Thursday, 31 December 2009

You've Come a Long Way, Baby Dept: The Economist Looks at Women and Work, and Forgets Some Important Points

As the year ends, and it seems that half the world is looking back, a story on women in the work force from The Economist is food for thought. In most of the "rich" countries, more than half of women are in the labour force--in Canada the figure was 62.8 per cent in 2008--while young women overall make up more than half the students enrolled in post-secondary programs. This is a major worldwide change that has happened without much "friction," even though it affects the most "intimate aspects of people’s identities."

The reasons are many, the article says. The Feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s was a factor, but so was the change in the nature of work: "When brute strength mattered more than brains, men had an inherent advantage. Now that brainpower has triumphed the two sexes are more evenly matched."

That's an interesting point, but I have a few quibbles with other points made. The website doesn't say who wrote the story, but I'd guess young men had a large hand in it because of the way it treats the effect of the contraceptive pill. Being able to control fertility easily, safely and independently has "allowed women to get married later," the story says, and has "increased their incentives to invest time and effort in acquiring skills, particularly slow-burning skills ... The knowledge that they would not have to drop out of, say, law school to have a baby made law school more attractive."

Pardon me? The contraceptive revolution is much wider than that, for one thing. And the idea that babies and law school--or other fields of endeavor--can't be managed in a lifetime is absurd. Women can, and do, particularly where they have support from their society. What is needed is a societal committment to children: to good schools, daycare and parental (not just maternal) leave. The reasons to do so are not just ones of fairness and equity, but of concern for the future economy. Any discussion of an impending post-Baby Boom "age crisis" should remember that in the 1950s, the ratio of dependent to active workers was low because so many women were not part of the labour force. We will need women's brains and skills in the future as an ageing population means proportionately fewer active labour force members.

There's another point that must not be forgotten, particularly as governments start grumbling about cutting back, now that the worse of the Crisis of 2008 is over: wages in the 1950s were high enough for a middle or working class family to live on one income. That clearly is not the case now. Because we have allowed the erosion of earning power we must take up the slack in providing services for families so that women can work, children can thrive and the men who love them are not exhausted by responsiblity.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

No Books on Planes? New Regulations Should Be Protested

Note: Transport Canada said on January 6 that this was all a misunderstanding, books were never supposed to be banned. Rather stupid of them not to include them on the "permitted" list though. Maybe our little protest did something. Mary. And as of January 17 to FaceBook page is no more.

What's wrong with this picture?

1. New travel restrictions for flights leaving Canada for the US, according to The Globe and Mail: "Allowed on board will be the following: medication or medical devices, small purses, cameras, coats, items for care of infants, laptop computers, crutches, canes, walkers, containers carrying life sustaining items, a special needs item, musical instruments, or diplomatic or consular bags."

2. sells more Kindle books than physical books on Christmas Day, and the electronic book reader smashes holiday sales records for the on-line commerce.

3. The feisty independent bookseller McNally-Robinson files for bankruptcy protection and closes stores in Toronto and Winnipeg.

The second and third items are not particularly unexpected, given the way publishing has been switching from paper to pixels in the last few years. But the first is astonishing: no books, either electronic or hardcopy, on airplane flights? No magazines? No writing paper, unless you can fit it into a "small purse?" To my mind, the only redeeming thing about a long airplane flight is the time it can give for uninterrupted reading, but now they want to deprive us even of that.

Is this an oversight, or just another example of the way the powers-that-be find it congenial to make it easier to stop thinking? If you want to react, check out the Facebook Group, Stop Dumbing Down: Allow Books on Airplanes.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Plus Ça Change Department: LA c. 1970 or Montréal 2009?

The pix is supposedly of high school students in Los Angeles in the early 1970s (Wikipedia says 1973) but as I've been nosing around this morning, trying to get a fix on what kind of clothes a mother and daughter would fight about then, I was struck by how much the pair resemble the students in my Portuguese class at the Université de Montréal last term.

After more than a week of diversion, I'm back working on River Music, and the topic at hand is what Frances will wear to her Graduation Ball in 1973 and what she will pack to go to MIT in that fall. My idea is that this very banal conflict will tell a lot about the relation between the two women, and the career paths they will follow. Frances will become an electrical engineer while her mother, Gloria, was a concert pianist.

I haven't decided what the resolution of the argument will be, but I do know that one young women in my class this December wore a jumper, tights and long sleeved shirt almost exactly like this one, while more than one young man in the class favoured the long hair, jeans and white shirt look of the guy in the photo.

What does this mean? That everything that goes around, comes around? That pretty, slim young women can make anything look terrific? That jeans and white shirts are modern-day classic clothes?

Probably all of the above. And also that being young is a country through which we all pass, and which we forget at our peril.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Mistletoe and Gigues: Christmas Chez Georges-Etienne Cartier

Saturday we spent the afternoon at the Maison Georges-Etienne Cartier, enjoying a Victorian Christmas. Elin and Emmanuel invited us: the curator is one of Emmanuel's friends and he knew the presentation was extraordinary. Not only we were treated to some behind-the-scenes information about how some of the objects made their way to the house, we also very much enjoyed the talks by the three guides, dressed in costume of the mid-19th century. Did you know, for example, that mistletoe is supposed to protect the house, and to greet friends and family with a hug and a kiss offers wishes for a prosperous year to come?

The weekend after Christmas was a particularly good time to visit. Calleur (yes, that's the right spelling) Pierre Chartrand was there with friends to play traditional Quebec music and to lead visitors in dances that have the same origins as square dances that I remember from my own childhood. We even got Lee to dance a waltz at the end, although he sat out the contredanse and set carré.

The exposition closed yesterday, but put it on your calendar as something to do next holiday season.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Saturday Photo: Winter Wonderland

Great holiday--lovely snow. We're off to play to day.

Friday, 25 December 2009

The Very Best of Seasons' Greetings

Seasons' Greetings from Lee and Mary, and the others who are hanging around just now!

For more holiday cheer, check out the end-of-year blog.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Sil--Pickled Herring--for the Soderstroms' Reveillon

The kids will be over tonight for our version of Reveillon. Christmas Eve was not a big thing when I was a child. We might have gone to church (9 p.m. service, none of that Midnight Mass stuff) but aside from my father feverishly trying to wrap presents, the evening of December 24 was rather quiet, with the big show coming on Christmas Day.

Lee's family, being Lutheran rather than Presbyterian, put more store in a late church service. The Swedish tradition of lutfisk for supper was also followed. I cooked it several years after we were married but there can't be anything more disgusting than the dried and lyed and soaked cod dish. When we fetched up here where lutfisk is unknown, but where a big Christmas Eve celebration is the norm, it was clear we had to create our own traditions. Chief among them was a switch to potato sausage as the main course for Christmas Eve dinner.

