Saturday, 31 January 2009

Saturday Photo: The Palm House at Kew

As Patricia points out, botanical gardens and their green houses are marvelous places to escape from winter. Montreal's own Jardin botanique was a place where I took my kids when they were little on days when we just had to get out, but an afternoon in the snow seemed too much to comptemplate. A stroll around its glass houses was like a trip to the tropics or the desert, and we all came home much happier.

The seed was planted on those outings which led to my first non-fiction book Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens (Véhicule, 2001.) Doing the research on it took me to nine gardens around the world, and Patricia's comment set me thinking: maybe winter is a good time to pull out the pix I took then.

So here is the first one: the Palm House in the Royal Gardens at Kew, London. Completed in 1848, it was one of the first large glass houses constructed, and became a model for conservatories around the world.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Who's Afraid of Beaumarchais, and Other Tales of the Relevance of Culture

One of the boulevards leading off the Place de la Bastille is Beaumarchais, and yesterday it seems it was full of demonstrators protesting the way the Sarkozy government has been managing the French economy.

Place de la Bastille and Place de la République are the usual places where manifestations start in Paris, and the name of the street that runs between them is extremely well-chosen. Pierre Beaumarchais, 18th century playwright, diplomat and inventor, is the author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, both plays which caused a furor when they were presented in the years preceding the French Revolution. They were run-away successes in France and elsewhere, and became the inspiration for two of the world’s best operas.

This I've known for a long time, but I didn't appreciate how audacious Beaumarchais was. Viewed more than 225 years later, plays about a barber don't seem any big thing. But things came a lot clearer when we saw the Théâtre du nouveau monde’s production of Le mariage de Figaro last night. Emmanuel Bilodeau played Figaro as a common man who was more than the measure of his “betters.” The Count, debating about accepting an appointment as an envoy to London (a post which Beaumarchais held himself,) is a petty womanizer unaware of the great changes about to take place, the women in the play are given speeches which protest the way they are manipulated by the men and conventions of their lives, and everyone dances and jokes and sings. The production was a delight, and shed a lot of light on the atmosphere that led to revolution—and the nation which has evolved from the France of Louis XVI.

Who says that culture isn't relevant? The problem from a government's point of view is that it hits sometimes uncomfortably close to home.

Photo: Agence France-Presse taken from Le Devoir

Thursday, 29 January 2009

When Chrystal Balls Are Snow-storm Paperweights and Other Profound Nonsense

Last weekend the forecast for this week was for mostly sunny weather. Some waffling followed, and then came the suggestion that we might have a little snow, Yesterday Montreal got 25 cm (about 10 inches) which is by no means terrible, but, coupled with the sight of Stephen Harper (yes, even he) and other disciples of Milton Friedman recognizing the important role of government, I am reminded:

That the reason we have economists making forecasts is to make meteorologists look good.

Who says that coalitions aren’t effective, by the way? Didn’t the mere threat of a Lib/NDP one change thinking in Ottawa profoundly? Now it remains to be seen what the Lib/Conservative one accomplishes.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Yes to Infrastructure, But Why Not a Tax Credit like Quebec's for Creators?

The basic idea behind the Harper budget infrastructure plan is good—heaven knows we need to replace roads, bridges and add better rail and commuter links—but it would have been a lot better if the $3 billion earmarked for tax cuts was in large part added to the infrastructure program. We’d get a whole lot more bang to our buck in terms of stimulus as well as have something to show or it ten years from now. Don’t forget how much we are still profiting from the stimulus programs of the 1930s: the network of trails in US National Parks owe much to them as do such disparate wonders as the Jardin botanique in Montreal and the San Francisco Botanical Garden. (If you’d like to see just how that worked, see my book Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens, by the way.)

But while some of the money seems earmarked for cultural facilities and festivals, there appears to be nary a sou for increased support for creators either through the Canada Council for the Arts or programs to market Canadian culture abroad. That’s pretty short sighted when (as the Harper minions have begun to admit) culture makes up a large sector of the economy.

If the Conservatives had really cared about culture and still wanted to stick to their ideology of tax cuts, they could at least have extended the tax credit Quebec give to creators for income that comes from royalties. The first $30,000 of royalty income is tax free, but the benefit diminishes on a sliding scale until it disappears at $60,000. It’s been in place here for since 1995, helps out people who really aren’t making much, and without a doubt encourages cultural creation. To see how it works, go to line 297 in the Revenue Quebec work charts.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Recognizing Lives of Substance: A Nobel Peace Prize for Pete Seeger and Ingerman Birthdays

On the weekend a friend sent a link to a clip of Pete Seeger singing at the pre-inaugural concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial January 18, along with the truly wonderful idea of nominating Seeger for a Nobel Peace Prize.

