Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Thieves of State

One of our greatest fears as shown in international headlines is terrorism by religious extremists.  For many of us it makes little sense that religious fanatics can get such a strong violent following that the rest of us become paranoid.  We credit ignorance behind it.  Sensible civilized people would never allow themselves to be bamboozled.

Sarah Chayes paints a different picture in "Thieves of State"subtitled "Why Corruption Threatens Global Security."  First she describes her own experience in Afghanistan and later other hot spots where she gradually came to understand different factors at work.  She examined our own Western traditions and current practices to help make sense of it.

The key word is corruption.  Some other words on the same theme are kleptocracy and extraction.  An unconnected citizen cannot get anything done without adding unofficial money to the procedure.  Many people trying to advance their career opportunities need money more than talent.   We frown on foreign cultures where it appears to be normal, but we overlook our own history and our own involvement.

She started out as a reporter for NPR (which I regularly listen to and first heard about this book) covering the Mid East and north Africa, picking up a comfort level with the Arab language.  She volunteered to work with government agencies as she was not satisfied just to write about problems.

In Afghanistan she worked with American diplomats and military leaders and over a period of time came to appreciate that corruption was everywhere and the Afghani citizens at the bottom were very displeased about it.  Some saw the only way to deal with it was to support the religious extremists who offered an alternative.  Sarah convinced me at least, as well as most of the Americans she worked with that corruption was a major problem. But those in authority thought it was more important to combat insurgents than to deal significantly with the corruption.  She worked with Petraeus, McChrystal, Mullen and many others.  She worked with some Afghanis she trusted who helped her understand better the underlying pins.

You may have read many people accusing Hamid Karzai as being corrupt and didn't want to believe it.  How could the Americans support him and how did he remain in power?  American politicians and military leaders felt they needed his support more than they needed to clean up his governance.  The Afghan people seem ungrateful and ignorant, but in reality they live with corruption and hypocrisy and it makes them look for alternatives.  The Americans are often seen as enablers.

She then explored other hot spots including Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Uzbekistan and found similar patterns.  Whenever corruption takes hold, the people look for alternatives.  There have always been religious extremists that are mostly ignored except they do provide a more ethical procedure.  In Nigeria large numbers have found the court system too corrupt for their comfort and have been advocating Sharia court, principally because they see it being more just and fair.

Machiavelli is known by those who have not read him for his advice on how to gain and maintain power.  I had not realized he was against corruption, for the practical reason it compromises real power.  The author quoted other Western philosophers, but also one Persian Nizam al-Mulk who described the faults of corruption.  But it seems those in power soon learn to ignore restrictions.

A favorite ploy of dictators heading a corrupt regime is to claim the only other choice is religious fanatics.  Syria is a good example.  Saudi Arabia has to keep a tight lid on those who feel their rulers are not pious enough.

Sarah explores history.   Educated in Ontario, Canada it was ingrained in me that England was most critical in modern democracy.  Without taking from England the author gives some credit to the Dutch.  They were under the rule of Spain and a monarch who declared that he ruled by the divine right of God and did not have to answer to anybody else.  They fought and what we know as the Netherlands emerged with democracy and more important perhaps a sense that rulers are accountable.
They enjoyed two centuries of prosperity and creativity.  Many Dutch particularly those in the unsuccessful part of their rebellion (now Belgium and part of France) fled to England where they were given some protection by Queen Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth, left no children and the throne fell to another divine right believer.  A generation later, Parliament after being asked to support a war against Scotland rebelled and the English Civil War resulted.  After a period of adjustment the English arrived at a better system of accountability, including a constitutional monarchy.

Protestants seemed to be involved in rebellions and Sarah delved deeper into their foundation.  It turned out Martin Luther had many grievances regarding corruption in the Catholic church and both ordinary people and leaders had sympathy.  Some of their early actions could be described as religious extremism, but many others saw them as a solution to corruption.

Corruption all too often seems to follow the discovery of new natural resources such as oil or minerals when those in power can grab a disproportionate share of the new riches.   Extractive refers not only directly to the new resources, but to the underlings who also try to get a piece of the action.

Americans are seen as poor models by many nations.  Some of the mechanisms that enable corruption include privatizing, minimizing regulations (financial and environmental) and allowing corporate payoffs to politicians.  No one was prosecuted for significant acts that led to the Great Recession starting in 2008.  The author points out there are powerful lobbies that affect government policy in defines, energy and health.  Americans have a decades long history of supporting Arab dictators who they knew were corrupt.

One of the forces that helped break down the Soviet Empire was in Poland where the Pope was a rallying point for many dissatisfied with the government. Not so much religious extremism, but surely religion provided an alternative tool.

Solutions are suggested.  Corrupt despots crave legitimacy in such forms as being seen with legitimate politicians so such opportunities should be minimized.  Intelligence needs to be gathered on corruption with the same priority as terrorism.  Diplomats need to seek direct contact with ordinary citizens without intermediaries (of course that is how a spy network is formed, but the author is referring to people who could give a truer picture of what their government does for them).  We do have some leverage in such areas as student and visitor visas highly desired by despots, transparency in payments to foreign leaders.  Corruption tangles up all our good intentions, but once it is realized it is a root cause of terrorism it can be dealt with as a higher priority.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Pan American Games come to Ontario

The Pan American Games are seen by some (athletes and bureaucrats) as a stepping stone to the really important event, the Olympics.  By others it is seen as bush league or a burden on tax payers.

My viewpoint is that it is an opportunity to showcase your talent.  That is true for both athletes, bureaucrats and taxpayers.  Those who love sports and those who love international pageantry should see it as a feast, maybe not as exciting as the Olympics, but a lot closer and competitive within its limitations.

The Olympics fascinated me as a young boy and although it sometimes seems too commercial it never fails to get my attention.  I lived the excitement through newspapers and television and lately the inter net, but only have a very slight personal connection.  The Pan Am Games intruded into my personal life and that of my neighbours and fellow Canadian citizens and taxpayers.  We started off unimpressed and a bit jaded, but now that they are over maybe we missed too much of a good thing.

As with almost everything else the sports world is increasingly globalized.  At the same time the grassroots has never lost its importance.  While us armchair quarterbacks pontificate on the merits or lack of them for athletes and sports events it all starts beneath our radar.

