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Summation of the Jaffer/Guergis affair

Helena Guergis tries to hold back her emotions while speaking to reporters at her campaign office in Collingwood, Ont., Friday, April 15, 2011. (Canadian Press)

The Toronto media establishment is positively giddy over the announcement that the Hon. Helena Guergis—a former MP and  junior minister in the Harper government—has launched a defamation suit against many former colleagues, including the Prime Minister.  Mrs. Guergis is skilfully playing the tearful victim, and the press—as it always does when there is the potential for blood in the water—is lapping it up.

If the press had a reasonable memory—or was prepared to salivate less at the thought of inflicting damage upon the government—it might recall that Guergis and husband Rahim Jaffer may not have committed any criminal acts warranting prosecution, but in the eyes of Parliament’s ethical watchdogs, they fell afoul of professional codes of conduct.  An editorial by the Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin does a good job of summarising the alleged professional misdeeds.

On Jaffer:

In a report released on Monday, [Lobbying Commissioner Karen] Shepherd criticized the actions of Jaffer and his business partner, Patrick Glemaud, who were involved in a political controversy which also snared Jaffer’s wife Guergis, the former Simcoe-Grey MP.

Shepherd said that while Jaffer and Glemaud were unsuccessful in attempts to secure $178 million in federal Green Infrastructure Fund funding, they should have registered as lobbyists.

… This matter has been investigated by the RCMP, which determined there were no grounds for criminal charges.

But Jaffer and Glemaud broke federal rules by failing to register as lobbyists before trying to obtain taxpayers’ money.

— “Jaffer, Guergis still acted contrary to what is ‘right’.”  Editorial, Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin, 17 December 2011.

On Guergis:

Last summer, federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson determined that Guergis broke Parliament’s conflict of interest code by sending a letter to Simcoe County officials, encouraging them to hear a presentation from a green waste management firm’s owner, who had business links to Jaffer.

According to the conflict of interest code, politicians are prohibited from using their position to further their private interests, or those of their family members.

Guergis responded to Dawson’s findings by saying there was no proof she had done anything wrong. She was also investigated by the RCMP and not charged criminally

… Part of her responsibility as an MP, however, is to know what the conflict of interest guidelines are and adhere to them. Most politicians know enough to steer clear of any potential conflicts of interests.

— “Jaffer, Guergis still acted contrary to what is ‘right’.”  Editorial, Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin, 17 December 2011.

Anyone who watches police and lawyer shows on television will know that giving the police no grounds to pursue criminal charges is not the same thing as being spotless and squeaky-clean.  In the eyes of the Lobbying Commissioner and federal Ethics Commissioner, there were violations of professional codes of conduct.  Those details will certainly be relevant to the defence in the defamation suit.

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Amnesty International prides itself on being a non-partisan, non-sectarian campaigner for human rights, an advocate for the oppressed. And certainly at its foundation (and for much of its history) that was indeed its goal. But one can be forgiven for thinking that it in recent years it has experienced a certain drift toward the partisan—focusing on the motes of dust [1, 2] in the eyes of reasonably well-behaved nations, rather than the planks in the eyes of egregious abusers.

For example, a woman was executed for “witchcraft and sorcery” in Saudi Arabia yesterday—actually the second person in the kingdom to be executed for that crime this year. The woman (with the rather lengthy moniker of Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser) was in her 60s, and had been arrested way back in 2009. According to the Saudi religious police, she tricked people into giving her money and claimed to be able to cure their illnesses; a crime that might more properly be characterised as fraud, which doesn’t carry the death penalty upon conviction in most jurisdictions.

But the human rights group Amnesty International, which has campaigned for Saudis previously sentenced to death on sorcery charges, said it had never heard of her case until now, he adds.

A Sudanese man was executed in September on similar charges, despite calls led by Amnesty for his release.

— “Saudi woman executed for ‘witchcraft and sorcery’.” BBC News, 12 December 2011.

What’s Amnesty International doing this month? Lecturing the world on how George Bush ought to be arrested. Well, what’s the life of an elderly Saudi woman when there’s a class enemy to be persecuted?

UPDATE: Richard A. Clarke, counterterrorism advisor to three presidents, notes in his 2004 memoir Against All Enemies that Clinton and Gore were the first US administration to ignore the objections of their legal counsel and authorise extraordinary rendition against employers of terrorism.

