Archive for March, 2011

March 31, 2011

Election diaries: Mr Everyman

photo credit: jazz guy, wikimedia commons

The right (aka conservatives) always claim to speak for the common man/woman. Rob Ford in Toronto knows that the civil service’s gravy train is sucking the wealth out of  Mr/Ms everyman’s pockets.

And Stephen Harper says Michael Ignatieff is a cosmpolitan, an effete elitist, arrogant. Ok, Ignatieff is some of those things.

However….look whose talking.

Rob Ford inherited his job from his father… in both respects. Not only did his father start the label business that turned into the only real job Rob had held until 2000 at which time Rob even followed his father into conservative politics (his father was a Conservative MPP).

In other words, when Rob tells people to ‘get a job’ he really doesn’t have a clue what he is talking about.

And Stephen Harper is no better. Although Harper actually worked somewhere other than a sheltered work environment (ie: the family business) for a few years, he really is a career backroom boy and politician. For about the past 25 years he has worked as an assistant to politicians, policy advisor to politicians, head of a right wing lobby group (The Citizen’s Coalition) or as a politician. If ever there was an embodiment of the career politician, surely Harper is it.

Yep, when these guys look the camera in the eye and say sincerely that they are there for nothing but to further the interests of the common person you might just think to yourself—how the hell would either of these guys have a clue as to just what a ‘common person’ is.

March 30, 2011

Election diaries: why the Conservatives don’t know squat about managing an economy

When the Conservative first came to power in 2006  they inherited a very hard won budget surplus. The Liberal budget for 2005-06 was not only balanced, but indeed boasted a surplus of $13.2 billion. This was delivered along with some modest tax reductions for individuals along with significant new money for defense and the environment.

As we all know, the Liberal minority was forced to go to the polls ushering in Stephen Harper as Prime Minister in 2006. His first budget in 2006 lowered the GST by 1% to 6% and then in 2008 to 5%. This despite the protest by virtually every business economist in the country. By the projected 2008 budget the Conservatives had driven the surplus into a $1 billion dollar deficit.

Now, mind you, this was before the recession’s impact. Indeed, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in fall of 2009 was still saying that there would be no recession. He made no plans for it either to stimulate the economy nor to reign in spending. Indeed the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has raised spending to unprecedented levels while cutting corporate and income taxes.

Interestingly, this policy managed to erase all the surplus built into Paul Martin budgetary planning.

Jim Flaherty of the Conservative Party is Canada’s biggest spending Finance Minister of all time | Photo by Joshua Sherurcij

With Jim Flaherty and the Conservatives jauntily denying the extent of the economic downturn, they were forced by the NDP, Liberal and Bloc to bring in a budget for 2009 that incorporated stimulus spending. This was the Economic Action Plan (as conceived of by the opposition parties and initially vigorously opposed by the Conservatives) that we have seen advertised so much as proof that the Conservatives should remain at the helm to ride the economic storm.

But just like Reagan and then G.W. Bush in the United States, the right has been a disaster for slowing economies with their reliance on supply side economics. Even before the recession, the Harper Conservatives managed to piss away the massive surplus left to it by the Liberals and failed as well to plan for the future. And don’t let us forget that the very same Jim Flaherty was finance minister in Mike Harris’s ultra-right Ontario government whose Common Sense revolution left Ontario badly in debt after they got through with it.

Hell, even the Conservatives in oil rich Alberta can’t even manage a budget with all the oil royalties they are blessed with.

So why does the Canadian voting public still say in opinion polls that they trust the Conservatives more than other parties to manage the fiscal situation in difficult times? It certainly isn’t based on reality.

We need more of this economic history to get out there. Why aren’t the opposition parties pushing this history more volubly?

March 29, 2011

Election diaries: Me vs Us: a quick look at some election goodies being offered

All the political parties are offering tax breaks or programs to enhance some level of ‘family’ life. The focus is very much on ‘families’ again this time around. Never mind that the definition of families for most of these programs is a rather outmoded one…one described by two opposite gendered heads with children living at home. In fact, the latest gambit by the Conservatives, their income splitting proposal, goes one step further by assuming (or encouraging) one income families. In fact, it is a subtle discouraging of two incomes. Yes, the Conservatives do have a social agenda.

