Thursday, February 24, 2011

Manitoba judge says sexual assault victim was asking for it

I wish I could say I was surprised:

A convicted rapist will not go to jail because a Manitoba judge says the victim sent signals that "sex was in the air" through her suggestive attire and flirtatious conduct on the night of the attack.

Kenneth Rhodes was given a two-year conditional sentence last week which allows him to remain free in the community, in a decision likely to trigger strong debate. The Crown wanted at least three years behind bars.

From the Free Press. Yeah, it's a little shocking that we still see travesties like this, but judges tend to stay in their positions for a long time, and it takes a while for the dinosaurs to die off. The only thing is, the judge in this case was appointed in 2009 - by the "tough on crime" Harper government. Maybe that's why the Sun, which is normally all over these stories, is strangely silent on the matter so far...

Edited to add: The Sun is finally reporting the story, a day late and several paragraphs short. I suppose they couldn't ignore this case forever...

More signs of knee jerk anti-tax sentiment in Canada

Councillors in Hamilton attempted to introduce a tax on large paved areas. There's a good reason to penalize such expanses, as they send more stormwater into the sewer system, which costs the city money. Of course, it's easy to whip up public sentiment against something like this, especially if you give it a scary sounding name like "rain tax" (perhaps they borrowed the notion from the Manitoba PCs, who have gotten ridiculous amounts of traction by applying the term "vote tax" to something that, strictly speaking, is not a tax at all). So what was the actual proposal anyway?

The fee, originally presented to council in 2009, was created to penalize the owners of large swaths of asphalt and concrete – surfaces that send storm water rushing into the city’s overloaded sewer system.

The initial version of the plan would have required households to pay an annual fee of around $72, about the equivalent of a 3 per cent increase on your property tax bill.

However, Merulla and Whitehead were proposing a new version of the plan that would only target the commercial and industrial sectors and protect residential taxpayers from the new fee.

Sounds pretty reasonable, and no doubt if you presented it this way to the public, most of them would agree with it. Of course, many councillors didn't want to take the chance on this, and the measure was defeated. Too bad, because as a commenter on the story pointed out, taxpayers are on the hook for the rain anyway, thanks to the costs of overloading the sewage system.

Friday, February 18, 2011

An mystery organization?

In today's Free Press there appears this article about First Nations medicine. It does raise some worthwhile issues, and I noted with interest that its author, Don Sandberg, is described as the president of the Nistanan Centre for Public Policy, described as "Canada's first aboriginal think-tank". Curiously, this organization has essentially no presence on the web; the only thing that came up in a Google search was the aforementioned article. A search for Mr. Sandberg's name, though, brought up a bunch of things he'd written for the better-known Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a notoriously right-wing organization that is given far too much ink in the media. This leads me to think that the Nistanan Centre is an organization that should be viewed with suspicion. Too bad.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

ND legislative committee recommends forcing university to keep team name

For quite some time, the University of North Dakota has called their sports teams "The Fighting Sioux". Understandably, many feel uncomfortable with using a name that at best perpetuates a very one-dimensional view of the indigenous people of this continent. And indeed, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the main university sports organization in the US, has recently ordered names and logos that are "hostile and abusive" (like, say, perpetuating racist stereotypes) to be changed. The university is willing to comply, but legislators are preparing to force them to keep the name at all costs... and even legislators who oppose the bill are reluctant to express approval of the name change:

During the committee discussion, Rep. Phil Mueller, D-Valley City, said he’s never had a problem with the Fighting Sioux nickname, but he would not support the bill.

He said the state Board of Higher Education and UND concluded it’s time to move on.

“I guess I’m of common mind with them about that. This isn’t going to go away,” Mueller said. “I don’t think that the Standing Rock people are going to decide this is all fine and the NCAA is going to be happy.”

From the Fargo Forum. To make it all the more odd, the name isn't even that old - according to Wikipedia they were called the Flickertails until 1930. The university was founded in 1883, and managed almost 50 years without the name...

What constitutes child abuse anyway?

Evan Emory, of Muskegon, Michigan, has been charged with manufacturing child pornography (h/t Ken at Popehat). Pretty serious stuff, one would think. Except that the "child pornography" in question isn't what most of us would call pornography - it's just a video of him singing a dirty song to elementary school children.