While Amnesty International called for investigations into alleged war crimes during the 1999 Allied Force campaign against Serbia, it has thus far neglected to call for Clinton’s arrest, despite originating the practices that the NGO objects to in Bush’s case.

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Red herring

Nodar Kumaritashvili crash, 12 February 2010. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Globe & Mail is reporting that a year ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics, the president of the International Luge Federation (FIL) wrote concerned letters to both VANOC chief John Furlong and the luge track’s designer.

“[FIL President] Mr. Fendt noted that the Whistler sliding track was recording historic sled speeds that were nearly 20 kilometres an hour faster than the track designer had projected.

…“The red flags would have gone up, absolutely,” [Mr. Svein Romstad, Secretary General of the FIL] said in an interview. “Our goal is always to have tracks around 135 kmh, and that was what the designer projected. Instead, we suddenly got to 154 kmh. That was never our intention.”

— Mickleburgh, Rod and Jeff Blair. “VANOC feared injury ‘or worse’ year before luger’s fatal crash.” Globe & Mail, 6 February 2011.

With respect to the Globe, that is all fascinating but irrelevant. Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died because he struck a steel pole at trackside while travelling at 143.6 kmh. Hitting the same pole at a slightly slower 123.6 kmh would have been equally as fatal.  The problem is not track speed, but placing steel structural elements immediately adjacent to the track.  The pole was there to support a sun visor, meant to preserve the track’s surface; there’s no reason it couldn’t have been designed and equipped with greater shielding/padding or further separation from the track.  Which, by the way, is exactly what organisers did after the accident.

WHISTLER, BC - FEBRUARY 13, 2010: New boarding is installed along turn 16 of the luge course, where Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

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Lawyering takes the fun out of everything

According to the Toronto Star, a 12-year-old girl has apparently been badgered off her otherwise all-male hockey team due to the machinations of another player’s dad:

For 12-year-old Kayla Watkins, the public humiliation was too much.

After learning a parent on her coed peewee hockey team — comprised entirely of boys except for her — called for restrictions on her ice time or her removal from the team unless her skills improved, she did the only thing she thought she could: She quit.

“I felt that if I went back all the parents would have been watching every move I made and always staring at me,” said the outgoing preteen, who has been playing the game since the age of four.

“To play hockey you shouldn’t have to go through what I went through. I was just looking to have friendship and play the game I love.”

— Cribb, Robert. “Controversy pushes girl off coed hockey team.” Toronto Star, 22 December 2010.

Welcome to the world of overly competitive, perspective-impaired parents, Kayla.

The father in question—lawyer George J. Atis—offers up an explanation at his own website.

At the risk of being overly simplistic (because that is, after all, what blogs and the internet commentariat do best), I have read between the lines and posit this scenario:

Kayla’s mom is apparently the team manager. Lawyer dad has personality conflict with Kayla’s mom/team manager, drafts his own team meeting agenda to highlight mom’s ineptitude, and tries to simultaneously drive in a shank by suggesting daughter is a piss-poor hockey player. Voilà, crushed adolescent ego and uncomfortable media spotlight.

No matter how things came to pass, though, one would expect that a player’s performance (or lack thereof) would be the purview of the coach, and not a toothless council of “concerned parents”.

KARMIC JUSTICE UPDATE: A commenter at Daimnation! notes that Kayla’s former team, the A-level Toronto Ice Dogs, had a 5-8-1 win-loss-tie record when Atis wrote his missive; now that Kayla’s moved to an all-girl squad, the Ice Dogs are 8-14-1 on the season.

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Bono knows he’s an annoying git

U2 vocalist Bono earns a few brownie points for being self-aware enough to know that when his preachiness and self-righteousness get turned up to 11, he’s insufferable:

He explained, “I know I can be a pain in the a**. I have an annoying gene; it’s in my DNA – I even annoy myself. When righteous anger turns to self-righteous, projectile vomit is the right response.”

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Physics and geography

A good understanding of both is helpful, if you are 1) an astrophysicist trying to raise money for a private space launch facility, or 2) the wire services reporter assigned to cover the story.

MONTREAL—The head of the Muhammad Institute for Space Science wants to build a space-launch facility in Canada.

Redouane Al Fakir’s goal is putting the Islamic world back at the forefront of scientific discovery.

