Thursday, June 30, 2011

Greece Joins the Real World

My neighbour found out that her dog (a Schnauzer) could hardly hear, so she took it to the veterinarian.  The vet found that the problem was hair in the dog's ears.  He cleaned both ears, and the dog could then hear fine.  The vet then proceeded to tell the lady that, if she wanted to keep this problem from recurring, she should go to the pharmacy and get some "Nair" hair remover and rub it in the dog's ears once a month.  The lady went to the pharmacy and bought some "Nair" hair remover.  At the checkout, the pharmacist told her, "If you're going to use this under your arms, don't use deodorant for a few days."  The lady said, "I'm not using it under my arms."  The pharmacist said, "If you're using it on your legs, don't shave for a couple of days."  The lady replied, "I'm not using it on my legs either.  If you must know, I'm using it on my Schnauzer."  The pharmacist says, "Well, stay off your bicycle for about a week."

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS:  Greece is joining the real world.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Classiest Insults of All Time, Part 2

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator." - John Bright

"I've just learned about his illness.  Let's hope it's nothing trivial." - Irvin S. Cobb

"He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others." - Samuel Johnson

"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up." - Paul Keating

"In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily." - Charles, Count Talleyrand

"He loves nature in spite of what it did to him." - Forrest Tucker

"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?" - Mark Twain

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork." - Mae West

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go." -  Oscar Wilde

"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts... for support rather than illumination." - A. Lang

"He has Van Gogh's ear for music." - Billy Wilder

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening.  But this wasn't it." - Groucho Marx

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS:  Two hot tub leaks fixed just in time for the long weekend!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bernanke Blunder

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC, the "Fed") recently initiated the practice of having a press conference whenever they release their report on the economy and accompanying interest rate decision.  Herewith, my plea to end this madness.  Said written report already has analysts hanging on the subtle interpretation of every word (the "language" of the Fed being as important as anything policy-wise in times like these), which is precisely why a press conference accompanying its release is nothing less than dangerous.  Now, whatever is in that carefully-crafted report written by many minions over many weeks before it is polished off by the chairman is suddenly threatened with nothing less than irrelevance, immediately subject to rhetorical, cunning - and sometimes facetious and silly - questions, all designed to pry a little more out of Helicopter Ben.  (Witness how last week's press conference roiled markets despite an acceptably droll report.)  For his part, Bernanke sees this as a way both to silence his critics about his academic detachedness, and give the press corps/public a lesson in macroeconomics.  Neither is necessary.  I don't care who you are or how careful you are, an inadvertent word, a misinterpreted facial expression, even a pause at the wrong time, can be bestowed a meaning way beyond its innocent self in the glare of the TV lights, given the importance of the subject matter.  Those who read this space regularly know that I have questioned whether a society can have too much democracy, and these press conferences are a prime example.  I have a lot of respect for Bernanke and I think he has done a decent job of avoiding deflation, but he should stick to the written word for precision's sake.  (Even your humble scribe occasionally regrets what comes out of his mouth but rarely off the nib of his pen.)  But that is not my only concern with Fed Chairman media scrums.  Another huge danger I fear is that the American cult of celebrity will rear its ugly head, and that future candidates for the position may be increasingly chosen for their chiseled countenance and media prowess instead of their knowledge of economics.

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS:   Tropical fish can actually live for well over two hours in an inflated bag from the pet store.

Monday, June 27, 2011

59%, eh?

According to a recent poll 59% of Republicans support Mitt Romney for Republican presidential candidate.  That means that 59% of Republicans want as their President someone who believes: a) that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, b) that anyone, alive or dead, can be baptized against their wishes and then "sealed for eternity" (married) to members of the Mormon church whether acquainted or not, and whether married to someone else or not, and c) that a woman's place is barefoot and (repeatedly) pregnant in the kitchen, among other not-so-quaint beliefs.  Now that sounds like putting America on the right path to me.  Yikes!  The weird baptism and marriage practices of the Moron church can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere, as evidenced by the following true story.  My father had a little old lady patient who confided that she thought he was such a wonderful fellow that she had married him in the afterlife ("Celestial Kingdom", for you uninformed), and she then presented him with a Book of Mormon.  He immediately told her "to get out of his office and never come back".  (My mother's language when he told her about the episode that evening was a little more colorful.)  Strangely, I never had a similar experience when I was practicing, and hopefully I'll be deemed to be beyond redemption after death - but you never know, I suppose they could seal me just to torment me.  (Ever wonder why the Mormons are so into genealogy that they hollowed out a mountain to safeguard "family records"?  And why Ancestry.com is based in Provo, Utah?)  Don't get me started.  

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS:  NASA reports that an asteroid will not slam into Earth today, it will miss by 7500 miles (12,000 km).

