banner photo:

"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Monday, December 21, 2009

A "cranky anachronistic curmudgeon" talks to himself

This post is a plug for one of my favourite bloggers, Edward Michael George. I think EMG is that rare occurence in amateur blogs - a good and original writer. He is noteworthy chiefly for a series of audio dialogues with himself called Semper Poo Poo Calls the World. The latest installment, The Drive, can be found here. These "audiotainments" contain dialogues between EMG and himself, or rather between a slacker persona manifesting his ego and a more uptight straitlaced id with whom he shares an apartment. The result is always funny - imagine a schizophrenic Bob Newhart talking to himself and you get the idea. I think these audio posts are some of the most original work in the blogosphere.

The latest installment, The Drive, takes place as the Ego EMG borrows a friend's car and drives both of them across downtown Toronto while the Id EMG comments on various things like the ROM Crystal, prompting Ego to declare Id a "cranky anachronistic curmudgeon". They eventually end up in the Gay Village where Ego attempts to demonstrate that Id is secretly a hatemongering homophobe. As usual, he pokes at some sacred cows and takes aim at the hypocrisy of modern urban living.

Take a trip over there and have a listen - you won't be disappointed.

(btw, EMG and I did a couple of joint posts on the Hideous Public Art on Toronto's University Avenue, which can be found here and here)

Monday, December 14, 2009

COP15: let's turn the developed world into Cuba

Of all the nonsense pouring out of the COP15 conference in Copenhagen, this has to be the most nonsensical, and the most revealing of the true agenda driving many anti-global warming activists: Cuba - a world climate leader. Published in the COP15 Post, the official publication of the conference, it offers a glimpse of what would happen to developed nations like Canada if the emissions reduction targets being tossed around actually become binding agreements:

The Cuban people are a tremendous inspiration. They are living proof that another – better – world is possible. Usually when Cuba is cited as an example to follow, it is because of the health and educational system which are among the best in the world according to WHO and UNESCO. Or it is because of decades of solidarity work in other developing countries, where the Cuban volunteers still outnumber the WHO. Or it is because of the strong Cuban stance against US domination.

But who would have thought that the Cubans, who in the 1980’s boasted the highest degree of mechanisation of agricultural production in Latin America, would come to be the avant-garde of sustainability and ecology?

Humankind’s exploitation of nature and indeed each other has sent the entire planet into crisis: economic crisis, energy crisis, food crisis, climate crisis. But one country has already experienced what it’s like being without economic means, energy and food overnight: Cuba, on the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in early 1989 represented more than 80 percent of Cuban international trade. The fact that Cuban socialism survived the so-called ‘special period’, a state of economic emergency that lasted until the year 2000, and today actually experiences annual growth rates well above 5 percent, shows us that it is indeed possible to survive even the deepest crises. But what is the Cuban secret?

The Cubans did not choose the ‘usual’ solution to crises, i.e. social cutbacks and increased competition. The key to Cuban success was the practical solidarity which permeates the revolution: when resources are few, you simply share to make sure that everyone receives according to need. When the Soviet oil stopped flowing, the Cuban state imported 1.2 million bicycles and built half a million more. Large trucks were built into busses – dubbed ‘camels’ because of the two humps above the wheels and all state vehicles were obliged to pick up hitchhikers. Solar-heated rice boilers and energy-saving light bulbs were made and handed out free of charge. Not all problems were solved, but the living conditions of the Cuban people were made tolerable.

However, the worst part of the ‘special period’ was the lack of food, which was exacerbated by the Torricelli and Helms-Burton tightenings on the US blockade against the country. During the years 1990 to 1994, the Cuban people each lost 20 pounds in weight on average – perhaps the most cruel expression of the inhumanity of those who set the course in US policy towards Cuba. But the Cubans also fought the food crisis. Rationing was introduced to guarantee the necessary amount of basic foods at heavily subsidised prices. Since neither pesticides nor fertilizers were available, the state began its own production, which by necessity was organic – and which today is exported to several other Latin American countries. Today, 80 percent of Cuban agriculture is purely organic. Because there was no fuel for the tractors, the oxen and horses returned to the fields, and bi-products from the sugar industry was converted to electricity at local power stations. Because the lack of food was most severe in the cities, and because of the lack of fuel for transport from the countryside, small urban kitchen gardens sprang up.