I can’t think of an American who deserves it more at the moment. What a grand way to recognize the best in American culture: its rich musical heritage, its free-thinking critical side, its perserverance.

As it happens, last weekend we also celebrated the 80th birthday of Doris Ingerman, one of the world’s niftier souls with whom I went to see Seeger campaign for peace and clean water at least 35 years ago. Doris is of the same cru as Seeger: one of those children of the Depression who become stalwart lefties and who (unlike the creeps Doris Lessing portrays) remained true, and kind, and loyal. An African-American, she came to Montreal with her husband Sid (whom she met during the Henry Wallace campaign in 1948 and that’s another very good story) and their three children in 1967. Judy, Tom and Paula always seemed sort of like nieces and nephew to Lee and me, while Doris and Sid have been honorary grandparents to our kids, particularly since their real grandparents were so far away.

It was Doris who showed me New York for the first time, in the summer of 1969. Always ready for adventure, she also was ready one Sunday three or four years later to drive down to some place on the Hudson with her kids and me in order to join Seeger’s campaign to clean up the Hudson. The trip was a good four or five hours each way, but I don’t remember much grumbling from the back seat. Instead, my memories are of Seeger singing to a small crowd on the edge of the water, followed by a chance to talk about environmental problems, and the war in Viet Nam. Doris introduced herself, of course, and I think they discovered mutual friends from the Wallace era.

One of the great joys of the Obama inaugural was seeing people like Seeger in the spotlight again, and hearing the same kind of principled discourse that Seeger has always undertaken in his music and his life. Sign the petition to nominate him.

And happy birthday again to Doris! She, by the way, watched inaugural with sisters and friends from the house of a niece who lives in Alexandria, VA. A great experience, she says. Sid, a triathalete who turned 80 last November himself, held down the fort in Montreal, monitoring the world scene. He was the one who sent the Pete Seeger link, in fact.

Monday, 26 January 2009

“Six Errors on the Path to the Financial Crisis:" A Must-Read Analysis in the New York Times

To understand what has happened to us over the last few years, my favourite economist counsels reading an article by Alan Blinder in Saturday’s New York Times. “Six Errors on the Path to the Financial Crisis” gives an account of what happened, complete with the warnings which were made but not heeded. They begin with a call for more regulation in 1998—“the financial turmoil would have been less severe if derivatives trading had acquired a zookeeper a decade ago”—and include the decision to let Lehman Brothers collapse—“After Lehman went over the cliff, no financial institution seemed safe. So lending froze, and the economy sank like a stone”

Blinder attributes much of this blindness to what was going on to entrancement with “laissez faire-y tales,” but says that all is not lost. “Recognizing and understanding these errors will help us fix the system so that it doesn’t malfunction so badly again.”

I’d like to think that this article as well as Paul Krugman’s continuing economic critique are being read in the Obama White House. And I’m waiting to see what happens tomorrow when Stephen Harper brings down his own re-tooled budget

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Saturday Photo: Poinsettia and Snow

For the first time this year, I succeeded in getting a poinsettia to bloom again. The trick appears to be life in a sunny window during days of short daylight, and low light at night. At any rate, this plant flowered just before the first of the year and so far is holding up well.

I like the contraast between the red bracts and the snow outside. House plants--like long walks on days of sun on snow-make winter not that bad at all.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Mother's Milk, Maternity Leave, Machines and The New Yorker:

Just as Facebook has a fit over pictures of mothers nursing their babies, The New Yorker publishes an interesting article about the commercialization of breastfeeding. High class breast pumps are now part of the must-have paraphernalia of new mothers, it seems. Because many woman must go back to work well before the age recommended for weaning babies these days (no earlier than six months,) ways to store breast milk for feeds when Mom isn’t around are necessary.

The subtext of the article is that maternity leaves should be more generous in the US, where a woman is lucky to get two months off. In Quebec working women can claim unemployment benefits amounting to 15 weeks sick leave, 15 weeks maternity leave and 20 weeks parental leave (Dad can share this) for a total 50 weeks. The figure is slightly different in other promises, but still much better than south of the border. Maybe this is something the new First Mom might take up as a crusade.

More generous maternity benefits are liberating for women and good for families. I always said that nursing was the lazy woman’s way to feed a baby—no formula to lug home, no bottles to fix, a good excuse to sit down occasionally. Even with another small child around you could read, although frequently it was only Good Night Moon for the Nth time.

The New Yorker was my favourite reading material during that period of my life, however. It opened nicely and could be held in one hand while you held the baby in the other arm. It also gave you the impression that you were still part of the larger world. As for breast pumps in those days, they were reserved for hospitals: if you wanted to express milk you had to do it by hand. But given the complete absence of maternity benefits, at least you ended the post-partum period with a new skill-- dairy maid.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Three More Books for Stephen Harper, One of Which I Bet Obama Has Read

Monday Yann Martel sent Prime Minister Stephen Harper a rather pointed gift as part of his on-going campaign to provide Harper with some good bedtime reading: The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, by Michael Ignatieff.

