Friday, October 30, 2015

More Odds and Ends

It is hard to write anything intelligent when your head feels like it is stuffed with sawdust.  My head may BE stuffed with sawdust and my writings may NOT be intelligent at the best of times but as long as it doesn't FEEL like it, I am good to go. I walked the dogs on a cold rainy day, dressed too warm got all sweated up and wet with rain.  Instead of changing into a dry shirt when I got home I fell asleep.  When I woke up my sinuses were plugged solid.  Some days I should not be allowed out without a note from my wife.

I can breath now but it is moving into my chest.  One more week to go.  All cures for the common cold work in about two weeks. Treating the symptoms only goes so far.  Oxymetazoline works great as a nasal decongestant BUT if you use it to often the sinus tissues develop a rebound effect.  So I can't use it anymore.  And I used the last of my extra-strength  Fisherman's Friend cough lozenges which I haven't found here yet.  My son is mailing me a half dozen packages.  I trust I will no longer need them when they arrive but they will be here for next time.

Winter seems to have arrived for keeps now with night temps well below freezing and day temps barely reaching +5.  The dogs' water dish freezes up at night so I take them a pail of hot water which cools off when it hits their dish and stays liquid for the day at least. The cats are still going out at night, though Tigritsa waits until 3:00 am.  She is a wuss.  Scared us the other day; lethargic, wouldn't eat anything etc.  Went out at her usual time and we saw her next morning eating a mouse.  She prefers to hunt her own food, I guess.

It is hard enough to concentrate when I can breathe so I did no useful work but watched a few old movies instead.  I now prefer Charles Bronson's westerns to John Wayne's.  In 1970 (?) Richard Chamberlain made a couple of Allan Qartermain movies based on Ryder Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines.  Atrocious doesn't begin to describe how bad they were.  Indiana Jones movies were far better.

Since Oct 21 was the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalger, I watched "That Hamilton Woman". The 1941 movie was apparently Churchill's favourite during the war and he watched it several times.  The parallels are striking.  England standing alone against a dictator who has conquered all of Europe and preparing to invade England.  Emma, Lady Hamilton, Lord Nelson's mistress, was quite a character.  A recent biography "England's Mistress" is on my to-read list. The movie ends happily for England but not of course for Nelson and certainly not for Lady Hamilton who died in abject poverty in Calais in 1815.

Last Friday evening I went to "English Club" as a special guest, a native English speaker.  Two groups met at 5:30 and at 7:00.  About 10 or 15 in each group.  Ages from 13 to 50+.  The two organizers were fluent in English.  The participants had all studied English and English Club gave them practice opportunity to speak and listen.  The first group spoke about things they feared and things that inspired them; the second group about hobbies.  They would ask me questions and I would answer them as best I could.  No interest in cows but lots in history so I could still pontificate. Two of the girls were in Masha's class and were so excited when they figured out who I was.  They immediately called Masha after Club.  Another girl was Tanya's great-niece.  We had met a couple years before but I didn't recognize her.  She had grown up a fair bit.  I will got back once in a while to future meetings.

Turkey has a national election on Sunday, five months after the last one that did not give Erdogan his majority. Lots of violence between PKK (Kurds) and Turkish state which may or may not backfire on Erdogan.  I do not see a peaceful resolution to this at all.  If Erdogan fixes the results all hell will break loose as people will take to the streets en masse.  If he does not get his majority again and the moderate party gets over the 10% threshold, I see things getting really ugly for the moderates.  Their leader has already had death threats. Erdogan could easily tar them all as terrorists.  We'll see.

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Remembering the Farm: "...than cross ties on a railway"

Diane Henders is writing a series of scary blogs in preparation for Halloween.  Her last one (here) is about adrenaline rushes and asked if any of her readers had some to share. By the way she also writes very good spy stories. There are 10 books in her Never Say Spy series and more on the way.  She is "too busy" to chase either a movie or TV series but she definitely needs to do one or the other.

My story occurred when I was in highschool, possibly 1963 or 1964.  It was a serious, as Lord Nelson is reputed to have said "Bring me my red cape AND my brown trousers" kind of scary.

The CNR mainline between Edmonton and Winnipeg runs close to our farm.  This particular summer the railway replaced all the cross ties along our section of line and piled the old ones in the ditch along the right of way.  Old railway ties are always handy on a farm for everything from blocking to fence posts, so dad contacted the railway about getting some.  They were likely free as any not picked up had to be gathered and burned.

