Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Canadian Afghan transfer report.

It has recently come to light that the Canadian conservative government, at best turned a blind eye to Canada's policy of transferring prisoners to Afghan authorities, despite knowing the prisoners were almost certain to be tortured or killed. At worst, our government encouraged this policy.
For me, there's a much bigger issue. We went into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban, and in doing so, replace them with a better regime. A regime with respect for international law, who didn't harbour evil men who commit murder at will. Instead, we are now helping a different, but not necessarily less evil group of thugs, carry out their dirty work.

Our mission has failed!

We have even sunk lower than the Human Rights abuses committed by our American neighbours. Guantanimo may be wrong, but prisoners are not tortured to death, just tortured. In Iraq, as in any dirty and prolonged war, American transgressions are inevitable. What makes Canada's prison transfer to Afghan authorities worse is that the US government makes an effort to hold its soldiers accountable for their abuses. The Canadian government IS accountable for the terrible deaths of Afghan prisoners transferred into the wrong hands. They knew what was going on, and rubber stamped their approval.
It's a sad day for me. I had supported our committment to rebuilding Afghanistan. I was under the impression that we were doing the right thing.
The current Afghan regime is more corrupt than the Taliban.
The curreng regime abuses human rights more freely than the terrible Taliban did. At least the Taliban seemed to have a Sharia court system, which is far from ideal, but at least it's a judicial process. There seems to be no such thing now. Guilty until proven innocent is preferrable to guilty until proven dead. Or for the lucky ones, guilty until enough bribe money is paid.

Thanks to Harper and his government's complicity, this is the first time I've joined the chorus of people calling for Canada to leave Afghanistan. Up until now I was a staunch supporter of our idealogical mission to rebuild the country and help the long-suffering Afghani people. We haven't improved things, we've been contributing to an equally evil problem. Sure, we built a school or fixed a road. We've fought the Taliban who murder civilians to make political points. But we are no better because of our treatement of those suspected of being part of the Taliban. If our boys are not there to make things better, its time get the hell out!

Stephen Harper, you have blood on your hands. Not only Afghan blood, but Canadian blood, for such brutal policy will only beget brutal retaliation. Be it against our soldiers in Afghanistan, or against our civilians in Canada.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Remembering Zimbabwe

It was the year 2000. I'd bought a bright yellow beach buggy in South Africa. BeitBridge, an easy going border post by African Standards, was my first stop as I crossed the border to Zimbabwe. At the time, Zimbabwe was still relatively stable. White farmers were afraid of a referendum on whether the government should seize their land or not.
The referendum took place two days after I arrived. The vote was "No."
Zimbabwe was suffering from its first petrol crises. Having not paid their bills, fuel shortages started to occur throughout the country. In the tiny boot of the buggy were two full Gerry cans in case I ran into problems, though I never did.
Children, dressed in neat uniforms, waited for school busses by the roadside. They danced, clapped and cheered when they saw my funky yellow car approaching.

Zimbabweans are some of the friendliest people I've come across in all my travels. They seemed tolerant and relaxed, a nice break from the post-appartheid frustration that I felt still simmering across the border in South Africa.
"At least we are at peace," my Zimbabwean guide told me when I asked him about politics. "That is why I support Mugabe."
He led me around the Great Wall of Zimbabwe and up into the nearby hills, explaining the high-ground stronghold of the long-ago African kingdom.

Back in 2000, there was still optimism. President Robert Mugabe, though he'd made some alarming decisions, stomped on a few political freedoms and began down the path of tyranny, was still a respected war hero who hadn't yet decimated the country. Zimbabwe was still the bread basket of Southern Africa. The thriving agricultural economy that had been built up by British settlers was a model for surrounding countries.
Despite the referendum's "No" result, Mugabe immediatly passed legislature allowing the white-owned farm seizures to go ahead. The economy went from major food producer to net importer of food within the span of a few years.