But one tradition we keep is pickled herring as a first course. Here is the recipe from Lee's mother, slightly modified. It's best aged for a week, which means that if you make it today, it'll be perfect for New Year's Eve.


For each large salt herring or for each two small herring:

1/2 cup vinegar

2 tablespoons water

1/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons chopped onions

5 peppercorsn, crushed

10 whole allspice, crushed

2 sprigs fresh dill

Soak herring overnight, clean and remove bones, cutting filets.

Make dressing by mixing ingredients listed above, then bringing to boil. Let cool, pour over fillets, add more sliced onions and dill springs. Let maribate in refrigerator for at least three days. A week is better.

Serve with rye crisp and beer.

Snow and Poinsettias

Only a photo today, because there's just too much to do.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Conservatives Are Already in Holiday Mode, While the US Senate to Work Until Santa Flies, This Year

What a difference political will makes: Senators in the US are scheduled to vote on the new health insurance reform package on Christmas Eve, but Conservative members of the Special Committee on Canada's Mission in Afghanistan will stay away from hearings today because "The Christmas and Holiday Season is a time to spend with family, friends, and loved ones," according to a memo from Laurie Hawn, a Conservative honcho. She continues: "One would hope that only the most serious of emergencies should interfere with these moments."

Oh come on, this is just another delaying tactic on the part of a government which doesn't want to face up to what it's done. If you really want to do something, you work like hell to get it done. While the US health reform is far from perfect, at least the Obama government wants to get it paased. If only there were more folks in Ottawa today who wanted to do the right thing!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Memo to CBC/Radio Can Brass: Remember This is Another Country and We Like Serious Music

Changing measuring systems can mean big differences in results, and that's what appears to be happening with widespread use of "portable people meters" of PPMs, little devices that pick up what a sample of the population (all volunteers) is listening to. PPMs have been use in Montreal and 12 major areas in the US for a year now, with some disconcerting results, particularly in the US. (Previously, the ratings were based on listener diaries. The switch is being made in other markets, including Toronto, this fall and winter.)

Last week the first year-long ratings comparisons were available in the US, showing that less classical music was being listened to than had been thought. Classical radio’s market share fell 10.7 percent in the 12 markets which include New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, according to The New York Times.

There are inherent dangers in comparing listenership measured in two different ways, of course, but it's interesting that not much difference shows up for the BBM figures for Radio Two stations before or after the switch. (See my blogs of a year ago last spring and last week.) What is clear that the dumbing down in Radio Two programing--which coincided with the change in measurement--has not done anything to increase listenership.

On the other hand, a story in the weekend's Le Devoir gives some comfort to those who think the Mother Corp has taken a very wrong turn in decreasing serious music in its programming. The highest rated programs on Radio Canada's Espace Musique (the equivalent of the CBC's Radio Two) were classical ones, it seems: a Sunday morning show animated by a pianist, a Saturday morning one hosted by classical music buff Edgar Fruitier and the opera on Saturday afternoon.

The Brass at CBC and Radio Canada should take a close look at these figures, and do some serious reflection on what they should program. Unfortunately, they may do what they'd done in the past, which is fall all over themselves to try to reproduce what is happening south of the border.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Saturday Photo: Christmas Bird Count

The temperature was hovering a little below minus 20 C (a degree or so below 0) as the sun was rising this morning. At the entrance to Mount Royal Cemetery I passed a group of hardy souls, shivering as they prepared to take part in the annual Christmas Bird Count.

The counts began at the beginning of the 20th century when American ornithologist, Frank Chapman, looking for a way to counter what was then an American tradition, a Christmas bird "shoot.) The first Montreal count was held 1931, and has continued every year (except for four wartime years.) Thousands of birdlovers in North America will take part in the counts this year, enjoying being outdoors and collecting data which has become a treasure trove for biologists.

Back when we first came to Montreal we took part a couple of years, but after the kids were born we stopped going: it's hard to interest a small child in being quiet while the adults search the forest or the fields with binocs.

But it was a pleasure to see the counters out this morning. They invited me to join them, but I opted for heading home and getting warm again. I told them, however, that they'd given me the idea of today's Saturday photos. The pix were taken in Kamloops in early November: some Bird Counters in Quebec will likely find Canada geese today since they've begun staying around longer and longer, but they're almost sure not to find black-billed find magpies (bottom photo) since their range is in the western part of the continent.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Canada Wins Fossil of the Year Award--for the Second Time!

This just in: it seems that our country's sterling performance has merited it the Fossil of the Year award. I'm not surprised, given the Harper government's actions during the Copenhagen conference on climate change. What is suprising to me is that this is the second year Canada has won it.

Shame! Shame! as they say in Hansard.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

What's True, What's False, What's Simply Blind: The Pleasure and Dangers of Stories

The stories we tell ourselves are what keep us going--and sometimes that stories can be either amusing, or outraging.

In the first category put "The Ten Most Important Events of the Last 4.5 Billion Years," courtesy of The Onion. The too-good-to-be true publication gives the Number One spot to: "Evolution Going Great, Reports Trilobite"

The story begins: "Slowly inching his segmented exoskeleton across the sea floor, a local marine arthropod, class Trilobita, reported that Earth's natural evolution was "progressing quite nicely."

"Things are looking mighty fine," announced the prehistoric invertebrate, taking measure of his surroundings through a series of small, hexagonal eyelets located at the tip of his thorax. "Sulfurous gas seems to be bubbling up to the surface pretty good, and several single-cell organisms appear to be mutating at a rather steady pace. Also, just today, I developed the ability to roll into a small protective shell in order to avoid predators...."

We all know that The Onion is just joking, but story-telling has other sides. In this video (pointed out to me by Bimol Thambyah) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the dangers of getting stories from only one view point.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Don't Be Afraid, Sisters: Get That Lump Checked Out Before It Gets Worse

Bad news from a friend: her 35 year old daughter-in-law, mother of two, full of life, has just been diagnosed with multiple breast cancer tumors. Apparently, she'd been aware of lumps for some time, but had dragged her feet getting them checked out. What's ahead is chemotherapy, followed by surgery, it seems.

So it is time for another rant about how women must not be afraid to have lumps investigated, and, if they're over 50, to have regular mammograms. My own ductal carcinoma in situ turned up in a mammogram about four years ago, and treatment--lumpectomy and radiation--went very well, thank you very much. (Please note, though, that routine mammograms for women under 50 aren't very effective.)

