Saturday, 30 January 2010

Saturday Photo: Ice Feathers on Windows

This morning the windows upstairs are covered with ice feathers. Downstairs where the windows are completely sealed, it has to get even colder than the -22 C (-6 or so F) we have today before ice forms. But upstairs we don't caulk around all the double windows in order to get a little air, and on mornings like these the slightly more humid air from the inside freezes on the outside pane. The patterns are lovely, but even this cold when the sun shines on them they disappear in the few hours.

This picture was taken just as the sun was coming up on a gloriously clear morning. Squeaking snow underfoot, breath that freezes on your eyebrows (or, in Lee's case, beard) and a good incentive to keep moving!

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Generation of the 1960s Hits 60+: A Country for Old Men!

Working on an oral presentation about the Brazilian dissident/singer/songwriter/novelist Chico Buarque for my Portuguese class, I came across a publicity picture for his most recent novel, which was published last year. It shows a man in his 60s (he was born in 1944) who is still handsome but definitely has aged.

Quite a difference from the younger man, who by all accounts was of an absolutely compelling attractiveness. This led me to think of all those singers and songwriters of his generation who marked the world over the last several decades: for example, in North America Bob Dylan and Robert Charlebois, in the UK all the Stone and the Beatles, and in Brazil Caetano Velosa and Gilberto Gil as well as Buarque.

All of them were born between 1940 and 1948, war babies or early baby boomers, and are showing their age now. But what a mass of talent! What a history of making music that touches the spirit in ways seductive and, sometimes, seditious! Good to dance to, too.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Planting Flowers to Save Bees: A Nice Idea, Particularly in the Middle of the Winter

The French government has just announced that it will be sowing 250 kilometers of roadways in the country with bee-friendly plants this year, in an attempt to support the bee population. Bees, those absolutely essential pollinators of flowering plants, have been attacked in the last few years by mysterious agents that have decimated bee populations all over the world. The idea here is that a greater variety and larger quantity of flowers that bees like will help increase populations.

Sounds like a good idea. Here in Quebec (as well as in other jurisidictions) roadways are no longer systematically bowed, but allowed to grow up with "wild" plants. The program has been in place since the mid-1990s, and not only are highways nicer to look at, there seems to have been a net ecological advantage. It would not take much more effort to plant bee-friendly plants here too. Some of them would undoubtedly also help butterflies.

Photo: Purple cornflower,Echinacea purpurea (Asteraceae), Texas A&M University

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Universe Unfolding As It Should for the Shock Doctriners? US Controls Port-au-Prince Airport While Faith-Based NGOs Get Access

Hillary Clinton is unhappy with the complaints about US control of the airport in Port-au-Prince--the French filed a formal complaint a few days ago, saying that two of their planes were turned away--and of hindering access to Haiti for aid workers from other countries. At the same time, it seems evident that a wave of faith-based aid groups have succeeded to getting onto the island and are providing their own brand of aid. This morning Le Devoir has a story from the French left-wing paper Liberation about Bible Belt missionaries who seem to have been able to get there with relatively little trouble.

NGOs of all stripes have been present in Haiti for a long time: before the earthquake they were estimated to number around 10,000. While it's hard to fault good intentions, it's also quite clear that many are operating with their own agendas first and foremost in mind: fundamentalist members of our own extended family have gone to Haiti to build wells--and save souls.

What is particularly disquieting in this is the way that it is perfectly in accord with a posting on the conservative blog Foundry, published the day after the quake, and picked up immediately by Naomi Klein as an example of the Shock Doctrine in action.

"The U.S. government response should be bold and decisive. It must mobilize U.S. civilian and military capabilities for short-term rescue and relief and long-term recovery and reform. President Obama should tap high-level, bipartisan leadership...(including former presidents Clinton and Bush)...