It can be argued that native Zimbabweans were only getting back what was stolen from them more than a century ago. In what became Rhodesia, all land and cattle was seized by British settlers, who, despite being much smaller in number, devastated the local King's army with some of the first high powered machine guns to be used in a war.
I do agree that land should be reallocated to the locals it was once taken from. But the method was an obvious failure: akin to taking a forest's worth of English books and distributing them to illiterate people as compensation for not teaching them.
What are illiterate people going to do with books?
What are city people going to do with acres of land and no money or tools or clue as how to maintain it?

Since the land seizures, Zimbabwe has gone from break basket to basket case. Millions of Zimbabweans have migrated to surrounding countries, mostly South Africa. 80% of Zimbabweans live below the poverty line. In 2000, Victoria Falls had been bustling with travellers staying in hotels and campsites, but it is now a virtual ghost town.
The once magnificent national parks are being poached to near extinction to fill empty stomachs.
Inflation, the highest in the world, is currently somewhere around 1600% per year.
There were still coins in circulation when I visited in 2000. US$1 equalled Zim$30. On the black market, it now equals between 25,000 and 35,000 - and that's after chopping three zeros off the currency in 2006. Based on that, the currency has gone from thirty to thirty million to the dollar in seven years.

I visited Zimbabwe briefly late in 2002, taking a quick detour from Mozambique. At the border, I needed car insurance and they accepted either South African Rand, or US dollars. The rate at which they accepted the two currencies varied dramatically, and was perhaps closer to the exchange rate between the currencies five years previously.
They didn't accept their own currency, or Mozambiques. (I was at the Mozambique Zimbabwe border)
For some reason, despite having on-off petrol shortages for years, gas in Zimbabwe was the cheapest in the world. It cost around ten cents a litre for petrol and even less for diesel.
My next pleasant surprise was in Harare, which cost me a few dollars for a few days stay. The highlight was a big steak dinner in an upscale restaurant with big windoes and tablecloths and chandeliers. I washed the meal down with two beers and had ice cream for desert. The best meal I'd had in months came to around one US dollar.
At that time, black market currency was around 500 Zim to the dollar - though the official government rate was around fifty.
Democracy in Zimbabwe seems to have reached an all time low. Even though fixed elections are expected and media freedom is non-existant, severely beating the opposition leader for holding a gathering is a new one. Jailing and threatening, fine, but severely beating him?
The Zimbabwe of old was a pleasure to travel in. Watching cricket in Bulwayo, playing a round of golf in Hwange and sipping coca colas afterwards with my caddy. Sneaking into Victoria Falls National Park at night to view the full moon over the Smoke that Thunders.
I wonder if it will ever come back around?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

London schomdon.

I was playing around with dates on Easyjet, and mentioned London to my wife. We were both keen on the idea, and she still is, but suddenly it hit me, London is just too expensive. I'm used to travelling alone, and in Africa, where a twenty dollar hotel is expensive.
On my Cape Town to England journey, when I got to Europe, my tent came out and I spent the majority of my nights either in campsites, youth hostels, or the best option, crashing for free at a friend's place.
Going to London, the plane tickets might be cheap, but that's about the only thing. To find a hotel, for two people plus a baby, it's sixty pounds a night. It doesn't sound like much - sixty pounds, but that's one-hundred-and-twenty American dollars!
Five nights, that's six-hundred dollars just on hotels.
Add the two hundred bucks for the plane ticket, and we've spent $800.
Food; even if we make two meals a day, which never seems to happen. Probably another fifty bucks a day - $250.
Tourist sites, museums, the London Eye. Say a modest $150.
Transportation, five day transport pass - I'm pretty sure it's not Spain - $200.
Shopping - Baby clothes, Siham clothes, things not available in Morocco.
The real kick in the gut, Siham's visitor's visa - one-hundred pounds - two hundred dollars.
The cheap $200 tickets with Easyjet quickly turned into an $2000 vacation.
I can afford $200. But for $2000, I could probably get a great two-week package deal for Egypt or Turkey or somewhere in Asia.
I could even get to Canada and visit with my family. London, as a single traveller staying with a friend might work. Unfortunately, a family trip there just isn't a viable option for us right now.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Going Sugar Free

For the last eight months, since well before Zack was born, I've been editing the same two Egyptian chapters, which are near the end of my novel. There are a number of excuses as to why I haven't finished them - sheer inability to focus being the leading reason. If I do find time to edit, the writing often hasn't gotten any better, but worse. This is especially because I can't focus for more than ten minutes without an interruption of some sort, and when I do get back to it, hours later, I go on to repeat myself and make things worse.

