The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Name:
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL: black_rod_usher@yahoo.com

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Smug Free Press labels Winnipeggers scairdy-cats via self-sourced "news"

Without any fanfare, the Winnipeg Free Press has blazed a trail towards a New Journalism, one which abandons the outdated reliance on informed sources for stories.

Instead, the FP has instituted a journalism where reporters simply cite themselves as the experts on issues.

It's so simple, why didn't anybody think of this before?


Take the full page devoted Saturday to the news that 78 percent of Winnipegers are scared to go into certain parts of the city.

"A city of fraidy cats?" boomed the editorializing headline across the TOP NEWS page.

Half the page was a story written by Aldo Santin about a Canada West Foundation survey of the citizens of seven of the country's larger cities from Vancouver to Toronto. It found that Winnipeg was tops in the number of residents who agreed with the statement "There are parts of the city I am scared to set foot in."

The second half of the page was a story by City Hall reporter Bartley Kives who wrote, and we paraphrase, that Winnipegers who are worried about crime are too stupid to know how good they have it here. He quoted himself as the authority for his story.

For those purists who insist on a second source, he threw in a quote from another Free Press reporter.


Kives flashed his street cred---for four years he's lived in West Broadway which, a decade ago, the Free Press once called "Murder's Half Acre", whatever that means.

The bad areas of town aren't as scary as people think, he wrote. If someone steals your child's bicycle or your barbeque, it's your own fault. "---actively seeking to prevent loss...is a civic duty."

Winnipeg just has an undeserved bad rep on crime. Sure, car theft is "out of hand" but the murder rate "is a pile of hooey... no statistical significance whatsoever."

Which should come as a surprise to the statisticians who thought by reporting murders per 100,000 population, they were making a useful comparison of the relative safety of communities. It took a Free Press reporter to set them straight.


Winnipegers who feel crime here is worse than other centres should need to travel more, said Kives. Crime is worse in Vancouver and Toronto.

And Detroit, we bet, only he forgot Detroit.


"The notion this city is actually one of the most dangerous in Canada is mildly insane."

Uh, whatever. Maybe we'd listen to this argument if anybody has actually compared Winnipeg to other cities in Canada or the world. Which they didn't. Neither did the Canada West Foundation survey. But it's a great Straw Man to knock down and Kives gave it a good licking.

His coup de grace was in citing "my colleague, Dan Lett" who "brilliantly wrote in his blog 'the plural of anecdote is not data'."

Well, so much for the exercise in New FP Journalism. Kives and his "brilliant" colleague Dan Lett couldn't be more off base.

Kives set up his sole source story by claiming "a survey suggests we think our city is more dangerous than it really is."

He got it wrong right from the get-go.


Winnipeggers know their city is more dangerous than it ever was.
That's the point.

Kives and Lett are willing to accept the "new normal".
Winnipegers not working for the Winnipeg Free Press are not.


- Crack dealers operating openly on Portage Avenue in front of Air Canada Park is not normal.
- Teenagers carrying concealed handguns is not normal.- Fights used to mean fists and bloody noses. Now it means knives and dead bodies. That's not normal.
- Girl gangs trying to beat a girl to death on Main Street is not normal.
- Stolen cars used as weapons to ram into innocent motorists is not normal.
- Gang shootouts in residential areas is not normal.
- Prostitutes walking the same residential streets is not normal.

These are all signs of urban disorder which scares people for good reason.

But, but, but...the statistics....Oh, you mean the "data" that trumps the anecdotes of crime. The "data" that shows the crime rate is falling, that arrests are down, that there's less crime than last year.

* Who keeps data on the number of crack houses on your street?

* Who keeps data on the number of gang members in your neighbourhood?

* Who keeps data on the gang graffiti that blankets your part of town?

* Who keeps data on the threats made to honest homeowners?

* Who keeps data on the number of crack needles and used condoms found on the boulevards when the prostitutes pack it in for the day?

* Who keeps data how often a motorcycle gang member drives by to collect his drug money?

* Who keeps data on the number people wearing gang colours that pass your house each day?

* Who keeps data on the garage break-ins, bicycle thefts, and car vandalism that are never reported because it's no use, the police don't care and it's cheaper to write off the loss?

* Who keeps data on the knives pulled on students to intimidate them?

* Who keeps data on the number of criminals out on bail, on probation, on house arrest, in breach of recognizance in the house across the street or down the block?

* Who keeps the data on the number of children who see ambulances arrive to pick up the bodies of murdered people?


But every single incident is an "anecdote". A story that's told to someone and repeated to someone else. A story that paints a picture of a part of town. Together the anecdotes make up the life of the city, a life that escapes the criminologists in their offices in Fort Garry as they pour over the "data."

Maybe the brilliant Dan Lett should have tempered his own cleverness with the rule of thumb that real scientists never forget: GI = GO.

Garbage in equals garbage out.

And what readers of the Free Press should never forget, is that City Hall Reporter Bartley Kives believes that anyone who thinks crime is a serious issue is either deluded or promoting a hidden agenda. His "reporting" will reflect that view.

Even if he has to quote himself to prove it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The War in Afghanistan 2007 Weeks 20 and 21

Canadians still haven't been told what a huge impact the death of Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban's chief military commander, will have on our mission in Afghanistan.

Dadullah was the last of the Taliban OG's from Kandahar. Turning him into worm food means the terrorist group will be shifting the bullseye of the insurgency from the southern province of Kandahar, where Canadian troops are stationed, to the eastern provinces and Kabul, closer to the home base of Dadullah's military rivals.

Every history of the Taliban states that Kandahar is the "spiritual home" of the Taliban, and where most of their leaders come from. It was where the terrorist group sprang up before sweeping across the country to capture Kabul. They've been trying to recreate that moment ever since being driven out of power in 2001 by the U.S.The "Feared Taliban Spring Offensive" of 2006 was intended to capture Kandahar, drive out the Canadians, and springboard an assault of Kabul. Instead Canadian troops 'moiderized' the insurgents and forced them into a humiliating retreat.

The "Feared Taliban Spring Offensive" of 2007 was supposed to be a revamped plan of attack with the same goals under the personal command of Mullah Dadullah. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans.

The British pre-empted the spring offensive with one of their own sending Taliban fighters running from their stronghold in Helmand province, next door to Kandahar. Air strikes began wiping out Taliban leaders in the south. And then the Green Berets found Dadullah and shot him dead. What party-poopers.


With Dadullah dead, the thrust of what remains of the "Feared Taliban Spring Offensive" will be in the southeastern provinces of Paktika, Paktia and Khost where the leaders of the fragmented Taliban forces live. Taliban deputy chief Jalaluddin Haqqani can direct fighters in Paktia province from his homebase in Pakistan's tribal area. Warlord Saifullah Mansoor calls the Gardez area his home territory and independent anti-American tribal leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar works out of Kunar province, although he's been laying low while he waits to see which side is gaining the upper hand. With Dadullah's death, he may chose to stay on the sidelines, sensing the tide has turned to NATO's side. All together they may control 2500 fighters.

The heat isn't entirely off Kandahar, but enough that reconstruction can proceed faster and more efficiently. Already the effects of a year of NATO's presence in south Afghanistan are paying off.

Dadullah was killed in the Sangin area of Helmand province. The same week in another village in the area, an incident demonstrated how far the pendulum has swung in Afghanistan. Tribal leaders and a Taliban commander named Hajji Wali Mohammed had what was by all accounts an angry meeting. The elders told him and his group of 50 fighters to stop using the area to stage ambushes on NATO troops.

"Hajji Wali Mohammad refused and said he would continue with the jihad against the foreigners. So when he was walking home after the meeting the local people killed him and his two bodyguards," a villager told police afterward.

This is the side of the Afghanistan conflict you don't read in the mainstream media.

Taliban forces have been pressing Kandahar all month, launching ambushes but leaving corpses of their fighters behind. Eight one day. 15 the next. On the 14th, airstrikes killed 60 in the Zahari district, including three Taliban commanders. The Globe and Mail carried a story about the death of Mullah Manan and his two lieutenants, but didn't highlight this telling anecdote that appeared at the tail of the report.

