Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Tale of Two Monsters

Eastern Ontario, as peaceable a part of the world as you can find, has recently had the dubious privilege of witnessing two of the most horrific and high-profile murder trials in the history of Canada.

In 2010, in Belleville, the world was transfixed during the sentencing of Russell Williams who had pleaded guilty to two first-degree murder charges and many dozens of lesser charges. Only days ago, in Kingston, three members of the Shafia family were sentenced to four counts each of first-degree murder for the so-called honour killing of three teenage members of their family and the first of Mohammad Shafia's two wives.

In each of these cases, the conduct of the accused was absolutely incomprehensible to the average onlooker. In each case, the circumstances of the killings were monstrous and therefore surely the perpetrators were monsters.

Russell Williams
The first monster, Russell Williams, was a most unusual sexual predator. So far as we know, he had never acted upon his deviant sexual urges until well into his adult years. He began breaking and entering into houses that he knew would contain female undergarments. He videotaped himself in various acts involving those garments. This he repeated dozens of times, including in the homes of his neighbours and people he knew in his private life.  He targeted the homes of women and young girls.

Williams' private life was another feature that made him a most unusual monster. Unlike many and perhaps most sex offenders, he was an outwardly successful and well-adjusted man. He had a successful military career as a pilot, having been chosen to fly Queen Elizabeth on one occasion. He rose to the rank of Base Commander at CFB Trenton. He was seemingly happily married, and he was to all appearances an exemplary citizen and soldier.

However, his sexual fetishism escalated into sexual assaults and eventually to two blood-curdling murders of women who had come to his attention and who he had used for sexual gratification.  All of his crimes were meticulously recorded by him so that he could relive them again and again in the privacy of his own sick mind.

He was caught for the simplest of reasons. He happened to have a vehicle with a fairly rare tire tread pattern and because of this the police could place him at the scene of one of the murders. He walked into a police station, filled with the confidence and arrogance of a military man whose orders are promptly obeyed, in order to answer a few routine questions, but he never left. During a lengthy interrogation, he was confronted with the evidence against him and made a full confession.

After living a double life for many years, Russell Williams chose to make a clean breast of it. He pleaded guilty plea to all the charges and he co-operated in the gathering of evidence against him. He was forced to sit through a sentencing hearing during which all of the humiliating evidence that he had gathered to document his various sick triumphs was used to justify a life sentence.  We were all left in a state of shock at what the evidence he had gathered against himself disclosed.  He was a narcissistic and unfeeling sadist.  He also had no respect for persons under his care.  One of his victims was a member of the Canadian military under his command.

Mohammed Shafia, Tooba Yahya and Hamed Shafia
The Shafia case, just concluded in Kingston, was very different. Mohammad Shafia and his second wife and their son were convicted of the premeditated murder of three teenage daughters of the family and the first wife of Mr. Shafia. Unlike Russell Williams, the accused have vociferously protested their innocence, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them.

The murders took place because three teenage girls wanted to be free of the medieval rules under which their father wanted them to live. Their stepmother died because she was sympathetic to the girls. Mohammad Shafia lived in a world in which the sexuality of his daughters was his to dispose of. Unauthorized behaviour, including the wearing of clothing of which he did not approve, was a betrayal of his "honour." His second wife and their son were complicit in these murders but the father was the instigator, the real monster.

Or, rather, the monster is the belief system that the father acquired in his native Afghanistan and that survived within him after he emigrated first to Australia, then to Dubai and finally to Montréal. The daughters of Mohammad Shafia were, in this belief system, not independent young women to be encouraged to choose a mate or a career. They were his property. They were, in fact, his property to the extent that when they rejected his view of the world and of their future as envisioned and indeed dictated by him, by simply acting as normal teenagers, he saw no alternative but to murder them. It appears that his wife and son were so steeped in the same sick worldview that they readily agreed and assisted in the simple harebrained scheme he came up with to dispose of them.

The facts came out at trial revealed Shafia to be a small-minded, penny-pinching, petty, tyrannical and ultimately stupid man. He formulated a plan that had no chance of remaining undetected by law enforcement officials. He left evidence of the plan and half-baked attempts to cover-up the plan all over Eastern Ontario.