Cuban statistics speak for themselves: today the country produces 80 percent of the amount of food that had to be imported in 1991. The progress in sustainable agriculture also plays an important role in the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) countries’ co-operation with eight other Latin American countries, where for example Cuban experts help to revive Venezuelan agriculture long neglected because of that country’s oil success. Even the classic problem of migration from countryside to city is basically solved in Cuba, simply by guaranteeing farmers a decent income.

However different the histories and current situations of our countries, let us allow ourselves to be inspired by the Cuban experience. To that extent, the Danish Cuban Association invites you to participate in five different activities as part of Klimaforum 09: Search the programme for our showing of the marvellous documentary The Power of Community, conferences on Cuba’s energy revolution, organic agriculture and the ALBA, and not least the gigantic popular meeting with all nine ALBA presidents as invited speakers in Valby Hallen on 17 December.

A better world is necessary – and the Cubans know how to create it.

Here's a different take on the Cuban situation, from the US State Department:

ECONOMY

The Cuban Government continues to adhere to socialist principles in organizing its state-controlled economy. Most of the means of production are owned and run by the government and, according to Cuban Government statistics, about 75% of the labor force is employed by the state. The actual figure is closer to 93%, with some 150,000 small farmers and another 150,000 "cuentapropistas," or holders of licenses for self-employment, representing a mere 2.1% of the nearly 4.87 million-person workforce.

The Cuban economy is still recovering from a decline in gross domestic product of at least 35% between 1989 and 1993 as the loss of Soviet subsidies laid bare the economy's fundamental weaknesses. To alleviate the economic crisis, in 1993 and 1994 the government introduced a few market-oriented reforms, including opening to tourism, allowing foreign investment, legalizing the dollar, and authorizing self-employment for some 150 occupations. These measures resulted in modest economic growth; the official statistics, however, are deficient and as a result provide an incomplete measure of Cuba's real economic situation. Living conditions at the end of the decade remained well below the 1989 level. Lower sugar and nickel prices, increases in petroleum costs, a post-September 11, 2001 decline in tourism, devastating hurricanes in November 2001 and August 2004, and a major drought in the eastern half of the island caused severe economic disruptions. Growth rates continued to stagnate in 2002 and 2003, while 2004 and 2005 showed some renewed growth. Moreover, the gap in the standard of living has widened between those with access to dollars and those without. Jobs that can earn dollar salaries or tips from foreign businesses and tourists have become highly desirable. It is not uncommon to see doctors, engineers, scientists, and other professionals working in restaurants or as taxi drivers.

...

Prolonged austerity and the state-controlled economy's inefficiency in providing adequate goods and services have created conditions for a flourishing informal economy in Cuba. As the variety and amount of goods available in state-run peso stores has declined, Cubans have turned increasingly to the black market to obtain needed food, clothing, and household items. Pilferage of items from the work place to sell on the black market or illegally offering services on the sidelines of official employment is common, and Cuban companies regularly figure 15% in losses into their production plans to cover this. Recognizing that Cubans must engage in such activity to make ends meet and that attempts to shut the informal economy down would be futile, the government concentrates its control efforts on ideological appeals against theft and shutting down large organized operations. A report by an independent economist and opposition leader speculates that more than 40% of the Cuban economy operates in the informal sector. Since 2005, the government has carried out a large anti-corruption campaign as it continues efforts to recentralize much of the economy under the regime's control.

Sugar, which has been the mainstay of the island's economy for most of its history, has fallen upon troubled times. In 1989, production was more than 8 million tons, but by the mid-1990s, it had fallen to around 3.5 million tons. Inefficient planting and cultivation methods, poor management, shortages of spare parts, and poor transportation infrastructure combined to deter the recovery of the sector. In June 2002, the government announced its intention to implement a "comprehensive transformation" of this declining sector. Almost half the existing sugar mills were closed, and more than 100,000 workers were laid off. The government has promised that these workers will be "retrained" in other fields, though it is unlikely they will find new jobs in Cuba's stagnant economy. Moreover, despite such efforts, the sugar harvest continued to decline, falling to 2.1 million tons in 2003, the smallest since 1933. According to government reports, the harvest was not much better in 2004 (2.3 million tons), and continued to slide in 2005 (1.3 million tons), 2006 (1.2 million tons), and 2007 (approximately 1 million tons). According to government projections, Cuba expects to meet domestic sugar demand in 2009 for the first time after a major restructuring in 2002.

...

