By Daniel Tencer | April 18, 2011 - 11:23 pm - Posted in Smells Like North

Canada’s Sun News Network, dubbed “Fox News North” by the media, is barely on the air for half an hour when Ezra Levant, icon of the Canadian right, starts off the debut edition of his show, The Source, by broadcasting images of the Danish Mohammed cartoons.

“What’s the big deal? We just showed it. Nothing bad happened,” Levant tells his audience as a magazine spread of the cartoons appears on screen.

For Levant, this is more than what must to him seem like a spectacular opening to Sun News (if it causes riots in the Middle East, all the better for ratings, eh?), it’s also something of a personal issue. Levant was dragged in front of the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal in 2006 when the magazine he ran at the time, the Western Standard, ran that very cartoon spread. He became something of a hero to free speech advocates with his bravado performance in front of that tribunal, challenging both its notions of human rights and its legitimacy. These days, Levant prefers to parrot Glenn Beck with accusations that George Soros is a Nazi collaborator, so it’s nice to see him harken back to a time when he had more substantial things to add to the political debate.

To be sure, “Fox News North” has nothing to do with Fox News. It’s the new broadcast arm of the Sun newspapers, a chain of low-brow tabloids in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and elsewhere, basically a Canuck version of the UK Sun tabloid (right down to the scantily-clad page three girl), and similar in tone to the New York Post. But while both the UK Sun and the NY Post are Murdoch properties, the Sun papers in Canada aren’t. The Sun chain has been annoying Canadian progressives for nearly four decades now, and the papers have largely settled into a secondary role in the Canadian media landscape. The tabloids, along with the new network and a local TV station in Toronto called Sun TV, are owned by a Montreal-based company called Quebecor, and Rupert Murdoch has no part in it.

But right off the bat we get a sense that this network has more than a little in common with the ethos of those Murdoch properties when Krista Erickson (think “Gretchen Carlson North”), one of its anchors, appears as a page three girl in the Sun papers Monday morning. Clever marketing gimmick (maybe, if you’re not particularly interested in women viewers), but not exactly inspiring for those of us looking for evidence of serious journalism. So for me the question is just how well these stale, economically challenged and increasingly irrelevant tabloids will be able to make the jump to the brash, attention-grabbing, almost hypnosis-inducing style of Fox News.

At first glance, pretty damn well. It looks like Fox News; it feels like Fox News. The chyrons look like Fox News chyrons. The hosts are dressed like Fox News hosts. It all looks like Fox News, right down to the mild orange filter that gives the guests and hosts a healthy, tanned look. And make no mistake — right off the bat we’re engaging in the culture war. The Daily Brief, 6 p.m., hosted by David Akin, has as its first topic health care reform. “Report: Canada’s System Broken,” the chyron warns. Here we go. Time for an all-out attack on Canada’s universal health care system.

But wait a minute. What am I hearing here? Could this be a sound, rational argument about spiraling health care costs and the options available? Hold on a sec. Did someone mention raising taxes as a way of continuing to fund the system as it exists? My ears can hardly believe what they’re hearing, but I’m pretty sure someone has just made the sober point that we are probably doing ourselves a disservice by setting up a false “binary” view of health care (the Canadian system versus the US system) and that we should look to Europe for better ways to operate universal health care schemes.

Nobody mentioned “socialism.” Nobody screamed “class warfare.” For a moment, I closed my eyes and just listened, and it could have been “NPR North.”

Okay, so maybe it was just that one issue. After all, privatizing health care is a hard sell in Canada. Up next on Daily Brief is a report on Vancouver’s government-sanctioned heroin injection site. Now things are getting juicy. Sun News is clearly hitting all the big culture-war issues for conservatives. Now the sparks will fly.

But wait, what’s this? The report begins with the correspondent (blonde, attractive, well dressed) informing us of a study saying the safe injection site has reduced drug deaths in Vancouver. And I’m pretty sure that, through the fog of shock now engulfing me, I can hear Akin mention that some three-quarters of the people living around the site support its continued existence. Case closed. “Fox News North” is against the drug war.

