Sunday, December 28, 2008

Roger Linehan - R.I.P.

I would not have guessed that I would have made a friend through this blog but I did.

A couple of years ago, not long after I started blogging and when I was active on talk radio, I received a very nice email complimenting me on what I had written/said. Well, you don't get these very often so I was quick to respond. Over time we exchanged many emails on the state of politics and the province.

It wasn't until a little more than a year ago that I met the man behind these emails; he chose to run for the Liberal Party in the highly government-friendly seat of Kilbride. Besides running too, I was helping to coordinate the regional campaign and, through that, finally had the opportunity to put a man to those emails.

And that man was interesting, tall, bald, funny, realistic, fiercely partisan, always had a warm smile and was ready to chat anytime.

I liked him.

We continued to talk politics at whatever event we found ourselves, chronically exchanged emails and talked about the future, most recently about his new home reno business in which I had a keen interest (having a house which keenly needs renos).

The last email I received from him was on Christmas Eve. It was to me and others and looked forward to the new year, all the exciting things it would bring and getting together to have a chat to figure out what it all meant.

On Boxing Day, he was killed by a drunk driver. It doesn't get any more senseless than that.

Now we won't have a chance to have that chat and I regret that loss.

My sympathies to his family; we have lost a good man.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Oil don't float, y'all

An historically downtrodden part of the country on the periphery where the locals speak with a funny accent hit it big while the oil price is high. It looks like the region will bypass the economic downturn because of the insatiable need for their natural resources. Developed by prior administrations, oil project cash underwrite a spending spree. The only discontent is from the quarters who believe that low-ball forecast for the price of oil, $84 a barrel, is too pessimistic.

Taxes are cut and spending goes up as the new administration takes on the happy duty of spending a $1 billion surplus, appropriating millions of dollars for highways, education and health.

Then the price goes into a tailspin and the budget has to tighten.

Sound like NL? It does at first blush but welcome to the state of Louisiana. where the total oil take for the state is a modest 17% of the budget compared to the hefty 31% of the NL provincial budget.

The political repercussions are huge. Governor Bobby Jindal (R) has gone from national hero through his keen and prudent management of the Louisiana public purse to the goat scrambling to make ends meet torpedoing his national ambitions. According to this story:
But while the leading good-government group here, citing that addiction, warned last May against the Legislature’s plan for a $360 million income tax cut, Mr. Jindal called the tax break “terrific news” and happily signed it into law as legislators cheered.

Admonitions on fiscal prudence went unheeded, as they have so often here, and the bill is now due. Earlier this year there was an $865 million surplus; now Louisiana has a $341 million shortfall in its current-year budget, and next year the projected deficit is $2 billion.


Mr. Jindal recently pointed out that his state was the only one in the South to regularly lose more people than it gained.

“Anybody paying attention knew we were laying the groundwork for fiscal problems, as we cut taxes and raised spending,” said James C. Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council in Baton Rouge, an independent group in Baton Rouge. “We hate to say, ‘we told you so.’ But unfortunately, we seem to be going right down that boom-and-bust cycle again.”
Those darned boom-and-bust cycles. They always get in the way of historical greatness.

Cap and Gown time

This is the time of year when many high schools across the province hold their cap and gown ceremonies. These are the formal ceremonies when the previous year's graduates return to their schools for the classic diploma awarding. They are held this time of year because students who have gone away for work or school are back for Christmas.

Education policy is an area in which everyone, including me, has an opinion. As a parent and debate coach, I get enormously frustrated at what I see as the slow pace of education and the thin substantive course offerings. A real problem, as far as I'm concerned, is that the system is generally dumbed down and assumes that too many students can't handle a faster pace and heavier content.

I understand full well that many students cannot handle the higher level of academic rigour but the fact is that many students can. Government likes to talk about student achievements but, in many cases, those achievements are in spite of government policies and school programs and not because of them. There are just as many students bored and fed up because they are already two steps ahead of the class as there are students who are bored and fed up because they are two steps behind. The former are left to their own devices because the resources are simply not there for the. Heaps of resources are focused on the bottom third of the student achievement level but the top third is woefully underserved. Existing enrichment programs rarely enrich. They are generally just lackadaisical field trips in which teachers and students enjoy a day out of the classroom.