To help keep the economy afloat, Cuba has actively courted foreign investment, which often takes the form of joint ventures with the Cuban Government holding half of the equity, management contracts for tourism facilities, or financing for the sugar harvest. A new legal framework laid out in 1995 allowed for majority foreign ownership in joint ventures with the Cuban Government. In practice, majority ownership by the foreign partner is nonexistent. Of the 540 joint ventures formed since the Cuban Government issued the first legislation on foreign investment in 1982, 397 remained at the end of 2002, and 287 at the close of 2005. Due in large part to the government's recentralization efforts, it is estimated that one joint venture and two small cooperative production ventures have closed each week since 2000. Responding to this decline in the number of joint ventures, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Investment explained that foreign investment is not a pillar of development in and of itself. Moreover, the hostile investment climate, characterized by inefficient and overpriced labor imposed by the Communist government, dense regulations, and an impenetrable bureaucracy, continue to deter foreign investment. Foreign direct investment flows decreased from $448 million in 2000 to $39 million in 2001 and were at zero in 2002. In July 2002, the European Union, through its embassies in Havana, transmitted to the Cuban Government a document that outlined the problems encountered in operating joint ventures in Cuba. Titled "The Legal and Administrative Framework for Foreign Trade and Investment by European Companies in Cuba," the paper noted the difficulty in obtaining such basic necessities as work and residence permits for foreign employees--even exit visas and drivers licenses. It complained that the Government of Cuba gave EU joint venture partners little or no say in hiring Cuban staff, often forced the joint venture to contract employees who were not professionally suitable, and yet reserved to itself the right to fire any worker at any time without cause. It noted administrative difficulties in securing financing and warned that "the difficulties of state firms in meeting their payment obligations are seriously threatening some firms and increasing the risk premium which all operators have to pay for their operations with Cuba." The Cuban Government offered no response.

...

In an attempt to provide jobs for workers laid off due to the economic crisis and bring some forms of black market activity into more controllable channels, the Cuban Government in 1993 legalized self-employment for some 150 occupations. This small private sector is tightly controlled and regulated. Set monthly fees must be paid regardless of income earned, and frequent inspections yield stiff fines when any of the many self-employment regulations are violated. Rather than expanding private sector opportunities, in recent years, the government has been attempting to squeeze more of these private sector entrepreneurs out of business and back to the public sector. Many have opted to enter the informal economy or black market, and others have closed. These measures reduced private sector employment from a peak of 209,000 to less than 100,000. Moreover, a large number of those people who nominally are self-employed in reality are well-connected fronts for military officials. No recent figures have been made available, but the Government of Cuba reported at the end of 2001 that tax receipts from the self-employed fell 8.1% due to the decrease in the number of these taxpayers. Since October 1, 2004, the Cuban Government no longer issues new licenses for 40 of the approximately 150 categories of self-employment, including for the most popular ones, such as private restaurants.

...

HUMAN RIGHTS

Cuba's totalitarian regime controls all aspects of life through the Communist Party and its affiliated mass organizations, the government bureaucracy, and State Security Department. The latter is tasked with monitoring, infiltrating, and controlling the country's beleaguered human rights community. Despite having signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in February 2008, Cuba ignores the obligations assumed in these treaties, continuing to commit serious abuses and denying its citizens the right to change their government. Cuba is also a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and sits on the UN Human Rights Council, yet routinely arrests citizens who seek to exercise internationally recognized fundamental freedoms.

The government incarcerates people for their peaceful political beliefs or activities. The total number of political prisoners and detainees is unknown, because the government does not disclose such information and keeps its prisons off-limits to human rights organizations and international human rights monitors. There are an estimated 225 prisoners of conscience currently detained in Cuba in addition to as many as 5,000 people sentenced for "dangerousness."

The government places severe limitations on freedom of speech and press, as noted by international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Reporters Without Borders. The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press insofar as views "conform to the aims of a socialist society." In March 2008, demonstrators distributing copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were attacked by an orchestrated mob and later detained. Despite the government's decision to permit Cubans to purchase personal computers, access to the Internet is strictly controlled and given only to those deemed ideologically trustworthy; Internet restrictions were tightened further in March and April 2008 to block access by Cuban citizens to certain independent websites.

Freedom of assembly is not constitutionally guaranteed in Cuba. The law punishes unauthorized assembly of more than three persons. The government also restricts freedom of movement and prevents some citizens from emigrating because of their political views. Cubans need explicit "exit permission" from their government to leave their country, and many people are denied exit permission by the Cuban Government, despite the fact that they have received travel documents issued by other countries.


