Thursday, 30 September 2010

Tweets Don't Cut It in the Revolution: Gladwell on Social Change and the "Networked" World

In this week's New Yorker, that other revolutionary Malcolm--Malcolm Gladwell, not Malcolm X--analyses why Twitter and the other Social Media don't mean much when it comes social change.

His thesis is simple--to accomplish something important you need people who are committed, organized and usually part of a formal structure where goals and strategies have been thrashed out. Most of all you need people who are willing to put their time, energies and sometimes even their lives on the line. His example is the first anti-segregation lunch counter sit-in in 1960, started by four young men who have much in common in age, education and with-it-ness with the young today who are flocking to the social media. But it took far more than simply knowing that a sit-in was occuring to start the wave of demonstrations that have brought significant change in the US.

He compares this action with another young man who recently started quite a stir when a friend left a fancy phone some place, where it was picked up by a young woman. Multitudes tweeted and facebooked and raised general trouble about the incident with the upshot that the phone was returned and the young woman was charged with theft.

Does this matter? Not much, he suggests.

"The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause."

He ends by saying that what happens next in this social network ages is not "future waves of digital protesters..(but) more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución."

Moral: Bling is no substitute for real political action.

(For more about Gladwell's truly interesting thoughts about how to really make social change see my review of his book Outliers.)

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Loch Lomond, Because I'm Switching Gears Today

At the moment I'm working on a short non-fiction piece into which the lovely song, The Bonny, Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond has insinuated itself.

And for a complete change of pace, from the Scotland versus Ukraine game in 2007

Oh, and did I say that my parents were Ella Fraser McDonald and Donald Kirkland McGowan?

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

From SimCity to UrbanSim: Computer Games to Change How We Live

Probably the only computer game I ever played with pleasure was SimCity, which the kids acquired shortly after it came out in the Mac version. At the time, I checked out games as they came in the house, more or less the way I looked over the books the kids borrowed from the library--not to censor, but just to know what they were thinking about.

SimCity seemed an order of magnitude more interesting than the other games, which were mostly about eliminating creatures of one sort of another. (We did refuse to buy war games until Lukas got hooked on World War II and saved his money for a whole series like A Bridge Too Far.) You could create an alternate world with SimCity though, you could do experiments with cities like you could do in real life.

My books Green City and The Walkable City may owe their existence to the possibilities that SimCity suggested, I think now on reflection. And so I should not have been surprised this morning when I followed through on a link from our friend and former neighbor Zvi Leve to a series of articles in the Journal of Transport and Land Use on modeling of transportation and other systems called UrbanSim. Interesting stuff, although some of it looks more technical than I can deal with comfortably. But maybe that means I'm just ready to go to the next level!

Note: I've just come across an article in The Atlantic that claims that UrbanSim ws developed to practice counterinsurgency in Baghdad. Not sure yet how this computes.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Who's Going to Defend Canada's System of Universally Accessible Health Care?

What politicians say about Canada's system of universally accessible health care varies a lot. Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Liberals, has flip-flopped a bit in the last few months. During two weeks in April, following the presentation of the Quebec budget that would have instituted user fees he first said:

“In our opinion, what counts is maintaining universality of access to the system. We believe, and it’s a question of details, that Quebec’s propositions conform to the Canada Health Act.” Michael Ignatieff, quoted by Norman Spector in the Globe and Mail, April 1, 2010

But two weeks later he thought better of himself.

“I want to make it very clear that our party and I personally, am a passionate defender of the Canada Health Act. If the government of any province were to introduce user fees, it is our belief that that would be in contravention to the Canada Health Act and we would oppose it.”National Post, April 14, 2010. (Thanks to Graham Carpenter for bringing the quotes to my attention.)

Better late than never, one might say, although I haven't heard Iggy talking about health since. But a bigger question is what the NDP is going to do to defend the system.

In his April 2 column Spector, of whom I am no fan, went on to write: "It will be interesting to see where Jack Layton and his Québec lieutenant Tom Mulcair come down on the issue — particularly with a Leger poll published this morning indicating that Quebeckers are overwhelmingly opposed to the measures. While the NDP presents itself in English-speaking Canada as the chief defender of public health care, it is seeking to make inroads in Québec and...criticizing the provincial government comes at a high cost, even when you are right."