"After a quarrel with a local village about whether the elders would allow Taliban fighters to operate in their area, Mullah Munan reputedly sent two insurgents to set an ambush on a nearby road. His men spotted a Canadian patrol passing near the village and opened fire, provoking a fight designed to catch the offending locals in the crossfire. But the Canadian soldiers disappointed Mullah Munan by exercising restraint in their response, villagers say..."

Another example of a village opposed to the Taliban. You don't think this is a trend, do you?

Kandahar Backlash

The Taliban reacted as they always do--with terror tactics.

Ten police were killed in a double terror bombing in Kandahar city. Four private security guards died when a remote-controlled bomb in a truck went off. Fifteen minutes later, when rescue workers had arrived, a second car bomb hit police inspecting the wreckage, killing six. Then, later the same day, a suicide bomber attacked a motorcade in an attempt to kill the governor of Kandahar. Except the governor wasn't in the motorcade. The Afghan culture minister was, and he was injured, not killed. Three civilians died in the attack.

This Tuesday, Taliban fighters attacked a police post in Kandahar but were fought off, leaving 10 dead and showing that the police aren't complete pushovers. On Thursday, a roadside bomb killed four police.

The Taliban leaders announced that Mullah Dadullah's younger brother would be his replacement. Should we call him Junior Dadullah?

The Fighting Shifts

As expected, the bulk of fighting over the two weeks since Dadullah was killed has shifted to the east.

On Friday, the 18th, Taliban forces ambushed Afghan troops in Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul. Air strikes killed about two dozen.

Another 100 insurgents were killed in Paktia province last Saturday when they ambushed Afghan troops. Chechens, Arabs, and Pakistanis were most of the dead. 13 Afghan soldiers and one American died in the battles. Bodies of dead Taliban have begun showing up in Pakistan's tribal area of North Waziristan where they are brought for burial, 13 in the past 3 days.

(Seven "foreigners" were among the 13 Taliban killed in the Garmsir district of Helmand province on Wednesday. This raises the question of how much of the "insurgency" is being fought by non-Afghan forces.)

Air strikes the 12th killed 40 insurgent fighters in Paktika province, close to the border with Pakistan. A ground battle left another 15 dead in Paktika with the remaining insurgents fleeing back to Pakistan.

30 Taliban fighters were killed in the central province Ghazni Sunday morning. At least 18 rebels were wounded and 11 arrested including regional Taliban commander Mullah Habibullah.

A suicide bomber killed 14 civilians and wounded 35 in the town of Gardez, Paktia province, on Monday. Insurgents kidnapped a Filipino woman working for an Indian company 60 miles southeast of Kabul. Her body was found in a well in Gardez Thursday.

On Monday Taliban attacked a police post in Paktia province. Two fighters were killed.

Six police and a district chief were killed Thursday by roadside bombs in Paktika.

Troubles Ahead

A roadside bomb targetted the car of the provincial police chief in Badakhshan province as he was going to work. One of his bodyguards was killed. Three other guards and the chief were wounded.

A suicide bomber on foot blew himself up Saturday at a busy market in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Three German soldiers were killed as well as six Afghan civilians.

A roadside bomb Wednesday killed one Finnish soldier and wounded four Norwegians in the northern province of Faryab.

A suicide bomber was spotted and chased in Kabul Wednesday. He blew himself up, killing one policeman and one civilian.

These attacks are usually portrayed in the mainstream press as evidence that the Taliban are expanding their offensive throughout the country into areas that have "until now" been unaffected by the violence. "In the usually quiet north, where militant violence is rare" is how the reporters start their stories.

The reporters fail to apply the simplest logic. Water always finds the path of least resistance. Driven away from Kandahar and Helmand, the Taliban is finding it easier to attack in areas of Afghanistan where NATO troops are unprepared and unwilling to engage in battle. The Germans in Kunduz, the French in Kabul, and the Finns in Faryab thought they were as far away from combat as they could be and still purport to be part of the NATO mission.

"Poor bastards" they must have muttered whenever a Canadian or Brit was killed in battle, all the while thanking the foresight of their politicians for keeping them combat-free with all kinds of restrictions on their participation.

With the fight shifting to the east, they may soon find themselves on the front line.

The Dutch in Uruzgan province should be alerted as well. Given the air reconnaissance going on over Uruzgan this week, it appears the Taliban are moving from the southern provinces to easier pickings. Dutch forces stationed in Uruzgan has refused to fight Taliban forces unless attacked first. That weakness may be challenged all too soon.

The NATO contingency has been bolstered by 1,188 well-trained Polish troops who are being prepared to face Taliban forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

They will formally begin their patrolling missions in early June. The Polish soldiers are to be stationed in the Ghazni and Paktika provinces. Polish Gen. Mieczyslaw Bieniek, an adviser to the Afghan defense ministry in Kabul, said Poland is sending its best and most experienced soldiers.

Short Snappers

The Taliban insurgency has cost the lives of more than 1800 people so far this year, the vast majority being Taliban fighters themselves.

In May to date roadside and suicide bombings have killed 85 people and wounded another 250.

When reading or watching reports about the resurgent Taliban keep in mind this tidbit from within the Taliban camp in their own words (emphasis ours):

The 30-page, tenth issue of al-Sumoud, meaning 'The Resistance', an electronic publication from the Taliban, the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, was distributed to jihadist forums yesterday, Thursday, May 10, 2007. Included within the magazine's twelve articles are an editorial in which the author argues that America is seeking the same solution to its difficulties in Afghanistan as the former Soviet Union had done previously, and an interview with a military official for the province of Nangarhar, Anwar al-Haq, nicknamed the Mujahida. Both the editorial and interview continue themes present in similar articles printed in the last issue of al-Sumoud, where the author claimed a joint peace jirga between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a means for America to escape Afghanistan, and the military commander of Kunar was asked questions of American losses vis-a -vis alleged success of the Mujahideen.

In the editorial, which is titled: "Whether or Not America is Playing with Russia's Cards in the Losing Gamble", the author finds the suicide bombing targeting U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney at Bagram Air Base, kidnapping of Italian journalist Daniel Mastrogiacomo leading to the release of Taliban officials, kidnapping of French nationals, and murdering eight Canadian forces in Kandahar in a single day as evidence of a clear victory for the Mujahideen. America and its agent Afghan President Hamid Karzai establishing new fronts and jirgas to mete a peaceful solution and ultimately withdrawal of coalition forces, is believed by the author to mirror the Soviet's failure in the past. The only solution is given as the immediate departure of all foreign forces without any terms or conditions.

During the interview between al-Sumoud and Anwar al-Haq, responses from the military official of Nangarhar implicitly call for financial support as he gestures that despite being stationed in a strategic area the Mujahideen do not have much financial or material abilities. He adds later when questioned about the differences between the previous jihad against the former Soviet Union and the present jihad against the U.S.-led coalition, that the primary disparity is in terms of support. The official also claims that the media fabricates the number of Mujahideen killed in military operations versus the enemy appearing unscathed. He states that the numbers of coalition forces killed by the Mujahideen are many more times that of the Mujahideen, alleging that five to six soldiers die in each bombing with an improvised explosive device (IED), and at least nine to ten die as a result of suicide operations.

****************
And a message to all the e-mailers who have written about our Afghanistan coverage:

We are sincerely humbled by your kind words. We hope we can live up to your expectations.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An exercise in Hugh-miliation

It's a good thing that the P.C. Party colour is blue, for it captures their after-vote blues so well, but yesterday you would be forgiven for thinking their colour was red.

That way the red-faces on the shamed Tory caucus and the red eyes and noses on weepy party supporters didn't look entirely out of place on election night.


There's no other way to say it. It was a rout.

Hugh McFadyen proved an unmitigated disaster as the new leader of the Progressive Conservatives. He accomplished what most pundits thought was impossible---he left the party with even fewer seats than Stu Murray.

