Monthly Archives: May 2007

Conrad Black, finally

I haven’t written much about the Conrad Black fraud trial in Chicago, for a good reason.  I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about Lord Tubby of Crossharbour being dragged into court.  The bones of the story are uncomplicated, unlike Conrad Black.  The deal is, stock holders are pissed that Black and his management team led what could be characterized as a lavish lifestyle, on the stockholder’s dime.  There are allegations of very lucrative non-compete payments and other accounting shenanigans that are also on the table. 

So far, Conrad himself has not testified and you shouldn’t read anything into that.  Discretion is sometimes the better part of Valor when it comes to Justice, especially in a US courtroom with a jury of middle-class folks hearing testimony from a learned, one-time, British Peer.  Black is so erudite in his common speech that even smart people have to reach for the dictionary listening to him talk. 

What would this mean to a typical US juror?  Black might as well be speaking Portuguese dockworker slang to them, so it is in the best interests of Conrad Black, for Conrad Black to not talk.

By way of disclosure, I used to work for a company owned by Conrad Black (Standard Broadcasting/CJOH-TV) and I have actually met the man and shaken his paw.  End of Disclosure.

Back in the Day, among the many companies that Argus, or Hollinger-Argus, or any of the other several hundreds of companies that Conrad Black owns, or controls, was a little joint called Dominion Stores.  The US translation would be Safeway, or Kroger’s.  In 1986 Conrad decided that the pension plans at Dominion Stores were making too much money. 

This was also true at Standard Broadcasting.  So, Conrad decided that the excess money, or overfunded liability of the pension plans, were his to do with as he so saw fit.  Through some backchannel knowledge of a couple of the players involved in the running of the Standard Broadcasting Pension Plan, the pension was overfunded to the tune of $22 million. Conrad Black scooped that up right promptly.  His Dominion Stores Pension draining netted significantly more:  $62 million.  The Dominion Stores union sued for return of the money.  After taking it all the way to the Supreme Court, Black was ordered to give it back. 

At one time Conrad Black owned some of the larges newspapers in the world, about 400 of them, and was a full-tilt Baron Black of Crossharbour, having renounced his Canadian citizenship to gather that ermine-cloaked honour.

Fast forward to March 17th of this year and Conrad Black is in court up on a stack of charges, including criminal fraud, racketeering, obstruction of justice, money laundering and wire fraud.  To say that Conrad Black is in trouble, is up to the court to decide.

Perhaps the most important part of the whole Conrad Black saga, is that he treated the stockholders like "little people" who were not to intrude upon his grandeur.  I know from his past record he treated employees like "little people" or pond scum, depending on his whims of the moment.  His intellect, such as it is, consists of using a thesaurus and posing as a Great Thinker.  The word that comes most readily to mind is bloviator. 

The other one is no noblesse oblige.  There is a responsibility of those of high birth or positions of power to act with honour, kindliness and generosity.  Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate of the 1920’s, besides being wealthier than the dreams of avarice, also funded several hundred public libraries and foundations to carry on works for the good of all.  That would be an example of noblesse oblige.  The Prince of Wales’ Trust would be another. 

President Jo Jo The Idiot Boy is an equivalent of having all kinds of noblesse, but absolutely no oblige, right up there with Conrad Black. 

A great man being brought low?  That’s up to the jury.  I merely would like to see him sentenced to 15 years working at Wal-Mart as a greeter, having to live on minimum wage in a three-floor walkup in a disreputable part of Hamilton. 

Or, used as a golf target at a driving range.  Either or.  I’m not fussy.



Shame on Us (Slightly Misleading)

There are many good things about Canada, but there are a few things that make me feel ashamed.  I’m going to explain the history of a very shameful period of Canada.

About 170 years ago the government decided to take away the land and rights of Mormons across Canada.  Many of the Mormons were forcibly resettled to live in what they euphemistically called Mormon Reserved Areas in ghastly housing.  Fast forward to today.  The Mormons have been trying for years to get the Federal Government to redress their claims. 