Five months later it seems that neither Layton nor Mulcair are going to do much on this one for reasons that Spector outlined. The NDP's new health critic Megan Leslie mentioned the importance of Canada Health Act once during the summer. Speaking about comments made by the President of the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine, Jean-Luc Urbain, accusing the Conservative government of failing to provide all Canadians equal access to cancer diagnostic technology, she said: “It’s absurd we have a law to ensure equal care for all Canadians but the government does nothing to enforce it." Since then: silence.

The strongest voices against the continual erosion of the health system come from the edges of the political spectrum. For example, Amir Khadir, Québec Solidaire's only deputy in the Quebec National Assembly, has been fighting the good fight for a long time now. He introduced a bill into the National Assembly in April to reaffirm the universality of the health system and to prohibit user fees. He also was front and center last week, congratulating the Quebec Liberal government's retreat when it comes to user fees, but condemning the imposiiton of an annual one-time fee for all Quebeckers.

Such steadfastness is to be congratualated--and rewarded at the polls. Canadians and Quebeckers care a great deal about their health system, and it's about time that the left/centre politicos recognized this.

(For more news about the fight to save Canada's health care system, check out this blog.)

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Saturday Photo: Sunflowers and the End of Summer

Sunflowers seem, at first glance, to be the emblematic flower of summer. They stand tall, face the world, and reflect the sun which is the origin of life, in many respects. Gustave Caillebotte's Sunflowers on the Banks of the Seine successfully conveys their energy on a midsummer mid-day.

But in this part of the world, summer is brief, and the sunflower's time is limited. One of the loveliest and most haunting scenes of the end of the season is The Tangled Garden by the Canadian artist J.E.H. MacDonald. When I first saw it, I found it troubling in the extreme. After living here for a long while, however, I understand the mixture of satisfaction and regret that comes at the end of summer.

The photo is mine, taken without the artistry of Caillebotte or MacDonald. But the way the heavy flowers lean away from each other, and begin their long swoon toward the earth evokes for me, at least, some of the emotions of the beginning of fall.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Friday Folly: The 17th Count Vasco da Gama Stumps What's My Line

"What's My Line"--a program I loved when I was a kid--in 1958 had the 17th Count Vasco da Gama, the direct descendant of legendary Portuguese explorer. The panel tried to guess his occupation which is selling and services pool tables.

Great thing to look at as I try to make a map of the Portuguese adventure.

More tomorrow....

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Flash: Quebec Will Not Charge User Fees for Medicare...At Least for Now

Quebec's Finance Minister Raymond Bachand announced Wednesday that his government will not go ahead with a controversial proposal included last spring's provincial budget to charge user fees for medical visits.

Still insisting that the fees are a "good idea," Bachand said the "culture" of Quebec is against the idea. But the government will stick to its guns and charge an annual flat rate fee to everyone that will go up to $200 in two years.

At the same time, the agency which manages Quebec's health care system, the Régie de assurance médicale du Québec RAMQ, announced that it is opening inquiries into membership fees charged by three health care coops and one private clinic. Three other private clinics are already under investigation for possible violations of the Canada Health Act. Under it, the health care system is supposed to be universally accessible and fees are not allowed to limit access.

This seems to be good news, but it may be only the opening salvos in a campaign to change the CHA itself. Stay tuned...

(And for more information and rants about threats to the health care system, check out: Saving Canada's Health Care System.)

Mark Laxer's The Monkey Bible: A Hybrid Book about a Hybrid That's Worth Reading

"But you've been looking for Truth in a work of fiction," one of the characters wails near the end of The Monkey Bible, a "modern allegory" by Mark Laxer.

Well, why not? the reader might ask about this novel, full of truth about science, evolution, biology, human hearts, and the relation between all creatures on Earth, particularly those in the great family of apes. Quite fittingly, this book that is a hybrid containing story, theory and much information, has its center a character who is a hybrid too--or appears to be.

Emmanuel is a young man from Indonesia, who discovers shortly before he's scheduled to go to the US for college that he may be the result of a genetics experiment. It seems that during a dark, violent period in Indonesian history, scientists introduced chimpanzee genes into fetuses which women captured in armed conflict were carrying. Emmanuel is shocked to learn that he may be one of them, and what begins as the usual youthful search for identity leads him around the world to find out if this is true, and, if so, if he, as a "manimal," can have a spiritual life and be beloved by God.