“I believe you said in an interview not long ago that you hadn’t read much of Michael Ignatieff’s work. It’s obvious that you should, isn’t it? After all, you will be facing him every day in the House of Commons this year—he may even take your job—so it would be to your advantage to get to know his mind.,” Martel writes in his cover letter. Ignatieff has a great C.V., he adds, although that isn’t everything that it takes to be prime minister.

“Leadership can’t be reduced to academic credentials or books on a shelf,” he continues. “Personality, vision, instinct, people skills, practical knowledge, toughness, resilience, rhetorical flair, charisma, luck—there is much that goes into the making of a political leader besides grey matter.” Whether Ignatieff has all that isn’t clear yet, but I’d wager a bundle that Martel thinks he does.

The book he sent to Harper just after Christmas is quite a bit different: Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics 1965-1999, by Paul McCartney. Martel notes that Harper says he’s a Beatles fan, and he points out the marvelous way a good song addresses “feelings we might be too shy to deal with in plain speech—raw, hungering lust, for example—or ones that cut deep but are so mundane we are embarrassed to talk about them: loneliness, yearning, heartbreak.”

Loneliness, yearning, heartbreak: are those emotions Harper will know soon? Let’s see what happens next week when the budget comes down.

In the meantime, I’d like to suggest another short book for Harper: The Reluctant Fundamentalists by Hamid Mohsin. It is a short novel by a Pakistani who’s passed many years in the West and has written a most engaging and convincing book about a man not unlike himself who changes his allegiances as he sees the world more clearly. This is a book that I bet Barack Obama has read: at least, he is acting as if he understands what lies behind such disillusion.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The New-Old Message of Barack Obama

The pundits seem divided about the thrust of President Barack Obama’s inaugural address. This division seems to me to be due to a perception that there is a major discontinuity between two main themes of his candidacy and his life, change and what some would classify as old-fashioned values.

Like so many others I watched the ceremony with tears rolling down my face: what a glory! What an accomplishment! Things may actually get better! The US and perhaps the world have undergone a sea change.

But that promise of change is firmly rooted in old ideas like justice, equality, the rule of law, the need for taking responsiblity for one’s actions and for good government. These are values that I grew up believing in and which few have mentioned in the last couple of decades. How wonderful to hear them evoked again!

The 49 Tunes for Barack: Some Not Bad Choices, Although Too Much Mainstream

Five classical selections made the CBC’s Obamaplaylist, 49 from North of the 49th Parallel. That’s not surprising given the way the list--to be sent to the new president for his iPod and exercise enjoyment--was set up. The 100 finalists were divided into four categories, with 11 classical possibilities, 60 mainstream, 20 “Francophone” and 10 jazz. Take the top 50 per cent of vote getters in each category, and voilà ! there’s your list.

The CBC says 130,000 people voted on line over the last week, and certainly there was some international attention, with coverage on the BBC and elsewhere. However I’d like to know just how the voting breakdown, as one of my fears about the contest was a hidden agenda designed to prove that nobody cares much about anything but mainstream music. As it is, there are some good songs among those chosen. I’ve bold faced my favourites, for what it’s worth.

* Arcade Fire, Rebellion (Lies).
* Barenaked Ladies, If I Had $1,000,000.
* Beau Dommage, La complainte du phoque en Alaska.
* Ben Heppner, We'll Gather Lilacs.
* Bruce Cockburn, Wondering Where the Lions Are.
* Buffy Sainte-Marie, Universal Soldier.
* Daniel Bélanger, Rêver mieux.
* Daniel Lanois, Jolie Louise.
* Daniel Lavoie, J'ai quitté mon île.
* Diana Krall, Departure Bay.
* Gilles Vigneault, Mon pays.
* Glenn Gould, The Goldberg Variations.
* Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy.
* Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
* Great Big Sea, Ordinary Day.
* Harmonium, Pour un instant.
* Ian & Sylvia, Four Strong Winds.
* James Ehnes, Barber Violin Concerto.
* Jesse Cook, Mario Takes a Walk.
* Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now.
* Joni Mitchell, A Case of You.
* Karkwa, Oublie pas.
* k.d. lang, Hallelujah.
* Leonard Cohen, Democracy.
* Leonard Cohen, Suzanne.
* Malajube, Montréal –40 C.
* Marie-Jo Thério, Évangeline.
* Marjan Mozetich, Affairs of the Heart.
* Measha Brueggergosman, I'm Going Up a Yonder.
* Mes Aïeux, Dégénérations.
* Michael Bublé, Home.
* Moe Koffman, Swingin' Shepherd Blues.
* Neil Young, Rockin' In the Free World.
* Neil Young, Helpless.
* Oscar Peterson Trio, Hymn to Freedom.
* Oscar Peterson, Place St. Henri (from Canadiana Suite).
* Parachute Club, Rise Up.
* Raymond Lévesque, Quand Les Hommes Vivront D'amour.
* Rush, Closer to the Heart.
* Sam Roberts, The Canadian Dream.
* Shad, Brother (Watching).
* Stan Rogers, Northwest Passage.
* Stompin' Tom Connors, The Hockey Song.
* The Arrogant Worms, Canada's Really Big.
* The Guess Who, American Woman.
* The Tragically Hip, Wheat Kings.
* The Tragically Hip, Bobcaygeon.
* The Rankin Family, Rise Again.
* The Weakerthans, One Great City!

