Monthly Archives: December 2012

A Council Christmas Carol – part 1


STAVE ONE.

Winter driving

It was one of those long winter days. I was back in town late, that Thursday, well after dark, driving down the main street watching the heavy snow cover the road and sidewalks. I’d been out of town almost the whole day, entombed in various meetings. Too much time spent driving to and fro, too much coffee, junk food, and not enough exercise. I was tired, hungry, cranky and not at all in the holiday season spirit. All I wanted to do was get home and get into bed.

But first I had to pick up the agenda from town hall. The weather over the next few days was going to be rough and I didn’t want to venture out again until the storm cleared up. I pulled into a parking space nearby and got out. Stumbling over the snowbank, I walked through ankle-deep snow to the entrance. Humbug to the snow, humbug to the cold, humbug to the decorations that graced the downtown. I flashed my key card and opened the locked door.

Damn, it was dark inside. I opened the doorway to the stairwell and flicked the switch. Nothing. Power must have gone out. Well, there were still streetlights on, so it wasn’t pitch black. Except in the stairwell, of course. Nothing I could do about it. I knew the lay of the building well enough that I could feel my way upstairs and to the council room with no problem, if I was careful and slow. I stumbled a bit, but soon reached the second floor and was pawing through the piles of paper in my mail box.

The agenda was there, and it felt to be about 200 pages thick. I groaned. That defined what I’d be doing all weekend: reading and making my notes for Monday’s council meeting. That and shovelling my driveway.

In the feeble light from the street, I could barely make out a the dense type on the front page of the agenda. It promised to be a long meeting. They’d been getting that way, of late. The thick brown envelope under the agenda told me a lengthy in-camera meeting would follow. I sighed and gathered up the paperwork.

I was just about to leave and work my way back downstairs when I heard an odd sound. Metal on metal, a dull but substantial clinking, followed by a dragging sound. What the hell? There wasn’t supposed to be anyone in the building at this time of night, aside from the odd councillor coming to check his mail box. Intruder? I patted my pocket and realized I had left my Blackberry in the car. Couldn’t even call the police. I quietly slipped into the hall, listening to hear the sound again.

Clank, clank. There it was, coming, it seemed, from the council chamber. Something being dragged across the carpet. That puzzled me. There’s nothing valuable in there, not even a mayor’s gavel. Maybe a bottle of well-past-its-best-before-date hot sauce in my drawer, hardly worth breaking and entering for. We all take our computers home – what’s there to steal? I decided to confront whoever it was.

Clank, sssscrape…. clank…. sssscrape… clank….

Now I’m not a superstitious guy, but the hairs on the back of my neck stood up at that sound. It was just too weird. An odd, eerie sound that brought goosebumps.Like someone was dragging heavy chains across the chamber. Or maybe the special effects sounds from a George Romero movie. And then I heard the moan, a low, rasping sound, forced through the tortured lungs of something not quite human. My thoughts turned rapidly from fight to flight.

The Ghost of VOTEBut it was too late. To my shock and horror a luminous shape oozed into the hallway, right through the closed door, barely two meters from where I stood. I dropped my jaw and my bundles of papers as I stood, transfixed. A ghost! I had actually encountered a ghost! Man, did I have a lot of apologizing to do to those psychics I had humiliated in so many blog posts.

The figure coalesced slowly into a ragged spectre of a man, manacled hand and foot and dragging what seemed to be metres of heavy chain. But since I could see through him, I suspected those chains weren’t heavy in my world, just in his spiritual plane.

He was short. Not very imposing for a denizen of the spirit world, and he was wearing a white turtle-neck sweater under a faded blue sports jacket that sported a prominent lapel button with the words, “Harper: 2008″ written on it.

Coun…sssssilorrrrrrrrrrrrr…. Chadwickkkkk…..,” the apparition hissed as he pointed a scrawny hand at my chest.

“Wh… wh… wh….” I stammered, struggling to remember those meditation exercises about deep breathing. Wasn’t working very well. Must have missed a lesson. I gulped some air and tried to calm down under the chilling influence of his death-cold eyes. “What do you want from me?”

Muchhhhhhhhhhh!” It was a vaguely familiar voice, no doubt about it. Even the face was almost, but not quite recognizable. Was this the spirit of someone I knew? Or was I imagining the likeness to someone living? It was hard to tell, with all that glow-in-the-dark makeup.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Assssk me who I wassss…ssss….sss.”

“What?”

Assssk me who I wassss!

“Uh, look, I’m sorry, but it’s hard to understand you. I think it’s the reverb in your voice. Can you tone it down a bit? Otherwise we’ll be here all night, you saying something, me saying what, you repeating yourself.”

“Ask me who I was. Is that better?”

“Yeah, thanks. You’re a bit odd, for a shade, you know. I expected someone… taller. Okay, I’ll bite. Who were you?” I raised my voice, feeling a little more confidence.

“In life, I was your conscience, Councillor Chadwick. These days I am the ghossssst of… councilssss passsst….” the spirit said.

“There’s that reverb thing again. I’m losing you.”

“Sorry. It’s part of the package. Can you hear me now?”

“Perfectly. Look, I don’t think my conscience has died.I clearly recall using it recently in a vote over a casino.”

“Gaming facility,” the spirit corrected. “Slot barn. Hardly a casino.”

“Whatever. Look, I’m pretty sure I still have mine and even if it’s buried deep in this black heart of a politician, It wouldn’t leave me without a significant bribe, and to date I haven’t managed to get as much as a cup of coffee from a developer. So who are you really?”

“I am the ghost of many who kept our councils on the straight and narrow. We held you accountable, we held your feet to the political fire. We made public your sins. We could have been your salvation, had you heeded us.”

