Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Eleven Years Later: Who's Remembering the Iraq Protests Today?

Tell me, everyone, where are the people in the streets protesting the Canadian government's slip into conflict in Iraq?  Remember the massive protests in 2003, including 200,000 in Montreal on a February day of -25 C. 

An "emergency debate" in the House of Commons just isn't the same.  Particularly when neither Stephen Harper nor Justin Trudeau were there.  For whatever his faults, Jean Chrétien was front and centre in 2003.

The Ottaw Citizen reports that opposition leader Thomas Mulcair was in the game, as was Liberal MP Marc Garneau:

“The government is not being transparent with Canadians,” said Mulcair. “This is a slippery slope.”

"He also touched on the absence of Trudeau and Harper. “They should have been here and they should have been speaking,” he said.

"Earlier in the day, in Question Period, Mulcair said Harper is breaking a pledge to allow MPs to vote on military deployments.

“This is the same person who, in 2003, wanted Canada to be involved in Iraq,” said Mulcair in that earlier exchange. “He is finally getting his wish.”

Monday, 15 September 2014

Saturday Photo: Not Much of This Left...

Actually this photo was taken some time ago, but I couldn't resist since it was so cold this weekend. 

Risk  of frost in the suburbs they say, definitely a time for getting out the fall clothes.  But today at least it's sunny.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Financing Schools: Cut Private School Grants More

 Like the song says, "The rich get rich and the poor get children."

Le Devoir has a story this morning about how the current austerity wave is requiring that Quebec school boards cut even more from their budgets this academic year.  The Commission scolaire de Montréal, the province's largest school board, has been asked to cut another $9.1 million even though the school year has already started. Previously school commissions had to cut their budgets by 10 per cent.

The new cuts can't be made without seriously affecting the quality of education, says the commission's president, Catherine Harel-Bourdon.  The only places to trim, since contracts have already been signed with personnel, is in services like homework aid and health.  This will  have terrible effects on the most most vulnerable schools and students.  So the commission just won't make them.

In contrast, Quebec has not made the same kind of cuts in the funds it allocates to private schools.  In June finance minister Carlos Leitão took $14.1 million from the $480 million it gives to support approved private schools.  That's 3 per cent of their budgets, not 10 per cent.

The association of private schools protested, of course, claiming that they actually save the province money: public schools receive an average of about $11,000 in public funds, while private schools in 2011-2012 received $4,320, according to figures the assciation bandied about last spring.  What is not mentioned is that private schools can and do refuse any kid with problems.  The public system, in contrast, must provide special support for thousands which means considerably more expense.

A study released at the beginning of the summer (and which flew below the radar of many including myself) estimated that the province could save between $65 million and $186 million by reducing support to private schools.  Public schools spend 21.5 percent more on teaching per student than do private schools ($7,157 compared to  $5,888 ) and 147 per cent less than private schools for administrative services ($515  compared to $1,273.)

Partisans of private school always argue that each child that switches from their system to the public one will cost the public more money.  True, but I expect that if more of the childen of the chattering classes and the society's decideurs  went to public schools, we'd see a whole lot more pressure to increase, not cut, the resources of public schools.  And investment in a system that educates all children well is money very well spent. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Wisdom of Plants? Caffeine's Advantages and Disadvantages

Had your caffeine fix yet this morning?  I look forward to my cup of coffee after breakfast mightily.  The taste is not that great (as I tell my grandkids who want to try it) although the smell is divine, as is the little energy hit it gives me. 

Which, it turns out, is exactly what coffee trees evolved to provide.

The New York Times Science section today has a fascinating, if a little technical, story about the way caffeine offers advantages to coffee trees.  To make a long story short, in large doses, as when the trees' leaves fall to the ground and degrade, the chemical hinders germination of other plants that might compete with coffee. Small amounts in nectar from the trees' flowers, however, give bees and pollinating insects a little buzz of energy that encourages them to come back.  

Apparently coffee trees are not alone in this. The ability to make caffeine is not exclusive to them: among others, tea, yerba mate, and cacao plants also produce it, although in different ways.  This "convergent evolution" suggests just how useful caffeine is the plant world, the story quotes scientists involved in a study just published in the journal Science.

"Every second, people around the world drink more than 26,000 cups of coffee. And while some of them may care only about the taste, most use it as a way to deliver caffeine into their bloodstream. Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world," the story says. 

Okay, my coffee's finished.  Time to get to work before the buzz wears off...

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Saturday Photo: When the Uncovered Past Does Not Linger

As I've mentioned here before, one of the summer's highlights was our trip to the Roman town of Coninbriga, not far from Coimbra in Portugal.  The site was a going concern for more than 300 years, until Visigoths moved in on the Roman outpost in the 4th century BCE.