But the Vancouver astrophysicist wants all Canadians to be involved in his project.

His proposed commercial space port in British Columbia would be the first of its kind in this country — and Al Fakir says it’s about time.

The way he sees it, if countries like India, China and Japan can launch satellites into space, why not Canada?

The UBC astronomer is out raising money, especially in the Middle East, but he faces a big challenge: Al Fakir estimates that it would take $100 million to build a facility, and $500 million to send up a rocket.

— Canadian Press. “Man raising money in Middle East for Canadian space launch site“. Toronto Star, 5 December 2010.

Let me say first of all that I would welcome the development of a commercial space launch facility, but the choice of Vancouver (and well, Canada in general) presents some significant challenges.

When our American neighbours selected Cape Canaveral as their launch facility, it wasn’t just because of readily available land, and an affinity for alligators. Florida is a lot closer to the Earth’s equator than any other continental American state, and that proximity translates into increased speed for the boosting platform. (Wired magazine’s Rhett Allain has penned a good summary of the physics and constraints of geography.)

To get that speed boost you also need to launch in the direction of the Earth’s rotation (which is from west to east). A booster leaving Florida on an easterly heading takes it out over the Atlantic, which is handy if you have to drop stages or debris and want to avoid killing people on the ground in the process. Launching from Vancouver means the ascent path would take a booster over populated areas of British Columbia and Alberta. Not so good if you have to abort/destroy the booster, or drop stages on the way to orbit.

Then there’s the more prosaic concerns about communications and telemetry, having appropriate tracking resources on orbit so that you don’t have to build an array of expensive ground tracking stations. And making sure the launch facility is sturdy enough to endure our wintry climate, and so on.

Building a launch centre here is certainly not impossible, but it will always be more expensive in fuel and hardware than launching the same booster and payload from somewhere further south. Countries such as India, China and Japan are a whole lot closer to the equator than Canada, and as such will always enjoy an energy (and financial) advantage over something launched from a higher latitude.

These are not insurmountable obstacles, but they’re worth keeping in mind when you’re trying to make money from such a venture.

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There is nothing new under the sun

As the author of Ecclesiastes notes, human nature is a constant and there are few truly new challenges each generation will face.  Most of what we perceive as new and troubling is due to the phenomena known as the “tyranny of the living”—that we who are alive have no significant knowledge or memory of what went on generations before.  It is hard to conceptualise what life for our grandparents was like, let alone people that lived ten or twenty generations before them.  Our educational priorities are generally aimed at narrow technical/ economic manpower requirements, rather than providing a means to understanding the human condition; so each cohort of graduates remains ignorant of our ancestors’ similar challenges, and their solutions (or failures).

I was reminded of this by a guest-blog in the Harvard Business Review by Robert I. Sutton (Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University):

Cries for the reinvention of management and claims that we have to discard old models are made by every generation of gurus. But really, the ideas that work aren’t that complicated, and most of what is called new is really the same old wine in relabeled bottles. If you want to read a great book on this point, check out Robert Eccles‘ and Nitin Nohria‘s Beyond The Hype. When I read it for the first time, I realized that a big reason every generation thinks that its solutions are new is because it thinks its challenges are brand new. People can’t quite bring themselves to believe that managers of the past faced remarkably similar problems, found frustration and satisfaction in similar sources, and came up with similar solutions. Just as teenagers discover sex and can’t imagine that the fundamentals were the same for their parents, managers are convinced they are encountering forces and feelings that haven’t been seen before. And management theorists do little to disabuse them of that notion.

— Sutton, Robert I.  “What Every New Generation of Bosses Has to Learn.” Harvard Business Review, 9 June 2010. [Emphasis mine, however the hyperlinks have been preserved from the original.]

I would amend this more broadly to state simply that it is something every human being has to learn.  The tools by which we live our lives may change, but the trials and tribulations do not.  On a basic level, every human wrestles with joy and sadness, anger and forgiveness, triumph and tragedy; every human will learn, in the fullness of time, that their emotional responses cannot be fully mastered—only managed.  At a more macro level, even specific scenarios—Islamic radicalism, speculation bubbles, excessive national and personal debt, environmental devastation, parents concerned about the sexualisation of their adolescents and kids—all have at least one (if not several) relevant analogues in human history.  None of these are a new frontier for the human race.

