Monday, 28 February 2011

Back to Work, Unhappily: The Locked-Out Workers at Le Journal de Montréal Accept a Sad Settlement

Saturday after more than two years of a lock-out the office workers and journalists at Le Journal de Montréal voted 64 per cent to accept a compromise settlement. Not a very happy day in the history of journalism.

Photo: Rue Frontenac

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Saturday Photo: First Skating Lesson

Skating is something that every Canadian youngster ought to learn to do, especially if there is natural ice in a park nearby. This Satuday morning saw a Mom and four or five year old trying out skates for what seemed the first time in Jeanne Mance Park on the eastern slopes of Mount Royal. The stroller is good on ice, and Mom could walk along, encouraging her older child.

But life is full of ups and downs, and at the beginning skating often seems more down than up. I'm happy to report that after a little knee-shuffling, our future Gold Medalist got up and made it a good 3 meters without falling.

Here's a link to another skating story, from Sarah Gilbert's Milendings blog. Just goes to show you what you can do when you put your mind to it, even making a private rink in the miniscule backyards of central Montreal.

Friday, 25 February 2011

A Great--and Funny--Book about Writing: Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

The writing life, as witnessed by my latest blog posts, is not always easy. For that reason, it's also easy for writers to take themselves too seriously. But a good antidote exists: Mario Varas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

Written when the Nobel laureate was just starting his career, it tells the story of a young would-be writer working for a radio station in Lima, Peru. The narrator's job is to produce news broadcasts that are mostly cribbed from newspapers (some things don't change, do they?) while he tries to write deathless prose. The one real writer he knows is a strange little man who pounds out scripts for daily soap operas, and who becomes totally wrapped up in the imaginary world he creates. At the same time, the narrator finds himself (quite chastely) involved with the sister of his uncle's wife, a beautiful divorcee who is 32, or twice his age. The book is delightful, and the reflections on the need to tell and to listen to stories that it prompts in the reader are quite profound.

This is by far the best of Vargas Llosa's book, in my opinion. Definitley worth reading, although the movie made from it Tune in Tomorrow (starring a very young Keanu Reeves) may be only unintentionally funny.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Candidacy of Thomas Mulcair to Be Reaffirmed Tonight

The NDP riding association in Outremont will reaffirm its faith in Thomas Mulcair, MP from Outremont and deputy leader of the NDP, tonight at a reception. Come along and get all the info about what's happening in Ottawa, and be energized for an election by Mulcair's speech.

Where and When:

from 6:30 to 8:00 pm
at Multi-Caf, 3591 Appleton Street
across from Kent Park
near Côte-des-Neiges Avenue
(Bus 165/535 or 160/161)

Snacks, wine and good company

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Solitary Walking in the Middle of the City: The Lanes of Montreal.

A few steps off one of the busiest streets on the Plateau (Rachel) and you'd think you were alone in the world. Montreal does a reasonable job of removing snow, but lanes are the last priority. Some don't get done at all: this is one of them, I suspect.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Is Wisconsin Our Future? Krugman on the Struggle to Remove Power from the People

Watching what is going on south of the border is sometimes amusing, frequently frightening, and always a heads up about what may be coming for us. The current struggle of public workers in Wisconsin to block a supposed "fiscal responsibility" budget proposed by the Republican governor is a case in point.

As Paul Krugman writes today:

" On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

"Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

"You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions."

Note to self: keep track of what is happening in Quebec where anti-strikebreaker laws are up for review.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Future of Publishing Depends on a Model that Pays Writers

Jason Epstein, publisher and one of the founders of The New York Review of Books, is relatively optimistic about the future of writing. In a recent article in the the NYRB and in an earlier memoir about the publishing business, he holds out hope that new technologies will allow the same kind of adventuresome support for writing that he and his colleagues provided in the mid-20th century.