Since then I've thought a lot about the scare approach to cancer education. In many cases, I think women are afraid what will happen if they do the prudent thing. It's magical thinking--what I don't know won't hurt me--so they put the doctor's visit or the mammogram off, sometimes until it's so late that things are much worse than they might otherwise have been.

Today's message, in short, is not to be afraid, Sisters.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

When Bad Things Happen to Good Media: Le Devoir Finds Itself Caught in Quebecor's Web, and I Don't LIke It

No Le Devoir this morning. It seems that locked out workers from the Journal de Montréal have blocked distribution trucks: while Le Devoir remains independent (one of the few voices in Canada) it is printed at the Journal de Montréal plant.

Of course, if you're a home subscriber, this delay is no a surprise. For the last three weeks, Le Devoir has been coming later and later, and the man who delivers our copy says that the carriers have been getting the papers hours late. The conflict of the JDM is part of a greater one at Quebecor, having to do with definion of tasks, and "media convergence."

If I were one of Le Devoir's head honchos, I'd be furious. You can't run a hard copy newspaper if you can't get it distributed. As I noted a few weeks ago, the respected paper has actually seen its circulation grow over the last years, in large part by providing news and analysis that you can't find anywhere else. This would seem to be a way for print media to buck the tide, but it won't work if readers who want a real publication in a format that you can hold while you're sitting in a rocking chair or at the breakfast table can't rely on getting it at home.

It would be a crime if Le Devoir were to allow itself to go down in Quebecor's ill-considered, cut-throat war with its employees. Do something, I say: I want my paper.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Radio Two Wallows in Montreal, and Comes up Short in Toronto, According to Latest Ratings

The ratings are out for the fall listening period and once again Radio Two seems to be wallowing in Montreal. Last year during the same period the station garnered 2.3 per cent of Anglo listeners according to PPM measures, while this year the percentage was down to 2 per cent. Its sister-station Espace Musique got 2.2 per cent of Franco listeners a year ago, but this year recorded 2 per cent. In contrast this year the all-classic station CJPX got 4.6 per cent among Francos and 2.6 among Anglos, compared to 3 percent among Anglos and 4.3 percent among Francos.

So where’s the big increase in interest that the dumbing down of programming was supposed to bring?

It would be nice to make a similar comparison for Toronto, but the Bureau of Broadcasts Measurement, which tracks listenership, just switched over there to a new method. Previously the audience shares were determined by listener diaries, but now a selected sample of listeners wear small sensors that pick up what they are listening to. The switch was made here a year ago, making the Montreal comparisons particularly interesting. But trying to compared results in Toronto is really comparing apples and oranges.

For the record though, during the fall 2009 period, all classical CFZM had a 2.5 per cent share while the Radio Two station had 1.7 per cent. It will be interesting to see if there is any movement in the next ratings.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Saturday Photo: Running in the Snow

This photo is a repeat from nearly a year ago, but it fits perfectly with the sun and new fallen snow of today. Couldn't resist using it again.

This has been an exceptionally busy time: lots of work with my own projects, plus doing some proofreading for others, as well as the Portuguese class. (I have no idea how I did on the final, BTW, but I do know that I learned a lot taking it, which is what good exams should do.)

Last night was the annual supper of Les Durochères, my neighborhood book group, one of the most pleasant events of the year. We all bring food, other goodies, and our thoughts on the books we've read for our monthly meetings. Then we vote on the best one: Ce que le jour doit à la nuit by the Algerian write Yasmina Khadra won. It hasn't been translated into English yet, although several of his earlier novels have, including The Swallows of Kabul and The Attack. He's worth reading, although my favourite of the 10 books (we don't meet in July and August) was By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño: I didn't even rank the Khadra among my top three. My two other favourites were The Stranger by Albert Camus (much, much better than the Khadra I think, but very interesting to read in tandem) and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Of course, one of the great things about groups like this is diversity of opinion: a book everyone likes frequently turns out not to elicit a lively conversation.

Tonight the pleasure continues with a Japanese meal at Elin and Emmanuel's with Sophie and Lukas. It's a belated Christmas present, scheduled for late last winter, but life got complicated. Now we'll all be able to spend an evening unwinding!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Three Hour Final Exams Are A Challenge!

Lee was waiting for me with some wine last night when I came back from my Portuguese final exam. It was the first time in decades that I'd written a three hour exam, and it showed.

So today I'm doing other things...more about Portuguese and books tomorrow.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Corruption, Lying and Fossils: This Is Not the Canada I Love

According to a survey released earlier this fall, Canada ranks eighth as the least corrupt country: the top (and best) spot went to New Zealand and the bottom, to Somalia. When the results were announced, I remember thinking that, yeah, we are pretty honest. But lately it seems a curtain has been lifted and we are seeing two sorts of corruption which have been present for some time: secret deals made between governments and private enterprise, and systematic lying and misrepresentation about the federal governments aims.

The latest news from Quebec reports that 559 contracts were awarded between April and October, 2009, without calling for bids. This follows on a wave of news since early fall about contractors giving handsomely to election war chests, and, most recently, Liberal party supporters getting permits to expand day care centers.

On the federal level, absolutely shocking behavior of Stephen Harper's government in denying that it had ever been warned of bad treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan is the most recent and blatant example. Yesterday Gen. Walter J. Natynczyk had to recant his earlier testimony when he was informed that, yes indeed, a field report from 2006 said a man detained by Canadian troops had been beaten by Afghan jailors.

To top it off, Canada got its second "Fossil of the Day" award at the Copenhagen conference on global warning, sharing the "honours" with Croatia. It previously been part of a group of industrialized countries who'd won the day before.

This is not the behavior which led me to embrace this country. Something's got to change....

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Need to Have the Sidewalks Plowed If You Want a Walkable City

There were two people on bikes this morning when I went out, but I'm sure they're not going to ride home this afternoon. The much-heralded snow has come (my cousin in Arizona was wondering earlier this week at all the snow in Flagstaff, presumably from the same weather system) and the only bike I saw out just now was one being pushed.

The guy on cross country skis was doing much better, gliding down Laurier: "Got to take advantage of it," he said as he passed. Then he turned onto what in milder weather is the bicycle path, while I slogged along. Things were worse on our street--the middle had been plowed but the sidewalks hadn't. Bah! Humbug!

But I must admit it looks rather pretty...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Real Opposition in Ottawa Isn't the Liberals: Thank Goodness for Greenpeace

Canada has got the "Fossil of the Day" award in Copenhagen already this week because of our feet-dragging on climate change, and the Harper government's protection of the Alberta oil sands projects. Unfortunately, that is just the latest in a sorry list of foreign policy and other moves that are undermining this country's basic principles and international standing.

