Friday, January 27, 2006

King Arthur, not a racist?

Fred from Montreal had this to say in the comments on my Ones to Watch post, about Andre Arthur.

First thing is that there really were students at the Laval university sent their by their parents from africans country who happened to be either the dictators themselves or high ministers for dictatorial regimes. These students were given special treatments because of the money their parents transfered to the university, it was a local scandal when all of this came out. And the cannibal comment came from that, not from the act of eating human flesh, but rather as a reference to the way these regimes were eating up the ressources of their own country while their people died.

It was an outraged comment on a situation where the university was accepting money that was cannibalized by dictators from their own country.

So, to set the record exactly straight, let's see the entire quote, from Wikipedia.

"All that aside, we're always saying how global we are and taking in foreign students in Quebec at the university, especially students from North Africa. Laval University is one of the biggest universities in North Africa.
The problem is, people forget that in Africa, in Muslim countries and countries in Black Africa, the ones who are sent abroad to study are the sons of people who are disgusting, the sons of the people who own the country so that they can govern it better. They're the sons of plunderers, cannibals who control certain Third World countries and can afford to send their children to Quebec to go to school, if it's not outright corruption by companies that want to get access to natural resources in Africa and will pay to have the sons of the disgusting people who govern those countries study in Quebec.
But they're still proud in Laval to accept foreign students. They forget to say that those foreign students, by definition, with some exceptions, are all children of the most disgusting political leaders in the world, people who are sucking their countries dry, people who kill to gain power and torture to keep it. People we call cannibals, people who are extremely cruel."

On further reflection, is the statement still racist? I think not quite, but it's skirting the line pretty close. Not in condemning the university for accepting and coddling students who are the offspring of dictators, but in tarring virtually all African students with the same brush. That's obviously a gross oversimplification of the issue. Africa has a lot of petty dictators, but it has more than a few democracies as well. So I'd say that Arthur can't be directly judged as racist purely on the contents of this quote, but he can be judged as pig ignorant about Africa and Africans. And that kind of ignorance does inflame and encourage existing racism.

Should he have been censored? I believe in absolute free speech, so I'd say no. Should he have been elected to public office? Fuck no.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ones to Watch

First, I'd like to note all the areas where I was wrong in my pre-election predictions. The Liberals had a lot of strength that was undiscovered by pollsters. I suspect this was due to many people who said they were undecided, or simply refused to talk to pollsters, parking their votes with the Liberals. It's probably hard to say out loud: "Yes, I know some of them are corrupt, but I still want to vote for them."

I was too cynical about the NDP and Liberal chances here in B.C. I forgot that we left coasters are completely, amazingly insane, and will buck any trend we see coming. Tory government? Let's elect fewer of them. I would have been happy with 24 or 25 NDP members, I was pretty shocked to see them with 29.

I completely missed the Quebec breakthrough by the Tories. I figured they would simply get an increased vote count in safe Bloc seats.

Now, on to the MPs who will bear close watching in the next few months.

The Independent

The last independent member was Chuck Cadman, from Surrey. He started as a member of the Reform/Alliance, then was bumped during a nomination battle in his own riding. He ran anyway and won on his immense personal popularity. While he was a bit hawkish on crime for me (no surprise, he got into politics because of his son's murder) he was well respected across the political spectrum. He had a reputation very much as an ordinary guy, very approachable to every one of his constituents. He sadly died of cancer.

Now, we have Andre Arthur, the newest independent. From a riding outside Quebec City, he's an ex-shock jock with a penchant for making racist comments. From

Arthur, 62, had an outspoken style that spawned many lawsuits, including legal actions launched by former Quebec premiers Lucien Bouchard and Daniel Johnson. His mainstream radio career ended just before Christmas, when his employer did not renew his contract.

He once said that African students at Laval University were the children of dictators and cannibals. That remark was one reason why the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission decided to strip Quebec City radio station CHOI-FM of its licence in 2004.

I'm assuming he won based on a two-pronged strategy. First, scoop up the protest votes of disatisfied Tories and Liberals who just want to punish Ottawa but aren't happy with the Bloc. Second, he captured the under-utilized fuckwit vote. Your basic Canadian fuckwit likes racist jokes, porn, oversized trucks and the company of his fellow asshats. He doesn't usually come out to vote at all, and sees electing his morning drive hero as a knee-slapping joke. "King" Arthur is likely to make news, but no serious policy.

The Libertarian?