Leaving that aside, there are significant differences in how we can enhance life for families. Programs favoured by the Conservatives lean towards individual choice and the purchase of services. An example of this is their child tax credit to recoup daycare costs. Approaches like health care vouchers and charter school initiatives fall into this category.

At first blush, it seems reasonable to give people money to make choices appropriate to their needs. Isn’t it empowering and more democratic to allow people to direct the social service sector by their spending choices?

Well, yes, if you see the world through a seller/consumer vs society/citizen lens. I have written elsewhere about how this applies to the education system.

The other approach is a societal or system approach. Instead of giving money to individual families to go and purchase, say for instance, daycare services, government can set the same amount of money aside and develop a comprehensive daycare system. An excellent example of doing this is the health care system. The Canadian system is about 30% cheaper to run than the American. By most measures our health care system is as advanced technologically as the American (taking into account the much larger volume in the American system). Our system is certainly much more egalitarian in providing a wider range of services to a far greater percentage of people.

Now that isn’t to say that there are not problems. Waiting times are an issue in our system. The delivery of services is not always equitable. Sometimes our system can be less innovative in finding new ways to provide services. But the American system has much larger issues. Aside from the obvious disparity in the provision of services to different economic groups, the American system is also far more wasteful administratively (spending a far higher percentage on admin than our ‘wasteful’ public system) and the complexity and confusion of paperwork in the U.S. is overwhelming.

There are real economies of scale to be achieved by a society approach to such issues as daycare. The same amount of money given to individual families to purchase daycare (when none may be available) is better given to establish a comprehensive structure to set up and administer daycare.

Will there be shortcomings in such an approach? Certainly. But fewer than encouraging individual purchase. And while there may be some fear of a homogenous one-size-fits-all approach, at least there would actually be a system. And political agitation has always provided the impetus for creativity within a public system in a way that private purchase never quite does beyond superficialities in a private system.

So when the political parties offer incentives and tax deductions for certain social programs take a closer look at what they intend to achieve. For the Conservative, individual ‘family based’ tax credits further their agenda of less government and more individual ‘choice’ in the narrow sense. But just as importantly, they are less likely to actually achieve the provision of services intended.

Another approach, and I would suggest, more efficient, more equitable, and certainly more likely to achieve its goal of actually delivering a service, is to deliver a program in a comprehensive manner.

That is why we fund public transit, public schools, public utilities this way. They are all ‘public’. Do we give up consumer choice by doing this? Yes. Do we get a better and cheaper provision of services this way? Yes, I think we do.

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March 28–Post Script: The Liberal’s new tuition aid plan (announced March 29) might be seen in this light as not being adequately targeted to low income would-be students and not dealing with the systemic issues of stable post secondary funding to ensure availability and standards for all attendees.

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March 29–PostPost Script: (I may just have to add another article):

As discussed in the above article, this article (Parties agree: Tax breaks trump social programs) on the Globe and Mail’s Politics app discusses just this topic of individual tax cuts versus program development.
The left has allowed conservatives to frame the discussion regarding the nature of social services. And most of the press, which has been giving the right a free ride, is too lazy or uneducated to question the thrust of events.
March 28, 2011

Bike fitting 101

Good question. The way I see people riding around on their bikes in the ‘hood, I often wonder: is it me or is it them?

I know that not everyone is into long distance or fitness riding. Sometimes a quick toodle to the store is all you are out for. So who cares what position you are in on your bike?

Well it can make a real difference. Your position on the bike effects both the efficiency with which you pedal and your comfort in doing so.

And if you are more comfortable and more efficient aren’t you going to enjoy riding your bike more? Unlike Steven Harper,  I admit to a hidden agenda: I want to see as many people on bikes as possible. Take that Mayor Robdoug!

So what’s involved in making sure your bike fits and that you are properly positioned on it?

