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Daily Life Can Be Insane – Venezuela

Posted April 11, 2014 by John Klein

When insanity becomes normal, we’ve adapted to the way things shouldn’t be, so we don’t spend all of our energy trying to fix systemic problems.

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Candidates for #Toronto Mayor

Posted April 8, 2014 by James Hamilton

The current Mayor of Toronto Rob Ford continues to fascinate North American talk shows.Former MP and Toronto Councillor Olivia Chow attracts a lot of media interest when she is out in publicCouncillor Karen Stintz, former TTC Chair2014 Candidate list a…

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Join The Crowd: Support Pom Pom – A Flightless Bully Tale

Posted April 8, 2014 by Arya M. Sharma, MD

This week, my daughter’s crowdsourcing campaign to fund her second children’s book Pom Pom – A Flightless Bully Tale (her first one was Our Canadian Lovestory) is in its final stages – only 5 days left to meet her funding goal (over 85% there). Please visit her site and join the “crowd” of 250 supporters […]

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MTV Canada’s Phoebe Dykstra

Posted March 26, 2014 by James Hamilton

TV personality @phoebedykstra was filming in the #Toronto @toEatonCentre today. The MTV News spot featured a little cloud so she might have been doing a weather forecast.Phoebe has a fascinating hairstyle – the side cut. One side of the head is bu…

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My Photo in Spanish National Geographic Traveler Magazine

Posted March 20, 2014 by Darren

Through some fluke of circumstance, one of my photos is in the Spanish edition of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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StatCan Reports Fewest Vacant Jobs on Record

Posted March 18, 2014 by Erin Weir

Statistics Canada reported today that there were only 199,700 vacant jobs in December 2013, the fewest recorded since it first reported these figures for March 2011. Statistics Canada began tracking job vacancies in response to claims of a labour shortage by governments and corporate Canada. But the number of vacancies falling below 200,000 casts further […]

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Free Trade

Did the US Take a Bite Out of Canada-Korea Trade?

Posted March 12, 2014 by Erin Weir

On last night’s The National, Terry Milewski introduced the Canada-Korea trade deal as follows: The truth is that Canada is a latecomer to free trade with South Korea. The European Union and the United States both got there first, and their free trade deals took a big bite out of Canada’s exports. So, the government […]

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If Peter Mansbridge or Jian Ghomeshi…

Posted February 19, 2014 by trashee

… were rabid cheerleaders against the oil sands or any other conservative darling, you can bet that there asses would be on the line! But Rex Murphy can exult in the virtues of the massive western projects all he wants and with impertinence without fear of reprisal. He can take money from the oil sand […]

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Economists Against Austerity

Posted February 11, 2014 by Erin Weir

UPDATE (Feb. 12): Carol Goar reports this statement on page A17 of today’s Toronto Star. To add your signature to it, please e-mail your name, title and institution to Mario Seccareccia at Statement by 70 Canadian Economists Against Austerity We, the undersigned, strongly urge the federal government to stop implementing fiscal austerity measures just to […]

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Canada’s Job Market: Slower, Lower, Weaker

Posted February 8, 2014 by Erin Weir

The following commentary on yesterday’s job numbers is quoted in today’s National Post (page FP4): The Olympic motto may be “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” but Canada’s employment growth is slower, lower and weaker going into the winter games. Of the 29,000 Canadians who supposedly gained employment in January, 28,000 reported being self-employed. Only 1,000 found jobs […]

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Fake facts also a renewable resource? (Extended article)

Posted January 30, 2014 by Erich Jacoby-Hawkins

Earlier I wrote of how some opinion columnists take advantage of looser fact-checking rules of the editorial pages to come up with their own facts, either misleading or outright wrong, to give their opinions more weight. I thought it might be useful to provide some actual examples of what I mean.

The first two both come from articles taking Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau to task for some ill-advised comments about green energy in China, which then went on to denigrate renewable energy programs in other countries.

One national columnist stated that China’s solar industry is “collapsing”, and cited the case of a single failed company to prove it. The other went off on a wider tangent about German coal, speaking of an “explosive resurgence” of coal-electricity leading to “skyrocketing” emissions.

What really happened in China was that too many companies sprang up to take advantage of high profits from generous subsidies aimed at jump-starting the solar industry. This created an oversupply of panels, leading prices to drop, and now many of those companies will fold. But that doesn’t mean the industry as a whole is going down the tubes – just that the weakest companies are being weeded out. Demand for new solar, in China and worldwide, remains strong, so companies that survive the shakeout will still have a market to thrive in. China will continue to lead the world’s growing solar industry for some time to come. To paint the failure of one company or a temporary supply-demand mismatch as the decline of an entire industry isn’t an opinion, it’s either ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation.