Toronto stymied at Olympic bids obtained the rights to the 2015 Pan American Games.  One smart thing was to spread the events around Ontario.  They got several municipalities invested in the idea and spread out potential traffic problems.  My home town, Hamilton was given a chance to hold both the soccer games and the indoor cycling and at another time they had a shot at track and field.  Not everyone on council or in the bureaucracy saw this as an opportunity and we ended up just getting the soccer, the second most popular sport.

Along the way I heard complaints about the stadium being behind schedule, from someone on site.  The Go Station was supposed to be ready to help expedite ticket buyers from out of town to the game, but every day I either drove or walked past it and could see little progress.  Lots of complaints about how unimportant it was or others about how poorly we were handling it.

For prior years there had been a big controversy over our Hamilton Ti-Cat football facilities, known as Ivor Wynne Stadium, named for one one of the founders of the British Empire Games.  It was recognized as no longer up to standards.  The owners wanted to move it to a location where they could charge for parking, but a lot of citizens myself included wanted it located near the harbour where it would be more central and accessible (for instance in walking distance of the proposed new GO station.)  With the Pan Am Games money was found to upgrade the stadium and it was decided to keep the same location in a residential neighbourhood with poor parking.  It was behind schedule and failed to open in time for the football schedule, but they did try it for a concert and later for a friendly women's soccer game prior to the Women's World Cup.

It became evident that a lot of the best athletes were not going to come.  It turns out that for many it is necessary to qualify for the Olympics through a different procedure, although some events were qualifying.  When the Olympics opened up for professional athletes someone somewhere seemed to decide that regional events like the Pan American Games would be more for development.  Just a few weeks before the Canadian women organized our best women (many playing professionally) and they gave a good account of themselves but for the Pan American Games almost all the players were under 22.  Different countries handled the rosters differently.

Finally the Games were set to begin.  The Open Ceremonies were first class with Cirque de Soleil organizers involved.  Lots of fireworks (around the CN Tower) and celebrities.  Steve Nash, one of my heroes lit the flame and Bobby Orr was introduced at one point.

I was able to buy tickets for a women's soccer game with my son visiting from New Zealand.  It was a double header with Ecuador vs Brazil first followed by Canada vs. Costa Rica.  In the first game underdog Ecuador scored first with what I recall as the best goal in the Pan Am, but easily wiped out by 5 goals from one Brazilian player.  Although the crowd was far from full they supported Canada, but unfortunately Costa Rica won 2-0 in what was a satisfying display for me.  Costa Rica had been one of my favourites in the men's World Cup as they upset much higher ranked teams.  We were able to walk about three blocks from home, pick up a bus for free (included in ticket price) and walk about two blocks to the game.   I hadn't been to the old Ivor Wynne Stadium in many years, but the new originally called Tim Horton's Field , but for the Pan Am relabelled CIBC Stadium was much improved and I was unable to detect any serious flaws.

The rest of the actual Pan-Am games for me was on tv and increasingly on the inter-net where you would get more live action.  Many highlights were enjoyed.  The women's basketball with Kia Nurse from Hamilton, an instrumental force in Canada winning the gold medal against favoured Americans.  Kia was chosen to be the flag bearer at the Closing ceremonies. The men's basketball was also exciting and I was impressed not only with Canada, but also, Brazil who won the gold medal, and also, Argentina, and little Dominican Republic.  Perhaps the top players might have made a difference, but competitive all the same.

I watched a little baseball, but missed the best part.  In the gold medal game the score was tied at the end of 9 innings and I started to watch extra innings.  An unusual (but sensible) rule was that in extra innings each team starts out with men on first and second and can tinker with the batting order.   The Americans scored two runs in their half and I decided I needed to get to bed, but taking advantage of an error Canada won.  Baseball had been eliminated from the Olympics, but seems likely to be reinstated for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Track got a lot of my attention with Canadians successful in the decathlon, high jump and sprints.  One of the special moments for me was when Damian Warner set a new Pan Am record and the higher Canadian record in the decathlon with the previous record holder, Michael Smith in the announcer booth.  Mike was more than gracious, praising Damian and suggesting he will break more records in the future.   To me the most exciting track events are the relays, especially the 4 x 400.  They were all enjoyable, but unfortunately De Grace missed his chance for a third gold medal when afterwards the Canadians were disqualified.

Equestrian sports got my attention.  The team event was a qualifier for the Olympics and with a little luck they came through in fine style.  Jessica Phoenix won a silver medal in individual eventing.  I remember her from some photo ops at the Royal Winter Fair where she was uncommonly gracious.

There was a wide range of events, some of which are not Olympic events such as bowling and water skiing, but I only saw snippets of them.  I found myself watching a fair amount of soccer and volleyball, but missed some of my normal preferences of swimming and gymnastics.

I didn't see the closing ceremonies as I opted to go to a fireworks/music display near where I live.   There was a little bit of controversy with the choice of for main entertainment.  Although popular people objected to an American, Kanye West getting the spotlight.  I remember for the Atlanta Olympics the organizers had to explain why Celine Dionne was given prime spot at their closings and they just said they wanted the best.  When I think of Pan America I think of Latin music with Brazilian amongst my favourite entertainment.  Nothing against Kanye, if the organizers thought he was the best and most appropriate one available, but my tastes are different.  A preliminary singer was Serena Ryder who had sung theme song which I liked more than enough to buy the iTune version and went on to buy the French and Spanish recordings.  One of the writers of the song was Jasmine Denham and she sang the French version.  This was the 400th anniversary of francophones in Ontario.

The city of Hamilton decided to have a free concert with a special fireworks display.  I got a little late and just saw the tail end of the Turbo Street Funk Band which seemed like a fun group.  Terra Lightfoot, who I had never heard before was given a chance to perform with the National Academy Orchestra under the direction of Boris Brott--turned out to be very enjoyable.  The Fireworks were done by Circus Orange.

Was the fuss worth it?  I would say it deserved more fuss and that many missed an opportunity.  Why do we like sports?  Perhaps some like skill, strength, speed, but more likely competitiveness.  There was plenty of skill and certainly competitiveness.  Maybe we didn't see the very best, but we did see some excellent and developing athletes.

