Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society Department: Who's Going to Benefit from Guy Laliberté's Space Trip?

Lots of stuff this morning on Guy Laliberté blasting off in a Soyuz rocket from the Russian space base in Kazkistan headed for the International Space Station. The high-flying founder of the Cirque de Soleil paid a reported $35 million for the privilege which he is touting also as a major event whose aim is to publicize the need for safe drinking water around the world.

His One Drop foundation is organizing a day long, worldwide poetry reading/media hullabaloo on October 9. The foundation’s website says that his “mission in space is dedicated to making an impact on how water, our most precious resource, is protected and shared. And he will be applying tools he has used so well for most of his life to bring about change: arts and culture."

Reportedly Laliberté’s five children and troops of aides from the Cirque were on hand to see the blastoff, and millions are expected to follow his escapade. Just how much all this is costing in anyone’s guess.

But obviously Laliberté has money to burn. He also is a high stakes poker player, and is said to have lost something like $17 million last year playing on-line poker. What he won or lost in Las Vegas or elsewhere is way up there too, although casinos apparently are more tight-lipped than on-line poker sites.

I’d like to know how much income tax Laliberté pays and where he pays it, because with that much to throw around, he should be able to help us all out. As a non-profit, One Drop likely operates as a tax-hedge too. Is it or the man himself paying for this adventure? Could make a big difference to Revenue Canada or wherever else Laliberté is supposed to pay taxes.

And what exactly will the outcome be for this campaign? Supposedly One Drop raises “awareness of water-related issues by entertaining and educating (It) works side by side with local partners to improve living conditions of disadvantaged communities through access and responsible use of natural resources, especially water,” according to its website. But so far the only projects listed are a few in Honduras and a multi-media show which is scheduled to travel, but which so far is only in Montreal.

Compare that with the serious health care and education projects sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Laliberté’s endeavors seem more acrobatics than accomplishment. I'd feel better about giving tax breaks to the former than the latter.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Liberals Shoot Themselves in the Foot--Again: We're Not Going to Get Rid of Harper That Way

Let me repeat this: the end of Stephen Harper’s reign as Prime Minister of Canada is something that is essential.

Nevertheless, I was reluctant to cheer for an early election because I thought the Liberals were in such disarray that the Conservatives would come back with a majority. While it pained me to see the NDP vote to keep the Harper government in office, it seemed to me to be a wise thing to do, all the more because the changes to the Employment Insurance program, however small, are worth putting into effect.

But, golly gee, the Liberals are in even worse shape than I thought. They won’t be able to stop the Conservatives unless they pick up some seats in Quebec, and it sure doesn’t look like they’ve got the organization to do so what with Denis Coderre and several other top honchos resigning yesterday. Nothing like having guys in Toronto pushing aside local organizers to rile the ire of Quebeckers, even federalist Quebeckers, and it looks like that’s what’s happened. Who’s going to work on the ground for them in Quebec? Who’s speaking to whom anyway?

Martin Cauchon and Thomas Mulcair of the NDP will produce an exciting race in Outremont, I’m sure. And if I were a Liberal I might question Denis Coderre’s strategy of proposing a relatively unknown businesswoman as a candidate instead of Cauchon. But I’m not a Liberal. Realistically, it seems to me that the best one can hope for would be a minority Liberal government with the NDP holding the balance of power, and that isn’t going to happen unless the Liberals get their act together.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Yes, There's a Lot of Dross Being Published, But That Doesn't Mean Fewer Books Should Be

Much chitchat last week about some snarky remarks about Canadian fiction made by Victoria Glendenning, one of the judges for this year’s Scotiabank Giller prize. I was busy with other things, and didn’t even see Noah Richler’s defence in The Globe and Mail. So to catch up:

At the end of a column for the Financial Times (really?) in which Glendenning comments about Dan Brown’s new book among other things, she heaps scorn on Canadianisms like eavestrough instead of gutter and quaintness like tuque and toque which is not “the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat.” But she also says there are an awful lot of terrible novels being written. “If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian,” she concludes, implying that subsidy programs are supporting much bad writing.

Noah Richler trashed her the next day in The Globe, most severely for being an ungracious guest. Certainly it does seem a little nasty to comment like that before the Giller winners are announced. But she does have a point: a lot of garbage is being published.