The book can be read as science fiction or fable, or as way of presenting complicated, controversial ideas in an engaging fashion that will reach more than an academic audience. Certainly, Laxer has gone all out to attract not-just-your-ordinary reader. The book's website has great flash, the launch in Washington DC last week featured music written with Eric Maring (a CD of the songs are included in the hard cover edition of the book,) and Laxer is doing a book tour that will take him across the US and into Canada. Friday he'll read at the Baltimore Book Festival and Sunday he's at Southern Independent Book Sellers meeting in Daytona, FL.

This is not bad for guy who makes his living as a computer programmer and devotes his spare time to such causes as safeguarding African habitat and the chimps who live there. There's much of him in many of his characters, and the major female one, Lucy, is just as smart and pretty as his own wife, biologist Sara Lourie. (Conflict of interest notice: both of them are friends of Elin, and Sara cycled by with a copy of the book for me to review a couple of weeks ago.)

The book is handsomely produced with full-colour, glossy photos near the end which reproduce the "Monkey Bible" that Lucy writes. It would have been nice to have a "suggested reading" section at the back so the reader can learn more about the scientific rsearch. The beginning of the story also stutters a bit as we're flipped from one character to another. But this is a good read for anyone who likes to be entertained and introduced to some serious ideas at the same time.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Flaherty Talks Election, Failing to Note That It was Pressure from the "Coalition" That Resulted in Canada's Recovery Program

Are we headed for a fall election? The chattering classes seem to think that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's speech yesterday laid down the gauntlet.

"They're off," Manon Corneiller writes in Le Devoir.

The Globe and Mail begins its story: "Its campaign promise to kill the long-gun registry almost certain to be thwarted Wednesday, the Harper government has begun laying the groundwork for the next election – casting political rivals as a threat to Canada’s economic recovery."

But as Corneiller noted this morning on Radio-Can, it's interesting that Flaherty's 2008 budget speech, delivered just before the financial meltdown, had nothing about approaching doom, nor about how to save the farm. It took the threat of a coalition from the Libs, NDP and BQ before he and Harper realized that economic action had to be taken.

It was, thank goodness, and Canada has done better than many other countries. Our social safety net, tattered as it is, has helped since it contributes to maintaining purchasing power. So has the relative health of the banking system. But for Flaherty and the Cons to take credit for the recovery program is nonsense--and also dishonest.

But then what do you expect from the people who want to do with the long form census, in large part because they don't want to be confused by the facts.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Peter Stoffer Listens to His Constituents: Bravo!

It was with great delight last night that I heard the news that Peter Stoffer had announced he would vote against the private member's bill which would do away with the long gun registry. A large majority of his constituents are opposed to the abolition, he said, and so, even though he still is not in favour of it, he will follow their wishes.

Bravo for him!

A couple of weeks ago I tried to get an email writing campaign going to the 12 NDP MPs who had voted in favour of abolition in the spring. Stoffer, alone among the dozen, took the time to call me, and explained his long-standing opposition. It was a nice gesture, but I thanked him and told him that I thought he was wrong. In subsequent waves of emails, I didn't even contact him, so adamant had he been.

But obviously this is a man who listens to the people in his riding, and they didn't agree with him. Takes courage to change your position in a case like this, and I congratulate him.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Ain't We Got Fun? Paul Krugman Aska

Just a bit of the famous 1920s hit "Ain't We Got Fun" that figured in Robert Redford's version of The Great Gatsby, made from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel about the excess and rot in the US of the Jazz Age. It seems to me to go very well with Paul Krugman's column today. In it he talks about the great wave of anger that is sweeping part of America--the anger of the rich.

"These are terrible times for many people in this country. Poverty, especially acute poverty, has soared in the economic slump; millions of people have lost their homes. Young people can’t find jobs; laid-off 50-somethings fear that they’ll never work again," he writes.

"Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes."

