Friday, January 28, 2011

Egypt Disconnected

Egypt is disconnected in more ways than one: the government has downed access to the internet overnight as protests intensified within the country, as people call for the removal of the ruling Mubarak. The ruling party is obviously disconnected from the needs and wants of its people, and is trying to disconnect them from each other to reinforce its power.

But access to the internet is not just a question of accessing email and Twitter to find out who had toast for breakfast; it's an essential tool for information and access to information is akin to freedom of the press within a democracy. Any attack on this kind of access is an attack on democratic principles and Egypt is coming dangerously close to showing its true colours in terms of its politics.

This makes things very complicated for the Western world, which espouses democracy and yet, backs what looks eerily close to a military dictatorship in Egypt. The US sends aid to the regime in Egypt with the objective of curbing terrorism, a rather convenient excuse for curbing the freedoms of its people and channelling money into the military. A startling fact about Egypt comes through in this yahoo article:

"Many protesters are young men. Two thirds of Egypt's 80 million people are below the age of 30 and many have no jobs. About 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

Egypt has been under emergency rule throughout Mubarak's term in office. The government says it is used to combat terrorism. Critics say it is used to stifle any dissent."

This is a young population that could be an essential part of a thriving middle-class economy. Instead, it's being manipulated by its government which is hellbent on keeping tight control. No wonder it's becoming a magnet for terrorist party recruitment. These parties prey on people who are unemployed, disenchanted and given no means to prosper within their home countries.

The leaders of these groups are generally Western-educated idealistic young men who come from rich families; they are the ones that recruit the ignorant, badly educated, suffering young masses with something to prove. And those masses are the ones who generally do the dirty work; they do the most terrorizing, the most fighting and the most dying within these groups.

The government could provide for these people. They could give them jobs, real opportunities, hope, a chance to start a family and live a meaningful life, a part in the wealth. They may have cut the power cord on the information highway for their people; but they are the ones who are truly in the dark.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Last Great Bachelor

It appears that George Clooney will not settle down, even though his latest long term flame has gotten the stamp of approval from his father. While he stated in an interview that he had zero intention of getting married, he didn't quite state why. The reasons for his perennial bachelorhood have ranged from rumours that he's secretly gay to the more obvious arguments about the benefits of bachelorhood. What is clear is that George Clooney is the last great bachelor in Hollywood, something along the lines of a professional, seasoned playboy, self-satisfied by his millions of dollars, pet pigs and various bromances.

That statement in itself almost seems to close the argument. Let's face it, Georgie boy would never be the same if he settled down. It would alter his image as the carefree, motorcycle-riding, Guiness loving, Italian speaking smooth talker who does humanitarian work on the side. George's untouchable, untamed nature is part of what makes him so cool. A wife would just basically make him another Hollywood old guy. He would no longer be Clooney, the world's most eligible bachelor on the red carpet, but just some guy in a suit next to that breathtaking woman. And who wants that?

Bachelorhood also agrees with George. As the celebrity rags have clearly shown, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depps' sexiness factor has gone way down since they became bonded men with children in tow. Brad, for some reason, thinks that having children is license to not shave and wear that funny touque that makes him look homeless. Johnny, who has made the homeless look hot since the 90s, is still attractive, but when he talks about his children, most peoples' eyes glaze over. George still cracks jokes and talks about his latest bike and shooting hoops at home. He's like that cool single uncle that all the kids love, but none of the adults understand.

George is also the ambassador of cool for single people. While single people often lament the fact that there's nobody to come home to and nobody who will ever take care of them in their old age, George helps to pump up the benefits of the single life without the consequences- although it does help that his benefits are supplemented by millions of dollars. While married couples are all smug in their lives full of family and meaning and cheesy Christmas photographs, George is out there for the single people, still living like a teenager with lots of time for play, but with all the adult authority which makes that life awesome. Not to mention the ability to drink. Yes, life for single people a la George is an afternoon of hoops and beer.

