Monthly Archives: June 2008

The happy union of capitalism and technology

It’s right there on the receipt. I just bought an 8 gig memory stick for 29 bucks. Makes you nostalgic for the good new days of unbridled capitalism, doesn’t it?

It even makes me feel a bit sorry for kids today. What sort of hard-luck stories will they be able to tell when they’re old? “When I was a boy a terabyte of memory cost a whole dollar!” “Ah shaddap gramps, I gotta exabyte implanted right in my brain for a nickel last week.” Whereas I remember the first time a colleague, whose research involved a significant database, got a one gigabyte hard drive. We literally trooped into her office to gawp at it. This Tuesday on a whim I threw two one-gigabyte USB sticks into the cart for $6.99. OK, $6.99 each, plus tax. Still not 20 bucks total.

Ten years ago I wrote about the technological miracle that every computer I ever bought cost roughly $2,000 despite huge increases in computing power. It turns out those were, in that sense, the bad old days. This week I went on what would once have been an electronics spending spree, helping someone choose both a laptop and a desktop far more powerful than they could ever use, for just $1400. Combined.

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The thin gruel of politics

George Smitherman has again failed to produce his promised glorious 10-Year Plan for saving health care in Ontario. It’s like sitting in a fancy restaurant with a mouth-watering menu and great prices but whatever you order you invariably get a long delay and a bunch of excuses — and then they chuck deep-fried leftovers on your plate and charge you double. While you can change waiters and cooks once every four years, it seems you can never leave.

In a speech to the Cato Institute this spring, P.J. O’Rourke explained that while he actually knows and likes many politicians, “The problem isn’t the cook. The problem is the cookbook. The key ingredient of politics is the idea that all of society’s ills can be cured politically. It’s like a cookbook where the recipe for everything is to fry it. The fruit cocktail is fried. The soup is fried. The salad is fried. So is the ice cream and cake. And your pinot noir is rolled in breadcrumbs and dunked in the deep fat fryer.”

Because government is force, it can do the things that need to be done through force, often very effectively: fight crime, beat Hitler, make people pay taxes — just as a fast-food restaurant can often make a great burger and fries when that’s what you want. Unfortunately at Chez Gouvernement, where they don’t just insist on frying everything including the ice cream but they promise they can also bake, roast, sautée and serve raw, you don’t simply get an unhealthy diet, you get deceived.

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Sorry doesn’t change the facts

It is too easy to apologize for history. Sometimes it is necessary. But “sorry” doesn’t make the past go away or let us substitute our imaginings for fact.

The first problem with historical apologies is that they are about what someone else did. Pride can easily masquerade as humility when we make an elaborate show of repenting other people’s sins. Tony Blair was singularly fond of smarmy “apologies” whose main purpose seemed to be not to fix historical wrongs but to admire himself in Clio’s mirror for being so much better than people in the dark pre-New-Labour days. It is a dubious proposition and in any case was not for him to say. A second, related hazard is that such apologies are generally driven by the exigencies of the present, which creates a strong temptation to twist the past for political reasons.

These hazards cannot be avoided by refusing to make such apologies. Corporate entities inherit the glories and disgraces of their past. And if amends have not been made for the latter, it is a moral duty of those now in office to state that they were wrong, express regret and contrition on behalf of the organization and try to set things right insofar as possible.

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The banality of spin

One problem with living in Ottawa is that if you go away you might miss something important. Especially these days.

By “important” I don’t just mean so awful it’s also funny. The word usually carries a quite different meaning here. And I can prove it.

You see, one of the peculiar pleasures of my job is to be inundated with press releases that routinely plumb new depths of banality, hypocrisy and vanity, often simultaneously. Like one from Foreign Affairs on May 20 that said “Minister Bernier Concludes Successful Visit to Croatia”.

At the time I wondered what it would take for them to categorize a visit as unsuccessful. Would he have to fall down the steps of the plane, call publicly for the resignation of a senior official, dispatch planes we didn’t have or show up with a “spouse” to whom he isn’t married who’d forgotten her shirt? Obviously it has since become clear that when it comes to foreign ministers the bar had been dramatically lowered, raised or otherwise placed somewhere unexpected. But let us not dwell on spilled confidential documents. My topic is important things in Ottawa and you cannot imagine how many of them there are unless you, too, get these press releases.

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