Thursday, January 31, 2008

This poll demonstrates that...

...on average, Republicans are jerks, and are becoming bigger jerks. You'd think that dealing with the problems of the poor would be important for a largely Christian base (this is kind of how I was brought up in my Catholic household).

Is terrorism really such a major concern for them as well? 86% of Republicans view terrorism as a major concern, while 76% viewed the economy as one. Really? At least it's no longer the #1 concern. While terrorism should be a concern, I don't view it as all that important, because in the end, there are many more people affected by other things in the world than terrorism. There are plenty of other things killing many more people, unless you live in Iraq.

I'm also interested that there are no points that really discuss America's place in the world (trade, immigration, and terrorism kind of touch on it, but I don't think these issues cover America's place in the world). That's important to me - how our country is playing in the world.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

John Woo would be proud

So, let's get this one started by saying - and I mean it quite earnestly - that one should be happy this is not happening on a regular basis in Ottawa.

Apparently, gangsters shooting other gangsters is not going out of style, any time soon. This one reads like a true case of some of the incidents that populate the screen in the 'hard-boiled' fantasy Hong-Kong film school. Gun play, expensive restaurants, fancy cars, more gun play. No one is busting out awesome karate moves, though, as these are utterly useless against rapid automatic pistol fire.

I would not be so fundamentally troubled by organized crime feuds if they weren't playing out, or at least occassionally spilling out, into the public and semi-public space. The mafia, the wise guys, the Cosa Nostra, the Triads or whatever other shadowy association happens to be fighting for turf, sending high-profile messages or simply punishing and removing inconvenient is all a sordid but understandable price of doing this kind of business. I, for one, actually have sympathy for some of these guys as they tend to want to become 'respectable' businessmen, except the products they deal with are stuck in the strictly illegal zone.

What is troubling - and potentially a political powderkeg to go off - is the implication that a similar shooting, similar fight or assassination attempt could very well not only kill innocent bystanders but that it could kill a visiting celebrity, in a swanky part of a nice city like Vancouver. The effect would be like the Jane Cerba killing (Boxing Day shooting in Toronto), multiplied tenfold.

Imagine if the actor mentioned here or anyone of similar stature got "clipped" and either died or sustained a serious injury. The consequences would be harsh and the ripples would travel far, further than I can imagine at the moment. Imagine, if you will, headlines splashed across US and other foreign newpapers, advertising Vancouver as the destination where big-time actors get shot in random crime incidents, unable to protect themselves...imagine for a moment that all restaurants and night clubs were to start hiring body guards, frisking all customers, metal detectors and all. Police would have a heyday as well. Things we take for granted would get crazy and complicated, just like flying and cross-border business have become following the terrorist incidents of 9/11. Whenever crime has social stability repercussions, civil liberties and our own convenience suffer.

Having said all of this, I am aware of the homegrown Ottawa-area gang problem, even if it doesn't have the high-stakes appearance and the hyperviolent edge that Vancouver's 'scene' seems to be having. We have had history here, with Hells Angels, with Vietnamese crime syndicates, with the Italian-derived mob (centered mainly in Montreal these days but with branches in O-town) and also with the more low-key street gangs who are busy on the drug dealing front. Fatal shootings and stabbings happen here, too. What we haven't had - and I am tremendously relieved we haven't had it - is a gun fight say at "18" or Helsinki or Vineyards. We also haven't had the image of playground for internationally wanted mobsters. Let's keep it that way.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

East vs West - the ski culture clash

As someone who had originally spent many years in Calgary, close to the mountains and able to rip down some huge verticals and taste the powder (on the seasons we had powder) in the Rockies and the Purcells, I could be considered a ski snob. And the corrollary to that argument would have me not appreciating the skiing in Eastern Canada and being bored with the local hills.

After the last few years in this fine town and after having skied some of the Quebec ski resorts, I must admit...the hills are obviously not as big, the terrain not as scenic, the conditions not always reliable, at least when compared to the majestic and seemingly always snowy mountains out West. But I am learning the love the skiing (and snowboarding) culture out here.

