Friday, May 10, 2013

Death and taxis

FES, MOROCCO - As our cabbie's shoulders tensed and the engine gave its now familiar death rattle, I had an epiphany.

We should have taken the bus.
It wasn't the fact the car had stalled, specifically. Or the fact the poor cabbie was jiggling the keys in the ignition that gave me pause.
No, it was the fact the steering wheel had locked somehow and we were coasting into oncoming traffic - towards a bus - that was, frankly, a little unnerving.
I clearly wasn't the only one feeling this way . The cabbie seemed a tad frantic as he hauled on the wheel - "clunk!" "Clunk." "Clunk!"
"Hmmm," I thought, as the neat white hood bore down on us, "We aren't wearing seat belts."
And we weren't. Not because we were negligent.This vintage beater, with its death rattle tranny, eau du petrol scent and dust-ingrained interior didn't have any.
The bus was closing fast.
Welcome to Morocco.
The trip to Fes seemed easy at first. A bus downtown was 40 dh apiece, about $8 total. Seemed like deal compared to the 150 dh the first cabbie quoted us.
So we were en route to the bus.
And that's when the stout cabbie in a shopworn designer ball cap approached us. The guy had a quick smile, a friendly manner and a grossly hairy neck. He quoted us120 dh, which matched the sum the tourist girl told us a cab would cost, door to door.
Shona and I looked at each other.
This would save flagging a cab in the city centre.
"Sure," we said.
Our cabbie took us down the line of white Mercedes to our battered chariot.
"Thump," went the lock. "Screeeetch!" went the door.
I squeezed in. Between the front bucket seats, a battered vinyl barrier was held in place by raw metal bars, serving no discernible purpose. And, as noted, there were no seat belts.
"Shona, there are no seat belts," I said.
"I see that," she replied.
This, too, was mildly unsettling.
On the plane, we had read about Morocco's legendary traffic accident rate, especially on the N8, the 270-kilometre-long stretch between Marrakesh and Agadir.
People don't respect the rules of the road, they drive aggressively and dangerously, the guidebook said.
Oh, and at night, in the pitch dark, you can legally drive up to 20 km/h without lights, it added. Donkeys, goats and sheep go dark as well, it added, helpfully.
"By law, every driver and passenger is required to wear seat belts," says The Rough Guide to Morocco. "Almost no one does.
"Given Morocco's high accident rate, it is foolhardy not to."
And here we were.
The driver started the car by inserting the key and then pressing a sometimes-on-most-times-off switch. The engine rumbled to life. Then he drove the stick into reverse and it gave its signature grinding rattle, like it wasn't in gear. But it was, sorta.
"Um, that's weird," I thought.
The driver looked back at us, smiled, jiggled the keys and hit the button again.
It roared to life.
We were off. Until the system stalled and locked, that is.
We drifted. The bus came on. Our driver pulled on the wheel, "clunk, clunk...."
And then, mercifully, we were off the road, rolling across huge chunks of rough white gravel. The bus flew by on our right.
"I wonder if this thing has airbags?" I asked Shona.
"Well, it is a Mercedes," she said, and smiled.
The driver got out, opened the hood and played with the engine, manually revving the thing. Then he flagged down another cabbie. An older guy. More gruff talk in accelerated tones, some gesturing.
"We're getting a new cab," I said to Shona.
She grabbed the door latch.
"...or not," I added.
The old guy tossed our cabbie a wrench and drove off with a crunch of the heavy gravel.
Our cabbie grabbed a second set of pliers and set about whacking the engine a bit. Then he lowered the hood and hit the button. The car started.
I turned to Shona.
"That's the nice thing about a Mercedes - they are easy to fix," I said.
Then it stalled.
He started it again and we were off, sans rattle.
And on the remaining 25-minute drive through the busy streets and traffic circles, it worked well.
Until it didn't. But the driver knew the signs and pulled us to the side of the road surprisingly fast, thankfully before we hit any cyclists, pedestrians or other cars.
Eventually we arrived at the New Medina.
"Your Riad is over there," he said, opening the trunk and gesturing across a barren, windswept square above which swallows were dancing.
I handed him the 120 dh.
He smiled.

In Barcelona, no one can hear you scream

Where is Ellen Ripley when you need her?


