Saturday, August 1, 2009

Healthy Skepticism

By Stephen Lautens

July 30, 2009

For a long time I have believed that government has only three main things it should do – keep its citizens healthy, safe and educated. Everything else is extra.

Of course a lot of things flow from those three main jobs. Keeping people safe means having effective police and efficient courts. It also means having an army that can defend the country and our interests from threats. It means secure borders and safe streets.

Keeping people educated means having a well-funded school system and support for students and parents. It should broaden the mind and open children’s eyes to the many possibilities out there, and help them achieve whatever goals they are capable of reaching. It means keeping higher education affordable and accessible. Educated people are generally good citizens and good taxpayers, so everyone wins when people have the ability to contribute back to society at their own personal best level.

And keeping people healthy? We made a decision as a country some time ago that it was our moral and humanitarian duty to look after our sick and hurt as best we can, and that comes with a hefty price tag, but it is the right thing to do. It’s also our biggest expense, since health care is not cheap by its very nature and made more expensive by people living longer.

But if Canada believes government has a duty to keep its citizens healthy, safe and educated, there are those in the United States who believe that government’s job is only to provide people with the opportunity to make enough money to afford to be healthy, safe and educated.

The private health care companies that get rich in America are now fighting an all out war in the U.S. against a new proposal for universal health care. They have gone so far to recruit several Canadians for TV ads to tell their own private horror stories about problems with our “socialist” health care system.

Shona Holmes, a Canadian unhappy about waiting for health care in Canada, is featured on a commercial by the “Patients United Now” a front organization for the U.S. health care industry and a “Project of Americans for Prosperity Foundation”, which supports limited government and free markets. Tellingly, they also advocate pro-tobacco industry positions.

Of course it’s unfair to feature the few people who have had serious problems accessing health care in Canada and ignore the millions it helps, but this isn’t about fairness – it’s about cutting into HMO, drug and insurance company profits, which by any standard are enormous. The profits are huge because the cornerstones of American health care are “for-profit” businesses that provide medical care or drugs not on the basis of need, but on a cost-benefit analysis, denying coverage to people who need it most.

Many Americans - both rich and poor - support the idea that they should be taxed less and be left to make their own decisions about how to spend their money, whether it is on gated communities, private schools or private health care. In other words, the chance to strike it rich in America provides some people with the opportunity to be healthy, safe and educated. It also means that 46 million Americans can’t afford health care at all.

On the other hand, in Canada we believe that making people healthy, safe and educated is what provides opportunities in the first place. We may not always do it well, but at least we are committed to doing it.

© Stephen Lautens, 2009

Man Trouble

By Stephen Lautens

July 24, 2009

What is it with men? Why are we always doing stupid things even when we are given an out?

We may never know what happened in Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr’s house. There are competing versions of how he came to be arrested, but one thing seems to be pretty clear - either man could have just walked away with nothing more than temporarily raised blood pressures.

According to a press report, veteran police Sgt. James Crowley – who is white - confronted Henry Gates – who is black - in his home after a woman passing by called police about a possible burglary. The sergeant said he only arrested Gates after the professor “repeatedly accused him of racism and made derogatory remarks about his mother”.

I am certain that inside the prof’s house, many stupid and offensive things were said, likely on both sides. I'm sure race had a role to play in both sides making initial assumptions about the other, long after everyone had realized that no crime was being committed. I'm sure professor Gates has personally experienced racism, and was offended about being challenged in his own home.

Being a white, middle class male myself, I can’t imagine the scars that are left by being on the pointy end of discrimination. Go back far enough and my family’s heritage is Austrian, and the movie Brüno aside, the world doesn’t take too much notice of us. For a while my brother and I tried to come up with an offensive name for Austrians, and finally settled on “Schnitzel”, but as you can see, it lacks that visceral impact that other racial slurs have. Besides, I like schnitzel.