“Ah, a ratepayer’s group. You mean VOTE, don’t you? Humbug. Weren’t you simply a special interest group created to get a slate of politicians elected to council one year?”

“That, too,” the spirit admitted with a small shrug, then raised a crooked finger towards the ceiling. “But we served a loftier purpose as well. Good governansssssssss… was our true mandate”

“Let’s agree to disagree on that point. Okay, so spirits walk the earth. Why come to me?”

“It is required of every politician,” the Ghost returned, waving his chained arms over his head and rattling them, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to due process!”

“I think you’ve got the wrong politician. I’m on municipal council. I don’t have the expense account to travel far and wide. Ottawa is as far as I’ve ever gone. I think you want our Member of Parliament. MPs get to go to China and India. They buy fighter jets.  We buy buses. Let me give you her address.” I patted my pocket for my missing Blackberry.

Again the spectre raised a cry; it shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.

“Okay, okay. Sorry to disappoint you,” I said, still trembling a bit at that soul-searing sound. “Listen, what’s with the chains?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?

“Well, it kind of looks like the mayor’s chain of office, if you bought it in the dollar store that is. But every link has the letters O, A and T on  it. Some sort of cereal?”

Every politician has to carry a chain like this as heavy and as long as they have served their own self-interest. It is a ponderous chain!

“They stand for Openness, Accountability and Transparency” replied the Ghost. “Every politician has to carry a chain like this as heavy and as long as they have served their own self-interest. It is a ponderous chain!”

“Ponderous. I like that word. reminds me of a public planning meeting. So you were you a politician in your past life. From a former council, perhaps? Did you ever donate $100 to cover a ratepayer’s group’s legal bills when they were suing the town? Or maybe you were a real estate agent? They’re always caught up in conflict of interest and haunting the halls while council debates a land sale. ”

“I have at sat the table,” the Ghost replied. “I have served the public interest, but served my own agendas as well. And for that, I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. Weary journeys lie before me!”

I put my hands in my pants pockets as I pondered what the ghost had said. “You must have been very clumsy about it,” I observed,” Sounds like you got caught with your hands in the cookie jar. Or maybe the voters realized who you were and chucked you out of office. Pursing personal agendas too aggressively will do that.”

At that, the spirit cried in anguish and rattled his chains so loudly it made me step back. “You’re not making me feel good about this meeting, spirit. Haven’t you got anything positive to say?”

“I have none,” the Ghost replied, shaking his head. “I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere.”

“Ex-politicians have that effect on people,” I answered. The spirit nodded glumly.

“Well, you certainly took your time about it. Haunting town hall, I mean,” I observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference, in case the spirit had something more than just noisy lamentations for me.

“Took me time!” the Ghost repeated with an edge to his voice.

“Well face, it. VOTE imploded four or five years ago,” I responded. “Pretty much everyone left; just a half-dozen of diehards stuck it out to the bitter end. I don’t think anyone around here even remembers them by name these days. A few of us recall the police investigation, of course. Gets a chuckle when you’re swapping stories at the AMO conference.”

“The whole time since,” said the Ghost. “I have had no rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse.”

“I get that remorse thing if you’re talking about last term,” I said. “But it must have been pretty quiet this term. We’re behaving well at council.”

“You wish,” replied the Ghost. “Why do you think I’m here in the dead of winter? I could be haunting someone in Florida, you know.”

“Come on,” I said. “You can’t have that many issues to raise with us. We’ve been sticking pretty close to the procedural bylaw. Hardly an in-camera meeting worth mentioning. Oath of office is still shiny and nary a spot of tarnish on it. Not like last term. Not a single incident of spying on council emails has raised its head.”

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the bylaw officers, should they have been present, would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.

Oh! Political fool, bound, and double-ironed! You not know the ages of incessant labour by immoral creatures in whose footsteps you tread

“Oh! Political fool, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “You not know the ages of incessant labour by immoral creatures in whose footsteps you tread, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of your kind is developed. Not to know that any councillor working in your own little sphere will find your mortal life too short for your vast avarice. No space of regret can make amends for one life’s dedicated to self-interest!”

“You remind me of someone who set council’s gold standard for personal agendas.” I said. “Can you imagine putting political junk mail from your party of choice on the consent agenda? Gotta be a low, even for a politician. Immoral creatures that we are.”

“Personal agenda!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my agenda. The common welfare was my agenda; I lived only to educate the masses in the higher meaning of wholesome ideologies.”

“Uh, yeah. I read the party platform. It came in the mail. Went right into the blue bin. Sorry.”

The spirit held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”

“I will,” I said. “But get to the point! Don’t be so flowery!”

“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell,” the spirit said with a slow sigh. “I have sat invisible beside you, beside all of council, during many and many a meeting.”

It was not an agreeable idea. I shivered, thinking of those dead eyes peering at my laptop screen while a meeting progressed. At least I wasn’t caught playing solitaire during a council meeting. “Even the in camera stuff?”

“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A slim chance.”

“Ever wonder how a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing?” I asked.

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by three spirits.”

“Come on! What sort of chance is that? I need to get home and get dinner. Besides I don’t want to miss tonight’s episode of Downton Abby. Can’t it wait until next weekend?

“No way, José. This weekend it is. Time of the year for epiphanies, and all that.”

“I—I think I’d rather not,” I picked up the papers from the hall floor and tucked them under my arm. “There are eight others at the table, surely one of them isn’t planning anything tonight. What about the DM? He deserves a good haunting, don’t you think?”

“Without their visits,” continued the Ghost, ignoring my protests, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls one.”

“The bell tolls? Where do you get this script? Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and get it over with?”

“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate.”