So, hmm. Maybe it’s just their first day. Maybe they haven’t got the hang of it just yet.

Not all is lost for the culture warriors, though: No fewer than three prime time shows devote a segment to attacking the CBC, Canada’s state broadcaster, with Levant popping up to accuse CBC’s Vote Compass interactive graphic of trying to fool conservatives into thinking they’re liberals. Add to that the Sun tabloids running the same stories criticizing the CBC, and this all begins to look more like a concerted attack on a competing broadcaster than actual reporting….

But even with all that it all comes off a little too … sane. The oil sands are good, Ezra says, because we can use the profits to build schools. Almost makes sense to me. It’s all seems actually thought out in advance, too calm and too… well, Canadian. In a whole evening of viewing, the expression “government bolshevism” only grabs my attention once. So maybe this is more “Fox News Lite” than “Fox News North.” Can you even do a (somewhat) polite, (mostly) respectful, (sometimes) thoughtful version of Fox News? These hosers are damn well going to try.

So far they’ve only hit on the big hot-button issues that resonate among Canadian conservatives; tomorrow they’re going to have to start covering the election. And when they do, the Canadian political establishment will start paying attention.

But will I? Watching Sun News tonight was fun, in the sort of way watching a car wreck on the freeway is fun. But Ezra’s going to have to do better than a lame attempt at angering Muslims if he wants me to tune in again.

Cross-posted at Dirty Hippies.

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By Daniel Tencer | March 29, 2011 - 12:16 am - Posted in Antics and Pedantics

The Financial Times reports on an existential crisis in the modern economy:

[B]logger Dan Mirvish spotted an odd pattern: if [Anne] Hathaway is in the news, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway stock jumps too.

“On the Friday before the Oscars,” he wrote, “Berkshire shares rose a whopping 2.02 per cent.” And the Monday after they shot up 2.94 per cent more. Coincidence? Mr Mirvish thought not, and pointed the finger at confused robotraders – the complex algorithms that execute 70 per cent of stock trades, sometimes by scanning news stories for trends.

Just imagine harried executives at struggling motor giant Ford, unexpectedly boosted by news of a new Indiana Jones sequel. Or Rupert Murdoch, pleasantly amazed that, even though Megan Fox turned down Transformers 3, the mere story boosted his holdings….

Ah yes, high-frequency trading, a.k.a. robotraders — the very same ghosts in the machine who caused the flash crash last year, when the Dow Jones dropped some six hundred points in five minutes, only to recover it all in the span of a few seconds. Genius, those strings of code.

It used to be that stock market indices were meant to signify something. The market value of corporations is technically what they were supposed to measure, but in reality they were more an indicator of the direction of industries and the economy as a whole, to the extent that was reflected in the mood of investors. A vague indicator, to be sure, but useful all the same.

But now, as FT noted above, the vast majority of shares traded on the markets are moved around by computer algorithms in split-second decisions no human ever sees (most of those trades carried out on behalf of largely the same financial institutions who nearly ruined the global economy in 2008, before being bailed out by loans underwritten by the people the banks’ actions had thrown out of work).

But I digress. The point here is that, with the work of determining stock value taken almost entirely out of human hands, the stock market’s value is beginning to reflect something, well, inhuman. What can it be said to reflect now? Does it have anything to do with the actual health of the companies being traded, or the overall economy, anymore? Does becoming a billionaire in the markets today depend on nothing more than spotting upwardly-trending keywords on Google and hashtags on Twitter? Is this basic element of our economy — the stock market — nothing more than a lunatic asylum?

Granted, the financial firms can always improve their algorithms, make them smarter, less susceptible to simple-minded linkages like “Anne Hathaway”and “Berkshire Hathaway.” But if that happens, will we have any idea whether or not stock values are once again reflecting anything meaningful? Or will they simply be insane in some other way, one that isn’t so easily detected by a blogger?

Better yet, could we just get rid of high-frequency trading altogether and go back to the days when humans did the actual trading, basing those trades on notions having at least something to do with the companies whose stocks they were trading? According to the banking industry, no we can’t. From Reuters:

Regulators should stem the growing tide of anonymous stock-trading and consider imposing fees on high-frequency traders, said a panel of experts advising how to avoid another “flash crash.”

