Friday, 31 August 2007

Major German synagogue reopened

Germany's biggest synagogue has reopened in a special ceremony attended by political leaders and Holocaust survivors from around the world.

The building in the east of Berlin, topped with a stunning blue dome, has been described as one of the jewels of Germany's Jewish community.

The place of worship was built more than one hundred years ago.

This story is the triumph of hope over experience. The Nazis attempted to exterpate an entire "race" of people (a term I still find offensive). The Reich was supposed to "Jew free", but despite pursuing this goal vigorously, even when defeat was inevitable (diverting resources to killing Jews rather than defending their borders) it didn't work.

Years of neglect under the communists also did not end with this building disappearing, and now it is reborn, with "one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the world".

I am an atheist. I am not really a Jew - just, as Dr Johnathan Miller so memorably remarked, jewish. My father was a Jew (to be accepted by Jews as such you have to have a Yiddisher Momma) and his family appears to have come from a village called Rees. In Germany.

So this story gladdened my heart. "The best revenge is living well."

Monday, 27 August 2007

Impressionists at the VAG

The Cleveland Museum of Art is closed for renovations, so while they are going on, their collection is on tour. It is not often that original works of some of my favourite artists come to visit my town, so I felt obliged to go.

The first thing to be said is that they are not just my favourites - they are among the most popular (and expensive) art works in the world. Even so I was a little taken aback at the crowds early Monday afternoon. I suppose at the end of the summer on a nice day not everyone is going to be at the PNE. But even so, it did get quite hard to actually see some of the exhibits. That is because of the recorded commentary that most people seemed to need to guide round some of the exhibits. The ones that had the number and symbol for the commentary were the ones where the crowds were thickest - and slowest moving. The good thing about the commentary is that it does make more people spend more time actually looking the pictures. But that is also the bad thing, if it means you cannot get to see them.

The price for the VAG is steep ($19.95) but does include the other exhibits. Not that I spent any time in them. And the tour does lead you straight into a special shop where you can buy your favourite paintings on mugs or postcards, or even a copy of the catalogue. Once again, I felt obliged to pass - it costs $40! Nicely produced of course, and a neat coffee table item to impress your friends.

The patrons of the VAG are mostly female, yet most of the artists are male. But in this exhibit at least there are not just female nudes so it is not as sexist as some have claimed. And it is not just paintings. There are sculptures too. Including some Rodins.

Worth visiting but it might be worth finding out when it is least likely to be crowded.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Budget surplus to top forecasts, federal government says

This has happened regularly both in BC and Canada federally. The "unexpected" surplus always is credited to "a stronger-than-expected economy".

What is actually happening is Ottawa is collecting far more money than it has programmed spending for. At the same time it fends off legitimate demands for earlier cuts to be restored or essential programs such as dependable regular funding of urban transit systems or low cost social housing - or even essential health care spending to cut waiting lists and the need to keep sending Canadians south of the border for essential (but much more expensive) care there. Not to mention the poor Canadian troops paid a pittance and put in harm's way without decent equipment.

And the response will not be more spending on these essentials. But will go to pay down the debt - yippee! Or maybe a few more strategic tax cuts to benefit the well off Tory voters.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Do we have a healthcare system?

We Canadians are very proud of our publicly funded healthcare.It is certainly far better than the US (though they are exceptionally bad in any international comparison) and better than what it was before Tommy Douglas. But it is not at all comprehensive, and some of the gaps in coverage really do need attention.

For example, BC no longer pays for eye tests. There is no excuse for this at all. We have a population with rapidly increasing incidence of type 2 diabetes, so the risk of going blind is increasing. Regular eye checks are necessary to detect the presence of glaucoma. Once the optic nerve is damaged it cannot be repaired, so detection is essential if treatment is to be prescribed early enough to be effective. But if you do not wear glasses, or you don't see any difference in your sight since the last test, you may skip an eye exam or two. From the patient's perspective, glaucoma is symptomless. But new noninvasive tests can determine very accurately the extent of the disease very early on.