"While on the ground in Haiti, the U.S. military can also interrupt the nightly flights of cocaine to Haiti and the Dominican Republic from the Venezuelan coast and counter the ongoing efforts of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to destabilize the island of Hispaniola. This U.S. military presence, which should also include a large contingent of U.S. Coast Guard assets, can also prevent any large-scale movement by Haitians to take to the sea in dangerous and rickety watercraft to try to enter the U.S. illegally....

"The U.S. should implement a strong and vigorous public diplomacy effort to counter the negative propaganda certain to emanate from the Castro-Chavez camp."

Sounds very much like what has happened since. How maddening that the Obama government seems to be following an agenda so different from the one that got him elected.

First the embrace of the Afghan war, then the crumbling of the health care initiatives, and, tonight I imagine, the abandonment of stimulus measures in the name of "fiscal responsiblity" while unemployment nears 10 percent. It is enought to make one weep, if the pictures on the news haven't done that already.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Because It's a Gray Day: Popular Music and Politics

There are days when it's very hard to concentrate on serious matters, not because the weather is inviting outside, but because it's not. So I've spent the morning watching an excellent two part documentary by the BBC about Brazilian popular music from samba to the Tropicalia movement.

While you'll find it hard not to keep from dancing, perhaps you'll also find two other things engaging. The first is the continued and continuing effort of Brazilians to make their weight felt in the world. The second is the way that popular music can express political sentiments that might not otherwise find a voice.

It's no accident that Robert Charlebois, whose career started in the same years that Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were making musical statements, exploded on the Quebec cultural map in the first heady time of national affirmation.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Portuguese Files: Brazil, Haiti, and International Involvement

Head honchos from Haiti, France, the US (Hilary Clinton,) Canada and several other countries including Brazil are meeting in Montreal under UN auspices today to talk about what should happen in that ravaged country. I hadn't realized how big a role Brazil has been playing there until just now, but it seems that it has headed the UN force for some time. Indeed, the strains of that task have been blamed for the death (possibly by suicide) of General Urano Bacellar, the head of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Haiti, shortly before the earthquake of January 12, 2010.

Brazil's involvement in Haiti dates from 2004, and is part of a larger strategy to make Brazil a bigger player on the international scene. As the biggest, most populous country in the Americas after the United States (192 million compared to 308 million, 2010 estimates), the question really should be: why has it not been recognized as the powerhouse it is?

Part of that has to do with its language. Portuguese ranks sixth in the world by most measures but it flies beneath the radar of many political observers, perhaps because, even though it has many points in common with Spanish, it is not easy to learn.

And on that note, I'll close and go study for my Portuguese mid-term this evening. Até logo.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Saturday Photo: Painting from Haiti

This picture is one of three I bought from a roadside art dealer when I was in Haiti in 1973 or '74 (can't remember which). My sister and brother-in-law had invited me along while he scouted for some development deals. He didn't come up with any--the place was much poorer than he expected, I think--and my sister was shocked through and through by the poverty.

It was my first trip outside the US or Canada, and my assumptions about the world were deeply rocked. By chance, however, I had read V.S. Naipaul's brilliant novel of Trinidad, A House for Biswas, just before, so I think I had some appreciation before hand of what life might be like on a Caribbean island.

One of the things that impressed me mightly was the vibrant art created by local artisans. The execution of the three pieces I bought is not refined, but I've always liked the energy of this market scene. Certainly Haitians will need as much energy as they can summon in the months ahead.

Friday, 22 January 2010

First Step to Privatizing Higher Education in Quebec? McGill's New $29,000 MBA

McGill continues to say it will charge $29,000 and renounce provincial funding for its MBA program, Le Devoir reports today. The institution has no choice, spokespersons say, because there's a $10,000 difference between what the program costs and what the province gives to fund it. Better to drop all provincial funds and go it alone, they argue.

Now, the importance and utility (to use a fine word from the lexicon of economics) of MBAs are questionable. But this is a scary precedent. The province shouldn't let McGill get away with it.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Is Washington Getting the Wrong Message from the Massachusetts Disaster: Jim Dean Says Yes.