…Yet many of the ideas issued on Friday called only for “consideration” or “further study” — potentially raising more questions as the first anniversary of the May 6 flash crash nears.

“I don’t think it’s possible to prevent another one from happening,” said Adam Sarhan, chief executive of Sarhan Capital in New York.

No, of course not — robotrading is just a force of nature now, unstoppable, part of the natural order of things, just as it has been for, oh, about five years or so.

U.S. regulators were cautious about some of the boldest recommendations, including new fee structures to encourage liquidity and discourage high numbers of order cancellations.

“I do not know where we as a commission would come down on fees,” Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro told reporters after meeting with the panel.

Yes, God forbid we do anything that’s “bad for business.” Never mind that doing nothing allows the stock market to be turned into a fiscal circus, a total fantasy — that’s not bad for business at all, apparently.

Put another way: If we can’t even trust the Dow Jones to tell us anything other than who’s hosting the Oscars this year, then how can we tell how the economy is doing? How do we get out of this mess if we can’t even tell when we’ve gotten out of this mess?

Cross-posted at Dirty Hippies.

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By Daniel Tencer | August 5, 2010 - 12:36 am - Posted in Smells Like North

I was going to stay away from the pedantic yet strangely compelling controversy over Canada’s census, that entirely unlikely hero of the summer news cycle, involving statisticians arguing with politicians over data reliability and whatnot.

But I can’t keep silent after what our dear Minister for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Treasury Board president said yesterday.

Keep in mind, the reason the Conservative government gave for switching from a mandatory census long form to a voluntary long form was all about privacy. It was absolutely wrong, the Tories said repeatedly in identical-sounding sound bites, to threaten someone with jail time for not divulging how many bedrooms they had in their house.

OK, fair enough, I suppose. Not exactly at the top of my list of government outrages, but a fair, if minor, point all the same. But check out what Stockwell Day had to say on Tuesday:

The Conservative government says it won’t compromise and keep the long-form census mandatory and may actually consider scrapping it altogether.

Treasury Board President Stockwell Day says some European countries have found other ways of collecting data which Statistics Canada compiles by compelling co-operation under threat of fine or jail.

“We’ve also looked at the fact that with the high degree of sophistication and integration of computerization and data these days, do you need to go through that whole process at all?” he said at a news conference Tuesday.

“Countries like Norway, Denmark, have dispensed with this type of information-gathering years ago,’” he added.

Hold on a second here. The reason that many European countries have done away with the census is that they data-mine other sources for information — everything from banking records to school attendance sheets. In some European countries, you are required by law to register with the police when you change addresses. Police files, therefore, are a useful source of demographic information.

Is this the sort of privacy protection that our dear head treasurer envisions? Is this really better than a never-used provision in the law that allows for jail time if you don’t respond to a mandatory census form?

I don’t think the Conservatives’ aim in switching from a mandatory to a voluntary census was really to reduce government intrusion into our private lives. That was made pretty clear when the Conservatives rejected a compromise that would see jail lifted as a penalty for not filling out the long form — a purely symbolic move, since plenty of people refuse or fail to fill out the long form and no one is ever prosecuted. But the Tories said no, it’s not the jail time, it’s the principle of the thing.

Well clearly it isn’t the principle of the thing either. Because what Stockwell Day has suggested is the single largest expansion of government intrusion into our private lives in Canadian history. Right now we have a census that collates anonymous data — it collects info on your household, but doesn’t link it to your name or social insurance number. When the Tories get their way and Statistics Canada starts collecting data from our bank records, our hospital records, our school records, etc., etc., there will be no way to be certain that our privacy is guaranteed. In fact, our privacy, by definition, won’t be guaranteed.

There are only two possibilities here: Either the Conservatives have no grasp whatsoever on the issue on which they’ve decided to stake their reputation, or they are out and out lying about their motivations.