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Classiest Insults of All Time, Part 1

These glorious insults are from an era before the Mother Tongue descended to 4-letter words....

The classic exchange between Churchill and Lady Astor:
She said, "If you were my husband, I'd give you poisoned tea."
He answered, "If you were my wife, I'd drink it."

A member of Parliament to Prime Minister Disraeli: "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease." 
"That depends, Sir", said Disraeli, "whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."
 
"He had delusions of adequacy" - Walter Kerr
 
"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." - Winston Churchill
 
"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure." Clarence Darrow

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
                     - William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway).
 
"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it." - Moses Hadas
 
"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." - Mark Twain
 
"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends." - Oscar Wilde
 
"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend... if you have one."
  - George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill
"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is one."- Winston Churchill, in response.

"I feel so miserable without you, it's almost like having you here." -  Kip Adota

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS:  Part 2 is ready to publish, watch for it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Smell

Listening to That Smell by Lynyrd Skynyrd the other day reminded me of an essay written by Dr. Lewis Thomas in his Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony wherein he observes that "Smelling is another matter.  I should think we might fairly gauge the future of biological science, centuries ahead, by estimating the time it will take to reach a complete, comprehensive understanding of odor.  It may not seem a profound enough problem to dominate all the life sciences, but it contains, piece by piece, all the mysteries.  ...if I try to recall the thick smell of Edinburgh in winter, or the accidental burning of a plastic comb, or a rose, or a glass of wine, I cannot do this; I can get a clear picture of any face I feel like remembering, and I can hear whatever Beethoven quartet I want to recall, but except for the leaf bonfire I cannot really remember a smell in its absence.  To be sure, I know the odor of cinammon or juniper and can name such things with accuracy when they turn up in front of my nose, but I cannot imagine them into existence."  There is a careful distinction here.  Sure we know an odor from memory when we smell it (otherwise wine, tea, and scotch connoisseurs would be out of luck), but the point here is that we cannot reproduce it at will.  Until I read Dr. Thomas I never really thought about it; we can will a vision to appear from memory of someone we know, or remember a tune we like (and sometimes we can't get it out of our mind afterwards much to our chagrin), we can even make our taste buds water at the mere thought of a juicy steak - but we cannot produce an odor on demand for our nose to enjoy (at least from the intelligent end of our body).  The reason?  Olfactory cells high in the nose are actual neuronal brain cells with axons thereto uninterrupted by the parts of the brain responsible for memory.  And although Dr. Thomas believes he can re-create at will the smell of a leaf bonfire (and only the smell of a leaf bonfire, he admits), science would argue against it.  Try it yourself.

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS:  Beth Cooks! is expecting!

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Most Interesting Woman In The World 4

She has always marched to the beat of a different drummer (as a kid she out-threw and out-ran all comers - including her mother who just wanted to brush her hair).  An athletic phenom, she is equally at home setting a volleyball, tossing the perfect soccer throw-in, skiing, snowboarding, jogging or surfing.  Sport (and more than a little wanderlust) has taken her to Montana, Hawaii, Florida, Peru, and everywhere in between.  She likes to live in flip-flops (obviously).  Psychology claimed her interest early on - "that which makes people tick" - yet she now wants to use her considerable intellect as a healer of children.  A harder worker you will never find (160 credits accrued while others did 120), and she is truly the best friend anyone ever had.  Sure she drives too fast, and likes Yucca Flats - she is, after all, her father's daughter And sure she texts too much, is beautiful, funny, and incredibly fit -  her mother's influences.  But that doesn't mean she's naive, nor that she doesn't have a finely-honed sense of humor with built-in bullshit detectors.  A pretty good first mate on a sailboat, she is a daughter to be proud of.  And she is The Most Interesting Woman In The World!

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS:  LEB is 24 years young!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

PRC Is NOT Your PAL

As previously expressed in this space, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is no friend of the West - or anyone else except North Korea, as it turns out.  (The Vietnamese are learning this the hard way at the moment in a serious skirmish over minerals and energy in the South China Sea - a conflict predicted, incidentally, by Richard A. Clark in his excellent book Cyber War.)  Whether it's government-sponsored hacker groups, second only in prowess to the Russian-sponsored ones, a burgeoning military force, the economic takeover of Africa, or the accounting fraud in Chinese companies that are the darlings of western investors, beware!  More evidence (for those of you who think I'm too hard on China) surfaced when Carson Block of Muddy Waters Research made the news last week with an expose of Sino-Forest, thereby doing the investing public a huge favour in my estimation.  Although controversial (he was short the stock, TRE-T, at the time, and may have been a smidgen over the top with his Madoff analogies), the MWR report was basically correct, and initial denials both by Sino-Forest and mainstream analysts have since fizzled - resulting in losses in some cases as high as 85% of invested capital.  The problem in dealing with a totalitarian state is that, by definition, there is no transparency in their economy or markets.  PRC's ruling elite are trying to keep the lid on overpopulation, the rise of an entrepreneurial class, a severe dearth of females, dwindling food stocks, a demand for energy and jobs they can't keep up with, and worsening pollution.  (Given their problems, I'll take Detroit anytime.  But I digress ...)  The Balf says: Chinese stocks are not good long-term investments.  Get in and - more importantly if you do - get out!