Bike fitting has some scientific aspects to it. No, it’s not just an eyeball affair. I once gave a lecture on this and it took me almost 90 minutes. That’s more than the West Annex News (and you and I) can stand. And a proper fit on a road bike can take an hour. I’m not going into that kind of detail here.

So here’s just some basics that will help you enjoy your ride a bit more.

Step one, you have to get the right seat height. Muscles have an efficient dynamic range. Stretch them too much and they won’t contract back as strongly (think of a rubber band). When adjusting the seat height, you never want your legs fully extended on the down stroke. You want your legs extended to 20 to 30 degrees flexion at the knee. That means you still want your knee flexed at little bit and the bottom of the pedal stroke. And when measuring this, the ball of your foot should be on the pedal. I don’t ever want to see any of you riding with the heel of your shoe on the pedal, or I will stop you and chew you out. And your foot should be level to the ground. And, many people don’t realize it but the down stroke is longest with the crank parallel to the seat tube (the tube that your seat sits on top of) and not vertical.

If the seat is too high, your legs will be extended beyond their point of efficiency as well as comfort. Additionally, you will be swiveling your pelvis from side to side in order to reach the pedals.  That is going to chafe your private parts, and that isn’t good for you or your significant other.

If the seat is too low, you aren’t getting all the power you could by stretching your legs out more, resulting in a more tiring ride.

But the seat also has a fore and aft adjustment. Correctly placing your seat over the pedals also helps efficiency as well as knee comfort. There is a proper way to do this by dropping a plumb line from your knee cap to see if your foot is positioned correctly . With your foot parallel to the ground, the nubbin at the bony prominence just below your knee cap (your tibial tuberosity) should be directly above the middle of your forefoot (or the spindle of the pedal).

About saddles, and those big-ass seats: they are often much less comfortable than a smaller, firmer seat. Think of wearing a Birkenstock sandal (firm, molded) compared to slippers on a long walk. The tilt of the saddle also needs attention. Start with it level, make small adjustments from there.

And remember, when riding your arms should never be fully extended at the elbows. There should always be some flex.

A full bike fitting involves adjusting handlebar height, width and stance as well as several other contact points on the bike. Tires, handlebar tape, wheels, gear ratios all contribute to a bike’s comfort. As I said, it can get quite detailed. Most of you likely won’t care or notice a detailed fitting. However, when you buy your bike, don’t just get on it and ride off. Make sure someone takes the time to have a good look at you while you are on it. Ask about the seat height, position and tilt…. even if it is just for riding to the store. Unfortunately, many bike shops can’t even offer the most basic fitting advice, even shops that sell expensive bikes.

The wrong size bike cannot be made right by a bike fitting. First off, get the correct size bike.

I’m afraid that while we are lucky to have several good bike shops in the neighbourhood, none are equipped to do a proper fitting. If you plan on doing some serious riding,  a good fit makes a world of difference to how far you can ride and how much enjoyment you will get out of it. In my view, Heath at La Bicicletta, 1180 Castlefield Avenue is the best fitter in the city.  And once you’re at La Bicicletta, have a gander at the most wonderful, luscious, sexy, fabulous bikes you can imagine. This is THE bike store in Toronto.

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Let us know if you want to know more about bike fitting. I will answer any questions posted in the comments section below.

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March 28, 2011

Election diaries: The Liberals

Coupla’ days into the election and it is depressing. I don’t know if I can tolerate another several years of Steven Harper’s bombastic self centrism. But the Liberals are determined to hand the election to him.

We have been waiting for this election call for months but the Liberals seem not to have noticed. At all.

This past half year they have refused to publish their election platform. They have said they would when the election is called. Why? Are they afraid the Conservatives would steal their ideas? If so, then why not vote Conservative. If the Liberal’s platform is so close to the Conservatives, then why bother to vote for them.