I’ve served on a couple of juries over the last few years, and found books whose grammar on the first few pages was so appalling that I threw them in the “No” pile almost immediately. I’ve also been sent books for review which I suspect nobody besides a conscientious reviewer or a close friend of the author could finish.

But how does this differ from the situation in any other country?

Most years I try to give the books on the short lists for the French (not French-Canadian but from France) prizes a quick once-over, and certainly there is a lot of dross among them too. Same thing, I’m sure, in the UK and other countries including the US. The problem is that genius is very thin on the ground, and that very few books are going to live past the decade they were published in.

But that does not mean that fewer books should be published, if only because the writer who produces a flawed novel today may have something really great in prospect. An example is Yann Martel. If you’d only read his brilliant short story collection and his failed first novel Self (awful, awful, awful, in my humble opinion) you’d say: what a talent wasted. And then he wrote The Life of Pi, a truly successful adventure story, in all the senses of the term. Go figure.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Saturday Photo: Not Quite October's Bright Blue Weather, But Pretty Nice, Nonethless

Only a few trees have begun to change--we haven't had a frost in the city yet--but obviously people who love Fall are ready to enjoy the season. Of course, kids love Halloween, and even though we're more than a month from the holiday I noticed several houses already decked out.

After five weeks without any rain to speak of, the grass in many places had turned quite brown after remaining a lucious green well into August. Now, after a few days of rain, the green is returning. Next will come the glorious explosion of colour, when blue sky, red, orange and yellow leaves, and green grass combine to treat the eye.

Can't wait.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Intimate Concert Shows off Elin's New Viol, and Kim and Boaz and Their Gorgeous Flutes

Last night was a first for Elin’s new viola da gamba: an intimate concert in a series organized by one of her students, Vincent Bonhomme. He is a coiffeur (far too classy to be a hair-dresser) whose small salon Jardin d’Art et de coiffure on Mont Royal Boulevard in Montreal’s Plateau district converts into a performance space where he has been organizing musical events for some time.

It was an evening of Renaissance and Baroque music by Ruffo, Ortiz, Hume, Abel and J.S Bach for flutes and gamba played on instruments that are—mostly—reproductions of the real deal. Elin’s Lion—the viol she fetched in Holland last month—sounded great, and as always it was a pleasure to hear her play that repertoire. She also played on her Italian viol and Precieuse Amandine, the 7-string French-style viol that has been her companion since she forsook the violin for the viola da gamba.

Kim Reine and Boaz Berney, newly installed in Montreal, played a half dozen flutes which Boaz made. Elin and Kim have been friends since they were undergraduates in music at McGill, and studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague at the same time, where Boaz also studied. An Israeli, he had met Kim (who’s from Edmonton) at a workshop in Portugal, and their relationship has flowered over ten years. They’ve spent the last several years in Israel, but now have moved to Canada and, particularly, Montreal, permanently. If you want a treat, check out their blog from the trip they took last year about this time to southern India. You’ll also get a visit to their apartment which once was a pizzeria and now also serves as a workshop where Boaz makes magnificent period flutes.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Several Spider Plants, Years of Support and an Example of Courage: One Person's Debt to Stuart Robertson

Stuart Robertson was my garden guru long before I met him. I remember calling into the CBC’s Radio Noon phone-in to ask a question about how to divide spider plants and to offer my solution to slugs. The latter, I said, is best accomplished by going out in the early evening or morning when they’ve slithered up leaves, and picking them off, dropping them on rock or pavement and stomping on them.

Stuart agreed that would work—although he said that a beer trap was what he preferred—and then went on to advise me on the spider plant. Knock it out of the pot, he said, hold it firmly with one hand, then take a butcher or other big sharp knife and slice it in half. I must have made a small, concerned noise at the idea but he shot back: “Oh come on, any one who is as blood thirsty as you when it comes to slugs should have no problem plunging a knife into a plant.”

True enough, and I’ve laughed about his advice ever since.

