Monday, February 29, 2016

Exchange Rates

Exchange rates concern me as my pension is paid in CAD, converted to USD to send to Ukraine and then converted to UAH to spend. Everyone in the middle takes a piece of the action but it is all done automatically over the internet so can't complain.  It has only been in the last year that the CAD and USD have parted company to any extent.

When I first came to Ukraine in 1997, the exchange rate was about 5 Hrivna to 1 dollar.  It stayed that way until the bottom fell out of the global washtub in 2008 and then went to 8 Hrivna to the dollar.  That held until the Time of Troubles and Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and oil prices took a tumble about the same time.  The Canadian dollar held in and around the mid teens in Hrivna and the US Dollar in the low-mid-twenties.  The CAD has strengthened against the USD recently and now trades at about 20 Hrivna to the CAD.

The fall in value of the Hrivna helps our export position but makes paying off foreign denominated currency debts very difficult.  It also means that imports come in at world prices.  Prices here are rising accordingly and wages or especially pensions have not/cannot keep up and have fallen dramatically in real terms.  Utilities (gas and electricity) prices have skyrocketed relative to incomes but this needed to happen as utility companies are not banks nor social safety nets.  Big league corruption in oil and gas has been slowed if not eliminated but small scale local stuff still goes on I am sure.

There is a long list of people, pensioners in particular who are signed up for government assistance with utility bills.  Not surprisingly there are those who allegedly can "afford" it that are also signed up. Also if you put a large magnet under the gas meter it effectively stops it, I have been told, however if you get caught they shut off your gas and open a criminal case against you. Unless you can bribe your way out, I suppose.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Where Does Everyone Live?

Maps and charts are a hobby of mine since I am visually and spatially oriented.  Ran into some interesting ones about where people live. No surprise most Canadians live on or south of the 49th.  However most Americans live south of the 43rd and most Europeans live north of the 43rd.

China and India have huge populations but they are concentrated into small areas.  Half the world's population lives on 1% of the land area.

As always, click the images to enlarge.

Where people live - north and south.
50% of Canadians live in the red census districts

50% of Americans live in the blue counties
50% of the world's population lives in the yellow areas.  More detailed maps in link

Monday, February 22, 2016

Politics as Usual in Ukraine

Ukraine has been celebrating, if that is the right word, the second anniversary of Euro-Maidan.  Two years ago in Feb 18, the demonstrations against the ultra-corrupt Yanukovych regime turned deadly violent and two years ago today, Yanukovych fled to Russia.  It was the beginning of a new opportunity for Ukraine to remake itself as a truly European country with European values: respect for the individual, tolerance, rule of law, transparency, democracy.

Ukraine has come a long way with the help of America and the EU, in spite of Putin's Russia not giving her one moment of breathing space with the occupation of Crimea and undeclared war in Donbas.  Yet Ukraine has made no real progress in the one area that drove people to the streets in the first place.  Oh, some aspects of corruption have been dealt with; enough to mollify IMF and others and keep the money flowing and stave off bankruptcy.  Laws have been passed and implemented to various degrees.  Anti-corruption organizations have been created on paper at least but have been unable to achieve anything because the President will not allow them independence.

Patching roads in Ukraine
In the last election, 40% of the Deputies returned to the Rada had ties to the old regime.  Proroshenko and Yatseniuk claim to be reformers but were former members of Party of Regions themselves.  Oligarchs still control the country and the senior bureaucrats are still in place.  The police force is gradually being rebuilt from the ground up, city by city, but the senior police officials are still in place and they still answer to the Prime Minister.