When you ski at Sunshine Village, Lake Louise, Kicking Horse, or at the heavenly place known as Whistler, you are one of many. People come there for the views just as much as they come to glide down the slopes. Sure, the terrain is potentially awesome but it is only a small fraction of the clients who are actually able to ski it or ride it. For an elite skier, it's a dream come true on a clear, bluebird day, or after that dump of fresh pow'. But for most of the crowd on these hills, it's a trip to tackle congested blue runs, overpriced beers, coffee and snacks at the on-mountain lodges, a few hours spent negotiating all this terrain - and for a steep price. Sunshine used to cost 45 bucks when I'd started university in the early 90s, now it's almost 80 bucks for a daypass. Parking situation is getting crazy on all the major Alberta hills. The popularity of the venues also brings out the sheer snobs, who would otherwise not ski anywhere else. And, I couldn't help notice a lack of kid's races and events...there are too few people out West to support strong local ski club organizations.

By contrast, when you ski at Mt Ste Marie or at one of the rather miniature Ontario hills, or even at the much-higher Orford, Mt Ste Anne or Tremblant, you will be surrounded mainly by people who want to ski (or snowboard). No one is there for the stunning vistas of 3000 m peaks, no one has decided "it's nice today and there's nothing else to do, so I might as well hit the slopes", no one is there to take a pause from his 'regular' alpine touring or ice-climbing schedule. You are unlikely to rub shoulders with British lads on a Canadian drink-and ski expedition, high-rollers from Toronto or New York, or the ubiquitous groups of Japanese. No one is here squeezing in that one day on skis between the shopping, dining, spa at Banff Springs hotel or something like that. 95% of the people who ski out here are there because they love it, can not stand to go through the winter without practicing their religion so to speak, or because their kids are enrolled in a local ski training programme. Those people here who ski regularly are hard-core, dedicated, willing to go out on minus twenty five windchill days, put up with ice, flat light and generally shitty conditions. They will often drive ridiculously long distances or grab a very early morning bus, if there is one. There is never going to be a World Cup downhill event around these parts, even if some of the disciplines could actually be held on some of the runs.

When kids learn to ski in Ontario and Quebec, it's hard work and a school of hard knocks. It's not very trendy and, unlike junior hockey, not many girls chase after the best slalom skier in the school. And this is why Ontario and Quebec continue to produce some of the best technical skiers on the planet. Kate Pace, Brian Stemmle, Melanie Turgeon, Eric Guay, just to name a few from last fifteen years. And thousands of ordinary men and women who simply love the sport, the way of life, and make the trip to the local hill every weekend.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sometimes, the best arguments for something...

...are the arguments against it. For example, these specious arguments against wind power. I have no idea who Howard Hayden is. He appears to be an old grump who would rather a few smokestacks spewing out particulate matter, sulfur and nitrogen oxides than the much more attractive (to me, anyway) windmills that don't pollute as they generate.

Wind power already provides 20% of Denmark's electricity. So the U.S. must be a pretty special place if wind can never provide more than 10% of its power.

Other environmental concerns do exist, but that's why there's an environmental impact assessment process - to determine if the extent of those problems. Turbine blades turn slowly enough now that birds are at less risk from a turbine than they are from tall glass buildings.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Money, money, money

Seeing that the last two pieces I'd contributed have been on civic events and on the strange turns of weather in the Ottawa valley, it's time for a departure into the land of green. As in the greenback, as in green with envy, as in the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence.

We now take it for granted that we live in a world where top pro athletes make huge money. We also take it for granted that NHL is a venerable institution, sometimes embattled and criticized, but always there in the background of the mind of the sportsfan...and more than that, it's really a national institution. And I think we can all agree that Alexander Ovechkin is one of the most talented humans to ever lace up a pair of skates and wield a hockey stick. I love to see his moves, it is like the highlight reel of the week, over and over. It's like the best Gretzky moves or the Stevie Y early years in Detroit, and the sick goals that Jaromir Jagr used to score for Pittsburgh, all combined in one package.

But, $124 million...over ten years? That is a lot of dough, ladies an gentlemen. Enough to buy out several smaller companies, enough to provide a sizable foreign development budget to a Third World country, enough to kickstart a major infrastructure project in a big city. If someone had agreed to donate $124 mil to a conservation-minded foundation, that would buy and protect lot of land, and I mean a lot of land. You could have a new national park for that and more. And if you're guarding the coast, you could refurbish a fleet of patrol ships and buy some state of the art helicopters, too.