The conglomerization of publishing has meant the quest for block buster best-sellers to the deteriment of anything else, he argues. But digital publishing opens the door for new voices:

"The cost of entry for future publishers will be minimal, requiring only the upkeep of the editorial group and its immediate support services but without the expense of traditional distribution facilities and multilayered management. Small publishers already rely as needed upon such external services as business management, legal, accounting, design, copyediting, publicity...With the Espresso Book Machine, enterprising retail booksellers may become publishers themselves, like their eighteenth-century forebears. "

That's a very encouraging view, but there is a big proviso: how to pay the writers. Epstein writes: "Funding for authors’ advances may be provided by external investors hoping for a profit, as is done for films and plays...(Succesful) authors, with the help of agents and business managers, will become their own publishers, retaining all net proceeds from digital as well as traditional sales. "

The ability to make a living (however modest) is absolutely essential to have a thriving culture. Scott Turow, Phil Aiken and James Shapiro drove home that point in a very interesting reflection on the way that playwrights began to be paid in Elizabethan times. Writing in The New York Times, they recount how playgoers paid to enter theatres, and the proceeds were split among the playwrights and performers.

"Money changed everything. Almost overnight, a wave of brilliant dramatists emerged, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. These talents and many comparable and lesser lights had found the opportunity, the conditions and the money to pursue their craft.

"The stark findings of this experiment? As with much else, literary talent often remains undeveloped unless markets reward it."

Saturday Photo: Saturday Morning Walk on the Plateau, an Urban Neighborhood That Almost Was Destroyed

The part of Montreal's Plateau district where we're living for the duration once was quite industrial. Not big factories, it seems, but many small little workshops. Old maps even show a tannery just about where our building sits now.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, city planners wanted to tear down--"urban renew"--the area. Some land was acquired and cleared. There is a little low rise social housing to the east and just up the street from this park is a building dating from 1970 which houses the Conservatoire de musique du Québec as well the Université du Québec á Montréal's public administration school.

Why more urban destruction did not occur is any interesting story, too long for a Saturday morning. Suffice to say that the Portuguese immigrants who settled around here in the same period and repaired the old housing with love and skill are partly responsible.

In time the message got across to planners that a tightly woven urban landscape has great benefits. Some of the cleared land was saved for open space. Today there are three little parks in this two block area which are used heavily by the day care centers and young families living in the neighborhood, even in winter.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Once Again the Spin Doctors Try to Equate Political Freedom with the Free Market: The Egyptian Case

Interesting story in The New York Times this morning about the Egyptian military and its economic power. The claim is that about a third of the economy is run by the military in its various forms, and that in the past it has resisted "liberalization" of the economy.

One should read "free market" or "Chicago school" for "liberalization," it seems. The story says: "The military has used its leverage in times of crises to thwart free market reforms before, most notably during the 1977 bread riots set off after President Anwar el-Sadat cut subsidies for food prices to move toward a free market. The military agreed to quell the unrest only after extracting a promise from Mr. Sadat that he would reinstate the subsidies, said Michael Wahid Hanna, who studies Egypt’s military at the Century Foundation in Washington."

The story adds: " And the idea of liberalizing the economy was thrown into disrepute because of the corrupt way that the Mubarak government carried out privatization, bestowing fortunes on a small circle around the ruling party while leaving most Egyptians struggling against grinding poverty and rampant inflation." (My italics)

Whether real political reforms will come under the military rule remains to be seen: as noted earlier, the track record of military regimes isn't all that good, although there are notable exceptions like Portugal. But a planned economy is not a bad economy, ipso facto.

And, hey, has the track record been all that good for the "free market" lately? Aren't we all still suffering from that economic meltdown it engendered a couple of years ago?

Thursday, 17 February 2011

A Great Video about Racism

Can't tell where this was made. It showed up on Planète Pub, a French TV show, apparently, but appears to have been made in the UK or Caribbean, to judge by the accent of the player. This is the version which aired on Brazilian TV, a country where people of muliple racial heritage are probably more prevalent than anywhere in the world. mixed more than

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Only Thing You Can't Call an MP in the House Is "Liar," But How Else to Describe Bev Oda?