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS:  William and Kate will watch bull-riding and the chucks at the Calgary Stampede in defiance of all the PETA fanatics out there imploring them not to!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Mystery Quote

     Reading The Business Insider the other day I noticed that one of OH2's favorite deep thinkers, UBS floor director Art Cashin, recently commented: "... the rather prophetic but apparently fictitious quote of Alexander Tytler.  According to many internet sources, Tytler is reputed to have published this stunning quote in a book called “The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic” (ironically said to have been published in 1776 when something interesting was happening across the pond).
     'A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.  It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury.  From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over a loss of fiscal responsibility, always followed by a dictatorship.  The average of the world's great civilizations before they decline has been 200 years.  These nations have progressed in this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage.'
     Tytler was easy enough to research. He apparently lived from 1747 to 1813.  He is also listed as Lord Woodhouselee and served for a time as Judge Advocate (circa 1790).  He also worked with the great Scots poet Robert Burns – offering edits and suggestions.  There is, however, no sign or evidence of the alleged book, nor of the quote. Some feel it was manufactured, perhaps in the Presidential Election of 2000.  It does feel disturbingly prophetic however." - Joe Weisenthal
Read more at: http://www.businessinsider.com/art-cashin-made-up-quote-2011-6#ixzz1PQgEAfcJ

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS:  The Popemobile is going hybrid.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Race to the Bottom?

As many of my friends know, I've been shorting the Euro for about three weeks now.  The trouble is, whenever the U.S. debt ceiling talks (or unemployment numbers or foreclosure numbers or any number of other U.S. economic indicators) are discussed, that economy and currency become suspect too.  The result?  My investment has gone sideways.  ("Just be happy it hasn't gone down", the love of my life observes.)  Now, I have no doubt that the Euro will plunge in the coming months, that Greece will default, and that Spain and Ireland are on the precipice.  I have no doubt that Portugal and Italy will fall off the cliff too, eventually.  (The only credible austerity program in Europe so far is the U.K's.)  A much diminished Euro will survive somehow, I believe, but just barely - and the Euro Club will be a lot smaller, with much stricter entrance examinations.  The problem with my Big Short is that the U.S. is in deep doo-doo itself.  A few misjudgements south of the 49th parallel, a little too much intransigence in Congress, or even a Japanese tsunami-like economic shock out of the blue could have dire consequences.  A sign of the times in the U.S.:  yesterday RBC sold its money-losing U.S. branches to PNC Financial just to get the hell out, and incurred a major loss in doing so.  RBC's stock then rallied.  Will TD be next?  

Monday, June 20, 2011

Doc, Please Don't Send Me a Birthday Card!

I remember vividly the advent of computers in dental offices - after all I had to purchase one to keep up with my competitors.  The days of my girls filling out claim forms by hand "whenever they had a minute" were gone in an instant.  Every computer system salesman adamantly claimed that their brand could save me time and money (it did neither), and - best of all - "market" my practice.  (Those of you who know my cynical nature can rightly assume that my bullshit detectors went off immediately.)  I'm not a big believer in "marketing" professional services.  Yet there was no turning back.  (At least the recall and accounting functions would help us, I reasoned.)  The monster was bought, installed, tweaked, and the data entered, corrected, and the whole thing "went live" with great fanfare.  At the time I was practising with a highly respected elder statesman dentist, a real gentleman, and it was at some social event or other that summer that one of his patients came up to me and said "you know, I got a birthday card from Dr. X the other day, except my birthday isn't for two more months.  I really like him as my dentist, but it's weird getting a birthday card from him, please ask him not to send them anymore."  (At the time, email was in its infancy so the monster generated weekly lists of patients' birthdays which resulted in - you guessed it - my girls having to fill out birthday cards "whenever they had a minute".)  Yep, just as I had suspected.  Past about ten years of age, people see through this corny marketing stuff and generally don't like it.  Medical doctors, lawyers and accountants don't send out birthday cards, so why do dentists?  The very next Monday I asked J to shut off that damn birthday card function, and we never sent another one as far as I know.  The moral of the story is that just because your office computer can do something doesn't mean you should let it.  Especially when it's reminding you you're getting older.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wogglebug's Day