To me such events are more than just sports as there is the international element.  As hockey fanatics have a tendency to appreciate the nations that are competitive in that sport.  Not too many hockey players in the Caribbean or Central and South America, but they do produce a lot of top notch soccer, basketball, baseball players and sprinters.

A major concern with the organizers was traffic.  Traffic congestion would leave a bad impression on visitors as well as taxpayers.  One solution was called a HOV lane which normally requires only one passenger to allow a car to use the fast lane.  For the Pan Am Games two passengers were required.  Taking our son to the airport we were able to use the HOV lane which greatly speeded up the process but coming back with only the two of us it was noticeably slower.  Still provincial authorities were pleased with the results and may adopt it as a long term solution.  The Go Station did open in time and combined with shuttle buses made it easy for out of town visitors to get to the games and back home or hotel quickly.
 
A lot of local Hamilton merchants not too happy about how the GO service worked as people found little near the stadium to interest them and speeded out of town without spending much money (outside the stadium of course).  If we ever get another chance (say for the Grey Cup) we should try to remedy this oversight so that more local businesses could benefit and visitors could have a more enjoyable experience.  I understand hotels did benefit from officials and soccer teams staying in Hamilton

For me I like to experience foreign cultures and felt compelled to visit a local restaurant which has become a favourite, Culantro Peruvian Cookery.  We took our son on his last night and the owner/chef came to thank us.

A lot of money has been spent and now that two weeks of enjoyment are over what is left?  A few Olympic calibre buildings, an Athlete's Village that will open for residents, perhaps new traffic system that will improve the environment.  Did you get a chance to appreciate a little bit about our neighbours to the south?  We will be working with them more in the future and hopefully enjoying new relationships and new arts.

In Hamilton we did get an improved stadium and perhaps we learned a few things that will be useful when other opportunities come our way.  Bringing a GO station a little sooner will in the long run have a positive effect on the whole line.   Did we elevate anyone's opinion of Hamilton or Ontario?  Remember we had the opportunity to reach out to not only Ontario and Canada, but all of the Caribbean, Central and South America.  We shouldn't forget American visitors many of whom would find it easy to re-visit.  How good did we do?

I hope one way or another I can get a taste of Parapan Games that start in another week or so.   Way back in 1976 when the Olympics were held in Montreal I was involved in writing a book on basketball and although I was not able to make it to Montreal the Paralympics were held in Etobicoke and I made a few trips to better understand wheelchair basketball.  What I most remember was Arnie Boldt winning a gold medal and setting a world's record in a light rain.  it was astonishing to me and my wife what a one legged man could do.  I also remember one of the dominant wheelchair basketball teams came from Israel where it was explained they take very good care of their war veterans who suffered in military action.  The other brief connection I had with the Olympics was with the Olympic basketball qualifying tournament in Hamilton where I saw many games using a press pass.

PHOTOS:  Women's soccer action between Canada and Costa Rica
Terra Lightfoot with the National Academy Orchestra
Michael Davidson, Juan Castillo, the owner/chef of Culantro Peruvian Cookery and Heather Davidson

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Entreprenurial State


It has become common to believe that the government should keep its hands off business and job creators.  This idea is amplified by the right wing.  It is very true that individuals have intelligently, persistently, luckily and perhaps above all courageously brought civilization forward in an economic sense.  Real innovation is often against the status quo.  It also is true that when people band together they can accomplish more things.

There will always be a delicate balance between individuals and the collectivity.  It is true that we are all pressurized by our peers not to step too far out of line.  Status quo is comforting for many people.

I first saw Mariana Mazzucato on TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin.  Her comments stood in stark contrast to what I consider blow-hard opinions.  The blow-hards are basically self righteous individuals who have achieved success or visualized it, as separate from government.  They overlook their good fortune and the support they received from many quarters including government.

She links herself to John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter.  Keynes is the one known for advocating increased government spending when the economy is depressed and Schumpeter is the one known for advocating innovation as the key to growth.  When times are tough private businesses curtail their spending including research leaving the government, if willing, to pick up the slack.  In good times Mariana finds that private business is really only interested in the short term.

Risk is a term used a lot, particularly to justify higher returns.  Another term Mariana likes to draw attention to is "uncertain."  There are many factors (including risks) that can be gauged as probabilities, but there are many other factors (unknown unknowns) that are not at all predictable.  These other factors can have a positive or negative impact on success, but in the field of basic research they can lead in new directions.

World War II provided an opportunity.  During the war scientists were gathered together to work on many military tasks perhaps culminating with the the Manhattan Project.  Working together and across disciplines they pointed the way to maintain military superiority.  After the war, groups developed to maintain competitive strength.  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency known as  DARPA was one result.  Sputnik spurred even more research funds as the whole country felt threatened.  The Japanese were a few steps ahead regarding semi-conductor research and this was also a concern.

Their research provided the basic building blocks for iPhone, iPad, GPS, many pharmaceuticals, etc. etc.  After the expensive and risky steps had been taken some sharp people like Steve Jobs and many others were able to put products together that were commercially viable.  In fact most businesses and even venture funds shied away from expensive risky research, especially where they could not see a quick commercial application.

Today many see climate change as the number one priority.  Usually successful new technologies are disruptive to old technologies, i.e. creative destruction. The fossil fuel industry (oil, natural gas and coal) have had a long development (entrenchment) with large very significant sunk costs.  They have all the power to resist and the comfort of consumers on their side.

Bottom line:  do innovators give back to the community that supported them when it was needed?  Apple is used as an example--much of the basic research and development was done through government resources. But jobs go where they can be done cheapest and the company has developed strategies for minimizing taxes.  They are not unique.

A few conclusions.  The government can have a critical role in innovation and is in a position to take necessary risks on behalf of its citizens.  The government needs to recover some of its costs from developing innovations in part to continue its role in innovation.  Taxation is one way and even equity positions might be another.  The government above all needs to be recognized for its role.  Marianna makes many too often overlooked points and some useful suggestions.

I would add one more detail that the government provides towards innovation and that is education.  Some will point out innovators who dropped out of school and to be sure there are plenty to be found.     There are just as many innovators who were inspired by a teacher (in the formal system or outside).   To communicate their discoveries someone needs to read, write and understand, skills most often acquired in formal education.