Because I made some phone calls for Obama in 2008 during the election campaign, I'm on everal mailing lists. In the sad aftermath of the Democrats' disaster in Massachusette, I got this yesterday. It is a very interesting interpretation, and one I hope can be translated into positive action.

From Jim Dean of Democracy for America:

Last night, Democrats lost Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in a bitter special election. This is already a sad day for all of us who loved Ted Kennedy. But to make it even worse, conservative Democrats and Washington talking heads are claiming that the loss happened because Congress was "too far to the left."

They're wrong again -- and we can prove it.

We had Research 2000 poll voters immediately after the Election ended: Even Scott Brown voters want Democrats to be bolder and they want healthcare reform that includes a public option.

You read that right. By a margin of three-to-two, former Obama voters who voted for Republican Scott Brown yesterday said the Senate healthcare bill "doesn't go far enough." Six-to-one Obama voters who stayed home agreed. And to top it off, 80% of all voters still want the choice of a public option in the bill.

The message is clear, there is only one way out of this mess if Democrats want to win in 2010. It's time to pass healthcare with 51 votes in the Senate using the budget reconciliation process. And it must include the most popular piece of bold reform: the choice of a public option... Budget reconciliation is a procedure that only requires 51 votes to pass a bill instead of 60 -- and with the loss of Kennedy's seat, it's the only option Democrats have to improve the bill and pass a public option.

Sure, Joe Lieberman and the rest of the conservative Democrats and blowhard talking heads who got us into this mess will keep claiming Democrats need to be more like Republicans. That's what conservative Democrats always say while working to destroy bold reforms.

Don't let Democratic politicians learn exactly the wrong lesson, tell them take control and lead. We need Ted Kennedy's leadership; we need a new FDR -- not an entire party of Joe Liebermans.


This joint campaign with the members of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and CREDO Action shows the path to victory in 2010.

It's up to us to make sure Democrats get the message. After you sign, ask your friends to sign. The more signatures we collect and deliver -- and the faster we do it -- the greater our chances of saving Democrats from themselves.

Thank you for never giving up and fighting for what's right. Thank you for everything you do.


Jim Dean, Chair
Democracy for America

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

More Inspiration from Life: Rivers, Kate McGarrigle, and Telling a Story

Here's one of my favourite songs from the McGarrigle Sisters. Kate died earlier this week, and she will be missed. The song's rhythm is supposed to be inspired from the sound of the Matapedia River, and certainly the song's story line comes from memories of old loves, and a decision on how to live.

"I was not afraid" could have been her slogan.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Master Story Tellers Find Inspiration Everywhere: T.C. Boyle, Natasha Richardson and Life on Kitchwank Lake

Inspiration comes from many sources, I realized yesterday when I spent a most enjoyable half hour reading a new short story by T.C. Boyle, "A Death at Kitchawank" in the January 18, 2010 New Yorker. Boyle is amazingly prolific and, also almost always, blindingly good. I've been impressed by the way he is able to take small stories gleaned from modern life and transform them into something much bigger.

The story starts out like a view of life from the POV of a middle class woman, who lives with her family in a small all-year lake colony in New England. The way he gets in her skin is unusual for a male writer, and the contradictions of her life are engagingly presented from the sand that is trucked in to make the beach to her prejudices about her neighbors.

What got me as a writer, though, was the way the end of the story was perfectly believable yet seemingly inspired by a completely unrelated event, the accidental death last year of actress Natasha Richardson after a seemingly minor head injury.

How many storytellers read about Richardson, wondered what might be done with it, and then went on to other things because they didn't know how treat the celebrity circus which surrounded her death? Boyle, apparently, worked backwards from the accident, changed the circumstances and the sort of people involved, and came up with a very fine story about ordinary life.