What can we learn from the cases of these monsters? Perhaps the first thing of note is that the best way to avoid the notice of such people is not to be a woman. Both Russell Williams and Mohammad Shafia acted out of perverted ideas about, or at least responses to, sexuality. Apart from that, what do we make of these two cases? Russell Williams terrifies us because he could be anyone in our midst. A successful man with a ready smile, he was the type of man people trusted. Who could possibly know that a Mr. Hyde lurked within him? How can we ever know who among us carries such perversion within him? How can we protect ourselves from people who can so well conceal their capacity to extinguish human life for their own gratification?

But at least Russell Williams knew that what he was doing was wrong. When he was confronted with the evidence, he confessed, almost with a sense of relief. Mohammad Shafia will almost certainly go to his grave knowing that he was right to murder his daughters and his first wife. No condemnation by our society can make a dent in his unalterable belief that he had the right to dispose of his daughters as if they were chattels because they would not bend to his will. The trial judge called him dishonourable and despicable, but one must take away the sense that these words coming from a representative of our mainstream society mean nothing to a man like him, because only his internal sense of honour matters.

His son had been researching whether a landlord could still look after real estate from jail before the murders had taken place.  It seems that they expected to be jailed, or at least looked into that possibility before carrying out their murderous plan.  Despite this the Shafias lied through their teeth in attempt to escape the most harsh penalty our society can exact. But all of this was nothing as compared to Mohammad Shafia's sense of damaged honour.

Many people have noted, and I accept their word on this, that honour killing is not an Islamic phenomenon.  I have no doubt that the Koran is opposed to this despicable practice, and that it is based in cultural norms that likely far predate the birth of Mohammad the Prophet.

Honour killing is in fact found in other cultures.  Just a couple of weeks ago a mother in Maple Ridge, BC was arrested for arranging the murder of her own daughter in India.  The murder took place ten years ago, but only now, and after extensive media coverage, have Canadian police laid a charge.  The family are Sikhs.  The sin of the daughter was to marry a man the family did not approve of.  And for that reason the family killed her, or so it seems.

And so, which of these is the greater monster? Only a year ago I would have said that I could imagine no worse monster than Russell Williams. Now I'm not so sure. The cold-blooded murder of three of one's children for the reasons that animated Mohammad Shafia will be hard to top.

Russell Williams is one of a kind, and whatever produced him could arise in anyone, anywhere.  And at least whatever produced him is not contagious.  Mohammad Shafia is the prisoner of a culture.  It seems that anyone brought up this culture can come to act upon its hateful principles. Which should we fear more:  the individual psychopath or the contagious, toxic culture of hate?  Frankly, for me it is the latter.

Even here, in in the most peaceable country of Eastern Ontario, there be monsters.  It would be nice to think that we might be done with them for a while.  But all the same, they are here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Patriotic Purchase

Everybody knows that I am an Apple guy.  I have a MacBook Pro, an iPad, an iPhone and numerous iPods.  My family are also Apple people.  I like the way Apple devices work, the way they are designed and the thought that goes into them.  Since Steve Jobs turned the company around Apple has been on a roll the likes of which we have rarely if ever seen in the business world.  I deny that I am a "fanboy," whatever people mean by that, in the sense that I do not slavishly purchase or praise everything Apple puts out.  But it is a company that makes it easy for its customers to remain loyal.  In recent years they have rarely put a foot wrong while reinventing many business sectors and inventing brand new ones too.

On the other hand, as a Canadian, I greatly admire the way that Research In Motion has created and dominated an important class of device.  The Blackberry is ubiquitous and synonymous with secure messaging.  The largest corporations and governments around the world have come to rely on this Canadian product.  Blackberry was, until recently at least, a gold standard around the world.  And it is all due to two very clever Canadians from the Waterloo area and the company they built right here.

However, and sadly for those of us who want to see Canadian firms succeed, RIM has encountered a bad patch.  Now, instead of being a unique provider of a unique product--secure messaging services for the government and enterprise market--RIM has become just one of many purveyors of the "smartphone."  And it is taking a beating.  Apple entered the smartphone market in 2007 to jeers of derision from the industry.  How could a mere computer company understand their industry?

