Monday, March 30, 2009

Are the Borders going Bananas!

A lot of political border decisions have been made recently that defy logic.

George Bush entered Canada a couple weeks ago to give his first post-presidency speech. Protests and indignation about his war criminal past abounded. His questionable record and presidency aside, if he was denied entry, the only pleasure I would derive from it would be the humiliation factor. I'd probably disagree with the decision, solely based on the fact that I'd want to hear what he has to say about all of his mistakes and the mess he left behind. I'd also disagree with a refusal of Bush based on principals of free speech, not rocking the boat, and keeping our ties sane with the USA.

It seems the Canadian border officials have a double standard however. It has no problems slapping another ally in the face by rejecting one of their ministers. British Minister George Galloway has been denied entry into Canada because he helped deliver humanitarian aid to dying, suffering and starving Palestinians during the Israeli invasion.

I don't know where this decision is coming from. It's easy enough to blame Stephen Harper. The free speech stifling is in line with his Bush-style rule and Israel-can-do-no-wrong political stance, but I'm painfully aware of the rigidity and questionable decision making processes of Canada's Immigration officials, as well as the Canadian government's inability to get involved. In immigration matters, the Canadian government has a hands-off approach like one would expect in high-profile police investigations or criminal court proceedings.

I do however think this should be a rallying cry for Liberals and New Democrats. If they can't organize a true coalition, then at least unite in some of your criticisms. This is one of a dozen potential overthrow issues, get down to it and start criticizing.

Surprisingly, the madness is not just restricted to Canada. The British minister may be getting denied for sympathizing with a suffering group of people, but it's not the worst immigration decision made in the past weeks.

South Africa, Africa's shining beacon of fairness, equality and human rights, denied entrance to the Dalai Lama last week! I'm shaking my head right now. It defies logic! I might at least understand denying entrance to, say, Winnie Mandela. Or even the Pope into an African country hard hit by the HIV epidemic. But the Dalai Lama? The man whose country was invaded by China, and has for years preached a peaceful resolution. A man who more than any other, and perhaps only seconded by Nelson Mandela himself, symbolizes peace and forgiveness and everything that's good about the world.

Who made that decision?

Qatar, meanwhile, is hosting none other than the man recently indicted for War Crimes by the ICC, Omar Al Bashir.

Are the borders going bananas?

Friday, March 27, 2009

The search for the perfect car...

My wife and I are looking at new cars, or perhaps even slightly used ones.

Our range is as small as the Honda Civic and as big as the Suburu Forrester SUV.

Considerations.

Price: While lower is better, our price maximum hovers around $25,000.

Reliability: Toyota and Honda lead the pack in reliability. Based solely on the reliability factor, I've discounted buying any US car company vehicles.

Economy: Fuel efficient is better. While my wife wants an automatic, I'm all for the more efficient manual transmission. Manual cars usually rate higher on reliability too.

Size: Bigger is better, we are a family.

Perks: It's nice to have base models with AC, cruise, a storage area for an ipod, heated seats, etc.

Comfort/Ride: Not a big deal for me, but something my wife is adamant about, thus her desire for an automatic.

Incentives: There are murmurs of various government incentives to boost the car industry. While I've got negative opinions on whether the government should actually do this, I wouldn't complain of having a few thousand bucks knocked off a car I was buying.

Other smaller factors are: Asthetic appeal, accident avoidance, acceleration, owner costs, possible built in Canada/America incentives; and financing options.

With these considerations, I bought a one month membership on the site consumerreports.org It cost six or seven dollars. I think I have to cancel it because it automatically renews. For another fifty dollars, you can ask for the exact dealer costs on four models. The following four are what we currently are considering asking about:

Honda Civic: The first car I ever owned, and later, the first car my wife and I bought together were Civics. Fuel efficient, affordable, top marks in reliability and familiarity are what the Civic has going for it. While the downsides are size and perks. Civic's base models are just that, very basic, and we'll have to get some upgrades which will push the price upwards. Civics are a good prospect for government incentives, with SI models built in Canada, and other models built in the US.

