Sevastopol is Russia’s Faslane

In the last couple of days, Russian troops have moved to occupy Simferapol in the Crimean peninsula.  This may be part of a larger effort to deter the Ukraine from continuing to turn towards Europe for patronage, but a quick glance at the map makes at least part of Russia’s motivation very clear.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed in Sevastopol.  Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union there has been tension between Russia and the Ukraine over her continued presence, and Russia’s lease was only extended a few years ago.  The fleet has had it’s home there for two hundred and thirty years.  I cannot imagine that Russia would be willing to lose this critical part of her strategic protection.   And if we look at the map, we see that the only main road to Sevastopol passes through Simferopol, the administrative centre of Crimea.  If Simferopol is secured and under Russian control, the Black Fleet is safe.

The British equivalent might be Faslane Naval base, home of her nuclear fleet.  I cannot imagine the UK countenancing any threat to Faslane, although the demands for Scottish independence must surely be giving the Navy’s senior commanders some serious headaches right now.

But back to the Crimea.  Shocking though it is to see Russia so casually violate the sovereignty of a neighbour, I can only hope that her purpose is merely to defend a key military installation, rather than to forcefully shepherd the entire Ukraine back into a closer union with her former overlords.


The Navy Yard

As soon as I heard about the shooting at Washington Navy Yard on Monday, one question sprang to mind and refused to leave.

We are shocked, and rightly so, at the news of yet another mass shooting.  And yet, for some reason, most of us aren’t particularly shocked about the location of the shootings.  But I can’t help pondering the location of this act of violence, the Washington Navy Yard.  I’d never heard of this place until Monday, so I took the time to read up a little on the site and its history.

The Yard started out more than two centuries ago as the largest shipbuilding facility in the US navy.  By World War II, it was the largest naval ordnance plant in the world. The weapons designed and built there were used in every war in which the United States fought until the 1960s.

To put it another way, this facility has existed,  for two centuries, to create guns, torpedoes, gunboats, frigates and shells.  In short, all the machinery needed for people to kill other people with production-line efficiency.  To be blunt, this site has been in the business of mass-producing death. This is not a value judgment, just a plain statement of fact. Many thousands of human beings have been shot, blown up, burnt or drowned by the output of this facility.

And yet for some reason this doesn’t elicit a strong emotional reaction, or indeed, any comment at all in the coverage of Monday’s tragedy.

Why is that, I wonder?

Liberal and Conservative should be renamed…

…to Urbanist and Ruralist.

A quick look at the election results from the UK, Canada or the US shows a clear correlation between the Liberal/Conservative divide and the Urban/Rural divide.  Take a look at these maps:

A recent US electoral map, indicating population density and voting trends

Vote Density by US Counties



A recent UK electoral map.  Note the clustering of Labour voters in London, Newcastle, Birmingham, and other major cities










An electoral map from Ontario, Canada.  Again, the left-of-center votes cluster in Toronto and Hamilton, the largest cities in the area.



We should not be surprised by this.  Conservatism, in it’s classic form, arose to defend the interests of the rural land owning classes during the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution.

But beyond this, I suspect that urban dwellers and rural dwellers have very different perspectives on the world.  In a rural setting, you know the majority of people you interact with.  In an urban setting, you need to co-exist with vast numbers of strangers.  In a rural setting, tradition and social hierarchy provide consistency and predictability in your life.  In a city, agreed-upon rules and social agencies provide the same effect.

Given how much the world has changed since the 19th century, it’s surprising to me that we still define ourselves in terms of these political labels.  I consider myself both a conservative and a liberal.  I completely believe in the value of conserving social institutions that have served us well and been tested over the centuries: things like the rule of law, and clear property rights, and strong families.  And I completely believe in the importance of providing care and protection for everyone in society, regardless of wealth, race or background.

I think new labels are going to be needed.

Secret secrets

The US government commanded the phone company Verizon to secretly collect vast amounts of data about its users activities.

Furthermore, Verizon was banned from admitting the existence of this secret order.

“The court order expressly bars Verizon from disclosing to the public either the existence of the FBI’s request for its customers’ records, or the court order itself.”

I am very disturbed when anyone is ordered to do something unethical and then required to deny all knowledge of that action.  At this point I truly believe that non-compliance, even if it results in prosecution, is the ethically correct action.  To do anything else is to be complicit in the creation of a privatized secret police.  I would have a huge amount of respect for any executive who stood up in public and said “we have been ordered by the government to spy on our customers and then deny all knowledge of this program, but instead we choose honesty.  We refuse to do this.  We will inform you if we receive further secret orders.  And we will accept the consequences of our honesty if necessary.”

Imagine the power of an executive choosing to go to jail rather than become complicit in large scale espionage.  That would be someone I could respect.


Representing citizens, or representing party whips?

I’m continuing work on my ‘vote visualisation’ tool, because I believe that anything that brings greater transparency to our democratic process is a good idea.  Take it for a spin, and let me know what you think, and what features should be added.

I know I could speed it up by caching the data rather than retrieving it from the government data feed on every request.  But already I think it’s enough to show how obsessively ALL our MPs follow party lines. I still find this disturbing; I’d much rather a representative who cares about what Barrie citizens think more than he cares about what the party whips think.

Living next to a killer

In a windowless office near Las Vegas, Nevada, an American Air Force operator controls one of the deadly Predator drones that fly over Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.    He hunches over his keyboard and joystick, squints at his computer monitors.  He presses some buttons, and on the other side of the world, a few lives are quietly erased.

