Canada’s Winter Olympics champion

The Canadian team won 24 medals at the 2006 Winter Olympic games. This positioned them in third place (as decided by the most total medals, not by the most gold medals) behind Germany (29) and the USA (25).

Coming in only one medal behind the USA is pretty impressive, since the USA has ten times our population. Of course, we have ten times as much winter!

Cindy Klassen was the big story for Canada.

She brought home five speed skating medals: one gold (1,500 metre long-track speed skating); two silver (1,000 metres and women’s team pursuit); and two bronze (3,000 metres and 5,000 metres).

Five races, five medals. Klassen is the first woman ever to win five long-track medals at one Olympic games. It is also the most medals ever won by a Canadian at a single Olympic games.

Klassen had a bronze in the games at Salt Lake city, so her lifetime total is six medals.

It was fitting that one of our female athletes should dominate. Canada sent fewer women than men to the games, but the women won 16 medals to the men’s 8.

Many countries provide less funding for their female athletes than for their male athletes. Canada doesn’t take sex into account in determining levels of funding, and it seems to have paid off in Turin.

24 is the most medals Canada has ever won at an Olympic games, far more than our previous record of 17 at Salt Lake City.


How do you spell p-r-o-d-i-g-y?

There’s a great story in today’s Globe and Mail about an 11-year-old spelling champion. 2½ years ago, she spoke no English — only Chinese and French. But now she will represent her school in the regional spelling championship, which may catapult her into a national competition.

How is this possible? Who learns not only to speak English, but to spell it in only 2½ years?! It is truly extraordinary, according to Jack Chambers, a sociolinguist at the University of Toronto:

[Mr. Chambers] points out that learning a language and becoming a good speller are different things.

“Everybody knows children have a God-given ability for mastering language that gets lost somewhere around puberty,” he says. “But spelling is not something that’s a gift; it’s an acquisition. It’s something we have to learn, and it’s a lot more like learning how to play chess than learning how to speak.”

Wenyi Yin’s first language is Mandarin. She was born in Changchun, a city in northeastern China, in 1994.

When she was 5, her parents moved the family to Belgium, where her father, a chemical engineer, earned his doctorate, and where French is spoken at school.

“We couldn’t speak French,” says her father, Zhihui Yin. “Suddenly, in eight or nine months, she spoke fluent French.” In 2003, Mr. Yin finished his studies. He and his wife, Yajie, decided to move to Canada, where Mr. Yin found a research position at the University of Toronto.

When they left Belgium, her father says, Wenyi’s English vocabulary consisted of two words: “Okay and bye-bye, and that’s it.”

The family had only two months to adjust before the school year would begin. They exposed Wenyi to as much English as they could. But

the morning announcements, in English, were lost on the nine-year-old as she settled into her seat at Huron Street Public School in Toronto.

“When they said, ‘Please stand up for O Canada,’ I didn’t know what to do,” she says now. …

Wenyi was in good company at Huron; about one-third of the 430 students have a first language other than English. She was matched with another Mandarin-speaking student, who served as a mentor.

While she initially appeared shy and quiet, Wenyi was soaking up words like a sponge. When her parents would bring home a fresh batch of books from the library, thinking they would keep her busy for a week, she’d take them back after a few hours and ask for more.

“I remember I learned English, the everyday words, in three months I guess,” she says. “I just listened to other people say it, and it just registered in my head. It just started building up, bit by bit.”

This is already amazing by me. I’ve studied French and New Testament Greek, but frankly I’m terrible at learning a second language. I am awestruck by the rest of Wenyi’s story:

One morning last fall, her ears pricked up during morning announcements. “Do you like to S-P-E-L-L?” Samantha Berman, a Grade 5 teacher, asked over the PA system. “Is spell check a superfluous tool for you? Do you like competition?”

Yes, Wenyi thought. She liked words — all of them, she says — so she made her way to Room 13 for the inaugural meeting of the school’s CanSpell Club on Oct. 3.

