Harper’s war panel won’t help Afghans

Some call it cynicism, but I call it learning from experience. While the Canadian government frequently sets up projects that seem to have good intentions on the surface, history has shown that ulterior motives lie beneath. So when I heard the Harper government’s plans to set up an Afghanistan panel, I was skeptical from the first. The panel, headed by John Manley, a former Liberal cabinet minister, will deliberate and advise the government on the future of the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan.

Manley has put forth four limited options for the panel to choose from. Canadians can continue training Afghan troops, readying them for when Canadian troops leave. Another option is to shift the troops’ focus from the hotbed areas they’re currently in to different, less violent regions. A further option calls for a continued combat role, and withdrawal of troops by February 2009. Finally, Canadian Forces might remain fighting in the war-torn country past the current mandate, which expires in two years time. In making its final recommendation, the panel is supposed to take into consideration public views and opinions about the matter.

Despite the supposed effort to stabilize the Afghanistan situation, many critics call the panel a ploy by Harper to gain support for extending the military mission. Though opposition parties are against continuing the mission past 2009, the Conservatives have not dismissed the option of staying until at least 2011.

Aside from the political intentions behind creating the panel, the panel’s mission and ideology are misguided. Our ultimate goal in the conflict, all can agree, should be peace and democracy in Afghanistan. What can the Canadian military possibly do to further these aims?

It is naïve to believe that peace can be achieved through tying aid and development to military might. An increase in Canadian military strength could lead to greater support for insurgent groups, meaning innocent civilians could get caught in the crossfire. As long as we try to promote our liberal values through the use of force, we can kiss development and democracy goodbye. What good are schools if they’re shut down for being in the midst of a conflict zone? How can there be democracy when a focus on military presence predictably equates power with weapons and soldiers?

With these obvious contradictions between intentions and reality, the Afghanistan panel, regardless of why it was set up, is headed down a very inefficient path. Throw in a public who knows as much about Afghanistan and what it needs as Arizona knows about snow, and you end up an entirely irrelevant consultation process. The whole panel effort should be reassessed and rather than asking Canadians for their opinions on the matter, the Afghan people should be consulted for their input on the course of development. After all, it’s their country that we’re supposedly trying to help.

No Country is uncharted territory

I was going to write that No Country for Old Men is unlike anything the Coen brothers have ever done, but such a statement is difficult given the brothers have tried their hands at just about everything, from thrillers (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing) to stoner comedies (The Big Lebowski) to a film noir experiment (The Man Who Wasn’t There), and the occasional stab at mainstream popularity (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers).

But, in relation to their other work, No Country for Old Men is probably the least Coen-like Coen brothers movie yet. It is a minimalist thriller without a single drop of the quirk-factor that characterized their previous films (so, in other words, no Steve Buscemi). It’s also easily their best movie since Fargo, and one of the best of the year.

Here’s the gist: in 1980, a cowboy wannabe from Texas (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the remains of a shoot-out and finds a suitcase full of cash. Meanwhile, the killer responsible (Javier Bardem) escapes police custody and we’re launched into, if I may descend to cliché, “a deadly game of cat and mouse.” Revealing any more of the plot would be cruel and evil.

Top-billed Tommy Lee Jones actually has the least screen time of the three leads, but his performance here, as well as In the Valley of Elah, reminded me what a subtle actor he can be. Toronto International Film Festival patrons may remember Josh Brolin in the Coens’ segment of Chacun son Cinema, where he essentially played the same character. I never really noticed Brolin before, but the Coens put him to good use here. The dominating performance, though, is Javier Bardem—chillingly understated as a pure sociopath. (Incidentally, are the Farrelly brothers still trying to put together that Three Stooges movie? Because it just struck me that Bardem could be a hell of a Moe.)

The actors are good, but the film really belongs to the Coens. This is easily the most suspenseful film of the year. There are no cheap thrills—the Coens use little music, and there are no great revelations about the Bardem and Brolin characters to trivialize the story. They trust their carefully built tension to carry the film, and respect the audience’s intelligence. They also don’t wrap things up with a neat little bow, and if this movie does indeed turn out to be the Oscar-bait the studio is hoping for, it might restore my faith in the Academy. This is a great, engrossing piece of filmmaking.