PS. And then I read farther in the magazine to find Woody Allen's "Udder Maddness" which is also inspired by a news story, this one about killings by cows. From the sublime to the ridiculous or almost.

Monday, 18 January 2010

What's News? Old Problems, New Conditions beyond the 24-Hour News Cycle

Affirmative action for guys in medical school? The suggestion comes in one of the many stories that were pushed to the inside pages of Le Devoir this morning.

It seems that some 200 Quebec medical students attended a conference on the future of medicine, and one of the subjects was the increasing "feminization" of the profession. According to Jean-François Lajoie, president of the Association des médecins du Québec, up to 70 per cent of medical students in some medical schools are young women currently. What will this mean for the profession, and should there be some kind of quota system? No answers were given--at least not in the story--but the fact that this incendiary suggestion received so little attention is a measure of the way the media's attention is focussed on Haiti.

This attention is probably necessary. We should remember, though, that Haiti's problems are not "new" news, and aid from the outside now is not going to be enough to change things. Good background: Tracy Kidder's article from 2000 in The New Yorker about Dr. Paul Farmer and his project which now provides health care to about a million people in the central plateau, using mostly Haitian staff.

And this report from Avi Lewis (Stephen's son and Naomi Klein's husband) of Al Jazeera English:

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Saturday Photo: Dog-Walking Women Mean Safety in São Paulo--and Elsewhere

As I may have mentioned here, when I visited São Paulo a few years ago to work on Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places people gave me lists of places I shouldn't go and things I shouldn't do. It was unsafe to take the Mêtro, to walk alone, to enter parks, to take any taxi but ones from a certain number of companies... Their well-intentioned warnings were enough to give me shivers.

But I couldn't let them stop me. It's true that the city had one of the highest crime rates in the world (the murder rate, at least, has fallen dramatically since, it seems) but there was no way I could learn what I wanted by following the warnings.

What to do? First, I realized that the Mêtro is filled every day with hundreds of thousands of middle-class people going about their business peacefully. All I had to do was look like I belonged, and I could blend in safely. That wasn't hard, actually, because the ethnic mix of the Mêtro riders is not unlike what you find in Montreal: in other words, there were many people who looked like me.

Second, I went out early in the morning and walked around as honest folk were going to work. The scariest people were more likely to be off the street then, and once again I blended in as I got a glimpse of what ordinary life was like.

And, third (an outgrowth of those early morning walks,) is the observation that any place frequented by women of a certain age walking their dogs is going to be safe. The ladies know local conditions and are going to look out for each other. This photo was taken about 9 Parque Trianon, which one internet trip advisor says "can be dangerous especially for tourists and at night. Pickpockets are known to frequent that park." While it might be a place to avoid after dark, these ladies didn't seem concerned. Nor was I.

As Jane Jacobs said, you need eyes on the street to make a city work, and that is particularly true in cities like São Paulo.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Taxes are What We Pay for Civilized Society Department: Tuition Fees, UC Berkeley Budget Woes and Support for Public Education

The bill for my fees as an "étudiante libre" and my Portuguese classes at the Université de Montréal came yesterday with an error that made me gasp; I had been charged as a non-resident student. Not to worry, the registrar's office said when I enquired, there will be an adjustment since I've only lived in Quebec for four decades. But, on reflection, I realized that even if I'd had to pay the non-resident fees, I'd be better off than students in most other North American jurisidictions.

Quebec has kept tuition low since the higher education system here was expanded and reformed in the 1960s. The model was the California Master Plan for Higher Education, from which I, like hundreds of thousands if not millions, profited. Then, just as I was musing about all this meant in terms of economic growth and personal fulfillment, I picked up the January 4, 2010 New Yorker and its heart-breaking article about the plight of the University of California and, in particular, of my alma mater UC Berkeley.