And, after so many months, we are now 3 days past the non confidence vote and the Liberals still have not published ANY ideas? With what arrogance can they possibly feel that Canadians should consider them as a possible government? They have nothing to propose for this country’s future. No vision. No ideas. No platform.
For a couple of years now I have realized that for Michael Ignatieff this gig as Liberal Party leader has been a self indulgent journey. He already had a career in the U.S. He even identified as an American. In fact, his politics are not far off those of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (you know, the days before Harper). I think he was looking for another challenge in life and figured this would be swell. It is certainly painfully obvious that he has no particular vision as Prime Minister. In that sense, the Conservative attack ads are correct. Ignatieff is in it for himself and not Canada. It’s just another gig for him.

Otherwise wouldn’t he have a platform?

I am sorry to be so obsessed with the Liberal Party and Ignatieff as the alternative to the Conservatives. It’s just that whether one supports the Liberals, the NDP or the Greens if we want to get rid of Harper, the LIberals have to make a strong showing in this election.
And right now, it doesn’t look like anyone with half a brain is at the helm of the Liberal Party.

But what do I know?

March 27, 2011

Election Diaries: The game has begun?

Or so the press would have you believe.

I know, to many progressive voters the choices are less than ideal. And what real impact will the outcome of this election have on the future of our lives, never mind Canada? But it does seem a little odd that with all the civil disruption going on across North Africa and the Middle East where people are literally dying for a chance to vote, that here in Canada we suffer what the press likes to call ‘election fatigue’ after only four elections in the past seven years.

But CBC is covering the election like a TV game show. Every day they announce a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’, they hype it for their own journalistic self promotion.

Now I’m all for fun and humour. But the media is part of the further denigration of our democracy. As ineffectual as going to the polls every four years (or sooner in this case) may seem, it is still an essential component of citizenry.

And there are indeed issues to be discussed and decisions about the future to be made. Let’s look at some of these in the days ahead.

A couple of things that perplex me are

…why are the Conservatives considered by many to be better stewards of the economy when their track record is quite to the contrary

…why is the term ‘coalition’ considered so poisonous to many

More later.

Last minute addition: Sunday night (March 27) and our public broadcaster has added a new ‘segment’ to their election coverage: Political Name Calling. Their ever intrepid reporter, Reg Sherren,  looked up a woman in Alberta with the name of “Elizabeth May’ (you know, the same name of the Green Party leader).

Now, stay with me on this one, the segment is not about politicians calling each other epithets. No it’s about ordinary people with the same name as a politician. Wow, got me on that one CBC! I mean who would have thought of that?

This apparently makes Ms May National Newsworthy. Reg interviews her and has a quick look around her town of Manning, Alberta. Not surprisingly he finds support for the Conservative Party. Elizabeth, however, cops to having voted Green in the last election. Wow, not only insightful reporting by the never to be outdone CBC, but also with a quirky ending.

Now that’s what I think Friends of Public Broadcasting has in mind when they campaign to preserve the CBC.

March 27, 2011

We need nuclear power now more than ever

Photo credit: Stefan Kühn/Wikimedia Commons

By the Maven | All the news of the terrible tragedy in Japan has once again focussed the world’s attention on the safety of nuclear energy. Environmentalists are almost chortling over the difficulties the Japanese are having containing their damaged Fukushima reactor.

Well, I’ve gotta tell you guys, nuclear energy is still the least polluting of all signficant sources of power , and best shot at being the saviour of this planet for the short and medium term future.

So called alternative forms of energy–solar and wind– are too inefficient, too expensive and way too unreliable to form a major part of our energy production any time soon.

Except for hydro power (and even that calls on rivers to be dammed  and flood plains destroyed) nuclear power is the least environmentally disruptive generator of power,  in its entire life cycle from extracting uranium from the ground to using it to fuel turbine generation, of all significant power sources.

The two big issues with nuclear power are the cost of building plants and storage of the radioactive products. Most large government projects run way over budget. Nuclear power plants are no exception. We need to properly budget for and build the true cost of generation of nuclear produced energy into the system. That is doable. It only takes a bit of honesty from planners. The honesty part is difficult, but the results still make nuclear attractive.

The issue that has everyone upset is finding a place to store the radioactive waste for thousands of years. When put that way it is a very frightening scenario. And fear is, most of all, what the environmental fear-mongers trade in.