Attack ads are a low blow

One company suggesting that it is better than its competitors is endemic to advertising. At their most successful, these ads are humourous and effective. Consider the Pepsi television commercial where a little boy buys a Coke from a vending machine. In goes the coin, out comes the can. He sets the drink on the ground, inserts another coin, pushes the “Coca-Cola” button again, and receives another Coke. He puts it on the ground next to the first, and steps on top of them. Reaching up, he presses the “Pepsi” button at the top of the machine, and out comes the glorious beverage. He takes his prize and walks away, leaving the first two cans in the dust. Quite amusing, and the point is not lost on anyone: a Pepsi is a whole lot better than a Coke.

Ads like this are deemed humourous and effective when they’re about soft drinks or fast food joints, but they take on a whole new dimension when directed at political parties. In the political world, commercials like these are known as attack ads. They amount to one candidate saying, “You just can’t trust that other guy. If you elect him/her you are DOOMED. Vote for me, because I’m your last chance.” This strategy involves singling out previous mistakes made by the opponent, not only pointing out flaws in political strategy, but also generally making them look incompetent and dangerously under-qualified.

This strategy is currently being used by the federal Tories against Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. The Conservatives have launched a campaign against Dion, claiming that the Liberals will return the GST to seven per cent if they win the next election. True, Dion has been vague on the GST issue. In the usual manner of coy politicians, he’s not promising anything either way. However, the Conservatives would have the populace believe with this new wave of hostile advertisements that Dion has said his party would definitely raise the GST. They illustrate this point in one of their commercials with a typically unflattering picture of Dion, and by repeatedly playing an out-ofcontext sound bite of the Liberal leader.

Attack ads are the wrong way for a party to promote itself. Pointing out all the flaws in the other candidate can make a party sound like it has nothing good to say about itself. When politicians get nervous, they say “And what’s so great about you? You’ve screwed up at this and that, and oh yeah, that other thing too, right?” Instead of trying to push voters away from the opponent with negative advertising, why can’t our leaders try attracting us with positive observations or effective policies?

Political parties only resort to attack advertising when they’re out of ideas. People only focus on the negative when the positive isn’t consequential enough or is non-existent. In politics, I want a positive leader, not the lesser of two evils.

Digging Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky is probably the most famous Canadian artist working today. Burtynsky’s critically acclaimed images of manufactured landscapes and his colourful series on life in China made him an international superstar.

His latest exhibition Quarries, at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery, focuses on a series of quarries in the Iberian Peninsula. The show coincides with the release of his book Edward Burtynsky: Quarries.

At the exhibition’s opening reception on November 1, I saw the crème of the Toronto art scene crammed into the Metivier Gallery with buyers and students. The atmosphere was full of celebration, and for good reason: Burtynsky’s images are stunning. Some may even go so far as to call them beautiful. The photos are so striking that the viewer forgets the subject matter is not some inactive landscape scene, but actual working quarries. From these places come the stone that builds our skyscrapers and our schools. Burtynsky’s talent, of course, is taking photographs that look like perfect compositions of these active, living sites.

Some look like expansive landscapes, such as* Iberian Quarries 14 A, B, and C. Others have such a strong verticality as to make the viewer feel like they are looking down from a helicopter, such as *Iberian Quarries #9. Still others resemble an abstract expressionist painting from a distance, such as Rock of Ages #38. My personal favourite is Iberian Quarries #8 (pictured right), an aerial view of a quarry with an unmistakably crucifix-shaped body of water in the bottom.

Burtynsky has long been obsessed with landscape as architecture and this latest series may be viewed as a culmination of this 17- year obsession. After the book and this exhibition, Burtynsky says it’s the end of his fixation with quarries. These images, however, will stay with me, and no doubt with Burtynsky, for years to come.

Edward Burtynsky’s Quarries runs at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery, 451 King St. W. until November 24.

Heart of darkness: Chimpanzees’ struggle in Africa

The primary goal of the Jane Goodall Institute is to preserve African great apes and their habitats, with an emphasis on chimpanzees. According to Debbie Cox, African forests are still being destroyed at alarming rates, second only to that of the Amazon rainforests. Simply put, our closest genetic relatives are at risk.

