Sunday, August 28, 2011

Much Ado About Jack

For the past week, Canadians have been inundated by media coverage of the death of Jack Layton.

For any non-Canadians reading this who may not have any idea who Jack Layton was, he was the leader of the Canadian NDP (New Democratic Party) and, as of last May, the leader of the official opposition party in Parliament. He passed away last Monday (August 22), having succumbed to cancer.

Being a leftist pinko in my heart of hearts, I was always somewhat sympathetic to Layton's party and, by extension, to Layton himself. Even so, I think that the media frenzy surrounding the man's death and the pubic display of grief has been just a little over the top.

A lot of it has had to do with a final letter that Layton wrote, literally on his death bed, addressing his party, his caucus and Canadians at large, in which he expressed his hopes for both his political party and Canada in general. You can read the text of the letter here.

This is not to say that I count myself among that small group of Jack's most critical detractors. There has been the odd columnist, mostly obviously right-leaning editorialists, such as Christie Blatchford, writing for conservative-minded publications such as The National Post, who have dared to speak ill of the deceased (or, more correctly, the politics of the deceased). Blatchford dismissed Layton's parting letter as being "vainglorious" and "full of sophistry" and alleged that the words were not those of Layton himself, but that it was written with the help of some of his closest advisors.

Like many others, I consider Blatchford's labeling of Layton's final words as "vainglorious" to be unduly harsh. The man was dying. It's understandable that he would want his final words to carry a certain amount of gravity. "So long, it's been fun" just wouldn't cut it, somehow. Cut the man some slack.

I don't know whether Blatchford has any facts to support the allegation that Layton had help from his closest advisors in writing his letter but, even if true, so what? Political leaders often - in fact, usually - rely on advisors and speech writers to help deliver their message in exactly the way that they want. The conservatives, including Stephen Harper, also do this. Why take Jack Layton to task for it?

One of Blatchford's colleagues, Jonathan Kay, has accused the Canadian media covering Layton's death and funeral of lacking objectivity. "The entire Canadian media has given a free pass to Jack Layton's widely published deathbed political manifesto," he wrote, "which promiscuously mingled laudable paeans to love and optimism with not so laudable snipes at the Harper government . . . " I've read Layton's final letter twice now, and I see not one single mention of either Stephen Harper or his conservative government. Perhaps Kay takes exception to Layton's appeal that Canada should share its prosperity more fairly, assume a greater responsibility for protecting the environment and restore our sagging international reputation. No-where in there does Layton accuse, even indirectly, either Stephen Harper or the conservative government of lacking on any of the aforementioned initiatives. If Kay perceives that Layton is pointing a judgemental finger at the conservative government, all I can say is "If the shoe fits..."

Another of Layton's minority detractors, open-line host Dave Rutherford, tweeted "Today I said Layton should be remembered for the coalition threat and his death bed diatribe against Cons." Rutherford conveniently forgets that it took three parties, not just one, to theaten a coalition, and that the reason why those three parties chose to unite as they did was because of Stephen Harper's ham-fisted attempt to put them at a financial disadvantage in future elections; a move which he wasted no time in repeating as soon as he had his majority.

Blatchford, Kay, Rutherford and all those who shake their heads at the seemingly over-the-top national reaction to Jack Layton's passing forget that other Canadian politicians have died without sparking such a loud national expression of sympathy and regret. We must ask ourselves, why this man? I would suggest, perhaps it's that both the Canadian public and the Canadian media perceive that he was different from your average politician. There was something special about him; something that set him apart from the rest. Maybe that "something" was that he genuinely cared. That's something that people can sense, even without knowing it to be a fact.

Far from being a "death bed diatribe against the cons", I found Layton's final words to be uplifting, positive and optimistic. I wish that more politicians would promote love, hope and fairness instead of the usual empty promises of fiscal security, lower taxes and material wealth.