This might be amusing, if it weren't so dangerous. As Krugman notes (with a wink to the supposed exchange between Fitzgerald and Hemingway*:) "You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence." And, as they did in the 1920s when this song was written, they are going to try to write the agenda for the US, and for the world. Here are part of the lyrics:

"Bill collectors gather 'round and rather
Haunt the cottage next door
Men the grocer and butcher sent
Men who call for the rent
But within a happy chappy
And his bride of only a year
Seem to be so cheerful, here's an earful
Of the chatter you hear

Ev'ry morning, ev'ry evening
Ain't we got fun?
Not much money, Oh, but honey
Ain't we got fun?
The rent's unpaid dear
We haven't a bus
But smiles were made dear
For people like us

In the winter in the Summer
Don't we have fun
Times are bum and getting bummer
Still we have fun
There's nothing surer
The rich get rich and the poor get children
In the meantime, in between time
Ain't we got fun?"

* Fitzgerald reportedly said that "the rich are different from you and me," and Hemingway replied, "yes, they have more money." But the story is more complicated: it's what they thought, but never put in those words in one conversation, it seems.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Saturday Photo: Country Lane in the Middle of Montreal

It looks like a country lane, doesn't it? A green path between fences, with flowers and vegetables growing on the other side.Yet this is not some quaint village in England or Ireland, some out of the way corner of the Continent, but the middle of the very urban Montreal district of Villeray-Saint Michel-Parc Extension, two blocks from a Metro station and, in the other direction, three blocks from the Metropolitain expressway.

We were introduced to these agreeable laneways a few years ago when Elin began going out with Emmanuel. He invited us for dinner at his place one summer night, and in between the courses of the feast (as his meals always are) we went for a walk down the lanes that cut through the blocks in that neighborhood. It was a warm evening and people were sitting out, finishing a meal, puttering in the gardens, enjoying the relative coolness. What was amazing was the the space which ordinarily is given over to public utility easements had been transformed into a linear greeway that had obviously been frequently mowed.

Emmanuel, who was renting, did not know who was responsible, but wanted to share the charm with us. When I went back a few weeks ago, hoping to get more information, found the same pleasure. A man in his 30s was walking a dog in front of me, and then turned into one of the gardens. When I stopped to compliment him on the laneway, he said that "an old gentlemen who lives about three blocks away" tended to the mowing but knew little more than that.

The houses are modest ones, built in the 1950s. That means that the young couples who first moved in and added on and cultivated their gardens are now in their late 70s and 80s, and frequently are looking to sell. Friends of Elin and Emmanuel, in fact, have just bought one of the houses on this lane. They're looking forward to enjoying the green laneway and to learning about gardening from their elderly neighbors. As one of their friends says: "They have big plans for you next year.... I bet you are the project of the block.... you too will have tomatoes to die for!"

Friday, 17 September 2010

The Voyage Home: Page Proofs of Making Waves Arrive

Reading page proofs for Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure, so no time for a real post.

Back to work....

(The image is of a caravel from an early map.)

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Days are Dwindling Down to a Precious Few: Write NDP MPs Who Are Waving about the Long Gun Registrery

Seven NDP MPs are wavering about voting for Bill 391, the private member's bill which would abolish the long gun registry. The crucial vote is scheduled for next Wednesday. Please write them immediately to tell them this is a terrible idea, and also that the NDP will suffer from its vacillating stance on this issue.

Here are the emails:

Ms. Niki Ashton,
Jim Maloway,
Dennis Bevington,
Nathan Cullen,
Bruce Hyer,
John Rafferty,
Peter Stoffer,

And while you're at it, why not write to the five who've already changed their minds, and congratulate them:

Charlie Angus,
Glenn Thibeault,
Malcolm Allen,
Claude Gravelle,
Carol Hughes,

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

World Energy Conference: A Lot of Gas, But Not Much Else

Those who thought that the World Energy Conference now going on in Montreal was going to be ground-breaking, world-shaking or a just step in the right direction when it comes to energy must be shaking their heads. It's quite clear that the view being presented is of today's energy's czars, not of the future. Here are headlines of the press releases from the first two days:

Monday: Traditional energy sources will remain key as alternatives developed


Tuesday: Search for right energy mix includes ongoing conventional sources as well as alternatives.

This comes as Quebec starts pushing for shale gas exploration, with one of the ministers actually saying we need the income to pay for day care. Not a good thing. Even though Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute was feted at the conference, it clearly seems headed for endorsing a steady-as-go policy. And that's not what's needed now.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Under Attack: Action Needed to Save Canada's Universally Accessible Health Care System

I haven't had a chance to look at this closely, but I have grave doubts about the OECD report that apparently calls for user fees in Canada's health care system. This has got to be idealogically driven conclusions, and should be carefully considered and discredited.