The club’s 11 members, from Grades 4, 5 and 6, met once a week. Using the CanSpell study list, they would fill their 45-minute lunch break with word games, crossword puzzles and forays into the dictionary to find the words’ origins and definitions — words like ‘Lilliputian’ and ‘oxytocia’ and ‘hydrangea.’

At their first bee on Jan. 26, in front of their classmates, the competitors dropped off, one by one, as they worked through a list of about 50 words. When her last opponent flubbed ‘attuned,’ Wenyi got it right, then coasted to victory on a gimme. “It was so easy,” she says. “It was ‘helmet’.”

This month, she advanced another step by winning a written bee, overseen by Ms. Berman. That win assured Wenyi’s role as Huron’s representative at the regionals on March 5. She will face spellers from 73 other Toronto schools in a showdown at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, one of 14 regional bees to be held across the country.

The winner and runner-up from each regional contest will advance to the CanWest CanSpell National Spelling Bee in Ottawa on April 5.

OK, Wenyi has a way to go before we can declare her a national champion. But obviously she has an extraordinary aptitude for language. I am so impressed!

Candy coated coffee beans

My favourite coffee shop occasionally gives out free samples of candy coated coffee beans. I like the concept, but I’ve always been a little wary of them. I’m sensitive to caffeine, and Mary P. has this disturbing story she likes to tell.

candy-coated coffee beansIt’s a true story, about a woman who ended up in the emergency ward at her local hospital with a dangerously high heart rate. She was eating candy coated coffee beans like they were — well, like they were candy. She didn’t realize just how much caffeine they actually contain.

So I have been looking at these appealing treats a little suspiciously and wondering: just how much caffeine do they contain? The sales staff in the coffee shop weren’t able to tell me.

The answer is this: a small serving (28 grams = 1 oz.) contains nearly twice as much caffeine as a regular cup of coffee.

type serving caffeine
drip  250ml = 8oz   115-175mg 
espresso 30ml = 1oz 100mg
candy coated beans  28g 226mg

Some comments are in order. First, the amount of caffeine in a cup of java varies depending on how strong the brew is. That’s why the amount of caffeine in drip coffee is presented as a range, 115-175mg.

Second, you may be surprised to see that a serving of espresso has less caffeine than a serving of drip coffee. Why? Espresso is served in much smaller amounts, as you can see from the table. It is also brewed more quickly (30 seconds instead of ~6 minutes), so less caffeine is extracted — see below.

Third, as I’ve already stated, a serving of candy coated coffee beans contains nearly twice as much caffeine as a regular cup of coffee. Bear that in mind, and save yourself a trip to emergency.

I know there are a lot of coffee lovers out there. Here, for your amusement, is a little bonus information.

Espresso myths exposed!

1. Myth: Espresso carries more of a caffeine jolt than regular brewed coffee.

False: Espresso is brewed from Arabica beans, which have a richer taste and a lower caffeine content than the less prized (and less expensive) Robusta beans. Because a cup of espresso takes no more than 30 seconds to brew, less caffeine is extracted than in drip coffee — which takes anywhere from 5 to 7 minutes.

2. Myth: Bigger is better.

False: Large cups don’t do espresso justice. The proper portion of espresso is one ounce, and the cup should be very small so that it holds the heat. Thick china cups are preferred. Large cups dissipate the heat and the crema (foam) which carries the aroma in a fine cup of espresso.
[An aside: Speaking as a vertically-challenged man, I feel compelled to point out that this “bigger is better” business is always a myth — in whatever context it arises. So to speak.]

3. Myth: Put your coffee for espresso in the freezer for freshness.

False: Freezing the coffee coagulates the natural oils contained in the bean. In an espresso, those oils emulsify producing the wonderful body of this special cup of coffee.

I apologize if that last sentence sounds like a bit of a sales pitch. In fact, it is: the Web site is hosted by Illy coffee.

Tolerance is not enough

Tony Blair’s government recently failed to pass a controversial piece of legislation, the Racial and Religious Hatred bill. A watered down version of the bill is likely to be introduced in its stead:

The new offence is designed to stop hatred being whipped up against people because of their religion — not just their race. …

Sikhs and Jews already have full protection from incitement because the courts regard them as distinct races. But Christians, Muslims and others have not been given the same protection because they do not constitute a single ethnic block.