But as the facts come out, it starts to look less like the product of racism and more a product of testosterone. For one, the arresting officer, Sergeant Crowley, was chosen by a black police commissioner to teach recruits about avoiding racial profiling. I would also venture to guess that as an 11-year veteran of the Cambridge police force he would have a certain hesitation about arresting any Harvard professor in his own home.

Still, men do stupid things, and you don’t need racism to explain it. Men start and fight wars, scuffle in bars, race strangers at stop lights, and trade insults and fists rather than walk away from trouble.

I wasn’t there, but you wonder if all the fuss in Cambridge could have been avoided if either one of them had stopped and said: “This is stupid. Let’s just forget it.”

Professor Gates – after getting over his initial anger – could have said, “Sorry I was upset when you came in. I understand you were just doing your job when someone reported a break in. Now good night.”

Sergeant Crowley could have said: “Sorry I came in like gangbusters. Confronting a robber can be a dangerous thing, so you’ll understand I had to yell a lot, point a gun and secure the situation before sorting out who you are. Otherwise I could be killed. Now that I know who you are, I bid you a good night.”

But you know one or both couldn’t leave it along. Testosterone kicked in and it became a “yo mama” match.

When are we men – black and white and any other colour you care to mention – going to learn to solve our problems in a less manly way?

© Stephen Lautens

Space – The Boring Frontier

By Stephen Lautens

July 17, 2009

Monday will be the 40th anniversary of the first man setting foot on the moon. I know – it surprised me too. You’d think such an important human achievement would be more memorable, but the truth is that a generation and a half later we have forgotten our space pioneers.

It seems that the public is not alone.

NASA threw out the plans to the Saturn V rocket that took Apollo 11 into space. That’s right – they tossed the whole thing in the trash and didn’t even keep a copy as part of their regular “housekeeping”.

Last week I also read that NASA also destroyed the original film of the first moon landing beamed back to Earth. The reported truth is sometime in the 1970s or 1980s they were running short of videotape and just decided to tape over it with something else – probably a Magnum P.I. episode. I guess it was easier to tape over historic video than running down to Radio Shack for some new ones.

I’ve kept my space mementoes longer than NASA it seems. My grandfather worked for a newspaper back when all press photos were sent in by a primitive fax machine. I saved all those pictures after the paper used them and pasted them in my “Space Album”, which I’ve kept all these years. I still get a thrill looking at them, maybe because they are so raw. In a world of megapixel cell phone movie cameras, it’s hard for today’s generation to imagine history being made in grainy and black and white, even if it was pioneering.

Edwin “Buzz”Aldrin, who became the second man on the moon after Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969, has recently made it his mission to remind people of what an enormous achievement this was. A few weeks ago he told a British newspaper that “young people have lost any interest in space that isn’t in a video game or a movie house.”

True - at the time of the moon landing, Star Trek had already been cancelled and ran its last episode the month before. Hollywood’s space was a lot more interesting, with green alien slave girls, evil empires and blaster battles. Not only that, it was in colour at a time when all the images sent back from the moon were in scratchy black and white, with nary a green slave girl to be found.

In reality, space is quiet and mostly empty, and has a hard time competing with our crowded and noisy world. Even the current space shuttle mission with Julie Payette, who is joining fellow Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk at the International Space Station, has trouble getting attention as we’ve come to look at the shuttle as more or less a space bus. It is after all the 127th space shuttle mission, and there is only one crew member on board under the age of forty.

Buzz Aldrin wants to make space travel sexy again and bring back the spirit of adventure. Not only has he teamed up with Snoop Dogg to make “Rocket Experience”, his own hip-hop single and video, he’s trying to promote our next logical step outside our world with a manned mission to Mars.

I hope he succeeds. Not just because I remember how exciting it was to watch forty years ago as a new frontier was being conquered by true pioneers, but because we need to be reminded humanity should have greater dreams than Twittering about the latest celebrity adoption, divorce or diet.

We can and should be better than that.