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Scientists grant woman immortality (but the ethics are muddy)

I have to thank a woman called Rebecca Skloot for giving me an education I won't soon forget.
I've never met Skloot, and I couldn't pick her out of a photo. But I have read her wonderful book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and consider it one of the most fascinating books I have stumbled across in years.
In fact, it fractured my mind, sending it along paths and donkey trails I never knew existed.
I started listening to the book cold. I had no idea what I was getting into. It was just sitting in my Audible folder and I needed something to listen to. I loaded it on my phone and hit play.
I don't expect you to do the same. Here is a little teaser.
Lacks was a black woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer on January 29, 1951.
She was subjected to crude cancer treatment (barbaric to my eyes, though it was cutting edge at the time) in a black-only wing of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
She died horribly nine months later.
And yet she lives on today. Literally.
A doctor took two samples of her cervix without permission, a healthy bit of flesh and a cancerous one. The cells went into a Petri dish and found their way to scientist George Gey.
And in Gey's care something remarkable happened. They survived.
This had never happened before.
Until Lacks' cells were taken, human cells died after a few days outside the body. Lacks' cells did not. Gey could grow them in a lab. He called them HeLa (a nod to Henrietta Lacks) and started shipping them to colleagues around the world - granting this woman a form of immortality.
Since then, Lacks' cells have been used to cure polio, to develop AIDS drugs, used for gene mapping, to test glues and cosmetics and ... well, a mind-numbing variety of other things.
HeLa is really the foundation of much of the medical science of the modern world. There are about 11,000 patents stemming from HeLa cells.
And many members of Lacks' family in Maryland can't afford Medicare.
And so Skloot's amazing story goes, weaving the story of Lacks and her family into medical research and ethics and pure science.
A journalist, Skloot has achieved remarkable balance in the telling. As outrageous as some of the ethical snarls are, they are never clear cut. This is grey matter, baby - history, society, technology, politics and simple ignorance all contribute to the problems that bedevil the HeLa cells and the Lacks family.
Skloot ferreted out the details over nine years, and she was tenacious in the chase. She handles this complex story of the human consequences of scientific discovery with compassion and considerable tact.
At the end, you will probably have shed a tear, unless you are an unnaturally heartless soul.
And, if you are like me, you will marvel at Skloot's accomplishment.
The book lays bare how unbelievably clueless brilliant scientists can be.
It shows how seemingly random events combined with a little luck can alter history for the better.
And, perhaps most important, it demonstrates how even the most overlooked people in society, like a relatively poor black mother in Baltimore, can be extraordinary in ways nobody could imagine.
In this case, a woman on her deathbed provided the means to alter the future of the entire human race, saving untold thousands of lives and helping to build the modern medical economy in the process.
And, until Skloot's book, only a handful of people knew her name.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, Crown, published February 2010.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Happy Anniversary, adversary

Stephen Joseph Harper, photo courtesy
The typical Canadian newspaper is honest. The typical politician is not.


C'mon, listen to your gut. Most of you feel this is generally accurate, right?

It comes down to having skin in the game. The politician has his self interest at heart. The newspaper's thrives on its reputation for courage and honesty. Oh sure, some haters fall back on the old chestnut, "It's just trying to sell papers," but, these days, such blather seems more than a little trite.

Nope, the better newspapers generally want to get to the bottom of things. And to back up arguments with facts. And the best of 'em challenge authority.

They leave the empty rhetoric and falsehoods to politicians.

Except when they don't.

And when a newspaper knowingly dabbles in falsehoods, it is a terrible breach of public trust - an awful thing to behold.

Which brings us to Conservatives, the Globe and Mail and the anniversary of doom.

I wanted to talk about Stephen Joseph Harper's first year of unfettered power, but it's already more than a week past it's best before date.

So, instead, I will talk about newspaper editorials. Specifically, a recent Globe joint about Harper's first year (link below).

But first a little background, something to set the scene.

Harper hasn't had a good year. And you would know that, unless you have spent it spectacularly drunk. Or on a far-flung Pacific atoll without electricity. In fact, I believe it has delivered a trainwreck that, my fellow citizens, we'll be cleaning up for decades.


Well, for starters there is the muzzling of our world-class scientists and the dismantling of Statistics Canada, an institution that has a global reputation for excellence and one that has allowed our leaders to make well-informed policy decisions.

This is supposed to be the information age. Instead, Canada is being kicked back to the Dark Ages by a bunch of ideologues. I think this is a very big deal.

And, call me crazy, but the Harper government's conscious decision to mislead the public about the cost of its new F-35 jet fighter squadron is ... well, it's also big deal.

We are talking about Harper and his cronies delivering a pre-election whopper. A book-cooking scam worth more than $10 billion. And the lowball cost delivered the public was a calculated decision made by the federal cabinet, according to the minister at the centre of this scandal, Peter MacKay.

This makes the former Liberal Sponsorship imbroglio look like a childhood prank.

Who has resigned? Who has taken responsibility?