That having been said, I must admit that, every time I witness someone publicly weeping crocodile tears over Layton's untimely passing I'd love to ask them for whom they voted in Canada's last Federal election. All those nouveau Jack Layton fans can't possibly have voted NDP. If even half of them had done so, Canada would now be in need of a new Prime Minister, rather than just a new opposition leader.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Undriver = Unperson

A few weeks ago, I came across something rare indeed; a news story about a government initiative that actually makes sense and has the potential to make a lot of peoples' lives just a little easier. The Ontario government had announced that it was offering photo ID cards for people who don't drive.

Because most adults in North America do drive, many may not understand the impact of this announcement on those that don't. The driver's license has become the de-facto standard form of identification for most undertakings that require identification. Some form of photo ID is required if one wants to open a bank account, rent an apartment, vote, stay at a hotel, board a plane and so on, and the most commonly accepted identification is the driver's license.

But what if you don't drive? What if you're handicapped, can't afford a car or, like my wife, simply never learned to drive? Well, my friend, in that case your options get quite a bit narrower. The Canadian social insurance card doesn't work, because it doesn't include your picture. A passport is usually good, but not everybody has one of those either and even those that do don't always carry them around on their persons. Even if you do happen to have one handy, a second piece of identification is usually required because the passport doesn't give your home address. The fact is, for people who don't happen to hold a driver's license, proving that they are who they are is much harder than it should be.

Apparently Ontario's Minister of Transportation, Kathy Wynne, recognized this fact, and decided to do something about it by introducing a photo ID card for those who don't drive. What's even more amazing is that, as far as I can tell, this initiative came totally out of left field. I'm not aware that there was any kind of public lobby urging someone to do something about the situation. Those who lacked a driver's license, like my wife, apparently coped with the nuisance in silence and got by as best they could.

So I applaud Kathy Wynne for taking this refreshing initiative. I don't know who or what it was that brought the matter to her attention, but she has pleasantly surprised this somewhat jaded citizen by doing something about a problem that isn't very high profile and, after all, affects a minority of voters.

Shirley Rieck thought it was an excellent idea too. The seventy-five-year-old pensioner doesn't hold a driver's license and has encountered many of the frustrations that I've already outlined when it came to proving her identity. So she rushed right out to get one of the new Ontario photo ID cards. She brought along her birth certificate, her Ontario health card and an old age security card that included her social insurance number. They weren't enough.

Okay, let's all stop to think about this. She couldn't get the photo ID card because she lacked the appropriate ID. Or, put another way, she couldn't make it easier to prove who she is, because it was too difficult to prove who she is. Somewhere along the line, somebody forgot that people like Shirley Rieck are the very reason why this new ID card was launched in the first place! It's like that old aphorism which says that the only way to qualify for a bank loan is to prove that you don't need it.

It's not like Mrs. Rieck didn't come prepared. The list of cards and documents that she took along with her certainly sounds reasonable enough to me, and I would have thought they'd be sufficient. Unfortunately, the birth certificate wasn't acceptable because it bore her maiden name (she hadn't been married yet when she was born, you see). It also didn't show her picture and, even if it did, I'm sure it wouldn't have looked anything like her. The Ontario health card wasn't any good, because the Ministry doesn't like to ask for that, since it can be used to access confidential health information. You can volunteer it anyway but, even then, they want a second piece of ID (I guess the birth certificate and old age security card don't count, though). The news article through which I discovered all this didn't explain why the old age security card was no good.

Well, hats off anyway to Kathy Wynne. At least she tried. Unfortunately, in the end, bureaucracy won out again.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Better News

Does anybody besides me find the news more and more depressing these days? Great nations (including the United States) mired in debt, economic turmoil, joblessness, climate change, crazies like the tea party calling the shots, no tax hikes for the richest of the rich and no aid or respite for the poorest of the poor... it's enough to make one want to find oneself a nice, quiet cave somewhere and retreat from society. That's why I was so refreshed to find three news articles in my local paper this past week which, although I wouldn't call them "good" or "happy" news per se, at least brought a smile to my lips.