Cox is a veterinary nurse, zookeeper, and executive director of operations in Uganda for the JGI since 1996. She paid a rare visit to U of T to publicize the issues that govern habitat destruction in Uganda and other areas of the African continent.

Current remaining chimpanzee habitats are highly concentrated, with over 90 per cent of the entire African chimp population living in 11 countries. The Congo Basin—the world’s second largest tropical forest—is one of the most prominent chimpanzee hotspots in the world. It is also home to 24 million people. There are numerous reasons for the extensive loss of chimpanzee habitat in this area, including illegal logging, expansion of lands used for agriculture, and the prevalence of bushmeat hunting.

Cox said the JGI is tackling the problem head-on. As part of its community- based conservation objective, the institute provides African communities with the financial and educational resources to better understand what is happening to their environment and what they can do to change it.

In Uganda, the JGI plans to install education centres near each of the six largest chimpanzee populations in the country. They plan to visit centres in local schools to educate students about relevant issues. The conservation education materials that the JGI develops and distributes have also met with success. Of the 500 schools where the materials were distributed, 400 have embraced the message. The JCI now aims to reach 8,000 schools, a more ambitious target.

Another concern is the bushmeat trade of undomesticated animals, which flourishes due to a lack of livestock. “In four years I have counted one cow and four goats,” said Cox.

This illegal trade is most rampant in Congo, and the JGI targets its educational campaign in Congo’s capital of Brazzaville. The institute uses billboards, posters, stickers, and taxidriver pundits in its campaign. The approaches reach a wide audience in this city where most use public transport. Already, vendors are starting to acknowledge the trade’s ecological affects—the real problem is finding a viable alternative. Cox argues that better education and law enforcement are key tools in halting the bushmeat trade.

“No amount of money that we have is going to save these apes if people on the ground are not interested in their care,” she said.

Curiously, archaic laws are an unexpected stumbling block. In Sierra Leone, a 1940s law forces hunters to pay a $2 penalty for killing chimpanzees. Unfortunately, in a diamond-rich country like Sierra Leone, this penalty is not a strong deterrent. After the JGI pushed for reform, the penalty now stands at $2000 or eight years in jail.

It is difficult balancing human interests with animal ones. “We’ve probably lost 700 square kilometres of chimp habitat to sugar cane,” said Cox. In an industry with a mere ten per cent profit margin, there is zero tolerance for a chimp with a sweet tooth. Sadly, locals have no option but to fend off chimpanzees by setting up traps. The JGI has countered this with a chimp welfare program called Conservation Alert. Local groups of Ugandan veterinarians remove snares and thereby save chimpanzee lives.

As well, the JGI has initiated a Good Neighbour Award program, a quarterly financial reward for communities deemed the best neighbours to their natural environment.

“By giving money every three months, it keeps the momentum going and people are excited that they could get access to this money” said Cox. In the 12 sanctuaries across Africa, there are currently over 800 chimps that the JGI plans to slowly release back into the wild. Saving the chimpanzees is an uphill battle and—like so many environmental problems—it all comes down to money.

“There has been very positive work in Sierra Leone in the past two years, but, after the latest election, the newest president is just not very much interested in conservation,” said Cox, who went on to name other countries that, in her opinion, have been slow to protect chimpanzees. “Guinea don’t really care too much about it. Liberia, they care a lot about it if you go and give them lots of money. And that is the problem with conservation organizations: we don’t have money.”

Denzel Washington deals drama as NYC drug lord in American Gangster

Consider the bitter irony of it all. Frank Lucas, the once-notorious drug kingpin who blasts the “Thug Life” fetishism of the gangster rap era as “bullshit,” is now to be immortalized in American Gangster, a studio pic that’s being heavily marketed to exactly that generation of “bling” heads.

In an attempt to draw every doragged Scarface worshipper to theatres, the film dangles such household names as T.I., Common, and RZA amongst its cast, and has apparently “inspired” the Jigga Man himself to record a complimentary soundtrack. Though he may not like it, Lucas’s legacy is being marketed to the very generation that irks him: the kids who worship the shameless flaunting of money and violence in America’s new corporate-sponsored “gangsterism.” Call it bittersweet justice, since, after all, gangster- crazed America is something he—along with fellow O.G. Nicky Barnes—helped design.