I made his acquaintance in the flesh some time after that, and got to know him better more than 10 years ago through the Electronic Rights Defence Committee. The ERDC has been pursuing a class action against The Gazette newspaper and affiliated companies for unauthorized electronic use of material written for the Gazette. Stuart (whose last column in The Gazette was published just days ago) was chairman for several years, and it was only when he began to have health problems that he stepped down. He has been a stalwart throughout the fight, offering advice by telephone and email when couldn’t make meetings, and serving on the ERDC’s executive until he died on Tuesday night of complications from pneumonia and following more than a decade-long fight with lymphoma.

He leaves a big hole in the lives of many people. We will miss him a lot.

The photo is from The Senior Times, illustrating an interview with him last spring about his book Tips on Container Gardening, the follow-up to his Tips on Organic Gardening. The books, both published by Véhicule Press, were supposed to the first two volumes of a gardening trilogy. We will miss that third volume too.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Montreal Water Meter Scandal: Flaws in Program Point out Problems with the PPP Posse's Ideas

Montreal is in the middle of a municipal election campaign as well as several scandals over contracts awarded to friends and massive overruns in estimates of programs that should be pretty straight forward. The latest exploded Monday with a report on a plan to put in water meters at a cost of $355.8 million.

Two highly placed municipal officials were forced to resign by Mayor Gérald Tremblay, who’s trying to appear above it all. But according to The Gazette, the report details “58 findings related to overspending, administrative laxity and poor communication in the awarding of the contract, which the city council approved unanimously and without debate in November 2007. It provides 26 recommendations for changes. s 58 findings related to overspending, administrative laxity and poor communication in the awarding of the contract, which the city council approved unanimously and without debate in November 2007. It provides 26 recommendations for changes.”

Among the most damning things are details of the way that the legal work and specifications were farmed out to consulting firms, even though the city has its own legal and engineering departments. It would seem that those involved were great believers in the private sector, which, we all know, has profit not the public good as its bottom line

Tremblay has a reputation for being personally squeaky-clean, but if he wasn’t involved in wrong-doing, it seems that he was clearly not acting like a competent manager of a great city. We need strong, effective public servants working in an atmosphere where honesty and duty to—well, call it the people, the collectivity, the public, or whatever you want—prevail.

We also need water meters—it’s clear that a lot of water is being wasted because people don’t know how much they’re using—but there’s no reason why putting them in should cost so much or why our tax dollars should be wasted by network of the old boys and the Public Private Partnership posse.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

More Cuts to Culture: Wouldn't Mussolini Be Proud?

First of all, I resent the idea that classical and contemporary “serious” music as well as jazz represent “specialized music.” Second, I’m infuriated by the supposition that commericial success—which, alas, comes too often from appealing to the lowest common denominator—is what a country’s culture should be. And thirdly, I just don’t know what the current Conservative government is doing except trying to dumb Canada down so far that we all are easy prey for misinformation and general idealogical manipulation.

The occasion for this rant is the recent realization that the Canadian Musical Diversity element of the Ministry of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages' Canada Music Fund has just been eliminated. The cuts, effective next spring, aren’t great in the grand scheme of things--$1 million for grants to artists and small record companies. The money saved will be deployed for digital production and other ways of delivering music, according to government spokepersons. No big thing, in other words.

Maybe. But given this government’s track record—particularly its cuts to arts promotion, and its pressure on the CBC to eliminate anything “serious” which is having disastrous effects on writers, music and musicians—I’m very suspicious. As Mussolini supposedly said: “When I hear the word culture, I take out my pistol.” That’s what it looks like in this case too.

Check out the petition here.

Thanks to André Loiseau for the quote which he included in his comment on Le Devoir’s story.

Ulp! Further to this, I finally tracked down the quote, and it wasn't Mussolini, but a quote from a play which was a favourite of Hitler's and which Göring used frequently: "Wenn ich Kultur höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning!" which means "When I hear "culture" I release the safety catch on my Browning!" Same difference, though, don't you think?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Sunday on the Main, Portuguese Literature on Display

Yesterday was warm and sunny September afternoon in Montreal, one of those gifts that often arrive in this northern climate. I spent a good part of it with a group of Lusophiles and book lovers, strolling along St. Lawrence boulevard, the Main, in an event sponsored by the Festival international de littérature.