The keystone that keeps the entire process in place is the Prosecutor's Office, headed by the Prosecutor General who reports to the President. There are 15,000 to 18,000 prosecutors in Ukraine, no one seems to know the exact number.  Prosecutors control the justice system and use it to enrich themselves, keep their friends safe and their enemies in prison.  In two years, none of Yanukovych's crowd have been charged and sent to prison.  Investigations into the shooting deaths of the "Heavenly Hundred" by Berkut snipers have gone no where.  Investigation into the May 2 2014 fire in Odessa that claimed over 40 lives have gone no where. Attempts at serious investigations have continually been obstructed by Prosecutor General Shokin.  Calls for his resignation have been ignored. Please Read This: How to steal millions and stay free. Stories of the “successes” of former Yanukovych officials

Progressive Ministers which were appointed to several Ministries, including Agriculture resigned in protest against their inability to control or replace their bureaucrats who continually blocked reform.  Compromises resulted in some of the resignations being with drawn. The economy minister, Abromavičius, resigned on February 3 citing government corruption and the Poroshenko administration’s lack of commitment to fight it. He named a close associate of the President, Kononenko, as his biggest problem in implementing reforms. On February 15 deputy prosecutor general, Vitaliy Kasko, also resigned in protest of the government’s lack of action against corruption as well as attempts to sideline him by Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin

On February 16, the government presented its annual report to the parliament. Poroshenko called on Yatsenyuk and Shokin to resign. Shokin allegedly resigned but then took indefinite sick leave effectively stalling any action.  Yatseniuk's annual report was overwhelmingly rejected by the Rada but 15 minutes later a vote of non-confidence fell far short of a majority.  A non-confidence vote would have resulted in Yatseniuk's dismissal along with all the Cabinet of Ministers and a new Prime minister and Cabinet appointed.  If the new PM and Cabinet did not get approval of the Rada then snap elections would have to be called.  

The failure to support the no-confidence motion, which cannot be held for another six months, was allegedly cooked up between Proroshenko's party and deputies beholden to three other oligarchs, Akhmetov, Kolomoisky and Pinchuk who like the government just the way it is. Many of the missing votes simply absented themselves from the chamber just before the vote.  Four of those who did not support the motion then added insult to injury by asking that their support FOR the motion be recorded. Some parties and some people are pushing for new elections but the likely results would not be good, (see figure below) with even more parties represented, making a coalition almost impossible.  Timoshenko (remember her?) and Saakashvilli would fight over the PM's job and refuse to join the coalition unless they got it. This kind of instability plays right into the Kremlin's hands.
Source: Yatsenyuk’s“Stay of Execution”
There are those calling for a "Third Maidan" and a far right splinter group with possibly 1000 military and 1000 civilian members is currently camped out in Kyiv to push for it.  This will not end well for several reasons.  One being that the Kremlin has been surreptitiously encouraging a "Third Maidan" and there are unconfirmed  rumours that this new far-right group are in fact financed by pro-Russian Deputies (who allegedly live in Moscow and fly into Ukraine to sit in the Rada - also unconfirmed).  

A new Maidan would be violent, simply because those who push for it and would participate would be the most radical, fed up with waiting for peaceful change.  Anyone could make a list of 10,000 people who need to be taken out and shot, which would improve Ukraine to no end.  BUT once the killing starts, where does it end?  Ask Robespierre and see also Napoleon.  Ask Lenin and see also Stalin.

Anything that looked like a violent far-right uprising would be a clear invitation for a full scale invasion by Russia to "protect" Russians in Ukraine and this time they may not have to lie about it. 

Commentary: Petro Poroshenko's House Of Cards
Batkivshchyna faction leaves ruling coalition
Why Poroshenko did not dismiss Yatseniuk
Ukraine’s government almost fell yesterday. It’s still in crisis. Here’s what happened and why it matters
Now We Know Who Really Runs Ukraine
The Yatsenyuk Chronicles: How Ukraine's Prime Minister Survived
Ukraine’s ruling coalition disbands
Commentary: Petro Poroshenko's House Of Cards
Kasko explains why he quit prosecution
Bad Moon Rising
A Pyrrhic Victory for President Poroshenko
Saving Yatsenyuk

Friday, February 19, 2016

Ten Books for a Desert Island

Only the cats are healthy at our house at the moment.  Tanya is a week closer to recover from her cold than I am.  My news feed has been swamped with stories about Ukrainian politics which I have read but am in no shape to write anything intelligent in way of a synopsis.

