Monthly Archives: October 2013

Fright night?

At Halloween this year, Jim McNiven’s thoughts turned to his grandson – and a tour he took with the nine-year-old boy at a museum in the American Southwest.

The Titan Missile Museum – built during the Cold War to launch nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles at enemies of the United States – puts to shame the scary ghosts and goblins that prowl North America’s streets each October 31st.

Log in to read McNiven’s account of their adventure, available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions. 


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George Packer’s The Unwinding

F&O Packer Unwinding book titleAmerican George Packer of The New Yorker was scorching in his take of the state of his union, talking in Vancouver at a writer’s festival.

Writes Rod Mickleburgh: “He drew gasps from the nearly sold-out crowd at the university’s Frederic Wood Theatre, when he pointed out that Sam Walton’s six heirs will eventually have as much wealth as the bottom 42 per cent of Americans. Meanwhile, incomes for the country’s top one per cent have soared by 256 per cent over the past 30 years, while those of the middle class have nudged higher by a mere 21 per cent.

“These aren’t just numbers,” said Packer. “This is a very bad sign. It’s bad for democracy … It’s starting to feel like the end of an empire.”

Read Mickleburgh’s story in Ex Libris, available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

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A prince, a prostitute, a ranch and a murder

The title of author and historian Brian Brennan’s latest Commentary piece is delectable – if you like your history with a frisson of salaciousness.

He calls it The Prince and the Prostitute — or, “How a British Royal Hid Out in Canada While his Former Mistress Went on Trial for Murder in London.” An excerpt: 

When the heir to the British throne paid his first official visit to Canada in 1919, it was expected he would follow the usual royal routine of shaking hands, making speeches and inspecting troops. What wasn’t anticipated was that Edward, Prince of Wales, would buy a ranch while he was abroad. And what certainly wasn’t predicted was that the ranch would become a convenient hiding place for the prince four years later, when one of his former mistresses went on trial for murder in London.  

The prince’s link to the murder trial has only come to light recently. For 90 years it was believed that when Edward returned to Canada in September 1923 to do some riding, fishing and shooting on his newly acquired 1,400-acre ranch near Calgary, it was just because he needed a break from his royal duties. What wasn’t disclosed, until a retired British judge named Andrew Rose published a book about it earlier this year, was that the prince’s staff wanted him out of the country when his former mistress, a French prostitute named Marguerite Fahmy (née Alibert), was being tried on a charge of murdering her wealthy Egyptian husband at their suite in London’s Savoy Hotel. Author Rose learned about the royal cover-up in 1991 when the woman’s grandson wrote him a letter about it. 

Log in first to read Brennan’s Loose Leaf column, available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

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Five countries between us and global starvation

“Five countries stand in the way of global starvation.” That’s one stark, ugly sentence. It’s from Chris Wood’s latest Natural Security column, and it’s thought-provoking, at least. An excerpt:

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Photo Deborah Jones © 2012

United Nations demographers forecast that by mid-century — in 37 years — there will be more than nine billion humans on the planet, about two billion more than the roughly seven billion of us now. 

This, as we say in Canada, is dreaming in technicolor. It very nearly cannot, and almost certainly will not, actually happen. Instead, the realistic forecast is for widespread famine, plummeting birth and infant-survival rates, and stalling, then falling, human populations. 

To the extent that this grim outlook can be avoided, and our numbers come even close to the U.N.’s dewey-eyed prediction, it will be through the efforts of men and women like those I spent a day with recently. They are people for whom names like Monsanto and Walmart are not dirty words. 

Log in first to read Wood’s column, Goldilocks and Nine Billion Bears, available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

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Bitcoin brew

F&O bitcoin

Bitcoin entrepreneur Mitchell Demeter buys a medium-roast coffee from barista Chris Fujiki. Demeter’s company installed the “world’s first” bitcoin ATM at the Waves coffee shop in downtown Vancouver. Photo Deborah Jones © 2013

The world’s first ATM capable of swapping bitcoins for any official currency started operating this week in a coffee shop in Western Canada.

Bitconiacs, a storefront currency exchange owned by three 20-something entrepreneurs, claims to be first in the world to set up an automatic teller machine dedicated to the digital currency.

