Monday, 31 January 2011

Why Egypt Has Risen Up: From The Yacoubian Building to The Guardian, Alaa Al Aswany Speaks

One of the most accessible ways to learn about the story behind Egypt's current crisis is to read Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building. A best selling writer and practicing dentist, Al-Aswany has long been a critic of the Mubarak regime. Not surprisingly, he's been in the recent demonstrations, and wrote about the experience last week in The Guardian.

Why have Egyptians risen up? he asked rhetorically. "The answer lies in the nature of the regime. A tyrannical regime might deprive the people of their freedom, but in return they are offered an easy life. A democratic regime might fail to beat poverty, but the people enjoy freedom and dignity. The Egyptian regime has deprived the people of everything, including freedom and dignity, and has failed to supply them with their daily needs."

There is no better way in English to learn what he's talking about than to read the novel, published five years ago, or see the film made from it in two yearas ago.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Saturday Photo: Oranges, the Delicious Fruit of Winter

This week our not-so-tiny-anymore-but-still-perfect baby Jeanne had her first taste of solid food. She scarfed down carrot purée and even took a little water from a cup.

Elin and Emmanuel arranged things so I'd be there to witness to event, which reminded me of Lukas's first solids. He was almost exactly Jeanne's age--his birthday is Aug. 22, and Jeanne's is Aug. 26--and we were visiting Lee's parents in California. He was showing the same interest in what we were eating that Jeanne is now, so I decided, why not try something he could pick up and stuff in his mouth. The books then were suggesting orange juice at five months, and it seemed only a short jump to trying orange sections because Lee's Dad had just finished harvesting the marvelous oranges he grew in their backyard. I took a section, ran a knife down it so it was easier to gnaw on, and gave it to him.

Ecstasy! The expression on his face was wonderful to see. After that we went on to cooked carrots, cereal, rusks and the usual other things, but oranges remained his delight. Everytime his grandfather took oranges out of the refrigerator he would lean forward, waving his arms around, ready for more.

The photo was taken much later near Irvine in Orange County. Lovely trees, lovely fruit.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Krugman and Lauzon: Fiscal Lies and Wrong-Headed Analysis of Lessons from Europe

Two interesting discussions of "debt crises" and the effect of corporate tax cuts this week, one from Paul Krugman today in The New York Times, and the other in one of the free tabloids given out around Montreal's transit system, Métro.

In his column "The Own Private Europes," Krugman takes off from the response of Republican respresentative Paul Ryan to President Obama's State of the Union address, pointing to the alleged failure of European countries' economic policies, particularly their social programs. "American conservatives have long used the myth of a failing Europe to argue against progressive policies in America. More recently, they have tried to appropriate Europe’s debt problems on behalf of their own agenda, never mind the fact that events in Europe actually point the other way," Krugman writes.

In the tabloid, Léo-Paul Lauzon, a maverick professor of accounting and social-econmic studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal, lays it on the line: corporate and fat cat tax cuts like those whose continuation was just approved in the US, do nothing to encourage economic growth. Quoting several fiscal conservative sources to back up his analysis, he says that the only winners in this kind of economic game is business and not the economy as a whole. To say otherwise is to lie, he says.

Both men appear voices in the wilderness, despite their good economic credentials. They should be heard and heeded.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

An Alternative to Wal-Mart: The Small Corner Grocery

For decades I've shopped regularly at small groceries and stores close by where we lived. It takes a population bassin of about 10,000 to support a commercial street, and we certainly have that within walking distance of Park Avenue du Parc.

But population is even denser on the Plateau where we are now, and the grocery stores that can make a go of it seem to be even smaller. This is one of a half dozen Portuguese groceries within a few blocks of each other. Some of the clients come from farther away, like the folks who visit C. Martins on Villeneuve in the fall to buy flats of grapes for winemaking. Most of the stores deliver in the neighborhoood too,for free or for a small fee. That's because this is not a car-friendly area--we've left the car we don't use very often anyway at the house for the duration--but it's proof that you can get by quite nicely, thank you, in a walkable city.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

More Evidence That Public Health Care for Seniors Is Better Than Private: Another Call to Action

A new study from the Institute for Research in Public Policies clearly shows that health care in public, non-profit long term residences for seniors is usually better and certainly not worse than care in private facilities.

Undertaken by Margaret J. McGregor and Lisa A. Ronald, "Residential Long-Term Care for Canadian Seniors: Nonprofit, For-Profit or Does It Matter?" should be a call to action for those who care about quality care and the public system. The study says that much research in the US and Canada finds a link between for-profit ownership and inferior quality in residential long-term care for seniors. Nevertheless, the for-profit sector in Canada is expanding at the expense of the nonprofit sector.