To make a long story short, California's incredibly stupid refusal to tax itself has led to horrific budget problems. Many parts of the public sector are suffering, and $684 million have been slashed from the University's allocation. This has led to drastic staff cutbacks and the "privatizing" of research laboratories and--get this!--even some library services. At the same time tuition has climbed and climbed. Someone from a family of modest means like mine would have a much harder time paying tuition, fees and living expenses the way I did with summer jobs.

The great flowering of California's industry and innovation is rooted in the excellent university system, and in support for primary and secondary schools which, while not uniformly good, were rated near the top of the heap in the US. That is far from the case today--in 2005-2007 California ranked 29 out 50 states when it came to expenses per student, and the academic results are not much better. The state and the country are the losers for this.

Taxes are what we pay for civilized society: education on all levels must be supported and within the reach of all.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Who Knows Best in Haiti? The Problem That Will Remain after the Dead Are Buried

More sobering news about the earthquake in Haiti this morning, with reflections on what should be done in its aftermath.

Naomi Klein, whose The Shock Doctrine documented the way that aid was highjacked after the tsunami five years ago to privatize water and electricity supplies and to use them for hotel development rather than power and safe water for villagers, has already pointed out the danger of using this disaster as a way to manage the region for ends that may not really help Haiti at all.

In The New York Times, Tracy Kidder, deeply involved in an NGO in the mountains, offers some interesting thoughts too. "The ultimate goal of all aid to Haiti ought to be the strengthening of Haitian institutions, infrastructure and expertise," he writes.

Yes, indeed. One of the tragedies of Haiti is that for at least 45 years the country has suffered an enormous loss of its best and most energetic minds and hearts, as governments supported by the US and powerful internationial interests, made life impossible for them.

Among the Canadian/Haitians killed is Georges Anglade, who came to Quebec in 1969 during the Duvalier era and subsequently became a force here for education reform. A geographer, he helped found the flagship of the Université du Québec, UQAM, where he taught until he retired recently.

How Anglade could have helped change Haiti's education system had he stayed, we'll never know. But it should be noted that he returned during the Aristide years of the 1990s with high hopes of helping out, but after the US forced Aristide to resign, he returned to Canada. His family says that he and his wife, who was also killed, had been in Haiti for a family celebration.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Print Is Where It's At Department: Don't Look to Twitter or Blogs for "New" News, Study Finds

Print is where the news happens: that's the conclusion of a new report published by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Taking one week in the life of Baltimore's media--July 16-29, 2009--the research team analyzed six news threads, coming up with figures on where the news was reported first and who repeated it. The result is startling: more than 90 per cent of all "new" news came from print media, while 85 per cent of what was reported in the electronic and other media were essentially repetitions of what had been reported by newspapers.

To some extent this is nothing new. I remember back in my newspaper days in the Bay Area, the TV reporters would hang around to listen to what questions we print journalists asked and then do their stand ups asking the same questions. It was a kind of laziness that made me furious, and it's quite clear that hasn't changed at all.

What has changed is the decreasing resources of newspapers and magazines who consequently have less and less freedom to go looking for the news. This is dangerous for democracy.

This morning all the media here are full of images and words from Port-au-Prince, where an earthquake has brought even more trouble to Haiti. Le Devoir--which has bucked the trend and publishes much seriously researched information--had a picture transmitted by Twitter of the destruction. But don't look to Twitter or many blogs for significant analysis of the aftermath.

Of course, this blog post is part of the same trend, since I read about the Pew Center study in Le Devoir yesterday, and went looking for it on the web. That I could find it easily says a lot about the positive effects of the age we're living in. The negative ones require a lot more thought.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

New Sports Bar in Bujumbura: a Sign of Peace and Progress?

The other morning I was delighted to see an article with a date line Bujumbura in Le Devoir. Not much news comes out of the African Great Lakes except the occasional horror story, so it was a pleasure to read this account of a modest success.

A Québécois of a certain age Jean-Claude Gosselin, has opened a sports bar in Buju with some associates. Not only does La Cervoise de gaulois feature tablecloths and pennants with hockey logos, the team has started growing vegetables to serve in the restaurant and plans on raising rabbits and chickens for the same end.

