Sunday, April 29, 2007

State of Fear

By Michael Crichton.

At first I was somewhat put off by the online reviews which ranged from “a several hundred page rant” to “worst book I have read in a long time” to “it rivals and surpasses Gore's inane rant in its true science and rebuttal”, but given the storyline it’s not surprising there are strong emotions expressed in the reviews. In the end I decided to give it a shot.

Regardless whether you are a climate change believer or not, if you can put aside your own perspectives on the science and read it simply as a piece of fiction, then it’s classic Crichton with lots of twists and turns, life-threatening situations and improbable escapes, and the good guys winning in the end. It delivers what a Crichton reader has come to expect – both good and bad.

That’s not to say there’s no validity to Crichton’s underlying message. If nothing else, it should get the reader thinking about what we know for a fact versus what we know because we’ve been told it so many times by the media, by various celebrities (hence the reference in one review to Al Gore), by our political masters, and by some (most? many?) scientists about the nature of the current environmental crisis. Whether the earth is in crisis or not, and the extent to which such a crisis will affect mankind’s future, is something that few of us have the knowledge or skills to be able to make our own determination of fact, so we have come to rely on the environmental movement to educate and inform us. But keep in mind that they have a vested interest in maintaining a state of fear among the population – that’s what drives their government funding and charitable contributions and in fact, keeps many of them employed. So the message is to not simply take everything at face value but to question, question, and question some more. That’s not to say they are wrong, but keeping them honest is the only way we will ever get to the truth and be able to take whatever steps are required to manage our precious earth for generations to come.

Bottom line: If you’re a Crichton fan, you could do a lot worse for a good summer read, just don’t take the science too seriously as Crichton also has a vested interest.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things

By Gary Geddes.

This book had such great promise that it was with deep disappointment that I abandoned it half way through – an extremely rare occurrence for me.

The premise is that Canadian author Gary Geddes follows in the footsteps of a 5th century Afghan monk who fled Kabul to China, and who, according to legend, actually sailed to North America and back to China 1,000 years before Columbus. It sounds like a great adventure story, and it should be, but the telling of it left me absolutely indifferent. I felt no sense of empathy towards Huishen and what he might have experienced all those centuries ago, and Geddes’ own experiences were recorded in such a superficial and rapid-fire manner (I was here, and then I went there, and then I did this …..) that I was never engaged enough to care.

It was like your Uncle Albert and Aunt Ida showing you the pictures from their whirlwind, 14-countries-in-7-days vacation trip to Europe - a series of snapshots with little in the way of connection other than the obvious time line, no tension and no drama. In a word, boring.

Life’s too short to spend it reading uninteresting books – give this one a pass, unless you enjoy Uncle Albert’s slide shows.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Time To Say Goodbye

By Reed Scowen

When I started reading this book I was immediately impressed with how well it resonated with me – a Quebecer born and raised, who experienced the sometimes violent separatist activities of the 60’s and 70’s and the less violent but no less damaging separation threats of today. If you only read one book about Quebec’s relationship with the rest of Canada (ROC), this is the one. Written by a bilingual English Quebecer from the Eastern Townships who was for many years a member of Quebec's Legislative Assembly, Time to Say Goodbye is clear, concise and sometimes even funny. (When discussing Quebec’s requirement for English signage to be in a smaller font than the French equivalent, Scowen says: “It has not been proven that the English of Quebec have better eyesight than the French.”)

The basic premise of Time to Say Goodbye is that after years of talk about Quebec’s secession, massive infusions of cash into Quebec provincial coffers and Quebec-based businesses, enforced bilingualism throughout the federal civil service (and some provincial civil services), political concessions to meet Quebec’s aspirations as an international player in its own right, French immersion training in virtually all of Canada’s English-speaking schools, etc., etc., etc., we are no closer now than we ever were to satisfying the political elite, the academics and the majority of the population of Quebec. In what is perhaps the best quote in the book, Scowen says: “It’s time for the rest of us to understand and accept that Quebec has already left Canada. Their name still appears on the door and they send somebody around regularly to pick up a cheque. But they don’t live here any more.”

Scowen discusses the fundamental differences between Quebec’s perspective and the views in the ROC to illustrate how the two solitudes will never be able to come to a stable, long-lasting understanding. While we will never see or hear debate at this level, he claims that being a Quebecer (as defined by Quebecers) means being Quebec born and bred and living exclusively in the French language – anything beyond that is superfluous – whereas being a Canadian means being part of a broader, tolerant, multilingual, multi-cultural, and safe society. Certainly Quebecers want many of those things too, but only in a French context. In other words, language trumps all else in matters related to Quebec while language is virtually of no import whatsoever in the ROC.

So our response has been to encourage (or legislate) bilingualism across the country in the hope that Canada will become fluently bilingual and ergo, the problem will be solved. This will never work simply because it completely ignores the fact that Canadians outside Quebec have no incentive to become bilingual other than to appease Quebec or compete for a federal government job. There is no equivalence in the relative importance of the two languages – Scowen uses the example of an Airbus and a taxi as both being transportation, but certainly not equivalent – so there is no economic or other reason for Canadians in the ROC to learn and use what is, in effect, a dying language.

He obviously goes into much more detail on these points, supporting many of his arguments with hard statistics, personal experience, and anecdotal evidence, but the bottom line is that regardless of how debilitating the relationship is (on both sides) Quebec will remain part of Canada “… as long as the rest of the country provides them with an appetizing buffet and an open bar”.

If he's correct (and I believe he is), it's now time for Canada to close the bar and pack up the buffet. The sun will still come up tomorrow, except that it will now signal the dawn of a new and brighter future for both Canada and Quebec. Au revoir. Bonne chance.