Last spring on the 35th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, 12 benches inscribed with quotes from 12 Portuguese literary figures from Dom Dinis, the troubadour king of the 13th century, to Antonio Lobo Antunes and José Saramago, the current literary giants, were installed along the Main. For more than 100 years the neighborhood has been the immigrant gateway to Montreal—Saul Bellow’s family lived there when he was a child—and the Portuguese have given it its flavour since the 1960s. As the Sunday crowds swirled by Vitilia Rodrigues told of the great writers of Portugal, and what they had contributed to both world literature and the glory of Lusophonie.

It was a great experience, and one which introduced me to some new writers. I'd never heard of
José Maria Eça de Queirós, but after hearing that some French critics think he is the equal of Zola, I plan on going looking for his work.

Each bench, by the way, is decorated by ceramic tiles by a local artist, a contemporary take on the Portuguese azulejos tradition. I particularly like the work of Joseph Branco.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Saturday Photo: The Carmo Ruins in Lisbon, a City Where I'd Hoped to Be

The plan had been that tomorrow Lee and I would go to Portugal for a couple of weeks. I'd gone there in May to do research for my next book, Making Waves: The Portuguese Adventure, but he had stayed behind to take care of our 22-year-old cat Calie.

His reward was a trip to Belgium with Elin when she went to fetch her new viola da gamba, while I had kitty duty. But we really expected that the Mouser would have gone to that great catnip field in the sky by now.

She still is among us, though, and not suffering at all it seems. Her world is limited to the kitchen where she spends most of her time either eating or sleeping in front of the hot air exhaust coming from the refrigerator. That means that for the duration we will be staying home since she is far too much trouble to wish on even Lukas, Elin and their partners who are as fond of her as we are.

Perhaps I'll get to show Lee Portugal next spring when the jacaranda trees will be in bloom again, as they are in this picture of the Carmo ruins, on a hill overlooking the center of Lisbon. A beautiful city, a fascinating country, an enormous world heritage.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Avoiding Evil: Montreal Life Histories Project and Bernard Schlink's The Reader

Life is full of coincidences. Wednesday night as I was coming home on the Metro from leading at discussion of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader at the Atwater Library, I picked up a couple of sheets of paper on the seat beside me. They announced try outs for an original musical to be called Congodrama, and which will feature a dozen or so young singers, dancers, musicians and actors.

Since I’ve been reading a lot about the Portuguese incursions into the Congo river basin, instead of throwing the sheets away I followed up on the website listed as the place to find more information. What I found was a fantastic oral history project on people whose childhoods were stolen by war and civil unrest.

Histoires de vie de Montréal/Montreal Life History project is connected with Concordia University, and is attempting to gather first hand experiences. The main efforts are on Haiti, Rwanda, the Holocaust and the Great Lakes of Africa. I haven’t had a chance to explore to far into their archives, but what they’re doing definitely deserves to be more widely known. Ally Ntumba is artist in residence with the program, and is the force behind Congodrama. According to his bio, he had much experience in theatre in Congo before arriving in Montreal in 2001. Since then he’s mounted several shows.

The flyer about Congodrama ends with a quote attributed to Edmond Burke: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Of course, one of Schlink’s themes is the long-term effects of evil, and one of his aims, it seems, is to tell of one person’s struggle to come to terms with the fact that someone he loved was a war criminal. Congodrama and the oral history project are working to the same end, and also, I dare say, to try to avoid repetitions of evil.

Photo: Village in Rwanda, from Histoires de vie's Great Lakes project

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Build with Wood to Save the Climate? Perhaps, if the Forests are Managed Properly

Cutting down forests is environmentally sound? Well, it depends how you do it and what you use its products for, it seems. A new initiative by the forest industries in Quebec, supported by scientific reports, argues that replacing steel and concrete in construction would go a long way toward more ecological construction projects. The idea is that well-managed forests are renewable and become carbon dioxide sinks, while both concrete and steel use large quantities of non-renewable resources including energy from petroleum in their production.

The campaign sounds a bit self-serving, since the forest industries have been suffering mightily during the current economic hard times. But in principle, the use of wood does make sense. The devil is in the details, of course, and unless increased use of forest products for construction is accompanied by really good reforestation and forest management policies, nothing will be gained. As Le Devoir’s Louis-Gilles Francoeur notes, the campaign is being launched just after the appearance of a big UN report charging that deforestation is the cause of more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation system on the planet.