Honda Accord: The Accord scores high marks in reliability and the size is definitely better than the Civic. The price is pushing our maximum, although we can always bargain. Fuel efficiency, while not the super Civic, is good. One worry I have with the Accord is a big drop off in ratings between the Manual and Automatic transmissions. Manual is definitely the way to go for this car. While not built in Canada, they are built in Ohio, and most probably with some Canadian parts.

Nissan Altima: The Altima's upsides are that it has a good basic options plan and they offer zero percent financing for three years. A price question mark is that I don't know how low they'll go with the financing option vs cash outright. They are the sleekest looking car of the ones we are looking at and score top marks in comfort. Reliability, while historically good, is a little less certain than Hondas. The price is pushing our limits too, with the quoted total price from the dealer being around 29K, although we'd ideally bargain down below our maximum. Altima's are built in Japan, so potential government incentives may not apply.

Subaru Forrester: When I think of Subaru's, I think of sturdy vehicles that can go offroad - basically, a base model rally vehicle.The Forrester is the highest overall rated SUV in its class (small SUV) according to Consumer Reports, and though it says small, it feels bigger than the CRV or Rav4. They tend to have the best base options plan of the bunch, with cruise, heated seats, AC, and a cool hidden area to connect an ipod. It's the biggest vehicle we're looking at. For all those great perks, the downsides are, a big vehicle means less fuel efficiency. Another factor is potential resale value, which could be seriously downgraded if we have another oil price surge. Reliability is said to be good, although again, it's not a Honda or a Toyota. While I dream of a Land Cruiser, my pocketbook says Forrester. I believe it's built in Japan, thus might be exempt from potential gov't incentives.


Cars still on the radar, but not quite on the list...

Toyota Camry and Corolla: The Camry ratings are a little lower than expected. Reliability doesn't get top marks, like one would expect, and for everything it has, the Accord is just a little better. The Corolla stacks up similarly as not quite the Honda Civic. Still, they're worth watching for potential Canadian-made government incentives, particularly the Canadian made Corollas.

Honda CRV: While rated very higly and getting top marks in reliability, my wife finds them uncomfortable. My problem with the CRV is it doesn't hit me as a real SUV ala something I can take offroad and have fun with. While I wouldn't necessarily go rallying if we bought a Forrester, it's nice to have some offroad faith in a vehicle.

Volkswagen Jetta: The Turbo diesel really appeals to me, and the Jetta price is in our range. The downsides are reliability is tough to determine on the updated model, and I'm under the impression that replacement parts are costly for VWs. This could be a stereotype, but it's a factor in my decision, just like the stereotype of American cars being junkers has made me discount them. The big draw for a VW is that my journey was done in an old VW Beetle, the Beach Buggy, and it therefore has a lot of nostalgic value. Though the sporty Golf would maximize this feeling, however the car we will eventually buy is more for my wife than for me. Instead of buying a dub right now, a dream I'll hold onto is to one day fly down to Mexico, buy an old VW Beetle, and drive it back to Canada.

Other factors at play here are: I'm expecting to hear an overdue job offer any day now; The potential government incentives may never materialize; Is the recent stock market rally a blip in the downward trend or the start of a bullish recovery?; Whether an unbelievable deal on a lightly used car drops onto my lap (and I still swear that I won't buy from the big three). And finally, who will give me the closest price point to the actual dealer cost of a vehicle.

Then there's always the possibility of an about turn by my wife to buy a cheaper, smaller, used vehicle in the 10k range to tie us over until we are more settled...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Bashir Arrest Warrant.

I think it's about time, but I also wonder what's the point.

The timing is as right as any to sign an arrest warrant for one of the worst tyrants currently in power, if not the worst.

Six months ago, the timing was wrong.

This is not because he was less guilty, but because his ability to rouse anti-US sentiment is substantially weakened today due to the American political shift. The world is still awestruck by Barack Obama, whereas George Bush was extremely unpopular.

The result, the arrest warrant now appears less like some American-led conspiracy to break apart the Muslim world and steal oil, and more like a decision based on Omar Al-Bashir's genocidal record.

While Bashir attempts to conjure up the victimized image, fewer people are likely to buy it.