Finally, I think George is a beacon for men who simply don't want to give in to the social pressure to marry. Unlike the other unmarried wonders of the world, the basement dwellers, or the IT guys who can't say hello to a woman without sneezing on themselves, George is the cool, self-assured bachelor who is a bachelor by choice. So even if these poor men have their mothers calling them in a panic or throwing their hands in the air because they will never have grandchildren, they can always say "look at George. He's ok. I want to be like George. He's the man."

And no woman will disagree with that.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

We (No Heart) Iran

Iran is definitively clipping Cupid's wings and has banned the production and sale of Valentine's day gifts. The War on Terror was all the rage for the US, but it appears that Iran prefers the more popular War on Love- which will, undoubtedly, be more successful.

The Iranian government sees Valentine's Day as another example of Western excess and doesn't want to encourage the spread of Western influence within its country. While it may be encouraging for V-day haters to not have to see a constant sea of pink and red in February, there may be something to this ban.

Check out this alarming fact from a story:
"Valentine's Day has become increasingly popular among the Iranian youth and is a money-maker for businesses in a country where 70 percent of people are under 30 and have no memory of the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the U.S.-backed Shah."

Well, that is troublesome. To think that a majority of the country doesn't remember what oppression feels like and has the actual gall to think that it can celebrate with reckless abandon and spend their own money on ridiculous heart-shaped nonsense, all in the name of romantic love. That is a true shame.

The article further states that:
"Printing and producing any products related to Valentine's Day, including posters, brochures, advertising cards, boxes with the symbols of hearts, half-hearts, red roses and any activities promoting this day are banned," read the instruction. "Authorities will take legal action against those who ignore the ban."

This means that the most subversive act that you can commit in Iran on February 14th this year will be to hang a red Cupid cardboard cut out or a heart from your living room window. And that you may be sued, fined, jailed or persecuted for that simple act. Which is funny to think from a Western perspective, where people see V-Day as another excuse to load up on chocolates.

There's this theory that St. Valentine actually doesn't exist and that Valentine's Day was created by evil Hallmark CEOs who are actually funded by the American Republican Party and that the intent of the celebration is to generate revenue for chocolate companies while distracting the population from foreign missiles launches. If that's the case, maybe there's something Iran knows that we don't...


The Canadian government has released new rules concerning mortgages in Canada which would limit the maximum mortgage amortization period to 30 years from 35 years and limit the amount of refinancing that people can use against their homes when they feel the credit crunch. Cold-blooded bankers continue to preach to the public about the financial crisis, the recession and the fact that $5 lattes and flat screen TVs are killing the average family. The government claims that this is about fiscal accountability and responsibility. But what does this mean for the average person? Really?

The word mortgage is actually from the French and is comprised of two separate words: mort, meaning death, and gage, meaning guarantee. So when you get a mortgage, the bank is betting on your death in 20-35 years. Which makes a lot of sense, when you consider that we're all guaranteed to die at some point, and makes a bit less sense when you consider that this was the chosen expression to mean house loan in English. But this term is strangely apt these days, as the complications involved in financing a home pretty much breaks down to this: you're not buying a home, you're buying a coffin.

It's estimated that the average home in Canada is probably a quarter of a million dollars ($250,000). It's also estimated that the average income in Canada sits around $35,000 a year. By any calculation, you can already tell that this is a rough situation. The average amount of student loans for people entering the workforce in their first job sits at about $30,000, a little less than one year's salary for that same person. The average cost of a wedding is $25,000 according to the last Statistics Canada study, assuming that bonbons and flowers are still the order of the day.

Which means that if you're the average person with a degree and a spouse, not to mention a car loan and all the miscellaneous expenses associated with it, and you're entering the workforce on the bottom end of the pay scale, you're already roughly $60,000 in the hole without having collected a single paycheque. Not only that, you're likely a renter and a commuter, meaning that a good portion of your pay is already being swallowed up in general life expenses. Your new job requires clothes, shoes, lunches, and miscellaneous social activities, all of which require money. So not only are you starting with two years worth of salary in debt, you're also expected to contribute to the economy by being a consumer, even if those things are hardly extravagances.