Worth following, though.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Philadelphia to Close Libraries: Another Low Point in the “Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society Department”

The Free Library of Philadelphia has just announced that it will have to close all its doors as of Oct. 2 unless the State Legislature succeeds in passing budget bills that provide much of the library system’s financing. This means that there will not only be any books lent, but that free computer access for low income people will become almost non-existent with serious repercussions for the very serious business of finding a job these days.

Critics have said this is grandstanding, that there are other services that will also disappear—garbage collection will also be drastically curtailed, it seems—if something isn’t done.

That may be, but to think that one of North America’s centers of culture and intellectual excellence will deprive its citizens of information is an absolute horror. Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, and it’s about time that the portion of the population which doesn’t understand that government has a role to play in ordinary life realized what the stakes are.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The White Ship Gives a Glimpse of the Portuguese Maritime Tradition

Work is advancing on Making Waves: The Portuguese Adventure, and I've just come across a marvelous National Film Board of Canada short film about one of the last white ships from Portugal to fish of Newfoundland and Labrador. You can view it here,

Called The White Ship, it details a crossing in 1966 of one of the last ships to make the long voyage across the Atlantic from Portugal to fish cod. This was before factory ships vacuumed up the cod stock, leaving the fishery almost non-existent.

The photo above shows the ship, the Santa Maria Manuela, in St. John's harbour. It is currently being restored in Portugal and may make once again cross the ocean, if only to provide a look at a maritime history worth remembering.

Picture: The Telegram

Monday, 14 September 2009

Surgery in Private Health Clinics Costs up to 40 Per Cent More in Montreal

Just as the debate over health care reform in the US begins to take on completely fantastical proportions, more evidence appears in Quebec showing the efficacy of public health delivery.

The Quebec government plans on widening the number of surgeries allowed in private clinics from three to 56 beginning at the end of September, and already some hospitals have contracted with clinics to provide supplementary services. Chief among them is Sacre Coeur hospital in Montreal which has used the Rockland medical center for the last little while.

The local health system regulating agency has just said it won’t sign a five year contract to extend this agreement. One of their arguments in the increased cost: The Gazette says that every surgery done at Rockland about $300 more than the $2,000 at the hospital. La Presse quotes spokespersons as fixing the difference at 30 to 40 per cent.

Without going into details about extra fees which may be charged at Rockland (called “tray fees”) or the question of whether such clinics really increase the availability of health services (if you’re dealing with a limited number of doctors and nurses, you’re really only shifting the services around,) this cost differential seems very strong evidence that private clinics don’t make health care any better. Why not just pump a little more government money into hospitals? It sure looks like it would go farther there than it does when paid to private clinics, which are providing a nice little return to those who invest in them.

Photo: Reuters from Le Devoir

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Saturday Photo: A Hot Time in the Old Time Today

This is the season of abundance. Despite a wet beginning, the summer is ending with bushels and bushels of tomatoes in the public markets as well as strings of garlic and hot peppers like these for sale at the Jean Talon Market.

The first fall we were in Montreal I discovered the market as I went exploring. I'd take the Metro to a stop and get out and walk around: it's a great strategy for learning about a city, and it's one I've used to great advantage over the years as I've travelled to research my books. The afternoon I saw the apples and tomatoes at the Jean Talon market, however, was the first time that I'd seen such a gorgeous profusion. I turned around and went back home to get the car so I could buy the fruit and vegetables too heavy to carry home with me.

Le Devoir has a story this morning about the availability of local fruits in Quebec supermarkets, asking the question: how much of the $1.6 billion of fruits and vegetables sold in the province were grown here? Hard to say, is the answer. Certainly Quebec raspberries were available in the public markets during the short season, but ones from California were about all one could find in the supermarkets. That's partly due to the longer shelf life of the California varieties: 7 days compared to 48 hours for Quebec ones.

Of course, there's no comparing the taste, and that is why during the summer I shop at Jean Talon or at the greengrocers in the neighborhood who buy their produce from
local sources.

Wild blueberries from the Lac St-Jean region and peaches for Ontario for dessert tonight! That should go well with spicy garlic chicken, don't you think?