Aside from the fact that some promising new technologies are being researched that may help dramatically cut the length of time for radioactive material to degrade into safe residue, I have but one question that seems to be crucial: would we rather dump our waste in a shaft deep in the ground or spew it into the air in massive amounts to breathe into our lungs? Because the latter is exactly what we are doing right now with carbon-based energy. We have turned our atmosphere and our waters into huge garbage dumps.

I would rather have nuclear power.

What about nuclear accidents?  Well, did you know that no one was ever injured or even exposed to higher than safe radiation levels at Three Mile Island?  So, please let’s not hear any more about the Three Mile Island “disaster” as an example of nuclear power gone amok. Now Chernobyl, there was a disaster–albeit it under a totalitarian regime that ignored safety protocol and refused to respond to early warnings.

As for the tragedy in Japan: if that were a dam that was destroyed by the earthquake or something like, say, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, would people react with the same horror? Nope, we don’t mind dumping untreated sewage into our waters, driving our cars with tailpipes pumping noxious substances into our air. But talk of clean and safe nuclear and out come all the neurotic middle-class comfortable citizens worried about nothing real at all.

March 27, 2011

Ask the Bike Maven: How to lock your bike

Nothing is sadder than coming across the remains of an improperly locked bike.  The mistake here?  Locking only the front wheel to the bike ring. The thief just flipped the quick-release lever on the wheel, and bye-bye bicycle.

By the Bike Maven | Spring is here and with it legions of cyclists are venturing back out on the streets. Which reminds me of a subject of perennial puzzlement: in a city as bike-mad as Toronto, why do so few cyclists know how to properly lock their bikes?

Bicycle theft is a major deterrent to cycling in Toronto. Even with Igor Kenk out of business, Toronto is still one of the bike theft capitals of the world. And don’t think your cheap beater bike is immune to the vermin bike thief. It can and will get stolen if you aren’t careful.  A bit of thought goes a long way to deterring bike thieves. I say deterring because there is no way to make your bike completely theft-proof.

I’m going to talk today about how to secure your bike with a single lock. Yes, you can nail it down even further with multiple locks, chains and cables, but who wants to ride around the city burdened with all that heavy paraphernalia?

Replace your quick release skewers, right, with a set that requires a wrench or allen key to remove, left. 

So let’s start by at least making it a little harder for thieves to take your bike or its parts. First, replace the quick-release skewers on your wheels and seat post with a set that needs a wrench or an allen key to remove. Conversion kits are available at your West Annex LBS: Bateman’sCurbside, and Sweet Pete’s. There are fancy anti-theft skewers out there for $45 a set and more, but the simplest sets starting at about $20 will do.

Next, invest in a good quality lock. U-locks (like Kryptonite) are more secure than cable locks. And I believe the smaller the U-lock the safer it is. Why? Because smaller makes it harder for a thief to get an instrument in the U to lever it open. My lock of choice is theKryptonite Evolution Mini. For a U-lock, it’s light and easy to carry.

So what’s next?  The biggest mistake most cyclists make when locking their bike comes when selecting which part of the bike to lock to the bike ring. The most expensive part of the bike is the frame, followed by the rear wheel with its cassette of gears. In fact, if you have an internally geared hub on the rear wheel as is becoming popular these days on city bikes, the entire (and expensive) gear system is in the rear wheel. Really, relatively speaking, the front wheel is pretty cheap to replace compared to the rest of the bike.

So why do some cyclists insist on locking the front wheel and leaving the frame and the rear wheel unsecured? I think the answer is that most non-mechanically inclined riders find it harder to remove the rear wheel than the front since they have to disengage the chain from the cassette. They reason that the rear wheel is less likely to get stolen.

Wrong. Anyone with a bit of experience can remove the rear wheel in a snap.

So how to lock your bike?

The proper way to lock your bike: within the bike frame’s rear triangle, lock your back wheel to the bike post.* 

Close-up detail of the image above. Note that only the rear wheel–not the bike frame–is locked to the bike post.* 

The best way to lock your bike securely? Within the bike frame’s rear triangle, lock your back wheel to the bike post. Yes, I know, it seems a little freaky at first because the bike frame itself is not locked to the post, only the rear wheel is.