Each time a new government comes in they promise to "do something about the Mormon Question", which means the government is going to fire up another Royal Commission who will study the obvious and recommend another Royal Commission. 

Even the Mormon Reserved Areas are being taken away, or some are being used for waste dumps, or having the logging and mineral rights sold by the Government, without the permission of the Mormons.  Health care on the Mormon Reserved Areas is, at best, third-world.  The cancer and chronic disease rates in Mormon Reserved Areas are several times that of the rest of Canada.  Mormons have to carry an ID card, called a Mormon Status Card.

If the Mormons complain, which they have for years, the government points to a dictated process whereby the Government is Judge, Jury and Prosecutor, as well as the appeals body.  If the Mormons ever got close to proving their case, which they have on hundreds of occasions, the government changes the rules. 

Needless to say the Mormons are so deeply annoyed that on occasion they have blockaded roads or railways and even gone toe to toe with the cops.  Imagine that, Mormons, essentially peaceable people, being shot and clubbed by the Provincial Police?  Well, 170 years of being screwed over daily will tend to do that to you.  Even the United Nations have said that the Mormons have been screwed over.

I bet you’re really outraged that the Canadian Government would screw over a religious group that way, aren’t you?  I mean this is almost as bad as the Third Reich’s Final Solution, but without the crematoriums.

Do me a favour and re-read the first six paragraphs and substitute the word "Indian", "Aboriginal" or "First Nations" for "Mormon"  I’ll wait.

Now, how do you feel?  If you feel really dirty, then welcome to the club.  I’ve conned you and I’ve done it on purpose.  Our various governments in Canada have screwed the aboriginal people about every way that you can imagine, as well as some you can’t even fathom, in a vaguely democratic country.

Assembly of First Nations Chief, Phil Fontaine is calling for a National Day of Action on June 29th, 2007 and I have some ideas for the AFN, so bear with me. 

Up front, I don’t like the idea of breaking the law, but I am a firm believer in leaning up against it on occasion, or using it to gain an advantage.  So nothing I’m going to propose will be illegal.

First off, blockading rail lines is illegal and you can be charged and sued, as the Mohawk in Desoronto have found out.  Some folks blockaded the main rail line that runs through their reserve for a day or two and CN Rail is suing the perpetrators for a couple of million.

So, don’t blockade the rail lines.  But it is vitally important that a safety deficiency or safety issue be reported, promptly, after all, we all know that rail safety is very important.  Who knows, there might be a child playing near the tracks.  Or a truck that has broken down near a crossing.  If I was CN, I’d want to know about it, since any safety problems are important aren’t they?  I think it is important that the local police are also told, as soon as possible, as often as possible, after all, safety is everyone’s business.

There is a big six lane highway in this province called the 401.  It has a minimum speed limit of 80 kph and a maximum of 100 kph.  I don’t know about you, but studies have shown that your likelihood of dying in a car crash increases incredibly from 80 to 100 kph.  I think if a couple of hundred folks, in their cars and trucks decided that the minimum speed is a safe and prudent speed, then that is important to the well-being of all Canadians.  Don’t you? 

Please be sure to erect signs along the side of the 401, going east and west, explaining that your group is being prudent and safe.  It might take several dozen of you, traveling at the minimum, side by side, but I can be reasonably certain that traffic will back up from Montreal to Windsor.  Oh, and with the signs?  Be sure to start asking for permits now.  For every sign, one permit and application.  Or, ask various landowners along the route for permission to erect each sign on their lands.  If some of those signs, a few anyway, mention the real reason you’re being prudent, well, that’s a good thing. 