Well, so much for McFadyen's grand vision of turning the Tories into NDP-lite. Or was it Liberals over-easy? That tsunami of federal Liberal voters he promised to deliver was nowhere to be seen even as the Devil danced away with the soul of the venerable party.

McFadyen's self-professed acumen as a political paragon now shares a shelf on the trashheap of history next to General George Custer's bravado at the Little Big Horn.

But before any further examination of the dismal prospects for the P.C.'s under McFadyen, we have to mention that strange exchange between party leaders which went unnoticed, or at least passed without comment by the reporters from the MSM.


It was an unprecedented gutter fight in full view of the cameras, though veiled in such genteel pretense that it slipped past everyone, except the initiated.


In his concession speech, McFadyen suddenly began extolling the support he received from his family throughout the campaign. He praised his wife by name, and gave her a big smooch. And he repeated how important it had been to have her steadfastly by his side.

A touching moment, surely. And pointed, like the tip of a stiletto. His target didn't fail to feel the sting.

Re-elected premier Gary Doer responded in his victory speech, a speech so loaded with cheap and unnecessary shots at the Opposition as to sour any listener expecting a winner to take the high road. At the end, Doer, too, spoke of the importance of having the support of his family.

Except he failed to name what's-her-face, his wife, who stood at a respectful distance and smiled and nodded on cue. Just like Sam Katz's wife on his election night.

And the Mrs.--Ginny Devine, to the initiated---got no kiss.

For, say those in a position to know, a sad announcement is coming sooner rather than later, now that the election is over.

Doer did, however, express his desire --- for a cold beer. Once. Twice. Well, we stopped counting at three.

Strange indeed that the loser mentioned the First Lady by name off the top, while her husband focued on his future with his preferred cold beverage.


Meanwhile, the braintrust at 23 Kennedy is facing an uncomfortable future explaining to the died-in-the-wool Tory core why they thought a campaign designed to ignore long-simmering public outrage about NDP scandals, broken promises and outright incompetence was a winning formula.

The caucus is left to wonder what issues they can possibly raise in Question Period (besides the Grace Hospital crisis) that will put heat on the NDP.

They are also left to wonder how they can even pretend to trust their leader's judgement on what matters to the public, when he made crime the main issue but failed to engage the very ridings most affected. Candidate selection was left to the last minute in several inner-city ridings and they didn't open offices until halfway through the election campaign.

Who is responsible for this lack of preparation?

At the top of the list is Hugh McFadyen, who convinced the party that he had the backroom smarts and moxie on the hustings that Stu Murray lacked. Instead he became an anchor around the necks of Tory candidates young and old. Just ask Bonnie Mitchelson.

The story of Hugh McFadyen's career as party leader begins and ends in Southdale, where the NDP started their election campaign by immediately putting him on the defensive, from which he and the career of longtime stalwart MLA Jack Reimer never recovered.

Brandon heavyweight Rick Borotsik barely squeeked into a seat in spite of Hurricane Hugh's visits to the Wheat City, each of which dragged the popular former Mayor deeper under the waves. Just ask Mike Waddell.

And if the shattered caucus needed any further proof of the drag of McFadyen's personal popularity, they need only look to the PC's New Generation star candidate in Kirkfield Park (Stu Murray's old riding), where Chris Kozier failed to win a single poll.

Hugh McFadyen was elected party leader a year ago to breath fire into a party demoralized by the leadership of meek, mild mannered Stu Murray, who couldn't rouse himself to utter a harsh word against turncoats like John Loewen, backed down to Crocus bullies, and was thought to have taken the party to the lowest depths possible with the Manitoba electorate.

Until Hurricane Hugh showed what he could do.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Stars predict a winner. Will voters comply?

Let's cut to the chase.

You want to know who's going to win the provincial election.
And we're going to tell you.

The answer is....

...written in the stars.

Gary Doer was born March 31, 1948 which makes him an Aries.
Hugh McFadyen was born May 31, 1967 which makes him a Gemini.

We've examined what four astrologers have to say about the influences on the party leaders during the current month.

* Penny Thornton was Lady Diana's personal astrologer for six years.
* Susan Miller (Astrologyzone) is a world-renowned and accredited astrologer. She writes columns for In Style and has appeared on such shows as 20/20, The Early Show, and The View.
* Neil Giles (Astrology on the Web) is an astrologer whose passion for mythology and the ancient traditions has led him on a journey through Astrology, Tarot, the Runes and the Celtic Ogham Script as a seeker and personal reader. He lives on an island in the South Seas.
* John Hayes is the British Astrological and Psychic Society (BAPS)'s premier Astrologer at the UK's biggest Mind Body Spirit Fairs in Manchester and London each year.

Aries: With ruler Mars hidden away in the zone of mystery and suspense you may have experienced a lack of confidence recently, even become a tad paranoid, but with the arrival of this planet in your sign back comes your va va voom with a vengeance. (Penny Thornton, The Week Ahead)

This accurately describes Gary Doer's sudden reluctance to debate the other party leaders.

The New Moon on May 16 is a turning point for both signs.

Gemini: Once Mars moves into Aries on May 16, it will not be back to shine a spotlight on your career until March 2009. While you have such an extraordinary chance to move up, use it! (Astrologyzone/ Susan Miller)

Aries: Mars zooms into your sign Aries by May 16, and that's when your energy will streak skyward. ..This is a special phase that only comes by for seven weeks every two years, so aim to make your most important initiations during that time (Astrologyzone/ Susan Miller)

There's good news on the horizon for one contender.

Gemini: There's a beneficial shift or revelation around May 20th. (Astrology on the Web/ Neil Giles)

Perhaps a poll that shows the P.C.'s leading or within striking distance?

But there has to be a winner.

Aries: the week of the 21st could bring good news and your efforts stand an excellent chance of success. (Penny Thornton)

Aries: you'll find it far easier to be successful, on just about every front. Suddenly you will find that others are looking to you to lead the way, a position you will relish. (Susan Miller)

Aries: With Mars, your planetary ruler, entering your Sun sign mid-month you'll soon be irrepressible, unstoppable and ready for a challenge again. It's not yet time to hang up your boots. Fortune shines brightly on those born around 6th - 10th April. (John Hayes)

And a loser.

Gemini: The Sun enters your sign on May 21st. Happy birthday, Gemini! Strength and fortune will come from plans already laid, good friends and partners or close associates. It's a learning year. (Susan Miller)

Gemini: Once Mars moves into Aries on May 16, it will not be back to shine a spotlight on your career until March 2009. (John Hayes)

And with loss, often comes recriminations.

Gemini: The opposite of what you expect may prove to be the worthwhile endeavour, idea or connection. There are intense discussions or negotiations from May 27th. There may be a clash of or with authorities. Accident or argument is a risk. (Susan Miller)

*****

Things to remember:

Almost 100,000 fewer people voted in 2003 than voted in 1999.

The Liberal Party had 67,000 less votes in 2003 than in 1995.
The bulk of the voters deserted the party in 1999 and went to the NDP.
Half stayed in 2003, but the other half didn't come back and the Liberals lost another14,000 votes.


The Progressive Conservatives received almost 143,000 votes in 2003, down 76,700 from 1995.
Given the low voter turnout in 2003 (54 percent), it appears their voters stayed home and didn't gravitate to another party.

The NDP can see that if Tory voters come back, and Crocus shareholders decide to punish the party that lost their savings, the NDP are in deep trouble.

Jesse James shot down, and more

Remember the glowing reviews we told you about of the long-delayed Brad Pitt movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Howard Ford?

Well, forget 'em.

The only thumbs that count when it comes to this flick belong to the execs at Warner Brothers, the film's co-funder.

And they've decided to emulate an unhappy Roman emperor.

Warners has given up trying to get a version of the movie they feel they can sell to an audience.

According to the Times of London, the divide between the filmmakers and the studio proved to be insurmountable.

"Warner Brothers has failed to persuade the star to change The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford from a leisurely "poetic" film into an action-packed crowd-pleaser, or even to shorten its title."