Friday, 11 September 2009

Radio 2 Continues to Flounder in Montreal, and in Toronto Too, It Looks Like

The latest PPM radio listener share figures for Montreal are out, and if the CBC was expecting to see some improvement in its Radio 2 numbers, it must be disappointed. Between Jan. 26 and April 26, 2009 Radio 2’s share was 2 per cent, but it dropped to 1.8 per cent in the period June 1-August 30.

The results, measured by devices carried around by selected citizens, are supposed to be more reliable than those obtained under the previous method of listener diaries. This means that the BBM numbers can’t be compared to figures from a year ago when the older method was used (the change was made last fall and will be extended across the country, apparently.)

For what they’re worth though (and it's a bit like comparing apples and crab apples,) the BBM figures for April-June 2008 gave Radio 2 4.4 per cent. But it's clear even when comparing apples and apples that the all classical station CJPX which broadcasts in French is getting more market share than Radio 2 among Anglos. Compare its 2.6 per cent PPM rating for June 2-August 30, 2009 to Radio 2's 1.8.

I can’t find figures for Toronto more recent than the second quarter of 2009, but those also indicate that Radio 2 has not made gains despite its change in emphasis from serious music to, well, I don’t really know what to call it. But they also show net loses for Radio 2. In the second quarter of 2008, Radio 2 got 3 per cent market share, while the all classical station CFMZF+ got 4 per cent. In the second quarter of 2009, the distance widened to the detriment of Radio 2: 1.9 per cent for Radio 2 compared to 5.1 for the all-classical station.

The message? The people who are running CBC now seem to be hell bent to grind the public broadcaster into the ground. What they've done to Radio 2 is criminal. And now I hear they're proposing to shift the evening flagship TV news from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. If I remember correctly it was broadcast at that time many years ago and was shifted earlier to get a larger audience. Does the CBC brass actually want fewer listeners and viewers?

I'm almost afraid the answer is "yes."

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Why the Economists Didn't See It Coming: Three Articles to Answer the Queen's Question

This is grant application deadline time, so I’m running around madly. Therefore the post today comes courtesy of my favourite economist who strongly recommends two recent articles in The New York Times. The first is a long piece by Paul Krugman entitled “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong.” In it the Nobel prize winner writes about the bad turn the profession took a couple of decades ago in going gung-ho for the Chicago School. Lee qualifies the article as “predictable” but then he’s been studying the stuff all his life. For me, it was simply eye-opening.

The other article is by Simon Johnson and was published a week ago. Entitled “Finance Gone Wild,” it begins a little like one of those economics lectures you had trouble staying awake in. But persevere because there’s valuable ammunition in it.

They're companion documents to a three page missive sent by British economists to Queen Elilzabeth after she asked why no one saw the crisis coming. Like Krugman and Johnson they blame "a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people."

Is this a case of a Monarch wanting to know why so few saw the problems with the Emperor's new clothes?

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Our Ephemeral Society: Maybe We Need to Sacrifice a Few More Trees, or Thoughts on Going Digital

Last night as I was watching the local borough council work its way through an agenda full of bike paths, financial statements and criticism I was struck once again by how ephemeral our current way of doing things is. It was the first night that the council and top borough officials had laptops before them with all the documents they might need to consult available there and not in stacks of printed pages. The council seemed pleased at their initiative—far fewer trees destroyed, the mairesse said—but what will happen when the electronic media deteriorate or when the computers crash or there is a huge sunspot caused power surge that fries everything plugged into the grid?

I presume that someone in the borough administration is printing out a few copies—the mairesse read the financial statement not from her computer screen, Kindle style, but from a stapled-together printout. But who is archiving all those electronic communications, those lovely web pages, those Google maps that we can call up so easily? CD, DVD and iPod forms of music and film seem not to be an more stable than early celluloid film, too. Re-recording our culture every 10 years appears to be developing into a major growth industry, as we switch blithely from one storage form to another. And few people seemed concerned about the possibility that all this will be lost if for one reason or another our electronic gadgets are unusable.

Like the monks in Ireland who saved Western civilization by copying manuscripts in the Dark Ages, it may be that cranks who print things out may save our accumulated knowledge for those who are around a few hundred years down the line.

