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.