Dr. Keith Martin won again in his Vancouver Island riding. He's an interesting case: a Liberal who defected from the Alliance caucus and sat as an independent for a while. There are several ex-Progressive Conservatives in the Liberal tent (Scott Brison, Belinda Stronach) but few former Reformers.

Martin might be the closest thing to a libertarian, of the right-leaning variety, in the House of Commons right now. A medical doctor, he has called for private health care, but he clashed with his former Reform colleagues over euthanasia and abortion. He might prove an asset to NDP-sponsored civil rights issues, but will likely be able to speak out more strongly for his free-market values as an opposition member than he ever was as a Liberal.

Whether he is a classical, Lockean liberal, a near-libertarian or a vulgar libertarian remains to be seen. As any of those, he might prove a spoiler in the upcoming Liberal Party leadership race.

The Sock Puppet

Nina Grewal just squeeked back in to her Surrey riding. Her husband Gurmant, of course, wasn't running after his bizarre behaviour after he taped Liberal MPs allegedly offering him incentives to cross the floor. Both during and after that fiasco, Nina Grewal had very little to say. The fact that she is likely still being run by remote control by Gurmant didn't quite disuade voters. While she might melt down spectacularly, I really expect her to just fade away as an MP. Worth watching, to see if we can spot the strings.

The Wicked Witch

Belinda Stronach won, amazingly, after defecting the Libs from the new Conservative Party she helped bring into being. She'll never lead the Liberals, but with her experience at backroom leadership deals, she'll be a factor in the leadership contest. She seems like a classic "The Economist" type: socially liberal as much out of disinterest as anything, fiscally conservative but a believer in firm government. Probably should have been a Liberal all along.

The Tories will never forgive her for crossing the floor. I was at a Tory candidate's campaign office as the results came in (I was working), and she was booed every time her face appeared on the TV. She'll be a constant target even now that they've won.

The Power Couple

Jack Layton and Olivia Chow are finally together - and he displayed some genuine emotion in a morning press conference when he talked about how happy he was that they'll be together in Ottawa this time.

I dislike couples who run in seperate ridings (see above, re: Grewals), because one of them is by definition a parachute candidate. I also have some fears about Layton trying to drag the NDP too far from its populist-labour roots into some kind of Tony Blairish Third Way nonsense. Those worries have been assuaged by his last term. He seems to be trying to desperately merge the rural populist and urban social-rights elements of his party together into a workable whole. The populists are generally pro-gun (Layton astutely stayed away from the Liberals' gun policy during the election), believe in cooperativism, the social gospel and are skeptical of big business. In B.C. and Ontario, there's a strong labour element as well. They want the government to provide an insurance policy for tough times through health care, EI and social programs. The urban contingent includes a lot more environmentalists, gays and lesbians, students, teachers and civil libertarians. They are suspicious of big business too, but are a lot more comfortable with big government.

Layton has to deal with a caucus that is almost evenly split between those two factions.

With Chow, he'll have disproportionate influence with his own caucus to put whatever policies he has onto their agenda. If his fusion is successful, and not just a watering down of both sides, it could bring a new element into parliament.

My hope is that the urban-rural NDP combination might really come together, as something with a libertarian socialist tinge. Probably not, but you never know.

Addendum I forgot about The Warmonger, but Larry Gambone at the Porcupine Blog has nicely taken him apart.

Perhaps even worse than Harper’s partial victory, is Michael Ignatiev’s victory as a Liberal candidate. This member of the US War Party is being touted as a possible future Liberal leader. It’s not hard to see what’s going on here. The Neocons are attempting to capture both parties for their war plans and reproduce as closely as possible in Canada the situation in the US - two parties with identical viewpoints except for minor shadings and all other views marginalized. Here is where the anti-war movement can have a political impact and derail these fiendish plans. The Ig should not be able to make a public appearance without being surrounded by demonstrators who denounce him as a Gringo stooge and warmonger. Make him a political liability, rather than a (pseudo) intellectual asset.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Found Satire

From a Starbucks cup:

The Way I See It #53

Be exceptional. Make tremendous efforts to be extraordinary. What a privilege to be here on the planet to contribute your unique donation to humankind. Just make sure you do so...

-- Shelby Lynne

This is the author's opinion, not necessarily that of Starbucks. To read more or respond, go to

Nothing more to say to that, except to add that if you think I'm putting up the link, you're crazy.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Fearless Election Predictions!