But Apple is now making the most successful smartphone in the world and everybody else is copying what they do.  Nokia was a world leader, but faded so fast that it had to sell its soul to Microsoft just to survive.  RIM itself has become a world-class underachiever, over-promising and under-delivering over and over.   It is losing market share and the confidence of users and shareholders alike, to the point that its market value is a fraction of what it used to be.

Take the Playbook.  This is a tablet, with a 7 inch screen, that RIM released about a year ago and apparently thought could compete directly against Apple's iPad.  Guess again, RIM!   For a first generation device the iPad 1 was, if not exactly as Steve Jobs claimed "magical" it was at least extremely well thought through.  I bought one the first day they went on sale in 2010 and it has never let me down.  Apple got it right with the iPad two years ago and sent all its competitors off to their drawing boards.

And guess what they all did, RIM included?  Well, they thought that if they produced tablets that did what the iPad did and priced them to match up with the iPad, they could grab a fair slice of the tablet pie.   What they have all found out is that to take a piece of Apple's market share they have to considerably outperform or underprice Apple, or both.  In addition, Apple's real ace in the hole is its stores for apps and music.  It is a question of having the right hardware, software and content.  It seems that only Amazon has figured this out.  Its new Kindle Fire tablet comes in at $199 but it is a limited device with limited aspirations, and it is selling very well because of Amazon's store and content.

The Playbook that RIM tried to fob off on the market was a tablet that was smaller than the iPad and, perhaps fatally, had a new operating system that was a work in progress.  It did not even have a mail application.  There were few apps for the device.  As a result, the marketplace killed them.  A major software upgrade to correct the shortcomings was promised and then delayed.   Meanwhile, of course, Apply has released and sold millions of the iPad 1 and iPad 2 and an iPad 3 is in the works.  Apple is working very hard to maintain its lead.  RIM is still struggling to make its first generation Playbook a realistic option.

Finally, in recent weeks, RIM has been forced to do what Hewlett Packard did some months ago.  They slashed the price to clear inventories.  For HP, the market told them that their tablet was a great value at $100, a price point that was obviously unsustainable.  For RIM, it is not quite so clear what the market is saying, but a 64 GB Playbook that was previously offered for sale at $699 can now be bought for $299.  At the same time at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the long-promised Playbook OS 2.0 has been receiving raves from the press.   It is finally ready for prime time.

So, the long and short of it is .... (drumroll please!)  I bought one.

Why, you might well ask?  Well, I can evade that question by saying that I didn't actually need a Bentley either!  I don't know why I bought it, other than to say:
  • I was really curious
  • I wanted to support a Canadian company
  • What I have read about the device is very intriguing
  • I can't resist a bargain
So, here is my assessment so far, with the caveat that everything on the software side will change in February with the release of Playbook OS 2.0.


I am really impressed.  It is well-built and well-designed.  The 7 inch screen is bright and clear.  The supplied HD video sample is breathtaking on this screen.  There are stereo speakers in the front of the device, something Apple has not been able to do so far.  The size splits the difference nicely between my iPhone 4 and my iPad.

It is fast and responsive.  It seems to run multiple apps simultaneously with no effort.

It has a micro-HDMI output and connects with no effort to an HDMI supplied television.  Everything on the Playbook screen is mirrored on the television screen in full 1080p resolution and looks truly wonderful.

The Playbook has front and rear facing cameras, at 3 and 5 megapixels respectively.

Being in Canada I have not had a chance to see a Kindle Fire, but the screen has identical specs as the Playbook in size and resolution.  However, it has only 8GB internal storage, of which 6GB is available to the user.


My impression of Playbook OS 1.0 is that it is "promising."  It is intuitive to use and navigate and the supplied apps work well.  The real story will be OS 2.0.  Android application compatibility and a powerful messaging and mail app are promised among other goodies.

The existing apps available on the Blackberry store are disappointing to say the least.  There does not even seem to be a Kindle app, although there is an app for Kobo and a number of other e-reader apps.

The browser is perfectly fine, and Flash works as advertised.