The whole thing--coupled with yesterday's report on the benefits of pharmacare and an incident in our own family where user fees might have dissuaded a timely visit to a hospital emergency room--have got me thinking about ways to set up a coalition of people who want to gets some action on saving Canada's health care system from the constant, neo-Con attack it has been under for some time. So I've started another blog, and will set up a Face Book page. There's nothing on the blog now, but I plan on posting links to interesting documents and commenting frequently. May also set one up in French with much the same content. Check it out, and if you'd like to get involved, let me know.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Public Pharmacare Would Save Money, New Report Says

Who says that private is better when it comes to health care? Nobody who thinks the matter through. The latest evidence comes in a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives which shows that Canadian expenses on medication could be cut by between 10 and 42 per cent, if a universal, single-payer pharmacare program were instituted.

Marc-André Gagnon and Guillaume Hébert, the report's authors, write that "a universal drug plan providing first-dollar coverage, established alongside a rigorous drug assessment process, would not only ensure greater fairness in accessing medication and improve drug safety, but would also help contain the inflationary costs of drugs, regardless of the industrial policy Canada may choose."

That was what health economists in Quebec--including Lee--said several years ago when a drug insurance plan was instituted. Costs have been more than expected, because of administration of a multitude of plans, and because central bargaining on drug prices was not instituted.

Our health care system is something that Canadians are proud of. Publicly funded pharmacare is way to improve it. At the same time, it's essential that we be vigilant in safeguarding what we already have. More about that later....

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Saturday Photo: Alfred Joyce's Garden 100 Years Ago

A few weeks ago I featured Parc Joyce in the Saturday Photo, a lovely little park in Outremont. At the time I said I'd have more about the property which the garden suburb acquired in 1926.

Now I've dug out a photo of what it looked like seen from the south about the turn of the 20th century It appeared in the Autumn 1991 number of a classy publication, called Continuité put out by the Conseil des monuments et sites du Québec. The original apparently is in the archives of the McCord Museum.

The house itself was built about 1830 by John Clarke, a fur trader who liked Italian villas. When Alfred Joyce acquired the property in 1883, he added a number of new wings and transformed it along Elizabethan lines. He lived in it until his death in 1931: members of his family still live on a smaller house on the property, apparently having the right to remain there under the terms of acquistion.

Rue Ainslie leads toward the property from Côte Sainte Catherine on the south, but I'm not sure if it was cut through at the time the picture above was taken. The one below I took a few weeks ago from the point where Ainslie makes a dog-leg to curve around the park. The building on the left is the club house for the tennis courts which take up part of the park now: it's got fake half-timbering in the Elizabethan style and probably was one of Joyce's follies.

Friday, 10 September 2010

A Campaign for Libraries by a Young Quebec Politician, the Legacy of Claude Bechard

Liberal politicians, provincial or federal, never get my vote--I always go to left of them--and if they're not from a riding around me, I don't pay too much attention to individuals. So I didn't know very much about Claude Bechard, the young star of the Jean Charest Liberals who died on the weekend of pancreatic cancer. A great loss, those who knew him said. And certainly to be snuffed out by that particular form of the disease at 41 is a great sadness.

Then among the appreciations of him and his work, I heard people from his district on the lower St. Lawrence talk about his passionate campaign to bring libraries to small towns. It seems that 20 were planned, and 10 have been opened. The picture above was taken in March 2009 at the opening of a new library in the town of Mont-Carmel, population 1,226 in 2006 in Kamouraska region. Bechard and Yvon Soucy, a member of the city council, were checking out the children's section. (Photo from Le Placoteux, the local newspaper.)

Okay, I thought, as I heard the story of his involvement: whatever else he might stand for, Bechard certainly had his priorities right in supporting libraries. Quebec lagged far behind the rest of North America when it came to libraries until the 1970s, but has played a pretty decent catch-up game, particularly in Montreal. What a shame that Bechard won't be around to help in the future, particularly in rural areas. Perhaps his example will inspire other champions of libraries, though.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

More Evidence that We Need to Cut Down Our Energy Requirements: Gas from Shale Pollutes

The problems with "green" forms of energy keep piling up. There are outcries against wind turbines, protests against solar farms, and this morning Le Devoir's Louis-Gilles Francoeur reports that gas from shale is as polluting as coal, if its production is taken into account.