But the rear wheel rim has tremendous strength. It’s built to carry most of the rider’s weight and to resist the torque placed on it by the chain and the derailleur.  That with the tension created by the spokes means that only the most determined of professional bike thieves are capable of cutting through a wheel rim. And so long as you catch the wheel within the bike frame’s rear triangle with the U-bolt, it’s impossible to separate the wheel from the bike.

I learned this technique from my personal bike guru, the late great Sheldon Brown. His Lock Strategy article is worth a read, as is everything on his comprehensive website.

Yes, thieves can still take your front wheel. But they won’t bother, since the owner of the bike locked next to yours hasn’t read this article, and his rear wheel is available to rip off.

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* Note: the City recommends that you lock to the bike post, not the bike ring as pictured above. Thank you to Jody Levine for pointing this out.

The Bike Maven is a Serotta-certified bicycle fitter who lives, works, and cycles in the Annex.


March 23, 2011

Slurping up the gravy

Robdoug isn’t what he appears to be.

And thank god for that. Nope our ‘stop the gravy train’, ‘cut councillors spending’, ‘I don’t need my councillor’s salary’ Mayor, it has just been revealed (Globe and Mail, A15: Mayor Ford still linked to family firm, documents reveal) is still doing business for his family firm.

Now, not only does this explain why Rob cannot be reached by the press for interviews (he doesn’t feel the job of Mayor is a full-time one) but also why he can afford to forgo some of the financial perks of his job (he’s got his own private gravy train).
Yep, great gig if you can get it. Keep riding high, Mr Mayor. You’re setting a great example for the kids.

March 20, 2011

Don’t act like a child and you won’t be treated like one

This may come as a surprise to some of you but I try to read the business section of my daily paper regularly. In my case it is Report on Business in the Globe?

Why? Because there is a lot of information there you just can’t find anywhere else. Businesses make decisions on some interesting facts and many of them should be more widely disseminated. Some business people are quite honest about politics–among themselves.
A story in today’s ROB (Jeff Gray’s ‘The question of ‘psychological harm’) struck me.
He describes a case where some patients at a hospital were informed they may have been exposed to Tuberculosis while attending treatment. They were requested to come in and be tested for Tb.
Notwithstanding the test only takes 48 to 72 hours to be interpreted, a group felt compelled to sue the hospital for ‘psychological harm’.
Now, mind you, they did not test positive. That is, none of the group apparently got sick. But their claim was that they suffered from depression and anxiety while awaiting the results.
This bothers me in two ways.
First, hospitals (as the health care system in general) struggle to provide services with the funding they receive. Hiring lawyers and waging court battles in not cheap. The legal departments at hospitals add to the cost of health care delivery.
I am sure the patients suing the hospital in this case would be the first to scream if there were any cutbacks in the health care they were delivered.
But what bothers me more is the lack of ability of some people to ‘suck it up’. I mean, for god’s sake, you can get hit by a car crossing a street. You mean it’s shocking that one could get a communicable disease when attending a hospital? What rock have these people been living under? Maybe, more to the point, can they return to wherever they came from.
No, the flagrant display of what can only be seen as either crass money grabbing or gross inadequacy the issue.

Now, don’t take this as an attack on the tort system in general.  Awards of damages can ultimately reduce accident costs by deterring those who might otherwise cut corners and risk significantly harming others.

Of the two, it is the latter that disturbs me more. Every conservative politician plays the card of wanting people to take ‘more responsibility’ for their own lives (ie: crash and burn social services because they are turning us all into zombies). They claim the citizenry has lost its ability to be self reliant.
Of course, in the safety of their own clubs they secretly admit that they don’t think the commoners can handle self governance.

But just when the political right is in the ascendance, along comes a group of idiots who prove them right.

If we as a citizenry are going to demand the right to determine the direction of our communities, we cannot behave as spoiled children.

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