In ancient China, soothsayers would heat an iron needle until it was red hot, then press the tip against the shell of a turtle (presumably, the turtle had already been removed). The pattern of cracks that radiated out from the point of contact was then interpreted by the seer to give guidance on the future.

This is obviously a crappy way to predict Canadian elections. Everyone knows the best future-readin' comes from looking at the entrails of a shepherd killed by lightning on a remote hillside! Happily, your correspondent at Little Iguanodon has an in with Zeus, and I've arranged for just such a shepherd-slaying. The results were somewhat ambiguous, but I can narrow the results of Monday's vote down to a few options.

Most Likely: Tory minority. I think it will be a bit bigger than the currrent Liberal minority, maybe as high as 140 seats. It all depends on whether they get any traction in Toronto, and so far the polls (I mean, entrails) are no help to them there. They'll scoop quite a few more seats in suburban Southern Ontario, maybe grab a few more in the Maritimes. There aren't enough western seats left for those to make a big difference.

Second Most Likely: Tory majority. A slender one, I think, of barely more than 160 seats. If he scoops up some Toronto ridings and crushes the NDP near Ottawa, in Winnipeg and in BC, it's possible. The Liberals could be reduced to vying with the Bloc over official opposition status.

Unlikely, but possible: Total Liberal collapse. The Libs could lose the way the post-Mulroney Tories were wiped out in '93. They might be reduced to a rump of seats in Toronto. If this happens it will be because many Liberal voters simply stayed home. The NDP and Bloc would do well out of such a scenario, but the Tories would have a crushing majority, maybe 200 seats.

Leats Likely: Liberal minority. If (big, big if) it happens, the entrails say it will be an even smaller one than before.

What about British Columbia? Well, the Tories have already self-destructed in one seat (Thank you, Derek Zeisman) but they're still as strong as before everywhere else. My guess is that the Liberals will be largely squeezed out, the NDP might gain one or two new seats, and the rest of the province will be Tory blue.

The Tory minority I'm predicting won't last long, probably not as long as the last Liberal government. But I have hopes that it could at least accomplish a few things. Electoral reform would be the most valuable, and one of the few ideas they share with the Bloc and NDP. Whether they'll be eager to move to an STV or mixed proportional representation system with the scent of a majority still fresh in their nostrils is debateable.

Now, let's all sit back and watch me be spectacularly wrong!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Five Weird Things About Me

I was blog-tagged about a week back now by Brad Spangler (I didn't even know he'd read my blog) with one of those nasty blog memes. It's not that it's taken me this long to think up five weird things, more like it took this long to whittle the list down to something this short.

1 - My nickname at work is Little Penguin. Long story.

2 - I am obsessed with dinosaurs, as this blog's name itself indicates. Even stranger, I didn't pick up this obsession at age six like most kids. I loved dinosaurs when I was a kid, sure, but like most people who don't grow up to be paleontologists, I left it behind for years. Then in my early 20s, I rediscovered it. I have a collection of plastic dinos, dozens of books, DVDs, videos... I've even rewatched the execrable Jurassic Park II just so I could see the pachycephalosaurs and stegosaurs again.

3 - I'm 27 and I've never been drunk. I'm not a complete teetotallor, I don't avoid it for any particular religious reasons. I just don't see any reason to drink that much. Plus, I don't like the taste of beer or wine.

4 - I can deconstruct television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost as though they were Classics of English Literature. My girlfriend (She who is both wise and beautiful) and I do this for fun, teasing out strands of character development, plot and dialogue to analyze how they create the program, for better or worse.

5 - Even though my musical tastes usually run to punk, alt-country and old country and art-pop, I really like Meatloaf. Especially the Bat Out of Hell albums. And not in an ironic way. They're just good!

For the end of this meme, I'm supposed to tag five other people. I'm going to blatantly break this rule and just tag one - my friend Mr. Misanthropy. Because I know his list would be entertaining, and because he should blog more in general.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Machine Logic for Stupid Human Disputes

This is fascinating. A European company has created an online tool for dispute resolution and arbitration:

The e-Dispute system, which has already been successfully piloted at the European Court of Arbitration and the Emilia-Romagna Chamber of Commerce in Italy, is now being trialed at a number of hospitals in the UK where it is being used to assist with claim resolution.