As I am sure by now many of you know that my father is not a man of few words and most certainly not a noggin of few thoughts.  After looking to The Most Interesting Man In The World’s favorite “source” (Wikipedia), I discovered the history of this day.  Among other “facts” from Wikipedia, it stated that today was a holiday complementary to that of Mother’s Day.  This is not a shocking realization; however it does fit with my father’s modest personality (at least in this sense).  He may "Balfour Shuffle" across any dance floor, sing as loudly as he can to Asleep At The Wheel, and be completely comfortable wearing pool cue chalk on a retractable key chain on his waist, but he will also always give recognition and credit to his wife before accepting any for himself.  Although my mother most certainly deserves equal acknowledgement, my father is a man with a lot to be proud of. He was a chemistry major in university.  (I wish more of those genes had been passed to me.)  He was accepted into dental and medical schools on his first try – something you would not know unless you asked him.  He is a husband, best friend, and forever a gentleman to his wife.  He has been a dad, a best friend, and a coach to each of his children.  Instead of only making it to our games, he was there (we were all there) at least 15 minutes early and did not leave until each kid on the team was picked up by their parents.  He built up a highly reputable dental practice and since moving back to the Jewel of the West, has continued to be a respected and cherished member of the community.  While running his own dental practice and being very active in the community, he still found time to spend with his family every day.  Each dinner was a sit-down dinner, each sport became another opportunity for family time and support, and each vacation was a family vacation.  Whether traveling the world with his world champion ski-racer son, driving to Wyoming to visit and enjoy the company of his intelligent daughter, or flying to Hawaii to move his goofy youngest child again, he was happy to do it and showed through his actions that he would not want it any other way.  To his friends he is The Balf - a social butterfly, a true friend, a gentleman, and an intellect.  To his wife, he is Dave - a quirky man, a person always there to give support and care, a man with a soft spot and indescribable respect for her.  To his kids he is Dad – the man that always made us feel safe, who takes care of and is devoted to his family, a source of continual support and inspiration, a man who has re-learned his kids in their adult lives and has gained even more respect from each of them, and the best person we could have ever wished to have as our father.  I love you Dad!  Happy Father’s Day!  LEB

Snopes: Rumour Has It

Have you ever received an email from a well-meaning friend, either forwarded or with an attachment, warning of some ominous event, con game or health hazard?  (It seems we regularly do at our house.)  It's often hard to know what to believe and what is baloney these days (because truth really is stranger than fiction), the result being that often people will forward this stuff on to their friends and family "just to be safe".  Well, now you can confidently sort these emails and rumours out for yourself.  Snopes.com is the site to go to when you're in this sort of quandary.  They specialize in tracking down, analyzing, and publishing the facts about every internet rumour, urban myth, and outright lie foistable on the public.  (The amazing thing about some of these email "warnings" analyzed by the good people at Snopes is how old they are, yet they're still looping in cyberspace.)  So before you forward that email about "Five Things You Didn't Know Your Cell Phone Could Do" - or criminals handing out business cards with enough drug on them to overpower you for their nefarious purposes - look them up on Snopes.com.  It could not only save you some embarassment if they're B.S., it could save your life if they're not!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Disgrace Isn't Losing Game Seven, Part 2

I had an interesting discussion with my buddies last night over Mexican fare and a couple of cold ones at the very unique Twin Butte General Store.  Universally disgusted by the riot in Vancouver after game seven on Wednesday last, and in complete agreement that every identifiable vandal must have the book thrown at them (no slaps on the wrist as in Toronto's G8 debacle), we nonetheless expressed differing views on the culpability of the Vancouver authorities.  My assertion that the City Fathers should have been expecting trouble given that city's riot-blighted past - and that as a result heads should roll (the police chief, specifically, said I) - was deemed too simplistic by some.  Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a huge supporter of the constabulary in this country (no one else I know gets up every morning and puts on a bullet-proof vest to go to work), and I'll give them the benefit of the doubt every time.  And, yes, it may be that some blame lies with whoever the police chief gets his orders from.  (How's that for back-pedaling like a guy headed over a cliff?)  But someone screwed up big-time in their assessment of such a massive crowd's propensity for violence.  We don't yet know the total cost of this riot to Vancouver in physical damage, emergency care, higher insurance rates, and immediate commerce lost - let alone the damage to tourism and business down the road - but I suspect the short-term damage will easily approach $100 million and the long-term tally to be much more.  (Unless, of course, the anarchist tourist market is what you're after.)  Heightened visible security could have curtailed the general spread of violence on Wednesday in my estimation, even if it couldn't have prevented the few score hardcore anarchists bent on their evil instigations.  In other words, a realistic cost-benefit analysis would, I'm sure, come down on the side of spending a few million more on security just in case.  In similar U.K. situations rubber bullets are deployed with restraint (thank you, J.R., for pointing out that even rubber can kill), and in the U.S. I suspect it would be real bullets flying, while in most of the rest of the world ... well, you know, life is cheap.  A few rubber bullets early on might have stemmed the tide on Wednesday in my view.  We also differed last night on whether all Canadians should feel shamed by this particular episode, or just Vancouverites.  My brother in B.C. who lives in the East Kootenays says he is unashamed (and I agree), yet some of last night's bistro denizens feel that all of Canada should bear this cross.  Not so.  Somebody in Vancouver's halls of power screwed up, plain and simple.  We out here bear no responsibility and therefore no shame.  By the way, I mentioned that we were in complete agreement that every identifiable vandal must have the book thrown at them, didn't I?  And too, we all agreed with the scathing assessment of the Game Seven riot by the urbane and usually restrained Rex Murphy.  Couldn't have said it better myself.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Disgrace Isn't Losing Game Seven