“I have a digital clock. It doesn’t vibrate. Unless you mean my Blackberry. Look, that’s three late nights. I’m not a spring chicken any more. If I don’t get my full eight hours of shut-eye and I’m cranky for the rest of the day. These friends of yours won’t like me if I’m cranky.”

“Look to see me no more,” the Ghost answered. “For your own sake, remember what has passed between us!”

“Like I could forget a memorable evening like this.”

“You think the public will re-elect a smart-ass? Keep it up and I’ll write nasty things about you on my blog.”

When it had said these words, the spectre walked backward from me; and at every step it took, the door to the council chamber opened itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open.

It beckoned me to approach, which I did. When we were within two paces of each other, the Ghost held up its hand, warning me to come no nearer.

I stopped. Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of that hand, I heard a babble of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated into the dark Chamber.

I followed to the door, desperate in my curiosity, and looked in.

The air around the room was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like the Ghost who had spoken with me; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Some I personally recognized as former mayors and councillors; others I knew only by their photographs that line the hall near the mayor’s office. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good or worse, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

I knew that feeling. I had served on  council long enough to know what impotence meant, in a metaphorical sense anyway. Was this my fate? To forever haunt the council chambers quoting lines from the Municipal Act? I left the door, hurried down the stairs, and out of doors, not caring if I tripped in the dark. I really needed to get home. And get a stiff drink once I arrived.

To be continued…

Gambling and the local economy part 2


MoneySeventy three dollars. It’s not a large amount if you’re middle class, certainly not if you’re Conrad Black. But for others it can be significant. If you’re on minimum wage, it’s a full day’s wage, before taxes. If you’re a senior on a fixed income, it’s a week’s groceries.

It’s also the average amount a typical gambler spends at one time in a gaming facility in Ontario, according to the answers I got from my questions sent months ago to the OLG. The clerk gave me their answers last night, only after the discussion about extending the OLG deadline.

Seventy three dollars. It will get spent in 1.75 hours; the average length of a visit to a casino. That’s about $41 an hour.

When multiplied by 12.8, it totals $934.40. Twelve-point-eight is the average number of times a typical gambler visits a gaming facility in a year. The average gambler will spend almost $1,000 every year in a gaming facility.

Again, it’s not a stunning amount. If you have some discretionary income, it’s equivalent to a mid-level laptop computer, an iPad maxed out with all the accessories, a good, flat-screen TV, a good custom-made ukulele, a case of premium scotch or tequila. An air flight to Mexico or Cuba. Or for others, it’s a month’s rent. Three months’ car payments. Groceries for a family for two months, maybe longer. 

Problem gamblingConsider the potential problem gamblers here in Collingwood. I estimated them to be about 700 people in my last blog post on gambling, based on the percentages OLG provides.

Multiply 700 by $934.40 and you get more than $654,000.

Assuming these 700 people attend a local gaming facility (a windowless warehouse with up to 300 slot machines – the OLG gets prickly if you refer to them as “slot barns”), and spend the same amount as average gamblers, Collingwood’s problem gamblers could spend $654,080 a year in a gaming facility. But of course, they will probably spend more, because they’re problem gamblers. I’ll come back to that.

And what about those others who are  not problem gamblers yet, but are “at risk” from becoming problem gamblers? That’s about 1,200 more local people. If they are also “average” gamblers, they will spend about $1.2 million annually in the facility.

Add these two groups together – the smallest percentage of gamblers but the most problematic – and they will collectively spend almost $2 million a year in a local gaming facility. That’s money not going into the local economy.

Well, okay, five percent of it will come back to us: the town will get about $93,000 from our problem gamblers. For every ‘average” person who attends a potential gaming facility, the town will get $49. Win or lose, we tax you for playing.

Let’s say our problem gamblers spend the same amount per hour ($41), but stay three hours per visit, instead of the average 1.75. That means they could spend about $125 per visit, or $1,600 a year – about $1.12 million a year for those 700 people. And then there are those “potential problem gamblers…” If they spend 3 hours per stay, we get more than $3.1 million spent by 2,000 Collingwood residents.

You can endlessly speculate on these figures, guessing how much people will spend versus how much intervention a gaming facility will use to keep them out. There’s no concrete number we can use, no absolute figures. Just realize that the potential exists for local residents to spend a lot of money gambling.

Personally, I would rather see that money spent at local stores, eating at local restaurants, buying food, furniture, books, musical instruments, cameras, clothing, pet supplies… but with the OLG launching online gambling n 2013, the money may be spent outside local businesses even without a slot warehouse in town.

You can use these numbers to work out a few possible numbers about attendance. If, as the OLG suggests, the town might get $1 to $2 million a year, a gaming facility would need to bring in between $19 and $38 million a year for us to get our rake-off.*

To get $19 million, at the average $934 a year, you need more than 20,000 people gambling there every year. You need more than 40,000 to get $38 million. To get the unsupported-by-OLG-but-often-quoted-locally figure of $3 million per year to the town, you need to have 60,000 “average” gamblers annually.

That’s a lot of wear and tear on our infrastructure. Twenty thousand more cars a year on the highway and on local roads. Or forty, even sixty thousand. And more…

Twenty thousand people at a year-round slot barn averages to 55 people a day. Not very many, especially for 300 slot machines. Forty thousand means 110 gamblers a day. But of course the visits will not be homogenized, but bunched at holidays and weekends (yes, these facilities are open Christmas and Easter…).

And of course averages are just snapshots of the middle ground. there will be people who spend less, other who will spend more. Some will come for a couple of hours of entertainment and spend $25. Others will spend a full day in front of a machine pumping quarters into its ever-hungry mouth.