"As a result studio executives have decided to put the film into a small number of American art house cinemas and cut back on advertising."

The movie, which contains scenes filmed in Winnipeg, will still be released in one form or another in September.

The Times says that "at one point there were up to half a dozen different versions of the film in rival editing suites as Pitt and Andrew Dominik, the director, raced against the clock to produce a "final cut" before Warners halted its funding."

The Black Rod carried a number of rave reviews of different test versions shown at sneak peeks. The consensus was the movie was an artistic triumph, featuring breathtaking cinematography and stellar acting, but lo-n-n-n-g and slo-o-o-w.

The DVD release should be something, though, if it contains the various versions, some of which run well over three hours, not counting deleted scenes.

***********

Kyoto, anyone?

Motorists are crying the blues about the jump in gasoline prices.

According to WinnipegGasPrices.com regular gasoline sold in Winnipeg for about $1.04 a litre at the end of April.

April was also when a report from the Environment Department predicted that to meet Canada's Kyoto targets by the year 2012 gasoline prices would have to jump 60 percent, from roughly a Canadian average of $1 a litre to $1.60.


Green guru David Suzuki said,"Canadians know we've got a problem, and I think they're willing to suck it in and accept that they're going to have to pay more."

So a price of $1.19 a litre is cheap like borscht ( the price actually peaked at $1.214 but quickly dropped) The "greens" want to see prices go up another 40 cents.

Funny how reporters never mention that in their stories.


What about buying a hybrid car to save money?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has revised its mileage ratings on hybrids to better reflect real-world driving conditions such as "speeding, varying weather and lead-footed driving."

As a result, says Wired.com, "overall, vehicle city mileage estimates dropped by about 12 percent, and some vehicles are expected to be rated 30 percent lower"

The two top-selling hybrid vehicles are the Toyota Prius and Honda's Civic Hybrid.

The Prius MPG for city driving drops from 60 to 48.The Civic Hybrid falls from 51 to 40.

By comparison, the regular Camry MPG slips from 24 to 21, and the Honda Civic from 30 to 25.

You could switch to a bicycle. Except.

Scientific American reports on a study conducted by a psychologist at the University of Bath in England that suggests cyclists wearing helmets attract cars. Believe it or not.

The researcher "attached ultrasonic sensors to his bike and rode around Bath, allowing 2,300 vehicles to overtake him." (He was actually hit twice, while wearing a helmet although he managed not to fall off his bike.)

He reported that when he wore his helmet, drivers typically drove an average of 3.3 inches closer to his bike than when he went bareheaded.

And when he wore a wig to look like a woman from behind, motorists gave him an extra 2.2 inches clearance when passing.

Go figure.

Then figure this one out.

Scientists say the planet Neptune is getting warmer.

They've been measuring visible light from Neptune at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona since 1950.

The measurements show that Neptune has been getting brighter since about 1980, and infrared measurements of the plant show it has been steadily getting warmer, too. This corresponds with solar irradiance, which is a fancy way of saying more rays from the sun.

H.B. Hammel from the Space Science Institute in Colorado and G.W. Lockwood from the Lowell Observatory wrote an article about their findings in a recent issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

Doesn't it make you wonder what the price of gasoline is on Neptune?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

An Election Pre-Mortem

It's all over but the counting. Why wait a week when you can read the post mortem of the 2007 election campaign here and now.

The NDP were running scared for the entire campaign, never more so than the final week. They knew they would have to fight an uphill battle and they loaded up with every dirty trick in the book.

The health care system is a shambles with doctor shortages, nurse shortages, annual emergency ward closures, rampant hallway medicine, deaths in emergency rooms, deaths on waiting lists, and a bureaucracy growing larger by the second. Kildonan candidate Dave Chomiak carries the stench of failure with him wherever he goes.

The justice system is a nightmare. Candidates Doug Martindale (Burrows), George Hickes (Point Douglas) and Gord Mackintosh (St. Johns) wear the blood of Phil Haiart, Thomas Roy Phillips, and Rachelle Leost on their hands. The title of Gang Capital of Canada, Murder Capital of Canada and Car Theft Capital of Canada are the NDP's legacy for Winnipeg.

The government coverup of the Crocus Fund scandal was laid open by leaks of cabinet documents that had been hidden from the Auditor General's investigation.

The new documents exposed the government manipulation of the Auditor General's office to hide the secret cooperation between the Crocus fund and the Finance Department -- as innocent investors were duped into buying overvalued shares.


The NDP could be defeated on any one of these issues. They expected an all-out assault on all three fronts and had to prepare accordingly.

The campaign would be as short as permitted by law, with the vote on the Tuesday after the Victoria Day long weekend.

Campaigning would effectively stop three days earlier on the Friday as nobody would be thinking politics over the first long weekend of the summer.

If the only election poll of the campaign ran on the Friday or Saturday, showing a close race or the NDP ahead, it would be too late to undo the damage to the Tory campaign.Gary Doer conducted an under-the-radar campaign.

No grand promises (especially not to eliminate hallway medicine in six months). More police, more firemen, more nurses, more doctors, more this and more that, but nothing controversial or challenging or even exciting. Steady as she goes and go slowly. Save your energies for the attacks to come. Leave the in-fighting to your allies:


* The Winnipeg Free Press published an eight-page re-imagination of the collapse of the Crocus Fund as a preemptive strike against the day when Crocus became an election issue.

* The nurses union aired weeks of advocacy ads to defend against attacks on the NDP's health care failures.


Imagine their surprise, then, when the attacks never came. The NDP spent weeks counterpunching at punches never thrown. They even went into high gear in the last week of the campaign, running their own television attack ads straight from the gutter.

And for good measure they dredged actor Sharon Bajer out of the shadows in a series of unfunny, Grade Z-production commercials mocking the Tories. (Bajer was last spotted in NDP testimonial ads in 1999 weeping about how she would have to leave Manitoba if the Tories got elected.
Note to the NDP: For a party that professes to value womens' roles in politics, why do you segregate them into a womens caucus and then highlight only Crybaby Erin Selby and Crybaby Sharon Bajer? Just asking
- ed)


P.C. leader Hugh McFadyen had been taunting the NDP for months to call an election. His reputation was as a skilled election backroomer who had gotten Gary Filmon and Sam Katz into office. That should have been a clue.

As The Black Rod has revealed, Sam Katz's credibility as a self-professed crimefighter melted faster than a slurpee in August the first time it was put to the test. It turns out he only mobilizes police resources when he has to impress his South End friends. The rest of the city gets a map on the internet with a star whenever their cars are stolen or their friends are killed.

Hugh McFadyen was Katz's right hand man before going provincial and it shows.


After being elected Tory leader McFadyen promised to give people a distinct choice in the next election, a choice based on harnessing the economy to make Manitoba a 'have' province. And that was the last we heard about that.

When the election of '07 was called, McFadyen leaped out of the starting gate with bold promises of----more bicycle paths and soccer pitches. Week One down, four to go.

The Crocus Scandal which dominated weeks of Question Period? Never mentioned.

The desperate situation in health care that's evident to anyone who's been in a hospital or tried to see a doctor in the past four years? Not an issue.

Taxes? A promise to cut the provincial sales tax one percentage point sailed over the heads of voters who were busy enjoying the sunshine, working in their yards, and shopping for summer clothes.McFadyen adopted the federal Liberal campaign style of a promise a day and every one of them a priority.

Crime? The Tories ran ads attacking revolving door justice in the province. They were hokey, but grew on you with repeated viewing. And began to resonate when Rachelle Leost was killed by a stolen car whose occupants included a convicted car thief breaching probation.

But when asked on CJOB in week two of the campaign to tell the thousands of listeners about his crime agenda, McFadyen announced--- he would be making an annoucement later.
And when it came it showed only that the Tories had overthought the issue, losing the common-sense approach the voters expected.

The Tories had a literal flood of anti-crime proposals which ranged from the impracticle to the implausible to the impossible. The NDP were reduced to blaming their failure on the crime file on the federal government, especially the new Youth Justice Act.