But Harper and the Conservatives don't represent everyone, as the terrific guerilla tactics of Greenpeace in Ottawa yesterday attest. About 20 supporters got arrested for breaching security, making it to the top of the Center Bloc of the Parliament buildings and unfurling this banner. Good on them!

And note too that they include Michael Ignatieff in their protest. The Liberals under his leadership are not providing the kind of opposition we need to salvage the good things about Canada. Time for the NDP and the Bloc Québécois to do more.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Busy Day: Another Photo from Kamloops

A hundred things to do this week--some proof reading to do, an approaching book deadline, and--shudder!--a final exam on Thursday, the first I've taken in decades.

So it's back to Kamloops today for a photo. Like the juxtaposition of the hills, the buildings and the signs. The one on the red building reads "Communities in Bloom." It's up to you to provide the irony.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Saturday Photo: A Green Light, Not the Red Light

This young woman was probably only waiting for a ride on that Saturday afternoon in early November, there's probably nothing sordid about what was going on at all. Kamloops' old court house was across the street, and people were coming and going from a conference on walking.

Nevertheless, I can't resist reading something into her loneliness. Cars were speeding past, there were few people aside from the conference-goers on foot. Being a street-walker in an automobile-based city would be something quite different from what it was when the term was invented.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Classical Music as an Extreme Sport: Chojnacka Plays Gorecki on the Harpsichord

Anyone who thinks that classical music is for wimps should take a look at this riveting performance of Polish composer H.M. Górecki's Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra, Op. 40 (1981) I came across it this week when I was rooting around, doing research for my next novel, River Music, which has a harpsichordist as a major charaacter--but more about that another time.

You'll remember that when Górecki's Third Symphony was played on the radio in Los Angeles in the 1990s, people pulled off the freeway to listen properly. The Concerto is a lot more energetic, and here it is played with absolutely amazing energy by Polish harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka. Like most harpsichordists of recent years, she started off playing Baroque and Renaissance works on the instrument, but she now specializes in contemporary music. Born in 1939, she's even older than Mick Jagger, but she struts her stuff with just as much energy.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Proofreading, Embarassment, and a Good Laugh

One of the seductive things about having a blog is checking out who checks in with you. This one has a feature that allows me to see which of my posts people want to see, and the pattern is fascinating. Lately one of the favourites is one I did last September on the iconic photo by Robert Capa taken during the Spanish Civil War, and whether fiction and/or faking can inform us about the truth.

This morning I took a look to see just what people were wanting to see, and discovered to my horror that the post had several typos. For someone who prides herself on her spelling, this was terrible. Rest assured I've corrected the mistakes (and I hope I haven't missed any.) So now I want to share a video that points up the problems the poor proofreading can present. Very gummy, as Lukas commented.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Sidewalk Grit and Crotchedy Cats: More Notes from a Walkable City

Walkable cities are interesting, liveable cities, as I’ve been saying for some time now. Here are two more examples:

The new team on the borough council of Mile and their colleagues in Cartierville (the two districts where Projet Montréal holds the mayor’s job) announced last week that they would hold off on snow removal—not snow plowing—until a storm drops 15 cm, not the 2.5 cm which has been the point when snow removal contracts kick in) in order to save money. But—and this is very important--sidewalks would get more attention.

That certainly seemed to be the case yesterday when grit had been spread in Mile End (just one street over from the border with Outremont borough where I live) and Park Avenue--often slip-and-slide city for days after a snowfall—was a breeze to walk down. Bravo! A step in the right direction, literally.

Then there’s the “lost cat” notice that’s been posted on corners around here the last few days. Besides the usual info in French and English—black with a white belly, collar with his name Basil, last seen November 3—the English ends with the great description :“crotchety motherfucker.” The bereft owner apparently couldn’t come up with a French equivalent, and anyone in a car would have missed it, but I’ve seen several folks read it carefully and then walk away smiling. Hope the cat comes back.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

First Snow, Last Bixis: Time to Gather Things in

Radio Noon's farm panel has been talking about bringing cows and sheep inside for the winter: it will be too cold here for them to spend much of their time outside for the next three or four months. This morning, as the first appreciable snow lingered on the lawns, I noticed that the last of Bixis had also been gathered in.

More than a million rides were taken on the new bike share/rental system since it began in earnest last spring. Despite some problems at the beginning it seems to have been a huge success.

Now I must go out and scrape some icy snow from the front steps. When it snowed yesterday, I thought it would all melt, and didn't clean it off. The result is that where we walked it compressed into ice, which is treacherous today. Next time (maybe tomorrow) I'll have to be more on the ball.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Ammunition for the US Health Care Debate: JAMA Compares Systems and Canada Wins

Last month's Journal of the American Medical Association had an interesting comparison of health care in the US and Canada. It shows that choice--that American bugaboo--is not limited in Canada. It's worth passing on to those who are wavering on whether to support health care reform in the US.

Note: I've copied this from the on-line edition of JAMA which is not readily available to the lay reader.

Health Care Choices and Decisions in the United States and Canada
By Joseph S. Ross, MD, MHS; Allan S. Detsky, MD, PhD
JAMA. 2009;302(16):1803-1804.

Media speculation about the scope of proposals for health care reform in the United
States has led many Americans to be "very concerned" that changes will limit their
choices in the future. Health care choices are made on 3 levels: insurance plans,
sources of care (physicians and hospitals), and clinical decisions (diagnostic tests and
treatments). In this Commentary, the extent to which Americans currently are able to
exercise choices is discussed. For context, the US environment is compared with that in Canada, partly because the Canadian health system, with much greater government
involvement, is often publicly portrayed in the United States as limiting choice.

Insurance Coverage
United States
All US citizens, other than those aged 65 years or older and the very poor, make the choice to purchase private health insurance (or not). It is estimated that nearly 47 million individuals have no coverage. It is unknown how many choose not to purchase coverage, cannot afford coverage, or cannot obtain coverage. Uninsured persons are severely limited in all other health care choices. They must either receive charity care or pay for care out of pocket, possibly incurring substantial debt or bankruptcy. The choice of insurance plan is also often limited; 96% of US
Metropolitan Statistical Areas have insurance markets that are highly concentrated, consolidated among only a few companies. Employers who offer health insurance also frequently limit choices. One plan is often established as preferred and made less expensive through lower premiums and co-payments. Few working adults can afford to purchase plans outside of their employer because other plans' costs and risks are neither subsidized nor pooled. In addition, loss or change of jobs often results in loss of insurance coverage or substantially higher payments to retain existing coverage.
In contrast, insurers have the choice to accept or deny individuals coverage for innumerable reasons, often related to prior or current medical conditions. They may even deny coverage among those they insure for specific care related to preexisting conditions.
All Canadian citizens and landed immigrants are eligible to receive health insurance through the government-sponsored plan administered by their province or territory. Because the application process is simple, without screening for current or preexisting health conditions or means testing, unenrolled individuals who seek care are routinely enrolled by clinical practices and hospitals, removing the need for charity care. Insurance coverage is not tied to employment and so does not change with loss or change of jobs. The Canadian government mandates that all provincial plans cover "necessary care," including most physician and hospital services. However, there are private insurance plans to obtain coverage for services that are not covered by some provincial plans, such as pharmaceuticals, private rooms in hospitals, dental care, home care, physiotherapy, and chiropractic care.

