February 2006

• 2,865 words

Absolute Power
Bravo Arno Kopecky for such high-quality reporting on Iceland’s hydrogen program and Canada’s lack of a forward-thinking energy plan (“Water To Burn,” December). Spending my tax dollars to subsidize oil consumption makes me want to scream.

I have worked in Alberta’s tar sands, those vast oil reserves that lie deep underground, where the crude extraction process uses about two-thirds the energy it yields. Twenty million cubic metres of natural gas is consumed each day, producing far more greenhouse-gas emissions than conventional-oil extraction processes. The giant open pit mines and enormous ponds containing toxic wastewater — both visible from space — alone cover some 150 square kilometres and have permanently destroyed significant swaths of boreal forest. If current activities continue, by 2025 this environmental devastation will spread to 1,500 square kilometres.

In Vancouver I ride a bicycle, occasionally take buses, and always seem to be stuck in traffic. The BC government is building roads that will only increase suburban sprawl and car dependency. Meanwhile, Ottawa continues to subsidize car manufacturers and give tax concessions to oil companies. Surveys indicate that a majority of people would like to be able to bike to work. But if cars are here to stay, at the very least they should, following Iceland’s lead, be hydrogen-powered. Canada must turn to alternative-energy solutions, and hydrogen can be produced through wind generators, photovoltaic cells, tidal power, geothermal energy, and other sustainable approaches.
David Cambon
Vancouver, BC

Lost In Suburbia
Larry Frolick’s dichotomy of organic growth versus planning (“Suburbia’s Last Stand,” November) suggests that human activities are either spontaneous or fabricated. But the nine items Frolick uses to differentiate Toronto’s growth from Mississauga’s show otherwise. For example, he argues, “the former grew organically around water courses, Indian trails, military sightlines, sawmills, local factories, quarries, farmers’ markets, cheap worker housing — and aristocratic fiefdoms like High Park.” This certainly describes an urban geography and history that many of us recognize as a Jane Jacobs sort of city. But even the first of these nine items is not wholly organic, and the remaining eight point directly to planning.

According to Frolick, Michael Moldenhauer, an urban developer, complains that he “spends fully two-thirds of his time” in meetings and argues that “what you pay for in a new house today is not apparent — it’s an invisible mountain of reports and files.” Moldenhauer is acknowledging that over the past thirty to forty years more of the planning for urban growth has been financed and directed by developers, and, indirectly, by their clients. Whenever a new building goes up, there is planning. The issue is not planning verses spontaneity; it’s in whose interest the planning is being done.

While the Ontario government should be commended for tackling southern Ontario’s urban and agricultural future, the real power rests at the municipal level. Hazel McCallion, Mississauga’s mayor, is devoting considerable energy to smart-growth concerns and, as a result, I predict a much higher turnout in next year’s local elections than the 23 percent who turned out last year.

Decisions should be made following basic utilitarian principles (the greatest good for the broadest possible community), including the interests of those living thousands of miles downwind from our carbon emissions, those planning to immigrate here, and those not yet born. Deliberate and unhurried consultation during the planning process will produce positive results, as will the democratic debate I anticipate from a larger, younger, and more diverse electorate — potential planners each and every one of them.
Bruce Flattery
Founding member,
Ontario Farmland Trust
Pickering, Ontario

I had hoped “Suburbia’s Last Stand” would focus on the tough decisions necessary for dealing with suburban sprawl. Instead, Frolick wandered through a mix of cultural trade-offs without clearly laying out the appropriate solutions or recognizing the urgent need to deal with the problem. I wonder whether the author even took the notion of sustainable, environmentally sensitive development seriously.
Graham Saul
Ottawa, Ontario

Larry Frolick responds: Mr. Flattery criticizes the aptness of a key distinction I tried to draw between organic and planned communities. Of course everyone plans, but changes in scale create new progeny. If history is a guide, once a growth plan is set in motion on the scale contemplated by the Ontario government, it quickly becomes a juggernaut. Unless adequate public safeguards are put in place that allow governments to revise — and, if necessary, dramatically change — a growth management plan, we could very well get stuck with a monster. It’s the lack of transparency in the Ontario approach that I criticize, not the good intentions of purposeful planning. Her Worship Mayor McCallion is one of the most able politicians in Canada, but the interest of all politicians is, and must be, power. I appreciate Mr. Saul’s disappointment in my failure to be an environmental polemicist. I enjoy trees and forests as much as the next guy, but my agenda in writing the article was to describe the inner life of sprawl, and our ongoing struggles to master it, not to argue a particular environmental case. It’s up to citizens like Flattery and Saul — and the rest of us — to put our two cents down on the planning chessboard.