© Stephen Lautens, 2009

From Facebook, With Love

By Stephen Lautens

July 9, 2009

One of the newspapers recently reported that England is in the middle of yet another crisis. It seems that the wife of the new head of MI6 – the British Secret Intelligence Service – posted details about her family life on her Facebook page.

For those of you who keep track of the world of espionage, Lady Shelley Sawers is the wife of Sir John Sawers, who was appointed last month to head the British Secret Service. Yes, he is James Bond’s real life “M”.

Actually, the head of MI6 was known by the codename “C”, and the British government officially denied the existence of the whole outfit until 1992, which is a long way from having your own Facebook page.

Lady Shelley apparently shared with the world through her Facebook page details of where she and the new head of the British Secret Service live and spend holidays, and apparently photos of the family including Sir John in his Speedo bathing suit, which is no doubt complete with cyanide capsule compartment and grappling hook attachment.

Now as a result, the head of the British Secret Service has to move for security reasons, as the whereabouts of England’s chief spymaster and family is actually supposed to be a secret. Revealing details of their home and friends to the estimated 200 million Facebook users from the London networks who had access to the information meant it wasn’t a very well kept secret.

Lady Shelley’s Facebook page was only taken down after a British newspaper pointed out that it could be a problem if you wanted to keep foreign spies from leaving exploding cakes on your doorstep, so you can’t “poke” her anymore (and before you get excited, a Facebook “poke” is an electronic nudge or hello).

She also had 76 Facebook friends on her homepage and eight albums of family photos, but now we won’t get to see them. You wonder what it might have been like -

Favourite things: ability to deploy knock-out gas to end boring dinner parties, car that turns into a submarine, jetpacking home to beat traffic, going shopping at sales with two large men who have a license to kill.

Least favourite things: being strapped to a table with a laser about to cut me in two, being painted gold, sharks in the swimming pool, ninjas, tarantulas in my bed.

Favourite places: Swiss alps, Monte Carlo casinos, Carribean luxury hotels.

Least favourite places: volcano secret headquarters, minefields, pilotless airplanes, voodoo graveyards, anything with a trap door and pool full of piranhas.

Turnoffs: rude people (especially if they have a blow gun and paralyzing darts), guys in Nehru jackets bent on world domination, people who throw their hats at other people, guys with steel teeth, triple agents, slow-acting poisons when the antidote is across the room, falling out of an airplane without a parachute, people with secrets.

Current friends include: 006, 005, Moneypenny, Q, F, Miss Plenty Goodstuff, the Countess Bedready, Minister of Defence.

Three (3) new people want to be your friend.

One (1) new person wants to be your nemesis.

You have a message from: Ludwig von Hammerstrike, Doctor Inferno, Salazzar the Butcher, and Aunt Sophie.

Groups: Opera Friends, Ascot Book Club, Wives of Spies, Smersh Cooking Circle, People Who Can Get Their Hands on NATO Nuclear Launch Codes.

It’s too bad they made her close her Facebook page. Some people were never meant to keep a secret.

© Stephen Lautens, 2009

Don’t Raise Your Voice To Me

By Stephen Lautens

June 25, 2009

There is a lot of yelling in our house.

Don’t get me wrong – we’re not like the new neighbours across the street. They seem to like living in their front room with the windows wide open and describe each other’s shortcomings at the top of their lungs. My seven year old has even learned a few new, colourful words as a result. Our neighbours seem to alternate between yelling and singing the folk songs of their youth from some far off land, most fuelled by beer.

By contrast, we are a very happy household, although you wouldn’t know it if you listened at the keyhole. If you did, you’d also hear a whole lot of yelling.

Unlike our neighbours, none of the yelling questions anyone’s parentage or the personal habits of their mothers. The yelling in our house is entirely conversational.

For example, my wife can sense the very instant when I am in the bathroom with the door shut, the overhead exhaust fan on, water running in the sink and my razor up against my face. Without fail, that is when she chooses to ask me a question from two floors away.