The story doesn't say exactly where it's located, and I've been struck by how much the interior looked like a place I visited when I was there in 2001, the Cercle nautique. According to notes on Wikipedia this venerable restaurant/bar/inn on the shores of the lake was closed last summer, so it's possible it's undergone a transformation.

That is, of course, one of the things that make travel interesting, not only initially but later as one follows what has happened in the places visited. According to the US State Department the neighborhood where the Cercle nautique was located is dangerous after dark, but overall it seems that the city and surrounding territory is considerably safer than it was when I was there. It was just as the long peace process between Hutus and Tutsis was beginning, and I was there to do research for my novel The Violets of Usambara which takes place in large part in Buju in 1997.

The photos are ones I took then: of the Club Tanganyika (which may have become part of the Hotel Lac du Tanganyika but I can't be sure) and the cattle of some friends which had been brought down from the hillls for safety.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Le Devoir: Media Exception or Model for the Future?

The Montreal daily Le Devoir celebrated its hundredth anniversary as an independent newspaper yesterday with an all-day open house and a gala evening party. Far more influential than its circulation--around 30,000--would suggest, the paper provides news and analysis in depth that is not found elsewhere. What is more, it is profitable.

As such, it is certainly bucking the trend in print media. At a time when CanWest newspapers including the Montreal Gazette are under protection from creditors and the two other French-language dailies in Montreal (with circulations orders of magnitude larger) are suffering, Le Devoir's success suggests that maybe principle is not only a good thing for our society, but also a better bet for media survival,

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Saturday Photo: Sun and the Importance of Urban Parks

The sun is out and the temperatures have plummeted after more than a week of gray skies and continual snow showers. When I was up in the cemetery early this morning, I met several runners dressed in spiffy new winter running clothes--Christmas presents? or Boxing Day bargains?--chugging their way up the hill. The footing is better than it has been for several days since the surface is frozen. The sun makes you feel like you want to be outside, too.

One of the nice things about Montreal is the way that parks are used intensely by the people who live here all year around. The two nearest us have skating rinks for casual skating, set up in what in summer time are ponds. Another park a little farther away has two rinks for hockey playing and practice, as well as a slope that that's good for sledding. The parks are not just pretty places to look at, they're also places to live, play and exercise. And, as the photo on the left suggests, places to sunbathe too.

The sign on the top photo, BTW, means "Look out for our children."

Friday, 8 January 2010

A Different Kind of Reading Aloud: Taylor Mali Tells a Story

A little something to follow up on Transport Canada coming to its senses about the importance of books:

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Mark One for the (Electronic) Pen over Stupidity: Now on to Scanners and Hysteria in General

Okay, this is a hopeful message, after a flurry on rather sad ones. It appears that protest against Transport Canada's "oversight" in not including books, newspapers and magazines among the things permitted to be carried into airplane cabins on flights from Canada to the US has been successful. It only took about 24 hours of blog and newspaper comment (the National Post had the story first in a blog, and The Globe and Mail picked it up yesterday in print) about a Facebook group protesting the ban that things were changed. (See Stop Dumbing Down: Allow Books on Airplanes begun by YHS.)

Who knows how long people--including one woman who said her kids' colouring books were taken--would be deprived of intelligent entertainment on flights otherwise? Many thanks are due to those to expressed their outrage. Let's hope it also bumped up awareness of the importance of reading to ordinary people among those who make rules.

Now let's see what we can do about other stupid things. Has anyone read or heard just what kind of imaging will be used in those full body scanners? If it's x-ray technology, we may be letting ourselves open for unnecessary exposure to dangerous radiation. And doesn't that announcement of an early arrival of 44 scanners for eight airports in Canada indicate that the Harper government have them on order all ready? What else does Steve and his buddies have waiting in the wings?