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Grace, Art and Barack Obama

Thought on the new president:

Watching him, listening to him, I am reminded of Norman Maclean’s phrase in A River Runs through It: “All good things...come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” We have before us a man whose effort has brought him as close to grace and art as is possible. Blessings on him, and on us too.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Globalization, China Butter Dishes and Chickens: the World Is a Small and Frequently Difficult Place

Dinner on Saturday with friends—a former colleague of Lee, his wife and a couple who had been their neighbors a few years ago. Delicious food, good conversation and some fascinating stories. Our host grew up on a chicken farm in New Jersey—“We didn’t have to kill them,” he said, “someone else did that” when I told the story about my grandmother chopping off chicken’s heads--and went on to become an economics professor specializing in globalization. The other couple were Germans who had ended up in Montreal through a long series of comings and goings, he as an avionics engineer and she as a trained midwife. Our hostess was from Cairo, I knew, but until we’d gone around the table with our stories, I’d never heard of her family’s flight from Egypt.

She was not quite 18 and her family was sitting at breakfast the morning when someone burst in to tell them they should flee because foreigners were being expelled from the country. They had very little money on hand, but they were able to make their way to the port where they got passage on a ship There followed several months going around the Mediterranean, but after several other stops along the way, they were able to settle in Canada.

For several moments we sat mutely after she finished, as we tried to assimilate her tale. Then she reached for the china butter dish sitting in the middle of table surrounded by plates and glasses and the crumbs of a good meal. “This is all that’s left. It had been my grandmother’s and we used it every day. I just picked it up off the table and put it my bag.”

The pattern on the china is very similar to that of the few pieces that have come down to me from my chicken-killing grandmother. They probably were bought in the same epoch and are likely of the same quality—dishes not for state occasions but for ordinary use by comfortably-off families. Emmanuel would say they are good examples of material culture, carrying with them layers and layers of living and meaning.

As our host said, globalization is nothing new. People and objects have been travelling and trading for millenia, witness the name we give to a certain kind of dish--china, of course. Those chickens weren't native to either New Jersey or Washington state, either.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Saturday Photo: Jogging on Mount Royal

Back before my knees began to give me trouble, I would switch from running to walking when the temperature hit -22 C. On Thursday morning when it was -26 C, however, I passed a small covey of very hardy joggers--very lean and rather young--as I trudged along wearing my full metal jacket: long johns, running pants, and sweats plus four layers of sweaters and hoodies on top.

Good on them, even though the cold air can do real damage to your lungs if you're not careful. That's one of the adaptive advantages of those funny hairs in your nostrils, you know. Not only do they strain out dust, they also frost up, making a little curtain behind which truly arctic air can become merely cold.

Sounds gross, I know, and my kids used to think the whole idea was hilarious. Maybe the real solution is to wrap a scarf around your face...

Forecast for today: high of -19C, or just below 0F. Who says things don't get better?.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Hydro Quebec Turns off Lights: Chronicles from a Cold Climate Continued

Last night the big illuminated sign on the top of Hydro Quebec’s headquarters was turned off, as the public utility asked Quebeckers to cut back on power use because of near-record demands. We’re having the coldest weather seen in several years, and Hydro expects power use this morning is expected to reach about 38,000 MW by Friday morning. In a press release calling for users to turn down temperatures and turn off lights, Hydro said that “all-time electricity demand peak of 36,268 MW registered on January 15, 2004 was nearly equaled Thursday morning, as consumption hit the 36,250 MW mark.” People were asked not to use washers, dryers or dishwashers between 6 and 9 a.m. and 5 and 8 p.m.

Of course that assumes that you’re using electricity to heat your house and water and to dry your clothes. We heat with oil and cook with gas, but I don’t know where that puts us on the environmental virtue ratings, since those fuels also have their problems. Just to put this in context, it's important to note that electricity use in winter here is nearly double that in summer even though air conditioning is becoming increasingly commmon. It's harder to heat water and buildings from -20 to +20 than it is to cool them from +30 to +20, it appears.