When some athletes make this much money, I wonder if the "whatever the market can bear" adage is actually still relevant. It tells me that some players are worth ten other players - and that makes me ponder what it would feel like being one of those 'other' players, perhaps on the same roster, same dressing room, donning the same jerseys.

Those of us who play or have played competitive sports, especially on a high level, can attest to the fact that sports careers as such are highly varied and that it is an inherently unfair world. Some sports personalities may gain fame but can, at the same time, struggle to make ends meet, never mind make a pile of cash. So-called amateur sports are a ticket to poverty and inadequate Sports Canada grants (whatever these grants are called).

When I see a young guy like Ovechkin, all I see is someone who had bet on the right sport. Most athletes end up in non-paying or low-paying sports. The discussion need not be in abstract. Most of us know someone who has or is playing a game or n individual sport at the highest level. I know several nationally ranked, "carded" athletes who have all risen to the elite levels and represented Canada on international stages. My brother-in law rowed at the Henley regatta several times, went to the worlds, and narrowly missed out on the 92' summer Olympics. My former triathlon training buddy Marc (from the UCTC fame) posted some world-class times, competed on the World Cup triathlon circuit and donned the national team uniform as well. My friend Waine had competed twice at the world duathlon championships, once finishing the course with a broken arm (!) A guy from my high school ran the 100 m under 11 seconds and later got a big college football scholarship in the US. These are all exceptionally gifted, tough, resourceful people with phenomenal physical abilities. It makes me a bit sad that none of them ever saw any substantial sum of money, either from a sponsor, a circuit, or from the state.

In the meanwhile, a cool $124 million. Hope Ovechkin doesn't spend it all on himself.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bobby Clarke should be suspended and fined

OK, maybe, as an Ottawan, I have a beige outlook on sports teams. I tend to think that their players shouldn't attempt to damage the careers of individuals on other teams.

A while back, I wrote about the thuggishness of the Philadelphia Flyers. Shortly after that, another one of their players, Riley Cote, was suspended.

So when Steve Downie sucker punched Jason Blake, I thought, here we go again. The Broad Street Criminals are at it again. But why is a team consistently like this?

Those that know me well know that I have an intense dislike of Bobby Clarke. When I had a radio show in Kingston back in 2000-01, on several occasions I ranted about the standoff between he and Eric Lindros. Bobby Clarke is about the only man that could drive people to sympathise for Lindros. I think back to the incident when Lindros suffered a collapsed lung, and had he followed the Flyers' instructions, he may have died.

I'm building up to something here. That is, that Bobby Clarke is a despicable human being, and quite probably a sociopath. Approving of a sucker punch by one of his players is just another example of this. I think hockey would be a much more noble sport if they were to take his words and use them to finally let loose and give him a suspension and fine. And not a 1- or 2- game suspension. Something to show that they're serious about protecting their assets, their best players. When you have guys like Jason Blake and Patrice Bergeron, useful, productive players who give the fans what they want (i.e. scoring), being attacked by marginal players such as Steve Downie and Randy Jones, respectively, who are openly being egged on by their manager to do such things, you're robbing from hockey to appease the lowest common denominator. The game can do better. Punish Bobby Clarke - remove him for the rest of the season (perhaps the Flyers coach, Paul Holmgren, should suffer the same fate). That would teach them, and hopefully change the dynamic of the game.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


Last night, I made a point of walking up to the Samuel Champlain monument, perched above the river. It was the strangest scene and the most out-of norm weather I've ever witnessed, given that it was January 7th. And this is not a piece about the alarming march of climate change. It's a snapshot of an unsual moodswing in the Ottawa valley.

First, one couldn't see one shore of the river from the other through the thick, shifting fog that seemingly enveloped all objects. At one instant, the lights on the Parliament hill appeared hazy, as if many miles away - and that's from the middle of the Alexandra bridge. The next instant, they disappeared completely, shrouded in fog and rain. The cityscape took on a distinctly 19th century look, recalling book portrayals of Jack the Ripper's London - eerie, surprising, maybe treacherous. Remnants of Christmas light displays glowed faintly here and there, painting the fog various shades of green and blue. Below, the half frozen river sat still and partially obscured, breathing cold air like some glacier meandering through an alpine valley. The cloud of fog wasn't stationary, rather it drifted between the Quebec and Ontario shores and also rising and falling. And then the rain started to fall. Not the usual freezing rain of the season; an autumn night rain, droplets ample and heavy, soaking my hair and my coat in minutes. It felt oddly liberating and disconcerting at the same was, after all, January 7th, and very few of us had ever been in the rain in Ottawa in mid-winter. Near the National Art Gallery, a random group of revellers who looked to be the fringes of a bachelor party or some bus tour were hollering "Signing in the Rain". A figure of the odd runner passed the bridge from time to time, soaked, clenched and animal-like in the raw elements; this is when humans resemble other creatures the most closely.