The lion and the pussy cat on the cover were inspired by some words of John Maynard Keynes who was talking about animal spirits with regard to business.  The question is which animal represents business and which the state.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

DANIEL AUTEUIL

When I first saw Daniel Auteuil he struck me as being close to a nothing.  He played a nephew to the Yves Montand character in "Jean de Florets" and "Manon of the Spring" and bottom line couldn't get the girl he loved.  One thing that struck me at the time was the critical importance of a source of water and the plot revolves around access to it, but of course there is deception and romance.  That was one of the best pair of movies ever in my recollection and helped remind me of Daniel when I saw him in a completely different role.

Again he was not a likeable guy, but in "The Valet" he was funny.  He played a man two timing his smart wife (Kristin Scott Thomas)  in a clever French comedy.

He was a central character in "Caché," not really likeable, but a little sympathetic as he was haunted by some past misdeeds and was seemingly terrorized.  Juliette Binoche played his wife.  Directed by Michael Haneke.

Looking for horse movies I came across Daniel playing an important supporting role in "Jappaloup" written by and starring Guillaume Canet.  It was a typical sports type of story (from rags to riches), but very well told and one of the best horse movies.

What prompted this post was his involvement with another three Marcel Pagnol novel inspired movies.  I was surprised to learn that Daniel wrote the script and directed the movies.  In each movie he plays an important role, but not the star.  They are all enjoyable; "Marius" "Fanny" and the "Well Digger's Daughter."  I understand he is planning another to be named "Caesar" which is the character he played in "Fanny" and "Marius."  Marcel Pagnol also wrote the novels for" Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring"  all period pieces that reflect a past that might all too easily be forgotten.  You can see a comic touch in the later movies, but also some serious drama.

Those movies gave me more respect for Daniel both for his acting and commitment to good projects. His stature in French cinema was earned and he is using this leverage to work on interesting scripts.  He is well respected and my search continued.


In "36th Precinct" played against Gerard Depardieu as police using dirty tricks trying to get ahead.  Daniel's real daughter played a small role at the end.

"The Girl on the Bridge," a black and white film with Vanessa Paradis.  A man rescues a suicidal woman and turns her into a circus act with him throwing knives at her.  Surreally interesting with the topic and their relationship and communication.

"The Lookout" sees Daniel playing another cop with less than altruistic motives.  This received mixed reviews and was a bit confusing with many twists.  I enjoyed it.

"My Best Friend" with Dany Boon.  No one likes Daniel and to win a bet he tries to learn how to be a friend, but only after making making goofs and demonstrating his ever calculating mind.  Remade by Hollywood, but reviewers claim this one is better.  I enjoyed it.  Dany Boon, a well known stand up comic had a supporting role in "The Valet"

"The Closet" had a premise that is gradually fading, but in 2001 France could get some laughs.  Man is fired, but by pretending to be gay is hired back by employers afraid of a discrimination lawsuit (they manufacture condoms).  Stereotyping is minimized, but lots of misunderstandings and complications that make for a twisting plot.  Daniel plays the lead, a loser who finally wins some attention.

Daniel was born in Algiers to opera singers in 1950.  A number of French actors have an Algerian background.  He started in 1974 with many television roles.

So far every movie I have seen with Daniel in it has artistic merit and at one level or another is enjoyable.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Iran Nuclear Agreement

Most of the world seems to like the new agreement with Iran and six other nations, but others are threatening to block it anyway they can with one presidential candidate threatening to bomb Iran on his first day in office.  Many Americans feel they are "exceptional" and ought to be able to get their way no matter what.  It is actually not healthy when one side can bully everyone else.  Fear creates communication problems and ignorance begets poor choices.

At least four years in the making many politicians have denounced it before reading any details.  Obviously politics and appealing to a political base is more critical than serious study.

Obama explained the situation much better than I can so I may borrow a few of his thoughts.  Each side had some leverage and each is looking for ways to increase that power.  If you don't have anything the other person wants it creates an awkward situation.  The British started what became known as the Opium Wars essentially because the Chinese didn't want very much of what the English had to offer in exchange for tea which the British took a fancy to and so they did their best to create opium addictions.

The Iranians want to be able to sell more goods to the world and the West wants to stop the spread of nuclear weapons (particularly to unfriendly parties).  There are a lot of side issues such as prisoners being held hostage, conventional weapons being sent to terrorists, Sunni terrorists in Iraq and Syria, human rights violations.  One option is to use force, but that can be very expensive, not only in terms of money, but in lives and credibility.  Force in the Middle East often just reinforces their perception of being hated and the need to fight back.

I remember an example given in a sales talk.  The other person would probably be willing to pay 1¢ more for what you are selling and you would probably be willing to accept 1¢ less but how much effort and risk is that worth for that small reward.

As Obama pointed out they were able to put a coalition together that added more pressure to Iran, but each coalition member (United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) have their own particular concerns.  They negotiated an agreement they felt comfortable with, but won't be pleased if the United States wants to renege.  Each member of congress has to recognize they are not just objecting to Obama, but also to the other coalition partners who helped force Iran to this agreement.  Congress also needs to realize that the coalition members may not wish to carry on sanctions and therefore Iran may well feel less pressure to give up further power.

The issue of trust is often brought up as if the Iranians were the only ones with a bad reputation.  It was the American CIA that arranged for a democratically elected Iranian leader to be deposed and replaced with a monarch way back in 1953 and then went on to help set up a secret service that controlled ordinary Iranians.  Iraq was encouraged to invade Iran.  Later  Ronald Reagan authorized a contra deal involving weapons with the Iranians.  Earlier after World War I European powers, mainly England and France split up the Middle East for their own greedy reasons.

Americans are upset that Hamas and Hezbollah are financed in part by Iran.  Iranians, at all levels do not see them as terrorists, but as freedom fighters.  There is a great deal of resentment in the Muslim world that Israelis financed by Americans are subjugating Palestinians.  There are a lot of facts and opinions to back that up.  It is fair to say Iranians do not share American sentiments on the issue.

There is a very delicate balance between keeping Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries satisfied.  The agreement will not please everyone in that area, but a revocation by one party will only exacerbate the situation.