The only thing that’s good, is the news I had from a friend in Calgary yesterday who said that the cold spell has broken there: after several weeks of the frigid temperatures we have now, the mercury went up to plus 5 C there. Can’t wait for the warm front to move east. Until then I think I'll sit by a window and read--not much electricity wasted doing that.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

On Gaza: Shalom, Salam, Peace

My mother, who occasionally was wise, always said that two wrongs don't make a right. She was on the money with that saying. It is long past the time that Israel's argument of self-defence could be considered seriously as justification for the violence in Gaza. Stop!

It is also time for Canada to stop its unquestioning support for Israeli actions in Gaza.

And if you'd like a glimpse of a better world, check out this video: The Jewish-Arab Peace Song

Wood Smoke, Smog and Keeping Warm: More Chronicles of Life in a Cold Climate

This morning Environment Canada is warning that the northern Quebec region of Abitibi-Témiscamingue may be smoggy. On Monday the east end of Montreal island also was covered by a yellow pall. Despite the fact that smog is usually associated with hot weather and temperature inversions, the increased use of wood burning stoves for heating has led to winter time smog alerts around here. Unless the stove or furnace is constructed along strict norms, the fine particles that go up the chimney do terrible things to the atmosphere, particularly when winds are still.

The problem has become so bad, in fact, that the city of Montreal has asked homeowners to find other ways of heating, and two districts will ban the polluting stoves in new construction. Ironically this comes at a time when in a search for alternate fuel sources and efficient use of forest waste products has led to some experiements with large scale use of wood for heating. Le Devoir reported the same day as Montreal’s smog alert that a new hospital in a rural community will use forest waste for heating.

The smell of wood smoke on the air or of a fire in a fireplace evokes pleasant memories for many people. But the world is a lot more complicated than it was when farmers burned fields without thinking of smoke pollution and no one gave a second thought to burning leaves in the fall.

This morning may be one of the coldest of the year: -26 C which works out to -15 F. When Lee came back from his walk his beard was completely covered in ice, and my own boot laces were frozen solid when I returned from a tour of the mountain. To live in this climate means burning something for heat in winter, but we should all think of the consequences.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

49 from North of the 49th: Vote for Classical Music

We have until 8 p.m. EST Friday, January 16 to vote for the music to include on the playlist CBC Radio Two is going to send to Barack Obama. There are 100 choices in four categories, and as you might expect given the CBC’s campaign to dumb itsself down, the classical category offers a really slimmed-down list. It has 11, compared to 60 for he mainstream category, 20 for the “Francophone” and 10 for jazz. It is possible that the people who are running the contest may keep the proportion in the final 49, that is 30 for mainstream, 10 for Francohone, 5 for jazz and with the rest classical. But maybe not: if if we serious music lovers vote only for classical selections, we make a point, and perhaps increase the weight of our votes.

So vote! You can do so once a day.

Here are the selections:

Affairs of the Heart - Marjan Mozetich (composer)
Barber Violin Concerto - James Ehnes (performer)
Daphnis et Chloe - Montreal Symphony Orchestra (performer)
Goldberg Variations - Glenn Gould (performer)
Handel Serse - Maureen Forrester (performer)
Haydn Piano Sonata 52 - Marc-André Hamelin (performer)
I'm Going Up a Yonder - Measha Brueggergosman (performer)
Mennonite Concerto - Victor Davies (composer)
Rise Up My Love - Healey Willan (composer)
The Hour Has Come - Srul Irving Glick (composer)
We’ll Gather Lilacs - Ben Heppner (performer)

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Some Silliness: Memes and Other Ways of Getting Attention

The idea of memes has always seemed to me to be unscientific. Wikipedia says that Richard Dawkins introduced the idea in his book The Selfish Gene “to describe how one might extend evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena.” The article goes on: “in everyday use the term 'meme' tends to be applied specifically to fast spreading running jokes on the internet, like those propagated through e-mail forwards and Internet forums.”

So, we’re supposed to dignify gossip or (often) questionable humour by imagining that, just as a physical basis for inheritance was found in genes nearly 100 years after Gregor Mendel’s pioneer work, we’ll isolate something concrete to explain why Tina Fey’s Sarah Pallin imitation swept through cyberspace last fall?

Hmmm. I'm not so sure about that. But it seems that I was "memed" yesterday--in essence, one of my writing cronies sent me a sort of virtual chain letter which invites bloggers to reveal/promote themselves. Because Ray Argyle is a such a good guy, I'll go along with the conceit.

Here is what you're supposed to do:

One: Link to the person who tagged you. Here.

Two: Post the rules. That's what I'm doing right here.

Three: Write six random things about yourself.