Bruce Hutchinson wrote Thursday in The National Post:  "Two Vancouver Police Department spokespeople made themselves available to media.  They stood outside the Sears building, a block south of West Georgia.  'Where are your officers?' I asked Constable Jana McGuinness.  'We have a full public safety unit deployed right now,' she said.  'We have hundreds of officers, a full deployment.  They’re all over.'  Well, no, they weren’t.  Some were standing in a circle a few metres from the constable, but they still weren’t out in force on West Georgia Street.  I’m not blaming police for what happened this night.  But did they not anticipate the worst?  They should have.  Because a lot of us did.  Because something is fundamentally wrong in the city and the surrounding region.  A riot after Game Seven in 1994.  A riot after a rock concert.  A silly episode of street violence early on, during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.  Look, I was in Calgary in 2004, on the Red Mile, and Game Seven didn’t work out too well there, either.  And there might - might - have been a broken pane of glass at the end of all of that.  It’s half past ten now, and the smashing and looting still hasn’t stopped.  Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has issued a statement, expressing his 'disappointment' with the mindless looting and violence.  Vancouver, he said, 'is a world class city.'  Sorry Mayor. But it’s not."
       The mayhem in Vancouver, of course, was going on at exactly the same time as the riots in Athens.  The difference is that the assholes in Vancouver were rioting over a game that didn't go their way, while the Athenians were protesting deep austerity cuts that will affect their standard of living for decades to come.  Don't get me wrong, I believe Greece needs to get its act together, but Vancouver needs to even more so.  It takes a long time to build a reputation but one can be ruined in an instant, and Vancouver risks becoming known as "Riot City" (if it isn't already).  I have no doubt that there were anarchists and other instigators in the crowd, but the claim that all those Canuck jerseys weren't on the backs of fans is ludicrous.  The city authorities screwed up - big time - and their lack of preparedness just means that insurance rates will go up again ... and potential visitors will stay away.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

MCAT in the Hat!

I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind.
Some come from ahead and some come from behind.
But I've read lots of books, I'm all ready you see.
Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!
                                 ~ (with apologies to) Dr. Seuss

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dr. Spock on the MCAT

“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”
                                                   - Dr. Benjamin Spock

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dr. Einstein on the MCAT

It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.
                                                                         ~Albert Einstein

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mason's Man-Eaters

As I perused what remains of my late father's book collection, most of it either devoted to warfare, politics, or painting with watercolours, I came across a book entitled "No Man's Land" by Victor W. Wheeler, published by the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation in 1980.  The book is a history of the 50th Infantry Battalion of Calgary in the trenches of WWI, commanded by my great grandfather on my mother's side, Lieutenant-Colonel E. G. Mason, MD.  A letter attached inside the cover from Wheeler's widow, commented on by my great aunt, confirms that the author "intended to call the book Mason's Man-Eaters", but for some reason when it was published posthumously the title changed.  (There is even a great photo of a troop train leaving Calgary for Halifax in 1915 with "Berlin or Bust", Mason's Man-Eaters", and "Pride of the West" graffiti on its side.)  An excerpt therefrom: "God not having been manifest to many of us on our first trip up the line, we turned to Lieutenant-Colonel E. G. Mason, Officer in Command of the 50th Battalion, for moral support.  Being a physician in private life, it seemed natural for him to look out for his "patients".  The Colonel had been the first man to step out toward the front line on our maiden trip into the trenches, and throughout our tour he instilled confidence in us by personally plodding up and down the line several times each day and night.  As he chatted with us singly or in small groups he convinced us that we would despatch ourselves with honour to our King and Country."  Needless to say, the horrors of trench warfare at the Somme, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele are described in excruciating detail within the pages that follow this excerpt.  My paternal grandfather, who was wounded and captured in the very same area, may have encountered many of the men in Wheeler's book - and perhaps old Doc Mason himself, unaware that 30 years later their families would marry!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cyber War, Part 4