Then again, aside from limiting his travel options, does the arrest warrant for war crimes and crimes against humanity really serve any purpose other than riling him up? Worst case scenario, he boots out all foreign presence in Darfur and goes for that elusive title of genocidal maniac.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Bell Button

Sometimes phone lines get wet and start to crackle, or not work at all. To correct this, Bell used to tell their consumers to unplug all the phones. They would send an electric shock through the phone lines to zap all the water out of the system. If the phones were plugged in, they got fried.

I wish I had access to that magic button that sends electric shocks through the phone lines. I'd use it to zap those con-artist phone numbers where a machine tells me I've won a cruise, or my car insurance is about to expire, or my credit card is overdue, or whatever BS they're pushing.

Zap... BANG!

That's for costing me another fifty cents on my pay as you go plan, wankers!

Is failure in Afghanistan Inevitable?

It was shortly after the big Y2K scare that I was in Zimbabwe. I went to visit the ruins just south of Masivingo. A Zimbabwean guide walked with me through the low-cut grass, up the nearby escarpment where the long-forgotten king had resided, and to the great Zimbabwe wall. He explained the former kingdom, and concepts such as how the rocks were broken with fire and water in order to build the impressive towering wall.

During a break in the tour, as we sat on a jutting rock that overlooked the valley below, I asked him what he though of Robert Mugabe.
"We are at peace," he said, " and I am happy for that, so I support Mugabe."

After having read the BBC and other foreign newspapers calling Mugabe a crazed tyrant, the young man's answer surprised me. While this was in Zimbabwe, he could just as easily have been an Afghanistan guide in the very same year, supporting the Taliban.

I blogged some time ago about Harper's mistakes in Afghanistan.

Some time before that, it was Jack Layton who said success in Afghanistan meant bringing the Taliban on board. Layton was immediately lambasted by Stephen Harper, called Taliban Jack, an extremist sympathizer, and every other name in the book.

So I find it serendipitous that now, Stephen Harper admits the Taliban can't be beaten. The Taliban can't be beaten, under fair international rules anyhow, for many reasons: They're hard to find and have safe havens just across the border in Pakistan; they can create converts faster than we can destroy them; and perhaps most importantly, they provide an alternative that no matter how many downfalls it has, has upsides too.

The first upside is that, under the Taliban, Afghanistan saw it's first 'relatively' peaceful times in memory. The Taliban's extreme religious beliefs and archaic interpretations of Islam also brought extreme justice. While women were downtrodden, justice was archaic, and social freedoms abysmal, the archaic justice kept people in line, and that meant peace.

The allied alternative presents social freedoms, women's rights, democracy, generous rebuilding programs and a theoretically fairer justice system. On the downside, as long as the Taliban lurk in the shadows blowing things up, targeting civilians, and causing havoc, we can't provide the one thing they could, peace.

But the allied alternative fails in other ways. Leniency led to corruption, which has replaced fear of reprisal that existed under the Taliban. Essentially, people are a lot less willing to steal when the last guy who got caught had his right hand chopped off.

I've always believed that in order to defeat the Taliban, the allied forces had to present a better alternative and win over Afghanistan ideologically. Having starting off with a war, they were on the back foot to begin with. Meanwhile, the Taliban saw it in their best interests to cause chaos at every opportunity because that meant, at the very least, the allied forces couldn't provide peace, which was the one thing the Taliban had provided.

So do the allies need to bring the Taliban on board?

It is an unpleasant prospect. It was Taliban support of Osama Bin Laden that got them invaded in the first place, and deservedly so. Their ideology is the opposite of what many Western ideals preach. Among their many unconscionable crimes against humanity, they target girls seeking education, and civilians in crowded places.

My biggest fear, if forced to deal with the Taliban, is their unwavering ideology. The progresses we have made could be turned back. Worst of all, we'd be giving into people who actively supported attacking us.

I fear the Taliban are no longer a political force, but an ideologically driven force bent on purging Western influences and the Western invasion. I fear negotiation isn't in their interest, purging Muslim lands of Western influence and setting up a Bin-Laden inspired Islamic Republic complete with violent ideologies is. They hate us and everything we stand for, and vice versa. At worst, this means that the trust isn't their to even open negotiations. At best, it means we're in for some tough concessions.