I have not tried the videoconferencing app yet but would be surprised if it does not work well.


At $299 for a 64 GB Playbook, I don't see why it can't trounce the Kindle Fire with 12% of the memory for $100 less, assuming OS 2.0 brings with it a Kindle app.

At $299 it is a legitimate alternative to the $699 Apple 2 for cost-conscious buyers and for those who value the smaller form factor and the Blackberry Bridge function.  I have not mentioned this latter feature yet, and personally have no use for it, but it could be a killer app for the large numbers of people who use Blackberry smartphones.

I really like the Playbook for reading text, including ebooks.  The iPad's screen resolution is perfectly adequate for most purposes, but for text there is an annoying amount of pixellation that can distract from the reading experience.  iPad 3 is rumoured to include a "retina display," which on my iPhone 4 is brilliant.  The Playbook displays text almost as well as my iPhone, which means that no pixellation is evident as normal font sizes and at a normal distance from the eyes.  The 7 inch screen is the size of a paperback page and the device is very comfortable to hold for extended periods while reading.

I also like the Playbook for watching video.  The screen is vivid and there is no difficulty displaying full HD content.  Having front-facing stereo speakers enhances the video and gaming experiences.

The HDMI output displays HD video and stereo sound to an external television or monitor.  This makes the Playbook an excellent choice if you are travelling and want to show a presentation on an HDMI supplied screen.


I am still looking forward to the iPad 3.  But it will come in at more than twice the price of the Playbook at its current pricing, and I doubt it will be twice the machine.  It may match the resolution of the Playbook screen and will offer a better selection of apps, but I think that RIM deserves its chance in the marketplace if its new operating system is as good as it looks.  It will depend on reviewers and developers and finally the buying public.  Reviewers have been killing RIM for the past year.  I think the company deserves a chance to see what this device can do with reasonable expectations attached to it.

Developers are going to have to see that it is worth their while to develop apps to take advantage of the hardware and operating system, but Android compatibility may greatly level the software playing field.

As a Canadian I don't want to see RIM go the way of Avro and Nortel.   I hope that the market travails of the past year have taught RIM's management that they need to be realistic about the markets they are in, and to define the market segments for their devices with greater precision so as to give buyers good reasons to buy their products.

Bottom line:  the Playbook is going to stay in my briefcase because it is a perfect road companion, especially for reading ebooks.  Once Playbook OS 2.0 is out it will be an excellent e-mail device for the road as well.  I will likely start leaving my iPad at home for surfing on the couch and playing games.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On the Turning of the Year

It is January 3, 2012 and bitterly cold in the Ottawa area.  Just a few days ago we were in British Columbia visiting the west coast branch of the family, and for 10 days we didn't see the sun. "At least it isn't snowing," we said.  Today it is brilliantly sunny here at home, but about -20 degrees Celsius.  I am thinking about Hawaii!

Another year has passed, making a total of 60 for me now.  I suppose I am now at the age where just surviving another year is the biggest accomplishment of all, and something to be celebrated in itself.

On the family front, all is well.  She Who Must Be Obeyed continues her quest to achieve immortality through raw foods and smoothies.  She maintains a bewilderingly varied social network of contacts with like-minded people all over the world and she is a hub of support and wisdom for her very large family.  Son has begun to find himself in high school and has grown into a man-sized teenager with a tremendous wit.  Daughter has her smoothie business, now located on an Island, near Vancouver, and Granddaughters continue to be interesting, beautiful and smart girls who are growing into interesting, beautiful and smart young ladies, like their mother and grandmother before them.

On the writing front, I reworked my novel Grey Eyes during the summer, but my work schedule has made it very hard to maintain any sustained attention to fiction.  But it is getting there...

As detailed in three earlier blogs, I bought a Bentley and having it is a great pleasure.

On the work front, I reached major milestones in some of my largest and longest-lasting matters.

But the overall impression I have of 2011 is of exhaustion.  All the accomplishments came at a great price.  My resilience seems to have left me.  A significant part of this is due to having ballooned into a caricature of my old self, carrying more than 100 pounds that I don't need.  Part of it is the result of spending virtually every week on the road to serve my clients.  There have been too many nights getting home at 2 am after a long day of negotiations followed by hours and hours of travel home.  Far, far too many airplanes. Far, far too many hotel rooms.  The rush to get to an airport through traffic, then the waiting.  The delayed flights, the missed connections.  The airport shuttle buses.