Israel fears their Arab and Persian neighbours, but does work with some of them and is concerned that any new regimes (such as after the Arab Spring) might be more difficult.  Saudi Arabia seems to be the biggest source of terrorists and have Shiites wanting to be treated equally.  The people of almost all Muslim countries are sympathetic to the Palestinians and distrust those they feel abuse them.

The American negotiating team has been accused of naivety, but in fact Obama clearly understands there is a possibility the other side will not honour the agreement.  Punishments are laid for any violation and reasonable verification is in place.  Violations affect credibility.

Alternatives?? All seem to revolve around being tougher, more threatening.  There are a lot of complaints about Iran (and they have a few about us), but the underlying idea of these negotiations was to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and avoiding an escalation by other countries.

With the release of Iranian oil, the price at the pump is expected to go down.  This will have consequences.  Low cost oil will curtail expensive sources such as  Tar Sands and fracking.  Non oil countries will benefit with lower costs of living.  Climate change strategies may be delayed again, although green forces are gaining strength.  Arab countries and other oil producers will lose revenue.

Possibly the ISIL problem will be dealt with more effectively.  How will the Kurds fare as they contribute to the solution?

Israel and Sunnis and Shiites and Christians need to get along better--what plans do any of them have to facilitate that?

Photo is of the flags along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Hispanic Cinema spans the globe

Spanish movies have an advantage.  The language is spoken by over 350 million people making it the third largest language behind only Mandarin and Hindi.  There are well developed television networks with shows distributed globally.  When Russia gained television freedom they used Colombian serials to help fill in the empty gaps.  Actors, directors travel not only to other Spanish speaking countries, but also other nations making this a big topic for movie lovers.

One of my first Spanish language movies was "Like Water For Chocolate" which had been recommended by my sister Rebecca who has a pretty good track record, but at first I did not pay attention and missed most subtitles.  A little unexpected sex did catch my attention, but I didn't notice plot or keep track of all the characters  After a discussion I was convinced I should watch it more carefully and caught a wonderful story with heavy emphasis on food.  The male lead was Italian who has done a number of Italian, Spanish and English speaking roles.  From Mexico.

Another of my early Spanish movies was one directly from Spain I spotted at a video shop and took home to enjoy.  "Open Your Eyes."  It was different and I did pay attention.  First saw Penelope Cruz and Eduardo Noriega.  I would also say one of the most impressive directors (who also writes scripts and even music) Alejandro Amenabar was a critical participant.

Another early Spanish movie  was  "Aura"  shown in a film series put on by Art Gallery of Hamilton.  Ricardo Darin, now a favourite actor from Argentina.  It was awhile before I saw another, but afterwards sought his movies out.

These movies were all interesting and encouraged me to explore further, but it is a very big field--the big players are Spain, Mexico and Argentina, but there are many others.

Alejandro Amenabar did two other movies that I loved.  "The Sea Inside"  with Javier Bardemn (see http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2013/10/paralyzed-men-in-4-foreign-movies.html  and "Agora" (he wanted to do something with an astronomical theme and ended up with ancient Egypt.)  Rachel Weisz played Hypatia of Alexandria who had no time for men, but only science.  Demonstrated some early breakthroughs in understanding the universe.  In addition to "Open Your Eyes" Alejandro wrote the Hollywood version that starred Tom Cruise and with Penelope Cruz repeating her role.

Spanish director  Pedro Almodovar has an agenda that is aggressive when it comes to sex and religion.  He writes and directs most of his films.  Some good examples include "Volver" with  Penelope Cruz;  "Talk to Her" which won an Oscar for best original screen play; "The Skin I Live In" with Antonio Banderas and "Bad Education" (not seen) with Gael Garcia Bernal.

"Cell 211" with Luis Tosar is a prison drama, brutal and well done. A new prison guard starts work the same day as a riot breaks out and goes undercover.

"Pan's Labryinthe" was written and directed by Guillermo del Toro.  A very unique juxtaposition of the Spanish Civil War with an incredible fantasy.  Guillermo, born in Mexico has made a reputation in English speaking cinema with the likes of two Hobbitt movies (not seen).   He has been the winner of many festival awards.

"Dark blue Almost black"  offers an interesting love triangle with a twist.  An infertile prisoner wants his brother to impregnate a female prisoner to bond her to him.  An obvious danger that might be a source of a comedy.  The outside brother has an old girl friend who wants to renew their relationship so it evolves into a four person scenario. Good drama.

The infamous "Y tu Mama También" was directed and co-written by Carlos Cuaron and his brother Alfonso Cuaron.  Carlos also directed and wrote "Rudo y Cursi" and seems to have stuck around Mexico, while his brother Alfonso has gone onto to big things in the English medium including "Gravity," "Children of Men" a Harry Potter movie (not seen) and "The Shock Doctrine" ( not seen, but read the book by Naomi Klein).

Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu is now highly regarded for "21 Grams," "Babel" which won award at Cannes,  "Biutiful" and "Birdman" not yet seen and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkagan" (not seen).  An early movie for him was "Amores Perres" with Gael Garcia Bernal.

Gael Garcia Bernal has a world wide presence.  For many their introduction was with  "Y tu Mama También," with a level of explicitness not normal, but underneath the adolescent sex fantasies portrayed are satirical social and political comments.  Gael paired up again with his good friend Diego Luna in " Rudo y Cursi"  Diego went on to have a major role in "Milk."  Gael was able to have many international roles such as "Even the Rains" (with Luis Tosar)  "Rosewater" (Jon Stewart directing about Canadian journalist), " Motorcycle Diaries"  One that interested me and highly recommend was "No" in  Chile during the referendum on Pinochet.  All the opposition parties wanted to divide up a limited amount of time they were given, but instead the role of Gael with an advertising background went for a more pointed effort that succeeded.

"Silent Light" crossed my radar as Canadian novelist Miriam Towes has a role in it and her book, "All my Puny Sorrows" was recently selected for Hamilton Reads.  It was directed and written by Carlos Reygadas of Mexico and is set in Chihuahua, northern Mexico.  There is only a little contact with the Spanish speaking world as the Mennonites speak an obscure dialect, Plautdiesch amongst themselves.  It is a simple story, told at a slow pace and is not for impatient people.  It  reminds me of a young Mennonite boy from Mexico who used to help me delivering papers--Jake was the hardest worker I have ever met.  At the time it seemed strange that Mennonites migrated from Mexico to Canada, but this movie opened my understanding a little bit  (actually suggesting more questions).  Won a jury prize at Cannes and several other festival awards.