The first item had to do with a new theory that has been gaining acceptance among astronomers that our Earth may once have had two moons, which collided and the victor of that cosmic fender bender was the moon which we see in our night sky today. This theory, which astronomers playfully dubbed the "Big Splat", supposedly explains why the far side of the moon, the side that we never see from Earth, is more mountainous than the side that we do see, making our satellite just slightly lopsided.

"Why would that make me smile," you ask? It's the analogy that's used to describe the collision. The theory says that a smaller moon trailed along behind our surviving, larger moon, the larger satellite's gravity pulling it gradually closer and closer, until the smaller moon finally rear-ended its larger sister. Because both moons were travelling in the same direction, the speed of impact would have been relatively slow (a mere five to six thousand miles per hour which, of course, has been proven to be emminently survivable by countless crash test dummies used by all the major auto makers) so, instead of the cataclysmic explosion that one would normally expect as a result of two planetary (or moonitary, if you will) objects colliding, the effect was more akin to the larger moon getting a "pie in the face". In fact, an artist's rendering (that's the picture at the above left, not the one to the right) really does look something like a freeze-frame of someone getting hit in the face with a pie. Now that's funny! Perhaps legendary silent film director Georges Méliès wasn't so very far off the mark after all!

The second headline that attracted my attention read "Swedish Man Arrested for Splitting Atoms In His Kitchen". Now there's a headline you don't see every day! I, for one, didn't realize that there was a law against that. Apparently Richard Handl, the amateur nuclear scientist in question, also known for composing the famous opera, "Messiah", if I'm not mistaken, didn't either, but he decided to inquire about it with his local police, and was immediately arrested for his trouble. Seems that Sweden, at least, does have laws against possessing nuclear materials, which are sort of necessary if you want to split atoms.

It turns out that Handl is nothing more than a well-meaning hobbyist who even blogged about his activities. I can understand the Swedish authorities becoming somewhat alarmed upon learning that some do-it-yourself-er had been working on a miniature nuclear reactor in his kitchen, and I certainly can't fault them for wondering where he came by the uranium and radium that he used for his experiments, but I would suggest that terrorists don't generally blog about their activities and aren't in the habit of inquiring about legalities with the police. From the pictures in the news story, I would suggest that Handl's greatest crimes were slovenliness and chain smoking.

On the other hand, Handl (on the other Handl?), whom one article aptly describes as "Quite reckless and kind of awesome", admits in his own blog that he has had the odd mishap, like the time that a mixture of Americium, Radium and Beryllium in sulphuric acid exploded on his stove top. If he lived in America, he could have immediately sued the stove manufacturer for failing to affix a bright red warning label on the control panel that reads "WARNING! THIS APPLIANCE IS NOT INTENDED FOR COOKING NUCLEAR MATERIALS! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HEAT ANY INGREDIENTS THAT END IN THE LETTERS 'IUM'"

The final item to warm the cockles of my heart wasn't really a news article at all, but rather an interesting photo depicting a military vehicle rolling over a parked Mercedes with the heading "Parking Wars". The caption beneath the photo read "Vilnius, Lithuania, Mayor Arturas Zuokas drives a tank over a car parked illegally on the city's main street. Zuokas became infuriated with motorists parking their luxury cars illegally around the city".

I'm sure that many of us can sympathize with the sentiment. Some arrogant yuppie doesn't think the rules apply to him or his Mercedes. Let's give him a little something to make him think twice next time. Reminds me of that delicious scene from the movie, "Backdraft", where the Beemer is illegally parked next to a fire plug that's right next to a burning building, so Kurt Russell happily smashes in both the driver and passenger windows with his axe and runs the hose right on through the car.

Just to ensure that the hapless driver really gets the message, Mayor Zuokas should have left a note under the Mercedes' windshield wiper (or what was left of it) that read something like "Terribly sorry. I was on my way to quash an uprising and your illegally parked car got in the way of my tank. Nothing personal". Or, better yet, leave a parking ticket and a bill for repairs to the tank treads. Or maybe just a note that says "Next time, you'll be towed!" There's no end to the fun you can have with this type of situation! And why aren't there more politicians like Mayor Zuokas? If I lived in Vilnius, he'd sure have my vote next time around!