A municipality needs to plan for the days when the slot warehouse will be full, with people coming and going 24 hours a day. We’ll need every penny of that revenue to upgrade and widen roads, install traffic lights, hire more police and bylaw officers to control parking and speeding…

I have yet to be convinced by any argument that a “gaming facility” offers any significant benefits to the town aside from a handful of hospitality-sector jobs.

Gambling cycle
~~~~~

* According to the OLG, it already takes approx. $6 million a year in Collingwood from net sales of lottery tickets at the 22 locations that sell them here. This would be on top of that.

 

Lost Worlds, Lost Words


Samuel JohnsonMoidered. It sounds like something from the Three Stooges. Or maybe something Tony Soprano would say.”I moidered him.”  But it actually means “crazed,” according to Samuel Johnson in his famous dictionary of 1755. It’s long since left  the stage of English usage.

Scan down another few inches and you’ll find “mome.” No, not “mome, mome on the range” or a reference to Mitt Romney’s bizarre religion. Mome means, “a dull, stupid blockhead” according to Johnson. I can think of a use for that right now. Some words deserve to be resurrected.

Johnson’s wasn’t the first dictionary of English – that honour goes back to The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knight, in 1538. That was a Latin-English dictionary. It wasn’t until 1604 that an English-English dictionary was published: Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall. Others followed between Cawdrey and Johnson. Many have been published since. But Johnson’s was the first truly scholarly and standardized dictionary. He backed up his list of almost 43,000 words with 114,000 quotations. It took him nine years to complete it.*

Words come into and go from English like species in Darwin’s evolving, ever-changing universe. It’s fascinating to go back even a half-century to see what we’ve lost, and to wonder what will happen to the everyday words we use today in another generation or two. It’s one of the reasons I delight in finding books and websites dedicated to forgotten words; it’s like a doorway into a lost world.**

Just flipping through the pages of Johnson’s magnificent work, I find a wealth of words that no longer find a place in our modern language and yet they are so delightful I want to find a use for them in my conversations:

  • Amatorculist
  • Amaritude
  • Bibacious
  • Consopiation
  • Enubilate
  • Flexanimous
  • Pauciloquy
  • Ruricolist
  • Runnion
  • Tremulent
  • Welkin

and many, many more. Of the above, only welkin appears in my recent edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the only one I recognized from that list. I’ll leave it up to you to learn about them and uncover their meaning.

I’d love to be able to write about the consopiation of viewers watching council on TV.

None of these terms appear in either of Jeffrey Kacirk’s two books on forgotten words (Forgotten English and The Word Museum). I have not yet checked Erin McKean’s two-volumes, however (Weird and Wonderful Words and Totally Weird and Wonderful Words) or some of the other, similar books in my library (like Shakespeare’s Words, which is also fun to peruse, although limited to that period and place in English literature and history).

The COED has its share of words that are either uncommon in modern use or are regional terms seldom heard here in Canada. These include (gathered in under 10 minutes of browsing last night):

  • Boffin
  • Bootblack
  • Flibbertigibbet
  • Lucubrate
  • Noddle
  • Offing
  • Puncheon
  • Quidnunc
  • Socage
  • Younker

I actually know most of them, although predominantly from my reading older works rather than from conversation; I doubt any of them are destined to remain in modern dictionaries for much longer. How many people speak of “in the offing” these days? Or call room service for a “bootblack” at a hotel? But flibbertigibbet still deserves to hang around and might find its way into some future blog commentary about local events.

There are many sites about lost words aside from Kacirk’s (linked above): for a sampling, read 20 obsolete words that deserve to make a comeback for a few, or favourite forgotten words, 20 forgotten words,  30 words, and difficult words (not so much forgotten, but it contains many words not in common use). And then, once your appetite is whetted, Google for more. Or get your own copy of Johnson and dive in.

 ~~~~~

* Reading Johnson’s dictionary today is both a delight and a challenge. He was prone to mix his own comments and apply his wit to his definitions, and to sometimes guess at etymologies (often wildly). That makes it an entertaining read. However, in the original, it’s a bit of a slog for modern readers: the typography is antiquated, with ligatures not common in today’s typesetting, and it uses the extended s that looks like an f (so fishing looks like fifhing and song becomes fong,  which always made reading Izaac Walton in the original tough going).

You can download the original in PDF format at archive.org and work through the 2,300 pages onscreen (remember to download both volumes), or you can purchase a reprint (about $60 for both volumes) from Amazon. I suggest one of the modern abridgments. I like Jack Lynch’s 640-page version, but at 3,100 definitions it has a mere tenth of Johnson’s original work. Lynch’s notes and introduction are, however, invaluable.

** You should also try reading Chaucer in his original, Middle English. It’s a challenge, but for anyone interested in language, it’s also a voyage of discovery. A glossary is necessary, however.

Conspiracies, Secret Meetings and Backroom Deals


Conspiracy theoriesAs the year comes to a close, I think it’s about time I ‘fessed up about the conspiracies, secret meetings, backroom deals, hidden commissions and other underhanded dealings council has had this term.

There haven’t been any.

Sorry about that. I know how many people have built little, angry sand castles out of the notion we have been secretly plotting in backrooms and handing out commission cheques like drunken pirates on a shore leave, but the simple truth is that we haven’t.

I know, I know, that ruins the whole conspiracy theory thing for some folks. I might as well have said UFO abductions aren’t real or that homeopathy isn’t medicine.

I can only offer a glimmer of hope that we still have two years left to go, so there’s still a chance we might fail to live up to our oath of office in future. A slim chance, mind you, but those odds don’t stop people from buying lottery tickets.