But the banks insist that money is all about choices and that they're not putting undue burden on the average person, which brings us back to the finger wagging over $5 lattes and flat screen TVs. The banks consider that your first priority should be paying off your loans, which means that in order to be a fiscally responsible Canadian, you would basically have to live in a one bedroom apartment on top of a bowling alley with a tiny tube TV with no cable, eating canned soup directly out of the tin under one single light bulb.

So let's assume that you're this fiscally responsible Canadian that lives a no frills lifestyle and doesn't ever go to restaurants or pubs and spends every waking hour chilly and working somewhere. Let's also assume that you have no car and no spouse and that all your friends are happy to go for long walks on the weekends as their primary source of entertainment. And you diligently re-use your tea bags and wear the extra thick sweater during the winter.

Your "get out of debt" plan may be good for 2-5 years. But your "get into a home" plan may be delayed by an additional 2-5 years as you put money aside for that all-important downpayment. No matter; you need to rebuild your credit in any case so that the bank doesn't consider you high-risk and with a clean slate on your debt, your credit rating should be excellent. Which means that if you are truly the fiscally responsible Canadian that the banks want you to be, you should be all set to move into your first home 7-10 years after you enter the workforce. That makes the years of no cable and canned soup worthwhile, right?

But the flip side of the new mortgage rules is that amortizing over 30 years rather than 35 means that your payments increase. And not by a little bit. For the average person, the loss of an additional 5 years to pay down their debt represents close to $1000 more a month in payments. In the long run, of course, less time to pay down your debt means less paid interest. This makes fiscal sense. What doesn't make fiscal sense? Where does the average Canadian, even if they're two full time working adults, find an extra $1000 a month?

Which brings us back to our decadent lifestyle argument. A $5 latte a day, with roughly 30 days a month (freaky February notwithstanding) represents about $150 a month. Granted, this is a lot for just coffee, but it's not a scary total when you think about it. A flat screen tv is roughly $550 on the market now, depending on what kind of sale you hit and whether or not the extended warranty suckers you in. So assuming that you spent $150 a month on lattes and bought one flat screen tv a month, your excessive lifestyle would translate to $700 a month. But most of us aren't buying a flat screen tv every month or reinventing our wardrobes.

It's no wonder that people are feeling the pressure when it comes to money. Financing homes, cars, weddings, kids, retirement and unfortunately, funeral expenses, are stressing people to the max. The added pressure of the bad economy, loss of jobs and an aging population that will require more care and services, are just more burdens to bear.

Let the people have their lattes. It may be the only thing that we have better than our parents.

The Big 30

Starbucks is set to offer the Trenta, a 31 ounce drink that will debut in 14 US states. It is one size up from the Venti, which is currently the largest size on hand for the coffee shop, which, in case you're wondering, is that mini-thermos that you see on the bar from time to time where a shaking hand often collects it, looking thankfully at the barista like they're actually their long lost relative. It appears that America just can't get enough of caffeine- which comes as no surprise, because they apparently can't get enough of, well, anything.

The National Post in Canada revealed that the Starbucks Trenta is actually larger than the human stomach can handle. While the average human stomach can take about 900ml, the Trenta comes in at 916 ml. This is just a question of capacity and has nothing to do whatsoever with the human body's ability to maintain that level of caffeine or sugar at a given time. Good thing that AEDS are more prevalent than ever-they will probably become mandatory at every Starbucks and KFC in America at some point.

There's no need to go through the argument of who needs that much caffeine. Science has already shown that nobody needs that much caffeine, even if they run marathons and rule a small nation on the side as a part time gig. The fact of the matter is that Starbucks will respond to what the nation WANTS- and if the nation wants more caffeine than their stomachs can process, well, that's what they will get.

Leaving aside the detrimental side effects to peoples' health, the trenta does prove a point about the changing and seemingly insatiable appetites of the public. Is there a market for this supersized drink? Of course there is. There are always those people who believe that they can never have too much of a good thing or that they legitimately need more of something than the average person. But just how much is too much? And just how far is too far?