As for the politicians, I think phone calls are important, as well as postcards and letters.  Surface mail sent to your Parliamentary representative does not require postage.  I know that photocopiers can turn out hundreds of copies in just a few minutes.  I’m certain that there are mailboxes nearby where you live and they might have a fixed capacity, based on size.  If a mailbox is filled up with legal, legitimate correspondence to your elected representative isn’t it your duty and responsibility as a good second-class citizen of Canada, to let Canada Post know that their mailbox is full?  I think so.  Perhaps a phone call and then a postcard.

Now, there is the question of being environmentally friendly.  Ontario has a policy of giving people a refund on empties.  As far as I can tell, there is no minimum, just one is enough.  There are 24 bottles or cans in a case.  That would be 24 people returning a single empty to a designated outlet and asking for a receipt, of course.  If that happens to cause lines to form around the block, well, I think it would be a jolly nice time to hand out a flyer or two, on public property, explaining exactly why there are so many people returning one empty. 

After all, its all about the environment isn’t it?  Do make sure that you obtain any permits you might need to hand out literature in your particular jurisdiction.  One permit application per person.  Start now.

Then there is the whole street theatre side of things.  My favourite is a clown nose.  That’s right, a red rubber or plastic clown nose.  There is no law that I’m aware of that says you can’t wear one.  I think there is a certain whimsical joy in a clown nose, especially if you are dealing with a bunch of clowns in government.  Why not make a statement by wearing a clown nose on June 29th?  It is non-threatening and, if you have to, have a one-page note to explain to others why you are wearing a clown nose, then offer them their own clown nose too. 

Incidentally, as far as I can tell, there is no law that says 500 people wearing clown noses can’t stand on a street corner, or go on the bus or subway, en masse.  It might slow things down a lot, if everyone paid with dimes and made sure they counted each dime out for the ticket taker, but, after all, you don’t want to cheat the system.  Of course not.  That would be wrong.

Just as wrong as sending Mormons to Reserve Areas.  Right?



Air India Enquiry

Air India Flight 182 was a 747 flight that was blown out of the sky June 23, 1985, killing all 329 people on board, many of them Canadian citizens.  As time progressed, it was determined that a bomb on board had gone off, blowing the aircraft to pieces.

Air India 182 was, until the 9-11 slaughter, the largest terrorist act involving aircraft in the world.  The reasons for the bombing?  Depending on who you talk to,  it was Sikh extremism, demanding a homeland called Khalistan in the Punjab region of India.  Let’s just call it religious intolerance and extremism, as the whole Sikh rights, Indian rights and religious follies of India are incomprehensible to Western brains at the best of times.

Since the flight started in Canada, the Canadian Aviation Safety Board was involved from moment one.  There were arrests, then trials and in March 2005, a not guilty on all counts which sent many eyebrows straight up in the air.

The judge, Justice Ian Josephson said, "I began by describing the horrific nature of these cruel acts of terrorism, acts which cry out for justice. Justice is not achieved, however, if persons are convicted on anything less than the requisite standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite what appear to have been the best and most earnest of efforts by the police and the Crown, the evidence has fallen markedly short of that standard"

With the formal trials over, the Federal Government could now investigate exactly what went wrong in the investigation.  The list is reading like the Three Stooges in an airport.  There was no positive bag match of passengers with luggage.  Air India had received numerous threats against their aircraft, not just in Canada, but around the world.  Bomb detection equipment was either not working, or couldn’t detect a sample of gunpowder when the sniffer head was put right on the sample.  Police bomb dogs were called but the flight was released to fly before the dog and handler could get to the airport. There was economic pressures from the airline to get back on schedule.

To add to the muddle, it has finally come out that the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (we call them Spies Canada) had solid evidence that something serious was up but either didn’t, or didn’t care enough to act upon the evidence to lock down Air India 182.  Wiretaps were erased, documents disappeared and now, 22 years after the event, memories are shaky.