About a mile and a half from our place we could easily access a section of ditch along the railway from a level crossing on an old municipal road allowance.  After school one October day, Dad and my brother took the '49 Merc 1 ton truck and I drove the tractor, a Cockshutt 40, Perkins Diesel, no cab and a loud muffler.  The plan was to fill the truck with the old ties down in the ditch and then use the tractor with a long cable to pull it back up onto the road.

Overview of the area
We loaded the truck in about 45 to 60 minutes.  No trains went by during that time. When we went to pull the truck up on the road, dad drove the truck and I drove the tractor.  I suggested to dad that the easiest grade to pull from would take me across the track. (There had been no trains therefore there would be no trains). Dad said no, the blind curve to the west would prevent us from seeing anything coming until it was too late and I should pull parallel with the tracks.  So I did that.

Enlargement of the circled area
I had just pulled the truck up onto the road and was running east, parallel to and about 6 feet from the tracks, when a freight from the west went past my ear at 100 kmph.

Baseball is better than Politics

A Comedy of Errors...Hits and Runs

And this

More of the exchange between Kansas city and Toronto Libraries here

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

First Past the Post or Proportional Representation

The Canadian election is over with and we finally got rid of the Republican masquerading as a Conservative and are back with normal political parties from whom we can expect normal political things. Perhaps they will even make Canada a place we feel proud of once again.

There is certainly lots for our new Prime Minister to do.  One of the things on the list is to do something about our First Past the Post system of voting which everyone seems to think is unsatisfactory. A party which garners 40% of the popular vote and ends up with 54% of the seats in the House of Commons seems unfair to everyone else. Technically in a three party race, a party getting 34% of the votes could win every seat in the House.

% of votes Seats % of Seats
Lib 39.5% 184 54%
CPC 31.9% 99 29%
NDP 19.4% 44 13%
BQ* 4.7% 10 3%
Green 3.5% 1 0%
Other 0.8% 0 0%
* BQ or Bloc Quebecois only fields candidates in Quebec which is why their low % of votes on a national basis delivers 10 seats while the Green Party's delivered only Elizabeth May.

If we compare seats by First Past the Post and by simple proportional voting we get this picture:

This would have been much more to my liking as it would have forced the Liberals and NDP to work together, possibly producing a much more progressive agenda. However there are a great many problems with this simplistic approach.

Under Proportional Representation, MPs would be chosen from a party list, ranked in order of "importance".  If the Liberals had a list of X number of would-be MPs then the cut off would be at 134 and the lower ranked names would be SOL. What would be the number X?  Right now they have to field 338 candidates but what would be the point of having 338 names on a list?

Who would chose the names on the list and who would rank them?  How would the grass roots be involved, if at all? Under FPP, each constituency party organization chooses its candidate. 

Who would be YOUR representative?  Who would decide that? What would be their responsibility to you and your constituency and how would it be ensured or enforced?

How do you handle a regional party like the BQ? Is Proportional Representation by province or is it national?  If it is by province, then there is still unequal representation on a national basis.  It could be better or it could even be worse.

And what is the cut-off in popular vote below which a party gets no seats in the house? At the moment, 12 seats is necessary to have official party status so the cut-off could be 3.5% for example.  If it were set at say 5%, then neither the BQ nor the Green Party would have a seat at all.  How will the seats be doled out under that scenario?

How do you deal with independents? Or do you deny independents the right to seek election?

Voting patterns will change dramatically with proportional representation, of course, as people feel more free to vote how they want rather than "to make their vote count" because under Proportional Representation, every vote counts. Sort of (see all the above).

Not only will voting patterns change but new parties will appear as if by magic. All they need is 3.5% on a national basis and they are home free.  Since it will be virtually impossible to get a majority government, they can sell their votes to the highest bidder to form a coalition.  Furthermore "fake" parties may not even intend to take seats, but to take votes away from other parties to give their "patron" party more seats.

Italy has Proportional Representation.  Check out how well their government has worked historicallys.  Ukraine has proportional representation.  We have 95 political parties.  Come and see how well our government works.

There are, of course, many variations on a theme which fall short of perfect proportional representation but could be viewed as an improvement over FPP.  These are just some of the things you have to think about before you get too excited about changing the system and that must be taken into account when the new system is developed.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ukraine, Syria, Russia and Turkey

Russia has always tried to pawn off the war in Ukraine as a "civil war". It has been a covert Russian invasion since day 1 with Russian weapons, logistics, commanders and military.  The accidental shooting down of MH17 by a Russian BUK missile likely manned by Russian military specialists is but one incident in many.  The Dutch have released their study of the cause of the downing of MH17 but have left designated any fault as that is not their responsibility.  There is a criminal investigation underway which could lay official blame and name names as early as year-end. The Russian manufacturer of the BUK system also conducted their own "study", contradicting the Dutch study and contradicting their own earlier study. This is for teh coinsuption of teh folks at home and to add confusion on behalf of useful idiots abroad.