Take the terminals, for example. It’s a lot more fun to imagine nefarious deals struck in the dark corners of the silos (Who handed them the keys? Who took their dollar? Whose idea was this? Dorothy, I’ve got your dog….) than to believe we met in camera to deal with the rather mundane but lengthy process of due diligence, replete with sleep-inducing discussions over convoluted contracts, terms, liability and finances. It takes the glow off everything when our dark secret involves advice from the town’s real estate brokers and legal opinions about selling an old, creaky industrial building (and all the liability and complexity that a brownfield-cum-heritage site on the waterfront entails).

Could some of that have been discussed in the open? Perhaps a little. But it’s not so easy to extract those fragments of property matters from the rest, and sometimes it’s hard to tell until after a discussion whether all of it needed to be in camera. If I failed to stop the meeting so we could rise to public session to debate, say, the condition of the roof, and then retreat back in camera to continue with the rest, I apologize. It wasn’t done to hide anything, just that the discussion moved quickly and most issues were properly dealt with in camera.

I understand that from the outside, it may look like we’re doing the double-double-toil-and-trouble routine in the “cone of silence” but all we were doing is just treading the slow path of bureaucracy and legality, under the watchful eyes of staff (who wield a rather mean Municipal Act when we stray). We call it “due diligence.”

It must disappoint a few readers that this council has had a LOT fewer closed-door meetings than last council, where it seemed sometimes, we were closeted for hours at a time, every Monday. The prosaic but dull truth is that as the municipal government, we have issues we need to discuss in camera and the Municipal Act clearly lays them out. Just read the Act.

Conspiracy theory 2Are their malevolent lobbyists scurrying around in the shadows, twisting our arms to broker their deals, perhaps mesmerizing us with under-the-table gifts so we vote a certain way? Another apology. I know that some of you really want to believe that, but not one councillor I have spoken to was approached a single time or lobbied over any decision we’ve made at the table. As for gifts, I have yet to be bought a coffee by a lobbyist, let alone a yacht or a Mediterranean cruise.

We’re anachronisms, it seems, by today’s political standards: tediously honest and boringly dedicated.

And the town didn’t cut anyone a cheque for those services or sales. No commission cheques. That must burst a few bubbles, and not the ice rink-swimming pool kind. I know you won’t rest easy until you can lift every rock and uncover something untoward, but so far that search has proven as barren of life as the soils of Mars. Just because it never happened shouldn’t stop anyone from filing a Freedom of Information request, if you need the reassurance. Again.

Backroom deals? You mean the “barbeque politics” where we do the nudge-nudge-wink-wink over a beer and a slap on the back? Haven’t been any that I’ve been invited to. I’ve had coffee a few mornings with one or two councillors, and we’ve exchanged personal thoughts on agenda items and municipal matters, but two or even three  councillors meeting at public places is a pretty thin context for a conspiracy, let alone a coup. We’re having all of our “awkward discussions” in public, at the table, I’m afraid, not in cliques.

Yes, we’ve stumbled here and there over procedural issues and we’re not always good at communicating with the public. We’re so eager to get things done, and move on, that we might appear hasty to some people. Overall, those are minor faults; they don’t exactly point to a cabal of malfeasant councillors scheming and plotting for personal gain. By and large this is a good, effective, council.

For those of you who like to dabble in conspiracy theories, I’m afraid this council is a disappointment. You won’t get much satisfaction from us this term. But take heart: all is not lost, You still have the Mayan Apocalypse to look forward to.

America’s Intolerant WBC Fundamentalists



I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I watched this. laugh because Russell Brand* just runs circles around these guys from the Westboro Church and they don’t seem to realize when they are being mocked. Fish in a barrel, I suppose. Cry because they obviously believe their hatred; they obviously believe that their narrow, bigoted and violent take on their scriptures is not only right, but the only one. I don’t think they got the message Brand was trying to push on them: they are too righteous in their prejudice for alternative ideas. Or maybe they do and they just don’t care because mockery doesn’t synch with their rigid ideology.

This is hardly new stuff, of course. Michael Moore did a piece on the Westboro Church’s religious hatred towards gays back in 2008, again with his usual humour and in-your-face tactics:

This morning I did some researching online. I was surprised that I knew so little about a group that has had so much attention given to it.

Before this video, I had paid little attention to the Westboro church. I had seen the name in news items, of course, but since they protest in the USA, I didn’t give them a second thought. I recall they hate Canada too, and most were barred at the border from entering this country to protest at a funeral of a man slain on a bus in Manitoba. Being kept out made the church very angry about the “faggy-Nazi regime” in Canada:

I’m not sure why the Westboro Baptist Church spews all this hatred, but there are dozens of videos about them on YouTube, including some disturbing documentary stuff. These folks are scary in the way the KKK, or the Neo Nazis and the Aryan Brotherhood are scary, but even more dangerous. They almost make Scientologists look normal, and you have to be pretty far out on the fringe to do that.

The church has long been subject to reporting, study, commentary, analysis and conjecture. And a lot of ridicule, anger and even hatred, especially online. But I didn’t find a lot that explained them.

In 2001, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote about the church’s late pastor and founder, stating that (based on testimony from his own children) Fred Phelps was abusive, violent and manipulative:

In a series of newspaper and television interviews over the years, three of Phelps’ children — the only three who are estranged from their father — have alleged that they were attacked both physically and psychologically.

Fred Phelps, they say, meant to hurt his children and to turn them against the rest of the world.

Mark and Nathan Phelps and sister Dortha “Dotti” Bird offer plenty of brutal details — details that their father has long dismissed as “a sea of fag lies.” Nathan told the Intelligence Report that he was beaten with a leather strap regularly. Then, he says, Fred Phelps switched to a mattock handle — like an axe handle — and beat Nathan until he “couldn’t lie down or sit down for a week.” The three charge that Phelps also beat their mother, forced the children to fast and more.

