Friday, January 30, 2009

Global slowdown; local circus

Most stats you see about the change in economic fortunes are regional or national. At that level, you still have to exert some mental energy to absorb what it means.

So when you see a stat from the International Labour Organization which says that as many as 51 million jobs worldwide, almost twice the entire population of Canada, could be lost this year because of the global economic crisis it's hard to conceive of what that means. Add to that the conclusion that the IMF predicts that global economic growth is set to fall to just 0.5% this year, its lowest rate since World War II, and you sober up pretty quick.

Makes local political spats seem irrelevant. But of course, stoking local spats to a fever pitch means you can avoid discussion of the hard choices or blame them on others.

Monday, January 26, 2009

And Liberals will be no more. . .

After losing 23 straight elections, the Alberta Liberal Party has a solution: change their name!

Coalition falls!

No, not the Lib/NDP Ottawa coalition but the Icelandic governing coalition.  Seems that persistent demonstrations blame government for their economic crisis.

As well they should.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama inauguration pics

I've been on the road the last few days so this is a bit late but no matter: for some remarkable pics of the Obama inauguration, see here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obama votes and cotton balls

A popular article of faith in politics is that in a political campaign, anything is possible. The 2008 US presidential election results are considered amazing, unprecedented and groundbreaking.

Then maps like this come along.

The coloured map shows election results from the South on county level. Blue counties voted for Obama, red ones for McCain (darker hues representing larger majorities). In spite of Obama’s national victory, and barring Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, all Southern states (i.e. all states formerly belonging to the Confederacy) went for McCain.

Fall back to another time and you have this: the black and white map map dates from 1860 (i.e. the eve of the Civil War), and indicates where cotton was produced at that time, each dot representing 2,000 bales of the stuff. The more dots, the more intensive the cotton cultivation at that time.

See the pattern? Even better, here are the two maps overlaid so you can see it better.

Clearly some voting patterns are stubbornly deep rooted even after 150 years.

Thanks to Pin the Tail and Strange Maps for the maps and the deeper analysis available there.

Around here they just read emails

Regular listeners to local talk radio shows know the drill: take calls until the calls run out and then play for time with emails and monologues. In fact, you can get a sense of the relative popularity of the shows by just listening to what the hosts do. The afternoon show is a string of email readings punctuated by callers. The evening show often consists of long sustained host monologues, especially in the last half. Only the morning show with Randy Simms is chockablock with listener callers from end to end.

But, so far, no local host has responded to a dearth of callers with an on-air temper tantrum (though rumors abound of off air behaviors).

This is in contrast with this comely presenter of a Romanian phone-in TV show who was fired after throwing a tantrum when calls dried up. Adela Lupse threw her phone to the ground and jumped up and down on it, screaming: "I want the phone to ring now. Now. Call me now." Ms Lupse was sacked and the station, National TV, was slapped with a fine of about $1,500 following the incident.

Her explanation: ""Maybe I was a bit over the top but I wanted to get people to call. There is a lot of pressure to get people to call in with the correct answer. It was a bad day."


Here is the incident, preserved on YouTube for posterity.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Grand Falls mill closure

From the Advertiser:
David Kerr, former mill manager: "You know what's so sad about all of this? A nanosecond after CEO David Paterson was told about the legislated expropriation, let alone what he thinks of the Newfoundland government, he totally wrote off the mill - lock, stock and barrel. That's the way these guys think. If any door was ajar for negotiations to restart the mill (and it always is no matter what anyone says) it's now slammed shut, bolted and bricked up for good.

"I don't know who's advising Premier Williams on this but they have to give their head a shake and go back to timing school. Timing is everything in this business and the time to expropriate was not now - good heavens while the mill is running give negotiations a chance. Expropriate on the last day a roll is dispatched on number three winder, not a second before.

"Who in their wildest dreams thought this was the right thing to do now? This is a little like peeing in your pants in a snow storm. It feels good when you do it but wait a while and see."

Then and now - Nortel

According to the Globe today:
Nortel easily qualified as the country's largest company at the peak of the tech boom in 2000, with a $366-billion (Canadian) market capitalization and 95,000 employees.

While still North America's largest telecom equipment maker, Nortel's shares were worth a total of just $192-million yesterday, and the company has 26,000 staff after a bruising series of layoffs over the past eight years. Nortel stock that soared to $1,231 at the peak of the tech bubble – reflecting a recent consolidation in shares – closed yesterday at 38.5 cents on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
A share of Nortel and a loonie gets you a cop of coffee.