In fact, just last week National Defence, which is hopelessly besotted with its new jets, tried to maintain the farce by insisting the federal auditor general and parliamentary budget officer don't know how to cost stuff like, say, high-tech weapons.

'Scuse me if I tilt towards skepticism bordering on the hostile.

I may be a nutter, but deceptions on this scale - historic - matter to me.

So does the theft of elections.

In 2006, the federal Conservative Party was caught exceeding spending limits - that is, they broke the law. And that illegal spending may have earned them a few seats in tight ridings.

In 2008, Harper broke the law again, tossing aside his fixed election date and calling a snap election.

Now, in 2011, we have a new election theft through robocalls that systematically misled and discouraged voting in tight races across the country.

This isn't some tin-hatter conspiracy. There's very good evidence that it happened, documented by election officials and journalists across the country.

I'm irked by the spending on jails and the ramming through Parliament of tough-on-crime omnibus bills that will needlessly cost us billions in a time of falling crime. I am similarly irked by ill considered tax cuts and runaway spending that have, combined, created a structural deficit after years of surplus.

Parks Canada, gutted. Environmental oversight, abandoned. Charities threatened unless they work "in the interests of the nation." These things are similarly troubling.

Is this good government? The markers of a jolly good year?

Call me mad as a hatter, but I don't think it is. I think it is vindictive, small minded, and petty. And reckless.

Which brings me to the recent editorial in the Globe and Mail.

It has been "a year in which there have been plenty of ups and downs," the fawning piece begins. "The latter including the robo-calls controversy and the Auditor-General’s scathing report of mismanagement and a lack of accountability on the F-35 purchase."

Those, in case you were wondering, are the downs.

And then it continues, "But on most of the issues that matter ..."

Really? The issues that matter?

As if these other issues - electoral fraud, conscious deception of the electorate and financial fraud to the tune of billions - are mere trivialities. Things to dismiss.

Of course, they are not. These things matter. They certainly are important to me, and, I suspect, they are considered outrageous acts to many, many thousands of my fellow citizens.

In fact, you have to wonder what sort of person would pooh-pooh these things, would dismissively call them "downs," as if they are merely forgettable low points in a long, long game.

Does the writer have any moral fortitude? Does the publication?

The Conservative Party of Canada wants you to think all this "small stuff" doesn't matter. They want people hoodwinked because they want to be elected again. They are motivated by self preservation.

But what's the Globe and Mail's excuse?

In slapping a wafer-thin vaneer of credibility on the Harper government's obvious failures, to the point of ignoring the accepted facts - There's no evidence it was required to change Old Age Security (see links) , it created a structural deficit through its dogmatic insistance on low taxes and irresponsible spending habits and, through that recklessness, forced massive layoffs in the civil service - the Globe actually damages its own credibility.

The reader begins to wonder why the paper is zooming them. And how is it doing so? If it got this so wrong, what else is it distorting? And why?

This is not an insignificant problem because once a paper gets a reputation for writing for someone other than its readers ... well, in the words of Lou Reed, stick a fork in its ass and turn it over. It's done.

Of course sometimes when a writer sits down and drafts an editorial, the whole beautiful dream goes off the rails. That marvellous hypothesis doesn't prove out. Sometimes, as the words hit the page - thwack, thwack, thwack - you hit a soft spot, or an enormous sink hole. You can't miss it because the words immediately start ringing hollow - Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!

That's the editorial writer's "uh oh!" moment.

Cold, light of day, baby! There is no avoiding it.

Now you've got a decision to make. Do you ignore it and keep on rollin' along, falling deeper into the hole in the vain hope the reader doesn't notice the obvious flaw or gross negligence.

Or do you rethink, regroup and rewrite to fit your troubling epiphany?

Or do you spike the whole project? Screw the anniversary, scrap the effort and find a decent letter, a generic column or a big mother photo to fill the hole?

What you do often depends on time, the resources at your disposal and what sort of publisher you are working for - what their agenda is. Because sometimes you are ordered to do proceed with the crap, the lie, which presents the writer with a much deeper crisis and some personal decisions.

But, if you have a choice, papering over the obvious flaws and hoping the reader doesn't notice is never the right answer. Because if the dumbass editor hit upon the problem, the reader certainly isn't going to miss it. No way, Jose.

If, as a writer, you are dishonest with your readers, you are finished.

Bottom line, the guy shilling' out a loonie for a bundle of newsprint still expects honesty from the thing. Crazy eh? But that's the way it should be.

The paper messes with this sacred trust at its peril.

Which is why it was so surprising to see the Harper tripe on the editorial pages of the Globe.