Artful Dodgers
I read with interest Joshua Knelman’s article highlighting the lack of adequate controls in Canada over the trade in works of art and other cultural objects (“Artful Crimes,” November). A number of countries active in the international art market — including Japan, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom — have recently signed on to the 1970 unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Canada has been a signatory to the same protocol since 1978, but, based on Mr. Knelman’s findings, this does not seem to mean much. The UK, for example, recently passed the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act, which imposes tough penalties on those convicted of dealing in stolen cultural objects. Since the trade in illicit works of art will exploit the weakest link, Canada risks becoming a centre for the trade unless it significantly toughens its laws.

It is also essential that dealers, galleries, and auction houses adopt codes of conduct committing them to sound provenance. This must also include online auction houses, such as eBay, which are now significant conduits in the trade of illicit art and other cultural objects. There is increasing evidence that “art enthusiasts” are actually just money launderers, and that dealers and auction houses are complicit in such schemes. Perhaps the prosecution of a leading gallery for money laundering is what is required to bring about a change of attitude in Canada.
Kevin Chamberlain
Legal Adviser
UK Ministerial Advisory Panel on
Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects,
Surrey, England

Examining the sixteen pictures of stolen art in “Artful Crimes,” my immediate reaction was, “With three or four exceptions, why would anyone want them badly enough to have them stolen?”
Lee Morrison
Calgary, Alberta

Math Quiz
The “dearth of the visual” in the teaching of mathematics that is deplored by Siobhan Roberts (“Do The Math,” November) can be understood as divorcing mathematics from its origins and motivations. In the introduction to his book Mathematical Logic, Cambridge professor S.W. Steen states, “Mathematics is the art of making vague intuitive ideas precise and then studying the result.” The geometric principles that Euclid codified in his texts on geometry provide an excellent example of this thesis: the principles were abstracted from rules of thumb developed for the re-surveying of the Nile Delta, made necessary by its annual flooding.

A more recent example is the development of the theory of fractals in the early 1960s by Benoit Mandelbrot, while he was working in the mathematics department of the ibm Thomas J. Watson Research Center. I also worked at ibm and was assigned the task of finding mathematical models of the noise on telephone lines so that error-correcting codes for digital transmission could be properly tested. The design of computer programs is often an application of the art of making vague ideas precise. Computers are unforgiving taskmasters that do not “Whack! Whack! Whack!” in the manner of some human taskmasters, but the stream of garbage produced from bad programs certainly reinforces the message “you got that wrong!” And as computers are employed in increasingly complex tasks in our world, getting it wrong can have profound, unfortunate consequences.

Although knowledge of sophisticated mathematics may not be needed by many professionals, an ability to abstract simple structures from complex data and to reason correctly about them is essential. A challenge for our educational institutions is to provide the latter without necessarily requiring the former.
Paul Gilmore
Professor Emeritus,
Computer Science
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC

Siobhan Roberts responds:
The classical geometer Donald Coxeter — an extremely visual and intuitive mathematician — deplored computers, mostly because he feared they would lure students away from pure mathematics. Ironically, however, the alliance of computers and geometry has only served to bolster classical geometry’s cause. Concepts of classical geometry, and offshoots such as projective geometry, are hardwired into the graphics cards found in even the average home computer, are used to resolve a number of problems in computer-aided design (cad), and drive the convincing animation produced by studios like Pixar, creators of The Incredibles and the Academy Awardwinning short film Geri’s Game. (Tony DeRose, a member of the “studio tools group” at Pixar, formerly delivered lectures called “How Geometry is Changing Hollywood.”) Old-fashioned classical geometry, as it was taught in the classroom, has received a tremendous boost from computers. The mouse and the computer screen, and computer programs like Geometer’s Sketchpad, have replaced pencil and paper. Computers and computer programs have, along with Coxeter’s preservationist spirit, generated a long-awaited renaissance, of sorts, in classical geometry.

Global Ghetto
Three important points should be made about Don Gillmor’s book review (“Who Killed Globalization?,” October). First, globalization does not equal market fundamentalism. Second, market fundamentalism is not dead. Third, the reviewer is only partially correct when he argues that “politicians didn’t create globalization.”

Gillmor takes globalization to be synonymous with free trade, capital mobility, and the abuse of corporate power for personal enrichment, and accepts Ralston Saul’s starting point that globalization was the attempt by neoliberals to make market fundamentalism the guiding principle of political and social life. This very economicscentred approach to the notion of globalization is not surprising coming from those prone to criticizing the excesses of a liberal economic ideology.

Similar to justice, freedom, and democracy, globalization is a word invoked by many people espousing very different political and social projects. Nonetheless, it is generally true that globalization is about making the world more connected by creating new social, cultural, political, and economic arrangements. Economics is only one dimension of this process, and the market fundamentalist project is only one among numerous paths that globalization can follow.

It is simplistic and misleading for Gillmor to argue that globalization is dead because a particular approach to it has stalled. Our world continues to be reconfigured as people, money, products, ideas, and culture flow across state borders. Globalization continues to expand its influence even as its death is hinted at or, as is the case in this article, proclaimed.