Monday, January 12, 2009

St. John's municipal dancehall (2)

As part of a continuing series of pre-election Gower Street bunker silly season posts, we have another entry by Mayor "Doc" O'Keefe.

On January 10, with all the issues facing the people of St. John's, O'Keefe decided instead to complain about the lack of a visit by the federal Leader of the Opposition, Michael Ignatieff. This action raises all sorts of questions.

Is Mr. Ignatieff a government official with the power to decide federal policy with respect to this province and the capital city? As it turns out, no he's not; he's a mere leader of the Opposition. Just in case the self-described stunned Mayor O'Keefe might be a little shaky on the way the federal government operates, the government makes policy and the opposition critiques it. Yes, Mayor O'Keefe, this holds true even in a minority government; when a opposition starts creating and passing policy in the House of Commons, they are no longer the Opposition, they are the government.

Will this be the only cross-country tour that Mr. Ignatieff will be taking? Apparently no, this is just a starter tour in what is planned to be a series of tours in which St. john's will be included.

Is this just part of continuing effort by the mayor to ensure that Ottawa pays attention to the nation's easternmost capital city? No doubt Mayor O'Keefe might argue that. And he'd be right if it wasn't for the fact that his complaints to Ottawa in the past have been strangely focused on the Liberal Opposition rather than on the Conservative governing party. In the middle of the last federal election, the Mayor's public contribution was to kick the opposition when it was down in demanding that city residents deserved to know the cost of the Liberal's GreenShift plan. Oddly, he left the other parties off the hook.

In this latest media salvo, O'Keefe achieved his goal of political public pandering through media attention with the ancillary bonus of picking on federal Liberals and making points with his federal tory friends.

Nice work when you can get it. No doubt more naked media pandering awaits.

This is going to be a long year until the municipal election.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Bureaucratic follies

We think we have it so bad here that the Red Tape Reduction project is worth announcing and trumpeting again, again and again . . . But if you really want bureaucratic follies, it's clear that Mexico is the place to be:
To get life-saving medicine for her young son, Cecilia Velázquez embarks each month on a bureaucratic odyssey. First, two government doctors have to sign off on the prescription. Next, four bureaucrats must stamp it. Last, she has to present it (in quadruplicate) to a hospital dispensary. The process takes at least four days and sometimes as many as 15.
That kind of thing couldn't happen here, of course.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

St. John's municipal dancehall

Breaking news: there will be a municipal election this year and all seats on St. John's City Council are up for grabs. How do I know? Simple - the silly season has set in at the bunker on Gower.

First, Councilor Keith Coombs has been on the media whining about his incompetence failure to move his fellow councillors on the issue of a scrap yard impound lot in his ward. After two previous rejections, the application was sufficiently tweaked to win the approval of all the members of City Council on a third go-around.

That is, all the members of council who showed up to the meeting that night. Turns out Mr. Combs was nowhere to be found in the chambers the night the matter came up for discussion.

Did he call down to Council and ask for the matter to be delayed until he could be there in person to address the issue?

Apparently not.

Then, with the galleries full of people from his ward concerned about the matter, when Mr. Coombs finally got around to gathering his wits sufficiently together to make a motion asking council to rescind that previous motion of approval, not a single member was willing to second his motion.

Did he take the time and effort to contact fellow councilors in advance to find out if any of them would take on the non-commitment to second the motion to allow the matter to come up for debate?

Again, apparently not.

So he hits the media complaining about the lack of democracy at city hall in refusing to debate a motion that was doomed to failure in the first place. As a distraction, he tosses out as much blame to as many people as he possibly can to cover his tracks.

It was all wholly avoidable if he had just taken the simple steps to do his job, and make a few calls, in the first place. Now he's left exposed to the people of his ward as the councilor who couldn't shoot straight.

"I think what was carried out before was a travesty as well, and I think it is a shameful exhibition by councilors," Coombs said. The true shame is that the good people of that ward are represented by a negligent and hypocritical councilor.

Second, Mayor Doc (Guiding A Great City Around In Circles) O'Keefe has taken charge of the movement to pillory Tim Horton's for their effect of drive-thrus on traffic trumpeting the city council-ordered a moratorium on new drive-thru applications.

Mind you there are no applications in the pipeline now. And no matter that this moratorium has absolutely no impact on the pre-existing drive-thrus which are causing all the problems.

And never mind that his move makes the city a difficult pill to swallow for businesses looking to come here.