As for culture of excellence within the school system? In short and in general, it simply does not exist. Sure one can always point to the occasional standout teacher and their students who really do embody excellence but they are just excellent teachers working within mediocrity. There is no generalised culture of education excellence in this province.

When the announcement was made that Holy Heart of Mary might be closing, some of the media chattering classes advocated that it be turned into a provincial high school for the arts. Now that's all fine and dandy but that only satisfies a limited need.

I would much rather see a generalised provincial magnet school of excellence where the very best students from across the province are accepted on an application basis for rigorous specialised programs in fine arts, science and commerce backed by a common foundation program in sound reasoning and academic substance. Any student outside a reasonable geographic limit receives a housing allowance to help equalize the playing field. A proportion of student (and teacher) placements are reserved for those outside the province to add mix, colour and diversity. Teachers (in their prime and not on the cusp of retirement) are accepted to teach for a maximum term of 3 years, renewable for a maximum of one additional term before being rotated back to their original school in order to seed the benefits of their experience back into the system as a whole.

Could this work? I think so. All we'd have to do is override the shortsighted, self serving objections from the teacher's union, the school boards and the Department of Education. Once we stop trying to serve the educational system and its interests and start serving the students and their interests, the solutions become clear.

Who knows? Maybe the 3008 cap and gown ceremony at the Holy Heart of Mary Center of Academic Excellence might look like this.

Oil slides further

If you are a devoted watcher of the oil price widget at the top right, you will have noticed that the price of oil dropped to below $35. And it continues to slide. When will it reach $30?

Given the continued slide, was government's mid-year update unduly optimistic?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lobsters dive

Actually, they just crawl around on the bottom looking for anything they can eat. Their prices, however, dive and rise more like birds.

According to this story in the NY Times, prices are as low as they have been in 25 years:
At his shop, lobsters go for $10.99 a pound, about $3 less than last year — a trend seen all over town. Balducci’s is selling them for $14.99 to $16.99 a pound, $4 less than last year, and at Wild Edibles they are $2 to $3 less, or $13.99 to $15.99 a pound. The Lobster Place, with locations in Chelsea Market and Greenwich Village, is the cheapest of the markets I surveyed, at $7.95 a pound.
And that's after they make the trip from wherever, Maine or NB or even this fair province.

The story of lobster prices was well and truly buried in this government release extolling the amazing feats of the seafood industry due to the fact that "the Williams Administration has been very proactive in doing what is necessary to grow our fishing and aquaculture industries through the Fishing Industry Renewal Strategy" and whatever.

Meanwhile, lobsters are casual food in the Big Apple.

Oil prices hitting new lows

The latest price floor to be broken is the US$40 mark; this morning crude oil traded for $38.85 in New York on, down $1.21 a barrel.  Even though OPEC said they would cut production by another 2.2 million b/d, the price of oil continues to decline.

These days, OPEC produces 40% of the world's oil supply.  It's not as much as the early 70's (53.9% in '73) when they had a stranglehold on the global supply, and therefore price.  The upside of their diminished impact is that they can no longer hold the world hostage with high prices whenever they feel like it.  The downside is that they can no longer effectively prop the price by cutting production.  Even though Russia seems to have thrown their lot in with OPEC, even attending their meeting as an observer, the reality is that there is just too much oil production out of the range of OPEC's influence.

And the fact is that OPEC's "control" is not really much control anyways.  At best, OPEC's decisions are mere recommendations to members who often feel free to go their own way if they feel the need.  Think of OPEC oil quotas as something like NAFO fish quotas and you'll be in the right ballpark.

What's the real problem?  It's simple - too few dollars chasing too much oil thanks to the dampened global demand for oil.

This is good new for those who still need to use oil but bad new for those who need oil revenues to fill big gaping holes in their budget.  And for those who budget on the assumption of $87/barrel oil, it means a serious reassessment of budget decisions.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Creationistic nonsense: a response

If you want to get a rise out of me, advocating scientific creationism (which has no science in it) is the way to go. It should come as no surprise to loyal readers that I firmly believe that scientific creationism, sometimes called creation science or intelligent design, has no place in schools, particularly science classes.
Advocates for creation science make the social progress they do because their position sound so reasonable and plausible to most listeners. The problem is that most listeners, and the advocates, have little if any education in the identification of logical fallacies. So while the nonsense is frightening to those who know better, it still passes as a sensible alternative to those who should know better.