An eye exam now costs $75. The eye drops to treat glaucoma in one eye cost around $100 for three months. If you are in full time employment with a good healthcare plan - or are related to someone who is - then this may not be a problem. But I suggest that very few middle income families could absorb these kinds of costs without noticing. And yet the prescription eye drops can put off the need for much more expensive surgery - which will be covered by the Medical Services Plan.

There are plenty of other examples where medication can reduce or eliminate the need for surgery, so MSP coverage of medications would be highly cost effective and reduce the need for surgeries, whose wait list are only growing at present. For instance, treating osteoporosis instead of replacing hips.

You need to think about this the next time Mr Harper or Mr Campbell tell you how well they have managed their budgets and how big the surplus is. Those surpluses are the product of denying effective health care to low and moderate income Canadians.

And don't get me started about having to pay for an ambulance in an emergency.

Deportee granted reprieve

This a depressing story. Not because of what it does to the credibility of our immigration system - because that is clearly beyond repair. It's that old political Boyle's Law - the greater the external pressure, the greater the volume of hot air.

There is no doubt in my mind that this individual does not deserve to stay in Canada. He entered the country illegally, on a false passport. He lost all his appeals and resorted to "sanctuary" to try and overstay some more, and avoid return to his country of origin. The decision to remove him was made after due process, and he was represented. The great howl of outrage came not from the community as a whole but a small but vocal group who are keen to play any card - race, disability - whatever - to forward their agenda.

There are a lot of people who want to come to Canada. Most of them wait a long time and have to jump through plenty of hoops. The process seems at times baffling and bureaucratic and has some really difficult requirements causing all kinds of personal tragedies. Getting to Canada is hard enough: trying to get established in the new country is even harder. So why does this individual deserve any special consideration? He did not so much jump the queue as avoid it altogether. Instead of supporting him, I think the community of immigrants should be outraged that just because he can raise a protest rally to put pressure on Stockwell Day, he gets to stay "to review the case" - one that has been running for four years? How much new could be learned?

Friday, 17 August 2007

The Media's Impeachable Offenses

A recent poll says that a third of Americans think Congress has just cause to get the ball rolling on impeaching President Bush. But you'd never know that from media reports or the Democratic agenda.

More on Heathrow

It's a very long piece, not just dealing with the current protest

Here are a few highlights

an airport that's handling 68 million passengers, and it was designed for 45 million

Despite handling 10 million fewer passengers a year, Paris's Charles De Gaulle airport has four runways; Amsterdam's Schiphol is 20 million behind, and it has six.

why is one of the world's busiest airports and its surrounding netherworld located 15 miles from London, on a site chosen during the second world war, now boxed in by housing, and expanded and altered over 60 years with precious little strategic vision? You only need travel abroad to grasp what's wrong: while so many of the world's airports now offer acres of space, futuristic flash and carefully designed passenger comfort, Heathrow has the distinct air of a project made up as people went along. It is, in effect, a very British botch-up.

According to an incongruous alliance of people who have been recently raising their voices, these 4.6 square miles are now among the most unpleasant places in Britain. The Mayor of London Ken Livingstone recently claimed that Heathrow "shames London" and offers "appalling conditions" in which passengers are effectively kept prisoner in a "ghastly shopping mall". Sir Terence Conran thinks the airport has become a "really horrible place". One government minister - Kitty Ussher, who sees to the affairs of the City of London - has talked about the airport's negative impact on the high-flying international financiers on whom we are so often told our national wellbeing depends: a matter, she says, of problems with security, passport control and a mind-bending layout that amounts to "Heathrow hassle".

[UK] Tories launch plans to abolish inheritance tax

The Tories are not however suggesting tax reductions overall. They also say that in a new Tory budget there would be tax increases elsewhere to ensure revenues stay the same. And the overall message was about business deregulation - mainly taking away worker's rights gained as a result of the EU.

