Saturday, 31 December 2011

Saturday Photo: Happy New Year on the Last Day of a Difficult Year

The year that will end at midnight tonight held some excellent things, but as I noted in our holiday blog, in some cases the only appropriate reaction was "be careful what you wish for."

Let us not dwell on trouble though. Best wishes from all of us for a 2012 which is not apocalyptic in any sense of the word, and for the courage necessary to meet the challenges of are inevitable

Friday, 30 December 2011

Lights Going off in US Cities in Order to Save Money

In this season of long nights and festivals of lights, The New York Times has a story about some municipalities which are turning off streetlights (and in some cases pulling them up) in order to save money.

The reasons given are failing economy, decreasing tax bases, fund-strapped cities. In the case the NYT documents, a formerly-affluent suburb of Detroit, Highland Park, whose population has dropped from 50,000 to 12,000, was $4 million in debt to the local power company. The municipality struck a deal: it would "take away 1,300 of the city’s lights, add 200 lights in strategic locations, and the debt would be forgiven."

The result was predictable: residents complained and have changed their lives so they aren't out after dark in many neighborhoods. Some have begun systematically leaving their porchlights on, while others are installing security lights--a way of shifting the cost of lighting from the city to individuals.

This is pretty sad. Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said. When the 99 per cent pay up, they should get the services they need.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Finally Cold--Ice Ferns on the Window This Morning

It finally turned cold last night, adn this morning the windows were covered with frost, even though they are double glazed. Or rather, they are double glazed since Monday.

The windows in the baywindow in the living room are old fashioned wooden ones where you have to take out the inside panes come spring, and replace them in the fall.

Or rather you're supposed to do itin the fall. This year, however, for various reasons we didn't get it done and didn't get it done, and then finally there were a few hours free on Boxing Day.

Thank goodness, because it really would be cold in here otherwise.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

King Stephen: Britain Has a Constitutional Monarchy Where the Queen Only Advises, But Canada Has a King Who Makes the Rules

Manon Corneiller in today's Le Devoir has a scathing evaluation of the Stephen Harper and his majority government, with a sidelong attack on our parliamentary system. In the US, she notes, the president has no guarantee of getting his program through, since the House and Senate can--and frequently do--block what he wants to do. But a majority government in Canada can do whatever it damn well pleases, as wel have been seeing lately.

This is fundamentally undemocratic, of course. Corneiller adds that this is nothing new: a year ago Jeffrey Simpson even published a book about Jean Chrétien called The Friendly Dictatorship.
What is new is the extent to which Harper has pushed "control, centralization, intransigence, intimidation and the exploitation of each weakness in our system to attain his ends, " she says. And she ends with a telling anecdote: in 2010 Harper took off at high speed across the landing strip at Tuktoyutuk on an all-terrain vehicle. When asked if he had necessary permission to do so, he answered simply: "I make the rules."

It seems to this anti-monarchist that ERII follows more rules than this guy does.

Cartoon by Tom Dolighan.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

More Christmas Presents and Words of Wisdom for Writers: Geraldine Brooks Edits The Best American Short Stories 2011

One of the gifts I look most forward to each year is the new number of The Best American Short Stories. This year the journalist-turned-fiction writer Geraldine Brooks is the editor, and, while I haven't had a chance to really delve into the volume, I found her introductory essay most thought provoking.

One of her main points is that a short story is often the better for having a structure which can be related to plot. The setup, the reveal, the reversal and the resolution are the names she gives to four elements that often (but, she asserts, not always) found in good stories.

Hmm, I thought to myself: that schema is worth holding in mind while I work on my own short stories. One of the things I've really got to get cracking on is the collection, Desire Lines: A Geography of Love, the collection for which I got a grant from Quebec's art agency, the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec.

Topic for this afternoon's work: take a look at what I've got so far to see if I've been using the structure.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Boxing Day Special: Listening to Nils Brown with My New Headphones.

The following Youtube clip can give you only a taste of the delightful CD the Lizieux elves gave me for Christmas: Nils Brown singing Belle Canzoni d'Italia through the headphones that were a present from Lukas and Sophie.

I've been following his career for about 15 years, ever since he was at McGill doing music about the same time Elin was. He sings all the classical usual stuff--oratorios are a particular specialty--but lately he's been experimenting with "bringing unusual Italian music to the public," as he says in the CD's liner notes. Here's a Barchet link to a better recording, but the video is fun because it shows his energy.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Saturday Photo: At Last a Little Snow

We had a few centimeters of snow yesterday afternoon and last night, so there's a semblance of a white Christmas here. The picture was taken from the back porch as the temperature hovered near the point where Fahrenheit and Celsius come together (0F and -18C)--it ws too cold and early to go out.