However, Ridley Scott’s glossy, schematically-drawn American Gangster makes it clear that while this new America is a product of the likes of Frank Lucas, the entrepreneurial businessman himself came from the dark womb of corporate America.

Tracking the large-scale dope supplier’s rise to power during the turbulent late-sixties/early-seventies, American Gangster depicts the cold and calculated Lucas (played by an impeccably smooth Denzel Washington) as a man who made a name for himself on 116th Steet, but could have just as easily done the same on Wall Street. Lucas has acumen for branding, pricing, and cutting down the competition so that they too end up buying from him.

If Lucas gives back to the community like his mentor, Bumpy Johnson, regularly did, it’s only to keep his public image on the upand- up while he bleeds the city dry with his 10-per-cent-pure heroin (a product that no doubt cost a number of lives to deliver). Like America, Lucas had a particular investment in Vietnam: the steady supply of caskets for dead soldiers transports his heroin supply from East Asia.

Scott and his team (with due credit to writer Steven Zaillian) develop a symbiotic relationship between Lucas and his country while paying close attention to New York’s climate in the seventies. The heroin epidemic was just one of several plaguing the U.S., and Lucas and his compatriots were not the only ones supplying it. This was, after all, the period of the French Connection scandal, when corrupt SIU officers used their unlimited resources not to shutdown the drug trade but to compete in it—an ordeal the filmmakers aptly play out against Lucas’s enterprise.

Amidst all this is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe’s outrageously version of Frank Serpico), the pariah of the police force. Roberts has the far-from-glamorous task of bringing Lucas down—a job all the more difficult since half of the justice department is on the crime boss’s payroll. As Roberts observes, “If we stop bringing dope into this country, about a hundred thousand people are going to be out of a job.”

If this film doesn’t strain your moral fibres—it paints a somewhat alluring picture of the murderous Frank Lucas—don’t feel bad. America felt the same allure. The very judge that put Lucas away described him as “easy to like,” and most followers of gangster rap (as well as the corporations that neatly package their sonic addictions) have ingrained the crime figure into the consciousness of popular culture.

It’s Not Rocket Science: Episode 5

The Lightning on the Lawn Teslathon:

If you are like me and have yet to find a good use for electrical power, this video will please you: two Tesla coils playing the original Mario Brothers theme using nothing but sweet, sweet electricity. The seven-foot coils are controlled by a single laptop over a fibre optic link. Nikola Tesla, the Croatian inventor after whom the coils are named, patented the technology in 1891. The coils, a type of transformer that transfers power between circuits, are also capable of producing high-voltage electrical discharges. The world’s largest Tesla coil resides at Kakanui Point near Auckland, New Zealand, stands at 38 feet tall, and uses 130,000 watts of power. Ben Franklin would be pleased.

Link: tinyurl.com/2oll9s

Indian food gives me gas, too:

A shiny, new fleet of buses that run on compressed natural gas will soon be in use in New Delhi, India. The 525 buses are a step to reducing emissions in face of the rising numbers of diesel cars (notorious for emitting noxious exhaust). Although not completely emissions-free—CNG engines produce 90 per cent less carbon monoxide, but only 25 per cent less carbon dioxide on average—the vehicles are sure to make an impact as they are implemented on more routes. As well, legislation to replace 40,000 commercial vehicles with CNG technology is being drafted.

Link: tinyurl.com/2taq6g

You’re a star, baby:

A star located 41 light years away has broken the record for having the most planets in orbit (besides our own solar system, of course), as a fifth planet was recently discovered. Cancri 55 is similar in size to our own sun. Only after 18 years of continuous observation—and some insane mathematical calculations— could astronomers confirm the five planets in orbit. Astronomers’ ability to find these planets orbiting distant stars is improving with better technology. Alan Stern, of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said in a press release that “We are finding solar systems with a richness of planets and a variety of planetary types comparable to our own.” Subsequently, habitable planets with liquid water on solid surfaces could be orbiting around distant stars. If movies have taught me anything, the next step after that is an alien invasion.