Right now I am wading through 'Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East' by David Stahel and 'It Was a Long Time Ago and it Never Happened Anyway' by David Satter.  The first title is sort of self explanatory.  The second needs a bit of explanation. It is about as much fun to read as Anne Applebaum's Gulag: a History which I read over the holidays. This from Google Books:

Russia today is haunted by deeds that have not been examined and words that have been left unsaid. A serious attempt to understand the meaning of the Communist experience has not been undertaken, and millions of victims of Soviet Communism are all but forgotten. In this book David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent and longtime writer on Russia and the Soviet Union, presents a striking new interpretation of Russia's great historical tragedy, locating its source in Russia's failure fully to appreciate the value of the individual in comparison with the objectives of the state. 

Satter explores the moral and spiritual crisis of Russian society. He shows how it is possible for a government to deny the inherent value of its citizens and for the population to agree, and why so many Russians actually mourn the passing of the Soviet regime that denied them fundamental rights. Through a wide-ranging consideration of attitudes toward the living and the dead, the past and the present, the state and the individual, Satter arrives at a distinctive and important new way of understanding the Russian experience.
The other day I saw an article in The Guardian or Independent or Telegraph or something, that asked what 10 books would you take if you were going to be marooned on a desert island.

That is not an easy question for me to answer because most of my reading is history and once or twice is enough.  Trying to remember good fiction or timeless non-fiction was not easy.  My list got as far as eight and stalled:
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Monte Walsh by Jack Schaeffer
  • The Earthbreakers by Ernest Haycox
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John LeCarre
  • Smiley's People by John LeCarre
  • The Outport People by Claire Mowat
  • Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner
I suggested to my son I would add Ulysses by James Joyce and the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky as I would then be forced to read them.  He said even then he couldn't read Ulysses as he has tried a few times. Maybe I would take The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith and Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand 

If it were fifty or a hundred, it would be easier perhaps but just 10 is a killer.  Google is a great help, though.  Google 'Top 100 books' and you get awesome lists. This one is incredible.

The Greatest Books lists 1950 Fiction and 1150 Non-Fiction.  If you sign in on Facebook you can check the ones you have read and the ones you would like to read. I got half way through and called it a night.

There is this 99 Classic Books Challenge 
I managed 17 of 99

I would be fascinated to get your list of 10 books, dear readers and also an indication of how you did on the 99 Classic Books Challenge.

And no bragging rights, which is worse.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Out Our Way by J.R. Williams - Cowboys

Anyone my age or older will recognize the name immediately.  The Out Our Way comic strip drawn by J.R. Williams ran in over 700 daily papers from 1922 until his death in 1957, over 10,000 cartoons.  I remember it from the daily papers which I would read whenever we visited people who could afford such a luxury.

J.R. Williams was a keen observer of humanity and drew much of his work from personal experience.  He was born in 1888 and worked several years as a cowboy, did a stint in the US cavalry, and worked in a big machine shop in Ohio, among other odd jobs too numerous to mention here. His cartoons reflect a way of life long gone, yet the human nature revealed is familiar to all of us of any age

Out Our Way was the cover name for several series of cartoons: Cowboys, Bull of the Woods, Why Mothers Get Gray, Heroes are Made not Born, and Born Thirty Years too Soon.

Leonard G. Lee, of Lee Valley Tools, is also the owner of Algrove Publishing, which published a collection of J.R. Williams' work in their Classic Reprint Series. I purchased the entire series of Williams' work when the books came out and have never regretted it. They are, like everything else from Lee Valley Tools, of the highest quality. The books are also available from Amazon and AbeBooks as well as Lee Valley.

There are four books in the Classic Cowboy Cartoon series, one of Cavalry. six of Bull of the Woods and one sampler of Out Our Way from the 20's, 30's and 40's.  The first volume of Bull of the Woods is sold out, unfortunately.  It was mainly cartoons from the war years, featuring among other war related issues, women moving into jobs in the machine shop which had formerly been an exclusive man's world.

