Month: April 2018

No Saint George to Slay This Dragon

It all started in 1439 when, after two years of experimenting, Johannes Gutenberg unveiled his moveable type and a printing press capable of reproducing identical copies of books and/or news reports on paper.

It is true the Chinese had invented paper and printing centuries earlier, but it was Gutenberg’s inventions that launched an explosion of knowledge which remained unmatched until 1989 when the World Wide Web via the Internet released a great tsunami of information that now threatens to overwhelm us.

There had been moveable type before Gutenberg. Both China and Korea had used clay or porcelain type to print on paper and China claims to have published the world’s first book – Diamond Sutra – in 868. In a similar but heavily contracted time frame, the Internet had been around for close to half a century before “www.com” became household slang and now threatens to make extinct words on paper which have been a vital part of our lives for centuries.

It was Gutenberg’s press that brought us print journalism with, so some historians claim, the discovery of America by Columbus; the first great international story printed and read unchanged from one city to the next. It was a “news” story written to take anyone who could read to a once a mysterious place beyond the edge of the world. But, it wasn’t long before simple facts were not enough for news writers or their readers.

The advent of the printed page was as sensational and dramatic in its day as the Internet explosion is proving in ours – and to the general populace, just as bewildering. The world in which news had been transmitted by word of mouth or official decree was suddenly awash with single sheet pamphlets spouting every opinion known to man, with truth and fiction often intertwined and proclaimed as fact.

The pamphleteers, who occasionally made sense but often were gloriously inaccurate and irresponsible, survive as 21st Century tweeters, Facebook friends or “bloggers” like me.

From that first confusion of voices sprang the first organized newspapers, which leaned heavily on horror stories to attract readers to more mundane items on politics and politicians. In his The History of News, Mitchell Stephens provides documented early “news” stories presented sombrely and seriously as fact. My favourite is from 1614 under the byline of “AR.” He prefaced his story on “a strange and monstrous serpent (or dragon) living in a forest “only thirtie (cct) miles from London” with a promise to his readers to send “better news if I had it.”

His dragon was “nine feet or rather more in length” with “two great bunches so big as a large foote-ball (cct)” on its sides which “as some think, will grow to wings.” AR said he hoped God would destroy the dragon “before he grows so fledge.”

“AR” would be right at home on the Internet today where “dragon” stories can be paraded, unhindered by balanced theories and void of facts. “The Net” itself has become a 21st Century dragon – coming ever closer to silencing what has been the reasonably steady voice of serious newspapers for centuries. Like AR, I  hope for intervention, divine or mortal, to knock this dragon on the head before “he grows so fledge” But fear I hope in vain.

Not that modern newspapers don’t deserve a shake. They have failed to meet the electronic challenge by trying to match its speed when they should have held their ground as bastions of sober insight. The Internet is geared to a world in such a hurry that it’s happy to be fed crumbs of twittering information and fragments of illiterate thumb-texted messages. Newspapers have the singular ability to freeze-frame time, stop the clock, slow down the thought processes and give their readers time to read, mark, and inwardly digest.

Unfortunately, most newspapers, swept up in the electronic speed contest, are trying to run with the hares when they should just be rumbling along with the strengths of endurance and dependability and just the facts and calmly stated opinions.

Mitchell Stephens puts it this way: “The new media have assumed the franchise, but they have not picked up all the services … It is now possible to know what they served for dinner last night at the White House, but it is becoming more difficult to know why an ambulance pulled up at the house down the road … (we can) learn exactly why the space shuttle exploded, but (it is) more difficult to find out what’s being built on the lot around the corner … we are losing news of our neighbourhoods … (and) risk losing those neighbourhoods and our identity as participants in them.”

It’s happening at ever increasing speed and there isn’t a Saint George in sight to slay the dragon.

 

 

USA Remains Deaf To Reason

My youngest son, now in his mid-30s, just a few days ago said it was a sense of wonderment to him that when I was a child, the milkman house-delivered his product in bottles via horse or pony pulled carts; the bottles placed as ordered on the front door steps and the empties picked up, starting about the same time a bike riding “lamplighter” rode his crack-of-dawn route to click off the gas street lamps.

I don’t think he believed me when I suggested his sense of wonderment was nothing compared to mine as I still try to grasp the enormity of change in my living world since the day I came caterwauling into a still relatively new 20th Century.

It was a standing joke on my earliest birthdays that it was the clinking of the empty bottles on the milkman’s cart that woke me up and welcomed me like a peal of church bells to the starting line for a romp to the end of one century and a hesitating stumble into the 21st.

And it’s all happened in the blink of an eye, wonderment after wonderment, sometimes at such bewildering speed that aging minds are overwhelmed – and mine quite easily when it comes to the mention of anything “cyber.” I am told that if what I write is “published in digital format on a website, blog or other online space” I have become a “cyberjournalist” engaged in “cyberpublishing” and if what I have written should be published by an online magazine, I have become a “cyberzine.”