Link: tinyurl.com/ywwwox

A weird organism you’ve never heard of (and might be related to):

The colugo is the last remaining representative of a mammalian order Dermoptera. According to genetic studies, this gliding animal—with flaps of skin stretched between its skinny arms and legs—is the most genetically similar to humans after primates. Using these genetic differences and rates of mutations, scientists estimate that we branched off from these distant cousins 86 million years ago to form the primate group. The rainforests of Indonesia and the Philippines are host to these bizarre creatures. They are fairly large for tree dwelling organisms, weighing from two to four pounds. Colugos have large, forward-facing eyes that are effective for binocular vision (the ability to judge distances), a key adaptation for hunting seen in many primates.

Link: tinyurl.com/3dytud

Government endorses peeing into the ocean (I was doing it anyway):

The Philippine government has approved a plan by an Australian company— appropriately named the Ocean Nourishment Company—to dump urea (a chemical found in urine) into the ocean to increase algal growth. The government hopes that the algal blooms will absorb extra carbon dioxide, but environmental activists oppose the idea, saying not enough is known about the effects of the proposed plan. Although the London Convention of 1972 does not allow for dumping waste into the ocean, pouring urea to absorb CO2 does not fall under that ruling. Fish are already peeing in the ocean—but this could become a slippery slope leading to the pumping of sewage straight into the sea in the guise of preventing global warming.

Link: tinyurl.com/2so99y

Why does science fiction always lie to me?

This comical article from cracked.com explains reasons why certain futuristic technologies are impractical. Although it would be wicked cool to have a jetpack, it would be terribly unsafe and difficult to use. And don’t expect Detroit to come out with the flying car anytime soon—the insurance premiums would be insane. Link: tinyurl.com/34u2a8

Siblings on the sidelines

When the men’s volleyball team arrives at the AC this Saturday to play against RMC, it will be a night of firsts. It will be the first home game of the season for the Blues, who have gotten off to a slow start in losing their first three contests. But it will also be the regular season debut of new fulltime head coach Ed Drakich.

The hiring of Drakich, a U of T alumnus and assistant coach with the team from 1989-1990, is seen as a major coup for a volleyball program that had stalled in recent years. Under former head coach Jeff Chung, the men’s team had managed a very respectable 34-26 regular season record, but had fallen short of expectations in the post-season, losing all three OUA quarterfinal matches during his three-year tenure. The men’s team under Chung was always solid but never elite, whereas the women’s side had one of the most decorated coaches in Canadian women’s volleyball at the helm. Year after year, women’s coach Kristine Drakich had her squad in the running for an OUA title. In her 19 seasons, the six-time coach of the year has led the Blues to 18 consecutive final four appearances and won six OUA championships.

When Drakich was appointed in early July, a U of T press release declared, “Drakich upholds family volleyball tradition.” His father Eli was an assistant coach with the Blues for many years, and Ed Drakich should have no problem sharing the court opposite his sister Kristine. Still, Kristine Drakich assures that there is no sibling rivalry between the two.

Ed Drakich said the men’s volleyball team is missing its experienced players this year: “The team is quite young and inexperienced and missing some key leadership from last season. Both our setter [James McKay] and the leading attacker [Brendan Peel] from last year’s team have departed.”

“Presently, the team is experiencing the growing pains associated with learning how to win against some very tough teams (Guelph, McMaster and York) on the road minus the services of an injured starter (Jessi Lelliott, a strong fourthyear player).”

The 0-3 start gives no cause for panic, considering the team is rebuilding its roster. The Blues held a 4-1 record after five games last season, only to fade midway through the season. This year, the Blues are better positioned for high-level performance, despite early struggles.

“My expectations are that the team gains experience and improves throughout the season while we compete for a playoff spot,” said Drakich. With RMC and Queen’s in town in this weekend, Drakich said consistency was an issue. “We started well and did have moments of very strong play. However, we did not sustain our level of play throughout the whole match. Credit must be given to York who played very well against us. We need to improve on our consistency so that we can maintain a high level of play throughout the entire match.”

York, 2-2 in 2007, had a solid if unspectacular game in defeating Toronto 3-0, and in many ways resembled last year’s Blues. The young Toronto team kept it close for most of the time, losing 25-18 and 25-17 respectively, before York took the game with a 25-14 victory in the third set. Steven Kung and Marko Balan, two of the more experienced players on the Blues roster, had nine and six kills apiece to lead the team.

The Blues have an eight-game homestand over the next few weeks, and Drakich expressed hopes that the team can build on past games. “I am hoping that this extended homestand will give our team the lift that we need.”