They could never actually bring themselves to utter the words Jean Chretien, Paul Martin or Liberal, the parties responsible for the tepid laws that tied the hands of judges and prosecutors.

And it took weeks to get Gary Doer to say, ever so reluctantly, that federal NDP MP's like Pat Martin and Judy Wasylycia-Leis shared the blame for supporting the federal laws that put more criminals of the streets.


But McFadyen never once blamed the Liberal Party for the very laws he was attacking, in keeping with his long-term plan to turn the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party into a federal Liberal farm-team. His credibility in crimefighting began to rival Sam Katz's.

Then came the infamous Winnipeg Jets announcement. As explained in The Black Rod (http://blackrod.blogspot.com/2007/05/hughie-hughie-and-je-eh-ehts.html), this should have been the defining vision of the Tory campaign - a dare-to-dream challenge to Manitobans with a promise of a vital new government leading them into a bright new future.

Unveilled properly in the first week of a campaign, the Tories could have built on it over four weeks, creating a clearly defined choice for voters. A heavy-handed, scandal-ridden, union and bureaucracy-choked party on one side versus a shiny new party of hope and youthful drive and energy on the other.

Instead, the vision was so poorly communicated that it was reduced in the news stories to "Bring Back the Jets."

A hurricane of derision followed.

Gary Doer, already campaigning in as low a key as possible for a party leader, seized the moment to go lower still. The NDP shut down planned leaders "debates", events which themselves have become nothing more than watered down serial question sessions. But the NDP didn't want to run even that risk of stirring up an issue.

They agreed to a "debate" on radio.

The broadcast fell somewhere between the Louis-Schmeling fights and Roosevelt's fireside chats. More toward the latter.

Liberal leader Jon Gerrard had the best lines.

Doer was himself.
And McFadyen came across like a lawyer giving a lecture on tax law. He may have made some points, but his own words fell asleep and fell to the bottom of the radio.

A traditional leaders forum co-sponsored by the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce and the Winnipeg Realtors fell apart when the NDP insisted on controlling the questions to be asked. The Chamber pulled out as a sponsor and Winnipeg Sun reporter Tom Brodbeck quit as a questioner. A quickly revamped version was shown on the community access channel.

Oh, yes, we know there's been no mention of the Liberals. They've been busy sacrificing goats to the Election Gods and praying to steal two more seats so they can be an officially recognized party for the first time in 12 years. OOOOOWWWWMMMMMM.

In summary, then:
The NDP avoided the issues and tied their fortunes entirely to Gary Doer's popularity in the province.

The Tories didn't land a punch and went into the vote with no momentum. If we were sitting at ringside we would be wondering if new leader Hugh McFadyen was taking a dive. Do they do pee tests on politicians?

Success would depend completely on individual races, the wild card of angry Crocus voters, and the number of votes cast.

How does it turn out?

The answer - tomorrow.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The War in Afghanistan 2007 Week 19

Our feet are tired from doing the happy dance and our throats sore from cheering Yaaa-Hooooo.

Mullah Dadullah is dead. Who's your daddy now, Dadullah?

U.S. Special Forces tracked him down and killed him Saturday morning. And with him the Feared Taliban Spring Offensive just went pffft.

This will come as a great surprise to the mainstream media which has been engaged in its annual spring ritual of writing how revived the Taliban is, how rearmed and ready to overrun Afghanistan.

But any objective observer has watched the net closing on Dadullah for months.

For more than a year the Taliban has been operating under the delusion they defeated the Americans in Afghanistan. They saw as proof the handover of the southern provinces to NATO forces--the British in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold; the Canadians in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and the Dutch in Uruzgan, a virtual no-man's land.

As they saw it, having forced the Americans out, it would be a simple matter to overwhelm the NATO troops and recapture Kabul. They came close with the British, who found themselves overextended and led by a general who struck "peace deals" that saw the Brits turn a blind eye to Taliban activity in their region. And the timidity of the Dutch generals made the plan look gold.

It was when they attacked the Canadians, who many thought the weak link in the NATO chain, that the plan went awry. The Canadians turned out to be tough, trained and tenacious. By the time the summer was over, the Canadian-led Operation Medusa had forced the Taliban into a humiliataing retreat from an important corner of Kandahar province, and the tide had turned even though the news media overlooked the victory and perpetuated the myth of the invincible Taliban.

The dawn of 2007 saw a new commander of NATO forces in Southern Afghanistan, U.S. General Dan McNeill, who brought with him the American drive for victory which he immediately put into effect. The first to feel it was Mullah Dadullah, who had been put in charge of Taliban forces in Helmand and Kandahar provinces and who was the overall tactical commander for the Feared Taliban Spring Offensive.

Except that NATO wasn't waiting for spring. The British-led Operation Achilles seized the initiative in Helmand province forcing Dadullah into a defensive fight from the git-go.

The Taliban admitted they couldn't overcome the NATO firepower in straight-up battle (something they learned the hard way from the hundreds of dead they left behind during Operation Medusa). So Dadullah promised to match NATO with a terror campaign of a thousand suicide bombers just waiting for him to give the word.

Coalition forces had a new tactic of their own, roughly translated as "kill the head and the body dies." They began targeting Taliban leaders, in raids and airstrikes.

In December, Mullah Akhtar Osmani one of the top 3 Taliban leaders ate a guided bomb in Helmand. In February, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, the former Taliban defense minister, was arrested in the southern Pakistani city of Quetta where he had been planning the spring offensive. In between and since, airstrikes have killed a score of Taliban commanders hither and yon across the south of Afghanistan.

Just this past week Afghan forces backed by NATO air-support killed 64 Taliban in an operation in the joint ongoing Afghan-NATO military Operation Tandar which started in the Gerishk district of southern Helmand province on May 1. "The dead bodies of Mullah Younis Akhund, Mullah Abdul Hadi Akhund, Mullah Abdul Aziz Akhund, Mullah Janan and Qari Ezatullah, the Taliban commanders, were left in the battlefield, and were identified," a spokesman said.

And U.S. Special Forces kept popping up everywhere, raiding villages and compounds and generally disrupting Taliban forces.

One place they turned up Saturday morning was the village of Kakeban in the Girisk district of Helmand just when Dadullah was visiting the home of his wife's brother. The home was surrounded and Dadullah was told to surrender. He chose to shoot it out and he and 10 other Taliban fighters were killed. Among the dead was Dadullah's brother, Mansoor Ahmad, who was one of five insurgents released from custody last month in a swap for an Italian journalist.

Nobody is talking how they tracked Dadullah down. In Afghanistan, though, the adage "trust no one" can't be overstated.

Obviously you can speculate that authorities staked out the brother's family until he showed up with Dadullah in tow.

After the hostage swap, authorities locked up Rahmatullah Hanefi, the manager of the Lashkargah hospital, who negotiated the deal with the kidnappers. He may have "remembered" some pertinent details under incisive questioning.

Or warlord and would-be political powerbroker Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who pulled out of a grand Taliban alliance earlier this year, may have sold him out after testing the winds and realizing who was winning.

Or Dadullah's patrons in Pakistan may have decided to send the Taliban a message after Taliban commanders in Pakistan's tribal areas that border Afghanistan launched a campaign to "Talibanize" villages be forcing sharia law on businesses this month.

Or U.S. forces picked up some clues from the chatty Dadullah's cell phone calls to Al-Jazeera.

Just by coincidence, this story showed up on the wires Saturday, after news of Dadullah's demise was reported:

Afghanistan's Taliban are reported to be threatening to target the base station towers operated by Roshan Telecommunications, claiming that the company is collaborating with US and Afghan authorities. The Taliban have given the operator 20 days to end its "collaboration" otherwise they will start attacking the towers. They claim that Roshan is providing their phone numbers to the US coalition and blocking its mobile phones.

