Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Edward Snowden and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois

Went to see Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden, last night.  Definitely worth the detour.  Snowden, you'll remember, is the young US cyber whiz who was employed by the National Security Agency and blew the whistle on the vast network of cyber spying governments are now involved in.

He was 29 when he broke into public, and seems an earnest, extremely articulate and intellent guy.  Full of principles too.  As such he reminds me of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the 24 year old Quebec student leader who won the Governor General's award for non-fiction last week and on the weekend launched a campaign to counter propaganda in favour of various oil pipelines. They even look a little alike.

Of course, that may merely be due to the fact that skinny young white guys with half shaved beards can't help but resemble each other.  But it would be nice if there were a whole lot more people like them willing to stand up when it's important.

(And one more thing: this old lady finally learned something all the rest of you know: how they all keep their stubble at the proper length.  At one point in the film, Snowden says he can't shave off his beard entirely because he hasn't got the right razor head.  Okay, I guess you're allowed to be a little concerned about your appearance if you're also so straight up about more important things.)

Saturday (or Tuesday) Photo: Brasília

A year ago I was in South America, doing the last bit of on-the-spot research for Road through Time.  The photo is of the cathedral designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the Brazilian Capital, Brasília.  The building is spectacular, but like much of the city, hasn't aged very well. 

Why that's so is one of the things I want to talk about in the new book, but I haven't got there yet. Because the subject is vast--roads as vectors for change and exchange--it's taking me a long way to get from the first roads taken by humans in Africa and out of that continent to populate the world.  I've just finished a chapter called "Mysterious Roads" about the paths taken into the Americas by First Nations.  The next one is called "The Revenge of the Roads" and begins with a comparison between the wonderful Inka Road in South America and the Spanish Road, which Phillip II of Spain ordered to be built from Milan to Flanders.  Needless to say,   the Inka one was much better in the period.

All this is a way of explaining why I haven't been posting very much lately.  Too many things going on, too many trails to explore...

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Saturday Photo: Springtime in the Andes

Just a year ago I was on a plane on my way to my excellent South American adventure.  That's the view as we neared the crest of a 4200 meter pass in Peru, and the bus that took me from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado.  The road we were traveling was the Estrada do Pacifico.  Following it (which has more than one name along its length,) you can go from the Atlantic to the Pacific over the Andes and into the Amazon basin. 

Right now I'm a little more than half way through a first draft of the book that I was researching on the trip, Road through Time.  The next chapter will talk about the Inca road as well as the very bad roads that existed in the 16th and 17th century in Europe.  I've got a ways to go before I make it to the present!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Red Poppies: Wars Are Eternal

Today is Remembrance Day, but I'll not be wearing a red poppy.  It's fine to honour the dead, but not to glorify war.

So I'm posting here a picture I took last summer in Portugal.  The poppies were growing in a field near the old Roman town of Conímbriga which was abandoned to attackers about 300 AD. 

Conímbriga's ruins are spectacular and definitely worth a detour.  The fact that poppies grow in distrubed soil nearby just testifies to the way that wars go on and on.

Saturday Photo: Champlain's Asters

After much back and forth, it looks like the new bridge across the St. Lawrence is not going to be named after a hockey hero.  There's even a  chance that it will bear the name of Samuel de Champlain like the existing one.  Stephen Harper may not like it that a French explorer got here first, and  in his campaign to tie Canada more closely to the British tradition, but he can't deny that fact.

Champlain was much more than just a dude who sailed around and claimed territory though.  In his 27 voyages across the Atlantic, he produced amazingly accurate maps, and also brought back much flora from the New World to France.  Among them were samples of the lovely asters that bloom at the end of summer. 

I'm not sure of exactly which of the many native varieties bloomed in our yard until a few days ago, but I love them.  Champlain probably did too.

Monday, 3 November 2014

School Boards: Do They Respond to Educational Reality?

Voter turn-out for school board elections in Quebec yesterday was abysmal, particularly in Francophone boards.  While about 20 per cent of English school board electors voted, province-wide it appears that an even smaller percentage voted than the 8 per cent turn out four years ago.

This is pretty pathetic,  and the current Liberal government is going to use it as another reason to change the way schools are governed dramatically.  Whether the boards will be completely eliminated is unclear, but certainly there is going to be more centralization in the system.