That being said, I cannot say that I like the way the inheritance tax is currently working. It is 40% on everything above the threshold (and despite what is said below was £285,000 earlier this year). I do not believe that ordinary secondary school teachers were ever the intended target of this tax, which is being driven by the astronomical increases in property prices in London

The chancellor, Alistair Darling, told Sky News that going back to the "tax and spend" instability that the Tories presided over "would be extremely bad for this country and people are right to be afraid of it".

And, speaking on Radio 4's Today programme ahead of the report launch, Mr Darling said: "Six per cent of estates pay inheritance tax. We have raised the threshold: it's £300,000. It will go up to £350,000." He said the review's findings showed the Conservatives had abandoned the political centre ground.

Canada does not have an inheritance tax

Some time after I posted this, I came across a much clearer explanation - also in the Guardian
The argument for abolition centres on the argument, which appears to be largely correct, that the super-rich don't pay. Only middle-income earners, who are ignorant of tax planning or unwilling to do the things necessary to avoid tax, end up paying.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Prescrition for a drug disaster

I have written about Celebrex here before, and now here is an article about Vioxx - another Cox-2 inhibitor withdrawn from the market in 2004. What the author wants is "Real World Safety and Effectiveness Research". Big pharma of course is not interested in this kind of study which might cut into their grotesque profits.

The sad thing is that Common Ground, because it is free, is dependent on advertising, and frankly I am very dubious about many of the products and services advertised in its pages. And I doubt that any of the herbal remedies being touted in its pages would stand up to that kind of examination either. And as for Tarot and "Spiritual Regressions" the less said the better. But hey, if it works for you, fill yer boots! Even placebos work for a lot of people in controlled trials - sometimes as well as the substance on test.

The journey of an environmental champion

Colleen McCrory 1950 - 2007

I picked up Common Ground at the library this week, and read the cover story - mainly I think because of the striking image above.

I did not know her - or indeed of her prior to reading. But I know now that the place where we live was better for her presence and I am immensely grateful to her.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Undocumented immigrant

On the MacLean's blog at least one writer appears to think that Conrad should get his passport back. Indeed he actually appears to be a Black supporter.
It would be interesting to know on what basis Judge Amy calibrates Conrad's bail: he's posted $21 million, as opposed to the $5 million Enron's Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were obliged to put up after their own convictions. The US Attorney's position is stated below: Once all the various suits are settled, "most of the assets that Mr. Black owns will be owned by somebody else." So much for the presumption of innocence in US courts.

The presumption of innocence ceases at the moment of conviction. The court has found him guilty and the only matter left to determine is the length of his sentence. It is an act of generosity to allow him freedom on bail. Many convicted felons are sent straight to jail without that option. Not jailing him did not indicate any shadow of doubt about the rightness of his conviction. He was not freed pending appeal.

Indeed there are many poor black men who are indisputably innocent except in the eyes of the law, who remain incarcerated, some on death row, while the state or federal attorneys cook up new theories of how they still could be guilty based on the evidence accepted to date by the courts. The US appeals system has no presumption of innocence - quite the reverse

Indeed soon after completing the first go at this, I came across a story on the BBC about a man who is white but is, like Black, British - and has spent 20 years on death row - and has been found by the courts to have been wrongly convicted - twice.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

The American Right: Under the Weather

The Economist is not exactly a left wing journal. It has always preferred the western style of Republicanism to the GWB southern style. So it is not surprising but nonetheless heartening to read this article. And, if the length of it puts you off (it shouldn't, it is very well written and insightful) here is the conclusion.
But even when you enter all the qualifications the right's situation is dire. It is a sign of weakness that the conservatives are retreating to their old posture as insurgents, and need a bogeywoman like Mrs Clinton to hold them together.

The Republicans have failed the most important test of any political movement—wielding power successfully. They have botched a war. They have splurged on spending. And they have alienated a huge section of the population. It is now the Democrats' game to win or lose.


Moving stuff into storage

This is what I have been doing for the last few days. The family home has been sold and I must remove the last of my possessions as there is no room to put anything more into my cramped little suite.