Whatever the reason, Dadullah's death couldn't have come at a worse time for the Taliban. They spent months trumpeting this as the decisive year in retaking control of Afghanistan, only to watch their spring offensive totter and collapse in a heap. Hekmatyar divorced the unified assault, regional commanders kept getting killed or captured, a civil war broke out between Taliban allies in Pakistan, the British-led offensive in Helmand kept local insurgents on the run, bomb-makers were being arrested weekly, and those pesky U.S. Special Forces showed up where they were least expected.

Then this week, this word came from Syed Saleem Shahzad , Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief, whose pro-Taliban stories are useful for an insight into the thinking of the insurgency.

KARACHI - The Taliban are poised to launch Ghazwatul Badr to seize control of Kabul. The name of the offensive is a reference to the Battle of Badr commanded by the Prophet Mohammed in the Arabian Peninsula some 1,400 years ago.

The Battle of Badr was the key battle in the early days of Islam and a turning point in Mohammed's struggle with his opponents among the Quraish tribe in Mecca.

The battle has been passed down in Islamic history as a decisive victory attributable to divine intervention and the genius of Mohammed. In this century's version of the battle, more than 30,000 youths have been trained in the Pakistani tribal areas of North and South Waziristan as cannon fodder in a struggle that the Taliban believe will be the key turning point against foreign occupation forces and the Taliban's opponents in Kabul.

On the eve of the offensive, however, machinations within the ranks of the resistance have opened divisions among the field commanders. Plans to foment a mass uprising across Afghanistan will go ahead, but it could be that the offensive will have more than one leader and several movements, under the brand name of the Taliban.

When you're depending on divine intervention and the genius of Mohammed for victory, you know you've reached rock bottom.

The story discusses the divisions of the Taliban insurgency which are hampering the offensive. Now add the death of the guy who's supposed to lead the fight and things look grim--for the enemy.

Time to happy dance and shout Yaaa-hoooooo.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

~Hughie, Hughie and the Je-eh-ehts~

If the Tories lose the election, pundits can point to one day in the campaign as the turning point---the day of the Winnipeg Jets announcement. And they'll be right, but not for the reason you think.

No promise by any candidate stirred up as much negative emotion as P.C. Leader Hugh McFadyen's pledge to work for a return of the Winnipeg Jets.

The letters to the Winnipeg Free Press were brutal:

" Hugh McFadyen's pledge...is the political equivalent of 'jumping the shark'. The Conservative campaign deserves to be cancelled."
" I couldn't help but laugh..."
" ...back to the drawing board."
" Is Hugh McFadyen smart enough to it off? Not on your life."
" We were hoping for much better things from McFadyen..."
" ...you just lost your shot a my vote."
" ...I'm voting for Gary Doer for Manitoba, not a lost cause."
" Hugh blew it."


Ouch. That's going to leave a bruise.

With a single act, McFadyen was instantly seen as a cheap politician willing to promise anything to anybody to get elected. He gambled everything on a photo op (of his putting on a Jets jersey) and a short, sharp slogan--Bring Back the Jets.

But if he failed, it wasn't because he's a crass cynic.
It's because he couldn't communicate.
He had the right message and the wrong sell.


If the people throwing brickbats had read the news release that came with the Jets announcement, they would have a completely different image of Hugh McFadyen.

In this short, printed release there's an eloquent message, a vision for Manitoba, which would have turned derision into applause.


It's exactly what the Tories needed in the very first week of the campaign, not in the home stretch.

The NDP has flatlined.

* Their undelivered promise eight years ago to end hallway medicine--in six months--- chokes every election pledge they make.

* They've abandoned 34,000 Crocus Fund investors.

* They're depending on a scare campaign against McFadyen and attack ads against former Premier Gary Filmon to stiffen their hard-core voters.

* Their best card is a T.V. campaign of Gary Doer talking platitudes to camera.


In the Tory news release on the Jets, we see the essence of a winning campaign that offered the electorate a positive alternative, an uplifting message of a future worth voting for.

It wasn't about the Winnipeg Jets, a hockey team.

It was about dreaming of a Manitoba that could afford NHL hockey, that could strive to be strong enough to attract the entrepreneurs needed to support a team. The Jets were a symbol, not a goal.

The goal was to build a Manitoba you could be proud of and which your children would value, not run from.


When you abandon your dreams, you die. That was McFadyen's poorly articulated message.

From the news release (emphasis ours):

Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 7, 2006 - They whisper it, dream it, some are even afraid to say it out loud, but the answer is always the same. If you're serious about creating opportunities and a cool, youth-friendly capital city, Manitobans must form a partnership to take a shot at bringing back the Winnipeg Jets.

That was the hook to interest the news media. But this was the message:

From competitiveness to urban development, every link in the economic chain must be strong if we are to end our dependence on hand-outs from Ottawa and our economic free fall to last place in western Canada, he said.

Ultimately, the greatest gift we can give parents and grandparents is the gift of children and grandchildren who choose to build their futures right here at home, he said. That's what we've got our sights set on and what we fully plan to deliver.

McFadyen pointed to the 35,000 Manitobans - the majority of them young - who have left the province since Gary Doer became Premier. While he's busy pointing fingers and looking backward, we'll be running straight forward to the future.

McFadyen said it's time for Gary Doer's generation to pass the torch forward to the next generation of Manitoba leaders. We want the Winnipeg back that they got to enjoy - a winning Winnipeg full of confidence and pride. A Winnipeg that is able to leave a mark on the map, internationally.

From day one of this campaign, I've said - if we can dream it, we can do it.

Some will say this is too bold, but we must be bold if we're to keep young Manitobans here and secure our social services and our future.


The Tories know from past experience that Manitoban's have been beaten down to the point they don't believe in themselves anymore.

In 1999 the Conservatives promised to share Manitoba's wealth through a 50-50 split of the estimated billion dollars in new revenue that would come our way over the next five years. Half would go to new spending, half on tax relief. Voters rejected the offer. You can't fool us, they said. A billion dollars? No way. It's a politician's promise. Pie in the sky.


In truth, Manitoba received well more than a billion dollars in new revenue -- and the NDP spent every penny of it and more.

McFadyen was trying to rekindle a winning spirit in Manitoba by raising the Winnipeg Jets banner. But in their desparation to be seen as credible, the Tory's overthought the issue, just as they did with their crime platform, and offered too much detail---Young Turks, Winner Bonds, a Players Tax...

The details sidetracked reporters from the message of hope to a message of false hope.

(For the record, The Black Rod believes Winnipeg can't afford the Jets now, couldn't afford them in the Eighties, and will likely never afford them. Still, the Winners bonds and players tax were just intriguing enough to make us say---maybe, just maybe.)


To see the Jets announcement as a stupid promise is to miss the point.

To see it as a missed opportunity is a painful truth. We'll give the last word to McFadyen from the Jets news release (emphasis ours).


McFadyen said there has been a Jets elephant in the middle of the Manitoba living room for far too many years. We walk around it, trip over it and are even afraid to talk about it. It's time to bring the conversation fully into the open and get the entire community involved because this isn't about what we've lost, it's about everything that we hope to gain.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Did the Free Press fall for the Crocus confidence game ?

Once upon a time a daily newspaper like the Winnipeg Free Press could publish a fairy tale as if it was a legitimate news story and go unchallenged.

That day is l-o-o-o-o-n-g gone.

U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan of New York used to remind people:
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. He is not entitled to his own facts."

The FP obviously forgot that maxim when trying to peddle its "Special Report" on the Crocus Fund collapse as truth.

This wouldn't be the first time a newspaper has interjected itself into an election campaign by presenting rewritten history as "facts" to deceive voters.

It is, nevertheless, still fascinating to watch them do it as if they think they can get away with it.


While eight pages of behind-the-scenes details into the final days of the Crocus Fund was interesting to those of us who actually plowed through to the end, it was Monday's piece by FP reporter Dan Lett that exposed the chicanery behind the series. Lett's article was nowhere designated as opinion, so we have to accept it was being sold to the public as true reporting with conclusions drawn from objective facts.

Lett revealed he had been working on the story for at least ten months. But his summary of the Crocus story is straight out of some alternate reality, an Alice-in-Wonderland story where truth is fiction and fiction is truth. The only thing missing is the hookah-smoking caterpillar.