Hospitals and Physicians
United States
The choice of hospital or physician is often made by an individual's insurance plan. Whether structured as a health maintenance organization, preferred provider organization, or otherwise, most plans attempt to limit costs by designating hospitals and physicians, offering either discounted coinsurance or additional benefits to promote their use. Receiving care "out of network" requires that individuals pay substantially larger co-payments.

Health insurance plans often require individuals to choose a primary care physician on enrollment who arranges referrals to specialist physicians. Forty percent of sicker adult Americans report difficulties seeing a specialist, 40% because of long waiting times, 31% because of a denied referral or waiting for a referral, and 17% because they cannot afford private insurance.

Choice is also influenced by availability of care. The United States ranks last in international comparisons for patients finding it somewhat or very difficult to obtain care on nights or weekends without going to an emergency department.5
Canadians may choose to receive care from any physician or hospital anywhere in Canada. Typically, a family physician provides primary care and makes referrals to specialists. There is no limit to the number of different physicians a patient can see. If patients are not satisfied with the care of one physician or hospital, they may change to another. Specialists generally require a referral from another physician (not necessarily the family physician) to be reimbursed for a "consultation" but can evaluate any patient and be reimbursed for an "assessment." Individuals may present to any hospital emergency department and request specialty care,which is scheduled as long as the emergency physician, who has no incentive not to, agrees.

Diagnostic Testing and Treatments
United States
The common presumption is that there is access to every new diagnostic test, procedure, medication, and intervention in the United States. However, insurance plans make use of formularies that restrict medications. Generally, at least 1 medication in any pharmacologic class is offered among "first-tier" medications, for which co-payments are the least expensive. Choosing less expensive or generic medications is also facilitated by requiring prior authorization for brand-name medications when a generic alternative exists or by offering 1 medication in a class at a lower co-payment after contracting with the manufacturer to obtain a discounted price.Similarly, although many routine, less expensive services are not restricted, prior authorization is often used to limit the use of expensive health care services such as magnetic resonance imaging or experimental interventions.

In international comparisons, US waiting times are consistently shorter for elective surgeries and procedures. However, even though physicians and hospitals generally are able and willing to provide care quickly and efficiently, insurance plans are not necessarily similarly willing to fully reimburse charges. Often, it is not until after the procedure and utilization review that patients become aware of the substantial portion of the payment they must incur.
Virtually all health care services available in the United States are also available in Canada. There isregionalization of specialized services, such as surgical, oncology, or imaging procedures. For services unavailable in all parts of Canada, such as gamma knife surgery, governments will reimburse care received in the United States, but patients are required to apply in advance. In contrast with common perception, Canadians' use of elective health care services in the United States is not common.For care in Canada, there is no utilization review and all services are covered in full without co-payment. Physicians and hospitals are paid promptly by the government. Patients receive no bill and fill out no forms. However, as opposed to prior authorization, the use of expensive health care services is limited by supply; there are fewer facilities per capita that provide this care. Provincial and private drug plans use formularies similar to those in the United States.

Waiting time is less a health care issue than a political one. Both federal and provincial governments haveresponded to media-facilitated public pressure to reduce wait times for specific services, such as hip and knee replacement, cataract surgery, cancer surgery, and emergency care through strategies that resemble pay for performance.Moreover, there is provincial variation in reliance on private facilities that charge individuals directly for common diagnostic services (eg, blood drawing, imaging); some provinces have allowed (or tacitly encouraged) these facilities, allowing patients to choose to pay for some routine care to receive it sooner.

The Bottom Line
Government-sponsored plans like Canada's are frequently publicly portrayed as limiting choice. However, there is clear evidence that for Canada's health care system, less choice in insurance coverage (although guaranteed) has not resulted in less choice of hospitals, physicians, and diagnostic testing

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Saturday Photo: Hortênsias, Azulejos and Memories

Today this photo, taken in June when the hydrangeas (hortênsias, in Portuguese) were in bloom, is a bit of celebration. As I've said. before I've been struggling to learn to speak and understand oral Portuguese. For the last several years I've been able to read it with some facility, but the oral language, particularly as spoken in the Mother Country itself, has been a mystery.

But thanks to a great class at the Université de Montréal taught by Luís Aguilar and Vitália Rodrigues I've made great progress this fall. It helps that the other students are motivated and great fun--four of us fogies over 55, a half dozen Hispanophones, several people who are itching to return to Brazil because they had such a great time on holiday there, and one young guy whose parents came from Angola at least 25 years ago.

Thursday Luís and Vitália showed us the website they've been developing about Portuguese language and culture, which includes links to Radio-Televisão Portugal. They showed us part of the previous night's news, and I found that I could understand almost all. What a change from last winter when I watched clips from RTP news regularly, but was completely lost.

Hence the photo. Hydrangeas grow as hedges on São Miguel which is where most of the 40,000 Montrealers of Portuguese descent have their roots. You find them planted in tiny front yeard gardens all over the center city neighborhood where the first wave of immigrants settled. You'll also find tiles--azulejos--decorating entrances just as you do in Portugal. This summer I set out to take a series of photos to document them--as the original owners age, they are selling their places to people who may or may not appeciate the tiles--and this is one of the nicest.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Would Nudity Work Better Than Buy Nothing Day to Stop Consumerism: Some Thoughts of a Wild Cat General Strike

Today is Buy Nothing Day, an international protest again consumerism. It was launched to be a counter-weight to Black Friday, which is when American merchants finally go into the black in the run up to the Christmas holiday. In Europe and other places, tomorrow, November 28, will be the day.

The organizers are calling for "a Wildcat General Strike. We’re asking tens of millions of people around the world to bring the capitalist consumption machine to a grinding – if only momentary – halt.