Afterwards the location on a well-watered plateau was farmed, while the old town faded from collective memory.  Some of the ruins were pillaged for building materials after Napoleon's forces razed a nearby town, but it wasn't until the 1930s when the possibility of rediscovering a gem from Roman times spurred excavation.

Now about 10 per cent of the former town has been excavated, with astounding results. Among the finds are mosaics as fresh as the day they were finished from the floors of houses which must have been home to the wealthier residents.  Several thermes, or Roman bathhouses have been found as well large houses with elegant interior patios and a large, pillar-lined public space, the Forum. 

But time marches on.  Dirt is blown by wind, grass seeds sprout, weeds grow up.  Unless maintenance is constant, the forces of the earth conspire to hide the ruins once again, as attests the photo of the partially uncovered wall which  now has several decades of weeds growing on it.

Nothing is permanent, in other words...

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Real Intergenerational Inequity Is Not Public Debt But Lack of Public Support

Are the guys in power in Canada and the US listening to voice of economic reason? The answer is "No!" of course. 

As Paul Krugman charges again today, austerity measures and fear of inflation have led Europe into economic times worse than the 1930s.  He says it is in the "grip of a deflationary vortex." He adds that finally, thankfully, the European Central Bank has finally realized that, and  just announced measures to boost Europe's economy.

What he doesn't say is what is perfectly clear to anyone who has looked at the toll bad times and budget cuts takes from the next generation.  Around here, much is being said about saddling our children and grandchildren with debt: intergenerational equity has become a catch phrase.  But the real problem will come when children don't have the schools, health care, libraries, social services and healthy towns and cities they require to grow up educted and strong.

Significantly, this week The Washington  Post has a telling story about the Baltimore Beginning School study. In a report called The Long Shadow, researchers recount what they found following a randomly chosen group of kids who entered first grade in 1982.  They were followed for 25 years with results that reinforce doubts about how egalitarian American society is, and just how much poverty influences what happens to kids.

The Post say : "Some of them — children largely from the middle-class and blue-collar white families still in Baltimore’s public school system in 1982 — grew up to managerial jobs and marriages and their own stable homes. But where success occurred, it was often passed down, through family resources or networks simply out of reach of most of the disadvantaged."

It goes on:  "We like to think that education is an equalizer — that through it, children may receive the tools to become entrepreneurs when their parents were unemployed, lawyers when their single moms had 10th-grade educations. But (researchers) Alexander and Entwisle kept coming back to one data point: the 4 percent of disadvantaged children who earned college degrees by age 28.

"“We hold that out to them as what they should work toward,” Alexander says. Yet in their data, education did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off.

"The story is different for children from upper-income families, who supplement classroom learning with homework help, museum trips and college expectations. Alexander and Entwisle found one exception: Low-income white boys attained some of the lowest levels of education. But they earned the highest incomes among the urban disadvantaged.

"They were able, Alexander and Entwisle realized, to tap into what remains of the good blue-collar jobs in Baltimore. These are the skilled crafts, the union gigs, jobs in trades traditionally passed from one generation to the next and historically withheld from blacks. These children did not inherit college expectations. But they inherited job networks. And these are the two paths to success in the Beginning School Study."

Take home lesson?  That schools need formidable resources to counter the effects of families' economic difficulties, which are becoming much more acute in these bad times when government budgets are cut in the name of "short term pain for long term gain."

And that the slogan "Solidarity Forever" with all that implies for unions and collective action has made an enormous difference in the lives of ordinary North Americans. 

Friday, 29 August 2014

Saturday Photo (Day Early): 50 Years Déjà!

It was a Saturday, all right, 50 years ago today when Lee and I got married.  Seems hardly possible that so much time has passed, particularly since he's the same sweetie, only with a beard, a little less hair on top and a little more weight around the middle.   
The VW was what brought us together.  We'd been buddies on the student newspaper at Berkeley until he bought the car between our Freshman and Sophomore years with his summer savings.  Then he asked me out to a dance where there was going to be an open bar  (the drinking age was 21 in California then) and which he didn't want to waste on the girl he'd been dating who didn't drink.  The rest is history, I guess!  
The car was decorated by his friends, who also had written "Help Me" on the soles of his shoes.  He discovered this minutes before the ceremony and tried to keep his feet flat when we kneeled for the blessing so the "dearly beloved gathered here" wouldn't see.  But all's well that ends well, and we'll toast each other tonight: we still like a glass of wine 50 years later!