What I connected to the most the entire hour or so I'd spent in the fog and the rain was not how strange it was - it was the sheer immediacy of my sensory environment, the heightened feeling of exposure to the environment. I usually get that sense high up in the mountains or trekking through a wet forest, or out on a large expanse of water in a kayak. City life does not ordinarily create these experiences.

We could as well have a discussion about the La Nina effect or dissect the winter storm systems and their anomalies, or have the predictable commentary about global climate change. It would all be valid and to the point. What is wouldn't do is it would not capture an extraordinary moment in time, one of Nature's whimsically beautiful moods.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

1857 and 1608, a tale of two cities

So, with a mild hangover and another smallish snowstorm to welcome the New Year, Ottawa is safely into 2008.

What begun as a seemingly ambitious year, supposedly devoted to celebrating the 150th anniversary of good, ole' Bytown being named the nation's capital, became a procession of low-key, poorly advertised events, and eventually ended with spectacular fireworks, timed for 18:57 pm on New Year's eve.

The fireworks could have been the almost-saving grace as they were grand and strategically placed...however, I couldn't keep from thinking that this move should have welcomed the year 2007 instead, rather than closed off that year and brought in the 2008. Somehow, just like the overall year of mediocrity, the grand finale didn't appear to connect organically with most of the spectators. There was no ramping up to it, it was rather like a surprise symphony concert thrown randomly in some city park, with only a few posters put up the night before...the people I've spoken with barely seemed to notice that the event was connected to the 150th anniversary.

The press around the 1857 anniversary was low-key, too, throughout the year. We didn't even manage to provoke a proper controversy, apart from a few days of the summer when some 19th century lord had to be withdrawn from banners...someone complained that the said governor was, uhmm, not quite nice towards the French. Typical tempest in an Ottawa teapot. Over-managed and superficially slick, indifferent from pretty much any other year.

More on that...Unlike this year's Quebec anniversary of the first settlers' arrival in 1608, there was no central focus, no specific historical gala or something akin to a pageant. When you consider Quebec's 400-year celebrations, as much as they are being downplayed, the press loves the very idea of them, even the PM was asked about it during his New Year's day fireside chat on the Queen going to be there, and if not, why not? To mark the anniversary, there's a spectacular outdoor performance by exactly 400 dancers, and there are other massive scale events planned in the lead-up to the October 19th finale. Half of the games in the men's world hockey championships this year will be staged in Quebec city ( contrast this with the 2007 junior FIFA championships, a great tournament to be certain, where games were held sprinkled throughout Canada, with the Ottawa venue essentially feeding on round-robin games and other morsels, not even getting to host a semi-final). Unlike the nation's capital last year, Quebec is sure to seize the spotlight on their big anniversary. Europeans will come there in droves and spend their strong euros, schools will send busloads of naughty schoolgirls (and boys) to drink and break curfews through the old town in the name of education, and some dude will don a Samuel Champlain period costume and wade to the shore. Even Celine Dion will leave Vegas for a while and party with les habitants. (okay, I don't exactly like her but what the heck, she's the prodigal daughter) It'll be brighter and merrier than usual - unlike Ottawa which was exactly the same in 2007 as it is on other years.

I plan on writing more, on other random topics, but this one had to be put out of the way first.

Well done, Bytown, you get the totally unsurprising 6.5 out of 10 for your party! And that's with the Russian judge being heavily bribed, too.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Resolutions and such

Welcome to 2008. I hope you're all recoved from hang-overs and fake resolutions and what not.

I'm thinking my resolution is that I'm going to retire from this blog. To be honest, my heart just isn't in it any more and my head is in a space that requires more thinking in other areas.