Williams' biography in Vol 3 of Classic Cowboy Cartoons is far more detailed than Wikipedia.

These cartoons are just a sample from the four volumes of Classic Cowboy Cartoons.  If you Google [J.R. Williams Cartoon] Images you can see a large cross section of his work (but you may have to wade through some garbage).  His cartoons were THE most clipped and saved of all regular features. I will run a few from the Bull of the Woods series some other time.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Canadian Dollar and the Price of Oil

Some research for a friend of mine yielded the following charts which I thought I would share for the benefit of those who wonder about the value of the Canadian Dollar against the American Greenback.

The price of crude oil tracked in the $90 to $100 range for quite a few years then suddenly plunged beginning in mid-2014, recovered slightly in early-mid 2015 then continued truckin' on down to where is sits today at around $30 USD (Figure 1). Western Canadian Select (WCS) crude oil trades at a discount to West Texas Intermediate (WTI) (figure 2), mainly because our "only" customer is the USA and we have no way of exporting the stuff anywhere else at the moment.

Figure 1, source Federal Reserve Economic Data

Figure 2 source Oil Sands Magazine
Figure 3 source XE Currency Charts
The Canadian dollar was trading in the USD $0.95 to $1.00 range for several years and then began a slow decline to its current value of about $0.70 (Figure 3). One of the obvious culprits is the decline in price of crude oil BUT the dollar began its decline a full two years ahead of crude, in mid-2012.

Now it is quite possible the low dollar is the fault of our new national Liberal government and I would never argue. I mean, the markets could well have seen it coming a full three years or more before last fall's election.

The truth is, if you look at figure 4, our dollar is tied to other commodities as well as oil and the commodities index began softening in 2011. As BMO's January North American Outlook put it:
. . .it could take three years before the currency even returns to 80 cents US—penance for the nation’s steady loss of competitiveness and over-reliance on resources. Since 2002, labour productivity in the manufacturing sector has grown three times faster in the U.S. than in Canada (58% versus 18%).

Figure 4 source BMO Capital Markets 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

O Canada

I was conversing with the voices in my head the other day, instead of working.  If I don't visit them periodically, they, like the Italian cook who couldn't get a date, become cannelloni.  We were discussing the proposed amendment to Canada's National Anthem "O Canada" to make it gender neutral.

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Original O Canada sheet music 
The proposal is to change "in all thy sons command" to something a little less exclusive of all things female. We concluded this should not be an issue for two reasons.  One, the English words to the song have been rewritten at least forty-eleven times, though the most recent version is unchanged since 1967.  It was originally written in French in 1880 and the French version has remained unchanged since.  Two, I am sure the guys standing around and guarding stuff in the True North would not in the least mind if some females were to work some of the shifts.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the de facto English Canadian National Anthem was "The Maple Leaf Forever" and the French Canadian National Anthem was "O Canada".  The simple beauty of music of the French version prompted people to write English verses for it but none really caught on until Robert Stanley Weir took a crack at it in 1908.  His version was revised in 1913 when the second line was amended to include sons, just in time for The War. During the war O Canada, English variant, and The Maple Leaf Forever were equally popular and by the late 1920's, it was O Canada all the way in both languages. 

But it took until 1980 for O Canada to be legislated as the official Canadian National Anthem. Go figure.

Personally I quite like The Maple Leaf Forever but you can see why it never caught on in Quebec.  The opening lines kind of rub their faces in it.

In Days of yore, From Britain's shore, Wolfe the dauntless hero came And planted firm Britannia's flag On Canada's fair domain.

Now I always sang it in early grade school as Wolfe the donkless hero, never questioning why he was donkless unless it was an old war injury.  Nor, being young and innocent, did it ever occur to me why the song writer knew how firm Britannia was. In later years I gathered that he and Waylon Jennings may have shared a certain understanding of the finer things in life.