Okay, now what are we going to do about this? It's time that everyone concerned--from indivduals to political parties--demand that our health care system return to its core values which include public administration as well as universal access.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Wal-Mart and Michelle Obama: Fat Kids, Fat Cats and Overstuffed Political Campaigns

A measure of the flight to the right of the Obama administration is Michelle Obama's endorsement of Wal-Mart's "healthy food" move. During the run up to the 2008 presidential campaign, Ms. Obama was criticized for the place she held as a paid member--about $51,200 in 2006-- on the board of one of Wal-Mart's biggest suppliers, TreeHouse. Obama, then senator from Illinois, was at the time making sharp noises about Wal-Mart's union-bashing practices. In August 2008 Ms. Obama resigned from the TreeHouse board, shortly after her husband said he wouldn't shop at Wal-Mart because of its stand on unionization of workers.

But times have changed. Wal-Mart supported Obama's health insurance intiatives and now the First Lady is out there, praising the company for worrying about childhood obesity, and planning to reduce the fat, sugar and salt content of many of the products it manufactures, and to rid all its goods of trans-fats.

There's something seriously wrong with this picture. Presidents' wives have long found a cause to support--literacy, for example--but I can't think of any besides Ms. Obama who has come out so strongly for a corporation.

Wonder how much Wal-Mart will contribute to the Obama campaign next year. We'll probably never know because parties in the US no longer have to divulge who donates to them.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Coldest Day So Far This Year: -26 C This Morning

Baby, it's cold outside. And inside too. That's ice on the window.

(Must admit this is a cheat, as it was taken last year during a similar cold spell. The windows in our temporary digs are better insulated--only a little frost.)

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Saturday Photo: Looking Forward, Looking Back in Lisbon

January is the month named after Janus, the Roman god who looked foward and back at the same time. We're already more than half way through this January, but I'm think about both past adventures and dreaming about ones to come.

My last big trip was to Lisbon in 2009, and the picture to the left I think captures a bit of the multi-layered time scheme of that lovely city. The reflection is of buildings from the middle of the 19th century, while the windows are in a building that probablyl dates from 100 years later. I'd love to go back and wander around some more: Lisbon seemed to combine many of the best aspects of Paris with a setting much like San Francisco's.

Friday, 21 January 2011

No Longer Hot Stuff: Fireplaces and Urban Living

One of the interesting things about our temporary digs is the fireplace. The building was built in 2000, and it's clear from bits and pieces that we've come across (papers written for a class and stuck in the bookcase, for example) that the Brazilian who owns the apartment passed the winter of 1997-98 in Montreal. That was the year of the Ice Storm, when most of Montreal was without power for two weeks, and aftewards there was a big jump in the number of people who put in wood stoves and fireplaces, just in case it happened again. My guess is that the owner wasn't going to live through another time like that either, and made sure the condo he bought came equipped with its own source of heat: there also are sconces for candles and oil lamps place strategically around the flat.

But we've been spared a system breakdown like that, hasnt and there has been much talk since about the problems of smog in the winter from smoke from those fire places and whatnot. Even though there is wood in the fireplace here, we didn't even consider lighting it over the holidays--and not only because we've become more cautious about fire lately.

So it was no surprise yesterday when The New York Times made it official: a fire place is no longer on the must-have list for urban living. "The Love Affair with the Fire Place Cools," was the headline.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Vi Hart and Magic Math: I Wish I Had Met Someone Like This Eons Ago

Math can be interesting. For more about the lovely and talented Vi Hart check out the The New York Times profile:

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Climate Change Evidence from 1957: Something to Put This Winter's Storms in Perspective

In 1957 the US Geological Survey began monitoring several glaciers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. At the time, no one was talking about climate change, but the results of that continuing study are the backbone of much analysis of the effect of green house gas emissions. Nevertheless 1957 also was the year of a famous early spring spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. Is it possible that this poisson d'avril is real food for thought...

Note: For those who didn't recognize it, this is a BBC April Fool joke. But it works as a warning, too.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Baby Doc Comes Back: A Relic of Another Haitian Dream Dashed

The bizarre return of Jean-Claude Duvalier-Baby Doc--reminds me of the debt I ower to Haiti. In March 1973 my sister Laurie and her husband Mik invited me to accompany them there: the Turks and Caicos Islands were opening up to tourism then, and Mik wanted to explore the possiblities of building hotels or whatever. But the only way to get there was through Port-au-Prince, and Laurie didn't want to wait alone for a week while Mik did business stuff.