We have to be careful that we don’t look at the whole sequence with our post 9-11 eyes, as that is Monday Morning Quarterbacking of the least useful type.  However, it looks very bad for the RCMP and CSIS.  CSIS had an explicit warning that something bad was planned for that week in June, involving an Air India flight from Canada.  Air India asked for extra coverage, but still let their aircraft fly without following protocols.  The RCMP didn’t act on what looks like a solid intelligence lead.

The families of the victims have been pushing for a formal, comprehensive investigation since June 1985 and each time there has been a reason or two why the investigation can’t go ahead.  First it was before the courts, then it was internally investigated, then it was before a Crown Enquiry.  Nobody could comment, or release the information, as other group took precedence.  This is called ‘pass the buck’ in bureaucratese.  As well, some of the information and sources of information are listed as secret, so they can’t be questioned in open court.

What we can tell, even deducting fifty percent for the passage of time and a lot of groups having axes to either grind or hide, is that the RCMP, CSIS and Air India collectively botched it.

As a consequence, Air India Flight 182 became aluminum rain over the Atlantic, south of Ireland. Three hundred and twenty nine people lost their lives.   




Magna Not Buying Chrysler

The owners of Daimler Chrysler have decided to not sell it to Frank Stronach and Magna, instead the successful suitor is Cerberus Capital Management for $7.4 billion US.  Now, Frank Stronach is in very large trouble, or not. 

Magna, for those who don’t know it, is one of those anonymous companies that make subassemblies for auto companies.  For example, Chrysler doesn’t make seats.  There is no seat upholstery department at Chrysler and hasn’t been for decades.  It is cheaper for an automaker to job it out to another company to make that component. 

Remember "Body By Fisher" on GM products?  Fisher Body started out in the late 1800’s in Ohio, building horse-drawn carriage bodies, then auto bodies when they moved to Detroit in 1904.  GM recognized the special skills at Fisher and contracted Fisher for the bodies of the earliest Cadillac Osceolas and some Buick models. 

Magna, has expertise in things like seats, instrument panels, powertrain systems, mirrors, electronics, exterior trim and ‘closure systems’ which you and I would call door latches.  About 25% of Magna’s income comes from Daimler Chrysler.  Magna makes the components, then ships them Just In Time to the assembly line and they get installed in whatever product is being punched out that hour.

Frank Stronach wanted to buy Chrysler.  He wanted to buy it so much he reached out to a Russian Billionaire named Oleg Deripaska.  Deripaska bucked up to the tune of $1.54 Billion for more or less half of Magna.  Then, Chrysler was sold to Cerberus and the dream of owning one of Big Three went into the dumper for Frank.  Yes, Frank Stronach is Belinda Stronach’s dad. 

Not getting Chrysler is only part of the story.  Magna is changing their focus to the European market.  They already have big contracts with BMW, Porsche and VW, as well as an engineering development centre in Graz, Austria.  With a Russian partner, Magna will expand, but not in Canada, which will cost a lot of jobs. 

Following on, one can bet that Cerberus, now owning Chrysler, will gut as many jobs as they can possibly get away with.  Expect the Canadian Auto Workers union to howl mightily, as the majority of the jobs that will be canned will be good paying union jobs.  Regular people doing the real work at Chrysler will be out on their asses.  Expect the pension and benefits for retired workers to be "refocused" or "streamlined", meaning, cut to nothing. 

But shed no tears for Frank Stronach not being the successfully buyer of Chrysler.  He gets a $150 Million dollar payday to his personal consulting firm, just for the sheer gratitude of doing the deal with Oleg Deripaska.  Plus stock dividends, the share price is up and so on. 

Cerberus Capital gets the smallest of the Big Three and Daimler gets rid of a company they had no idea how to run.  Wall Street and Bay Street?  They’ll do fine, as the share price for both companies will dip, then spike as the gutting progresses and three guesses as to when Wall Street will sell off their interest in Chrysler?  Right at the peak. 

Chrysler will die a lingering death, but Cerberus will be fine,  Magna will be fine.  Frank and Oleg will be fine.  The only ones who are going to hurt are the thousands of employees who will have a pocket full of nothing to show for 25 or 30 years of work. 