The machine stands flush against a wall at the Waves coffee shop in downtown Vancouver at Howe and Smithe streets. At first glance it looks much like any other automated teller. But instead of using bank or credit cards to distribute cash it lets customers deposit Canadian dollars into their online bitcoin account, or withdraw cash using their bitcoins, via an online exchange.

The coffee shop  is one of some 15 city businesses in the city to accept the digital money.

Bitcoins – sometimes called the currency of the so-called “Dark Web” – are based on an algorithm invented in 2008 by an anonymous computer scientist known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. In recent years bitcoins have become popular in high-inflation countries such as Argentina, in Germany (which recently declared them officially a “private currency,”) and in cities popular with high-tech entrepreneurs. The currency, yet to be regulated by any government, has run into its share of controversies. It’s volatile, has been utilized by drug gangs, and poses challenges for tax authorities. It’s also increasingly embedded in  the investment community, and has drawn interest from a range of activists from libertarians to social entrepreneurs.

Watch for an upcoming Facts and Opinions feature on the new digital currency, and its implications for governments, policy makers and citizens.

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Defending the “black market in human decency”

This essay in the New York Times, Slaves of the Internet, Unite, is a fine defence of the value of writing, art and, yes, journalism.

Tim Kreider, an American writer and cartoonist, quotes Vladamir Nabokov: “Let us not kid ourselves. Let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever.” Responds Kreider: ”  
“But practical value isn’t the only kind of value. Ours is a mixed economy, with the gift economy of the arts existing (if not exactly flourishing) within the inhospitable conditions of a market economy, like the fragile black market in human decency that keeps civilization going despite the pitiless dictates of self-interest.”
Kreider is calling for creators to stop giving work away for free on the Internet, in a world where no one hands out necessities like free groceries or shelter, or most luxuries.
All I would add is that nothing is ever “free.” Often, though, it requires critical thinking to figure out who is paying for it, and to realize there’s a cost to neglecting what really matters.
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Manthorpe on Mozambique’s ageing rebels

Brutal politics and governance in Mozambique are worthy of a Greek tragedy or Game of Thrones-type saga, all on their own. With supporting roles played by a rotating cast of Portugal, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, South Africa and America’s puritanical Christian Taliban, the country previously descended into the macabre. International affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe examines the possibility that recent rebel actions will spark another all-out war.


Threats of a return to one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars came to a head this week when government troops in Mozambique overran the mountain forest base of opposition Renamo rebels.

Afonso Dhlakama, 60-year-old leader of Renamo, the Mozambican National Resistance Movement, escaped with several hundred of his followers into the surrounding forest of the Gorongosa mountains, which have been the group’s headquarters and sanctuary since their founding in 1975.

The following day Renamo fighters attacked a police station in the nearby town of Maringue. Dhlakarma also announced that Renamo will no longer honour the 1992 peace deal, which ended the civil war and brought the rebel group into a multi-party political system.

This climax has been brewing for a year amid Dhlakama’s growing frustration with the political system, which he says favours the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) of President Armando Guebuza.

There have been numerous attacks and acts of sabotage by Renamo fighters on infrastructure and government outposts in the last 12 months. The escalation of petty violence has sent a frisson of apprehension coursing through the boardrooms of the companies involved in Mozambique’s economic boom, fuelled by the natural gas, coal, tourism and agriculture industries.

Those anxieties are natural. Mozambique’s 17-year civil war was one of the most bitter and deadly in recent African history. At least a million people died, and millions more were left destitute or fled into exile in neighbouring countries.

Log in to read the column, available to subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.  

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Polio and progress

In most of the world polio is a mere bogeyman, a shadow that drifts through our awareness every October 24, the day global health agencies call World Polio Day. Few suffered, or now recall, the polio epidemics that menaced cities from the late 1800s until 1952, when Jonas Salk invented a vaccine. 

Scientists like Salk, politicians, public health agencies and Rotary International made it a global mission to wipe out poliovirus: they cooperated globally and aggressively attacked a scourge that causes muscle weakness, paralysis and sometimes death. Most of us are lucky today because of them: they were smart.

Lately we haven’t been so smart – and now the bogeyman is becoming a real threat.

Earlier this year health authorities thought poliomyelitis had almost entirely vanished except in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and in those countries, there were 40 per cent fewer cases in 2013 than in 2012, said the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Because the virus only lives in humans, it was hoped that immunization through global cooperation would finish polio off within a generation, and that poliomyelitis would join smallpox as an extinct human disease.