Bev Oda was an excellent Minister of culture--not. Bev Oda believes in ministerial responsiblity--not. Stephen Harper is a paragon of virtue--not.

In English one word connates negation of an affirmative sentence--"not." So maybe Ms. Oda wasn't in the country when the document affirming a recommendation to give Kairos a $7 million grant tow years ago, she certainly approved the insertion of "not" in the report. That she said she didn't know who did the actual insertion may be true, but that does nothing to excuse what was done and her subsequent refusal to admit accountability.

As Hansard would have it: some honourable members: Shame, shame.

For more on the reasons for the torpedo-ing of this faith-based NGO, check out "Did KAIROS defunding come down to mining interests and one hand-written note?" published on October 27, 2010 by Embassy which bills itself as Canada's Foreign Policy Newspaper.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Storis about How Things Work, the Way Things Happened: Not the Best Year for Best Americn Short Stories

As I've said before, one of the Christmas presents I would be very sad to give up is the new edition of The Best American Short Stories. Published by Houghton Mifflin for decades, the series features 20 stories selected by a guest editor each year. In 2010 Richard Russo had the honours, and I must say that I'm a little perplexed.

Russo is not a writer I was familiar with, but I was delighted by his opening essay. In it he quotes a visit of Isaac Bashevis Singer in which the very elderly writer repeated again and again that the purpose of fiction is to entertain and to instruct. That is a good philosophy for writing in general, I think.

The stories that Russo has chosen for this collection frequently take off from facts: two striking examples are one based on the life of Martha Gelhorn "Delicate Edible Birds, and one where we learn immense amounts about the way the Dutch have constructed their country, "The Netherlands Lives by Water." Both are entertaining in that there is suspense and we wonder what will happen next. But both are some how emotionally hollow. The impetus is to tell us things we don't know, not to lead us to reflections and emotions that we have not had before.

Of course, as the man who was my editor on my first reporting job used to say, "Differences of opinion are what make horse races." In the case of Russo's choices, my opinion is that there are far too much instructing and entertaining in this collection, and not enough emotional veracity.

Another quibble, the last story "Raw Water" contains at least a half dozen errors of fact (a woman of 43 is unlikely to have gone through menopause, for example) and inexact use of words. Where was the editor at McSweeney's where the story was first published.

Monday, 14 February 2011

More on the New Genteel (Sort of) Poor: Noah Richler Figures He Did Better at Contracting than Writing

So it goes: the world of writing gets harder and harder to stay afloat in, even if you've got a name like Richler. Noah, son of Mordechai, writes for The Rover, an online arts publication, and recently ran the stats on his last year. Not a very pretty picture, particularly when you consider that he figurs he saved as much supervising and fighting over a home renovation as his income from writing fell short of his goals.

Of course, he has enough money to have a house to renovate, and there aren't many writers of his age who do, but the point is well made. Making a living in the new media world is damn hard.

Flowers for Valentine's Day from France

Because it's snowy, rainy, unpleasant, and it's nice to think of Monet's garden at Giverny (where this picture was taken) on such a Valentine's Day.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Saturday Photo: Two Faces of Winter, Inside and Outside

A sunny window is a great place for plants during the winter, and obviously the owners of this small restaurant on the Plateau district of Montreal have great success in getting theirs to bloom.

The picture was taken on a morning after a snow fall, and the reflection shows the snow piles on the street. Outside it was about -18 C (or 0 Fahrenheit) but inside it was spring already.

Friday, 11 February 2011

The Eyptians Might Find a Lesson from Lusotania: The Peaceful Portuguese Revolution of 1974

As Al Jazeera English and other networks carry live streaming of euphoric crowds in Egypt, now that Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, it's useful to think of other countries and other times when the military has stepped in with promises to initiate constitutional reforms.