There is, however, a "civil war" in Ukraine between those determined to stamp out corruption and put in jail as many corrupt bureaucrats and oligarchs as possible and those determined to prevent that happening.  Unfortunately for Ukraine, President Proroshenko and Prime Minister Yatseniuk, both Yanukovych alumni, seem to fall in the latter group. Since the over throw of Yanukovych a year and a half ago, no one has gone to jail.  Suspects have been allowed to leave the country, several even taking their ill gotten gains with them.

Judges, Prosecutors and Police were thoroughly corrupted during Yanukovych's reign. Until they are completely purged and new people appointed, there will be no real reform.  Cleaning up the entire justice system is being resisted at all levels, consequently nothing is happening and Ukrainians are getting very upset with their government.  EU and America have laid it on the line, either clean it up or else but it remains to be seen how it will shake out.

The war in Eastern Ukraine has fallen off the radar.  The constant shelling by the pro-Russian military has more or less stopped though there are still infiltration attempts by sabotage groups and periodic attacks hoping to draw a Ukrainian response.  Ukraine is off the TV News screens in Russia and even the trolls seem to have gone away though certainly not entirely.  Ukraine as the fuel for Kremlin propaganda in Russia has been replaced by Syria which is Russia's big move, inserting itself fully into the Middle Eastern conflict and essentially telling the USA to stay out of its way.

There is a five minute video (link here) that explains the complexity of the war.

Russia claims it is there to fight ISIS but other than a few sorties, most of their bombing attacks have been against rebels fighting Assad, not against ISIS, though that is not how they sell it at home.  Putin gains several things from this newest adventure. He keeps his popularity at home ramped up in spite of the economy which will soon see ordinary Russians spending up to 50% of their income on food.  He shows the world that Russia is a great power and supports its friends.  He keeps his naval base in the Mediterranean.  He makes America look foolish again.  And he gets a possible say in whose gas will go through a gas pipeline through Syria.

Turkey is on Syria's norther border and millions of refugees fleeing both Assad and ISIS have been flooding through Turkey on their way to the EU.  However the real issue for Turkey is not refugees but Kurds. Kurds are teh world's largest ethnic group without a homeland.  They occupy part of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Turkey's Kurds have been waging a civil war off and on for over 30 years in an attempt to be recognized as "Not Turks" and either gain language and political rights or to separate.  Any move towards independence of Kurds in the other three countries terrifies Turkey and some of their foreign policy is intended to prevent that from happening so much as is possible.  They have warned America not to arm the Syrian Kurds who are the most dependable ally USA has in fighting ISIS.

President (former Prime Minister) Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian in the past several years. (Turkey has more journalists in jail than any country but China).  Instead of being a figure head, with the PM as the power figure as the Turkish constitution now reads, he wants to amend the constitution to make himself as president all powerful.  For that he needed a super-majority which the Turks denied him in June by voting a moderate Kurdish party over the 10% threshold (it got 13%) needed to enter parliament and robbing Erdogan's party of the extra seats, leaving him with a minority government.  Erdogan was furious and instead of forming a coalition, gave the Turks an opportunity to remedy their "mistake" by calling another election for November 1.

This is where things get dirty.  Erdogan acts in many ways like a mini-Putin.  ISIS hate the Kurds, ("Kurds are not Muslims") so in that sense are allies of Turkey. For several years Erdogan has been trying to make peace with the Kurds but after the June election he suddenly stopped.  In July ISIS suicide bombed a Kurdish rally.  There was immediate suspicion that the ISIS bombers managed to do this because Turkish police and security turned a blind eye. PKK (Kurdish version of the Irish Republican Army) immediately cancelled the truce and killed a couple of Turkish policemen and the civil war was on again.  And on October 10, ISIS struck again at a peace march in Ankara organized by the Kurdish political party.  Whether or not this will work to Erdogan's advantage remains to be seen.  There are calls to outlaw the Kurdish political party which would solve his problem in one fell swoop. 

Thus endeth today's lesson.  Stay tuned.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Remembering Tim Marshall

One year ago today, on October 12, 2014, my friend and mentor, Tim Marshall passed away in Jakarta, Indonesia.  He was 63, suffered from the usual combination of bad things that affect people who spend too much time on airplanes or eating at state or other banquets: high blood pressure and diabetes.  He had been warned years ago to slow down but it was not in his make up to slow down.  He told me once that he found what he did (at the time, it was herding cats) to be so easy and relaxing it was like being retired. For Tim was involved for much of his life in international trade and trade development.