At least we now can understand why the Winnipeg Free Press so diligently refused to report on the recent leaks of internal government memos and e-mails about Crocus.

They revealed a truth the FP could not accept if the newspaper's Crocus revisionism was to stand.

In Dan Lett's world, the Crocus Investment Fund was a successful venture capital fund that was destroyed by unnamed enemies in the Manitoba Finance department. It stuggled valiantly for years despite being hamstrung by unfair rules that prevented it from maximizing returns for its investors. It wasn't bad management that sank the Crocus Fund, it was the cowardice of the NDP government that "could have, should have, saved Crocus."

Step with us now into the fantasy...

*** "...the finance department obstructed fund managers as they tried to get changes to the Crocus Act to bring it into line with funds outside Manitoba."

*** " Senior bureaucrats couldn't decide whether Crocus was a job-creation scheme or a retirement savings fund. There was no ambiguity for investors, as they knew it was a retirement savings instrument. Government should have focused on what it could do to make sure Crocus thrived when it came to making money for its investors."

*** ... Manitoba's first labour-sponsored investment fund (LSIF) toiled on an uneven playing field maintained by bureaucrats who did not have the best interests of investors at heart."

Okay ... stop.

Look at what the Free Press has eliminated from its version of the Crocus truth.

Nowhere does the term "multiple bottom lines" appear.
Or "Mondragon."
Once upon a time, the managers of Crocus bragged about these basic tenets of their investment fund.


CEO Sherman Kreiner complained, after the excoriating Auditor General's report into Crocus, that the AG just didn't understand the "multiple bottom lines" philosophy that underpinned
Crocus.

Lett is right when he says "There was no ambiguity for investors, as they knew it was a retirement savings instrument."

He's just wrong about everything else.


Contrary to what Dan Lett would like you to believe, Crocus was not run as a pure "retirement savings fund" that was concerned about maximizing returns to its shareholders.

Crocus was run as a fund with a social conscience, where social investment was as important, if not more important, than pure financial returns.


Kreiner spoke often of his belief in the Mondragon model of labour capitalism (For a more detailed look at Mondragon see http://blackrod.blogspot.com/2005/05/crocus-fund-and-mystery-loan-from.html)

The labour movement would collect pension money and use it to support local businesses which, in turn, would create well-paying unionized jobs. A key element of Mondragon, and Crocus, is employee ownership and Crocus insisted on an employee ownership plan for every company it invested in.


So much for theory.

In practice, the Crocus model of "investment" proved a disaster.

- Employee ownership foisted on companies made those companies unsaleable.
- If a company was failing, Crocus subsidized it to save the union jobs.
- Every year Crocus could brag about the thousands of jobs it "created---and saved" but none of the business reporters examined the cost of "saving" those jobs.


When share prices began drifting downward, Crocus never failed to point out that it wasn't the value of the fund that gave investors a return on their money, it was the 30 percent tax break they got at the front end. Even if the company made zero percent, the investor was supposedly ahead over five years on the tax break alone.

In other words, the NDP government subsidized the investors who gave their money to Crocus to subsidize union jobs.

Socialism at its best.


Dan Lett's pronouncements about the finance department's obstruction tactics collapse in the face of the memos and e-mails that have leaked out and which the Free Press pretends don't exist or don't matter.

The documents show that Crocus had been going broke since 2000. The fund was spending so much money it didn't have enough to invest to earn a return for its shareholders. Even the eight-page Crocus apologia refers to a board meeting where senior officials presented details of the fund's desparate financial position.

"Pelton told the board "the fund could not pay its ongoing costs from investment income alone" and needed to start selling off some of its most successful investments. Goldberg added that Crocus was facing operating costs of $7 million for 2005 but was only expected to earn $1.5 million from the investment portfolio, other cash investments and management fees."

The leaked documents show that Crocus had been going to the government since 2000 to change the rules so that it didn't have to worry about return on investment to repay shareholders. It wanted the right to use the money from new shareholders to pay off old shareholders.

And here's what Dan Lett and the Winnipeg Free Press don't want you to know.

- To entice new investors, Crocus had to keep its share value high. That meant the value of the portfolio could not be allowed to go down.


Since the companies in the portfolio were, for the most part, not publicly traded, valuations were set by Crocus committees, and as we saw, by 2004, the portfolio was overvalued by at least 20 percent. This became immediately apparent to the two men who were not Crocus insiders and who ultimately took the fund to the Manitoba Securities Commission.

- When necessary, Crocus filed a false prospectus, as stated in the Auditor General's report, to claim a higher annual return on investment than true.

- A $10 million loan from a Quebec LSIF was improperly called an "investment" which allowed Crocus to claim its annual return was among the best in the country

- The AG said that when the loan was accurately reflected in the financial statements, the return became among the worst in the country.

The FP failed to mention this salient point.


- The memos and e-mails to the Finance Department show that Crocus wouldn't---or couldn't--sell any of its portfolio to cover the cost of redemptions. You can see why not.

If they sold the dogs in their portfolio, it would expose how overvalued they were and the share price they needed to lure new investors would drop.

If they sold the winners, the portfolio would be worth less and the share price would drop.


Solution: don't sell anything.

- This meant the only money Crocus had to pay off redemptions was new money, but the law required Crocus to invest most of that new revenue in Manitoba companies.

Solution: change the law.


- The bureaucrats who fought the change understood that a true retirement investment fund should be making its money from its investments.

To them, the "multiple bottom lines" argument didn't wash when taxpayers were expected to underwrite Crocus redemptions.

That fact didn't make the 8-page FP special report.


Dan Lett's "news story" reaches this conclusion:

"Opposition politicians have tried to pin a scandal on the NDP government by alleging it knew Crocus was a confidence game and covered it up. By employing this strategy, the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have missed the real story. The NDP could have, should have, saved Crocus."

Answers.com provides this definition of a confidence game (Law Dictionary, 5th edition, by Steven H. Gifis, published by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.):

Confidence Game
"[a]ny scheme whereby a swindler wins the confidence of his victim and then cheats him out of his money by taking advantage of the confidence reposed in him." 95 N.E. 2d 80, 83. The elements of the crime of the confidence game are (1) an intentional false representation to the victim as to some past or present fact . . . (2) knowing it to be false . . . (3) with the intent that the victim rely on the representation . . . (4) the representation being made to obtain the victim's confidence. . . And thereafter his money and property. 304 A. 2d 260, 275.

The facts are indisputable that the NDP cabinet was informed at least once, and the finance department knew for years, that Crocus was dependent on money from new investors to pay off old investors. That's the pure definition of a Ponzi scheme, aka a pyramid scheme.

Investopedia Says:
" pyramid scheme is initiated by an individual or a company that starts recruiting investors with an offer of guaranteed high returns. As the scheme begins, the earliest investors do receive a high rate of return, but these gains are paid for by new recruits and are not a return on any real investment.

From the day the scam is initiated, a pyramid scheme's liabilities exceed its assets. The only way it can generate wealth is by promising extraordinary returns to new recruits; the only way these returns can be paid is by getting additional investors. Invariably these schemes lose steam and the pyramid collapses."

Does any of this sound familiar?

Monday, May 07, 2007

New details of Crocus collapse rekindles interest in RCMP probe

What's wrong with this picture?

In the middle of an election, the Winnipeg Free Press runs eight pages on the collapse of the Crocus Investment Fund--- without a single mention of how deeply the NDP government is enmeshed in the scandal.

If the intent was to defuse the Crocus Fund as an election issue, somebody miscalculated.

New details of the Crocus story reveal that:

* the fund was in serious trouble much earlier than anyone knew before,
* that government officials were aware of it, and
* that the NDP government and Crocus engaged in a conspiracy of silence as Manitobans were being duped into putting their pension money into overvalued shares.

This only supplies more ammunition to calls for a public inquiry, if not a re-energized criminal investigation into fraud, conspiracy and cover-up involving government officials including Finance Minister Greg Selinger, Premier Gary Doer and Justice Minister Gord Macintosh. That's not the story the FP wanted you to read.