One example stands out: the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974 when dissidents in the military, led by a group of captains, faced down the civilian government and won. Three people were killed in one volley from the Guardia Civil, but the transfer of power was extremely peaceful. Establishment of full democracy was a difficult process that took several years, but Portugal has come out of the process as an example of what can be done. As Kenneth Maxwell wrote in his study of the revolution The Making of Portuguese Democracy:

"...the Portuguese were able to create a representative and pluralistic system of government, fully comparable to the Western European mainstream. In the context of the Portuguese revolution it was Kerensky who survived, not Lenin. It was the moderate socialist Mário Soares who eventually became president of the republic and the radical military populist (leader) ... who went first to jail and then into obscurity. In this, Portugal was the precocious forerunner of the largely peaceful transitions from authoritarianism to democracy of the late 1980s in Latin America and in Eastern Europe."

The military in this case of was commited to stepping down once political change was effected, and this made an enormous difference. Let us hope this happens in Egyps too

For a stirring look at that transfer of power and what can happen when the military are the side of progress and justice, se Maria de Meideros's marvelous film, The Captains of April

Another Azulejo for Montreal's Portuguese Community

Various activities have kept me from doing much promotion recently to follow-up on the launch of Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure. But we've been enjoying our stay in the Bairro Português a lot. Among the delights is the food: the Rotisserie Ramados has absolutely terrific roast chicken and Chez Doval offers a wider menu of delicious but modestly prices meals.

And then there are the tiles, the azulejos, which can be found many places. The one above is apparently a new one and the Portuguese community is trying to decide just where it should god. To vote, check out the Facebook page of Amigos do Bairro Português de Montreal.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Sunny Day, Everything's A-Okay: Winter in Montreal

The picture's not a new one--it was taken a couple of years ago--but the weather outside is delightful (not frightful, as in the song) and being out in the sunny cold lifts the spirit!

Time to go play outside.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Not a Twitter Revolution, But Getting the Message out Electronically Certainly Helps

Anyone who says that what's happening in Egypt is fueled by social media is forgetting that the vast majority of the people who have been protesting aren't connected. Egypt is a country with much poverty, and the idea the web-based communication have brought out thousands to demonstrate is surely misguided. Something far more basic is happening here, something reflected in the human contact which has kept the security perimeter inside Tahiri Square volunteer, friendly, and with one notable exception when Mubarak-backed goons overwhelmed them, extremely effective, by all accounts.

But the face the protests present to the world--and to the decision makers in Washington and elsewhere--is very much affected by new ways of communicating. The Facebook page set up by young protesters is one example. So is the emotional appearance on Egyptian television of a Google exec--Google, mind you, whose motto is that old axiom lilted from the Hypocratic oath by way of Isaac Asimov, "do no evil"--who had been held by the government and now has become a poster boy for the protest.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Pucapab, a Heart-Felt Plea to Get Rid of Stephen Harper and a Hint That a Coaliition Might be Possible?

This rap about being sick of Stephen Harper is a creation of the Liberal Party. It's quite funny--worth looking at more than once if you're not fluent in French--and it's also notable for the small font used to identify the Libs. An attempt to slide the message through to the cyber generation? Or a hint that a coalition might be in the offing if nobody gets a majority in the elections which appear to be approaching.

Or both?

Monday, 7 February 2011

Disaster, Democracy, and Dreadful Weather: Krugman and Kunstler on the Future

Once again Paul Krugman points us in the right direction in considering what we should be concerned about. In his column today he makes the link between climate change and unrest. "What really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production. And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate — which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.

He continues: "What we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.

James Howard Kunstler has been ranting about this for several years. His book The Long Emergency actually gives odds on what part of the US will survive a climatological disaster. It's been a while since I read it--and I thought he was both too Americano-centric and incendiary--but I don't believe he talked much about what would happen in the rest of the world. But maybe his warnings were not just words.