We're constantly pushing the limit on this one and it's not necessarily a hallmark of human innovation or progress as we move forward. Excess is not one of our better traits. The Trenta poses serious health risks, and brings up the moral question that's been haunting corporate America from its roots: is it simply enough to justify health risks because of the public's wants? Does the public rule in this case?

The public may like public executions and cigarettes, but efforts over time have been made to curb those things. Junk food may be one of the last battlefields of public good vs. public consumption. Hopefully, Canada will stop the Trenta in its tracks before it creeps over the border, leaving a trail of caffeine addicts in its wake.

Cows are known to eat more than their stomachs can handle. They have separate linings in their stomachs to handle this, as they stand mutely in fields, chewing their lives away with that big dumb stare. And this may be going out on a limb here- but I still think that humans are better than cows.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Vaccine or Poison?

"Did you get your flu shot yet?"

This is probably a question that's going around and you've probably been harassed by at least one person, in the health care field or possibly, your mother, who has asked you this. And every year, the debate seems to rage between those who believe that the flu vaccine is the greatest public health tool known to man and those conspiracy theorists who believe that flu shots are actually poisonous and unnecessary inventions of big pharmaceutical companies.

On the one hand, there has been substantial proof that vaccines have been a good thing for humankind. It's helped to eliminate many diseases that would have crippled or killed the population in the past, back when medicine wasn't nearly as advanced, people were not so well-educated and vaccines would not have been readily available to the public at large. Fair enough. Who's died of polio recently in Canada? Vaccines do their job, particularly for those who are considered at risk, such as young children and seniors.

On the other hand, when it comes to the flu vaccine in particular, there hasn't been substantial proof that it prevents or limits the duration or severity of the flu by a large enough margin to make its case as convincing. Some research has indicated that the flu vaccine in an otherwise healthy person who isn't considered high risk, has only a marginal affect, making a flu last 5 days instead of 8. Which some people would say is enough of a difference to make them willing to try it, except for the fact that a vaccine isn't a cure: basic bedrest and fluids are.

The arguments against the vaccine range from the sublime to the ridiculous. On an episode of the Simpsons, when Homer puts up his own website full of conspiracy theories, he proposes that the flu vaccine is pumped up with chemicals that make you want to go shopping, which is why it's administered so close to the Christmas season. While it would be fair to put aside this theory as highly improbable, other arguments have been made which should be given at least partial consideration.

1- the pharmaceutical companies are out to get you.

Well, not really. They do make profits off of scares, though, as the H1N1 'epidemic' resulted in panic and bids for Tamiflu. It also caused stocks in Purell to sky rocket, and both these companies in the US have ties to the very politicians who fanned the flames on this scare in the public eye.

There have also been claims that the shots contain poison such as mercury. While even tuna has been found to have trace forms of mercury, this isn't really enough to poison anyone. But in modern life, it appears that everything has poison, from our drinking water to cellphones deep frying our brains with wire connections. So while the poison theory is interesting, it may not be a focal point for this debate.

2- vaccines are not natural and lower your immune system.

I think that this argument only applies to those in prime health, with good DNA and boatloads of optimism. It may be true that it's best to trust your organism to deal with things as they arise, but most of us don't have that kind of confidence anymore. We all lost it back in the days when we still died off the common cold. Orange juice, rest, exercise and light only take you so far; it's possible that the shot gives you extra peace of mind.

3- the vaccine makes people sick.

I've heard enough anecdotal evidence to think that this is partially true. The side effects of the flu shot sometimes includes the flu, which means that there is a small amount of the population that will actually get the flu as a result of getting the shot. It's another way for some bodies to learn how to defend against it. And being sick at home after the shot is better than being sent to the hospital at a later date.

This debate will likely occur every year and with more ferocity on both ends. Believers will likely treat non-believers like a bunch of free radical tree hugging conspiracy theorists Nazis who don't care about the children or the elderly enough to see past their noses. Non-believers will likely treat the believers as a group of hyper paranoid conformist Conservatives who bubble wrap their children before going to the park. Either way, it comes down to this: the vaccine is a choice. The public is free to make that choice and all high risk groups will likely get the vaccine because they believe in it, along with the hypochondriacs who believe they're already dying of everything. Whatever the reasons for those not taking it, they still have that choice.