Most importantly, let us consider WHY there is terrorism, and act accordingly.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

What? No Ban? Maybe You Just Have to Schlep You Books One by One

I've had an interesting conversation with a researcher for CBC's As It Happens, who initially wanted to do a story on the whole book/plane thing. But, she now says, Transport Canada says there is no ban on books, so the CBC will not do a story. It's unclear whether Transport Canada will make a public statement to that effect, though.

In reading the original release, I see there's an important difference between it and what was initially reported. The release says "Effective immediately, US bound passengers are not allowed to bring carry on bags into the cabin of the aircraft, with some exceptions," and then goes on to list the kinds of bags. That important first sentence has been left out in every story so far, giving the impression that what followed was all that is allowed.

But from reading the entire releasle, the upshot should be: if you can carry a book in one of the allowed bags OR IN YOUR HAND you can bring it on board. Please let me know if you or anyone you know is hassled for this.

Addenda: And apparently Transport Canada is doing some damage control because I received a copy of a letter from Mathieu Larocque, one of their chief spokespeople, to the head of the Canadian Publishers' Association, confirming "that books and magazines and other personal items such as cell phones and laptop are permitted on US-bound flights." He adds: "Transport Canada is currently working on a revised list that will be a little more specific and that will include items such as books and magazines. "

Book Ban Observation: Couldn't Get "When Everything Changed" into Computer Bag or a Pocket

It seems like the bizarre decision not to include books, magazines and newspapers as things you can take into the cabin with you on US-bound flights leaving Canadian airports, is getting some attention which is a good thing.

I'm on the lookout for information about just how readers are faring these days, and I've heard that books have been successfully brought aboard in coat pockets are computer bags. But when I travel I like to take good-sized books for some uninterrupted reading. As I finished up the previous post about a hefty book on the progress of women since 1960, I took a closer look at it, and realized that there was no way it would make the cut...unless I actually cut it into sections to squirrel around my person in pockets with a a hefty slice in a computer bag.

We need a protest on this: Stop Dumbing Down: Allow Books on Airplanes

More on the Rise of Women: Don't Forget the Pill and the Unemployment Rate As Factors

There is an interesting overview of the history of women in the last 50 years reviewed in The New York Review this month. Gail Collins' When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present is a social history that covers a lot of ground, and tells some interesting stories.

But I was surprised when reading the review by Caroline Schine that so little space was given to the impact of cheap, easy and extremely reliable contraception that women could control. As someone who came of age just as The Pill arrived, I know just how liberating it was. The anxious monthly waiting to see if you had one in the oven was gone, and you could plan your future the way men have always been able to plan theirs.

But maybe the reviewer just neglected to mention this, I thought, so when I saw the book at the library, I picked it up. So far I haven't read all 471 pages, but in following up threads in the index, I find very little discussion of this. Nor is there much attention paid to the role of tight labour markets in making it easier for women to enter the labour market and to soar once they were there.

This last is one of the messages Lee always tried to convey in his economics classes. When there was a demand for labour, women responded. An interesting case is that of the aircraft industry in Canada before and during World II. In 1939 women made up 3 per cent of the fledgling industry's labour force, but by 1944 they made up 30 per cent. After the War, though, they were turfed out of their jobs. It wasn't until later in the century that a tighter labour market opened the way for women to demand better jobs. You could have all the equal rights marches you wanted, but if the jobs weren't there, no one, male or female, was going to be hired.

An argument for full employment as a major economic goal if there ever was one.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Sisters, Another Cautionary Tale: Llasa de Sela Dies at 37 of Breast Cancer

I have no idea of the progress of Llasa de Sela's cancer--the public story is that she had health problems but felt well enough a year ago to finish a new album, do some concerts in Iceland and elsewhere and plan a major tour for last fall. The press release announcing the cancellation of the tour spoke of a "precautionary" measure in order to safeguard her "energy levels."