Mik ended up not going for reasons to complicated to recount here, so we spent the time looking around Port-au-Prince and region. They are late sleepers though, and I decided I couldn't wait around for them to get started, so I would get up when the church bells struck 5 a.m. and go out for a walk. I reasoned that at that hour, those who preyed on tourists wouldn't be around, and I'd be able to see a part of city life that I wouldn't otherwise. The courteous, curious greetings that I got from people going to work and school made a big impression. I came back with much respect for the Haitian people, and, in a real sense, they opened up the world to me: since then I've used the strategy often when traveling for my books.

Baby Doc at that point had been in power for only a couple of years and there was considerable optimism. Several people suggested that now great things were going to happen after the great darkness of his father's long reign. Sadly, that promise was never realized, with the consequences we see today: continued political instability, governmental paralysis, a people who are struggling with extraordinary bad luck--the earthquake, hurricanes, cholera--that would test the resources of much more prosperous and well-organized country.

And so now, what does Baby Doc propose to do? After 25 years of well-deserved, comfortable exile, does he expect to come back like Hamid Karzai did in Afghanistan, and lead the country into new depths of corruption and strife?

The Haitians deserve much more than this, and I thank them once again for what those whom I met so long ago gave to me.

Photo: Haiti's Presidential Palace as it looked when I was there, and, in fact, until it was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.

Monday, 17 January 2011

811 for Health Questions, You Say? Why Do So Few People in Quebec Know about It?

Part of the reason why health professionals interested in privatizing the health care system have found such fertile ground is the perceived dirth of direct access to medical advice in off hours. What to do in the middle of the night when your kid is sick? Or you break out in hives? Or you've been vomiting for 24 hours?

One solution which many use is to go directlly to hospital emergency services, but there are other solutions that function much better as a first step. For more than two years in Quebec, a simple call to 811 can put you in contact with an Info-Santé health professional 24/7/365. We've used the system several times, including when I came down in the middle of the night with a dreadful case of hives (that eventually lasted 18 months) and when our little Jeanne had a respiratory problem at age 18 days. In both cases the advice we got was good, and in the former avoided a trip to the emergency room. In the latter, Jeanne's parents were told to go directly the hospital where they were seen in half an hour, and then, happily, sent home because the problem really wasn't serious.

But who knows about this service? Our CLSC (local public health clinic) sent us the number when the service was set up, but there has been no continous publicity. Getting the message out could make a big difference in the efficiency of health care delivery.

For more about creeping privatization of Quebec's health care system, see the excellent story in the weekend's Le Devoir.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Saturday Photo: Days are Longer and the Poinsettia Has Started to Grow

A friend sent an enormous pointsettia in late November when we were celebrating the launch of Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure.

It survived the smoke and dust, and looked absolutely lovely when we moved into our temporary digs the next week.

But in the next couple of weeks it lost leaves, and was reduced by the new year to a shadow of its former splendor: too much of a shock to its system, I guess.

This week, though I was pleased to note that new leaves are forming on the now somewhat-bare branches. The days are growing longer, and it's time to beginning growing again, to move on to the next step.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Supreme Court of Canada to Hear "Libel Freeze" Case of Ecosociété vs. Barrick Gold

One way to get critics to shut up is to try them to death. That is, in classic David vs. Golialth fashion a company with deep pockets can institute legal proceedings against a smaller player which doesn't have the means to defend itself. The result too often is that the challenger goes broke, and other people or groups are scared off from raising embarassing question.

Barrick Gold has been after the Quebec publisher Ecosociété since 2008 when the small house put out Noir Canada : pillage, corruption et criminalité en Africa, The mining giant filed libel prooceedings in Ontario, whose laws are different from those of Quebec. The maneuver has meant that Ecosociété's resources are strained since it has to pay for a legal team in the other province. Furthermore, were the case tried in Quebec, it could come over that province's legislation aimed at countering libel freeze.

The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear Ecosociété's request to have the case heard in Quebec. There's no guarantee that the court will allow the transfer, but the fact that it will decide will clarify the rules of the game, and just might make it harder for the big guys to intimidate the small ones.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Bonhomme Carnaval and His Buddy David Suzuki to Hold a Winter Summit on Climate Change

In this winter of extremes, it's appropriate that the David Suzuki Foundation is joining forces with Quebec City's Carnaval to highlight climate change.