When it came to China, the Former Soviet Union and SE Asia, Tim knew everyone who was anyone who had influence in the purchase of things Saskatchewan exported.  He moved in fairly high circles and was in his glory dealing with Ministers, Deputies, Ambassadors and the like.

Tim Marshall and George Grushchenko, Trade Commissioner, Canadian Embassy Ukraine
at the Western Canadian Farm Progress Show  Regina, Saskatchewan, June 12014
Tim was born in England and educated as an Agricultural Engineer.  He moved to Zambia shortly after graduating and ended up working for Massey Ferguson.  He was recruited by Saskatchewan in 1986 because he had experience in three-way trade deals and knew his way around the Soviet Union and China.

He was working for The Saskatchewan Department of Economic Development and Trade (EDT) when I met him in the late 1980s. We hit it off immediately, possibly because we were in many respects opposites. Tim was the smoothest most diplomatic person I ever knew.  I used to tease him that everything I knew about diplomacy I learned from him.  He always said that he wished I wouldn't say that.  Those of you who know me will see the humour in that exchange.

 Many of the trade delegations Tim brought to the province had to do with agriculture; crop and forage seed, farm machinery and livestock genetics, so it was natural that he would connect with Saskatchewan Agriculture staff.  I helped him with itineraries and sometimes driving/guiding the livestock groups.  Then in April 1991, he talked the department into letting me be part of a trade mission to Kazakhstan SSR.  This was my first experience in international travel and livestock trade development.  I was hooked.

In the next few years I was in China several times with Saskatchewan delegations that Tim led.  The logistics of one of these trade missions was a nightmare for anyone but Tim.  Plane schedules, hotel rooms, meetings were all painstakingly scheduled and rescheduled.  Keeping tabs of a bunch of eager novice travelers was no easy task, either (hence herding cats). But Tim managed it all. Along with, I need to add, a wonderful office support staff and the world's most patient travel agent, all of whom went with Tim when EDT morphed into Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership (STEP).

We learned how to deal with other cultures.  When we went to Kazakhstan in 1991, we of course had to travel through Moscow (it was the Soviet Union still at that time) and ended up two tickets short from Moscow to Almaty.  A couple of cartons of Marlborough and several pairs of nylons later we had our tickets.  In Beijing we learned to arrive early at the airport and find our check-in counter.  Tim would stand at the counter with all our documents.  We would pile our baggage around him like a fort and then stand in a half circle outside our luggage facing outwards.  When the counter finally opened, we realized why the precautions.  No room for politeness or queuing in the Middle Kingdom in those days.

I went to China several times with Canada Livestock Services (CLS) which in those days was breaking into their beef genetics market.  And in January 1997 Tim talked the department into sending me to Ukraine for a short livestock seminar.  Saskatchewan was working hard at breaking into the Ukraine market with livestock genetics and farm machinery.  Instead of going home after the seminar I ended up with another delegation led by Tim going to Zimbabwe and South Africa, replacing a member of CLS who had to cancel.

When I got back, Saskatchewan Agriculture had a pink slip and a check waiting for me, which extended my life and the lives of those I reported to by at least a decade.  For a short time, I worked at STEP and finally joined Canada Livestock Services.  There were many other projects I worked with Tim on - missions to Turkey and to Iran, a great many incoming trade missions and study tours to be organized.

In 1997, Tim engineered a partially CIDA funded project in Ukraine to be delivered by STEP.  The Canada Beef Forage Program was a four year program to take Canadian beef and forage production technology to Ukrainian livestock and crop specialists.  Tim wanted me to take the lead in developing the material and teaching the beef section of the first three 3-week courses.  My Tanya was in the first course I taught and came to Canada the following year with five of the top students from the three courses.  The rest is history. I think I was in Ukraine at least once every year after 1999 and since it always, from Day 1, felt like home, I moved here when Tanya and I got married in 2006.

Tim got tired of being micro-managed and retired in 2011.  By retired I mean he went to work for his long time friend and former colleague at STEP Murad Al-Katib at Saskcan Pulse (AGT Foods).  No more cats to herd.  Tim was on the road marketing Saskatchewan pulses all over the world.  That is what he was doing when we lost him in Jakarta.  His wife Hanne had been on the road with him as a sort of holiday and had not long before, left for home.