I'm having more trouble with Egypt's chapters than any other in my book. Part of it is that I'm trying to condense six months worth of experiences into a couple of chapters, and I keep adding and deleting scenes based on what I feel is important.
It's also my first significant attempt at writing an extended romance, and I've never been great at letting my personal feelings hang out there.

A third reason, I feel, might be my eating habits. A chocolate bar or two usually is my afternoon snack. If there's junk in the house, I eat it. As of now, I'm cutting back my sugar intake to next to zero. No sweets, no cookies, no cakes, no chocolates, no candy, for at least a month. I'll also limit my caffeine to one cup of coffee in the morning.

Starting Monday, we hired a maid/nanny to cook, clean and take care of Zack. (No, I'm not rich, nanny's just cost $100 bucks a month here in Morocco, less than five dollars a day.)

As for right now, I'm going to make a cup of caffeine free rooibos tea, kiss little Zack, and come back to start editing Egypt, hopefully for the last time.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Terrorism ruined my day!

While I haven't suffered the tragic loss so many families of victims have, today is the first day terrorism messed up my plans.
Yesterday, two terrorists blew themselves up near the US consulate in Casablanca. Apparantly, while one distracted the police, the other was trying to get into the American Language Centre. The Police stopped one of them and asked for ID, so rather than bring out their identiy card, they ran away and blew themselves up instead.
They didn't kill anyone else, just themselves. They did manage to slightly injure an elderly lady - because we all know elderly ladies are detrimintal to anarchaic Islamic-fundamentalist societies.

The situation reminds me of Monty Python, The Life of Brian. At the end of the movie, the suicide squad run up to the crucified Brian, who is hanging stuck on the cross and begging for help to get down. Instead of help him, they all stab themselves through the heart and collapse to the ground. "We showed them," the last one says, as he breathes his last breath.

Well, terrorists, you sure showed us.

So how did it ruin my plans? My softball team, the Rebels, play each Sunday at the American School. As a result of terrorist activities near an American run institution in Casablanca, all American institutions are closed. Until when, I'm not sure.

After the game, we planned to meet up at the American Club, a restaurant and pub. But, being American, its also closed.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, the entire kill yourself and take others with you makes little sense to me.

Then again, I've never been brainwashed to carry out an evil deed. Twisting faith to control people has proven to be a powerful tool. I think it was Einstein who said, "There are two things that are infinite - Human Stupidity and the Universe, and I'm not sure about the Universe."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bureaucracy month.

I tried writing about various countries and their bureaucratic hitches in my novel, of which there were many. Gradually, I edited the majority of such descriptions out. They sound whiney and don't make for the most riveting read.

Here in Morocco, its that time of year again. Office after office, place after place. Two years ago, getting marred to Siham introduced me to Moroccan bureaucracy. We spent two weeks, day after day, going from office, to embassy, to ministerial building, to judge, to religious guy, to the photocopier, to the guy who certifies photocopies, to police stations, to doctors, to lawyers, and each place an average of six times, in order to obtain the hundred documents we needed to be married.

This morning, I took my annual trip to the Police station downtown. I had my documents in a folder to reapply for the residency card. There are always at least two trips involved because I am missing something. In this case, a personal letter from my wife.

My insurance expires in a week. So comes the next stage. Then I have to pay the bills, which requires taking a number and waiting, usually about half an hour.

A poem from my journey.