But Phelps’ alleged violence — which his nine loyal children deny — never really caught up with him. A child abuse case was brought against Phelps for abuse of Nathan and his brother Jonathan, Nathan says, but was dropped when the children refused to cooperate with the prosecutor, fearing their father’s reprisals.

The estranged children say that most of the family has stayed loyal because their father has filled them with the fear of God. “He would tear you down and make you feel terrible and there wasn’t any way but his way,” Dotti said.

Looking what they do to their own children in these videos, it’s not inconceivable:

Pretty sad that children are brought up like that, as the brainwashed child soldiers in a bizarre war against reason and values they clearly don’t understand. It’s clearly a cult, and the children are their hostages.

The interviewer below gets some good points that Nat Phelps can’t answer, about contradictions in how they interpret scripture:

But of course, the hypocrisy doesn’t seem to make itself through to the interviewee.

I can’t understand how they aren’t shut down for hate speech, and promoting hate crimes. If I stood on a corner spouting such homophobic drivel, I’d be arrested at least for disturbing the peace. Why aren’t they? How can hate speech be protected by the Constitution?

Gay men and women aren’t their only target, either (although they are certainly the top of the hate list, but the list is long: it basically includes everyone not within their own church circle).

Jews are given time on the hate roster and may be a close number two:

Catholics are targets. So are American soldiers. The church eagerly and joyfully pickets funerals of American soldiers who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, glorifying in their deaths because, as their church teaches them, these deaths are punishment for Americans being lenient towards homosexuality. “Soldiers die, God laughs” say their signs.

They also carry signs that read, “Thank God for 9/11,” celebrating the deaths of workers in the Twin Towers. They’ve protested in front of girls’ schools, too, with anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-Obama signs. They delighted in the destruction and deaths caused by Hurricane Sandy, calling it the “wrath of God” in tweets from their new leader, Shirley, daughter of the late Fred. They celebrated the deaths of miners in West Virginia as sign of their deity’s displeasure.

They glorified the shooter at the Batman movie for killing members of the audience and picketed the prayer service for the slain. Tweets from church members after the massacre read, “God is at work in Colorado” and used the hashtag #ThankGodForTheShooter. They protested at Whitney Houston’s and Steve Jobs’ funerals. (ironically tweeting about it from their iPhones…).

Any and every death, tragedy, natural disaster and accident in America is cause for them to openly and loudly celebrate and express their hatred. Pretty sick, pretty twisted by any standard within a wide range of normal.

Every documentary about the church amazes and disconcerts me:

Look around 12:40 and 14:40 and see brief clips of film from the church about Jews that is almost identical to those produced by the Nazis prior to WWII. And how is this not hate speech?

Now, I’m not an expert on Christianity by a long shot, but when I look at their posters lauding death for American soldiers dying in the Middle East, and hear their comments about how they hate America and American soldiers, I think of Islamist radical fundamentalists, rather than Christians.

I think of similar comments I’ve heard and read in the past from Al Qaeda, from the Taliban, from Hamas, from Hezbollah, from Fatah, from Iranian clerics and leaders. The only difference I can identify is that the Westboro group says they are Christian, not Muslim.

Maybe it’s all play acting. Maybe they are an Al Qaeda cell disguised as Christians trying to infiltrate the religious community and get publicity for their cause. It’s easier to believe that than to believe these people are in any way Christian, at least according to what I think of as Christian teaching (compassion, sharing, caring, tolerance).

Or they could be a cell of Satan worshippers trying to discredit the Christian faith by showing it as a malign, unpatriotic voice of evil?

Of course there may be another explanation. This church consists mostly of members of a single, extended (and rather prolific) family from small one part of Kansas, and I can’t help but wonder if inbreeding plays a role in their collective mental development. That’s also not a new idea – just Google it and read any number of conjectures about the family being inbred.

Freedom of speech is a right, but it has to come with responsibility, too, otherwise it can become mere hate-mongering. You shouldn’t be able to say just anything you want – but these folks can, apparently. They can make the most horrific, nasty, demeaning, bigoted and malevolent statements without fear of legal or social retribution.

In 2006, they picketed the funeral of Matt Snyder, a US Marine killed in Iraq, with their horrific signs saying “Matt in Hell” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The upset father sued the church, and they were found guilty of hate speech not covered by the First Amendment. The court ordered the church to pay $10.9 million to the father.

The church used the judgment to get more publicity, then appealed. They won their appeal in 2011 on “protected free speech.” The Supreme Court then ordered the bereaving father to pay the church’s legal bills.

That is a stunning injustice and condemnation of the First Amendment

Subsequently, 42 states have put restrictions on picketing at funerals to prevent them from getting so close again. Meanwhile, they use the internet and social media increasingly and with greater sophistication to spread their venom.

But it’s not all mockery and derision on social media and YouTube. The video below is the first of an eight-part documentary on the family and the church, and it’s actually quite chilling to watch. Hannibal Lecter was easier to view onscreen, at least from my perspective. Perhaps that’s because I knew he was just an actor, but these people are real, yet more twisted than I could have ever written about in fiction.

Watch all the parts. Each one will reveal to you yet another disturbing facet of their madness. In part three, around 2:30, you’ll see them protesting a local hardware stores for selling Swedish vacuum cleaners, because Sweden allegedly jailed one of their supporters. Try to unravel that logic.

Now I know quite well that this family doesn’t represent all of America, doesn’t represent all Christians, and doesn’t even represent most fundamentalists. They only represent themselves and their twisted, malevolent, diabolical views. Still, I’d have a lot more respect for American fundamentalist Christians if the rest of them collectively disowned this group and made a public statement that Westboro is a cult. It is neither Christian nor their ideologies supported by other Christian groups.