My ears are still good enough that I know someone is speaking somewhere in the house. And because it isn’t a simple “No!”, I can safely assume it isn’t directed towards my son, who is currently intent on cloning himself using a combination of toothpaste, drool and salt mixed in an old medicine bottle. Appropriately, he refers to it as “Project Satan”.

My son has no problem being heard. He is one of the loudest kids I know. We could hire him out as a public address system or an emergency broadcast horn in case of civil unrest. He has a great future as a hog caller or auctioneer. Maybe a career in politics - although it is not as prestigious or respectable as a hog caller.

Him I have no trouble hearing from anywhere in the house. The problem is that in his case, he can’t hear my answer to any of his many questions – mostly involving a surplus of ice cream sandwiches taunting him from the freezer. I can offer an opinion on the merits of an all ice cream diet from a floor away, but somehow he never hears me. And by the time I make it down to the kitchen, the sandwich is already gone and the point is moot.

It’s not just that people will talk to me from other rooms of the house when my head is in the sink. My wife will start talking to me when she is in the basement with the dryer going full tilt – usually with four dollars in nickels going through the spin cycle. I’ll be standing in front of the dishwasher on “pots and pans” with the TV on.

For some reason, that is the perfect time to start discussing variable rate mortgages and where the new dent in the car came from.

For my part, I refuse to yell in the house. The result is that my other housemates tend to yell louder, or just keep on going until I relent. I will get up from my desk or chair and walk downstairs so no one has to raise their voice to be heard. When I ask what they wanted, the answer I get more often than not is: “Nothing important.”

That’s when it’s my turn to start yelling.

© Stephen Lautens, 2009

Have A Heart

May 28, 2009

By Stephen Lautens

I’m amazed at all the fuss people are making about our Governor General recently snacking on a seal heart.

I have to say I don’t have any strong feelings one way or the other about seals in general or the seal hunt in particular, although I know it is a hot button for a lot of people. Passions run high here and overseas about seals, so it’s not surprising that taking a bite of a raw seal heart has given our Governor General a certain amount of indigestion.

The Europeans apparently got in a real snit about it. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I find it particularly rich, since they have a long history of hunting stags, wild boars, rabbits and blasting the heads off grouse and other birds to put them on the table. Wild game is not only considered a delicacy, but is a staple of a lot of European diets. The last time I was in a fancy restaurant in Europe, what I was given by the waiter looked more like a zoo brochure than a menu.

The animal rights people were also up in arms at the idea of cutting open an animal and eating it. Or as the VP of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told the papers, “It amazes us that a Canadian official would indulge in such bloodlust.” He said that the incident gives Canadians “even more Neanderthal image around the world than they already have."

While I have never worked on a farm, I am under no illusions about where the meat in my grocery store comes from. I know it doesn’t start out on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic wrap. It starts out as an animal. Maybe we city folk don’t like to think too much about where that juicy steak on the barbeque comes from, but unless our school system is worse than I think, not many of us believe steaks grow on trees.

Maybe it was Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s eating the heart thing – as someone said, a little too “primitive” for our friends in Europe, who oddly have no problem snacking on force-fed goose livers, various other organs or sausages made of blood. All that is okay, but apparently the heart is wrong.

I’ve travelled a bit and have been offered a lot of things to eat that are strange by the standards of anyone who only eats fast food. I’ve had sea slug, shark and various things that crawl in the night. I didn’t enjoy most of them, but the world is a big place and people eat things out of tradition or necessity that the rest of us wouldn’t touch on a bet.

I have no problems with people who buck the evolutionary trend of our species and opt for an all vegetable diet, even though we humans have been eating meat for as long as we have been able to catch it. For the first million or so years the meat also did its best to catch us.

I remember back in college a student who did his best to make his dog into a vegetarian. I suppose it is possible to turn a dog into a rabbit, but I can tell you, that was one unhappy dog, and grateful for any hot dogs slipped accidentally to him under the picnic table.

So hats off to our GG. She’s a braver woman than me, even if only for doing what comes naturally.

© Stephen Lautens, 2009