For example, if you want to have some idea what animates millenarian movements such as 2012 Mayan calendar doomsayers, off-the-grid environmentalists, peak oil apocalyptics and some sects of Christianity and Islam, it’s helpful to understand that this doomsaying impulse has always been with humanity, and may have reached its peak during the Protestant Reformation.

…The Reformation would not have happened if ordinary people had not convinced themselves that they were actors in a cosmic drama plotted by God: that in the Bible he had left them a record of his plans and directions to carry them out. Their revolution was not simply a search for personal salvation. They changed the way that their world worked because they were convinced that this visible world was the least important part of the divine plan.

Above all, large numbers of Europeans were convinced in varying ways and with varying degrees of fervour that the momentous events through which they were living signified that the visible world was about to end. If so, it was vitally important for the world’s condition at it’s end to correspond as closely as possible to what God wanted. The perpetual threat from the Turks was proof enough, even before the Reformation (and some will have known that their Islamic enemies were also widely convinced that the world would end in the Hijra year of 1000, the equivalent of the Christian 1592). Without that pervasive expectation of an imminent, dramatic change, few might have listened to Luther’s challenge to the Church. Without it, Savonarola could not have seized Florence, thousands would not have trekked to Münster to set up a new Jerusalem, Franciscans might not have toiled to convert the Indios in the Americas, Friedrich V might not have travelled to Prague, Transylvanian princes would not have found a sense of crusading mission, Oliver Cromwell might not have readmitted the Jews to England.

— MacCulloch, Diarmaid. “Changing Times.” Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700. p550-551.

Substitute global warming, dwindling oil reserves, rapacious consumerism and so forth for the evils of the age, and you get the idea. The people on board with today’s millenarian movements—whether religious or secular in nature—do think that a dramatic, imminent change is upon us; that is why they listen to latter-day Luthers, and it is why many are desperate (as Catholics and Protestants were in those days) to put forth a world-shaking effort. It is entirely possible that latter-day millenarianism will succeed in changing the world again—but a better prescription would be to understand that for 99% of the scenarios the human race will confront, we’ve already established parameters and a template.

It wouldn’t hurt to do some digging and find out how we handled it before, and whether we want to handle it the same way in this iteration.

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Slow learners

Toronto mayoral candidates appeared at a debate focused on faith issues on Monday, May 10, 2010. (CTV News)

Some people can watch an event unfold before them and fail to comprehend its import. But to see an event unfold several times, have it explained to you by the municipal affairs columnist for the city’s largest-circulation daily, and still fail to grasp the essentials—that level of obtuseness can only be found in politics and political punditry.

Here, for example, is the Toronto Star‘s Royson James explaining why Rob Ford’s mayoral campaign continues to gain traction:

They call him names. They mock him. They tell anyone with a microphone and a pen that the rambunctious councillor is a buffoon with foot-in-mouth disease, a one-trick pony incapable of competing in the sophisticated world Toronto must navigate.

As if the voters don’t know this already. Ford’s been a councillor for 10 years. His file of verbal indiscretions is thick and well worn.

In fact, with every effort like George Smitherrman’s launch of the website, intended to showcase the celebrated gaffes of the councillor from Etobicoke North, Ford gains in popularity.

The Toronto electorate, circa 2010, is not looking for a silver-tongued prophet with a vision of an ascendant Toronto. They had one for seven years and are decidedly unhappy with the result. That’s the reality. And any reasonably skilled candidate for mayor, especially an outsider or someone looking to change direction at city hall, should have been able to capitalize on this gift.

— James, Royson. “Despite attacks, Rob Ford’s simple message takes hold.” Toronto Star, 18 August 2010.

It’s not rocket science, in other words. James is giving Smitherman, Rossi et al a freebie here. The voters are indicating that they hear Ford’s message and like it. One can tear down the messenger, but if the competing message isn’t particularly appealing, people aren’t going to get on board with it. Ford’s congenital oafishness isn’t news to the electorate; spending one’s time and money pointing it out, yet again, doesn’t deflect voters who have already decided it doesn’t matter to them.

The truly, epically stupid thing about this mayoral election is that there is no mystery to Ford’s supposedly inexplicable rise. If his prospective opponents were taking notice, Rob Ford’s modus operandi was laid bare four years ago by Eye Weekly writer Edward Keenan.