If not U.S. Cyber Command, then it must be Homeland Security's job to defend civilian infrastructure, right?  Richard A. Clarke writes "...Homeland has no current ability to defend the corporate cyberspace that makes most of the country work.  Neither does the Pentagon.  As [former NSA Director] Minihan puts it, 'Though it is called the 'Defense' Department, if called on to defend the U.S. Homeland from a cyber attack carried out by a foreign power, your half-trillion-dollar-a-year Defense Department would be useless.' ... "  The inescapable conclusion from reading Clarke's work is that nobody is defending civilian infrastructure other than the IT departments of large corporations, subject as they are to the vagaries of board politics, fiscal constraints, and infiltration by foreign agents and malware.  Another problem is that - as with the advent of nuclear weapons - policy development is trailing technology badly.  In other words, because cyber war is so new, there is a great temptation to "go first", precisely because the U.S. is more dependent on cyberspace than any other country in the world, and because in a cyber war you may quickly lose the ability to respond to an attack.  Some sort of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) policy, that which kept countries from nuking each other for the past 66 years, would seem to be in order.  Clarke writes "...we cannot deter other nations with our cyber weapons.  In fact, other nations are so undeterred that they are regularly hacking into our networks.  Nor are we likely to be deterred from doing things that might provoke others into making a major cyber attack.  Deterrence is only a potential, something that we might create in the mind of possible cyber attackers if (and it is a huge if) we got serious about deploying effective defenses for some key networks.  Since we have not even started to do that, deterrence theory, the sine qua non of strategic nuclear war prevention, plays no significant role in stopping cyber war today."

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cyber War, Part 3

The National Security Agency is described as "the world's premier electronic intelligence organization" in Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It by Richard A Clarke. "Hearing McConnell or his successor Minihan, talk about NSA even on an unclassified basis, you begin to understand why they believe re-creating some of its capabilities elsewhere is folly and perhaps impossible.  They both speak with real reverence about the decades of experience and expertise NSA has in "doing the impossible" when it comes to electronic espionage. NSA's involvement in the Internet grew out of its mission to listen to radio signals and telephone calls.  The Internet was just another electronic medium.  As Internet usage grew, so did intelligence agencies' interest in it.  Populated with PhDs and electrical engineers, NSA quietly became the world's leading center of cyberspace expertise.  Although not authorized to alter data or engage in disruption and damage, NSA thoroughly infiltrated the Internet infrastructure outside of the U.S. to spy on foreign entities. ... the Director of NSA ... [is] the head of U.S. Cyber Command ... [and thus] The assets of NSA [are] available to support U.S. Cyber Command. ...Minihan and McConnell are both concerned that U.S. Cyber Command cannot defend the United States.  'All the offensive cyber capability the U.S. can muster won't matter if no one is defending the nation from cyber attack,' said McConnell.  Cyber Command's mission is to defend DoD [the Department of Defense] and maybe some other government agencies, but there are no plans or capabilities for it to defend the civilian infrastructure."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Cyber War, Part 2

As written by Richard A. Clarke "...a DDOS, a "distributed denial of service" attack [such as the one launched by Russia against Estonia on April 27, 2007] normally is considered a minor nuisance, not a major weapon in the cyber arsenal.  Basically it is a preprogrammed flood of internet traffic designed to crash or jam networks.  It is "distributed" in the sense that thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of computers are engaged in sending the electronic pings to a handful of targeted locations on the Internet.  The attacking computers are called a "botnet", a robotic network, of "zombies", computers that are under remote control.  The attacking zombies were following instructions that had been loaded onto them without their owners' knowledge.  Indeed, the owners usually cannot even tell when their computers have become zombies or are engaged in a DDOS.  A user may notice that the laptop is running a little slowly or that accessing webpages is taking a little longer than normal, but that is the only indicator.  The malicious activity is all taking place in the background, not appearing on the user's screen.  Your computer, right now, might be part of a botnet.  What has happened, often weeks or months before a botnet went on the offensive, is that a computer's user went to an innocent-looking webpage and that page secretly downloaded the software that turned their computer into a zombie.  Or they opened an e-mail, perhaps even from someone they knew, that downloaded the zombie software.  Updated antivirus or firewall software may catch and block infections, but hackers are constantly discovering new ways around these defenses.  Sometimes the zombie computer sits patiently awaiting orders.  Other times it begins to look for other computers to attack.  When one computer spreads its infection to others, and they in turn do the same, we have a phenomenon known as a "worm", the infection worming its way from one computer through thousands to millions.  An infection can spread across the globe in mere hours."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Cyber War, Part 1