Using e-Dispute, claimants and respondents can put their case before an independent online arbitrator (or "robot agent") who having reviewed the case will then set up a meeting between the two parties via chatrooms and video conferencing, at which possible binding settlements can be reached. Arbitration is a well-established alternative to contentious courtroom litigation for the resolution of commercial disputes. In general, it is quicker, simpler and incurs lower costs without disadvantaging the parties. The idea behind having an online arbitration system is that as well as being relatively inexpensive it allows organisations involved in international disputes to find a neutral venue in which to air their problems.

"Robot agents digest all the information and make proposals to the parties. Once the arbitrator is agreed upon, the robot agent finds a suitable meeting date for everybody," said Jacques Gouimenou, managing director of Tiga Technologies, the company behind e-Dispute, speaking with ElectricNews.Net. "Our system reduces delays and costs. It is also very secure."

The current version of e-Dispute includes a number of online collaboration tools including video, audio, live-chat, e-forum, text and transcript capabilities with full case management, fact assessment, analysis, and weighted issue/interesting variables.

Aside from the fact that it could be a lot cheaper than paying lawyers, a lot less confrontational and lengthy than a court proceeding, this is obviously a situation where there can be no charges of bias on behalf of the arbitrator. It would be especially useful in situations where one or both sides can't find a trusted third party.

Obviously, it may not be so useful in resolving ethical dilemas. So judges need not fear for their jobs - yet.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Daycare subsidizes big business?

Stephen Harper recently announced the Conservative Party's daycare plan. Both the Liberals and the NDP have also promised childcare (well, the Libs promised it again) through publicly funded and run programs. The NDP in particular have been clear that it will be non-profit only daycare. Harper, of course, has a different idea.

He plans to dole out cash directly to businesses and non-profits that provide daycare spaces for employees children. Specifically, it's a $10,000 tax break/subsidy per childcare space created. That's a hell of a lot of money ($250 million a year). This is a bad plan on a couple of levels, but I'll just look at one here. That is the massive subsidy this will provide to large companies, while doing little for small firms.

It's worth quoting here from the Tory backgrounder:

A Conservative government will also help to create new child care spaces by establishing a Community Child Care Investment Program. The program will provide assistance to employers – both businesses and non-profit institutions – when they create new child care spaces for their employees and the surrounding community. A tax credit of up to $10,000 will be granted for each child care space created. The cost is estimated at $250 million a year. [Italics and bold mine.]

As a thought experiment, imagine two businesses. One is a Wal-Mart style superstore, the other is a coffee shop. The superstore has dozens of full time employees and many more part-timers. The coffee shop has perhaps a tenth the number of employees. The superstore is open from about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., the coffee shop is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. The superstore occupies a large area of land, the coffee shop is crammed into a small storefront space with a small storage room packed to the rafter with boxes. I've worked in both environments (a small, local coffee shop/bookstore and a large supermarket) and I think that's a pretty fair description of each.

In which do you think it will be easier to find space for some kids?

Even if the coffee shop owners are smart and work with other local small businesses, it will be harder for them to run such a daycare program. The coordination efforts and associated costs will be greater. Finding a site near enough to all the businesses will be difficult, and there will be problems sustaining the service if one or two of the businesses opt out or go broke.

The large business, on the other hand, will be able to either set aside existing space or to create a new space relatively easily. More pernicious, I suspect that with the economies of scale it can bring to bear; it will likely be able to actually make a profit off the $10,000 per kid. Remember, that money comes through whether you spend it all on the children or not. That will be a powerful incentive to warehouse the kids as cheaply as possible while keeping the rest of the money as pure profit.

Meanwhile, small business owners will be lucky if $10,000 a kid is enough to keep their systems running; they'll likely have to chip in a bit more.

And remember that bit about "and the surrounding community"? What are the odds that the big-box daycare program won't just offer to take in other kids, say, from nearby small businesses - in exchange for the owners handing over the $10,000 per child? Even more profit, the small businesses get nothing.

Why don't we just cut regressive taxes, especially those on the working poor? Or refuse to tax non-profit (especially cooperatively run) daycares and preschools. If you want flexibility, you can't get much more flexible than that.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

We have some lovely parting gifts for you...

Well, I didn't win but I didn't come in dead last.

The 3 Day Novel Contest winner was announced on the website this morning and it was not my name or my book at the top of the list.

Or in second.

Or third.

However, I was in the 14-book shortlist that followed. Somewhere in the top 17 out of 379 entries. Which is certainly better than nothing, and pretty much what I'd expected. It certainly won't hurt when I edit and flesh out the story and try to shop it around to SF editors.