"We want you to not only stop buying for 24 hours, but to shut off your lights, televisions and other nonessential appliances. We want you to park your car, turn off your phones and log off of your computer for the day.

"We’re calling for a Ramadan-like fast. From sunrise to sunset we’ll abstain en masse, not only from holiday shopping, but from all the temptations of our five-planet lifestyles."

I'm not sure what effect this kind of campaign will have. Those who are concerned already have begun to cut their foot prints on the earth: if you never bought a clothes dryer, it's not going to be a sacrifice to dry your clothes in the air after all.

Just as importantly, those whose lives are empty of meaning except for what they consume will not be reached by such Puritan-like appeals. Making frugality sexy is going to take some doing--although going without clothes might help.

Well, Lee bought The Globe and Mail today, but I think that's all we'll buy. Now this gray panther (who paid her dues as a wild cat) will go down to the basement to hang up the clothes on the line to dry. But no nudity here: it's too cold even if we're not too old.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

This Just in: Harper to Go to Copenhagen

The CBC news just reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office has announced that he'll go to Copenhagen after all.

Now it remains to be seen if he'll say anything interesting,.

Quebec on the Right Path When It Comes to Green House Gases, Schwarsnegger Says While Harper Hides

What’s wrong (or right) with this picture?

Jean Charest is getting praise from Arnold Scharzenegger, but it looks like Harper will be a no-show in Copenhagen. The Republican governor of California has just praised Quebec’s announcement about amibitious plans for green house gas reductions.

“Like California, Quebec is not waiting for national and international commitments; they are taking action now to reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels,” he’s quoted as saying.

“This is another example of a subnational government leading the way and I look forward to more commitments and partnerships from all levels of government in the fight against global warning as we head into the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen next month.”

I’m no fan of Jean Charest—or of Republicans either—but moves in this direction are not to be sneezed at. That Quebec plans on focussing on transportation is all to the good too. Despite its great distances, the province’s cities have not-bad records when it comes to encouraging public transportation. But real, permanent green house gas reductions, to say nothing about solutions to problems of continued dependence of petroleum, will only come when our cities become more compact.

Will that happen in Quebec? Maybe.

Will it happen in California? Who knows. This former California girl has her doubts. But at least Scharzenegger is going in the right direction, which Stephen Harper, stuck in Ottawa and beholden to Alberta petroleum interests, is not. More than 50 heads of government have confirmed for Copenhagen, but Steve may be occupied elsewhere, opening another doughtnut plant or something.

Photo: Daylife, taken October 2, 2009 at Governors' Global Climate Summit 2

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Little Cat Feet or Temperature Inversion: Quiet in the Middle of the City

Lots of background noise this morning when I woke up—it’s an effect I’ve noticed frequently lately as temperature inversion layers settle over Montreal. Then when I walked into a cloud/fog as I climbed Mount Royal in the cemetery, I noticed how progressively quieter things became, until at the top the roar of traffic appeared very distant.

There are climatological reasons for this, it seems. To make a long story short, sound is deflected downwards by the inversion which acts sort of like a lid on the bustle of the city in the morning. Up the mountain, one is above the inversion and hence above, literally, the madding crowd.

The phenomenon can be explained in equations, but I prefer Carl Sandburg’s poem Fog, from his Chicago Poems.

The fog comes on little cat feet.

It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.

Photo: Fog in the summer cemetery

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Quebec to Cut Green House Gases by 20 Per Cent Compared to 1990, But the Problems Isn't Solved

Montreal has a smog alert today as it has several times in the last two weeks, which is a little ironic, considering that yesterday Quebec Premier Jean Charest pledged to cut the emissions by 20 per cent compared to 1990 by 2020.

On a per capita basis, the province's emissions would drop to eight tonnes, considerably less than Quebec’s previous target of 11 tonnes per capita. In comparison, the European Union targets are nine tonnes per capita, while the Harper government aims to reduce them to something around 22 tonnes.

Charest said that the biggest effort will go to reducing emissions linked to transportation, currently making up 40 per cent of the total. Most of Quebec’s electricity is generated by hydroelectric plants, so coal-fired power is not an issue.

But still on days with temperature inversion layers we get smog. Local officials have begun to attack the winter problem, which is exacerbated by use of wood for heating. But the kind of hydrocarbon smog we have today would seem to be mostly transport-created. Certainly for the last few days it has smelled the way it did when I was a kid in Southern California when smog was an unrecognized problem.

We need to move quickly on providing better public transportation, and to expand programs to encourage walking and bike riding as ways to get around.

Photo: Good traffic day on Montreal's Métropolitain boulevard/Highway 40.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Quality and Media: Maybe the Key to Having Many Voices Survive Is Making a Voice Distinctive

This morning I dropped by a corner store I hadn't been in recently, and couldn't find where they're keeping their newspapers these days. I had to ask, and while I was looking around for The Globe and Mail, a man jokingly said it was on the side with the "pagan" papers--those in English.

I laughed and said we get Le Devoir at home, but because it's cheaper in my neighborhood to buy The Globe in a store, we don't get it delivered.

Ah yes, he said. He and his wife get La Presse daily, but he picks up the Journal de Montreal on Mondays for the sports.

Small matters: sports, the vagaries of newspaper delivery routes. But as I started home, I reflected on what a good thing it is to have several newspapers to choose from. Even if much of the news is the same, there are differences in coverage and emphasis. Strong, differing editorial voices should be heard too.

Only two of the four newspapers we spoke of this morning are in reasonable health, however: La Presse has just exacted major concessions from its unions in order, management says, to stay afloat financially. The Journal de Montréal locked out its employees nearly a year ago over similar issues of salaries, hours and convergence of tasks. (Check out the locked-out employees online newspaper Rue Frontenac .)

Le Devoir, however, is counting down to its 100th anniversary with brio. Its circulation--never very large but concentrated among Quebec's educated leaders which gives it influence far beyond that Le Devoir's stats might indicate--is actually growing. And the Globe appears to be doing quite well, thank you very much, continuing to have correspondents in Washington, New York, China, India and Africa, as well as bureaux in several Canadian cities.

Moral: quality of content matters in getting and keeping readers. Publications aiming at the lowest common denominator are frequently doing worse in this time of media trouble than are those whose standards are higher

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Saturday Photo: Bixi Getting Ready for the Winter

Montreal's bike rental program is winding down for the season, after providing more than 1 million trips around the city. Since the first of November, the numbers of Bixis available has been cut, and November 30, the system will shut down for the winter.

A great success, most observers say. Certainly people who might never have ridden a bike to run an errand have begun to do so. Even I, who hate to ride bikes, have begun to think that maybe next year I ought to try it.