What we should all do is educate ourselves. And stock up on medicine, ginger ale, chicken soup and kleenex. Either way, it's just another cold hard winter in Canada and the sniffles are everywhere.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Go For The Bronze

There's this common joke in Canada that we don't go for the gold, but rather, we shoot for bronze. In all our modesty and an unusually high tendency to not want to make others feel bad, Canadians have typically tried to underperform or perform below the radar, as we don't like to appear boastful or full of ourselves. But it looks like the standard may be set a little too low, as the Public Health Agency of Canada is now looking at lowering fitness targets for Canadians in an effort to encourage more of us to be active.

You don't need to be any special kind of mathematician to know that this will fail. Various education systems have tried the same thing and it only appears to have made people dumber. Take this example: in the past, schools have tried to maintain a high level of academic excellence by making the minimum pass mark 60%. This move didn't impact the smart kids already sitting over 80, nor did it encourage the slower kids sitting in at 50, who had to try harder to grab that extra 10 percent just to pass and not be left behind. The truth is, a lot of those kids were simply left behind, with scolding parents who bemoaned the loss of a few extra points and tried to butter up teachers after the fact to get them.

But when the percentage dropped from 60% to 50%, those kids didn't try harder and their parents were then saved the trouble of cajoling or threatening hapless teachers during parent-teacher night. The group that did change was the range that sits between 60-70- who let themselves slide because they knew that they would pass anyway. Like most kids that age, school is not about doing your best; it's about getting ahead while doing the least work possible so that you have enough time for friends. It's sad, but true. When the standards are lowered, many of us will let ourselves slide as far as we can without being called out.

An article on on this topic states:
"A poll commissioned by the CBC suggests 42 per cent of adults say they get no vigorous exercise and 34 per cent of youth get fewer than two hours per week — what one exercise expert calls a "public health crisis of inactivity."

It also goes on to say:
"Canada's new physical activity guidelines, due later this month from the Public Health Agency of Canada, lower the targets to 60 minutes a day for kids and 150 minutes a week for adults — changes that reflect the latest research and harmonize standards with the World Health Organization and U.S. and U.K. authorities."

No offense to either the US or the UK, but in terms of physical activity and lifestyles, they aren't exactly models for Canada. We've always prided ourselves on the fact that things may be bad in Canada, but they're not as bad as they are elsewhere. Worldwide obesity rates actually place Canada behind both the US and the UK, so harmonizing with their standards for physical activity is, quite frankly, a step backwards.

The experts argue that some activity is better than none, and that by lowering the standards, they're hoping to encourage more people to engage in physical activity. But given the example of what has happened when this same principle is applied to education, it doesn't seem likely that this will yield better results for physical activity.

To be successful in school and to be physically fit require the same things: discipline, hard work and dedication. If you don't commit to homework, put time into and force yourself to do it every night, you won't get the kind of results that end in happy face stickers on your papers. The same holds true for going to the gym or taking a brisk walk. Lowering the standards isn't the solution. Standards should be high or else nobody would care too much if you achieve them or not.

One hilarious fact that came out of this survey:
"In the survey, 45 per cent of young people 12 to 17 years old said they don't exercise because they don't have time."

Not to get down on the young people here, but honestly? When you consider that the average school day is 6 hours, the average commute round trip is 1 hour and the average homework time is 2 hours, kids are still lacking 30-40 minutes for physical activity? I guess when you factor the 2 hours of self-grooming, the 12 hours of sleep and video game time, well, the day disappears pretty fast.

But it's not just the young people. It's also the parents that are setting a bad example by not making physical activity a priority in their lives. Which is a shame, when you consider that this is one of the best ways to get family time. It's also cheap and easy, requiring no gym membership or special equipment. A family hike, walk or bike is a great way to create real memories and do something good together.

The standards shouldn't be lowered. They should be set high. They should be set high so that we want to achieve them, not just because they're there, but because we want to do it for ourselves and it makes us feel good. The Public Health Agency of Canada shouldn't back track on this one; they should finally go for the gold.