Presumably the government expected Christians to support the bill, but it was opposed by groups including the Seventh Day Adventists and an unlikely alliance of humanists, secularists, evangelical Christians, and even some Muslims. The latter group of strange bedfellows, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, worried that the bill would undermine free speech:

“A free society must have the scope to debate, criticise, proselytise, insult and even to ridicule belief and religious practices in order to ensure that there is full scope — short of violence or inciting violence or other criminal offences — to tackle these issues.” …

The signatories to the letter include two Muslims, Dr Ghyasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, and Manzoor Moghal, of the Muslim Forum.

Their views contrast with the stance of the Muslim Council of Britain, widely seen as the country’s most representative Muslim body, which is supportive of the new legislation.

The Church of England supported the legislation, but Dr. N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, opposed it. Wright is a clergyman and a New Testament scholar who makes a lot of waves. (If you do a blog search on Tom Wright you’ll get more than 17,000 hits.)

On February 9, Wright addressed the House of Lords on the theme, “Moral Climate Change and Freedom of Speech”. Here are some excerpts (the full text is available here):

What we face, my Lords, is “moral climate change”, comparable to other forms of climate change and equally dangerous. The 1960s and 1970s swept away the old moral certainties, and anyone who tries to reassert them risks being mocked as an ignoramus or scorned as a hypocrite.But since then we’ve learned that you can’t run the world as a hippy commune. Getting rid of the old moralities hasn’t made us happier or safer. We have discovered that we do indeed need some guidelines if chaos is not to come again. …

This uncertainty, my Lords, has produced our current nightmare, the invention of new quasi-moralities out of bits and pieces of moral rhetoric. … But it isn’t just the invention of new moralities that should concern us, my Lords. It is the attempt to enforce them — to enforce, that is, newly invented standards which are in some cases the exact opposite of the old ones.

How else can we explain the ejection of a heckler from a party conference for questioning the government’s stance on Iraq, or the attempted silencing of protests on the same subject in Parliament Square? How else can we explain the anxiety not only of religious leaders but also of comedians when faced with that dangerously vague and insidious Religious Hatred legislation? How else can we explain the police investigation of religious leaders such as my Right Reverend colleague the Bishop of Chester, or the Chair of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, for making moderate and considered statements about homosexual practice?And since the crimes in question have to do, not with actions but with ideas and beliefs, what we are seeing is thought crime. People in my diocese have told me that they are now afraid to speak their minds in the pub on some major contemporary issues for fear of being reported, investigated, and perhaps charged.

My Lords, I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime. All that such a situation can achieve is to add another new fear to those which minorities already experience. The word for such a state of affairs is “tyranny”: sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police. …

Part of the problem of “freedom of speech” is that it tends to be the media who are most in favour of it — though they themselves often cheerfully censor information that cuts against editorial policy. Freedom of speech, my Lords, is useless if it is only selectively enjoyed, and if it is not combined with appropriate responsibility.

If “freedom of speech” is to be rehabilitiated as a useful concept, it needs to be set within a larger context of social and cultural wisdom. …

“Tolerance” is not the point. My Lords, I can “tolerate” someone standing on the other side of the street. I don’t need to engage with them.

“Tolerance” … is a parody of something deeper, richer and more costly, for which we must work: a genuine and reciprocal freedom, a freedom properly contextualised within a wise responsibility, freedom not to be gratuitously rude or offensive, especially to those who are already in danger on the margins of society.

It is a freedom to speak the truth as we see it while simultaneously listening to the truth as others see it, and to work forwards from there. …

My Lords, it is precisely that sort of wise, responsible freedom which is at risk if you’re afraid that honestly held beliefs, clearly and respectfully expressed, are likely to get you into trouble with the law.

Wright makes a lot of provocative points here. I singled out just one in the title of this post: tolerance is not enough.

Wright suggests that tolerance is a cheap virtue. We need to do more than tolerate those who are different from us: we need to engage them in dialogue.