In the wake of the ongoing Fukushima disaster, Germany has turned away from nuclear power. It’s true that Germany’s use of coal to produce electricity has increased somewhat over the past few years, in particular going from around 161 billion tonnes lignite burned in 2012 to 162 billion in 2013! Skyrocketing? Exploding? Hardly. And this small increase over the past few years, from a low of 140 billion tonnes, is not primarily due to nuclear shut-downs, but a fuel switch because of rising prices for natural gas. The reduction in burning expensive natural gas has been much larger than the reduction of nuclear power, and far more than the increase in use of cheaper coal. Meanwhile, the much-derided German renewable energy market continues to expandin capacity and reliability, providing a decent replacement for lost nuclear.

The third example comes from a local columnist who boldly asserted that wind farms were creating rampant ghost towns in rural Ontario. Now, he is undoubtedly correct that parts of rural Ontario are depopulating, which makes it harder for each next person leaving to sell their home. But there is no evidence that this loss of property value or population has anything to do with wind energy. It’s been a long-term trend that I’ve observed all my life. Growing up in Shelburne, which was within 60-90 minutes of the GTA, I saw how rural communities to the south and east kept growing in population and prices, while those to the north and west shrank. This was long before anyone dreamed that farmland could gain a second use by generating valuable wind power.  Quite simply, rural living near urban jobs & amenities is prized, while rural living far from the bright city lights is a faint attraction. As people leave, local tax revenues drop, schools close, banks and other businesses leave, and the downward spiral continues. Wind farms actually counteract this trend, by putting more money into local pockets and bringing in good trades jobs for construction & maintenance.

When we look at the effect of wind power on property values, there are anecdotal accounts or unrepresentative case studies that show harm, but the major well-designed studies show there is little or no downward effect on land values as wind development arrives. As for the writer’s evidence, he didn’t provide any, and after it was pointed out to him that the population of his example “ghost town” was actually growing, admitted that all he’d done was talk to some friends and look at the info from some anti-wind organizations. All the real evidence shows that the decline in rural populations is a long-term trend related mainly to the loss of factory jobs and service cutbacks by cash-strapped municipalities and school boards, not wind farms. Even anti-wind sites acknowledge this chain of events.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with disagreeing with what a political party leader says or how a government acts, or presenting challenges with renewable energy, or supporting traditional alternatives like coal or nuclear, but backing those opinions with statements of fact that don’t actually state the facts is poor writing, at best. Either they haven’t bothered to do the basic research or don’t want to tell the truth. When you read something in the paper that’s presented as fact, you should be able to trust that it is indeed the fact, without having to do your own research only to find that wasn’t true.

But I’ll let you decide. Is making up facts to back opinions deliberately misleading, or merely lazy?

A shorter version of this was published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title “Making up facts to back opinions deliberately misleading“.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation
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PotashCorp Projects Low Royalties

Posted January 30, 2014 by Erin Weir

Today’s fourth-quarter report indicates that PotashCorp paid “provincial mining and other taxes” of $194 million on potash sales of $3 billion in 2013. In other words, Saskatchewan’s resource surcharge and potash production tax amounted to just 6.5% of the value of potash sold. Adding the basic Crown royalty (which PotashCorp includes in “cost of goods […]

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Dutch Disease, Prices and Wages in Saskatchewan

Posted January 26, 2014 by Erin Weir

Jim Stanford recently pointed out that many of the conservative economists who had defended the overvalued loonie have quickly shifted to applauding its depreciation. The Government of Saskatchewan may be making a similar conversion on the road to Damascus. When federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair expressed concern about Dutch disease, premier Brad Wall denied that […]

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Compare columns to find more subtle biases

Posted January 23, 2014 by Erich Jacoby-Hawkins

Last week I listed ways to watch for bias or misinformation in opinion articles. This week I discuss a more subtle bias that shows itself, not in a single column or article, but when many are compared together.

Government is always a popular target of editorial criticism. And that’s a good thing; holding government to account is a key role of news media in a democracy. The right wing, due to small-government values, is more apt to be critical. But they also support their own side of the political spectrum in government, and that’s where the bias creeps in.

Three main targets of criticism are the governments of Canada, Ontario, and Toronto. Of those, the federal government has been led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper for 8 years, with Ontario under more left-leaning (but really, centrist) Liberal premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne for a decade. In that same period, Toronto had a left-leaning mayor, David Miller, then a very right-leaning one, Rob Ford. It’s interesting to see how a stable of writers criticize those governments differently based on where their targets fall on the left-right spectrum.

When these writers discuss Ontario’s problems, fault is tied directly to the premier (McGuinty or Wynne) or a named cabinet minister. It would seem that whenever something goes wrong in Ontario, whether if the screwup occurred at Queen’s Park or in a Crown corporation or the OPP or even an entirely separate organization providing services to government (like ORNGE’s flying ambulances), it is the personal failing of our Liberal premier. A similar pattern was the case in Toronto under Mayor Miller.

Yet when the federal government screws up, right-leaning columnists seem loath to name or blame the captain at the helm, with whose politics they sympathize. Instead, blame falls on “the government” or “Ottawa,” a specific department or agency, or a particular named, but non-elected public servant. Rarely is it acknowledged that after 8 years of government, the Conservatives really should be considered responsible for actions under their watch.