If God ran a Deli

Those who know me, know that I can eat and prefer to eat well.  Although I used to weigh 300 pounds and have radically renovated my diet, I still like a good feed.  There was one notable occasion at a Brazilian restaurant in Dallas, where two of us essentially lapsed into a food coma with the meat sweats but wouldn’t stop eating.  Or a place in Indianapolis that had ribs on special.  Five racks later we rolled out like two Michelin Men covered in sauce. 

Let us just say, I don’t do that anymore, but I could hold my own, thanks.  I do like good food. 

Smoked Meat is a delicacy of extraordinary proportion.  Take a beef brisket, rub a secret mix of peppercorns, salt, bay leaves and other spices into the brisket.  Let it sit for X number of days.  Brine the brisket in another secret recipe for a certain period of time, then steam it for four hours.  Slice against the grain, with a little fat, then a little lean.  Serve on a plate, with light rye bread, some mustard and a Coke.

What most people call "Smoked Meat" or "Corned Beef Brisket" is perfectly acceptable with one very specific caveat.  Schwartz’s in Montreal. 

Charcuterie Herbraique de Montreal Inc.  Chez Schwartz Chez, at 3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Montreal.  There is only one.  World Famous, since 1928.  Or if you prefer to look for yourself.

If you have ever eaten there, then you have been to the Vatican of Smoked Meat.  If God ran a deli, then this is what He would make.  Instead of instructing his Son to do the Loaves and Fishes, he’d be yelling at him not to make it too lean.  

I’ve been to the Carnegie Deli in New York.  It is good smoked meat, but it isn’t near the quality of Schwartz’s.  I’ve been to Dunn’s,  Nope.  Ben’s?  Not even close and now closed.  Coorsh?  Drek.  Lester’s?  Double Drek. 

Schwartz’s is now, has always been and always will be, the ne plus ultra of Smoked Meat.  The list of Who’s Who who have eaten there starts at Jerry Lewis, the Rolling Stones, Nana Mouskouri, Hank Aaron and Tim Allen.  And me:  I’m in Who’s Not. 

The taste is that indefinable combination of spices, salt, peppercorns, smoke, steam, excellent beef and hot fat.  It is perfectly balanced to the palate.  A sandwich usually contains about a pound or so, hand sliced for each order.  There is the perfect mix of crumbly pink lean meat that flakes into strands if you look at it too long.  There is the exactly right mix of beef fat, source of all good flavor. 

A sandwich is probably around 11,000 calories and a half-pound of bad cholesterol.  You don’t have one every day, without having a cardiac surgeon on speed dial.  Schwartz’s is a treat to be savored once or twice a year. 

Today a very nice man, Mitch Garvis, brought me an eight pound whole, unsliced brisket from Schwartz’s.  I gladly gave him money in return, as Schwartz’s is not inexpensive, but extraordinary value for the money.  

After work I steamed a fist-sized hunk of it for three hours until the meat started to strand apart.  Then I sliced it as thin as I could and put it on a plate with some sliced light rye bread and French’s Mustard on the side.  I made a couple of sandwiches and ate them.

I am now sitting in front of my computer, with my pants belt undone, writing this and savoring the post-Schwartz’s Smoked Meat food stupor. 

It is one of life’s pleasures to have a smoked meat from Schwartz’s.  If you are ever in Montreal and hungry, go to Schwartz’s.  Stand in line for as long as it takes.  Get a Large Platter. Don’t order a lean, or you will be shunned.  Wear your Eatin’ Britches or Buffet Pants.  Eat.  Enjoy. 



Laugh, Cry, Hope and Perspective

In the previous post of Party Like It’s 1984! I detailed several of the things wrong with how our global society is going.  We haven’t done that well, if that is the only scorecard in play.  Depending on your personal state of chemical imbalance, you could fall into a cold, damp pit of darkest despair about humans.