This is harder that you might think. When you've been blogging for a while you've said a lot about yourself already, and you're likely to have set out guidelines about what you want to share with others. So, this time out, I'll just free associate:

1. Once upon a time I had brilliant red hair and was known to dance on tables occasionally.

2. When Lukas and Sophie got married I danced for four hours straight in high heeled shoes, and had trouble unbending my toes the next morning.

3. I know the words to lots of Broadway musicals, and if you don’t watch out I’ll sing them.

4. Back in my table dancing days, my father offered to buy a radio for Lee’s VW if I persisted in singing. In the end he didn’t, and Lee never stopped regretting it.

5. But I’m sure one of the reasons why Elin became a musician is because my terrible but enthusiastic voice showed that you could enjoy making music no matter how many mistakes you made along the way.

6. Now that that my hair has faded to a sort of light strawberry-blonde (not white yet though!) I volunteer Friday afternoons at Hôpital Sainte-Justine, one of Montreal’s two children’s’ hospitals. When I rock the babies on Unit 6-3, I croon show tunes, songs from my childhood and French ditties like Sur le pont d’Avignon. What puts them to sleep quickest, though, is a simple three note hum repeated again and again which would probably drive both Lee and my father nuts. Who cares, though?

Four. Tag six people. See below.

Martin Langeland

Jack Ruttan

Patricia, Guylène's friend



Tom van Milligen

Five. Inform the tagees and the person who tagged you. Done

Enough silliness for today. Gotta get to work.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Save Energy, Read a Book: California to Regulate Energy Hogging TVs

TV has been blamed—with reason I think—for a lot of bad things, among them increasing obesity and short attention spans. Until this morning, though, I hadn’t thought of what television sets represent in terms of energy consumption. During peak viewing periods, like the Super Bowl, TVs in California use up to 40 per cent of the state’s electricity production, and on average TVs represent 10 per cent of a family’s electricity bill, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The main culprits are those increasingly popular big screen models—up to 52 inches—and new California standards, passed just before the first of year, will regulate them beginning in 2011. “LCD -- liquid crystal display -- sets use 43% more electricity, on average, than conventional tube TVs; larger models use proportionately more. Plasma TVs, which command a relatively small share of the market, need more than three times as much power as bulky, old-style sets,” the LA Times reports. The new regulations mandate more energy effcient sets, which could result in considerable savings on consumers’ power bills.

But maybe this is just another reason to turn the darn things off and read a book.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Saturday Photo: Walking the Walk

In the summer time there is a straight, asphalted path along this row of bushes that edge one of Outremont's small parks. But people don't walk in straight lines and once snow falls you can see this clearly.

Going from here to there is usually more convulated that we think.

Friday, 9 January 2009

It's Cold in Lisbon: Learning Portuguese

Yesterday teams of community workers and volunteers went around poor neighborhoods in Lisbon, looking for elderly people living alone who might be suffereing from the cold. Portugal, like much of Europe, has been much colder than usual lately, and the state television network Radio-Televisão Portugal (RTP) has been reporting on how the Portuguese are coping.

How do I know this? From piecing together the short summaries of news items that accompany RTP's internet service and then listening again and again to the report as I work on my Portuguese.

For several years now I’ve been trying to learn the language. Several of my past projects have involved travel to Portuguese speaking countries. The Violets of Usambara has as major characters a couple of immigrants to Montreal from the Azores, and when I was researching that book I spent a week on São Miguel and Santa Maria. My pre-trip language study was helpful, and before I left I road side signs and menus down pat. Then when I was working on Green City, I spent some time in São Paulo, Brazil. By the time I came back from there, I was reading Portuguese very easily. Since then I’ve kept track of what is happening there, by reading the on-line editions of Brazilian newspapers.

Understanding the spoken language is something else though. Spanish was the language I took in high school, I had a roommate from Costa Rica my first year at Berkeley and these days I frequently find myself getting the gist of a simple conversations between Hispanophones on the bus. But for whatever reason the sound system in Portuguese seems so wildly out of synch with the written language that I’m really stuck as I prepare for a trip to Portugal this spring. The next book project will be about the legacy the Portuguese left around the world (there’s a logical connection with my other recent projects, but I haven’t come up with a short explanation of what it is yet) and I’d really like to be able to hold simple conversations and understand more complex things that I do now. Which means that I’ll sign off now, and go watch more internet news from RTP to see if the cold has let up.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Rapid Shift to Keynesian Thinking Shows How Shallow Mainstream Economics Has Been for Decades

The New York Times had a marvelous story on Wednesday about the sea change in economic thinking that has occurred over these last four months. It begins: “Frightened by the recession and the credit crisis that produced it, the nation’s mainstream economists are embracing public spending to repair the damage — even those who have long resisted a significant government role in a market system.”