And then she died on the evening of New Year's Day, becoming a cautionary tale for women, and for the men who care about them.

Two weeks ago I wrote about another young woman in her 30s who had just been diagnosed with stage 2/3 breast cancer. At that time, I urged anyone pre-menopausal who finds a lump to get it checked out immediately, and for women over 50 or with a family history of breast cancer to get regular mammograms. Unfortunatelly, Llasa's story provides an opportunity to make the same pitch.

Chances are things will turn out all right, as my own experience attests. But if you put it off and something is wrong, it'll only get worse.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Because Books Are Important: Lemony Snicket's Unfortunate Adventure with the Kindle

Something to amuse you while we wait to see if books really are banned from flights to the US. Another pleasure from Green Apple Books in San Francisco, a brick-mortar-and-real-book store.

As for the new airport regulations barring (it seems) books from flights to the US, checkout the FaceBook Group "Stop Dumbing Down: Allow Books on Airplanes,"

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Saturday Photo: Decade-Old Pix from Singapore, Marking a Change in My Life

Last night I realized that a decade ago, nearly to the day, I changed my life drastically. In January 2000 I decided to forge ahead with the idea of writing a book about botanical gardens even though I didn't have a contract in hand. This would mean, I knew, trying to finance the necessary international travel out of travel writing and other bits and pieces, and traveling by myself to some far off countries. (Lee hates airplanes and it took much persuading to get him to join me in France eventually. His reluctance was part of the reason why until 2000 I had never ventured off the North American continent, besides a week trip to Haiti with my sister and her husband in 1973.)

So I began making plans to visit Singapore, Kew and the Jardin des plantes in Paris during the spring of 2000. Luckily, my adventures began at a time when e-mail was common, so I was able to arrange appointments and make reservations before I left. I also decided that a woman traveling alone mustn't be afraid: I'd try to go out by myself every morning when the place was waking up in order to talk to all women who looked friendly, as well as to take up all the invitations that were offered by my contacts.

The result has been a wealth of wonderful experiences all over the world--in the last ten years, I've been to Europe five times, Singapore three times and Brazil, China, India, Tanzania, Burundi and Kenya one time each, not to mention shorter visits to less exotic places in North America.

These are pictures are took on that first trip in March 2000. I didn't know what I was getting into--a young Australian had just been whipped for marijuana possession--but I ended up being very favourably impressed by Singapore. People bitched to me about the goverment the way they do most places, and I was there three days before I saw a police officer in uniform doing anything other than direct traffic. And when I saw the way that the City of London was locked down for May Day celebrations (Red Ken has just been elected mayor) and the gendarmes with machine guns in the Paris Métro, I realized that there are all kinds of ways to control people, and let he without sin cast the first stone.

At this point I have no idea what the next decade will hold for me, but I can't help thinking that I was extraordinarily lucky with the last one.

BTW, if you're interested, here's a link to the books that have grown out of that travel.

Friday, 1 January 2010

A Bonbon for the New Year: Chico Buarque Sings A Valsinha

A lovely Brazilian waltz to celebrate the New Year. The pictures are of young folk, but I think it applies to older ones too. You'll find my English translation below which doesn't rhyme, but maybe gives an idea...

A Valsinha

One day he took a different path from his usual one
He saw her and looked at her in way that wasn't his usual one, a glance full of fire,
And he didn't curse life as he usually did
And didn't simply pass her on the corner, but to her surprise, he invited her to dance

And then she made herself lovely in a way she hadn't done in a long time
Putting on her low-necked dress that smelled as if it had been waiting in a closet for a long time too,
Then they took each other's arm in a way neither had tried in a long time, full of kindness and grace,
And then they went to the park and embraced.

And there they danced with such beauty and passion that the whole neighbourhood was awakened,
And there was so much happiness that the whole town lit up;
And there were so many crazy kisses
So many intense cries that hadn't been heard for ages...
That the world understood
And the day arrived
In peace