Bureaucracy bureaucracy,
The product of democracy? Theocracy? hypocrisy?
A permit here, a paper there
A hundred dollars everywhere.
Oh please could someone with me share
This endless red tape of despair
It’s causing me to lose my hair.
Is the journey finished?
The dream retired?
Simply because
My papers have expired.
I’m tired of this.
It never ends.
Just get me to Europe
To see my friends.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Terrorism down the road

Morocco is no stranger to terrorism. It struck in 2003, killing 45 people, and resurfaced a few weeks back in the form of a suspected ring leader blowing himself up at an internet cafe. Apparantly the owner interfered with his surfing jihadist websites.
The day after the terror attack, here in Rabat, police stood idly on the streets every few hundred metres. I sometimes wonder whether this is to spread them out so they are not easy targets for mass suicide bombings, but the more likely explanation is they are there to make people feel safe.
And I do feel safe living in Morocco. They have one of the best police communication systems in the world via the blue-jacket information network. The concierges and car guards, who adorn blue jackets and work on every busy street throughout the country, are said to be the eyes and ears of the police.
The general feeling with the government, ie the king, is one of tolerance. Few people speak poorly of the king, although are more critical of the government in general.

In most Western Coutries, it doesn't matter who you are. If you say, "Do you know who I am," to a traffic cop, you're in for trouble. Here in Morocco, the police fumble and mumble and say, "Okay, you can go."

Terrorism is one of those things most people, me included, struggle to comprehend. The horrific murder of innocent people to achieve some political message just doesn't make sense.
I can understand being upset at leaders in the USA, Zimbabwe, or Sudan, for example. Fixed elections, oppressive leadership, corruption, botched wars, idiotic fiscal policies.

But terror attacks are about as successful as putting out a fire with gasoline. Afterwards, people are so filled with shock and horror and outrage that they close their ears to the terrorists political message. They end up hating everything the terrorist stood for. In the end, the conviction of the government to continue the policies that led to terrorism in the first place just gains momentum.
Terrorists attack to protest Palestinian occupation. Fine, not only is Palestine screwed, but Afghanistan is toast, and Iraq after that.

Do Islamic terrorists really believe their sacrifice parallels that of the Muslim prophet, who also stood up to wrongful oppression.

The difference is nobility.

Standing with a small army of followers, yielding a sword and willing to lay down your life to defend your fledgling religion against a huge enemy, proud and unwavering, is noble.
Attaching a bomb to yourself and blowing up innocent people, that is not.

It will never get respect, just outrage.

The cowards.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Africanizing your own scrabble board

I don't mind dishing out $20 or so for a brand new game of scrabble. I've done it on more than one occasion throughout my life. One for home, one for the road...
A friend is visiting for a couple days and Scrabble is one of the games we both like, but we needed a board.
We headed over to the local supermarket and checked out the prices - 450 dirhams - about sixty Canadian dollars, for a game. I've never spent that much on a board game in my life. In Canada, if I searched around, I could probably find it for a quarter that price.
So I decided to improvise. Similar to the guys playing draughts with bottle caps on a painted piece of cardboard, I made my own. It was certainly better than dishing out a weeks salary for the typical Moroccan and cursing every time I opened the box.

Step one: Find the image of a scrabble board on the internet.

Step two: Increase it to a good size so it prints half on one page, half on another - print it.

Step Three: Cut it up and glue it to a folding piece of cardboard.

Step Four: Find images of letters on the internet. Print them so they are the same size as the squares on the scrabble board. Cut them out.

Step five: Cut out pieces of cardboard to the same size as the letters, in my case, 1.5 centimetres.

Step six: Glue the letters onto the cardboard pieces.

Step seven: Put scotch tape over the glued piece so they aren't all sticky.

And there you have it. Your own Scrabble board! Happy Scrabbling.