This piece from Scientific American covers 15(!) methodical responses to the scientific creationist nonsense. It concludes:
"Creation science" is a contradiction in terms. A central tenet of modern science is methodological naturalism--it seeks to explain the universe purely in terms of observed or testable natural mechanisms. Thus, physics describes the atomic nucleus with specific concepts governing matter and energy, and it tests those descriptions experimentally. Physicists introduce new particles, such as quarks, to flesh out their theories only when data show that the previous descriptions cannot adequately explain observed phenomena. The new particles do not have arbitrary properties, moreover--their definitions are tightly constrained, because the new particles must fit within the existing framework of physics.

In contrast, intelligent-design theorists invoke shadowy entities that conveniently have whatever unconstrained abilities are needed to solve the mystery at hand. Rather than expanding scientific inquiry, such answers shut it down. (How does one disprove the existence of omnipotent intelligences?)

Intelligent design offers few answers. For instance, when and how did a designing intelligence intervene in life's history? By creating the first DNA? The first cell? The first human? Was every species designed, or just a few early ones? Proponents of intelligent-design theory frequently decline to be pinned down on these points. They do not even make real attempts to reconcile their disparate ideas about intelligent design. Instead they pursue argument by exclusion--that is, they belittle evolutionary explanations as far-fetched or incomplete and then imply that only design-based alternatives remain.

Logically, this is misleading: even if one naturalistic explanation is flawed, it does not mean that all are. Moreover, it does not make one intelligent-design theory more reasonable than another. Listeners are essentially left to fill in the blanks for themselves, and some will undoubtedly do so by substituting their religious beliefs for scientific ideas.

Time and again, science has shown that methodological naturalism can push back ignorance, finding increasingly detailed and informative answers to mysteries that once seemed impenetrable: the nature of light, the causes of disease, how the brain works. Evolution is doing the same with the riddle of how the living world took shape. Creationism, by any name, adds nothing of intellectual value to the effort.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Big oil projects put in jeopardy by fall in prices

This article in the New York Times rattles off the effects of the everyday low low prices of oil on development projects around the world. The fact is that dozens of major oil and gas development projects around the world have already been deep-sixed. Developments attractive at levels of $140/barrel heading to $200 look grim at levels of $45 and dropping. Oil sands projects, to take one example, need up to $90/barrel before they make a dime. Even worse, as the prices drop dramatically, the decline in costs is nowhere near as dramatic.

Some highlights. . .
The list of projects delayed is growing by the week. Wells are being shut down across the United States; new refineries have been postponed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and India; and ambitious plans for drilling off the coast of Africa are being reconsidered.

Investment in alternative energy sources like biofuels that had flourished in recent years could dry up if prices stay low for the next few years, analysts said. Banks have become reluctant lenders, especially to renewable energy projects that may prove unprofitable in an era of low oil and gas prices.


Oil demand growth has weakened throughout the industrial world. The International Energy Agency projects that worldwide demand will actually fall this year, for the first time since 1983.

So much surplus oil is sloshing around the world right now that some companies, including Shell, are using oil tankers for storage.
Given that Hebron has a 10 year sanction window, where in that window will it be sanctioned now?

NL government org chart

St. John's - Reading the entrails

With all the bad news beyond the overpass (Wabush, IOC, Abitibi, Duck Pond, Stephenville) over the last 12 months or so, what of St. John's? We have low unemployment, great housing prices and starts, a general construction boom and optimism is high. Are we really insulated from world events within a comfortable economic bubble?

According to a story in the Chronicle Herald by our very own Greg Locke, good times may be followed by harder times simply because the current good times are an accident of timing along the oil development cycle.

Can't disagree.

Friday, December 12, 2008

And the new Senator from NL is. . . .

The National Post today speculates about potential new senate appointments. Of local interest are:

The former member from Avalon, Newfoundland, is said to be lobbying hard for the Newfoundland and Labrador position. He was elected in 2006 but lost in the past election. He defended Mr. Harper's budget when he was at war with Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams and would be happy to go after Mr. Williams from the Senate.


The former CEO of Fisheries Products International would be an alternate choice from Newfoundland. The Prime Minister likes him, say sources.
And what about our former MP, Loyola Hearn?  He's listed as an also-ran:

In no particular order: Loyola Hearn, Monte Solberg, Doug Finley, Irving Gerstein, Stanley Hartt, Patricia Mella, Stephen Greene, Jacques Menard, Joe Oliver.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

How long will the recession last?