But this month polio surfaced again in war-torn Syria for the first time since 1999, and more than 20 cases have been confirmed, reported the World Health Organization. It was reported again in the Horn of Africa, and a few cases were reported in China.

Meanwhile efforts to stop it elsewhere are being hindered by religious fundamentalists – and the rule of unintended consequences.

America’s “war on terror” coincidentally sparked opposition to vaccines in Taliban territory, after a Pakistani doctor working with the United States reportedly used a fake vaccination campaign to get information from Osama bin Laden’s family.

Pakistani physician Shakil Afridi told a court he used the ruse  of a hepatitis-B vaccination campaign to try and get DNA from Osama bin Laden’s children, in Peshawar. The U.S. said it killed bin Laden in 2011, and last year a Pakistan court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in jail for treason.

Since Afridi’s admission, the Taliban has targeted health care workers delivering vaccines. The latest in some two dozen deaths were from bombings in Peshawar this month, reported the BBC.

Disease control is an example of human “progress,” a disputed and contentious word that’s fallen out of fashion lately. In addition to being out of fashion, “progress” has taken several steps backward.

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones


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Manthorpe: pirates and mercenaries

Writes International Affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe:

Piracy and ship hijackings have spawned a worrying boom in largely-unregulated security companies offering armed mercenaries to protect merchant ships plying dangerous waters.

However, the perils of having freelance guns-for-hire roaming the high seas have been again brought to the fore since the Indian Coast Guard last week arrested an American-operated ship off the southern Tamil Nadu coast with a crew of 35, including 25 heavily-armed mercenaries.

Log in first to read the column, available to subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions


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Naheed Nenshi’s unlikely stardom


Naheed Nenshi. © 2013 Neil Zeller (City of Calgary photo)

There are strange doings in Alberta, the Canadian province that’s often compared to America’s state of Texas.

Alberta has been characterized by its Go-Get-‘Em attitude, cowboy hats, and an economy based on oil and gas extraction, especially the oil sands in its north. It’s widely associated with the full-throated call for unfettered markets by its neo-liberal “Calgary School” of economics. Alberta is home to Canada’s Bible Belt. Its Wildest and Westest city is dubbed Cowtown for its famous Calgary Stampede, but has developed into one of the world’s great modern energy headquarters. In short, Alberta has been fertile territory for Canada’s version of America’s Republican party. 

Alberta is now at a crossroads: a landlocked province, it’s on tenterhooks awaiting U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision on approving the next leg of the Keystone pipeline, crucial for transporting bitumen from Alberta oil sands to world markets. And yet, despite its safe historic identity and these parlous times, the citizens of Calgary have abandoned their predictable scripts. They’ve enthusiastically embraced a leader who surely ranks amongst the world’s least-likely political stars: Naheed Nenshi, a former policy wonk and academic, a self-styled “brown guy,” a liberal quite willing to fetter some sorts of business, and an Ismaili Muslim. 

Nobody, noplace and nothing can be captured in the simplistic terms I’ve used above, of course. But facts underly most stereotypes – and if there’s even a grain of truth in Alberta stereotypes, a remarkable political shift is now underway. Conservative, staid Alberta has begun electing politicians, both provincially and locally, who can only be characterized as “moderate,” perhaps even “progressive.” Provincially last year, Albertans voted for the centrist Progressive Conservative party over the far-right Wild Rose Party. This week its two biggest cities chose unapologetically “progressive” mayors: Nenshi by a 74 per cent landslide in Calgary, and a newcomer named Don Iveson by six out of 10 voters in the provincial capitol Edmonton.

Nenshi, who came to national and international media attention earlier this year after massive floods struck Calgary (he was called a “superhero” for his adroit handling of the crisis) is arguably the poster child of this shift. 

But as surprising as it is to find Nenshi as Calgary’s much-loved mayor, he is no risk-taker. His role as a change-maker may be more symbolic than actual. In his first term he proved willing to forcefully push back against opponents on local issues – but he very deftly avoided the big issues:  North America’s culture wars and Alberta’s bête noire, climate change. The question now is whether his horizons will expand in term two.

Log in to read Canada’s Mayor, a profile of Nenshi by Alberta author Brian Brennan, in the Magazine section, accessible with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.


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