Then at the end of his shift, he gets into his minivan and drives home to his house in the suburbs.  Perhaps he takes his dog for walk.  Maybe he plays catch with his kids, or has a few friends over for a barbecue.  He waves politely at his neighbour.  On Sunday he goes to church.

What would it feel like to be that guys neighbour?  The thought fills me with a profound disquiet.  I live on a street populated with accountants and software developers and police officers and teachers.  In general they are quiet, friendly people.  I like them.  But I never have to look at them and wonder how many mothers and fathers and children they have killed today.  Would I want such a person living next to me?  Would I let my kids visit their house, knowing that they are capable of taking another human life with little more effort than filling in an Excel spreadsheet?  How would I feel standing next to him in the pew at church at Christmas, singing together about the Prince of Peace, and goodwill to all mankind?

The more I think about our society’s quiet acceptance of death dealing flying robots, the more it worries me, but I worry most of all about the type of person who apply for and perform a job controlling one.

Visualizing Votes

Politicians do not spend a lot of time thinking about the issues they vote on, as I noted yesterday.

I just wrote a little tool to demonstrate this.  Have a look at this visual representation of recent votes in the House of Commons?

Vote Visualisation.

And then ask yourself this – are our representatives carefully considering all the facts before them, and then voting on each issue in a manner that best represents their constituents?

Or are they mindlessly following party orders?votes



My faith in democracy is being challenged

The good news is I’ve discovered that the Canadian government has a very good web interface for tracking recent votes in parliament.  Seriously, go check it out here, see how your MP has been voting recently.

The bad news is it gives a clear demonstration that our politician vote purely along party lines.

Take vote 631, for example.  Every single Conservative voted to close down the Experimental Lakes Facility.  Every single Liberal, NDP and BQ member voted to keep it open.

We could read these results in two ways.  Perhaps, by a strange coincidence, every single Conservative member reflected on the views of his or her constituents, the value of performing fundamental ecological research, and the role that basic research should play in evidence based policy making, and came to the eventual conclusion that it was not in Canada’s best interests to keep the facility open.

That would be, I grant you, a rather strange coincidence.  But the alternative explanation is that none of our representatives paid careful attention to this issue, and all simply voted the way their parties told them to.

I’m a firm believer in representative democracy, but that word representative is important.  Are we to believe that the residents of every single Conservative riding are against publicly funded research, and the residents of every single NDP, Green and Liberal riding are in favour of it?  Or are our politicians paying more attention to their party whips than their constituents?

If they are, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  Democracy works when people make their voices heard.  We need to be paying more attention to how our MPs are voting; congratulate them when they get it right, and reprimand them when they get it wrong.  They are, after all, working on our behalf.

And at least thanks to the internet we can easily watch their activities now.

A Long Line of Criminals

I have been thinking a lot recently about incarceration.

At its highest levels, the Soviet Union’s gulag system imprisoned 800 people for every 100,000 people in the country.  Today the United States has 743 prisoners for every 100,000 people.  Nearly a quarter of all the prisoners in the world are in United States prisons.

This worries me, and when I read about the Stephen Harper proposing more ‘tough-on-crime’ legislation, I wonder what exactly we are trying to achieve.  But before I delve to deeply into the subject, I first have to recognize how this must be approached.  As a Christian, I belong to a faith tradition that has, frankly, spent quite a lot of time in jail.

  • Joseph was imprisoned for years on trumped up sexual harassment charges.
  • David spent his formative years as an outlaw.
  • Jesus was arrested,  imprisoned, and condemned as a threat to the state.
  • Paul wrote large chunks of the New Testament from a prison cell.
  • William Tyndale was imprisoned and executed by the imperial authorities
  • Martin Luther King wrote his most important work from a Birmingham jail.

I recognise in our society the need for a judicial system, for police officers, magistrates, prison guards and probation workers.

But when we are discussing the criminal justice system, the starting point for those who call themselves Christians needs to be this – our first and primary identity is with the jailed, not the jailer.  As the founder of our movement said, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”


Sam Hammond wants teachers to break the law

On Wednesday I received a letter from the school board informing me that our local elementary school would be closed due to ‘a day of political protest.’  (The Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario clearly decided not to call it a ‘strike’, because they know they are no longer in a legal strike position.)  Yesterday, I received a phone call reiterating that the school would be closed.

After  making alternative plans for my children for today, I found out mid-morning that the schools ARE in fact open.  The Ontario Labour Relations Board has confirmed that ETFO’s actions were illegal, and the union was instructing its members to break the law.  The school board has announced that the schools are open, and apologized for the short notice, noting that the timing was beyond the school board’s control.

I am, at this point, disgusted by the actions of ETFO.  My children are fortunate enough to be taught by some incredibly motivated, engaging and talented teachers.  I have seen them time and time again demonstrate a devotion to their calling, and a passion for equipping the next generation of Canadians for adulthood.  And so I am deeply frustrated when they are ordered by their union to refrain from doing their jobs, and fulfilling the calling to which they have dedicated their lives.

The person directly responsible for this is Sam Hammond, the president of ETFO.  He claims that the union is ‘standing up for democratic values’.  And yet he is encouraging teachers to directly break a law that was decided upon by a democratically elected, representative government and confirmed by an independent judiciary.

The mechanisms of democracy in Canada are still in place and functioning correctly.  Mr Hammond, though, is not presenting a role model to our children of a respectful, responsible citizen.