Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Seo muc

: A domestic pig on an organic farm in Solothurn, Switzerland.

Seo muc. (Photo by Joshua Lutz, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The title of this item is Scots Gaelic for “This is a pig,” a phrase I just learned via a language app on my phone.

I have always wanted to learn Gaelic and this just might be my ticket — I am a ridiculously competitive person and this app lets me earn points by completing lessons and answering questions correctly. (I’m not sure what the points are good for, but I’m hoping a 2L bottle of Irn Bru.)

The course is provided by a company called Duolingo which released it on St. Andrew’s Day — eight months ahead of schedule — to 20,000 expectant, pre-registered learners.

According to the BBC:

Volunteers who worked on the Gaelic course included an Oban primary school teacher and a student from Benbecula.

Much of the voice work was provided by Iagan MacAonghais, “secondary school teacher from Eriskay.” Another contributor, Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh, told the BBC the Gaelic team had set a Duolingo company record for getting a course up and running (Duolingo offers 91 courses in 30 languages) and expressed the hope that users would go on to use “other resources that are out there.”

Such resources include the Learn Gaelic website and eventually (as in, within the next 30 years), the first comprehensive Gaelic dictionary, which is now in development.

Learning to say “This is a pig” constitutes a significant expansion of my Gaelic vocabulary and I accomplished that in about five minutes this morning, so my future as a Gaelic speaker is clearly bright.


Don’t Mention HK

I have been watching events unfolding in Hong Kong with amazement (and trepidation) since June, when this latest wave of protests — over a proposed extradition agreement between the autonomous region and mainland China — began. Writer and activist Au Loong Yu explained the fear driving the protests this way:

Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement [in place since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997], Article 8 of the Basic Law stipulates that “the laws previously in force in Hong Kong . . . shall be maintained,” which means that Hong Kong is insulated from China’s legal system. Hong Kong, as a special region of China, does not have the necessary power and strength to resist the Chinese central government’s legal persecution if Hong Kong’s legal system is not insulated. China is not only disdainful of basic due process but also of judicial independence. An extradition agreement between China and Hong Kong necessarily undermines “one country, two systems.”

“Basic due process” and “judicial independence” are the sort of democratic values we were supposed to be transmitting, as though by osmosis, to China’s communist government simply by virtue of doing business with it. Instead, China has successfully adopted capitalism without democracy and if there’s been any transmission of values, I would argue it’s been from China to the West. (Case in point: the NBA shutting down a general manager who dared to voice support for the Hong Kong protesters.)

Hong Kong protests June 2019

Protesters demand Hong Kong’s leaders step down. 16 June 2019. (Source: VOA)

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil made his eighth trip to China in November, making “no apologies” for continuing to promote Sino-Nova Scotia trade despite a crackdown on Hong Kong protesters and the ongoing detention of two Canadians.

And now George Karaphillis, dean of the Shannon School of Business (which is not, I fully acknowledge, the Shannon School of Democracy) has taken to the pages of the Cape Breton Post to report on his own recent visit to China, during which the “blue sky,” “clean air” and “livable pace” of Shanghai so dazzled him he failed to notice what was happening in the nearby autonomous region of Hong Kong, about which he says not a word.

Instead, Karaphillis praises China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi Jinping’s worldwide infrastructure offensive that has won $340 billion in construction contracts for Chinese companies (usually, according to the Guardian, at the expense of local contractors in “partner countries”) and has caused governments “from Malaysia to Pakistan” to rethink the costs of the projects:

Sri Lanka, where the government leased a port to a Chinese company for 99 years after struggling to make repayments, is a cautionary tale.

Earlier this year, the Center for Global Development found eight more Belt and Road countries at serious risk of not being able to repay their loans.

The affected nations – Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan and Tajikistan – are among the poorest in their respective regions and will owe more than half of all their foreign debt to China.

None of this fazes Karaphillis, who warns:

The next century will be an Asian century and we better get on board fast: foreign policy, visa policy, and trade agreements must work together.

“Foreign policy,” as in, we better not be supporting the pro-democracy protesters? Tough luck, Hong Kong.



If I’ve discovered one thing in the past three years, it’s that a single person can only have so many bees in her bonnet (which may just be another way of saying I’ve discovered the limits of bonnets). Whatever the case, there are issues I care about very much but simply don’t have the time to explore properly.

Fortunately, on the issues where I fall down in my coverage, some excellent people have thrown themselves into the breach, and when it comes to one of the most vital of these — poverty — Robert Devet and his Nova Scotia Advocate never fail me.

Devet’s chief strength is that he gives a platform to people who actually depend upon Nova Scotia’s social assistance program and are therefore better positioned than any “expert” to evaluate its shortcomings. They are experts. A good rule of thumb, whenever you read a story like this:

Low-income Nova Scotians to get more financial support in 2020: province

Is to go immediately to the Advocate for the antidote. In this particular case, in response to the Global News story above, Devet noted that it was almost identical to the NS government press release (never a good look for a news outlet) before dismissing the promised increase in support as “smoke and mirrors”:

Yesterday Community Services announced its full package of changes to income assistance to be implemented on December 27.

We have known about most of the changes for quite a while now.

Some things implemented earlier we like. Allowing people who work to keep more of their earnings before it gets clawed back is a good thing. So is the fact that child support clawbacks are gone.

And some other changes are just smoke and mirrors.

Take the increase in the welfare rates, for example. Folks able to work will get a 2% increase, and people who live with disabilities or are fleeing an abusive situation get 5%.

Unfortunately, inflation ensures that most people will be poorer than they were a year before even after the raise kicks in.

As human rights lawyer Vince Calderhead said earlier this year at a panel about poverty, “taking into account inflation, in every single case transformation means that people will be worse off next March than they were at the beginning, that’s the bottom line. So much for those who were told that the transformation will improve their situation.”

I’ve been bellyaching on Twitter this week about the difficulty of actually speaking to anyone in the government bureaucracy in Nova Scotia — the layer of communications people is so thick, it’s hard to penetrate to someone with actual expertise, as opposed to someone crafting lines and massaging narratives.

Journalists are completely outnumbered by comms people in this province and this country and on this continent and across the world and probably in this solar system. (It’s a well-known fact that whenever a journalist prints a press release a comms person gets their wings.)

So an editor like Devet — who gives credit where credit is due but whose chief interest in press releases is to figure out what they’re not saying —  is a gem deserving of your support.


Marge vs the Monorail

Marge versus the Monorail

Marge vs. the Monorail (Source: Wikipedia Marge versus the Monorail)

The Simpsons episode pitting Marge against a con man who sells Spingfield on a defective and epically dangerous monorail system first aired in 1993, when I was living in Montreal  without a television. (This is not strictly true. There was a television, but it was a very small, black and white model and watching it was so frowned upon in our household, one of my roommates used to literally sit in the closet to do it.)

I then moved to Toronto, where I didn’t watch television and on to Prague, where I could only watch it in Czech until the “golden age” of TV began and friends started slipping me bootleg copies of the Sopranos and Deadwood (but no Simpsons.)

All this is my long-winded way of explaining why I had never seen “Marge vs the Monorail” and why watching it (earlier this week) on the advice of a spectator had such an out-sized effect on me.

I laughed, I cried, I heard “Novaporte” whenever anyone said “Monorail.”

I think this is one of those cases where it’s actually just as well it took me 26 years to discover a piece of art because I brought so much more to the table than I could have in 1993 — that faraway time when Sydney harbor was a place where we dumped raw sewage and Albert Barbusci was a Montreal advertising executive.

I think “Marge vs. the Monorail” should be required viewing for our municipal council.