Most of all, I am no longer sustained by my optimism that my professional work will benefit the people I am working for.  As I am getting close to settling major land claims the news is full of horror stories about First Nation communities.  A housing crisis in Attawapiskat.  Widespread Oxycontin addiction in many communities in northern Ontario.  These are problems that more land and more money cannot solve.  Law has no answers.  I hope that my experience with First Nations communities can still be put to use to try to find answers, but that is not something I can expect to happen through practicing law.

But it is more than that.  Yes, I am tired and yes, I am losing my sense of accomplishment even as I am achieving professional goals.  I am suffering from a deep weariness that does not go away with a weekend of rest or even a vacation.  It is as if I have drawn on all my knowledge, all my emotions and all my physical energy for so long that there is nothing left.  I talk about recharging my batteries, and on the level of tiredness I can recharge and then go back at it again, but there is something deeper in me that is depleted and cannot be recharged, at least not with the time available to me in my current circumstances.

In 2011 I resolved to end this way of life.  I am going to "semi-retire" in 2012.  Jokingly I have told people that this means having a normal work schedule.  But it is more than that.  I really need to make dramatic changes to my life if I am going to get back to enjoying my work.

So here is the "Plan."  As my claim files reach a conclusion I will make no attempt to replace the work.  During the coming year I will be down to 50 per cent of the workload I have been carrying.  I will have time to read, to think, to listen to music, to write, to play my guitar.  I can drive Andrew to school and pick him up.  I can sit in Starbucks and read the whole morning paper over a latte.  Wife and I can go for long lunch dates.

We are considering a move to a better climate.  Likely it will be in the Vancouver area.  From my first visit there in 1974 as part of a travelling gang of gypsies selling old documents to lawyers (a story for another time!) I have been enthralled by Vancouver and its surroundings.  It is always green.  There are always mountains, and there is always the sea.  Life seems slower, somehow, although it is now a very large metropolis.  "I could live here,"  I have said to myself on every visit over the years.

But do I want to?  After 10 sunless days, days of constant rain and low clouds, I wonder.  Could I survive those winters?  Could I ever live in a city with a team named the Canucks?

I could live in Hawaii, but then there is the fact that it is (likely illegally according to international law) part of the United States.  Could I ever live in a country where Sarah Palin and Rick Perry are considered politicians?  No, I don't want to live in any part of the United States, even though Hawaii would deserve an asterisk.

What I really want is to live in B.C. but with a month or two a year in Hawaii.  That may be possible.

Getting back to the Plan, now.  With all the extra time I want to look into issues that I have enough time to contemplate but not to investigate.  Here are some:

  • What is the truth about global warming?  I believe we humans have contributed to the process but I suspect it is too late to do anything about it, at least through cutting back on emissions.  What we need to do is capture the CO2 and take it out of the atmosphere.  Maybe we are going to have to alter the albedo of the Earth and do some other things that sound like the premise for a disaster movie.  
  • How can humanity make the transition from its addiction to fossil fuels to a solar-powered future?  What are the technical, economic and political obstacles?  What is the critical path?
  • How can we redistribute the wealth of the Earth so that no child is hungry or lacking in the basic necessities of life?  What stands in the way?
  • Why is so much of humanity driven by religious fervour?  I don't understand why belief in a deity must in so many cases translate into hatred for others.
I also want to read or re-read many of the great books.  I want to listen to great music.  

Mostly I want to stop wasting my time on airplanes and sitting in airports or in traffic trying to get to airports so that I can be driven to distraction by government representatives and sometimes clients too.

The Plan presupposes that I am going to survive, so it also presupposes that I am going to get rid of the 100 or so excess pounds of me.  So I will conclude with that.  I am going to be lean, but less mean.  I am going to learn to meditate, to live in the moment and not the billable hour.  It is time for a new me, or at least a different one than the one who has been inhabiting my body these past few years!  Interesting times ahead.