Hence the importance of free speech. When people are free to express their ideas, conventional views get held up to critical scrutiny. We learn from one another, and we make intellectual and moral progress.

That’s why Wright opposed the Racial and Religious Hatred bill. It is impossible to engage others in dialogue if you’re afraid that you’ll be arrested if you speak your mind.

On the other hand, free speech is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Thus Wright is critical of the way free speech is currently exercised in our society. He says that free speech must be exercised responsibly; it is useless if it is only selectively enjoyed; it must be set within a larger context of social and cultural wisdom; it is a freedom not to be gratuitously rude or offensive.

Wright doesn’t say so, but I suspect those cartoons that denigrated Muhammad and Islam are in the background here. Did the cartoons promote dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims? Did they cause us to think twice about our conventional understanding of Islam, or did they merely reinforce the sterotypical view? Did they contribute to the human race’s intellectual and moral progress?

We are grappling with complex and incendiary issues here. Governments and news media act irresponsibly when they make simplistic, expedient gestures.

In the current geopolitical climate, moving forward is like hiking on uneven terrain: with each and every step, we must be extremely careful about where we set our feet.

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

Olympic-calibre sportsmanship

From Wednesday’s Ottawa Citizen:

In an act of pure sportsmanship, the head of the top cross-country ski team in the world sacrificed an Olympic medal for his own country by handing Canadian skier Sara Renner a pole after hers broke during a race yesterday.
hakensmoen.jpgThe move by Bjornar Hakensmoen, the chief of the Norwegian cross-country ski federation, meant that Ms. Renner and Beckie Scott were able to keep up in the women’s team sprint and capture the silver, while the Norwegians came in fourth.

The Canadian team was in second place when Ms. Renner’s pole broke. The race was a relay where one skier does a 1.1-kilometre loop, then tags their partner, who races the same loop. They repeat the process three times.

Ms. Renner was skiing her third lap. When the pole broke, two other skiers quickly passed her:

“I don’t even know what happened,” a grinning Renner of Canmore, Alta., said after earning Canada’s third medal of the Games.
“I just knew that all of a sudden I was kind of paddling with one arm. I didn’t panic. I think a Norwegian gave me a new pole. It was a man’s pole and it was really long. I was able to make it without losing too much time. It’s not the best thing to happen, but at the same time, you can’t give up.”

Returning to the first article:

scottrenner.jpgOver the remaining 400 metres of the lap, Ms. Renner managed to almost catch up to her Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian peers. By the time she tagged Ms. Scott, 31, of Vermilion, Alta., the Canadians were only two seconds behind third-place Norway with two exchanges remaining.

Without receiving the pole from Mr. Hakensmoen, Ms. Renner would have laboured into the exchange area, and Ms. Scott would have had a Herculean task to catch the top three skiers.

Mr. Hakensmoen made light of his decision:

“This is a small, small thing,” he said, humbly. “Hopefully, she’s happy.”…
“It’s for the good of the sport. We need to help each other. … We have a policy in the Norwegian cross-country ski program that, if a skier from another country needs equipment, we have to help. … It doesn’t matter (that Norway finished fourth). We need to compete on a fair course. The skiers need two skis and two poles and that must be the right way.”

Good for him, being modest about it. But it was an olympic-calibre act of sportsmanship.

The Muhammad cartoons:How Jews and Muslims in Canada have responded

First, the statement of the Canadian Jewish Congress:

TORONTO – Canadian Jewish Congress National President Ed Morgan made the following statement regarding the controversial publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in newspapers in a number of countries including Canada:“We are saddened by a situation that has gotten entirely out of hand. The decision by all those who chose to publish the cartoons is inexcusably provocative, insensitive and disrespectful of Muslim believers. At the same time, we strongly denounce the verbally and physically violent reaction to their publication by so many of those same believers.

“We commend Canada’s Muslim community for the civility with which it has protested and those media who have decided not to republish the cartoons. We regret that there are some in the media and elsewhere who have taken the misguided step of using these cartoons as a means to defend freedom of expression.