Because, it renders the paper indistinguishable from a lying politician.

And that's a heavy fall, indeed.




Thursday, April 12, 2012

Drifting into oncoming authoritarianism

It gets a little tiring being the voice of doom. Put simply, I want to write fluffy, fun light-of-spirit stuff, like the story of that nutty mechanic I interviewed a two decades ago who fell through "the hole in the universe."
Or dog stories. Jon Katz writes dog stories, and I like them. And I respect Katz as a writer. The guy is brilliant.
And so, occassionally, I like to write dog stories (see below) and other whimsical stuff.
But it is hard ... no, damn near impossible to write happy go lucky stories when my government has stupidly blown billions on fighter jets, unnecessary jails, lavish G8 conferences and who knows what the hell else and then cut funding to food safety, NGOs, the CBC, science and social programs to fight the deficit it created.
It is impossible to sit idly by and watch as my wonderful, inclusive, generous country begins to drift into authoritarianism, much like a sleepy driver crosses the centerline into oncoming traffic.
Take the environmental movement, which is now in the government crosshairs.
The government is threatening reprisals unless certain charities, specifically environmental charities and others that challenge the government's right-wingnut agenda, can prove they are working in the national interest.
The national interest? Who's national interest? The oil lobby's national interest?
Who defines this "interest?" What is it? These questions, and many others are, at the moment, curiously ambiguous.
And that's intentional. That's what makes it all so sinister.
Challenge the current Government of Canada in any way, and it will destroy you.
Early in this government's mandate, we saw literacy and women's group funding curtailed, especially if they were deemed to run counter to the new government's direction (see ).
Scientists have been muzzled, as has the bureaucracy.
The census was hamstrung, robbing Canadian business and institutions of solid data.
The CBC was targeted, and is now seeing its funding chopped to ribbons.
And currently it is conservation groups (so-called American-funded radicals, according to the government line) who are acting against the "national interest" by challenging fast-tracked pipeline development.
This is not happenstance. It is part of a calculated effort on behalf of the bullyboy Harper Conservatives to kneecap dissent in this country. You are either for us, or agin' us.
So, who's next?
The aforementioned, and many other examples, are the societal equivalent of the rumble lines along our highways.
We ignore the growing roar at our peril.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Who is smarter, the dog or the master?

My Nemesis.
The shrieking was disturbing.
It was definitely Winston. He had raced into the woods after something or other, and now he was carrying on as if it was the end.
And I was worried.
This never happens. My two springers are many things, but wanderers they are not. They usually hang just six metres from me, at most. Dexter was sitting at my feet gnawing snow from his paws at that very moment.
But with Winston crying as if he was being gutted, he was now on full red alert and charging down the steep ravine to see what was up.
Foxes, I thought. That damn beautiful red fox has gotten Winston alone, and being a hard-muscled wild animal, is now feasting on my soft-bellied dog's entrails.
So off I ran to the ridgeline to see what I could see.
Dexter had found Winston. He was licking his brother's  face as he screeched 15 metres down the steep slope.
The pudgy spaniel's ass had broken through the crust of the snow and he couldn't pull his bulk back up onto the surface.
"Are you kidding me, Winston?" I said.
I was angry. I had been scared, worried he was getting mauled by a fox.
Instead, he was simply stuck.
"C'mon," I said. "Come boy. Let's go home. C'mon."
More wimpering and screeching.
Dexter raced up the hill, looked at me imploringly and then raced back down across the crust to his brother, as if to say, "This is serious."
"C'mon you fat bastard. Get up the hill."
He just looked at me with his big brown eyes and screeched some more.
"Are you kidding me? You are truly an idiot."
So I began the slog down to rescue him. Every step I broke through up to my upper thigh. It was slow going. And all the while, the little dog was emitting ear-piercing shrieks.
"Shut up, I'm coming."
Eventually, I was within a couple of metres of him.
"OK, Winnie, let's get you out."
At which point, he leapt out of the hole and ran up the hill to Dexter. Took him all of four seconds.
I was at the bottom of a steep ridge in snow up to my waist.
Looking up, Winston was at the ridgeline, his tongue lolling out waiting for me.
He seemed to be saying, "Hurry up."
"I'm going to kill you," I muttered, before beginning the slow, sweaty hike up the hill to trail and, eventually, home.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Woman Rescued In Main Street Crash

A woman was pulled from the right rear seat of this car by Whitehorse EMS staff Sunday evening around 7 p.m.
The driver of the other vehicle, a jacked up black pick-up truck, staggered through the intersection on the arm of a cop. He appeared drunk.
Bystanders were incensed.
"These guys never learn," said one.

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