There it is, folks - "a better world is necessary – and the Cubans know how to create it". This is what reducing emissions in the developed world to Cuban levels is going to entail - living in a green sustainable totalitarian prison state just like Cuba.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

US consultants reveal Afghanistan policy: we're doomed

The website Improbable Research has posted the results of a study of Afghanistan policy conducted by a consulting firm hired by the US Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It shows a summary of the US military's plan for the stabilization and security of Afghanistan. Here's what they came up with - read it and weep. (click to enlarge)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Hideous Public Art: Copenhagen edition

Political circuses bring out the crazies - remember the anti-globalization clowns that show up at every G8 summit or the bottled-water-sipping Marxists with their giant puppets at the Republican convention in New York in 2008? These events also bring out the so-called artists who use the world media's fickle attention to showcase their meagre talents. The Copenhagen climate summit is no different, and true to form it is producing the worst kind of Hideous Public Art - the kind that's political.

Bruce Bawer, one of my favourite writers, is covering the summit for Pajamas Media. He is struck by the "Cult of the Dear Leader" vibe that is so pervasive in Copenhagen during the conference:


Of course, everything here in Copenhagen seems to be proceeding as planned. The show must go on. All over town, the message being trumpeted is the same one reiterated in Sunday’s Times: that the science of this stuff is all settled, period, and that all that remains is to act. Indeed it’s being trumpeted so loudly and ubiquitously that Copenhagen, on second thought, doesn’t feel so much like the Vatican as it does, say, Havana or Pyongyang. Stroll around awhile and you’ll keep encountering giant banners or posters or displays designed to ensure that the great unwashed don’t lose sight of the orthodoxy to which they’re expected to pay mindless obeisance. On the side of one church, for example, a banner three stories high proclaims that it’s “TIME FOR CLIMATE JUSTICE.” There are also endless outsized placards — inspired, I suspect, by Barack Obama’s campaign rhetoric – bearing the unfortunate coinage “HOPENHAGEN.” Barfsville. I don’t remember where, if anyplace, I’ve ever seen so many huge, fancy banners. Not to mention the big, splashy, World’s Fair-style displays — among them a giant globe in City Hall Park — which certainly must be using up plenty of electricity. Wasting resources is OK, it seems, when you’re engaged in a noble struggle against wasting resources.

Is it a stretch, by the way, to drag Pyongyang into this? I don’t think so. You know that famous picture of Earth at night, which shows the civilized countries ablaze with light while North Korea is pitch dark? That darkness, after all, is what these characters are proposing for all of us, and for our posterity: international agreements that would create a brave new world in which we’d sit in our feebly lit little bathrooms using one miserable square of Soviet Union-style toilet paper per visit while thinking about all the places we might be traveling to if we still had the right to fly airplanes. Meanwhile these climate kings, these would-be Masters of the Universe (and I can only hope Tom Wolfe is planning to write a novel about them at this very moment), exempt from their own draconian edicts, would continue to jet around the world on private Gulfstreams, attending one pointless conference like this one after another.
Meanwhile, the artists are hard at work. The National Gallery of Denmark is showing a collection of work called RETHINK: Contemporary Art and Climate Change which features such masterpieces as Acid Rain by Nigerian artist Bright Ugochukwu Eke. Eke's work "uses water as a metaphor for the universal source of all life":

His installation Acid Rain consists of numerous suspended, teardrop-shaped bags filled with water and carbon. The work reflects Bright’s experience with rain in polluted areas, particularly in the oil-producing regions of Nigeria.














Canada's own Bill Burns has a piece in the exhibit entitled Safety Gear for Small Animals, which consists of "safety vests, helmets, goggles and the like all scaled down to the size of mice, frogs and birds".




















The piece de resistance, though, is a massive bronze sculpture titled Survival of the Fattest, which has been erected in the harbour right next to Copenhagen's most famous landmark, the Little Mermaid.