The moral here is clear: we have to cut down on our energy requirements.

More about this later. I think I'll go shut off a few lights....

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

NDP Big Loser in Latest Nanos Polls: A Little More Backbone Is Needed, My Friends

It was with considerable disappointment, but no great surprise that I read the results of the latest Nanos poll yesterday. They show the Cons and the Libs with nearly equal numbers, around 33 per cent of decided voters. This means that the Cons lost about three points since June, but the big loser was the NDP which saw its support drop from 20.7 to 15.6.

The Globe and Mail reported pollster Nik Nanos as saying, “I think what we’re seeing is an accumulation effect, a series of issues that in themselves are not significant, but that as they accumulate start to move the numbers.”

Unfortunately there was little rapid response from Jack Layton and the boys on the issues which obviously annoyed voters this summer like the census long form fiasco. Nor was there vigorous support of continued stimulus money either, nothing about eroding health care, and now the horrendous dithering over support for the long gun registry.

A very large majority of Canadians are fed up with the Stephen Harper Conservatives: the Nanos numbers add up to more than 66.2 per cent of all voters preferring a party other than the Harperites. The number of undecideds are going down too. This means that in the coming election the party that shows leadership has a good chance of pushing the Cons aside...and unless the NDP changes its strategy its going to be left out in the cold.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Revised Project for Griffintown Is Smaller, But Is It Greener?

Le Devoir
reported last weekend on plans to construct "ecoquartiers' on the edged of Quebec City, the provincial capital. The Montreal Gazette wrote about green development in Cologne. And real estate developer Devimco presented plans last week for a revised development in the Griffintown neighborhood of Montreal.

The latter will be much smaller than the earlier commercial/residential project which was in part a victim of the 2008 financial meltdown, but also the target of much criticism. It would have fundamentally changed an old, grid-based area that had begun to be redeveloped in a piece-meal way with a huge shopping center-based area filled with apartment towers.

Have the developers and the city of Montreal learned the lesson that small, green development is better? It's not clear. But take a look at the video that Devimco has posted on its website. It's a big contrast with what I've posted above, and you'll see that they are trying to talk the talk. It remains to be seen whether they'll walk the walk.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Telling an Intimate Story That Is History Too: Yasmina Khadra's What the Day Owes the Night

The New York Times ended its lukewarm review of Yasmina Khadra's The Attack four years ago with this proviso: "if he is to instruct us at the deepest level, he cannot afford to leave so much of himself and the lessons of his country's history out of his fiction."

Since then the former Algerian military officer turned novelist has published two more novels, one which completes a trilogy about Islamic fundamentalists, called The Sirens of Baghdad. The second, What the Day Owes the Night, could be seen as his answer to the NY Times' criticism. It tells the story of a man from a wealthy Arab family who grows up in Oran and Rio Salado, a nearby village, during the 1930s and 1940s. He experiences the turmoil of the 1960s which saw Algeria become an independent country, and he loves deeply and despairingly a childhood friend from a French family who returns to France.

This is the book that won the Prix des Durochères last December, the "prize" given annually by a book group of friends to the best book they've read in the previous year. I had read part of it, been impressed, but not finished it because of a thousand other things demanding to be read. But I put it on the list of the book discussion group I lead at the Outremont library for September, so last week I began to read it again.

This is one good book! Khadra (who took a pseudonym originally to avoid Algerian army censorship) does that rare thing of bringing world-shaking events into a human scale. The reader will learn much about what happened in Northern Africa in the 20th century, but he or she will also be invited into the world of a man about whom one quickly cares a lot.

The only problem for North American English readers is that the book appears not available here. Published originally in French two years ago, it was published last May by the UK house William Heineman, but doesn't show up on any internet book seller in a North American edition. says it will be available in Kindle at some point, but it isn't now.

At any rate, keep your eyes open for it. It definitely is worth reading.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Saturday Photo: Garlic Returns!

One of the mysteries of life is the way garlic from around here disappears about the end of January. Oh, there's garlic in the supermarkets, but it comes from China or Argentina. Why their varieties should last/ship longer than ours, I have yet to learn.