I think the former is likelier. This was a decision made on a whim by a libertarian wind that blows through this government, and when the issue became much larger than the PMO ever expected, they decided to stubbornly (stupidly) defend their position to the end. So they are grasping for reasons why they did this, one day telling us they’re protecting our freedoms, the next day unwittingly threatening to take them away.

But the latter is also possible. If they are lying about their motivations, then to what end? The conspiracists out there argue that Harper’s Tories want to degrade the quality of data. One argument is that, by harming the quality of data, you harm the ability of governments to provide services — a very good condition to have in place if you want to argue, down the road, in favor of privatization of government services.

The other argument is that the Tories simply don’t want to see more detailed information about marginalized communities, poverty, growing visible minority groups, and so on. Statistical press releases declaring “Poverty up in aboriginal communities” puts pressure on the Conservative government to do things it doesn’t want to do, like help people.

I don’t know. You can speculate until the cows come home as to the secret motives of policymakers and never get any closer to the truth. But at this point I am at least certain of this much: The Tories’ census decision is a political, fiscal and practical mistake.

A fiscal mistake, in that the new voluntary census will cost $30 million more than the old mandatory one; hardly a sharp move from a government that just finished lecturing the rest of the world on fiscal responsibility.

A practical mistake, in that anyone who knows anything about this will tell you that the next set of census data will be incomparable to earlier sets; Canada will be in a fog of ignorance as to social, demographic and cultural trends.

And a political mistake, in that the Tories, instead of wisely accepting a compromise that should have satisfied their professed concerns, have decided to fight an all-out war over this one, a war that could end up with the largest intrusion into Canadians’ privacy ever.

If that happens — if it turns out Stockwell Day is talking about real government policy, and not just talking out of his ass like he usually does (see Day’s claim that Statistics Canada is lying about Canada’s dropping crime rate because people are not reporting crimes, something for which he himself has no evidence) — then the Tories will have blindly, arrogantly, stubbornly and pointlessly walked us into this disaster.

For that, they would deserve nothing less than an electoral booting.

UPDATE

This completely slipped my mind: Britain’s new Tory-LibDem coalition government is planning to scrap the census. Here’s how they plan to cull statistical data from now on (from the Telegraph):

The Government is examining different and cheaper ways to count the population more regularly, using existing public and private databases, including credit reference agencies….

Mr Maude said the Census was “out of date almost before it has been done” and was looking at ways to count the population more frequently — perhaps every five years — using databases held by credit checking firms, Royal Mail, councils and Government.

The post office? It’s no secret at this point that the UK has had a penchant for authoritarianism in recent years, what with their huge databases of children’s fingerprints, plans to track every vehicle in the country, and even different laws for different people, but tracking the population through addresses on envelopes? Wow.

As for using “government” databases, I imagine that could mean anything from your medical records to your criminal rap sheet to your history of drawing unemployment insurance. If this is what Stockwell Day has in mind, he damn well better come up with a better excuse than safeguarding privacy, because this is one government policy that clearly does the opposite.

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By Daniel Tencer | July 13, 2010 - 12:20 pm - Posted in Antics and Pedantics

Here is Omar Khadr’s explanation to the as to why he fired his lawyers last week and declared he doesn’t recognize the authority of the Gitmo military tribunal process, as told to the tribunal itself (via CP):

Your honour, I’m boycotting this military commission because, firstly, the unfairness and unjustice of it.

I say this because not one of the lawyers I’ve had, or human rights organizations, or any person, ever say that this commission is fair or looking for justice, but on the contrary they say it’s unfair and unjust and that it has been constructed to convict detainees, not to find the truth (so how can I ask for justice from a process that does not have it or offer it) and to accomplish political and public goal.

And what I mean is when I was offered a plea bargain, it was up to 30 years which I was going to spend only five years so I asked why the 30 years. I was told it make the U.S. government look good in the public eyes and other political causes.

Secondly: The unfairness of the rules that will make a person so depressed that he will admit to alligations [sic] made upon him or take a plea offer that will satisfy the U.S. government and get him the least sentence possible and legitimize this sham process.

Therefore I will not willingly let the U.S. government use me to fulfil its goal. I have been used many times when I was a child and that’s why I’m here taking blame and paying for things I didn’t have a choice in doing but was told to do by elders.