Sculpted by Jens Galschiot, it comes with the following inscription:

I’m sitting on the back of a man.
He is sinking under the burden.
I would do anything to help him.
Except stepping down from his back
In case you didn't get the incredibly obvious symbolism, the organization responsible for the installation has this guide for the perplexed on its website:

The sculpture ’Survival of the Fattest’ is a symbol of the rich worlds (i.e. the fat woman, ‘Justitia’) self-complacent ‘righteousness’. With a pair of scales in her hand she sits on the back of starved African man (i.e. the third world), while pretending to do what is best for him.
The deliberate juxtaposition next to the Little Mermaid is also explained:

The little Mermaid is a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen and one of the most important symbols in Denmark. It is a part of the Danish idea of them selves as a small, cosy nation where the living is good, but where we are also doing our bit to help the world that surrounds us. This is, of course, only a fairytale.
Of course. The sculpture was originally displayed in London in 2004 as a symbolic protest against globalization and free trade, but hey - its all good in the fight against capitalism, right?

It's hard to parody the juvenile "symbolism for beginners" in political art like this. Artists seem to go through an obligatory anti-establishment phase as students (often while collecting state subsidies) but apparently a lot of them never grow out of it.

I'll leave the last word on Survival of the Fattest to Jesse Walker at Reason Magazine:

[The sculpture] has prompted a rather histrionic reaction from Americans for Limited Government, which declared the art "obscene," insisted that the West should be "depicted as generous benefactors" instead, and urged President Barack Obama to "demand that the statue be promptly removed." It's an odd response, given that the sculpture neatly encapsulates the developing world's objections to international climate controls. The statue shows a west that industrialized, got rich and fat, then passed rules that restrain the rest of the world; western leaders appear as hypocrites who will "do anything to help" the global poor except getting off their backs. That sounds like a call for freedom, not regulation.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Ballot initiative to ban divorce in California

"Occasional prankster" John Marcotte is making a political statement about California's recent ballot initiative banning gay marriage by collecting signatures for his own ballot initiative banning divorce. He may actually collect the 700 000 signatures necessary to get his California Marriage Protection Act put to a vote in the next election.
"If you want to protect traditional marriage, don't stop gay people from getting married," he said. "Stop straight people from getting divorced."

Watch the hilarious commercial Marcotte has produced to publicize his project:



My favourite lines: "Socialist countries like Canada condone divorce. What did we even fight the Communists in World War II for?" and "If outlawing divorce was good enough for the Babylonians, then it's good enough for California".

(HT: Jonathan Rauch)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

When health & safety committees put up Christmas trees

The town of Poole in Dorset, UK puts up a Christmas tree according to "strict health and safety guidelines":
Shoppers stared in bemusement at the mysterious object that landed in a shopping precinct in Poole, Dorset, this week. Some compared it to a giant traffic cone, a witch’s hat or a cheap special effect from an early episode of Doctor Who.

The 33ft structure turned out to be their Christmas tree, designed according to the principles of health and safety, circa 2009.

Thus it has no trunk so it won’t blow over, no branches to break off and land on someone’s head, no pine needles to poke a passer-by in the eye, no decorations for drunken teenagers to steal and no angel, presumably because it would need a dangerously long ladder to place it at the top.

(HT: Reason Hit & Run)

Uganda determined to enter a new Dark Age?

David Link comments on Uganda's proposed law to criminalize homosexuality:
Uganda is determined to uncivilize itself and head straight into a new Dark Age by formally and explicitly criminalizing an offense they call homosexuality. In fact, the bill, itself, says that current law is defective because it “. . .has no comprehensive provision catering for [sic] anti homosexuality.”

The bill’s single-minded focus on punishing homosexuality is breathtaking. The mere intention to commit homosexuality will expose the offender to life imprisonment. The law also prohibits and punishes speaking publicly in favor of gay rights in any form. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a progressive dream by comparison.

But even that is not enough for this thuggish piece of aggression. Anyone who even knows about someone who is gay has an obligation to turn them in – whether it’s a family member, a dear friend or a stranger. Failure to do that is also a punishable offense.

All of this arises from the premise that homosexuality, by itself, is an “offence.” Once that is established in the law, everything else flows from it. The power of the state to protect citizens from danger is called into play in all its majesty and force, up to and including making sure that citizens who are not themselves homosexual must report to the authorities any real or suspected violations. This is how genocides start.

Calling the bill “retrograde” seems wildly inadequate. The modern world has come so far on gay equality, and this detestable and gruesome scheme looks like a sick joke.

Hats off to Prime Minister Harper for expressing outrage to the Ugandan government on Canada's behalf at the recent Commonwealth summit in Trinidad:
Harper told reporters he met privately with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni during the Commonwealth leaders' summit to express "Canada's deep concern and strong opposition to the bill."

"We deplore these kinds of measures," said Harper. "We find them inconsistent with any reasonable understanding of human rights."