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* Because I watch so little TV, I didn’t know who Russell Brand was before I saw this video. Thanks to my Facebook friends for enlightening me. I also read the Wikipedia entry about him. I have to admit I’ve never seen any of his movies or his TV shows, with the exception of 3 Lions (which I bought in London last fall…) And yes, I know of Katy Perry, his ex-wife and I’ve even heard some of her music, but I’m completely out of the loop when it comes to what or who the glitterati are doing, so I didn’t make the connection with her until I read the article.

Tax the Rich – a video



You really should watch this video. It explains in clear, simple terms the argument of the billionaires and the rest of us. I like it because – while it’s simplistic – it is succinct and presents its argument in a powerful story. It also clearly underscores the very polarized US arguments about both taxation and wealth.

This was commented on the Daily Kos as well. Amusingly, it was immediately pounced upon by the rightists as “socialist” propaganda. Sean Hannity, talking head for the uber-right Fox News, was apparently “outraged.” It was titled “Villifying $uccess.”

That they would associate success with money (the $ sign) identifies the basic flaw in their argument. Money, in their simple minds, is merely a measure of itself. Unless that money has contributed beyond mere accumulation – created jobs, built economies, served a greater good such as education – it’s merely a measure of greed. So the video vilifies greed, not success. A person can be successful without accumulating millions or even billions of dollars.

That’s a typical conservative canard – the idea that any challenge to unrestrained (laissez faire) capitalism or suggestion of taxing the wealthy is a socialist plot to enslave America. The real villain here is not money per se, but how a series of US governments has failed in its responsibilities to oversee and manage capitalism. They have allowed the money to shift from productivity, manufacturing, creativity and jobs to the gambling system called Wall Street. They have allowed shareholder profits and executive salaries and benefits to become more important than jobs, local economies, businesses and overall wellbeing. It’s a sad condition when the CEO of Wal-Mart, Mike Duke, makes more in one hour ($16,827) than his typical employee makes in a whole year (average annual wage in the US for a Wal-Mart employee: $13,650).

For the ultra-conservatives, any attempt to rein in the excesses of capitalism is to raise the spectre of that political Cthulhu – socialism, a truly misunderstood word for most Americans. There is an irony here, since the US oligarchs are mostly living in states of entitlement not unlike that of Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s politburos under Communism. Communism may have fallen as an economic system, but its class system still thrives in modern America.*

These conservatives believe the market – that is, the economy – will best regulate itself, much the same way your cat will choose the best vet for its care, or your children will choose the healthy, steamed and unsalted broccoli over the sugar-saturated, heavily advertised junk food for dinner. But if you associate success with mere wealth (as, it seems, many conservatives do), then the greedier the person, the greater his or her success. And thus you get the mess the US economy is in, with jobs going overseas in order for CEOs to be able to afford another yacht, with home foreclosures for the the recently-unemployed middle class while billionaires thrive after having gutted the factories and sold off the assets (Mitt Romney for president, anyone?).

Okay, that’s another simplification, but one only needs to look at the economic figures to see how crazy this has become. Capitalism is a wondrous system for growth, but it needs the government’s hands on its rudder to keep it off the shoals of madness. And it’s been without a captain for many decades now, at least in the USA. In most other Western nations, at least a modicum of control has been provided (Canada, for example, avoided the worst of the recession not by being smarter than Americans, but because we have more stringent controls on our banking and financial sectors).

So government intervention helps capitalism, helps strengthen it, helps build economies, by preventing the excesses it is capable of, from happening.

The Young Turks throw in this comment about the difference between cutting services and social support versus taxing the rich, with some counterpoint:

And James Galbraith, of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, makes some cogent points about the US economy in this video:

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* The other irony is that many of these conservatives claim – rather loudly – to be Christian, yet they act in a very un-Christian, even anti-Christian manner, towards their fellow Americans – again like the politburo.

Someone is wrong on the internet


From Skeptic NorthI discovered an entertaining site recently called Skeptic North. It’s a Canadian equivalent to several similar sites and blogs I read that are mostly American-based. It challenges popular assumptions, ideas, trends and pseudoscience and other claptrap. In a Canadian way, of course.

Meaning that it’s usually much too polite in how it handles some of the balderdash online. I’m less gracious. Bullshit is bullshit and should be called out.

I discovered it when I was looking for some additional backup material on COLD FX, an over-the-counter, made-in-China product (I hesitate to call it a medicine; is pseudo-medicine a proper word? or should I just call it a commercial placebo?) made from a purified ginseng extract, that claims to boost your immune system and prevent colds and flus. The discussion has raised itself on Facebook again, with the usual “I don’t care what scientists say, it works for me…” comments.

CBC’s Marketplace show did a’ expose that debunked a lot of the claims, but I found the show a little too sensationalist for my own taste. I was glad to see the article on Skeptic North about the show shared my concerns over the presentation*.

…I was turned off by the typical “confrontation TV” drama they included.

The effectiveness of Cold FX has been debated and challenged long before CBC got around to it. UBC professors questioned it back in 2006. They found:

The main purpose of these studies was to see whether the ginseng extract would reduce the incidence of acute respiratory illnesses (flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a virus that causes flu-like symptoms), as defined by subjective symptoms such as cough, sore throat and runny nose. The researchers, reporting the results in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found “no significant difference between the placebo and the ( Cold-fX) groups for the number of (acute respiratory illnesses) defined by symptoms.” They also found “no significant difference in the severity or duration of symptoms related to (acute respiratory illnesses) between the two groups in either study.”