Their story was all about how a plucky company on the verge of an expansion hired two outsiders to help, and they, instead, turned on the founders and tried to take over the company for themselves, but wound up destroying it instead.


The government has barely a walk-on role in this fable.

If only the Crocus Fund wasn't hamstrung by intolerable rules unprecedented in Canada, the fairy tale goes, it would never have run into financial difficulties and would have easily weathered the storm.

And the Witch wouldn't eat Hansel and Gretel.


The FP story focus is on the final months of 2004 before trading in Crocus shares was suspended. It's a tale bolstered by ignoring the facts of the Crocus scandal, many of which surfaced in a series of leaked government documents which, for reasons not explained, the Free Press refused to report on.

We now know that since 2000 the Crocus Fund had been in deep financial trouble. It was spending gobs of money which it wasn't earning.

In 2000, 2001 and 2002 the NDP changed laws to keep Crocus solvent, but it wasn't helping.

Crocus had become a Ponzi scheme, needing money from new investors to pay off old investors. And even that wasn't enough.

The rules required Crocus to invest their shareholders' money in Manitoba firms within two years. If it was all going to redemptions, the day they would run out of money was fast approaching. The Crocus management had a grand plan to end their money woes.

Despite mismanaging their own money, they would become managers, for a healthy fee, of a Superfund, a pool of pension money from other government and private pension funds in the province.

To this end they hired Laurie Goldberg as chief operating officer and John Pelton as chief investment officer. The problem was that these two men insisted on satisfying themselves that Crocus shares were properly valued.

When they started looking into the closets, they found the skeletons the Crocus board had been hiding.

Crocus shares were vastly overvalued. Investors who bought in now would be cheated.


The Winnipeg Free Press reveals that in the summer of 2004, Pelton and Goldberg told Crocus officials that a writedown of $30-$40 million was likely by the end of September. The rest of the story is an account of how the writedown unfolded:

-- a partial writedown in September,
-- heated meetings over differences in the value of Crocus holdings, -- resignations of board members,
-- the release of a prospectus which did or did not include overstated valuations, and finally,
-- a walk to the Manitoba Securities Commission which halted trading in Crocus shares.


New information from Crocus directors provides a better understanding of why the labour reps fought so strongly against a devaluation.

To start, the Superfund was just around the corner.

From the FP:

"The local investment council, a creation of the Premier's Economic Advisory Committee, wanted to create a new capital pool with contributions by the six big public pension plans and Crown corporation investment funds." "the local investment council was, by the fall of 2004, drafting a plan to issue a request for proposals for a third-party manager."

A glance at the Premier's Economic Advisory group uncovers a raft of labour reps, almost all of whom have connections to the Manitoba Federation of Labour, the sponsor of the Crocus Fund, not to mention Sherman Kreiner and Gary Doer's pal, Costas Ataliotis, who was apparently using Crocus "investments" to cover weekly payroll for his company Maple Leaf Distillers.

Because a Superfund might take a while, CFO Jane Hawkins had a meeting arranged with Industry Minister Jim Rondeau on Nov. 16, 2004, to go over details of another change in legislation, this to eliminate the "pacing" requirements that Crocus hated.

In layman's terms, these were the rules that forced Crocus to invest the lion's share of new shareholders' money in local firms.


Scrapping them would allow Crocus to become a full Ponzi scheme, able to use all the new share sales revenue to pay off old shareholders who wanted to cash out.

According to the FP, Crocus CEO Sherman Kreiner was playing a game of chicken with the government.

He had, he told his board, already warned the government that if they didn't change the laws on pacing and reserves, Crocus would have to sit out the 2005 RRSP season. Did the NDP want that responsibility?


The Free Press made no mention of Exhibit A, the critical piece of evidence unearthed by The Black Rod. http://blackrod.blogspot.com/2005/07/hirst-rides-to-rescue.html

On November 13, 2004, Crocus launched its Switch-and-Save campaign to entice investors to switch their pension holdings from a safe investment into the Crocus Fund, to take advantage of the 30 percent provincial and federal tax savings on labour-sponsored funds.

By Nov. 13, the board of Crocus knew for almost a month that another writedown, and a major one at that, was imminent. And still they were advertising for Manitobans to buy Crocus shares at the overvalued price.

It now appears that this may have been a stop-gap effort to bring money into Crocus if sales were interrupted over the RRSP period, as looked possible.


The Winnipeg Free Press also failed to report that by November, 2004, the NDP knew all about the overvaluation of Crocus shares and would have known that Switch-and-Save was a scam offer.

One of the leaks of internal government documents that were ignored by the FP was reported by Tom Brodbeck in the Winnipeg Sun. It's now a crucial piece of the puzzle, and one you won't read about in the FP.

It was a three-page memo marked "Confidential, for Finance Department Only" written Sept. 13, 2004. Brodbeck wrote:

"The Crocus Investment Fund's cash-crunch problems were so bad in the months leading up to its 2004 demise, the fund didn't even have enough assets to sell off to pay investors who wanted to redeem their shares, a confidential provincial government memo obtained by the Winnipeg Sun states. And what assets the fund did have were worth far less than what shareholders were told their units were worth, the memo says."

The newspaper published some excerpts from the memo:

- "Crocus states it may not be able to profitably sell off investments (i.e. assets sales will not be sufficient to fund redemptions) and Crocus does not want to borrow to fund redemptions."
- "While new investors will expect a return on their investment, no money will be invested in assets that could reasonably be expected to generate that return."
- "Crocus has never provided the province with a business plan demonstrating how it will get out of the liquidity crunch."
- "There is a significant risk that Crocus's liquidity crunch will worsen and new investors will suffer losses."
- "Crocus has warned that its board is considering whether or not to offer shares in the 2005 selling season."
-- Federal-Provincial Relations and Research Division memo, Sept. 13, 2004

From Brodbeck's column (which we can't improve on):
"Crocus has taken the position that it does not have investments that can be sold off to raise enough money to fund redemptions," the memo says. "New investors will expect the province to bear responsibility for allowing Crocus to use their money to pay off old investors."


"In essence, Crocus is saying that the assets underlying the share value are not currently sufficient to cover the share value," the memo says. "If a publicly-traded company was in a similar circumstance, the share value would decline to reflect the value of the assets."

"Crocus is requesting that the province allow it to mask the poor marketability of its investment portfolio by allowing it to take money from new investors to prop up the share price for redeeming investors," the memo states.

In fact, things were so bad the provincial Finance Department suggested Crocus could tell new investors in 2005 -- on a separate form they would have to sign -- that their money may not be used to invest in Manitoba companies. The memo suggested the following wording:
"I also understand that Crocus might not use money raised through the sale of shares to invest in Manitoba companies, but might use it instead to fund the redemption of shares purchased by previous investors."

So here was the government suggesting taxpayers give new investors a 30% tax credit -- not for new investments into Manitoba companies to create more jobs -- but to help solve Crocus's cash-flow crisis.

Brodbeck's conclusion:

"The memo debunks claims by Finance Minister Greg Selinger that the fund's cash-flow problems had nothing to do with its failure."

A mystery for any public inquiry to answer is how the Finance Department had such a detailed account of the problems within the Crocus Fund, when the Fund's Board of Directors apparently had no idea until late September at the earliest.

Was it the Eugene Kostyra-David Woodbury secret back-channel from Crocus to the NDP cabinet as revealed in The Black Rod (Leaked Crocus Document Shows Path to NDP Government's Back Door, Saturday, April 14, 2007 http://blackrod.blogspot.com/2007/04/leaked-crocus-document-shows-path-to.html)?

One thing is certain.

You can't expect the Winnipeg Free Press to provide the answer.

After all, a newspaper that hides the fact that its co-owner, Bob Silver, is the co-chairman of the Premier's Economic Advisory Committee, and may know more about the Superfund and Crocus than he's revealed so far, has bigger secrets to conceal.