The American Economics Association has been meeting in San Francisco, and it seems that the profession has finally admitted how wrong most of them have been for the last three decades. The story quotes Janet Yellen, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco., as saying: “The new enthusiasm for fiscal stimulus, and particularly government spending, represents a huge evolution in mainstream thinking.” The report adds that she said current shift in thinking is “likely to last for as long as the profession is dominated by men and women living through this downturn.”

Paul Krugman, the 2008 Nobel laureate for economics, has always recognized the validity of what's called Keynesian economics in some circles. But in many universities, the line of thinking has not been popular at all. My favurite economist and a few of his cronies have felt quite isolated as they insisted that government regulation is essential, that cutting taxes for the rich is not good policy, and that Keynes was right about stimulus and economic downturns. Now they are vindicated, and he says the swift turn-around in the thinking of mainstream economists shows just how shallow all the monetarists were. I imagine there are a lot of his former students who may have shaken their heads at the time over some of the ideas he brought forth in his micro and macro classes—ideas that were absent from the courses given by most other economists—who are now trying to remember what he said. There may even be some mumbles of: “old Soderstrom was right, after all!”

Too bad it takes a crisis that hurts so many people for foolish ideas to be unmasked.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Barack Obama Needs to Listen to Canada's Best Serious Music: the 49 from North of the 49th Contest

The CBC currently is trying to stir up some interest in its music programming by a contest to choose 49 songs from north of the 49th Parallel to send to President Elect Barack Obama for his iPod playlist.

What an idea! Let’s forget about the faulty geographic premise (hey, Montreal is at 45.3 N, and Toronto, 43.4) and talk about the way the contest is shaping up. As of this morning, very little non-mainstream music has been suggested, and of that, there are some noticeable gaps. No Céline Dion, for example, and while I don’t like her, surely her absence to date represents a huge blind spot among the people participating in the contest.

More seriously, it seems to me, the CBC brass may be planning to use this effort as a way of reinforcing their attempts to move the national broadcaster away from its long tradition of supporting and promoting the kind of culture that defines a country. That’s what makes the lack of serious music nominations very troubling. Do send in your suggestions before 8 p.m. Friday, January 9. Here’s the e-mail address:

Here are a couple of mine:

"Romanian Folk Dances" on the CD produced independently by McGill University music professor Matt Haimovitz, Goulash! Played by the group Ucello, this gorgeous music, performed with verve and style by a group Haimovitz has hand-picked, represents the way that Canada has welcomed people from all over the world, creating a marvelous goulash of a country.

Anything from the CD English Fancy (Analekta) by the baroque group Masques, featuring soprano Shannon Mercer and a number of excellent young Canadian musicians. The CD was made a few years ago and represents the strength of Canada's music scene in the early 21st century, which, I fear, is being eroded by budget cuts and misreading of the CBC's audience by the CBC's brass. If I had to pick, I'd say Shannon singing "Come Away" by Thomas Hampion.

The title track from the joint Atma CD by the Consort of les Voix humaines and the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, Rise, O My Soul. This is glorious, soul-stirring music which combines the best of the old world and the new.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Montreal Murders at Record Low, Quebec Youth Crime Down: More Reasons Why We Should Leave Vengeance to the Lord and Not to Stephen Harper

Before the newness of the new year slips away, I want to draw attention to something that happened—or rather didn’t happen—in Montreal in 2008. That is: the number of murders in the area served by the Montreal police (the city itself, and several surrounding suburbs) dropped to 29 from 42 the year before. It was the lowest number since the consolidated police force was set up. Quebec City (the province’s capital and its second largest city) didn’t have any murders at all. And this despite—or maybe because of—an approach to juvenile crime which is far less punitive than the one pushed by the Stephen Harper government.

In comparison, Philadelphia and Phoenix, Arizona report about 400 and 200 murders a year, even though they are about the same size as Montreal. Canada, which has not had a death penalty for more than 30 years and closely regulates fire arms, has murder rates which run consistently about a quarter of those in the US. Between 1996 and 2004, the murder rate in Canada was 1.82 per 100,000 population while in the US it was 6.3 per 100,000.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives campaigned last fall on a platform which pushed getting tough on "youth crime." Quebeckers didn't vote for the Conservatives, in part because of this. They had good grounds to be reluctant to sign on. To quote a Canadian Press story, “figures compiled by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics show Quebec's emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation over incarceration has served the province well. In fact, the youth crime rate in Quebec has consistently been the lowest in all of Canada.

“In 2007, for example, for every 100,000 young people aged 12 to 17 in Quebec, just 1,610 were involved in a crime. In the Northwest Territories, the region where youth crime rates have traditionally been the highest, that figure was 10,491.”

So what does this prove? That punishment should fit the crime, and that vengeance doesn’t work.