What is staggering is the amount of self storage space that is available in Richmond, and how much of it is occupied. The vacancy rate seems to be slightly higher than places to rent, as all the operators are keen to show you what they have. Many have web sites but very few put their prices on line. I wonder why? The quality of space on offer is very variable: ease of access being the most critical condition. I helped a woman today to load a bike into an upper locker which required the use of a rolling step ladder. Not something I would have even attempted on my own.

But the man who runs the place I use is also a philosopher. He actually advises people to throw stuff away rather than pay for a larger storage area. He has two huge dumpsters on site, and does not charge for their use, though he must pay to have them emptied frequently. He says that most of the stuff people store is useless and is merely emotional baggage. This is not because of his belief system - simply long experience. And the reality of dealing with spaces where the rent is not paid. You can tell how many of those there are by the addition of a red padlock to the one the owner of the stuff put on. Pay the rent and he takes off the red lock and you get your stuff. Fail to pay within the defined deadline and he cuts off your lock and tries to sell the stuff in the locker. Most of it turns out to be worthless.

As property prices continue to rise, and rent space become ever more scarce, people are downsizing. There is, of course, a cable tv show dedicated to the idea of clearing out the clutter and the emotional turmoil it represents. Mostly, getting rid of stuff makes you feel better. I took three huge bags of clothes to Value Village - finally admitting to myself that I will never again have a 34" waist. I have no doubt that they are a commercial con trick and rip off everybody on both sides of the deal. But it was a lot easier to drop stuff off there than most of the thrift shops I have seen.

But mostly people seem to rent space. And every so often they visit it - perhaps to switch the scuba gear for the skis. But mostly, I suspect, to hang on to stuff that they cannot bear to part with. Because it represents what we have lived, what we were, who we were.

My son was supposed to be helping but spent his time sorting through my CD collection. He said he could not bear the thought of great music going into storage and not being listened to. My daughter broke up my set of Jane Austen for a very similar reason. I just hope I get the books and cds back one day, when I can retrieve all my stuff and start a new home. I have already decided it must have an enclosed back yard - for growing vegetables and letting the dog out. It will be a big dog, and rescued: not bought from a pet shop.

One good thing. All this physical activity - hefting boxes and running up and down stairs - showed up with a really low blood glucose reading this morning. The new place will have room for my bike too!

Monday, 6 August 2007

Plastic, not axes, threatens cork forests

Ecologists are worried about cork forests. But what the article does not say is why cork started being replaced in the first place. For one thing, cork is a bottle closure of very variable quality. That is why the sommelier pours a little into the glass. Not so you can taste it. So you can smell it. A bottle that is "corked" gives itself away immediately. And a significant percentage of bottles can go that way if the source of the cork is not very carefully monitored. And, as usual with skills at a premium, the industry looks at ways of eliminating this variable. Especially when the cork may not be enough to satisfy the market needs. Not so long ago similar stories were predicting shortages of cork - a good way to both drive up the price and send the bottlers to the competition.

And, like a lot about wine, corks are heavily favoured as a result of snobbery and tradition. I like red wine and I value its beneficial effects on my health. But I am not going to drink a bottle at one sitting nor am I going to throw it away after a day or so as it has turned into vinegar. So I buy it in one litre cartons with a plastic screw cap. That way I can squash the container as I drink the wine to exclude the air from the remainder. There is not much choice here at the moment but what there is, is of acceptable quality and price, and I expect that it will grow in range over time.

Teen boys hit home run with topless next-door neighbor

I suppose I should not spend so much time reading Fark. But there was this book see (written by Fark's creator) about how the media conspires to feed us non news - and this is a prime example.

America seems to be obsessed with bosoms. They are everywhere. Half the nation carries them around with them and the other half spends a lot of their time staring at them. They are, mostly, at least partly covered. If a female nipple should slip into view - no matter how briefly - the earth stops rotating on its axis, and the American media whips itself into a frenzy of righteousness.