“We join those Muslims and non-Muslims who have been appalled by the response to the publication of the cartoons and condemn those groups and regimes that have fanned the flames for their own political ends. We stand in solidarity with the Danish people whose institutions are being attacked and whose products are being boycotted, and with whom we have a special historic connection. We remember with gratitude the exceptional role Denmark played in rescuing its Jewish citizens from the Holocaust.

“Freedom of expression and the protection of vulnerable minorities from group vilification are fundamental values of a secular, pluralistic democracy. These two values must be delicately balanced against one another. We hope that that calm re-establishes itself so that this issue can be discussed in an atmosphere of mutual respect, without intimidation.”

Meanwhile, according to the Globe and Mail, a magazine which publishes out of Calgary, Alberta, will publish the cartoons today. For emphasis, allow me to repeat the relevant part of the CJC’s statement: “We regret that there are some in the media and elsewhere who have taken the misguided step of using these cartoons as a means to defend freedom of expression.”

Second, let’s have a look at the response of the Canadian Islamic Congress. The quote comes from another Globe and Mail article, entitled “Why the global rage hasn’t engulfed Canada”:

Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said violent demonstrations simply aren’t a fit with the Canadian Muslim community — which, because of Canada’s immigration requirements, he said, is the most highly educated Muslim community in the world.”They would find legal and peaceful means of protest far more productive,” said the imam and professor at the University of Waterloo. “With demonstrations, you cannot have full control over who does what.”

His organization, the largest Muslim umbrella group in Canada, has actively discouraged demonstrations over the cartoons and has spoken publicly against the violent protests.

The Globe and Mail also quotes Tarek Fatah, a leader of the Muslim Canadian Congress. Mr. Fatah makes a point that, in my view, penetrates to the heart of the matter: that moderate Muslims must take “ownership of the word Muslim.”

Mr. Fatah believes that has happened in Canada: that moderate Muslims have mobilized to ensure that their voice gets heard, not the voice of the extremist minority.

How to enrage your enemies and alienate your allies

The USA has a lock on the gold medal for meddling. I suppose it’s a natural consequence of being the most powerful nation on earth; every nation that has ever found itself in that position has succumbed to the temptation of coercing other nations into doing their bidding.

From the print edition of Saturday’s Globe and Mail (emphasis added):

The 45-year-old U.S. embargo on trade, travel and investment dealings with Cuba is an anachronistic leftover of the Cold War that should have been lifted years ago. Instead, the Bush administration has turned more aggressive in enforcing the ban, to the point that it is demanding once more that the foreign subsidiaries of American companies obey U.S. regulations, even when they contravene the laws of the countries in which they are operating.Such was the case last Friday when the Hotel Maria Isabel Sheraton in Mexico City tossed 16 Cuban officials out of ther luxury rooms and seized their deposit. …

The Cuban trade delegation had been invited to a conference with U.S. energy executives in Mexico City. The sponsor was the U.S-Cuba Trade Association, a Washington-based lobby that seeks to foster business opportunities between Cuba and the United States, which do exist despite the embargo.

When the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, which enforces the Cuban rules, got wind of the public meeting, a phone call was placed to … Sheraton’s corporate parent. Not wishing to run afoul of U.S. authorities, the company ordered the eviction. But in doing so, the hotel embarrassed the Mexican government and likely violated Mexican law. …

Nothing was happening in Mexico City that could have hurt U.S. national interests. Indeed, the trade association said it was scrupulously obeying U.S. rules.

The Bush administration has relied on two pieces of legislation, the 1996 Helms-Burton Act … and the Trading with the Enemy Act, which dates back to the First World War, to intimidate U.S. and foreign companies trying to do business with Cuba.

Canadian companies have also been faulted for “trading with the enemy”. The U.S. government has threatened to seize the assets of Canadian companies doing business with Cuba.

To be blunt about it, the Bush administration should f*ck *ff. Message to George Dubya: you are not the President of Canada. And frankly, you’re running your own country into the ground, so we’d prefer to chart our own course.

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

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