Monday, 5 January 2009

This Is the Morning the New Year Really Begins: Back to Work

Got to get back to work today. One of the advantages—or disadvantages—of being a freelance is that you can plan your own work schedule. When people ask if I’m free for a meeting, I often explain that I work always and never. Unless there’s a deadline looming, I can usually set things up to so I can make a meeting, say, next Tuesday at 2 p.m. with no problem. On the other hand, thee are few evenings when I don’t get in a couple of hours of work, even if it is only reading something for research.

The temptation, however, is to let things slide during holiday periods, and that’s what I’ve been doing these last two weeks. My industriousness has not been helped by the fact that I’m in the beginning stages of two major projects. Rather than sit down to spend several hours, staring at the keyboard until I can see where to go in the embryo of a novel that I’m beginning or the large, so-far unfocussed non-fiction book, it has been much more pleasant to take a walk, or bake some cookies, or write letters to friends. But that has to end as of this morning. And so to work….

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Saturday Photo: Gate Open into the New Year

This is another picture of a gate I find quite lovely, and which I think sort of stands for what I feel about a new year. We don't know what is awaiting us, but as the days begin to lenghthen--yes, this morning it was clear that sunrise came earlier than it did two weeks ago- there is a certain excitement in the air.

Let us hope that what awaits us is more positive than negative, and that we can find the strength necessary to cope with the negative times. Perhaps we may even learn something from them.

Friday, 2 January 2009

What We Say and How We Say It: Our Bastard Language Is a Thief and a Creole

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter was under the tree this year, and I’ve spent some enjoyable hours reading it. McWhorter’s unstated thesis is that English is a Creole language, with nothing pejorative intended in the phrase. What happened to English is that it was transformed when a prolonged wave of newcomers struggled to communicate with the people already living in England, dropping grammatical niceties right and left. The result of this simplification is a Modern English that does not routinely give gender to nouns the way every other language in Europe does, has eliminated the case markers that make German, Latin and Ancient Greek such chores to learn, and picked up some interesting features found only in Cornish and Welsh.

McWhorter is a brilliant young linguistic scholar who has spent much time researching creoles, the new languages which people create when invaders, immigrants or people otherwise thrown together must figure out how to talk to each other and to a larger community. He argues that what has happened to English (and perhaps to an ancestor language, Proto-Germanic) over time is not a simply borrowing of thousands and thousands of words, but more fundamental changes in the way sentences are structured.

Languages and how people express themselves is something I find fascinating. This year I also had the pleasure of reading Mark Abley’s books, Spoken Here and The Prodigal Tongue which also deal with the history of language and where language, particularly English, is going. Abley tells a good story, but there is more here than well chosen anecdotes and some remarkable little known facts. Spoken Here has an important political question as its subtext. Abley is an Anglohone Quebec writer and Spoken Here was written against the backdrop of Quebec politics. Francophones think their language is in danger, while Anglophones here jealousy guard theirs, but nowhere in this book does Abley mention this, I think.

Nor does McWhorter, an African-American, talk much about Black English even though he has been criticized for comments he’s made elsewhere. While Abley’s and McWhorter’s books can be read with pleasure by language buffs of whatever colour or place of residence, a careful appreciation of them requires a little parsing of them for their political grammar. Speaking (or at least understanding) the same language is essential for determining where we go from here.

By the way, McWhorter--like the cell phone novelists I wrote about a couple of days ago--apparently has nothing against heading toward a more electronic culture: his new book is available for down load as an e-book too.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy New Year, and Happy Anniversary, Fidel!

This New Year's Day I'm remembering the way the year began 50 years ago.

When we came back to school after the Christmas holiday in 1959, our Spanish teacher Mr. Frankel was very excited. His wife was Cuban, and he wanted to talk to us about something that had happened on New Year’s Day: Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries had seized power, toppling a brutal regime. Being the ignorant kids we were, few of us were aware of what had happened, and even fewer had come into contact with the kind of jubilation that comes when a government who had tortured your nearest and dearest was overthrown. By the end of the class, Mr. Frankel was crying, and we were stunned.

This was San Diego, of course, and when we took the story of what had happened home, I suspect there were some shocked parents. It was—and still is in large part, I imagine—a conservative place, where military and strategic concerns were uppermost. I don’t remember Mr. Frankel ever mentioning Castro or Cuba again, and it’s highly likely that his initial enthusiasm faded as time went on. But 50 years afterward it’s good to remember the perseverance and determination of Cuba.

The accomplishments include the best and most accessible health and educational systems in Latin America, as well as an example of how to overcome horrendous economic difficulties. What the Cubans did after the USSR collapsed and petroleum imports dried up while export markets disappeared should be an example for the rest of us in hard times. The shift was to urban agriculture and targeted food aid to children, the elderly and pregnant women. The result was a healthier population, believe it or not. Check out the reports in important medical journals. And take a look a fascinating YouTube video of a 48 hour visit to Havana.

Happy New Year to all, and Happy Anniversary to the Cuban people.