The secondary purpose of the studies was to measure the difference in the incidence of laboratory-confirmed (typically by a viral culture) acute respiratory illnesses between the two groups. In the placebo groups, six and 12 per cent of the subjects in the two studies contracted flu or respiratory syncytial virus. In the ginseng groups, these percentages were lower — zero and two per cent — which suggests the ginseng had some therapeutic benefit. However, in each case, the “p value” — the probability that chance explained the difference — was high enough that these differences, by the researchers’ own admission, were not deemed statistically significant.

In 2009, Science-Based Pharmacy published the results of three studies that challenged the product’s claims. Here are the results from the three studies:

Bottom line: If we accept the combining of the two trials, we can conclude the following: In nursing home residents, when taken for 8 to 12 weeks, Cold-fX appeared to reduce laboratory-confirmed cases of colds and flu, but had no effect when considering what patients actually reported.

Bottom line: A healthy adult taking Cold-fX might expect to have 0.25 less colds over a 16 week period. This has led some to question whether this result is clinically relevant.)

Bottom line: Over a 16 week period Cold-fx failed to demonstrate an improvement over placebo. Given the high number of study design flaws, data omissions, the poor quality journal, and long publication delay, it is difficult to draw conclusions from the results. At best, it is suggestive that Cold-fX needs to be taken for at least eight weeks, with a flu shot after four weeks, before it may have any noticeable effect.

And the conclusion in the article?

What if I feel like I’m coming down with a cold? Will starting Cold-fX now have any effect?

There is no published evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of Cold-fX if started at the onset of a cold.

CV Technologies offers a 300mg form of their product (“Extra-Strength Cold-fX“) with the directions to start “at the first sign of colds of flu symptoms”. There are no published trials documenting the effectiveness of the 300mg dosage strength, or evaluating the dosing instructions of 12 capsules over the first 3 days, in reducing the duration of colds or the flu.

The Ottawa Skeptics site also has a good article critiquing how the studies are presented, and says, for example,

Although this trial was well designed, reviewers have criticized the interpretation of the results. For example, the study team described the combined reduction in lab-confirmed influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) as “an overall 89% relative risk reduction”[22] (i.e., an 8% reduction compared to a 9% incidence rate), which is true but misleading. In reality, there was simply an absolute risk reduction of 8% points.

Claims that COLD FX has approval for its packaging statements have also been challenged, as this National Post article notes:

Health Canada has not authorized COLDfX’s long-standing claim that consumers can obtain “immediate relief” from colds and flu by dramatically increasing the dosage, the Vancouver Sun has learned.

You can read the company’s own comments about their battle over claims with Health Canada in 2007, here. Back then, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a well-respected organization, cautiously noted that,

Bottom line: Until more studies are done, it’s too early to conclude that Cold-fx can shorten—or cut your odds of catching—a cold or the flu. Even so, Cold-fx is the only remedy we found with any evidence that it might improve your chances of getting through the cold and  flu season without coming down with something.

This lukewarm endorsement has not been repeated since  to my knowledge (I subscribe to their excellent newsletter, Nutrition Action). In general, CSPINET has been critical of all herbal remedies and done a lot of work researching their claims and effectiveness (which generally is none). Nonetheless, some of the claims made by COLD FX have been the subject of a recent class-action lawsuit, which, as far as I know, is still being decided.

It’s curious to me that people who swear by COLD FX and other non-medicinal products like echinecea - another herbal product proven ineffective – yet will not get a flu shot, which is backed up by considerable research and science and endorsed by every national and provincial health organization and medical association in Canada and the USA. COLD FX is endorsed by Don Cherry. Which do you believe is the more credible? As The Paltry Sapien blogger (another entertaining skeptic) wryly comments.

We like to talk about science and proof and rationality, but in the end belief in hockey and maple leaves and the coldness of winter wins out. Cold FX, this “struggling true-blue Canadian company,” in Cherry’s words — producing a product in China, not Alberta — deserves our allegiance.

Flu shots are free in Canada. COLD FX is expensive (emphasis added):

Over a four-month period, subjects in the ginseng group experienced, on average, one-quarter of a cold less than the placebo group. That means each person has to spend a total of $86 to prevent one-quarter of a cold.

I ascribe a lot of this to the New Age belief that so-called “natural” products (a nebulous term of little value, like “organic,” both degraded by slippery definitions, lax regulations and unscrupulous marketers and – ironically – corporations) are better than manufactured ones. That counterintuitive leap has extended into all sorts of silliness, from belief in astrology and Feng Shui to crystal therapy and magnetic bracelets over astronomy,  architecture, science, and medicine. And let’s not forget UFO abductions, creationism and the Mayan apocalypse – or flu-shot paranoia.

I have yet to find an all-natural computer or iPad on which I can post that observation.

But as for these herbal concoctions – many people want a pill to do for them what they would better get from proper hygiene (frequent hand washing), good nutrition and exercise – without having to do all the work. It’s like the herbal-diet-fat-burning pills: instant gratification without the sweat. Won’t happen.

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* For the sake of balance, not everyone thinks the CBC Marketplace show was either accurate or good journalism. For example, blogger Shireen Jeejeebhoy says,

By the end of the twenty-two-odd minutes, Marketplace’s entire piece, when read between the lines and engendering Herculean effort not to be distracted by the bells and whistles, boils down to COLD-FX prevents colds. The claim it provides immediate relief needs further study; the China connection is no different than every other product we buy (have you checked where your frozen veggies are grown lately?), thus is not COLD-FX specific and is a separate topic; the bacterial contamination is old news and a non-starter. In other words, Marketplace told its alert viewers to take COLD-FX daily if you want to prevent colds.