Lastly I will not take any plea offer because it will give excuse for the government for torturing and abusing me when I was a child.

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By Daniel Tencer | July 8, 2010 - 3:52 pm - Posted in Antics and Pedantics

Saramago's Jesus

Saramago's Jesus

Back in 1962, Hugh Hefner wrote an editorial in his wildly successful skin rag that came to be known as the “Playboy Philosophy.” It’s a long, rambling and well-composed defense of what the magazine does, and among the many things Hefner wrote in it was this:

It was disconcerting when we first discovered that many of those who consider nudity and obscenity nearly synonymous often drag God’s name into the act—this struck us, and strikes us still, as a particularly blatant bit of blasphemy. The logic that permits a person to call down God’s wrath on anyone for displaying a bit of God’s own handiwork does, we must admit, escape us. If the human body—far and away the most remarkable, the most complicated, the most perfect and the most beautiful creation on this earth—can become objectionable, obscene or abhorrent, when purposely posed and photographed to capture that remarkable perfection and beauty, then the world is a far more cockeyed place than we are willing to admit.

Perhaps the rise of the religious right in the US as a political force over the last generation has put the fear of Old Testament God into the folks at Playboy; perhaps the magazine has just grown stodgy and old. But the publication’s declaration that it’s going to discontinue its Portuguese edition because the cover of the latest issue features Jesus holding a topless young lady is a clear sign that the Playboy Philosophy no longer applies.

This cover, part of a pictorial set that places Jesus in sexually suggestive situations that appears inside the issue (more pics here), is a tie-in to the recently deceased Jose Saramago’s novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

The book, which I haven’t read, evidently portrays Jesus as humanly fallible, and susceptible to earthly desires. Not very different, from what I can tell, from Kazantsakis’ Last Temptation of Christ. In that it’s hard to imagine Playboy shutting down an edition of its magazine for running stills from the 1988 movie of Last Temptation, I would say the magazine has either become hypocritical, or made a rash decision.

Not to mention that Saramago is a cultural god in Portugal, especially now, in the wake of his death. I would say Playboy made a mistake in potentially alienating the country from its brand by censoring Saramago, but given how quickly the company was willing to shut down the Portuguese edition, I’d say it doesn’t much care about the Portuguese market.

Playboy is, of course, free to censor itself all it wants, so long as it doesn’t attempt to censor anyone else. But given the print magazine’s struggle to find relevance in the age of Internet erotica, you’d think it would be happy to court controversy, to ruffle a few feathers and in the process attract some much-needed attention to itself. But apparently you’d be wrong.

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CNN reports:

The highest-ranking official accused of collusion with gangs that terrorized the central city of Chongqing has been executed, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

Wen Qiang, 55, former director of the Chongqing Justice Bureau, had been convicted of corruption charges involving organized crime, Xinhua said. He was sentenced to death by a lower court April 14 for accepting bribes, shielding criminal gangs, rape and failing to account for his cash and assets, the news agency said.

Wen lost an appeal May 21. He was executed in Chongqing on Wednesday.

Setting aside the debate over the death penalty for the moment, I think China may be on to something here in its approach to corruption in government. The highest-ranking official got the stiffest penalty — the exact opposite of what we do here in the West, where the highest-ranking officials are protected and mid-level fall guys are sent to prison.

Note, also, that the “godmother” of the organized crime ring that Wen Qiang was involved in received only 18 months in jail. The courts saw a government official’s involvement in a crime ring as a far more serious crime than actually running a crime ring — and rightly so. This guy was the equivalent of a state prosecutor, after all.

In theory, the same principles should apply in the West. But to believe that they do would be delusional. Just look at Plamegate — Scooter Libby was convicted for a crime that any reasonable person would conclude fell on the shoulders of Dick Cheney. And in Canada the sponsorship scandal was even more egregious: A bunch of advertising execs went to jail, but the prime minister who presided over the government that handed out $100 million in taxpayers’ money to political allies in Montreal was absolutely immune from criticism, and even had the temerity to mock the inquiry into the scandal with a lesson in the protocols of receiving golf balls as gifts.