I’m thinking of printing out my blog, just to have it around. You never know when ephemera like my rants might be of interest to someone in the future, just the way that letters and diaries from the past are the stuff that fuels research today. But that is only one small take on the world. What will happen to us if we only have on-line newspapers? Is anyone printing out what the Christian Science Monitor of puts on line? What about on-line publications like Rue Frontenac in Montreal, produced by locked-out employees of the Journal de Montréal?

And what will we use to wrap fish?

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Election Countdown Demonstrates the Incompetence of Ignatieff and the Liberals

The latest poll by Strategic Counsel confirms that the Harper Conservatives are doing much better than Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals, which leads to believe that Ignatieff is absolutely incompetent and irresponsible. There's been no change over the summer. If anything, the Liberals are doing worse than they were last spring.

This is no time to force an election, if Ignatieff wants to win. The best case scenario would be another minority government, but Canadians are tired of minorities. So tired in fact that they might just vote for the Tories to stop the seemingly endless cycle of trips to the polls.

Yet despite their failure to get a positive message across during the summer and despite the dismal string of polls giving the Conservatives substantial leads, the Liberals are gearing up for a federal election. This demonstrates just how far off base their strategists are, and how bankrupt their leadership currently is. While I hate to say it, far better for the Bloc and the NDP to vote with the government this fall to save us from an election and the Liberals from themselves.

I want a change of government, I want to take this country back, as Jack Layton said so eloquently at the NDP convention in Halifax. But I definitely do not want to fight an election over a trumped up issue so that Iggy can save face now that’s he’s shot off his mouth so much.

Monday, 7 September 2009

End of Summer: Birds and Length of Day Tell the Tale

Sunrise at 6:23 this morning, sunset at 7:22, or 13 hours of daylight. The equinox is about two weeks away and the length of day is shortening by around three minutes daily. So far there are no trees nearby that have begun to change colour—too much rain in July, too much sun in August for them to consider flaming out yet, I guess—although a few have begun to do so north of the city where the temperatures a few night has been just above freezing.

Labour Day marks the end of summer vacation for many people, although since school here started more than a week ago, it seems to have ended already. The birds have got the message too. Last Tuesday evening a flock of geese flew over while it’s been at least a week or 10 days since I heard night hawks buzzing their way through the night. It’s a little early for the geese—I always figure Canadian Thanks giving, the second Monday in October as the highpoint for their migration—but the night hawks are right on schedule. Ever since I started paying attention to birds several decades ago, they’ve arrived around he 24th of May holiday and left before Labour Day. Perhaps the universe is unfolding as it should.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Saturday Photo: Outremont Brook from Mountain to Park

Here is a suite of photos I took earlier this summer which show the progress of a stream once called Outremont Brook back when part of this garden neighborhood had a sizeable Anglophone component. Like many other streams, it begins on Mount Royal and flows down to eventually reach the St. Lawrence.

The first place it surfaces now is near the entrance to Mount Royal Cemetery ( top photo.) It's channeled underground for a quarter of kilometer after that, and then comes up in the backyard of a very fancy house a little way down the mountain.

After that it flows through tiny Roskilde Park (second photo) and between two houses before entering the property of the Soeurs missionnaires de l'Immaculée-Conception. There it runs through a channel (third photo) and ducks under Côte Ste Catherine road and a series of houses built in the early part of the 20th century. It doesn't really come to the surface again, but the spot where it once spread out to form a marshy pond is now Parc St. Viateur (fourth photo.) Old maps show it running north to meet a stream which ran eastward before cutting south and then east to enter the St. Lawrence at Pointe à Callières. You wouldn't know that now.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Trying Not to Be a Copy Cat: The Threat of "Cryptomnesia"

I find myself at the moment barricaded behind walls of books, as I try to write myself down the West Coast of Africa, following the Portuguese for my book Making Waves: The Portuguese Adventure. During the last two years I’ve read many primary sources as well as more recent histories and studies of what this small nation has done over the past 700 years. Now it’s time to put the pieces together along with my observations during the trips I took to research my last three non-fiction books. The publication date for the new book will be fall 2010, and I've promised my publisher Véhicule Press that I'll have a completed manuscript by next March.

It’s a fascinating experience, but unfortunately sometimes the facts and other bits of knowledge I’ve come across (and noted carefully) begin to run together. I am trying very hard to document all my sources, even though the book be written as one to be read for pleasure by the general reader. What I don’t want to do is inadvertently lift an idea from somewhere else and present it as my own.