From January 28-30, the foundation and the Carnaval will hold a "Winter Summit," featuring a talk on climate change by Suzuki at Laval University, an outdoor hockey match and other activities. The Foundation was also involved in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which, of course, was a one time thing. This partnership, though, may continue, as the Bonhomme Carnaval and the festivities have been around for more than 50 years, and plan on continuing for many more.

It seems a natural pairing, particularly since it's getting harder and harder to predict what winter will bring, even in Quebec. Strange thing, though: I haven't found a word of this trolling through English language media. What a shame!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

No User Fees, Quebec Doctors' Group Says as Private Services Multiply

Quebec doctors are standing up for universal access to needed medical services in a way that the province's--and Canada's--politicians should. Not only did several physicians' groups come out strongly against user fees proposed last spring by the Charest government, this week Médecins québécois pour le régime publique decried the increasing use of extra fees in the province.

The latest attempts to get around restrictions which are supposed to make all medically needed services available at no charge include a new pediatric "concierge" service, Medisys 123. The users pay an annual fee for each child and are supposed to have access to advice on the telephone, 24/7 coverage, and other services. The provincial health authority is looking it to this, and has supposedly warned physicians that extra charges for this kind of service are illegal.

The problem, of course, is that this is another step toward a two tiered health system. Similar services actually are available in the public system--Info Santé offers 24 telephone advice and triage which our family has used more than once. For some reason--maybe because their advertising budget is too low--the service seems not well known. And if a private service competes, the pressure will be off to make the public service better known and well-funded.

Quebeckers have said that health is their biggest worry as 2011 begins. It's time for those who want to make our basically excellent system work to speak out.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Bananas in Montreal Are Cheap This Week, But They're All Green

Don't know what's up, bananas are relatively cheap--49 or 59 cents a pound in my neighborhood--but they're all green.

Now, you can tell me that they will ripen. I know that, but just like there is nothing wrong with a banana that has a few brown spots on its skin, try telling that to picky eaters.

What an amazing thing, though: to have fruit from so far away in the middle of the winter. Should I feel guilty buying them? Perhaps, but the fact that they're green means they came by boat, which reduces the carbon footprint for their transport considerably. This Guardian blog even suggests they may be the ultimate low carbon fruit.

Monday, 10 January 2011

There Is No Left Wing Conspiracy, But There Are a Lot of Violent Nuts on the Rightt

Much chatter today about the horrendous attacks on Saturday in Arizona. In The New York Times Paul Krugmam says that if the shootings bring the hysterical Right to modify their strategy of hate, perhaps some good will come of what happened. He ends ups his column: "If it doesn’t, Saturday’s atrocity will be just the beginning."

I certainly hope this Arizona incident will lead to postive change, but I'm also trying to think of a left wing extremist who killed anybody in the US--a country where presidents, dissidents and celebraties have all too often been the target of would-be assassins bullets. Certainly not since the 1970s, I think. Then bombs set by the Weather Undground killed three or four. In 1981 John Hinckley tried to kill President Ronald Reagan, but his aim wasn't political but a misguided attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster.

This record says a lot about who is really destructive in the US, and it ain't the left wing, every the left wing fringe. It is the right, many of whom are encouraged by a multitude of special interest groups through Fox News and others.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Saturday Photo: Morning Shot to Lift the Spirits

Because some days start out better than others...

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Flowers of Winter: The Hibiscus Blooms for Aloyse

My plants are doing very well without me, it seems. After the fire, I farmed out the biggest ones to my neighbor Aloyse who has a lovely bay window on one side of her house, and a glassed-in porch on the other side.

The hibiscus obviously likes the exposure a lot because she says she came back to town after a short stay in the country to find the plant in bloom. Since it rarely has bloomed for me, I think she deserves the Award of the Green Thumb as well as many thanks for taking in some orphan plants!

More Simple Things: What Little Kids Really Like to Play with Isn't High Tech

A young friend just posted a photo of her 8 month son on Facebook, showing the cherub playing with a spoon. Her comment: "He has all the toys imaginable but is happiest playing with a spooon. Go figure ! :)

One of her friends responded: "They ignore their toys, then you think you're not stimulating them enough so you go out and buy more, then they ignore those too! (My boy) will spend 45 minutes shredding a piece of paper and carefully hiding it around the house :) "

Too true, and maybe the importance of that kind of play is coming back on the radar:
The New York Times has a story today about the "a growing movement to restore the sometimes-untidy business of play to the lives of children." It goes on: "For several years, studies and statistics have been mounting that suggest the culture of play in the United States is vanishing. Children spend far too much time in front of a screen, educators and parents lament — 7 hours 38 minutes a day on average, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year."