Not sure how I feel about that, but I’m sure my mother would have been offended on the day I rattled the milk bottles if told she had given birth to a cyberzine – and dad would have been threatening to sue.

But, here I am laughing about my latest designation as a cyberzine, still amazed at the incredible speed, ease of communication and rapid exchange of ideas digital cyber or whatever affords me.

In my blog a week ago, I lamented the apparent willingness of the United States of America to permit its president to topple his once great nation from its world leadership role. For a year now President Donald Trump, displaying a lamentable penchant for bombast and bad English plus a shoddy grasp of what democracy means, has changed world admiration for his nation’s leadership to the laughter usually reserved for prat-falling clowns.

Vancouver Island reader Glenn McKnight thought the blog would interest a relative in Quebec. It did and the relative replied with recommendations for “further reading” – two books by Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August” and “The March of Folly” and one by Ronald Wright, “What Is America?” Glen forwarded them to me. Tuchman I knew. Wright’s work had escaped me but four days after the exchange between Glenn and his Quebec relative Andre, I had tracked down a paperback. I can endorse Andre’s recommendation as a good read – even though it was written and published BT – before Trump.

The time lapse and changes since Trump’s ascendance do not change Wright’s view that we are watching the collapse of yet another once great empire. In my lifespan – short in the long measure of history – the sun set long ago on the once mighty British Empire and more recently, as noted a week ago, the great Soviet Union disintegrated. The paths they both took to power and beyond to loss are not dissimilar to the paths walked in the past 100-plus years by the USA and now being raced at breakneck speed by President Trump.

It was in 2009, when President Barak Obama had been in office for only 100 days, that Wright added a prophetic “Afterword” as a final chapter to “What is America?” He was encouraged at the time by a poll indicating two in every three Americans were happy with their new president, but cautiously added:

“But that was during the honeymoon. If history is any guide, the political right will harden and regroup, especially when problems at home and abroad prove expensive or tractable. Many will be as keen to thwart the policies of Barack Obama as they were to undo the work FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt).” Wright recalled Obama’s appeal to his nation to “set aside childish things. The time has come to choose our better history….Greatness is never given, it must be earned.”

He added that acknowledgment of past failings and the “new skepticism toward the national myth (and) a return to hard facts … a return to enlightenment” indicated a change for the better for the USA on the world stage.

Unfortunately, his thinking was wishful, America wasn’t listening then and remains deaf today.

 

Virus-free. www.avg.com

 

A Quasi-monarch President

 “We do not have a parliamentary system where party leaders fight internal battles and get replaced by their internal rivals on the regular; instead, we elect a quasi-monarch, whose removal seems as traumatic as a regicide. And thus, party loyalists tend to identify with their leaders the way royalists identify with their kings and regard the prospect of impeachment not as an opportunity for a change of leadership but a revolutionary threat.”

The quote is from a Ross Douthat opinion piece published April 11 in the New York Times as part of that newspaper’s continuing attempt to explain what is happening in the once proud “land of the free and home of the brave” – the Republic of the United States of America.

In the 1700s, British settlers holding an uncertain toe-hold on the lonely and largely unknown vastness of North America revolted against being ruled by a remote and occasionally insane King George in England. In a dangerous gamble, they challenged the might of the Empire. With a roughshod frontier “militia” and a laughable “navy,” they defeated the King and his parliament and established what they felt was a truer democracy: “A state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch.”

As the decades rolled by, the new republic grew in strength and in less than a century was being regarded as one of the strongest, if not the strongest nation in the world – economically, militarily and by way of government. As “Royals” around the world retained their titles but lost their power, the United States of America grew and its president’s voice became one of great authority on the world stage. Other countries governed by freely elected governments looked to “the States” for guidance – and for protection in time of need.

And then came the assassinations of the much admired, despite some dubious moral failings, President John F. Kennedy in November 1963; Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968; and Bobby Kennedy, June 1968. And then, diminishing even more the strength and respect of the USA, the 20-years of losing warfare in Viet Nam between 1955 and 1975.

The USA was not the only nation losing status. In 1991, the world was amazed and unbelieving when the Soviet Union collapsed in what seemed like an overnight illusion. One day it was there; the next, gone, dissolved by Moscow’s Supreme Soviet with China standing ready to fill the gap.

In the USA, President George W. Bush took over in January 2001. Eight months later, al-Qaeda terrorists destroyed the twin towers in New York. The USA responded with increased force in Afghanistan and renewed fighting in the deserts of Iraq in 2003.

President Barak Obama replaced Bush in the White House in 2008 and returned for a second term four years later. Among his major promises were an end to the war in the Middle East and the introduction of Medicare as a service for all US citizens. In January 2017, he handed the keys to the White House to newly – and surprisingly – elected Donald Trump who, within days, decided where TVs with cable news connections should be placed and then launched the first of his semi-literate Tweets condemning almost daily the administration of Obama and the conduct of election rival Hilary Clinton.