Still, one might think, that's a pretty bad thing to do, no? Except he didn't actually sing the song to the kids. He sang a perfectly innocent song, then edited the audio to make it appear that he sang the dirty lyrics. But the prosecution seems to think this is the same as actually molesting children on video.

As Ken points out, there might be grounds for a civil action here, on the basis of unauthorized use of the kids' images. But the idea that this is criminal (much less felony sexual abuse of children) is absurd, don't you think?

Conservative austerity - Not what the doctor ordered

Brian at Just Damn Stupid has found this Bloomberg article which shows the folly of cutting budgets when the economy is rocky:

Sorry, fiscal austerity doesn’t work. For evidence, look no further than the U.K.

This can’t be good news for the U.S. political right, whose mantra has been: cut spending, put a lid on deficits, and growth will improve.

All sorts of good things, it is claimed, will spring from a turn to austerity that stops all this stimulus nonsense and prevents the Federal Reserve from doing more quantitative easing. Reductions in spending, according to a theory known as Ricardian equivalence, will do no harm because lower borrowing will automatically lead to higher private spending. Plus, of course, there is the notion of crowding out, meaning that reining in the public sector leaves room for the private industry to step in and all will be well.

This is dangerous hogwash.

There is little historical precedent in the real world, though lots of fantasizing in the made-up world of economic theorists, to suggest that fiscal austerity works. The best example of austerity’s failure is the double-dip that occurred in the late 1930s in the U.S., when spending was reduced too soon in a nascent recovery. In contrast, the U.K. didn’t have a double-dip because it was engaging in classic Keynesian spending as it began re- arming.

And as Brian goes on to point out, Hugh McFadyen's promise to balance the budget on an annual basis would require ridiculous budget cuts... not what Manitoba needs by a long shot.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What's the real story with Saudi Arabia's oil reserves?

A very good question. It's recently been reported (via Wikileaks, once again) that there are serious concerns about this:
The US fears that Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent oil prices escalating, confidential cables from its embassy in Riyadh show.

The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom's crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.
Interesting. On the other hand, others argue that this is a faulty interpretation:
Asked by the American diplomats what he thought of Mr. al-Saif’s statements, he made what appeared an extraordinary statement: that the reserves figure was inflated by 300 billion barrels. Deducting that figure from the 716 billion barrels created the idea that Saudi reserves were 40% less than it officially said.

As it turns out, however, Mr. al-Husseini’s memory of that conversation is rather different.

He says he has no dispute with Aramco’s official reserves data, but disagrees with Mr. al-Saif’s projection for the future and with the diplomats’ characterization of its existing 716 billion barrels as “reserves”.

In fact, he says, that figure refers to “oil in place” which includes both recoverable and non-recoverable oil.

The kingdom’s “proven reserves”, the oil Saudi Aramco believes it can extract, are officially given as 260 billion barrels (Mr. al-Saif said the actual figure was probably more like 51% of the “oil in place” –- around 358 billion barrels).

So it seems this particular report may have been overstated. However, before one gets too complacent, it's worth considering the bigger picture, which is precisely what Gail the Actuary is attempting to do in this post at The Oil Drum. It sure looks like the overall trend for Saudi is downwards...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Drought in China may have far-reaching effects

The world's most populous country faces significant food supply problems:
HONG KONG — The United Nations’ food agency issued an alert on Tuesday warning that a severe drought was threatening the wheat crop in China, the world’s largest wheat producer, and resulting in shortages of drinking water for people and livestock.

China has been essentially self-sufficient in grain for decades, for national security reasons. Any move by China to import large quantities of food in response to the drought could drive international prices even higher than the record levels recently reached.

“China’s grain situation is critical to the rest of the world — if they are forced to go out on the market to procure adequate supplies for their population, it could send huge shock waves through the world’s grain markets,” said Robert S. Zeigler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute in Los BaƱos, in the Philippines.

From the New York Times. This is good news, in the short run, for grain farmers in North America who will benefit from the higher prices, but it will be very bad for a lot of the world. Already, many point to food prices as a major contributing factor to the political unrest in the Middle East, and in even poorer parts of the world (such as sub-Saharan Africa) the consequences will be worse still.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Quebec prosecutors on strike

Quebec's government lawyers, including prosecutors, have walked off the job as of today. Apparently they are paid some 40% less than their counterparts in other provinces; what's particularly interesting, though, is that the government gave them the right to strike in 2003 in order to avoid having to give them binding arbitration instead; presumably arbitration would have forced the government to pay them properly beforehand and the government was gambling that they wouldn't have the nerve to actually walk out. Well, the government has lost its gamble. Amusingly, the radio coverage noted that if the government wanted to fix their mistake now, they'd be out of luck, because along with the prosecutors, the lawyers that would be needed to draft the legislation are themselves out on strike.