Goodbye hockey season

Coaching kids hockey in Rabat ended last week. Cheering for my favourite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, ended last night. They were squeezed out of the playoff picture by the New York Islanders.
For me, the reason the Leafs didn't make the playoffs this year lies on the shoulders of their weakest link - goaltender Andrew Raycroft. Statistically, he is one of the weakest starting goaltenders in the entire NHL. 36th out of 44 goalies in Save Percentage, and 32 out of 44 goalies in Goals Against Average, keeping in mind most of the goalies statistically beneath Raycroft are backup goalies who played less than half a season.
The only playoff bound team with weaker goaltending than Toronto is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have the good fortune of two of the top five points scorer in the league. Arguably, the only other team with weaker goaltending is Phoenix. Even lowly Philadelphia has statistically stronger netminding than Toronto.
With playoff hopes dangling by a thread in the last six games - Raycroft single handedly lost a game to Buffalo and was outplayed by the backup rookie on the Islanders in what proved to be the game that cost them the season. He almost blew the last chance game to Montreal except for the Leafs scoring six goals and pulling him in favour of Aubin.
So where does that leave the Leafs for next season?
They can pin their hopes on Raycroft returning to the form that he broke into the NHL with, winning him the Calder trophy two seasons ago.
They can dump him and trade for any number of solid goaltenders who are in a position of fighting for a number one spot on their team. Minnesota, San Jose, Ottawa and Nashville all being in the enviable position of having two strong backstoppers.
Finally, they can dump Raycroft and pin their hopes on one of the kids they have been so optimistic about for the last five years. Just a tiny bit better goaltending would have been the difference between the post season and missing the playoffs by a heartbreaking point, or two, yet again.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Bell heyday is long gone.

There was a time, not long before celphones were in the pockets of billions of people worldwide, that Bell was a big player in the telecommunications industry.

So much has changed.

Bell had power and position every wannabe billionaire envied. I look at their stock today, which has done little in the last seven years, and wonder what they could have been.

They could have taken on Nokia, Motorola et al and been a global mobile phone maker. Instead they chose the media route, newspapers, television and the internet - all subscription businesses that, in theory, combined for strong synergies with their database and subscription management.

Sure, they are somewhat competitive in such industries, but long gone are the days where cash flowed in by the bucketload thanks to their monopoly on long distance call rates.

They could have given us something like the blackberry - proof that the celphone market still has niches that can explode onto the scene.

But they didn't. Their focus has not been a cutting edge developer of technology in our current technology boom. Their focus has been on competing in subscription markets, and even there they missed the boat.

Google and Yahoo, Myspace and Facebook, Youtube and blogging sites, Wikipedia. Skype and other computer based communication tools. They have the customers in their hands, they have first shot at leading them to bell-owned programs - the power to be a major player was in their hands. But what do they have to show for it. Nothing! A bunch of silver linings but no real gold rush.

I'm dissappointed. The once mighty bell has fallen. Ten years ago, after decades of strong growth and even outmanouvering deregulation, they looked to be in prime position to move forward with the technology boom. Instead, they look like little more than an ancient whisper in a rapidly changing world.

The Bell heyday is long gone.


I've been using myspace for months. I hoped friends would show up in my highschool list, and I figured that despite it's numerous faults, was the best option out there.
I was wrong.
Facebook is one-hundred times better, and I'll tell you why.
The highschool section works. It doesn't send you messages that new people are there, yet there are no new people - and the new people listed on myspace have been around for months. I've also come across a dozen good friends from my highschool in three days. I haven't come across a single highschool pal on myspace in over six months.
I edited my myspace page to look cooler, but now certain things don't work. Facebook seems to go by the KISS mentality - Keep It Simple Stupid - You've got your details, your wall, your friends and groups, your mini-feed, photo albums (which aren't restricted to a dozen pics.)
I find the songs and videos distracting on myspace, not to mention they slow the page down.
Myspace videos almost all SUCK! 99% of the time they're not funny, or interesting. They're just irritating, and the popular ones use words like "SEX" or "Funniest thing ever" to get people to click on them. The whole environment reminds me of the kindergarten potty mouth, which might have been funny at the time, but is just annoying now.
Finally, the facebook layout isn't filled with flashing advertisement junk. I'm up to 24 friends in four days and am in touch with my highschool crowd for the first time since leaving Canada over six years ago.
Funnily enough, most of them seem to have joined recently - in the last week or so. Perhaps they all read the same Globe and Mail article that I did.