So let's hear it for spoons and tiny pieces of paper!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Plagiarism, Hemingway and Artistic Inspiration: Reflections on Trying to Write True

It's hard to believe that Ernest Hemingway has been dead--by his own hand--for nearly 50 years, but before July 2, 2011 (the anniversary of the day he shot himself) I'm sure that we will have heard a lot about that enigmatic literary cult figure.

One of the people who decided to enter the commemorative whirl is French journalist Patrick Poivre d'Arvor whose biography of Hemingway is due to be published later this month. Only it turns out that it really isn't his biography but one in which whole chunks have been copied from a French translation of an earlier biography by Peter Griffin, Along with Youth, Hemingway's Early Years. Agence France Presse this morning reports that Poivre d'Arvor when faced with the accusation said he had consulted Griffin's book, but protested the plagiarism charge. After that, AGF reports, neither he nor his publisher (which has 20,000 copies ready for distribution) would comment.

As it happens, the night before last I finished reading "Delicate Edible Birds" by Lauren Groff, included in The Best American Short Stories 2010. The story centers on a young woman journalist during the evacuation of Paris, inspired by Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's third wife. The character is called Bernice Orson, but her attitude to sex is exactly that of Gellhorn. Here's Gellhorn reminiscing: "If I practised sex, out of moral conviction, that was one thing; but to enjoy it ... seemed a defeat. I accompanied men and was accompanied in action, in the extrovert part of life; I plunged into that ... but not sex; that seemed to be their delight and all I got was a pleasure of being wanted, I suppose, and the tenderness (not nearly enough) that a man gives when he is satisfied. I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents"

And here's Bern thinking, as invented by Groff: "She loved this and not because she ever had much pleasure from it; it was a gift, the men wanted it and it was their gratitude that made it good; the way that Bern was the white-hot center of another person's world for those minutes or hours..."

It's not plagiarism any more than is the situation which Groff says openly she borrowed from Guy de Maupassant's short story "Boule de Suif." There are only so many plots--32 by one count--and giving a fictional character the attributes of a real person isn't any crime.

But I wonder as I go back to writing fiction: where does inspiration stop and real invention begin? What new thing can a writer bring to the world? Hemingway, whose style is much parodied, was that rare thing, a writer who--at least early in his career--brought a fresh vision as well as a fresh way of expressing it. As he wrote in The Moveable Feast: ""All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know."

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Fewer Plastic Bags Is the Good News, But We Still Use Too Much Plastic Packaging

The consumption of plastic shopping bags has dropped dramatically in the last three years, but plastic product wraps haven't kept paced: that's the good news/bad news trumpeted Monday.

Radio-Canada reports that the Métro super market chain, which began charging for the disposable sacks in June 2009 has seen their consumption plummet by 80 per cent. And stroll around other markets these days and you'll see more people arriving with canvas carrier bags--sometimes lots and lots of them--than those without.

Nevertheless, the same Radio Can bulletin notes that Canadians still bring home 55 million plastic bags every week. In the larger solid waste picture, a reduction in plastic bags doesn't count for much either since they amount to only about 1 per cent of the trash that ends up at disposal sites, according to Eric Darier, spokesman for Greenpeace Québec. He adds that far too many products have two or three times more packaging than necessary, although the reduction in plastic bags use is a step in the right direction, he says.

Among the things I rescued before the house was cleared after the fire and everything sent for cleaning was my stash of 15 or so strudy cloth carrier bags. Can't get by without them any more, since not only are they more environmentally friendly, they don't tear when I carry things home from the store in the center city neighborhood where we're now living.

Monday, 3 January 2011

New Year's Project: Writing Fiction

Starting a new fiction project--a collection of short stories, perhaps.

This may be an insiration, or a warning.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Saturday Photo: Simple Pleasures Are the Best Good News for 2011

After a year filled with highs and lows, I begin to think that the simple pleasures of life--orange clementines and red apples, for example--are what really makes it all worthwhile. So here is a bowl of fruit to share with you as a way to start 2011.

For more good news, I've got two films to recommend. One is Invictus, the inspiring story of Nelson Mandela, South Africa and the Springbok rugby team. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon play the principle roles. A very good reflection on leadership, too, from Clint Eastwood as director.

Another film that is probably rather harder to find is The Good News (La Buena Nova), a Spanish film set during the Civil War of the 1930s. A young priest tries to bring the difficult but profoundly good message of Jesus to a small town during the rise of Fascism. We saw it at the World Film Festival in Montreal a few years ago and it's stayed with me ever since. More meditations of leadership, justice and courage: just the thing to think about when planning how to approach the new year.