Argentina is the major South American Spanish producer.   My interest was sparked by Ricardo Darin and I was able to pick up a few of his films and expand my knowledge.  Juan Jose Campanella directed two of the more famous ones "Son of the Bride" and, Oscar winning  "Secret in their eyes"  Campanella also won Daytime Emmy award and spent most of his career in America.  "Nine Queens" was another well known one, for which I had seen a Bollywood copycat version.  Beautifully done, with the viewers being left in the lurch as much as the victim.   "XXY" had an unusual theme as a child had been born a hermaphrodite and was undecided which sex to choose and it gets complicated by a doctor with an agenda and a young boy discovering he is gay.  Directed and written by Lucia Puenzo who also did "The German Doctor", about a Nazi hiding in Argentina doing experiments as well as doctoring.

"The Education of Fairies", filmed in Spain" had an interesting line, ' I fell in love with two people at the same time."  "Carnacho" was literally about ambulance chasers.   Ricardo has made a lot of films that sound interesting, but are not accessible for me. One I haven't seen, is "The Stranger," an English speaking film.   http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2015/04/ricardo-darin-brings-charm-from-html

Norma Aleandro's most famous movie was probably "The Official Story" which was political and very emotional.  I had seen her in an English language movie set in Uruguay,   Another famous film was "Son of the Bride.'  with Ricardo Darin.  She now seems to play grandmothers and mothers of grown children.  "Andres doesn't take Naps" also had a political undertone.  "Anita," a delightful movie about a woman with Downs syndrome whose mother is missing after a bomb explosion at a Jewish financial building.  She wanders around, at first interrupting a variety of personal situations, but also spreading love.  Norma Aleandro played the mother, but unfortunately was finished off early in the movie.  She is still active as she approaches 80.  The director/writer, Marcos Carnevale also wrote "Elsa and Fred" that I had recently seen a Hollywood version with Christopher Plummer and Shirley McLain.

"A Boyfriend for My Wife" in 2008 was the most popular film in Argentina that year.  Man feels henpecked by his wife and decides to find her a lover to take her off his hands.  His plan works, but he discovers that his wife has become a much more likeable person and he wants her back.

"Lilli's Apron" from 2004 was promoted as similar to "Mrs Doubtfire," but had a very serious undercoating.  Funny in many scenes with a man dressing as a woman to get a maid's job, but in this version he was covering for his wife who was suffering depression.

Peru got a movie to my local library,  "Undertow," which I avoided as I have seen enough gay movies, but this did have a different angle.  A happily married man with a wife about to give birth had a male lover, but the man died, and came back as a ghost.  The movie was about being yourself.  Excellent and memorable cinematography and music, some of which I bought on iTunes.

Last year I wrote a bit about Paraguay having an enjoyable movie called "7 Boxes."  Fairly simple and low budget, but well done.

From Colombia I saw"La Sirga"  which was a bleak film. The director was making political point, without talking politics or showing violence.  Colombia has a reputation of violence and corruption and rebellion and eventually you sense that is the pressurizing background.

With the millions of Hispanics in United States there is an American market for producing Hispanic films.   Tv. networks are well established and reflect the American Hispanic culture. "Ladron que Roba a Labron" (to rob a thief")  was con job movie.  They took the theme of tv commercials being (in some cases ) criminally misleading, particularly taking advantage of immigrants from Hispanic nations.  Many of the actors were chosen from American Hispanic television, but others with backgrounds in Argentina, Mexico and Cuba.

"Alambrista" is about an  immigrant form Mexico to California.  Robert M Young, an independent  producer released this film in 1977.  Most of the actors were inexperienced.   Some of the themes included 2nd marriages on the other side of the border and the concept of anchor baby at end.  Edward James Omos, better known for English speaking roles had a small role and does a special feature 33 years later.  He said the movie was meant to make you feel it is real, almost a documentary.  What would you do in their shoes?  Won a Cannes award and Robert M. Young went on to do many films and documentaries.

Spanish and English seem to work in parallel universes but there is overlapping.  The movies mentioned are all ones I have watched, (with a few noted exceptions. although a few of them were seen many years ago.

Looking at Islam from the West

In an effort to understand Muslims better I recently read two books.  One concentrated on interpretation and the other on practice.  All religions are subject to interpretation with varying degrees of credibility and all religions are used variously in practice.  Although most people do not worry about all the interpretations, ideas do have impact

"If the Oceans were Ink" was written as an effort to better understand a non western religion that is impacting our lives in ways that frighten many people.  We forget that there are many interpretations of Christianity and that people have died over their allegiances.  An old saying is that the devil can quote scripture.  When it comes to foreign religions the West has its own set of interpretations and often they miss the point.

Carla Power has an interesting background with a father who liked to take his family to far away places such as Cairo, Kabul, Teheran, Delhi so he could teach and they could learn different cultures.  She considers herself a feminist and was able to leverage her background into a journalism career.  She befriended Sheikh Mohammed Nadwi, an Islamic scholar with a unique background.  Grew up as a Muslim in India and was sent to Oxford where he became respected.  Although many of his views would be considered enlightened he took his basic philosophy from the actual Quran, more than subsequent Islamic supplements.

Carla had written for western publications, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and others explaining some practicalities of Muslims.  She decided she needed a more academic understanding and committed herself to studying the Quran with Sheikh Mohammed Nadwi.  A good choice.  Neither a radical or a liberal, but fairly conservative.

The author asked Sheikh about the Salman Rushdie fatwa authorizing his execution or assassination.  The Sheik suggested the best course would have been to ignore it.  He also seemed more "liberal" regarding women issues, although well aware of the cultural traditions and lived with them when forced to.

A recurring theme is the Shiek feels that most Muslims and Christians are more concerned with externalities that they identify with rather than the real inner spirit of their religion.

The most basic criticism of Muslims is the way they treat women.  Yet it is not based on the Quran which treats them equally claiming they come from the same source.  Mohammed never beat any woman.  Contrast with the Biblical explanation of creation where women are created from man after all the beasts have been created.

The book covers the events in Egypt up until about mid 2014.