Also while The thistle, shamrock, rose entwined the Maple Leaf Forever, there was no room for the lily. O Canada is inclusive of Francophones and soon of females.  I should check and see if O Canada is in other languages as well. Another time.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Harm Reduction Van

My Facebook and Blogging friend, Violet Umanetz, is a Social Worker (I "followed her home" many years ago from the blog of my daughter who is also a Social Worker). She is working in Harm Reduction programs in Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge, an Ontario tri-city of about 120,000.  Their program recently acquired a van to travel to parts of the city away from the downtown where people do not always have easy access to their office or St John's Kitchen where they go one day per week.  The van is out Thursday nights only for now and makes three stops around the city.  Violet has waxed ecstatic about the van and has allowed sharing of her most recent Facebook post:

Van Update! heart emoticon - By request, this is 'public' and absolutely okay to share. It's a long one, but it's based on some discussions I've had this week about The Van.
One of the best things about my job is that I get to hear people's stories - about their lives, their experiences, their challenges, and their successes. The majority of the stories that I hear are positive and upbeat, and quite often hilarious, and I think this surprises a lot of people who don't work in this field.
It's surprising because we've all been conditioned to "feel sorry" (at best) for people who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, addiction, and/or mental illnesses. We should pity them, right? Agencies often use that angle to convince you to donate to their programs. You've seen it - the idea is that if you can spare the cost of an expensive latte on your way to work, you can save someone from a terrible situation. Help the poor people who can't help themselves! Help the misguided people see the error of their drug-using ways! (ugh.)
Here's the thing: pity has never changed anything. Pity means looking down on people. It means expecting them to be grateful for the smallest of handouts and being offended when they aren't. It often means that we push judgment on people. Pity is very, very passive. Pity separates 'us' from 'them'.
This week, on the The Van, we started to hear some of the stories that people hold. (We were parked at one location for almost 2 hours, in fact, while we listened!) Every single story ended on a positive note. "This is just temporary." and "I'm going to call that agency tomorrow and see if I can get on their waiting list." and "Once I'm feeling better, I know I can go back to work." and "I know what I'm doing isn't great and I want to change some things."
If we were doing this out of pity, we'd shrug, hand each person $5 and move on.
Photo from the article link at the bottom
Instead, here's where we step in. Pete listens - and offers to connect someone to a specific person at a community agency and bring information about other services next week if they'd like to consider some options. Natasha gives someone harm reduction supplies and talks to them about things that have nothing do with drug use - because that drug use is just a small part of who that person is and what goes on in their life. I talk to a woman who is devastated by the overdoses in our community and feels powerless to do anything about it - and I train her to recognize an overdose and administer Naloxone. Our student makes mugs of hot chocolate and describes our services to people who aren't quite ready to talk to us about what's happening and who are still checking us out a bit.
There is no pity. This is the equivalent of seeing your neighbour shovelling a huge drift of snow from their driveway - and grabbing a shovel to go toss some snow around with them. We're not re-writing someone's story for them, we're levelling the playing field so that they have choices about how the next chapter goes.
It's better to get angry about the inequality and inequity - and try to figure out how to level the playing field instead of just accepting the way things are. We can't change the system over night, but we can make accessing services a bit easier with each passing week. Anger is far better than pity.
We are hearing more stories with each passing week and it means people are trusting us to hold those stories. They recognize that we're not there to judge what's happened in the past or what's happening now. It is a huge privilege that we take very, very seriously.
For everyone who has donated to The Van, or who has sent us encouragement during our launch, I wish I could explain just how much it has already helped. In the coming months, we're hoping we can share more - with the consent of the people in our community - but for now you'll have to take my word for it. The entire Sanguen Health Centre team is SO grateful that you're a part of this with us.

There was a wonderful article written about The Van this week - you can check it out here:…/2016/02/04/driving-with-the-d…/
heart emoticon
If you'd like to donate online, you can do that here -

And if you're like to donate specific items, our wishlist is here -…/1kL_Sbm01-kjmCuBny2cQ1Jo8hJg…/pub… as a PDF file