That’s why I found an article about “cryptomnesia” so interesting. The idea is that such a thing as unconscious plagiarism exists. The truth is that some big names have been caught doing it: the article mentions that “Nietzsche ripped off a passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra from something he'd read as a child, and former Beatle George Harrison was found guilty, in court, of unconsciously copying the music for his hit song, "My Sweet Lord."

There are ways to avoid doing it, author Russ Juskalian writes. “Taking diligent notes, reminding oneself to remember not just a good idea, but also its source, or simply pondering whether the clever phrase that popped into one's head is original, helps fend off cryptomnesia.”

So I find myself thumbing through my notes and the books surrounding me frantically, trying to make sure I know just where things come from. The mistakes, as writers always say in the acknowledgements, will be, of course, all mine.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Noise in the City: The Good Sounds

This is a good time of year for city sounds. It’s not so hot that air conditioners roar constantly in the background, but it’s warm enough for the windows to be open. A cicada buzzed just a minute ago and last night I fell asleep to the sound of the water tumbling down in the neighbor’s tiny fountain across the street.

Oh, there are work sounds going on. Someone is having a tree trimmed, so a chain saw grumbles now and then, and one of the triplexes behind us is having its roof repaired. But there is a quiet calm in the air, as if people are so surprised by this gift of lovely late summer/early fall that they’re holding it close to them, whispering to it, in order to savour it.

Like the rudbeckia—now in brilliant yellow bloom—and the blue sky, the colours are radiant too. What a shame to have to be inside today!

Photo: The Tri Du family's lovely water feature in their elegant small front yard

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Fall Election Would Be Dangerous for Democracy Because Ordinary Folks Will to Tune It Out

The conventional wisdom goes that summer is no time for overt politics. Sure, politicians are supposed to go around eating sweet corn, dancing at street fairs, and schmoozing at like events. The idea is to make contact with the grass roots, and, when you’re the government, remind people how much money has been handed out for communities’ pet projects. The real hard politicking begins in September, when the various of levels of government begin to sit again.

But this summer was so wet and rainy in much of the country that I don’t think the residents of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes really enjoyed—or even are aware of—the manufactured occasions to meet and greet the politicos. Now that we have had a couple of weeks of fine weather, and the forecast is for at least another 10 days, I doubt whether anybody wants to do anything but make up for lost time. This coming long weekend folks will try to cram a whole vacation into three days.

Yet Michael Ignatieff wants to plunge us back into election mode. The Conservatives need to be thrown out, but I for one don’t want to think campaigns. Given that I’m more of a political junky than 95 per cent of the population, I suspect there are hundreds of thousands out there who will find another fall election not at all relevant to their lives.

This is very dangerous.

We need people to care about who governs us, and we’re still going through a period when our economic future is still delicately balanced. Better to wait a while. In the meantime there's no reason why the worst of the Conservatives measures can't be blocked by opposition parties. If the Conservatives want to make a confidence measure out of that, well, let them. At least the election can't be blamed then on the opposition, and people may actually get excited about what is happening.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

LA Fires Underscore the Risks of "Living with Nature" and of Urban Sprawl

The news is full of the fires in Los Angeles, which makes my blood run cold. September fires—often riled by Santana Winds which seem not to be blowing now—were a feature of my San Diego childhood. We lived in town, near the ocean, but that did not prevent the skies from growing dark with smoke several times as wildfires raged in the back country.

But the question arises, as firefighters try to stop these fires from destroying houses and to rescue people who stubbornly refused to leave, why do people build in areas where fires have been a normal part of the ecologicl process for ever? And why should anyone risk his or her life to rescue them?

Urban sprawl is part of the reason for houses being built in dangerous country. People want to get away from their neighbors, want to be “close to nature,” as I heard one man say on the CBC’s As It Happens program last night. I understand the desire, but building in the middle of dry forests is big risk and doesn’t do much for nature itself.

When Mt. Saint Helens erupted nearly 30 years ago, one man refused to leave. Harry Truman was in his 80s and said when he was warned to get out that he thought it would be a good place to die. He was a man who understood what nature was, and the risks involved in living close to it. Too bad the fools who want to “protect” their dangerous homesteads don’t think the same.