But it is harvest time here now, and the Jean Talon Market is full of skeins of garlic. Usually I buy a couple which will last until December--I always underestimate how much I'll use.

And this from a woman who never ate garlic--and onions rarely--until she left home at 18! They stand among the grand discoveries of my life.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Seeing Is Believing Department: Bees and Flowers and the Impression That Is Larger Than Reality

The air seemed to be full of the buzzing of bees the other morning when I was out. Another hot, hazy day was shaping up, and obviously these lavendar plants had attracted a wonder of bees. They flitted around, going from flower to flower as they collected nectar and spread pollen. It seemed to me to be the epitome of a summer day.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I downloaded the photos and discovered that I couldn't see a bee anywhere. It took playing around with Photoshop, enlarging the image by a factor of three, and then carefully going over it, centimeter by centimeter, before I saw the busy little honey-makers. Yet the impression I had, as my delighted eyes flitted from flower to flower, was that the air was full of bees.

There's a lesson here: what we see depends upon where we look and what we register can be greater than what one individual glance can contain. It's something to consider when trying to make sense of the world.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Unlamented Death of Le Corbusier: Forty-Five Years After the "Genius" of Bad Urban Planning

One of the things that got lost in the last week is the anniversary of the death of Swiss architect Le Corbusier.
I had intended to write about his legacy on August 27, 45 years after he died. His ideas about building new cities with apartment towers had repercussions around the world.

The idea, of course, was to make things better for people. Getting rid of substandard, unhealthy housing, and separating industry from residential areas was supposed to reform both cities and the people who lived in them. Nine decades after he began to expound his ideas, it is clear that the "tower in the park" he advocated has been a failure nearly everywhere except under special conditions.

Apartment towers for rich or upper middle class people seem to work reasonably well, but where corners were cut in construction and the poor were isolated in them, urban disaster has been nearly universal. Many such projects in the US--the picture on the left is of the Robert Taylor Houses in Chicago which have almost all been torn down--lasted only a few decades before they were demolished.

The picture on the right was taken in 2005 in Shanghai, which then was razing low rise traditional housing in order to build towers. The jury is still out on how well they will succeed, but recent rumbles of dissatisfaction have been heard as far away as North America.

The photo at bottom is of Singapore, which is probably the one successful, large scale exception. There people were able (or strongly encouraged, or maybe even coerced, depending on your point of view) into buying apartments in buildings where care was taken to mix income and ethnic groups. Good public transit and nearby jobs were also part of the planning.

The fact that I've seen no other mention of Le Corbusier's legacy in the last week is a measure, I think, of the just disrepute his ideas have fallen into.

Moral: bad ideas are sometimes dangerously popular. Better not to destroy but add to what is already working, as Jane Jacobs advised.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Noise: The Beast in the City Jungle

As I've said before, noise is the elephant in the room that people avoid talking about when it comes to living in a densely-populated city. The irritant is not traffic noise, nor the noise of kids playing, or even of neighbors talking outside, but amplified noise, be it music or speech. Since it is now possible to create incredible levels of sound with relatively inexpensive speakers, excessive noise has become a tremendous problem in urban areas.

La Presse has two stories today on the subject. The first is about efforts by police and borough administrators in Montreal's Plateau district to crack down on noisy events by levying fines. Apparently decibel levels haven't been stipulated, and Commandant Stéphane Bélanger, in charge of the NOISE project, says that nobody will be fined if the doors are shut and the level of sound is reasonable. But 3000 noise complaints have been recorded in the Plateau district over the last five months. Seems to me that it's reasonable to ask that music from bars not be heard a block over, and that care is taken in outside events not to disturb the surroundings, particularly after 11 p.m.

The second story is about residents of St. Lambert, a suburb on the south shore of the St. Lawrence who are bothered by rock shows in Parc Jean-Drapeau on an island in the middle of the river. Some activities have used an acoustic barrier to direct sound away from the residential communities, but other don't. The city of Montreal says it will study whether the noise really is excessive and if so what can be done about it.

No one has mentioned what these noise levels are doing to people's hearing. Nevertheless, the Journal of the American Medical Association just published a report showing that one in five American teenagers has suffered hearing loss, up dramatically from a study done 20 years ago.

Maybe noise is not the elephant in the room that no one talks about, but rather the trumpeting beast that nobody hears...