Furthermore, neo-liberals have certainly not abandoned globalization. There is still a great deal of profit to be made in restructuring economic systems, and the fight over how to regulate globalization continues. Private financial interests, international organizations, and the media continue to promote market-based solutions to complex problems. Media coverage of the recent German elections, for instance, generally accepted the need for Germany to adopt neo-liberal economic reforms, as most commentators simply speculated on the implications of such reforms.

Globalization is shaped by the decisions and actions of a broad range of people, from politicians to business people to social activists, and the struggle over its form and characteristics is far from dead.
Robert O’Brien
Acting Director
Institute on Globalization and the
Human Condition
McMaster University
Hamilton, Ontario

Broadcasting Blues
Ken Alexander presents clear and cogent arguments for the survival of cbc as a Canadian broadcaster apart from commercial providers (“To CBC or Not to CBC,” November). But while the cbc cannot fulfill its mandate without adequate funding, healthy budgets do not guarantee that the public broadcaster will appeal to the “citizens’ highest inclinations” or that it will act as “an authoritative check and balance on a heavily concentrated private media.” Such an effort requires vision from a committed and cohesive group, not from just-in-time specialists.

I’m not convinced that shutting down the cbc for two months constitutes anything more than administrative muscling, and quite possibly an attempt to precipitate a crisis. If Canadians are sincere in their support of the cbc, how will the national broadcaster respond to its community? Yes, money is essential, but the cbc needs to advance the growth of Canadian society.
James Arthur
Thunder Bay, Ontario

Gwynne Dyer responds to Colin Jones’ letter on “Containing China” (October)
It is now customary to compare all international patterns to those that preceded World War II, and professor Jones (Letters, December, “Panda-hugger”) is certainly playing the appeasement card for all it’s worth. But unless he is actually arguing that the nature and goals of the current Chinese regime are the same as Hitler’s, it is largely an irrelevant comparison. It is certainly not the one I was making.

The example that concerned me was the one before World War I, in which a constellation of great powers — some more democratic than others, but none of them hell-bent on war — drifted into a confrontation that culminated in a great war. Most historians agree that the creation of the Triple Entente and the consequent encirclement of Germany played a pivotal role in fuelling arms races and perceptions of threat which led to World War I. The current US attempt to encircle China, and in particular the expanding US-Indian military relationship, could have a similar result.

I agree with professor Jones that the close trading relationship between China and the United States does not make war impossible. If I thought otherwise, I would not have bothered to write the article. But the litany of Chinese aggressions and infractions since 1945 that Jones offers proves nothing about the expansionist intentions of the Chinese regime. The Chinese intervention in Korea in 1950, as US troops neared the Chinese frontier, came just one year after the end of the Chinese civil war, in which the United States backed the losing Nationalist side. And it was Stalin, not Mao, who helped the North Koreans start the war in the first place.

The frontier clashes with India and the Soviet Union in 1962 and 1969 involved genuine disputes over relatively small areas with poorly demarcated borders, and in both cases China, despite having gained control over some or most of the disputed territory, never pushed the disputes to a full-blown military conclusion.

What happened with Vietnam in 1979 was somewhat different, because there is actually no dispute over the Sino-Vietnamese frontier. Beijing simply announced and then carried out a large-scale military incursion into Vietnam to punish Hanoi for the recent invasion of China’s protege, Cambodia. Conforming to pattern, however, after twenty-nine days Chinese troops all returned to their start points. Strategic issues related to the Sino-Soviet split certainly played a role in both 1969 and 1979, and you could argue that China was rash in both cases, but you can’t use either clash to make a case for Chinese expansionism any more than you can use Tibet or Taiwan for that purpose. I would very much like to see Tibet independent, and I do not want to see Taiwan reunited to the mainland while the latter remains a dictatorship, but both territories are widely recognized as legally Chinese.

Yes, China has built (very modest) military facilities in the Spratlys. So have Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines, the other four countries that maintain claims to some or all of those islands. (Brunei has claims to a reef zone for the purpose of commercial fishing.) None of the five claimants, including China, has behaved overly aggressively there. And the three gas and oil fields in the East China Sea (Chunxiao, Duanqiao, and Tianwaitian in Chinese; Shirakaba, Kusunoki, and Kashi in Japanese) straddle the median line between the two countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones, as designated by Tokyo (and rejected by Beijing). All the Chinese drilling is occurring in territory that Japan recognizes as Chinese; Tokyo’s complaint is that these fields connect underground to fields on the Japanese side, and thus the Chinese might be trying to siphon off some of Japan’s gas.

It is out of such shreds of evidence that the case for Chinese expansionism is built. There are many in the United States and elsewhere whose professional deformation, so to speak, makes them eager to believe it, but it is pretty thin stuff. What we can be certain of is that if enough people believe it, and act on their beliefs, then we stand a fair chance of spending the early twentyfirst century in an Asian rerun of the Cold War.