The past few weeks have witnessed, obvious to anyone not living in a cave, a relentless increase in the number and success of "hacking" activities aimed at U.S. corporations.  This heightened activity made me dust off and re-read Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It by Richard A. Clarke, one of the West's foremost authorities on cyber security.  Clarke served in the White House under 4 presidents and left in 2003, disgusted with the policies of George W. Bush.  He has been the target of a right-wing smear campaign ever since, although he may know more about cyber war than anyone else in Washington.  He writes "On October 1, 2009, a general took charge of the new U.S. Cyber Command, a military organization with the mission to use information technology and the Internet as a weapon.  Similar commands exist in Russia, China, and a score of other nations.  These military and intelligence organizations are preparing the cyber battlefield with things called "logic bombs" and trapdoors", placing virtual explosives in other countries in peacetime.  Given the unique nature of cyber war, there may be incentives to go first.  The most likely targets are civilian in nature."  The reason for this, Clarke explains, is that almost all critical U.S. infrastructure (railroads, electrical grids, etc.) are owned by large corporations.  I suggest you check this book out of your local library and read it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What Will Your Legacy Be?

As many who read this space will know, my nearly 91-year-old father passed away late last year.  As his executor, I've been through all of his stuff multiple times - including records of his military service, numerous advanced degrees, memberships in scholarly societies, certificates of appreciation, news clippings of his accomplishments collected by my mother, etc., as well, of course, as his financial records.  All very impressive, perhaps with the exception of the latter.  Yet the most amazingly consistent comment I get from people both far and near since his death (some of whom I am barely acquainted with) is "he was a real gentleman".  It is always the first - and sometimes the only - comment made about him.  No one gives a hoot as to whether he was "well off" (he cared little for money as long as he could ski and sail with his kids), or whether he was a good "family man" (he was), or whether anything has been named after him (it hasn't).  Nobody mentions his practice of medicine, his public service, or his professional contributions.  Nope, no one mentions anything about him other than to reiterate over and over again that "he was a real gentleman".  And as the modest man he was, I think he'd like that.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Couldn't Have Said It Better Myself

Dan Morin of Calgary, in a Letter to the Editor of the Calgary Herald regarding last week's U2 concert: "Did I hear 55 truckloads and four days to set up, and the band was flown in in private jets?  Sounds like this U2 concert must leave quite the carbon footprint, Mr. Bono.  Not a very environmentally friendly spectacle.  When the tour is over, you can get back to your other job - criticizing the rest of us for trying to make a living."  My goodness, I wonder if those jets re-fueled in Alberta with that awful oilsands jet fuel?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Who Will Lead Alberta?

This is a critical time for Alberta.  With our voice finally being heard in Ottawa (and Canada's voice increasingly heard around the world), who will be Alberta's voice be after Premier Ed Stelmach retires?  "Steady Eddie" has been an admittedly ho-hum premier in the eyes of most Albertans, sort of a caretaker Premier.  His one big "error" - especially in the eyes of oil-patch reliant Calgarians - was to raise oil/gas royalties.  It happened at an inopportune time, coinciding with the global financial meltdown, and eventually the government was forced to modify (read "chuck") that legislation.  Our next leader needs to be more charismatic, to say the least.  The declared candidates thus far include two standouts in my view, Gary Mar, our current trade boss in Washington, and Rick Orman, the very competent and engaging one-time Energy Minister.  On the other hand, the most dangerous candidate is American fundagelical Ted Morton, whose major accomplishment to date has been to knife Eddie in the back.  There is a developing rift between northern (Edmonton) and southern (Calgary) tories that could make things interesting too.  The advantage may thus go to Doug Horner, the best candidate in the north.  What we really need to avoid - as the good conservatives we all are - is another split decision like 2006 when Morton and Jim Dinning cancelled each other out and allowed bronze medalist Stelmach to come up the middle and claim gold.  (Although I would argue anybody but Morton was - and will be again - a triumph for sanity.)  Hmm, should be interesting.  Well at least they all have the good sense to keep the leadership campaign quiet until after the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

An Arab Spring in Canada?