I Got Rhythm, You Got Rhythm

Because all the news is dreadful...

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Saturday Photo: Day and Night on a the Mountain

One of the nice touches in our temporary digs is a small window, facing south west. It functions something like a skylight, letting the afternoon sun fall into the interior of what would otherwise be a rather dark section of the apartment.

It also is located so that the view of the mountain won't be obstructed by future construction. The lot next door is currently vacant but even a building the height of this one--three regular stories with a little pop-up mini-storey on top--will not block the window. The mezannine in the mini-storey even has a small interior window so that one can lie in bed propped up on pillows and see the cross on top.

Friday, 4 February 2011

The New Genteel Poor Speak out against Bill C-32 on Copyright

The new genteel poor raised their voices yesterday in a joint statement about the changes needed in Bill C-32, the latest attempt to revise Canada's copyright laws. As I said earlier this week, the new media universe is making it harder and harder to make a living as a writer or other creator. Uncompensated use of one's work is rampant now, and this draft copyright bill will make it even easier.

Let us hope this plea by nearly 90 groups is heard in Ottawa. If the government falls in the next couple of weeks, it would die on the order paper. But without a doubt it would rise again after the election, perhaps in an even more damaging form, should the Conservatives get a majority.

In the meantime, I've taken to refusing 24 Hours, the free tabloid published by the dastardly media giant Quebecor which just outbid Métro for distribution rights in the Montreal subway system. "Quebecor jamais," I said yesterday morning and the guy handing it out, laughed. "Je comprends, I understand," he said. "Bonne journée, have a nice day."

Seems he got the message: let's hope others do too.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Band Width Victory May Be Not So Cool, After All!

Apparently Tony Clement has told the CBC that if the CRTC doesn't go back on its decision to require servers to charge for increasing amounts of data transmitted, the government will step in. Certainly the leaked announcement (by Twitter it seems) will please a lot of people. But there is a hook inside this bit of good stuff: undercut the CRTC is exactly what the Harper government wants to do.

This is not to say that I was pleased to receive an email from my internet provider that beginning in March I would be charged for how much use I made of the 'net. ( I use AEI which has the big advantage of being small enough to have real people answer your service requests, as well as being most affordable. )

The CRTC may be wrong on its decision on this issue, but it also is the agency that so far has safeguarded Canadian content on TV and radio and done much to make the Canadian broadcast landscape Canadian, not American. So beware, guys, don't cheer to loudly until you figure out the implications.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Working from Home: Or Writers, the New Genteel Poor

As of this week unionized workers for the Montreal tabloid Le Journal de Montréal have been locked-out by an affiliate of the media giant Quebecor for two years. Yesterday the company's head honcho Pierre Karl Péladeau told Quebec legislators that it was necessary because of the changing media world.

The occasion was a hearing on whether the province should change its anti-striker breaker legislation to conform to times when it is increasingly easy to contract out work. While the idea of changing Quebec's labour legislation casts a shadow that covers far more than the publishing world, it is particularly dark there. The extent of the Quebecor case came out when a former employee of an agency used by Le Journal de Montréal to provide copy for its pages filed a complaint for unlawful dismissal. Côté tonic, the company the worker ws fired from, once had five or six employees, but since 2009 it has bought work from about free lance 40 graphic artists and copy editors in order to produce its classified ads. In addition, another freelance agency is providing more than 30 per cent of news stories, supposedly only to replace contect from the Presse canadienne which previously provided about 15 per cent.

All this comes as the valiant Heather Robertson announced that her second class action against Canwest, Torstar and others for electronic use without compensation has been settled, and several million dollars will soon be distributed to freelancers.

That's good news, but no publication is buying new freelance work on the terms that previously existed. Between freelance contracts that give all rights to publications, and strong arm tactics by Quebecor and others media, it's becoming almost impossible to make a living as a writer.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011