This article from Fortune magazine takes on the thankless task of trying to predict the future. The author argues that the downturn will likely last through the middle of 2009 noting that:
To be sure, this is a major recession and its downside risks in the midst of a highly volatile financial market environment shouldn't be underestimated. There are reasons, though, to believe that its severity and length will ultimately be contained by an unprecedented array of economic policy measures, some already in place, others in the pipeline.
Give it a read and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why smart people do dumb things

You might think that smart people are, well, smart. Yet even the very smart, famous, powerful, and rich who should obviously know better end up crashing and burning. Mortimer Feinberg, author of Why Smart People Do Dumb Things: Lessons from the New Science of Behavioral Economics has four main reasons:
Pride to the point that you no longer feel shame, no longer believe that you are subject to public opinion, and no longer need to fear “the gods.” Examples: Gary Hart’s involvement with Donna Rice that ended his run for the presidency and the Dennis Kozlowski’s (Tyco) $2 million toga party.

From the Latin word arrogare: “to claim for oneself.” Arrogant people believe they have claim to anything and everything they want--they are “entitled” to it. King David, for example, felt entitled to the wife (Bathsheba) of one of his soldiers. Modern day King Davids feel entitled to corporate jets and an entourage to tell them that their keynote speech rocked.

Self absorption to the point that you are blind to reality. The world only exists to provide you gratification. Examples: Richard Nixon and Watergate; the Clintons and Whitewater—really just about every politician and CEO who falls from grace.

Unconscious need to fail
If you think failing is hard, try winning. The questions that go through people’s minds when they they are on the doorstep of success are: Do I really deserve to win? Do I want the pressure of constantly having to win in the future? Can I really handle success? Perhaps this explains why professional athletes still take performance enhancement drugs even after watching their colleagues get busted.
Let's see how the smart people in charge of our provincial government work things out.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

PM's speech. . . in song!

For those of you who missed the original, here's the remix:

Monday, December 01, 2008

Time flies

Last week:
Next week:

Nixon to China

This American political saw says that only Nixon could have made the trip to China because of his political background as an avowed and aggressive anti-communist. When the time came to break down years of diplomatic deep-freeze between China and the US, it was Nixon who could be trusted with the job.

I'm amused at the hard Tory line that the coalition is a pact with the devil because it relies on the support of the BQ. In full, the talking point goes: The coalition is a coup d'etat by a socialist/liberal alliance supported by the separatists against a legitimately elected government.

Because many others have dealt with most of the spurious charges inherent in that statement, I want to deal with just one: the dangers of a government based on separatist support.

First it's ironic that this is coming from the same Steven Harper who did everything he could to suck up the soft Quebec nationalist vote in the last election. Never mind his "Nation" resolution in the House of Commons. Thanks to him, he's given a new rhetorical tool to the Quebec nationalists that they can dine out on for generations.

So at a minimum Prime Minister is, and not for the first time, an expedient hypocrite who loves to accuse people of the same evil tactics he indulges in. But in this case his claim is outrageously misplaced and inappropriate.

Let me explain: my personal litmus test for any federal political is the separatist issue. Any politician in this country who plays footsie with separatist forces, goals or ideals (Clark, Mulrooney) is one I won't go near. Some people draw the line at same-sex marriage, abortion or capital punishment but for me it's separatism that does the initial sorting into those politicians I can support and those I have no time for.

That's just one reason I'm no fan of Harper. It is also my first principal motivating factor behind why I backed Dion in the leadership race. I said at the time:
While many in the Liberal party quaked about provoking separatist fervor in Quebec, he dared to bring logic and clarity to a murky issue. Through a Supreme Court reference, he established clear ground rules on future referendum conditions including the substance of the question, some conditions under which future referendum campaigns could be fought and the circumstances under which the federal government would open negotiations. These principles were written into the Clarity Act which has become, I believe, the ultimate tool to deter the kind of nationalistic shenanigans which threatened the integrity of this country in the past.


When Dion says the Canada is a country that works better in practice than in principle, he recognizes the kinds of hard choices and compromises that needs to be made without sacrificing certain bedrock principles.
Enough said.

A week is a long time in politics

According to CBC, Dion is tapped to lead Liberal-NDP coalition.

Now, get on with it!