This, he says, is his favourite part of his job: “I love my constituents. They are second only to my family in my heart.” By that standard, there’s been a lot of loving in his day so far: 8:30am at a roach-infested apartment on Kipling to mediate a landlord-tenant dispute; 9am and 9:30am at two places on Bergamot to deal with more tenant complaints; 10:30am on Golfwood Heights to help a guy whose backyard is being flooded by a city-owned drainage ditch; 11am down the street on View Green to meet a woman upset that the crossing guard has moved down the street from the end of her block. Later, he’ll chat with a man who wants Urdu language books at the local library and meet staff from three different city departments at the home of a man with multiple complaints about the state of his neighbour’s property.

Sometimes Ford can get his constituents’ complaints resolved and sometimes not. Either way, he feels this — not the blustering at city hall — is his job. “I always tell my constituents, ‘Call my office first; I will find the right people,'” he says, “They’re hard-working people, so I try to go to bat for everyone.”

He returns every call to his office personally, often within hours, and usually he’ll make a trip out to see anyone with a complaint, bringing city staffers with him.

…Rob Ford may be a raving lunatic, but he’s a raving lunatic who will come to your home and stand in the rain to ensure you get 15 minutes with the city staffer who can help you. And that, as anyone who’s tried to navigate the city hall bureaucracy will know, is no small thing.

…A deep thinker he is not, and that could be a problem for his opponents. Rob Ford only has two priorities: saving money and serving constituents. Crazy as he appears, those happen to be popular priorities. Besides, he doesn’t need to think; he’s out impressing the voters every day with his actions.

The people who want to beat him might want to start thinking about that.

— Keenan, Edward. “The Rob Ford problem.” Eye Weekly, 27 July 2006.

Rob Ford may be, as James says, a buffoon—but as Keenan makes clear, he is a buffoon that helps the Ordinary Joes in his ward get things done. And that is a legacy that his mayoral opponents may find hard to match, much less beat. It’s something they should have been working on for themselves at least four years ago.

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Sh*t my grandma says

Before she was famous, a cocaine-addicted Lady Gaga took stock of her situation, decided she had hit rock bottom, then called up her mother to admit her problem and seek help.

Gaga’s mother apparently freaked out, went and picked up her daughter, and delivered her to the doorstep of her 82-year-old grandmother in West Virginia.

Whereupon Gaga spilled the beans to grandma, and the following happened:

“I cried. I told her I thought my life was over and I have no hope and I’ve worked so hard, and I knew I was good,” the star recalls. “What would I do now? And she said, ‘I’m gonna let you cry for a few more hours. And then after those few hours are up, you’re gonna stop crying, you’re gonna pick yourself up, you’re gonna go back to New York, and you’re gonna kick some ass.‘ ”

— Forbes, Sophie.  “Brunette GaGa BEFORE she was famous (as star reveals she’s lonely and celibate).” Daily Mail, 3 August 2010. [Emphasis mine]

Words to live by.

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The perfect is the enemy of the good

Toronto’s own Financial Post does some digging and finds out that the Dutch offered considerable oil-containment expertise to US authorities in the immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident, but were turned down because it wasn’t a perfect fit.

Three days after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, the Netherlands offered the U.S. government ships equipped to handle a major spill, one much larger than the BP spill that then appeared to be underway. “Our system can handle 400 cubic metres per hour,” Weird Koops, the chairman of Spill Response Group Holland, told Radio Netherlands Worldwide, giving each Dutch ship more cleanup capacity than all the ships that the U.S. was then employing in the Gulf to combat the spill.

…The U.S. government responded with “Thanks but no thanks,” remarked Visser, despite BP’s desire to bring in the Dutch equipment and despite the no-lose nature of the Dutch offer –the Dutch government offered the use of its equipment at no charge.

Ironically, the superior European technology runs afoul of U.S. environmental rules. The voracious Dutch vessels, for example, continuously suck up vast quantities of oily water, extract most of the oil and then spit overboard vast quantities of nearly oil-free water. Nearly oil-free isn’t good enough for the U.S. regulators, who have a standard of 15 parts per million — if water isn’t at least 99.9985% pure, it may not be returned to the Gulf of Mexico.

— Solomon, Lawrence. “Avertible catastrophe.” Financial Post, 26 June 2010.

Desperate times require desperate measures; something that bureaucracies, in general, are not too adept at handling.

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