"Headscarves and Hymens Why the Middle East needs a Sexual Revolution" by Mona  Eltahawy.  An activist, born a Muslim she has a very personal view on Muslim behaviour.  She thinks the problems are cultural.  Interpretation can be manipulated to support a wide range of behaviour.  She details sexual harassment and other forms of inequality.  I think most civilizations have passed through a male dominance filter and to some degree we Westerners, the self-righteous still have that filter, but feel superior when we view others with less equality.  Mona disparages liberal thinkers that have tolerated sexist behaviour in foreigners.

Sharia law, except in Saudi Arabia is not enforced when it comes to amputations. However many restrictions on women's freedom are enforced.  Women are kept subservient and dependent.   When Iraq invaded Kuwait, many fled by driving to Saudi Arabia which helped lead to Saudi women protesting not being able to drive legally.

What draws people to different conclusions is culture.  Some is our historical background, our nurturing and some is human nature.  Some of us like to dominate, some of us feel comfortable with the status quo and some are protective.  Mona confesses her own perspective on sex and feels that men have used religion to deny its pleasures justifying their abuses as protection.  Genital mutilations are not confined to African Muslims, but are practised in other locations and with other religions.

Just think, every litre of gas you buy helps reinforce misogyny and a few other things like climate change, pollution and despotism.  Doesn't matter that the oil source might not be Saudi Arabia, it all keeps the price up.  Unfortunately we are addicted, but making efforts to free ourselves--Let this be still more motivation.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Barney Frank has an interesting book out.

The concept for this post came from some comments by Barney Frank promoting his book on Meet the Press.  He is funny, realistic and sometimes blunt.

At the beginning he points out when he started, being gay was something to be hidden from the public and Congress was in high esteem.  Now he feels being gay is quite acceptable, but Congress is in very low esteem.

Politicking is a skill sometimes natural and sometimes learned.  Barney felt incremental improvements worked best, rather than going all out for the perfect which often results in nothing.  He got caught giving a phoney excuse for not doing something and when it was corrected he was obligated to do something he really didn't want to do for other reasons.  The test of courage is not opposing the enemy, but standing up to your friends when there is difference of opinion.  Some realism came when a colleague suggested every one wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.  His book gives lots of what he learned about getting things done over the years.

Barney was involved with the Clinton impeachment.  In most countries such actions would never be an issue, but in the United States politics is so polarized that one side will use whatever tools are available to hurt their rival.  The base of the Republicans includes a good portion of religious fundamentalists who are easily offended.  The politicians eventually learned that the average voter was more upset about the government being disrupted than with the supposed sin.

The 2000 election has left a lot of bitter feelings.  Barney felt Ralph Nader went too far with his statement there is no difference between the two old parties.  The problem is that under the United States system third parties mostly just split the vote.  In that fateful election there were actually 3 million more votes for Gore+Nader than there were for Bush+Buchanan.  Barney also feels that the Log Cabin Republicans shifted votes claiming again on LGBT issues there was no difference.  Personally I would like to see something like many Europeans where there is a second election to arrive at 50% +1.

Barney is not afraid to bring up his own personal problem.  He had been charged with associating with a male prostitute.  His opponents tried to make a big deal of it, but he was able to get off with only a reprimand from the House Ethics Committee.  Living in the closet presented an awkward life style.

Terry Shiavo (the woman being kept alive in a vegetative state) represented some hypocrisy for political gain.  Barney was disgusted at how far the Republicans were willing to go for what they thought would be a political benefit.  In the end most of the public felt the government should not interfere with end of life decisions.

With the crash of 2008 Republicans tried to lay a lot of blame on Barney, but he tells a different (believable) story.  He worked well with Hank Paulson (who provided a testimonial for the book).  In general the Bush Administration got more support from Democrats than they did from many Republicans.

His sense of humour is spread over the book, including a few misfires.  One of my favourites was referring to a common excuse of people caught in scandals of being too drunk to remember.  He noted that anyone really too drunk probably didn't do much.  A bumper sticker he came up with was "Vote Democratic.  We're not perfect, but they're nuts."   His ability to come up with a quick quip has aided his career.

Barney had a substantial number of Portuguese constituents and he visited the Azores and Cape
Verde as a result.  The borders of his district changed from time to time, but Barney was always careful to protect the interests of his constituents.

Another question asked about Barny, a formerly openly gay Senator concerned how gay rights have progressed.  As more Gays have come out in the open, people can see that the sterotypes are not all true.   Barney felt at one time he couldn't be a politician and be honest about his sexuality.  Interesting story about how he met his spouse,  Jim Ready.  He first met his spouse's long time partner without realizing he was gay as neither felt able to declare the truth.  The other partner died and apparently saw Barney as a possible replacement.

It took Barney a long time to come out of the closet, but he respected those who weren't ready.  He drew the line at hypocrisy and would threaten to expose someone who was advocating anti LGBT laws while actually being gay which apparently was significantly common.  Illustrating his belief in incremental progress and wanting to include transgenders in anti discrimination legislation, but accepted their exclusion as part of deal to help the others.  As time went by he was able to get more protection for transgenders.

There is great distrust of the government, but most is unfair.  Barney maintains that many who do believe in what government can do are deeply disappointed in the results.  Ironically they too often vote for the very people who are making it difficult to get the results they expect.  Republicans tout the evils of government and by restricting funds available for programs that help the poor and middle class.  "Starve the beast" still seems to be their strategy.

Throughout the book Barney offers many examples of what politicians contend with.   Still, politicians are able to make progress, but are constantly battling to do so.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Philadelphia; A brief Adventure

Some of you may know my son lives in New Zealand so when he told us he was coming to Canada to visit we were excited.  At an education and technology conference in New Zealand he learned of a bigger one to be held in Philadelphia while he was in Norh America.  His school agreed to pay part of the cost.  He invited us to join him and share driving and expenses.  Never been to Philadelphia, but this seemed like a good opportunity to expand my horizons.

Because of other commitments and the last minute addition of the convention there was not a lot of time for sightseeing, especially the kind where you are well rested.  It amounted to an 8 hour trip both ways with the last one overnight.  Still planning ahead you can see a lot of interesting things and learn about how another part of the world lives.