Last week I ended up taking a taxi to the Université de Montréal--a trip I make on foot in 35 minutes--that got stuck in traffic. I ended up paying $15 and arrived in only 10 minutes less time than I would have, had I walked. But as I watched the bixis peddling past the taxi on the bicycle path, I realized that grabbing one of them would have been much faster and certainly cheaper: the sign up fee for a day is $5, with the first half hour of a trip free (subsequent first half hours are also free: the idea is not to provide bikes for long trips, but for short ones.)

Well, we'll see if I get up the courage next year.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Carpe Diem and Rain Boots : Notes on the Mois des morts

"Henry Pharris, ring bearer, wore L.L. Bean rain boots with his navy blue blazer and khakis." The Daily Star, November 5, 2007

This is a rainy day when we will attend the funeral of a good friend and neighbor Michel Freitag. November, they say here, is the mois des morts, partly because it begins with All Souls' Day, and partly because the weather is usually gray and the days are growing very short. This year we have had record sunshine, but death is closer than usual. Besides Michel, this week has seen funerals for our brother-in-law's mother as well as that of the best friend of another neighbor.

Against this somber background, it was a delight this morning to find the account of the wedding two years ago of Christian Monberg and Michelle Lafrance. I stumbled on it following a track back from this blog: it's amazing where lateral thinking on the net can lead you. At any rate, here is the link to the account of their wedding, which sounds as if it were lovely. And Henry Pharris must have looked marvelous! (I remember when Lukas, aged three or so, insisted on wearing his red rain boots everywhere too.)

Best wishes to the whole Monberg-Lafrance-Pharris family. To the Freitag-du Pasquier family also. Carpe diem!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

More Proof That PPPs Are Bad for Health--and Many Other Things

Public private partnerships (PPPs) to build mega hospitals were foisted on Quebec by politicians and bureaucrats who made biased calculations, the province's auditor general says.

In his report, released yesterday, Renaud Lachance reports that planning and building the two super hospitals (one based on the Université de Montréal medical school and the other, on McGill's) would have been cheaper using methods used to construct major projects in the past. The arguments for PPPs were deeply flawed and PPPs have cost far more than conventional project management, planning and financing would have.

Lachance also revealed several instances of collusion and lack of oversight in the awarding of contracts for highway construction and repairs. His careful study adds ammunition to growing criticism of how the current Liberal government has run things in recent years. And the way he demolishes the arguments for PPPs should lay to rest any idea that using the partnerships profits anybody but the people hired to consult, design and build the projects.

His report comes too late to do much about the hospital projects, but it should be read with care by anybody who wonders about how to manage a society. Never forget that private companies are ALWAYS in business to make a profit, and far too often profit comes not from efficiency but from getting all that be gotten from the public purse.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Tremblay Acts Like a Good Christian in Appointing Bégeron to Montreal's Exec Committee?

A bit of drollery from Radio Can this morning:

Apparently newly re-elected Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s spiritual advisors are very happy with his decision to include Richard Bérgeron, leader of one of two opposition parties, on the city’s executive committee.

After all the Sermon on the Mount says: "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,"(Matthew 38) and Tremblay's made that a lot easier by putting his leftist adversary there.

Going to be some fights, do you think?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Recycling Household Waste Is Going to Be Tough, and It's Not Clear Whether They've Got That Leaf Thing Right

The Quebec government says it wants to ban "green" and recyclable waste from landfills within a decade, starting with paper and cardboard with the aim of lowering average household waste from 810 to 700 kilograms per year. It announced Monday that it will be earmarking $650 million over the next ten years for projects, including new recycling sites.

That’s good news in the main, altough as always the devil will be in the details. If we’re talking mostly about things like garden waste and grass clippings, there should be few problems. But when it comes to kitchen scraps, I can see major difficulties.

Let me say that I’ve been composting ever since we move in this house, more than 30 years ago, so I know just how scraps can stink if you don’t handle them right, and also what a mess you can have if you spill a container full of stuff ready to go on the compost heap. By now I’ve got the hang of it, so except in years when we have so many pears that they ferment in the compost, we don’t have smell. That's the result of trial and error, though, and I don't think it would be wise to leave much to chance if you want to get everyone recycling kitchen waste.

What will be needed is a concerted campaign to educate people on what they can compost—egg shells maybe, but no meat scraps, for example. And the pickups have to be absolutely reliable, otherwise people are just going to bundle things up and put it all out for the regular trash collection. We have run into that this fall, when pick up dates for leaves have been unclear: it seems that most folks have either just raked everything into the street, or put leaves in garbage bags. That's no way to solve a problem.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Power of Song II: Scenes from Portugal and Brazil

More Portuguese music today: The first is "Fado Tropical," by Chico Buarque de Holanda. It's sung and played against the background of newsreels from the Portuguese Carnation Revolution in 1974 where that country peacefully overthrew a dictatorship nearly 60 years old. At the time, Brazil was also under a military control, and the song caused great waves there, since it was seen as a protest against what was going on there.

The second clip is from a multi-part BBC documentary on Brazilian music. Its history is far more than "The Girl from Ipanema", and, like Pete Seeger, it demonstrates the Power of Song.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Saturday Photo: Fall in Kamloops, an Old Railroad Town That's Now a Regional Centre

Last weekend I was in Kamloops, British Columbia, a town on the confluence of two branches of the Thompson Rivers. Its history as a settlement goes back to fur trader days (although the First Nations were there long before then) and at the end of the 19th century it became a major railway center.

Those days are past: the major employers now are a pulp mill, regional health facilities and Thompson Rivers University. The scenery is spectacular in that pared-down arid, Western way, and while I was there the weather was wonderfully sunny.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Véhicule Cleans Up--Or Vicki Marcok's Most Excellent Advice

Going to see your publisher can be most rewarding, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Wednesday I dropped by the Véhicule Press offices with the proceeds from the books sold at the Fields of Walking last weekend in Kamloops. I filled in Simon Dardick, Véhicule’s co-publisher, and Vicki Marcok, the general manager on the conference. Then I said, rather sadly, that the next thing on my agenda—having exhausted all the interesting tasks--was digging the house out since I’d been so busy lately that grime was everywhere. That is when Vicki gave me the best household hint I’ve had in years.

“One part dish soap to two parts vinegar,” she said. “A friend told me about it a couple of years ago. Put it in a spray bottle, spray it on, wait five minutes and wipe it off. Terrific.”

She’s right! Got rid of almost all the burned-on crud in the oven, took grease off the walls behind the stove and shined the bathtub to a brilliance not equaled in years.