Trump’s conduct has alienated many friends of America around the world; embarrassed Republican members of Congress and Senate whom he is supposed to be leading; and confused friend and foe alike with his never-ending litany of facts-that-never-were, delivered with the petulance of a spoiled child. Even when signing routine documents, Trump makes sure the camera is on before he flourishes the pen and carefully “carves” his name, holding it up for the camera to get a close-up of the black-black ink he uses and assuring any children who may be watching their president does know how to spell his own name.

It is unfortunate that the founding fathers who authored the Constitution didn’t provide a quicker and easier method of removing a president from office than complicated impeachment proceedings. In countries operating under the British parliamentary system, if the leader of the governing party becomes an embarrassment, a leadership convention is called. Complaints are debated and the leader either wins a vote of support or earns a sentence of non-confidence. If it’s the latter the chief minister is gone and a replacement elected as party leader and – automatically – prime minister.

Critics suggest this isn’t a fair system because the party ends up electing the prime minister – not the people. It’s a point, but when weighed in the balance with a leader spouting wild Trumpian accusations and theories, it would be a safety valve to cherish. It doesn’t change party beliefs and principles, but it does curb a leader’s bad manners and royal dictates.

For sure, US political leaders must find a quick solution to their presidential problems. In these troubled times we need strong USA leadership with steady guidance and the courage to make tough decisions because they are the right decisions. And, we need leaders who seek peaceful solutions rather than bigger buttons to push or smarter missiles to fire.

 

 

 

 

 

Who Said “Talk Is Cheap?”

March 7, 2011. From a report to Victoria City Council on financing the replacement of the close to 100-year-old Johnson Street Bridge, known locally as “the Blue Bridge.” The bridge spans a narrow sea channel to link Victoria West with the “downtown” city centre and the bulk of the population. It cost $720,000 to build.

In the 2011 report, council is informed the replacement will cost around $77 million to be raised by borrowing ($49.2 million), city sources ($6.8 million), federal government $21 million.

January 18, 2018, (note the year) from the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project Quarterly Update: “The new bridge is scheduled to open to traffic on March 31, 2018.” It did open as scheduled with bands playing; citizens dancing and cheering; council members congratulating each other and basking in praise from happy celebrants on the sleek 21st Century new bridge design, the spacious walkway and cycling path. A mild murmur of criticism fluttered briefly among celebrants regretting the bridge had only three lanes for vehicular traffic but there were more ooohs! and aaahs than grumbles.

And, nobody was wandering around with a placard proclaiming two brief paragraphs from the Jan. 18 update that would have chilled the joy of any Victoria taxpayers already worrying about paying their property taxes by June.

The paragraphs read: “As of December 31, 2017, actual costs of $96.08 million have been incurred. The approved budget is 105 million…. There will be one more planned project budget increase request for tendering. Should additional unforeseen events occur before the completion of the project, Council will be advised.” The italics are mine. I’m a bit of a pessimist when contemplating projects that have already had enough “unforeseen circumstances” to boost an estimated $77 million budget to $105 million and still be months – even years – behind originally scheduled completion dates.

My pessimism plunges even deeper when I remember San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge was built in four years for $35 million (around $500 million US today) and was completed in 1937  $1.3 million under budget.

It would be bad enough if bridge building was our only problem on Vancouver Island but, alas, bridges are just minor stuff. A couple of miles from the new bridge, on the same harbour but closer to the open ocean, construction has begun on a new waste water and sewage treatment plant and the extensive pipeline required to carry waste to the plant for treatment before being discharged into the ocean. Estimated cost $765 million – for a project scientists and public health officials say is unnecessary. The majority of the funding will come from federal and provincial governments with municipal governments collecting an added $344 a year from home owners in Oak Bay, $296 in Victoria, $258 in Esquimalt, $208 in Saanich, and $146 in Colwood and other peripheral communities.

Mega spending all round with millions added to the final bills for the two projects mentioned here – a new bridge and a new sewage treatment plant to do what deep tidal oceans have been doing successfully and efficiently for years. Both projects were plagued with lengthy and mostly unnecessary debates and challengeable decisions that delayed the inevitable for decades.

Meanwhile, these projects consistently pushed to the back burner of social progress the far more important issue of affordable housing. It remains high on the priority list of just about every village and city in Canada. It is acknowledged as essential for the well-being of every community – but there is rarely any meaningful move to find the funding for a massive home-building project.

A few municipal governments may have problems finding space for housing developments, but provincial and federal governments surely have enough Crown land that could be put to good use for model housing estates. It needs some bold thinking – maybe even a rent-to-buy scheme. And it needs to be started soon, before our young people give up hope of ever establishing home and family in the country they love and head for more welcoming places – as so many of we old folks did so long ago.

One suggestion for any politician or party with the courage to propose and develop an affordable housing proposal. Every day that passes between a proposed solution and a proposal actually at work and functioning, can be costly. Delays extending for months then years as they did on the two major projects mentioned above, can be disastrous.

It is a sad commentary that the increased cost caused by delay roughly doubled between first estimate and final cost – the millions saved by less talk and more action would have been more than enough to have jump started the financing of affordable housing – or other much needed projects.