Okay, stop laughing now.  From The National Post: "A Senate page was arrested and fired after staging an anti-government protest in the middle of the Senate chambers as Governor-General David Johnston read the Speech from the Throne Friday.  Brigette DePape, a 21-year-old University of Ottawa graduate 10 months into a prestigious internship with the Senate, stunned the packed chamber by walking to the middle of the room dressed in her black-and-white page uniform and holding up a homemade stop sign that read 'Stop Harper.' ...  Even as she was in custody, Ms. DePape immediately issued a press release, referring to herself as Brigette Marcelle, in which she said 'This country needs a Canadian version of an Arab Spring,'  In an essay Ms. DePape wrote for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, where she was a summer intern last year, the Winnipeg native described how she had been galvanized by taking part in the G20 protests in Toronto last summer ..."  Not the sharpest tool in the shed, I'd say.  First of all, it disturbs me that she belittles the heroic efforts of those oppressed people in the Middle East who are fighting and dying every day so that they can have - guess what - a democracy like the one this spoiled brat works for.  Second, I am bothered by her obvious distain for our electoral process and the wisdom of the Canadian electorate just because she may not agree with the outcome of our recent federal election.  (Of course maybe she didn't vote, but at least she had the opportunity.)  And finally the question is: why did she give a false name when arrested?  Was it a simple case of trying to spare her parents some embarrassment?  Early onset dementia?  Had she been smoking something?  Who knows.  Maybe she can't handle all the freedom and democracy in this country.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bluster Versus Brains

As a retired health professional, I've seen lots of other practitioners ply their craft - the vast majority of whom were competent, decent people exuding sincerity and humility on a daily basis.  Most practice their art and science with a quiet confidence born of experience, education and intelligence.  Some, however, were (and still are) dangerously overconfident IMHO.  Being confident in your abilities is one thing, but endangering a patient because of overconfidence is inexcusable in my eyes.  Our first rule as health practitioners must always be to "do no harm".  (Of course, overconfidence happens in all fields of human endeavour, not just the health sciences.  Bluster passes for brains alarmingly often, in fact.  The talking heads of television, for instance, often give me pause.)  Overconfidence is due to one of three factors in my estimation: 1) youth, 2) upbringing, and/or 3) psychology.  Youth is pretty obvious; we need to build competence gradually - that's why there are internships and articling periods for professionals, etc.  Rare is the individual who can achieve a high level of competence without experience.  Upbringing is also obvious.  How many times have you run into a supremely confident individual who in reality has never accomplished anything in their life - and you're pretty sure they never will - but whose parents have somehow instilled in them an amazing "look at me, I can do anything", greater-than-thou countenance?  Psychology is by far the most interesting, however.  More than a few of the overconfident practitioners I've encountered over the years were basically masking a deep-seated insecurity by their professional bravado.  Whatever the reason, overconfidence in any field can be dangerous to your health.  When I recognize it I make for the exit.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Why So Many Adverse Weather Events?

As we Albertans sit drenched from weeks of rain and a melting mega-snowpack, while to the east and south of us people are experiencing heat waves and tornadoes, the question is ... "why am I growing gill slits at this age?"  Climate Change is the answer of course, caused by Global Warming.  People mistakenly think that global warming means everybody everywhere on the planet starts to sweat a little more.  Wrong.  Global Warming causes Climate Change - some areas get warmer, some actually will get cooler -  and the climate everywhere changes.  That's why, around here, our winds are stronger and we're getting more precipitation lately (which at least is better than getting drier as the American southwest is).  And it's also why there are more "adverse" weather events around the globe.  Get used to it.  As I write this I can hardly believe my ears.  CNBC ("first in business worldwide") is running a special on adverse weather events and one of their weather guys even mentioned Climate Change as one of the possible causes.  Joe Kernan and Larry Kudlow must be frothing at the mouth.  And my Tea Party buddy, Rush - who believes Global Warming is a UN plot against the U.S. - won't like it either.  Not to mention my other buddy, Norris, who attributes all recent adverse weather events to sun spot activity.  Like I said before, I don't know if Global Warming is causing Climate Change (although I strongly suspect it is); my point has always been that we can't afford to be wrong on this issue.  After all, I have grandkids.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Intercourse And The "F" Word

It was with considerable trepidation yesterday that I posted Another Reason We Don't Need Bears (attempted Russian commentary on a true story about a Christina Lake, B.C. grow-op busted last year) due to the fact that it contained "the F word" (as my wife so delicately puts it) - even though it was in disguise, sort of.  Now I don't mind throwing that word around with the best of them when on a ski trip with the boys, playing pool with the boys, digging ditches with the boys, or discussing politics with the boys, particularly after a few brewskis.  However, as soon as one of the gentler sex enters the room the "F" word is verboten in my world.  Call me a prude, a throwback, whatever, I don't care.  And when ladies are within earshot I find myself becoming acutely aware of others using the F-bomb too.  After wincing a couple of times I'll usually say something to, or steer our group away from, the aural offender - inevitably some pimple-faced punk hip-hopster showing his ignorance.  I remember several years ago a debate erupted in the national press re: the acceptability of F-word in everyday intercourse, many of the younger voices arguing that its usage was so pervasive that we oldies should just "get over it".  I disagreed then, and I haven't changed my mind since.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Another Reason We Don't Need Bears

The following contains coarse language - and lots of laughing.