Unfortunately, when criminal cases get thrown out due to delay (as they no doubt will) the corporate media and the general public will likely lay the blame at the feet of the union, rather than the government where it clearly belongs. One can see an element of this in the Gazette's article on the issue; it makes no mention of arbitration as the reason they were given the right to strike in the first place.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Man faces deportation - because his wife died

After 12 years, Kenyan Steve Onyango has been told he's no longer welcome in Canada, after his wife, and sponsor, died three years ago.

Onyango owns a home in Windsor and works as a parking enforcement officer, yet he may have to leave the life he's built if government officials get their way.

When his wife Michelle passed away in 2008, his immigration claim died too. This month, the government sent him a letter informing him that his application for permanent residence had been denied because his sponsor was no longer living.

"Losing my wife was quite a loss to me," said Onyango. "I didn't realize that immigration would actually take that — me losing my wife — an an excuse to refuse or to deny my application for permanent residency. I was thinking that they would be more compassionate than that.

From the CBC. Yeah, I'd have thought they'd be more compassionate than that too, but evidently not. And I can't help but wonder if this would have happened if he had come from the US or western Europe.

Aussies get it, we don't

In some places, car buyers seem to be getting the message that fuel efficient cars are the way to go:

Australia's large car stalwarts - the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore - have been punished in the January new-car sales results, succumbing to a continued onslaught by smaller, more efficient vehicles.

The Ford Falcon - once Australia's best-selling car - managed just 1157 sales in January, being outsold by more than three-to-one by the Toyota Corolla. The Falcon, which is due to be updated this year with the addition of a four-cylinder engine option, didn't even register among the top 10 selling vehicles for January.

From the Brisbane Times. This makes perfect sense; even setting aside environmental concerns, fuel costs are already high and are only going to get higher in the long run. Which brings us to our own car buyers:

It turns out Manitobans like trucks better than cars, and domestic-made vehicles better than imports -- especially General Motors vehicles, which was the market leader last year with 27.2 per cent of the 44,025 light vehicles sold.

Where they seem to be divided is on size. Large pickup trucks were the most popular type of vehicle, accounting for 25.8 per cent of all sales. But compact cars were second, at 18.9 per cent, followed by compact SUVs at 16.3 per cent.

From the Free Press. So why is it that the Aussies, with their redneck reputation, are making more sensible decisions than we are? To be fair, this counts new vehicle sales only, and it could be that those who are sensible enough not to buy a huge willy-compensating truck are also sensible enough to buy used rather than new.

Cannon refuses to demand Mubarak's resignation

While the leaders of most countries, including the US, are calling on Hosni Mubarak to step down immediately, Canada's foreign minister, Lawrence Cannon, doesn't seem to want this:
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon was pressed by opposition MPs Wednesday night but repeatedly refused to call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s immediate resignation.

The Americans have taken a much clearer stand. U.S. President Barack Obama has called for Mr. Mubarak to step down now, dismissing his plan to leave in September as fighting escalates in the streets of Cairo.

Mr. Cannon was speaking during what was at times a very passionate debate in the Commons on the worsening situation in Egypt. Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, who had negotiated the emergency session, led off the questioning of Mr. Cannon.
From the Globe. This might seem rather peculiar, but perhaps this has something to do with it. The confusing thing, though, is that you'd expect Obama to avoid such calls too... unless he's absolutely convinced that Mubarak is finished, in which case his current message makes sense (cutting Mubarak loose now will improve the chance of maintaining relations with the new regime).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cab company vows to flout law

The province is requiring cab drivers to undergo child abuse registry checks. Seems reasonable, given that taxis sometimes, uh, transport children. But the owner of Unicity Taxi is prepared to ignore this seemingly reasonable law:
Unicity said it won't comply with the new rules until it meets with the Taxicab Board to discuss its concerns.
From the Free Press (h/t Fat Arse). I understand why Unicity figure they can get away with this -- they're by far the largest cab company in Winnipeg, and if they're shut down it will be awfully hard to get a cab in this city. What I don't understand is why they're so worried about it, unless... well, use your imagination.