Most importantly, never mind that fact that each and every one of those dastardly Tim Horton drive-thrus were designed and built with the approval of the very same city council of which Mayor O'Keefe is a member. It's not like those Tim's suddenly popped up overnight without permission; they were erected with the blessing of the St. John's City Council.

Nice job, Mr. Mayor and Mr. Coombs. Seeking re-election, are we?

Flying problems

This past Christmas season was a particularly bad one for flyers.  People across Canada have been unhappy with airline service and with good reason.  The Globe reports that Air Canada and WestJet had to fork over big bucks to cover hotel rooms and food vouchers for their stranded flyers.  In November, 85 per cent of Air Canada's flights landed within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival but in December only 59 per cent fell within that timeframe, far short of its target of 68 per cent.  WestJet did no better.

Horror stories abound of passengers sitting on tarmacs for 12 hours at a time.  This has put wind in the sails of Mayor Woodrow Smith's project of a passenger's Bill of Rights.  Little wonder it has received support in the House of Commons.

Since shortly after birth, I've flown hundreds of thousands of air miles to more than a dozen countries and almost all provinces (BC awaits!) so I consider myself a very seasoned traveler.  I'm rarely as happy as when boarding a plane with a passport in one pocket, money in the other and ticket in hand; my wife calls me a xenophile.  But on many levels, I can attest that flying is not the fun it used to be.  Besides the security associated drags, the nation's flight travel network is more precarious than ever before.

When I was regularly flying to Nunavut for work, it was unusual for me to make the trip on time with all my luggage.  One time I was caught in Ottawa for an unscheduled overnight visit accompanied by only half my luggage.  The other half I retrieved from Ottawa airport from the middle of a vast sea of lost bags from across Canada.  Another time on an early morning flight, I dozed for 3 hours only to awake and find myself still in St. John's to be told that the flight was canceled.

In my memory, delays like this were uncommon before about 10 or 15 years ago.  Sure there were always the local fog cancellations where the local weather would deter all pilots from landing except the famed EPA bush flyers.  But back then it tended to be local conditions which caused local cancellations - the national system tended to roll ahead as normal.

But these wider systemic problems exist today because of airline deregulation.  The upside of deregulation has been cheaper tickets for the travelers.  But the downside has been a national flight network stretched to the breaking point.  There used to be enough slack and fat in the travel system such that when one section broke down, the other sections could take the load.  Under deregulation the airlines adopted more economical routing models: the current hub and spoke system.  Under hub and spoke, when one part comes under strain, the whole national network just falls apart causing cascading failures across the system.

So if Toronto has a weather problem, flights across the country are delayed or canceled.

I'm not sure what the solution is but we have to acknowledge some unavoidable constants: we live in a winter country where bad weather is inherent during some parts of the year; the hub and spoke system, with all the associated economic advantages and cascading failure disadvantages, is here to stay.

Because of those two things, travel delay problems are inevitable.

However, given that these delays and cancellations are now part of the life of the modern air traveler, it is up to the airlines and the passengers to be aware of that and to compensate and adjust.

It's not how a company behaves in good times that is the measure of their customer service; it's how the company reacts under adverse conditions that is the measure of their customer service.  Like any other sector which deals directly with the public, airlines have to go the extra mile to ensure their customers have a good experience.  Sure it is not the responsibility of airlines that snow has set in; but how airlines respond to that is their responsibility.

Service with a scowl, when you get service at all, doesn't cut it.

If the airlines are reluctant to treat passengers like human beings instead of like cargo then maybe a passenger bill of rights is a step in the right direction.  Ultimately, good service is in the interests of the airlines as well as the passengers; airlines should get ahead of the issue.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Latest red flag for the bulls

It's already started; CBC's On The Go just pointed out, on the air, the existence of this article by Michael Walker in the Financial Post.  The article pointed out that Premier Danny Williams took full and fair advantage of the sanctity of property rights to enrich himself to levels beyond the imagining of the average resident of this province and that Premier Danny Williams' trashing of those same rights will likely sacrifice the future prosperity of this province on the alter of his ego and reckless mythfeeding.

Now excuse me while I duck my head to avoid crossfire of the inevitable bricks from the Dannyites to Mr. Walker et al in yet another xenophobic feeding frenzy.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Al Franken Decade begins

Looks like Al Franken is off to Washington to represent the great state of Minnesota. No doubt he will attract the kind of conservative fire and ire previously reserved for members of the Clinton clan.

Good luck, Al.

So far so good