Like most things, there are other sides to the story that do give you hope if you have the right eyes to look at it.  When the light is right and the planets line up properly, humans are stumbling along approximately forward. 

North Americans have a better life than 90 percent of the rest of the world.  Nobody shows up in our neighborhoods with machetes and starts killing everyone in sight because we’re Anglicans or aren’t the proper colour of white, brown, red, black or yellow.  We don’t have dignity battalions, death squads, guerrillas and rebels roaming the countryside near Toledo, Ohio terrorizing farmers and offering to slaughter whole extended families in exchange for political support. 

The vast majority of North Americans go to sleep with a roof over the heads and a full belly, reasonably certain they will wake up the next morning without a volcano, earthquake, monsoon or tsunami wiping them off the face of the Earth.  We have flush toilets and clean water that we don’t have to walk 11 miles through an unmarked minefield to obtain.  Our offspring can go to school and get an education that is at least adequate.

I have personally waved over a Washington DC cop and asked for assistance without fear of being shot, robbed, kidnapped, gang raped or disappeared.  The Fire Department will come if you have an emergency and not demand payment up front, in cash.  Ambulance service does not consist of a wheelbarrow and eleven well-meaning strangers who rob you, while taking you to a public toilet for medical care. 

Cars, trucks and pedestrians do not regularly explode on downtown streets, scattering nails, screws and body parts everywhere.

Our stores have food all the time, 24 hours a day.  The lights are on.  We can drive, fly or take the train just about anywhere our means, money and whims will let us.

The worst thing most of us in North America will face tomorrow is a snotty attitude from a barista at the coffee shop.  We’re damn lucky here.  We don’t appreciate it, but we are damn lucky.

This also explains why everyone else wants to come to North America:  To get the hell away from all that other madness.  Yes, we do have problems in North America, serious ones at that, but with a pittance of planetary perspective, we’re doing very well.

I think our biggest problem is we have forgotten how to be civilized to each other and find simple pleasures in uncomplicated things that are all around us.  Here’s some of the things I did or saw in the last few days and a suggestion or two.

I watched a beautiful sunrise this morning.  I sat here and watched it unfold for twenty minutes without answering email, reading the paper, or text messaging someone.     

The trees are budding furiously, waking up from winter.  I heard geese yesterday flying back north for the summer. 

Two evenings ago a family of new Canadians in the apartment building were struggling with the clutter of kids, groceries and strollers, while getting on the elevator.  I helped Mom with some bags and held the elevator for them.  She said thanks and I said you’re welcome.  It was a very simple act of helping another human.  It costs nothing, takes very little time and makes a small, imperceptible deposit in the bank of personal karma.

Wave someone into traffic in front of you, or let a pedestrian cross without trying to kill them.

If you must talk on your cellphone constantly, please lower your voice.  Nobody else wants to hear about Joanne’s yeast infection, thanks.

Spend some time looking out the window while on the bus, subway or streetcar.  See what other people are doing.  You might find they are just like you. 

Read something that will stretch your brain.  This does not include "People" or the "National Enquirer".

Take guilty pleasure in Paris Hilton getting 45 days in the L.A. County Jail.  You are allowed to laugh at others’ misfortunes, but try to laugh at your own foibles more often.

Answer a question with "I don’t know", then find out what you don’t know.  You’ll be amazed at the depth of your ignorance.  We know so little about so many things. 

Look a squirrel, bird or other animal square in the eye and say "Hello".  They’re just as confused as we are, except they cope with it better.

And, my personal favourite, from Warren Zevon, when he found out he had about six months left to live having been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer:

Enjoy every sandwich.

Will those suggestions or ideas make everything better overnight?  No, of course not.  However, a bit of civility, some laughter, a dash of gratitude and the occasional effort to improve will make our passage through the days a little less fraught. 

There is hope as long as we keep some perspective.