How good public schools are is important to everyone in society, not just those who have kids.  Schools prepare the future, and if they aren't doing a good job, well, we're in real trouble.  The thing is that in Quebec, by many criteria they're doing not badly

What is is going to make them better is not direction from the top, I'm pretty sure.  Local communities must be involved too, and eliminating school boards or drastically decreasing their number is not likely to do that.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Saturday (or Friday) Photo: Smashing Pumpkins, Eh? (In the British Sense of Smashing)!

Sophie took this photo Sunday night just after Jeanne, Thomas and their mothers, plus Grandma had spent a great hour making pumpkins. 

The gang will be Jeanne's house tonight.  They'll visit a few neighbors and then hand out goodies.  She's been convinced to wear a tiger costume over her winter coat for the trick or treating, but she'll have on the great princess/fairy costume inside.  Thom will be a fireman, although, at two,  he only has a fuzzy idea about what's up.

Grandma and Grandpa will take a pass though.  Got to keep up on our reading, including this essay on  capitalism, zombies and vampires in The New York Times.  It comes highly recommended by our friend Sid Ingerman, but for the life of me I can't figure out what it's about.  Maybe I've turned hollow-headed like a Jack o'Lantern.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Recession Has Increased Child Poverty, Unicef Report Says

The statistics are dire: The eight years since things went belly-up in 2008 have been terrible on children in many, many countries.  But it's clear that many people are going to see in them what they want.

The CBC reports: "Canada's child poverty rate down despite recession."

The Guardian says: "Child poverty up in more than half of developed world since 2008."

And the UN agency's own release states: "2.6 million more children plunged into poverty in rich countries during Great Recession"

What has happened is that where austerity measures were put into place, children have suffered because their parents frequently did not have enough money to feed them and because the social safety net put up in the last 25 years was torn down.

"Many affluent countries have suffered a ‘great leap backwards’ in terms of household income, and the impact on children will have long-lasting repercussions for them and their communities,”  Jeffrey O’Malley, UNICEF’s Head of Global Policy and Strategy, was quoted in the Unicef release.  It continues:

 "In 23 of the 41 countries analysed, child poverty has increased since 2008. In Ireland, Croatia, Latvia, Greece and Iceland, rates rose by over 50 per cent.
"In Greece in 2012 median household incomes for families with children sank to 1998 levels – the equivalent of a loss of 14 years of income progress. By this measure Ireland, Luxembourg and Spain lost a decade; Iceland lost 9 years; and Italy, Hungary and Portugal lost 8...  

"In the United States, where extreme child poverty has increased more in this downturn than during the recession of 1982, social safety net measures provided important support to poor working families but were less effective for the extreme poor without jobs. Child poverty has increased in 34 out of 50 states since the start of the crisis. In 2012, 24.2 million children were living in poverty, a net increase of 1.7 million from 2008.
"But in 18 countries child poverty actually fell, sometimes markedly. Australia, Chile, Finland, Norway, Poland and the Slovak Republic reduced levels by around 30 per cent."

 Canada was one of them: the decline was 2.4 per cent, from 23.2 per cent to 20.8 per cent.

But before Canadians should pat themselves on the back for that relatively good showing, we should note that a bigger proportion of Canadian kids are poor than are French kids, even though the child poverty rate increased by 3 per cent there to 18.6 per cent of children are classifed as poor. 

Similarly, the social safety net that has sustained our kids is being threatened by provincial and federal governments who still have got the message that austerity makes things worse.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Pure Laine Terrorists, Or Why a Little Religious Education Never Hurts

I have no way of knowing if the two troubled young men who took down Canadian soldiers this week had any kind of religious education as children.  Given their age, they probably were exposed to a bit of Catholicism in school, since when they were little kids, Quebec schools boards were set up on religious lines.  The change  to a language based system came in 1997, although a certain amount of teaching about religion--as opposed to teaching religion itself--remains in a compulsary ethics and religious culture course.

The school commission reorganization was something I advocated when our kids were little: schools should be neutral when it comes to religion, I think.  But teaching kids about religions is important, as is touching base with whatever religious heritage a family has.  That's why we started taking our kids to Sunday School when the oldest was about five.  For  a couple of years I'd see them into the church basement and then go read in the library until they were done.

The result was that both of them have an appreciation of the more attractive tenents of Christianity and a good moral compass even though they are far from being believers. But that's it. 

In contrast the shooters seemed to have had  holes in their spirits that cried out to be filled by religion.   Their psychological problems resonated with the appeal of radical Islam.  

There is no way of knowing if exposure in a positive way to religion in their families would have made a difference.  But I think that kind of education should be considered seriously by all parents.  Look at it as vaccination against fanaticism, less painful but more time-consuming that the shots that keep our kids from getting diseases.