Of course, on the other side of the Atlantic, European women have been taking their tops off in public for lo these many years. Indeed it was 30 years ago on Yugoslav beaches that I began to wish that fat German hausfrau's would put some clothes on. But nipples still ensure that the Sun sells lots of newspapers. Familiarity does not breed contempt in every case. Possibly because it is only the breasts of younger women that obsess males of all ages.

On the reasons the internet became popular so quickly was that men found that they could download pictures of naked women - originally for free. But the real breakthrough for commercial activity on the web was the pay web page - and the leaders in that technology were the pornographers.

What puzzles me about the story is why is anyone surprised that boys like the idea of peeking at the next door neighbour sunbathing. Has not that always been the case? And exactly what harm would the glimpse of a female breast do them? And isn't the request to spread sun screen on a shapely woman's back every young man's fantasy? Well, all the heterosexual ones anyway. What possible harm could be done? At least she won't get carcinoma.

Canadian sales of canned beer still bubbling

sales of canned beer are up 10 per cent over last year, and a whopping 27 per cent in Ontario alone,

Which is all the story is about really except this bit of "I didn't know that" info.
Today's cans are made with a thin plastic lining to protect the taste of the beer, challenging the notion that canned beer tastes tinny.

But there is no mention of widgets. And it is the widget that drives my beer can purchases. I like Guinness, but bottled Guinness is nothing at like real draft Guinness. What the brilliant boys on the Liffey noticed is that people do not like the bloated feeling that CO2 gives you. And its antisocial consequences. Most brewers kill their beer - filtering out the yeast and stopping fermentation. They then pack the beer - in kegs, cans or bottles - and in the case of the latter two inject it with a blast of gas. In a bar the keg is connected to a gas bottle which blows the beer up to the counter top and out of the tap.

Either way you get fizzy beer. And my search for real ale in Canada has so far proved fruitless. Many microbreweries but all using the same technology.

Guinness uses nitrogen rather than CO2. Nitrogen is the largest component of the air we breathe. It does not make the beer fizzy, but does produce that lovely creamy head. Drinking real draft Guinness is very similar to a properly made cappuccino - and, sadly, about as rare in Canada. But you can buy real draft Guinness in a can with a widget. The widget releases a stream of nitrogen when the can is opened. It de-skills the task of pouring, which seems to be beyond the competence of most bar persons, and consumers in general.

Guinness have now produced what is sold as "draft beer in bottles" (an oxymoron if ever I heard one). But I cannot for the life of me understand why. You get less beer per serving for one thing. And bottles are heavy. Taking back the empties is virtually weightless when you buy beer in cans.

There is also a widget in cans of Boddingtons for those who like that sort of thing. As one of my sisters-in-law once said to me "If I can see through it, I don't want to drink it."

ACE's highflyer prepares for landing

An account of the success of Robert Milton at Air Canada - and how he now thinks that ACE the holding company he set up will be wound up "within 9 months", and he will go looking for another job.

I am prepared to take a small bet. He will not get a job forecasting energy prices
Mr. Milton said. "If oil prices drop to US$40 a barrel, Air Canada's stock will go through the roof.

My prediction: neither will happen

Saturday, 4 August 2007

BA chief slams Heathrow snarl-ups

Yet another slam against "the world's most unpopular airport"

BA of course are self interested. "It's not our fault" is an easy way out for an airline whose performance is slipping visibly. But in this case the lack of staff at Heathrow for security and baggage has been a disgrace for the last couple of years based on my direct experience. And for the length of stay anyone from here is likely to have in Britain, you cannot just rely on the limited amount of cabin baggage now allowed. You are going to be staring at that carousel for a long time while the same "priority" tags go past again and again. And on the way out you will be in a line up that strangles the rest of the terminal outside the "quarantined" area. One good feature of this is that it is surprisingly easy to queue jump - because no-one actually knows where the back end of the line is, and they have to keep opening up the tapes to allow for legitimate cross traffic.

And there is also another piece in the same paper

No longer is an airport a gateway, but a stopover destination in itself, a hell where the suspension of your human rights must be endured unquestioningly, even gratefully.