Is it wrong to blame Ontario’s premier when things go wrong? Not always. Things such as E-Health should be top-level files the premier or front bench MPPs oversee directly. They must own those failures. However, with a hundred-billion-dollar budget, Ontario’s government is a huge and complex beast; it’s not fair to lay every frontline failing at the feet of the head honcho.

Bias reveals itself in the inconsistency. If everything that goes wrong in Ontario is the Liberals’ fault, then certainly every failing or misdeed at the federal level is the Conservatives’ fault. Likewise, it makes no sense to credit Rob Ford for every improvement in Toronto during his tenure but not blame him for anything that goes wrong, having done precisely the opposite with David Miller. Either leadership matters or it doesn’t; either elected leaders wear both credit AND blame, or neither.

It’s hypocrisy of the worst kind to give one level of politicians a free ride, and another level a whipping, for the same kind of screw-ups, based solely on which political flag they wave. If you’re going to call it like it is, call it fairly on all sides.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as “Elected leaders must wear both credit and blame“.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.
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Beware: opinion pages can be loose with the facts

Posted January 16, 2014 by Erich Jacoby-Hawkins

In the Information Age, it’s more important than ever to protect yourself from misinformation and find reliable sources. This week, some tips on reading editorial pages.

National and local newspapers present both news and opinion. In the ideal journalistic model, these functions are separated. Today, however, there are some disturbing crossovers, and unaware readers may find their information isn’t as solid as they might like.

Traditionally the news sections reported facts, while the editorial pages presented interpretations and opinions about those facts. News reporting even uses “fact-checkers”, in major papers at least, to confirm facts, figures, quotes and statements before publication. I don’t think local papers go to quite the same lengths, but at least if you notify them of an error, they will print a correction or retraction, sometimes even years later.

Once, an intern writing an election night story for the Examiner reported erroneously that I was “between jobs”, which I wasn’t. (It was an understandable mistake, as the two main campaign managers were actually between jobs). By the time I noticed it and called the paper, the intern had already moved on, so I didn’t make a big fuss about it (although someone else did, years later). But if I had insisted, I’m sure they would have corrected this error.

But editorial pages don’t have fact-checkers. Opinions are subjective, so they needn’t be verified, merely stated. Which would be fine, except a lot of “opinion” columnists seem to state as fact things that simply aren’t true, to back up opinions they are expressing. But the papers refuse to police this, so columnists are free to keep on misrepresenting the truth to suit their bias, without check, correction, or retraction. (A similar situation appears at some TV news networks.) This is a serious failing; as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not his own facts.”

So how are you, the reader, to determine if a columnist is presenting reality or spin? Here are some clues. If a column is based entirely on a single report, study, or article, then you should at least find and read the original to see if the columnist is reporting fairly, or if it comes from a credible source. Often, you will find they are misrepresenting what they are attacking, or praising something that was biased in the first place.

A column’s factual basis rests on stronger footing if the writer cites multiple, independent and identifiable sources. Again, it doesn’t hurt to look them up, using basic internet skills. But the best columnists, the ones who base their writing on objective facts, go one step further. They either provide hyperlinks in the online version of their articles, as I do, or include footnotes giving title & author of each supporting document, like respected British columnist George Monbiot. That way you need not guess what reports they are citing, you can go straight to the source. A sincere columnist will also respond to online comments pointing out an error or omission by posting a correction or more supporting information.

On the other hand, a big red flag is when a writer avoids identifiable sources, then attributes contrary opinions or patently erroneous statementsto private comments from “friends” who remain conveniently unnamed (and probably non-existent). After all, who can ridicule someone in print and still call them a friend? With friends like that…

In part 2 of this series, I’ll show how to spot deeper bias by noticing the variation in how the same editorial staff report on different governments, depending on where they fall on the political spectrum.

Published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as “Trying to find the truth behind all those opinions”, “Weighing all those opinions” and “Finding truth among the opinions
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation
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Why don’t we care where image macros and GIFs come from?

Posted January 6, 2014 by Darren

Animated GIFs and image macros are more popular than ever. And yet we almost never know who created these ubiquitous images.

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Classy Move Kickstarter

Posted June 19, 2013 by Debra

April Reign

Following Facebook’s example of giving sexist, abusive douchebags a free pass, Kickstarter is refusing to take down Redditor Ken Hoinsky’s dating advice book. Above the Game: A Guide to Getting Awesome With Women, includes such gentlemanly dating advice as “grab her hand and put it right on your dick.” Another excerpt posted on Reddit suggests […]

April Reign – In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.

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Your $60 million media monitoring programme

Posted May 9, 2013 by Nancy Leblanc

Note: This blog post below was written on March 9th but not published. Given this news of the past day, “Harper Government Spends Millions Monitoring Press Of Own MPs,” thought it would be useful additional context. Also, note to self: Listen more inte…

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