I owe him a great deal for all the education and opportunities (as well as for a wonderful wife) and for his friendship. It is hard to think of a world without Tim.  One thing I learned: NEVER take for granted that someone you care about will be there tomorrow.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Winterizing the Dog House

Last fall I built a doghouse for Volk (Wolf) and his wife Kashtanka (Little Chestnut).  I used green pine, nominally full dimension 1x6 (25x150).  I say nominally as some boards were not a full 25 mm thick and some were not an even 150 mm width from end to end.  Our contractor put a metal roof on it.

As green lumber is wont to do (I always wanted to use that word), it dried over the summer leaving 10 to 15 mm gaps between the boards.  Not overly conducive to keeping out the chilly winds of autumn and the icy blasts of winter.  So I decided to foam the gaps.  .

I bought a can of expanding insulating foam with visions of laying this nice even bead in each crack and then nail a thin strip of moulding to cover the foam bead.  How difficult could it be?  Like watching my cousin with 50 years experience laying a silicon bead around a newly installed bathtub or sink and thinking this can't be too hard.  Right.

Friday, I got Sveta to help me as she would have a steadier trigger finger and lay a more even bead of foam than I could.  Which she did. But the foam never quit expanding.  There were white "growths" from every gap.  We finished the can of foam and left it to dry overnight. I would deal with the mess on Saturday. Which I did.  All my utility knife blades were gone, used in the service of other projects by other people.  So I stole a kitchen knife and trimmed the foam "growths" and nailed strips over the foam filled gaps.

With a mouthful of 1" nails and a small Estwing, I was tapping away and wondered if people still used hammers and nails.  The advent of compressed air driven power nailers in all sizes has made mundane pounding of nails a thing of the past in most commercial work.

Two inches of Styrofoam in the floor and ceiling, lined with rubber backed carpet

If it is warm next weekend, I will ask Masha if she wants to paint it
 After completing the foaming process, Sveta and I went to help Tanya finish burning branches from Babushka's yard, piled the previous fall.  The pile had been so big that two good fires had failed to get everything around the edges so that was what we were gathering and piling.  And that made a huge fire in and of itself.

Lots of clean-up fires burning tonight again as people take advantage of calm dry cold day to do controlled burns of weeds and brush.

The clear area was a huge pile of dead dry branches.
The wind was blowing from the high weeds and grass so the fire would not get away on us

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Turkish Holiday

Tanya and I don't look much like Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck but at least our holiday ended happily.  We have been home a week now but it has been hard getting back into a schedule.

We spent 18 wonderful warm days on the Mediterranean Coast close to Kemer which is about 40 km south-west of Antalya.  Our resort was called Larissa Blue, a 3 Star which suits us perfectly.

Our room was bright, clean, and quiet; the grounds, including pool and bar, were quite nice and well kept.  The beach was about a 10 minute walk, more is you stopped to play with the kitties along the way.  Gravel and coarse sand  were hard on tender feet getting into and out of the water.  The sea was warm (28C) and the water clear.  Great for swimming as the shore dropped off sharply into 5+ meters of water.

Barrier ropes outlined an area about 300 meters by 150 meters to keep swimmers and boats apart.  We had parasailing boats going and coming on both sides.  There was enough current that a paddler like me was glad of the barrier ropes or I would have drifted off to Lord knows where.

We did morning and afternoon shifts in the water.  I would stay about an hour or two then head for shore.  Tanya would stay two or three hours, sometimes four.  Mostly we swam, slept, ate and read books.  Tanya finished four books and I finished two.

The difference between a three and four star resort seems to be mainly in the food.  The salads and desserts were very good and quite varied over the days were were there.  Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.  The main courses were 2 Star in our opinion but certainly nutritious and sort of varied.  Like the guy who had only bread and cheese to eat said "Some days I eat bread, some days I eat cheese, some days bread and cheese and others cheese and bread". Fish, chicken, and kofta pretty much every day cooked in a wide variety of ways with rice, potatoes, pasta and millet (?) rotated through two at a time.  Lots of cooked veggies, too.

Then there was the chicken liver and hearts EVERY dinner and supper cooked any number of ways but served 36 meals when we were there.  Good thing I actually like them and enjoyed them at 9 meals. We cook them up at home for the cats and keep them in the fridge.  The cats and I share them.

Most of the other tourists in the resort were Russian, Belarussian or Kazakh. Tanya made friends with two ladies from Ulyanovsk (Lenin's birthplace) who were in Turkey for the first time.

View from our room door - pomegranate orchard

The pool, where only the beautiful people hang out

Our walk to the beach

Even this late in the  season it was crowded

Tanya and Luda from Ulyanovsk, Russia

Day cruise boats made out like fake sailing ships

Date Palm

Three little kittens playing in some boards
The sea by our swimming area

Ready to go home