I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall when the contest judges were debating the stories. The winner, despite what I have said earlier about a dearth of fantasy literature in the contest, is a horror/comedy story called Day Shift Werewolf, by Jan Underwood. It's about a werewolf demoted for being unproductive, and also features a claustrophobic mummy and distractable zombie.

Looking back at the previous winners, they veer unexpectedly from what sounds very much like earnest "capital L" literature to quirky stories, with a couple that are magic realism. No traditional fantasy, and definitely no standard SF. What on earth did they make of my story, or of the other serious SF and fantasy epics they no doubt received? Were they immediately shunted off to the side, with a few of the best left in the shortlisted category, or were they seriously considered on their merits for the top three prizes? I imagine it depends on the judge. And the fact that a comedy in the Terry Pratchet vein ultimately won obviously supports the idea that it came down to pure merit, with no genre restrictions.

I'll certainly buy Day Shift Werewolf, and I urge anyone reading this blog to pick up a copy, too. Support struggling authors! We need money.

I've already made a personal vow: I will win this contest, or die trying. I've just got to think up an idea for next year.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Lion, The Witch and the Failed Christian Allegory

I saw the movie version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe the other day, and I was left feeling that it was only so-so, and that it was a very accurate translation of the book to the screen.

The child actors were all competent-to-good, the CGI and special effects were even better than the Lord of the Rings series, and Liam Neeson made a pretty good Aslan.

One thing I certainly wouldn't have gotten out of it, if I had been 10 years old again, would have been any understanding that it was meant to be inculcating Christian values in me.

I read the entire Narnia series repeatedly when I was a kid, and some of them I re-read even in my teens. As fantasy children's literature, they hold up well, delivering the perfect wish-fullfilment story. Each book follows two or three of four human children from Earth (well, England) to a magical realm, in which they are hugely significant and heroic, interact with talking animals and mythological creatures, and learn valuable lessons. The last part is without a doubt the least important draw for most young readers.

However, they are also meant to be a Christian allegory. Aslan is Jesus/God - mostly Jesus. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, he goes through a very brief via dolorosa and is then sacrificed for the sins of another. There's even a Judas figure: Edmund, who sells out his siblings for Turkish Delight.

I can't comment on how this allegory works for readers who were familiar with it from the start, or who regularly attend church and Sunday school before reading the books. I can say how it affects those of us who grow up in non-believing households.

Not at all.

I didn't realize there was any religious significance to the Narnia books until years after I'd read them all, when I read about it in another book. So, while the Narnia books may have some meaning for children who are already Christians, they are worthless as a missionary tool. The allegory is just too far off the mark to get across.

Think about it. The first time we meet Aslan, he's marshalling an army composed mostly of fauns, centaurs and talking animals. He's a big damn talking lion, who advises Peter on how to clean his weapons after killing a wolf. How is this anything like Jesus? Later, when he gives himself up to save Edmund's whiny little butt, Aslan is shorn of his mane, tied down and sacrificed by the figure who represents the Devil, the White Witch. She doesn't tempt him - indeed, Aslan is presented as entirely divine throughout the books, with no human qualities aside from an occaisional tendency toward rage. (Not at moneychangers, though. Currency exchange and temples are left out of the books entirely.)

Having been resurected (both book and movie make his resurection seem more like a magical trick than a divine miracle) Aslan goes back to being a ferocious general. If I had to pick a god similar to the big kitty, it might be Odin, Thor, Mithras, Thoth or I could even compare him to the cult of Adonis. Those were figures who either died and returned, or represented both healing and war. And they would have been entirely appropriate to surround with giants, ogres, centaurs and other European mythical bric-a-brac. Even King Arthur dies with a prophecy of later return.

I was a mythology geek when I was a kid, devouring books about Hercules and the Knights of the Round Table. The Bible, on the other hand, was something for people who were forced to go to church on Sunday. If I had been forced to make a comparison between the Narnia books and what I knew of religion, I would never have drawn the conclusion that it was a Christian allegory. This is what happens when you're a second-generation atheist.

One final note: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is probably the closest Biblical allegory except for The Last Battle, which tells the story of the end of Narnia. The books in between are mostly simple quest and adventure stories, with children set on their way by Aslan, but aided considerably less. I always liked those books better, especially The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The first and last books left me a bit bored, and The Last Battle I actually found confusing, unsatisfying, and a bit depressing.