Philadelphia to some degree seems to live under the shadow of New York City, but in fact it has a lot going for it.  We found plenty of positives in comparison.

A pleasant surprise as we were too tired to walk far and too scared to drive so we took almost the first restaurant we saw, Penrose Diner across from our hotel.  We took one of the specials and got more than we expected--a glass of wine, dessert, very nice bread and the main course was delicious. Good service.

The next day we opted to go on a sight seeing bus tour to give an overview of the city.  We took advantage of the hop on-hop off feature and had three different tour guides.  Philadelphia was founded by Quakers who thought nature was a good vehicle to communicate with God and planned for lots of park space assuring that most citizens were within a mile of a park.  New York's Central Park had made a strong impression on me, but I learned that Fairmount Park is much bigger.  We saw lots of smaller parks wherever we traveled.  I had always thought that Monopoly was based on Atlantic City, but really it was only the streets, the businesses were all borrowed from Philadelphia.  Row houses, but mostly very individualized were very common and were the result of early taxing policies.

We just passed by the Ronin Museum which apparently is one of the biggest outside of Paris.  I had seen an exhibition in Victoria, B.C. and missed one in my home town, Hamilton.  Did take one photo from outside on top of the bus.

The Skyline is not quite as overwhelming as New York, but is still very impressive not only in the heights, but in the unique architecture, both new and historical.  They also put a premium on statues and fountains.  One guide told us that juvenile offenders were often given a choice of detention or working on murals and many opted for the paint work.


One tour guide confirmed a Canadian visitor by recommending Jim's Steak House as the best Philly Cheese Steak.  Reading about this tradition I was initially turned off by the inclusion of Cheese Whiz, but decided to try it anyway.  It does add flavour and texture.  Jim's Steak House is quite an operation with a long hot plate with various ingredients in various stages and with specialists, was able to respond to a wide range of individual options.  Very definitely a worthy tradition that visitors should at least try.

Our subway terminal was at the City Hall.  It is massive and I understand is one of the largest in the world of its type.  I could not fit it all in with my puny camera.

At night we had tickets for a Phillies game. Philadelphia has quite the sports complex which we were able to walk to.  At the southern end of Broad street they have 3 modern sports facilities.  One just for baseball, one designed for football and an arena for basketball, hockey and lacrosse. The baseball facility was pretty cool, but not covered--the screen entertainment was engrossing (as most of it was the audience itself).  the game started off good for the home team, but didn't end that way.  Had my second Philly Cheese Steak and could see it was a very popular item among what I assumed were locals.

The next and last day for us was a lot of walking.  We used the subway system to get near the downtown and first checked out the Italian market.  Not entirely Italian (Mexican and Asian influences were noticeable).  Italians still dominate and we picked up a gift for Peter that hit a positive nerve.  I read a brochure about a gelato sandwich and decided that was not for me, but at Anthony's Italian Coffee House I decided to try one--good choice.

We walked up to the Independence Park area and quickly realized the Liberty Bell lineup was several hours long so I contented myself with a photo through a window (which I will not be displaying in this post).  Benjamin Franklin is one of my all time heroes and I visited a museum devoted to him.  I thought I knew a lot about him, but there was more to learn.  He was a problem solver which resulted in a wide variety of inventions (for which he did not seek patents) and developed fire fighting services, library and the postal service.  As a printer he wrote a lot of his own material and earned a lot of respect for his wisdom.  Later in life he performed critical tasks for the new American government.  I bought his autobiography from the gift shop. Amongst many other things the city designed a new street, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway modelled on the Champs d'Elysee with the flags of the world.

It seemed to me that Philadelphia received the short end of the stick and at first I blamed New York.  The Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution were both written here.  They had many important financial institutes and significant merchants, but I figured there must have been some jealousy from New York.  George Washington served his presidency from New York City in his first term, but before his second term, the capital had been moved to Philadelphia where it remained for ten years.  The problem seems to stem from southern resentment that the capital was in the rich north and they felt they would not get justice (remember slavery was one of their concerns) so they forced a compromise resulting in the founding of Washington, D.C. with Philadelphia declining in political influence.

We arrived at the Reading Terminal Market at about 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon and we were stunned with how busy it was.  Our main comparison would be with the St Lawrence Market, the Hamilton Farmer's Market and  the Jean Talon Market in Montreal, all of which are worthy of a visit, but Philadelphia attracts a lot of tourists and also local people who like the market uniqueness.  Part of it comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch.  I learned a few years back that some of my ancestors came from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and took an interest in some of their food  I bought a jar of pumpkin butter (like apple butter, only sweeter) and Shoo fly pie.  We would have liked to buy from some of the eating places, but there were very long lineups for them, but not enough seating for the demand.  Read how I learned of my Mennonite heritage at:  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/07/biggest-surprise-in-my-family-tree.html

A short walk away we discovered Maggiano's.  In the background was music by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett with a very Italian ambience.  My wife was attracted by an item on the menu eggplant parmagiana and it lived up to its reputation.  The food was excellent including the house salad.  My wife commented that they had the best washrooms on our trip.

We enjoyed our visit, but as we had to be back in Canada so our son could attend a Canada Day Blue Jays' game with our daughter and that meant an overnight drive.  We wish we had more time--it is a beautiful city with lots of interesting facets.

While researching for my trip I watched some movies set in Philadelphia.   An apology to Thom Ernest.who had commented on a sad section of the movie, "Rocky" whereas I reacted by saying it was a happy movie.  Overall it is, but the one scene he referred to with Burgess Meredith hit me a little harder.   I added the Rocky theme to my iTunesMusic- to help motivate me.  Yes we did visit the Rocky Steps.  A few other movies were interesting--saw a key house from "Sixth Sense" on the bus tour.

A tiring three days, but everyone got something out of it.

Photo Explanations:

top:  Benjamin Franklin, my hero, taken at Franklin Institute after camera battery had run down a bit

Philadelphia Skyline--lots more variety, but this photo turned out reasonably well

Jim's Steak House at South and 4th

Side by Side photos of Philadelphia City Hall--too much for my camera so separate for bottom and the top with William Penn statue.

Citizen's Bank Park where we watched the Phillies lose to Milwaukee

Mural of Frank Rizzo, a famous mayor

Independence Hall, a popular tourist destination

Rocky Steps