So China’s philosophy of actually holding accountable the people it pays to be accountable is commendable. One has to wonder, though, how far up the ladder that philosophy holds: If Premier Wen Jiabao was found to be running a smuggling racket, would China put him to death?

All the same, it would be nice to see our teetering, inflexible, corruption-ridden Western democracies take a page out of China’s book on this one.

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By Daniel Tencer | July 3, 2010 - 12:39 pm - Posted in Newsburger

My “No Country for Anyone Award” goes to … the Maldives, where in late May a man named Mohamed Nazim declared during a lecture that he was invoking his freedom of conscience, and leaving the Muslim faith. Nazim

was promptly attacked, taken into custody, and has been threatened with death and beheading, or other punishments for choosing his freedom of conscience.  Maldives media are reporting that it is the first time in many hundreds of years that a Maldivian has publicly renounced Islam, since Sultan King Hassan IX converted to Christianity in 1552 and was deposed. The Maldives constitution mandates that all citizens of Maldives must be Muslims.

Some time later, after undergoing “Islamic counseling” at the hands of the Maldivian government, Nazim publicly renounced his apostasy.

Nazim was brought before Maldivian media to make a statement to the press about his “reversion” to Islam, while the police are still deciding whether or not to bring criminal charges against Mohamed Nazim for choosing his freedom of conscience. A Maldivian lawyer previously told the Maldives press that Mohamed Nazim had to be given such government “Islamic counseling” before capital punishment charges were considered against Mohamed Nazim for “apostasy.”

Just as Winston Smith in 1984 could be made to believe that four fingers are really five, and just as he could be taught to embrace the all-encompassing love of Big Brother, so too was Nazim made to believe that his freedom of conscience is a perversity — one that can be easily cured by the all-encompassing love of God. (H/t P.Z. Myers)

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By Daniel Tencer | June 30, 2010 - 10:59 am - Posted in Antics and Pedantics

The official story on the “secret” expansion of the Public Works Protection Act has changed. The Star now reports that the law’s expansion applied only to the area inside the fence, not within five meters of the fence, as had been reported.

“The point is, those mass arrests in the streets of Toronto that occurred during the summit were under the authority of the Criminal Code, not the so-called sweeping powers that actually don’t exist,” the Star quotes provincial government spokeswoman Laura Blondeau.

This is somewhat misleading. First of all, it’s not that they “don’t exist” — their limits were not properly explained.

Secondly, this is not actually a surprise. Since it was understood that the law applied only within five meters of the fence, and most of the arrests took place nowhere near the fence, they obviously didn’t take place under that power. Until Laura Blondeau denied it, I hadn’t thought that anyone was making that claim.

As for the arrests taking place “under the authority of the Criminal Code,” perhaps someone could explain to me where in the Criminal Code it says you can be arrested for the crime of crossing Spadina at Queen. I don’t recall the Emergencies Act being invoked. But then again, given how much information the government has been offering us with regards to changes to the law … who knows?

There is (at least) one other question here: If the law didn’t apply anywhere outside the fence, then how did Dave Vasey get arrested under that law, outside the fence?

Maybe it had something to do with the chief of police himself seemingly believing that this law applied outside the fence.

“The information I was given when I was first advised of the regulation is that it pertained to an area of five metres outside the perimeter of the fence,” Blair said Tuesday.

“Once that information was clarified to us, we immediately notified all of our officers by a directive about the appropriate application of that regulation.”

Wow. So who misled whom? Did the provincial cabinet mislead Blair about the scope of the temporary powers? Did Blair mislead the public when he needed to explain an unjustified arrest? Or was it just a big misunderstanding — so big, in fact, that one has to question the competence of these people?

The message coming out of Queen’s Park and the police is very strange and frankly I’m not sure I believe any of it. They told us one thing when they needed to justify an arrest; they told us another when the initial explanation got a worse reception than the arrest itself.

It’s amazing what a total pig’s breakfast our officials have made of this whole thing. I doubt this story is over.

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