be protected again under copyright. Perhaps this is what is being done here. Interestingly, the publisher on record for at least some of these Kindle editions is "Public Domain Books".

Basically, it comes down to this: Why aren't these available in Canada, and in other parts of the world where they are public domain?

Cold

Ah, winter. The magical time of year when tiny crystals of water shimmer in the sky as they fall glistening to the ground. When ice and snow covers the silver branches of trees, catching the sunlight in silent splendor. The wicked time of year when winter covers the streets with glare ice, as cars slip and slide in a deadly dance through the intersections, while snow drifts blow across the highways. Where a toque, mitts and a scarf are not just a good idea, but necessities in warding off frostbite. The frustrating time of year when glasses fog up on entering any building, and coffee never seems to dispel the dread chill from one's bones. Winter in Canada tends to take on mythic qualities at times. While the Spring Olympics of 2010 might have suggested that we don't always live in a land of ice and snow, when winter's chill winds grip the nation, it's certain to be a topic of conversation. But why the heck does it have to be so cold inside, too?

Maybe as I'm a sedentary software developer, and LCD monitors no longer radiate heat like the behemoth CRT monitors of the past, I feel the cold more. But I am getting more daily activity now, as I walk fifteen minutes to and from class each weekday. Mind you, some of that is outside in the cold. While I can make my way through the interior when I get to UW campus, I still have to get to the Davis Centre first.

Sadly, part of the problem is the difference in temperatures through the house. During the day, the temperature in the basement falls to four or five degrees below the temperature on the main floor. The temperature upstairs falls two or three degrees below the main floor. While I can close the heat vents on the main floor, this seems to persist. In the evening, I can get the temperature in the basement to rise a few degrees, but it still seems cold. Meanwhile, in doing so, the temperature on the main floor rises too drastically. I think I need a ceramic heater down here. I miss the gas fireplace in the basement at my previous home. It really allowed the basement to heat up. In the meantime, I'll pull on another sweater, and think about how nice it's going to be down here in the summer.

Harperland: The Politics of Control

While my selection of non-fiction is usually restricted to science-fiction, or philosophical literary texts, Lawrence Martin's book Harperland: The Politics of Controlwas far too intriguing to pass up, especially since I took a media theory course last term.

One thing made clear in the text: as Stephen Harper doesn't like positive books, written by close colleagues, Martin's critical text would clearly have drawn the ire of the Prime Minister's Office. This text also doesn't pull any punches. While Martin is newspaper columnist, this is not an impartial book. The language is slightly coloured at times, in describing Harper's actions. That said, everything is well documented, and Martin relies heavily on interviews with former insiders.

Harperland does take a clear stance: a great deal of Harper's success in Parliament is due to the strict control of information put in place when the Conservative minority government was formed. Despite having campaigned in terms of government reform and transparency, Martin shows how Harper's Conservative government has gone to greater lengths than any previous Canadian government, or even American governments, in controlling and restricting the flow of information, and controlling the flow of government committees.

In particular, Martin shows how Harper's form of leadership is particularly divisive. Through a numerous string of specific examples, Martin shows how Stephen Harper's inner circle attacked not only those in the Liberal Party, but any member of their own party who showed dissent. While promising Canadians parliamentary reform, Martin instead presents us with a prime minister who threatens Canada's democratic traditions, dividing and conquering.

These wedge politics were crucial in the 2008 elections. As Martin notes, Harper used the election to directly attack the leadership of Stephane Dion. Throughout the campaign, the Conservatives spent more time and energy attacking the policies of the other parties, then announcing any significant new policies of their own. The manner in which cuts to arts and culture was announced was seen as a direct attack against Quebec's language and culture, leading to serious drops in the polls in Quebec.

Martin also explains how Harper used wedge politics during the coalition crisis, painting it as an alliance between the Liberals, the socialists (NDP) and the separatists (Bloc Québécois). While this succeeded in buying Harper the time needed to defeat the coalition, it also seems to have caused future setbacks in Quebec. Wedge politics are aptly named. Rather than bridging together the differences between Quebec and western Canada, Harper has driven a further wedge between them. Whether this will continue in the future remains to be seen.

Martin's book suggests that Stephen Harper has a "dark, vindictive side of his character--a side that at times he could not subdue, and that on several occasions, such as the government's budget update in November 2008, threatened to bring him down" (175). This book is frightening in it's implications. While many Canadians may be aware of some of the broader elements in the book, especially those who keep a wary eye on our politicians, the depth and breadth of the secrecy implemented by the Harper government, and the scope of the changes occurring in the government bureaucracy is surprising even to those who already suspected as much. That Harper has made this many changes in a mere four years, while in control of a fragile minority government is telling, and leads this reader to wonder what further changes will occur if Harper receives the majority government he so clearly desires.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in politics, from either side of the political spectrum. While Martin's book does not present Stephen Harper in the best light, it clearly shows how Harper has been so effective during a minority government situation.