The last is particularly rewarding as the tub is a big old one with iron feet that we had refinished several years ago with acrylic. At the time, the contractor warned us not to use abrasives or harsh cleaners on the surface. Since then it slowly has gotten dingier and dingier, despite frequent and energetic applications of elbow grease, fancy-dan green-style cleaners, baking soda, and vinegar on its own.

But Vicki’s miracle solution really was one: the collected whatever rolled off the surface without much effort and what was left rinsed off with clean water. The last step, I suspect, is important, because if you don’t you’re likely to have leave residual soap film that will collect more grime.

Hey, Simon: got a sure-fire bestseller for you. Have Vicki do a “Secrets of Successful People” book, featuring their household hints, and beginning with hers!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Charles and Camilla: A Real Love Story, and Encouragement for Constant Lovers Everywhere

Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, have been in Canada this last week, making the hearts of monarchists palpitate and tongues of fashionistas spew venom about the second Mrs. Prince's dowdiness. Ordinarily I don’t pay much attention to either, but before they go back to the UK, I think it’s important to note that theirs is a real love story, one that is much more uplifting than that fairytale involved Diana Spencer.

Camilla and Charles met when they were 23 and 21 respectively, but even though sparks apparently flew, their romance was stifled because Royal Family advisors thought Charles too inexperienced to marry. Officially they went their separate ways, Camilla marrying a military man 8 years older than she, and Charles marrying a beauty who shared few of his interests. But both marriages broke up in the 1990s, in part because of their continuing affair, although it wasn’t until 2005 that they finally married each other.

So a romance begun nearly 40 years ago continues today. That’s not bad at all. What a shame they weren’t allowed to follow their hearts at the beginning. As for Camilla’s fashion sense: well, she looks to me like a woman who dresses for her age and who is happy in a relationship that took far too long to come about. Good on her...and him too for recognizing the value of a love and a lover who have grown over time along with you.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Let Sorrow Be a Lesson on This Rembrance Day

On this Remembrance Day, a study in contrasts: The statue on the left is one in Parc Saint-Viateur in Outremont, while the others are from the Cenotaph in Westmount. The latter is of a clean, confident soldier protected by an angel. The former, despite its "Glorious Victory" cry, shows the sorrow of war.

It is no accident that one Montreal suburb--an Anglophone one--chose to celebrate a triumphant army while the other --considered to be Francophone--mourns. Anglophones in the two World Wars were far more ready to fight than Francophones, even though it is clear from the list of the dead in Parc Saint-Viateur than many Francophones fought and died too.

Never forget that: "War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things." In the long run it is saner to mourn than celebrate.

Photo of Cenotaph from

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

And What If Plato Had Been Written Down Digitally? The Dangers of Relying Too Much on High Tech Records of Our Culture

Three things this week have started me thinking about the dangers involved in consecrating all our thoughts to electronic media. The first is the latest chapter in a philosophy text that Lukas has been translating for the last several months from French to English. He’s just about done, and I’ve agreed to give it quick look to see if I can suggest any changes to make the English more readable. So far what he’s given me chapters on the presocratics, Plato and Aristotle, which reminded me how much of the thought of the Ancients has been lost, and how much we owe to Arab scholars who kept the texts alive during the long centuries when the West had forgotten them.

Then last weekend when I was at Kamloops, I discovered to my surprise that one of the prime movers (to indulge in a little philosophic joke) was philosopher Bruce Baugh, whose students quoted me Plato and Socrates as we were walking around town Saturday morning. I was impressed once again at how long lasting is the influence of those thinkers of ancient Greece.

Thirdly the Writers’ Union of Canada’s list serve has been buzzing about the demise of the book as we know it: the latest link was a link to an Inside Higher Ed story of a debate among librarians about whether libraries should just forget about print. The story starts off: “Let’s face it: the library, as a place, is dead,” said Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University. “Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is.”

But what happens when the electronic media on which we are storing journals and scanned books deteriorates? Who is going to keep up with changes in storage technique? Is anyone anywhere printing all that stuff out so that someone can access it in a low tech way?

I fear not. Twenty years ago there was a great hue and cry about switching to acid free paper in order to safeguard books since so many printed between 1850 and 1950 were beginning to fall apart. We seemed to have solved that problem only to begin conserving our collective wisdom on even more delicate media—on and off circuits which we need specialized equipment to read.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Search for a New Enemy

Twenty years ago I was in San Diego, preparing to move my parents to an assisted living residence in Bellingham, Washington. My dad was not at all well, and during the summer it had become clear that they had to move 1) out of the place they were and 2) closer to me in Montreal or to my sister Laurie in Vancouver, BC. They vetoed any move east because of the cold and flatly refused to allow us to start the process of bringing them into Canada as sponsored immigrants. That was a mistake, but at that point Laurie and I were still learning how to be adults in relation to our parents, and we didn't argue too much.

Laurie did the footwork and found The Leopold, an 1920ish hotel converted to a retirement residence in downtown Bellingham. Our parents loved it--you can get an idea of the place from the fact that it had a Cheers-style bar downstairs and a ballroom with chandeliers where ballroom dancing still is a feature--and our mother stayed on for a couple years after Dad died in January 1991.

But it's that window in time--November 1989 to January 1991--that I remember today. As we sorted through their belongings and packed boxes in San Diego, we watched the fall of the Berlin Wall and the flood of people from East to West all over Eastern Europe. It was exhilarating, and my parents, who had lived most of their lives under the threat of war, Cold and Hot, were as pleased as everyone else at this promise of a more peaceful planet.

By the time Dad's lung cancer (because that was what was beginning to eat through his body 20 years ago) struck him down 14 months later, that great hope had evaporated. He died the day that George Bush père announced the beginning of the West's first 20th century war in the Persian Gulf, and his funeral was held the day that troops of the US and its friends attacked Iraq.

My mother always said she was glad that he was not aware of what had happened, that the nightly news programs were full of promise for a better world up until the last weeks before his disease removed him from combat.

What opportunities have been squandered in the last 20 years! What happened to the Peace Bonus? Are we as a species constitutionally unable to live without enemies?

Saturday Photo (a Little Late): Asters, the Last Flowers of the Year

First, an apology. I had this post ready to roll before I left on Thursday, but something happened and I erased the photos accidently so I couldn't post it until this morning. Now, back in Montreal (and more about the trip later) I can put up the picture on the right, taken earlier this fall when the asters were at their height, and the one on the left, taken last week when the leaves were off the trees, but the asters were still hanging in there.

When I came in last night I saw that the flowers are all gone, as are the leaves. Fall is technically here--but it also seems that we're in for a few days of Indian summer before it really gets cold.