The stocking was our cat Calie's. Each year she got the same can of sardines which we never opened, as well as (some years) a cat toy, which she usually tore to bits by New Year's Day. We miss her.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Attack on the Health System Begins: The Federal Health Minister Says, Do What You Want.

It's well known that if you want something to pass unnoticed you announce it on a Friday afternoon, and if you really want it to disappear, you do it the Friday before Christmas.

Well, December 23 would appear to be too much, but last Friday the Conservatives began announcing how they want to change the health system. Then Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq sent a letter telling her provincial counterparts to say that just about anything will go when it comes to cutting the costs of health care in the future. So, goodbye Canada Health Act, hello rampant privatization.

What a bleak prospect...and a fight to take up again once the holiday season is over.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Veiled Threats to Women: It's Not Covering Your Head That's Important, It's What's Inside

What do Nancy Reagan, the Virgin Mary, and the girl in the blue bra have in common? All of them have covered their heads out of respect for custom and/or religious beliefs.

That's why the photo taken earlier this week at the rally in Tahir Square in Cairo is so shocking. Here is a young woman who has been protesting brutality against women, and who is brutalized by soldiers before the eyes of the world.

That she is wearing pretty underwear and jeans underneath her abaya should come as no surprise: many Muslim women are as interested in looking nice as women elsewhere. The main difference betwen this young woman and the ordinary 20 year old in Europe or North America, is that she probably is a whole lot braver because participating in a demonstration in Cairo is a lot more dangerous than occupying a park in Manhattan, Minneapolis or Montreal.

Bravo, Sister!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Christmas Countdown Continues: Got to Get on the Road Today

One of the best things about living where we do is that it's very easy to get around by foot or public transporation. And since I've got a million things to do, I'll head out the door and do them.

But before that here's a link to an interesting story which show that relying on public transit and pedestrian traffic can make for good shopping streets. Earlier this year the Plateau Borough of Montreal introduced a lot of one way streets and cut back on parking in an attempt to cut down on excess car traffic. As you might imagine there was an outcry from merchants, who argued that the measures would cut down on their business.

Loe and behold, though, they're finding that they're busier than ever. People who are attracted by the shops on busy Mont-Royal stick around to shop at other nearby commerces, it seems.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Days Grow Short and We Lose Some Giants

Strange how three small countries have lost important figures in their recent history these last few days. The world may be a better place without Kim Jong-Il, although the jury's out since instability in the region is not a thing to be wished. But to lose the Czech Republic's Vaclev Havel and and the Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Évora in one weekend is quite sad.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Saturday Photo: Apples and er, Clementines, Say the Bells of Saint Clemens

This time of year it is the fruit that matured during the long days of summer that bring the sun into our lives. Here are clementines and Cortland apples (the best of the Quebec crop, I think) which make lovely decorations to say nothing of eating over the end of year holidays.

But I always think of the rhyme about the Bells of St. Clements when we eat them. We have bells from a church during the daylight hours, but nothing with the history of St. Clements in London. That is, of course, the way it goes in North America.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Countdown to Christmas...Herring and Trees

An expedition of sorts this morning: Elin and Jeanne accompanied us to the Jean Talon market to buy a Christmas treet and to a fish store to get salt herring for sil. Tomorrow Lukas is coming by to help set up the tree in the afternoon. With any luck the herring will be skinned and boned by then and set aside to marinate until Christmas eve.

Food is the heart of any festival, it seems to me, and by now I've whittled down the recipes to ones I like the most. This doesn't mean that the work is any less, but the reward is greater.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

What Happens When The Right Unites: The Cons Get Away with Murder

This morning La Presse has this excellent drawing by Chapleau, with an even more telling caption:

"C-10, Kyoto, Long Gun Registry, I do what I want because I'm MAJORITY"

A lesson for us all: unite the left.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Book Discussion Week: A Classic of African Independence at the Atwater Library

This is book discussion week: tonight Chinua Achebe's This Fall Apart is on the agenda at the Atwater Library. Here's a scene from a television series made in Nigeria to whet you interest.

The book is obviously required reading in many secondary schools: YouTube is full of "movie trailers" about the book made by students, some much better than others.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Harper Government Pulls out of Kyoto: Time to Get Serious about Who Should be the Leader of the Opposition

This morning there is only one question for anyone in the NDP:

Who will be the best leader to unite the left and leftish, not just in the party but across the country?

We need a very strong opposition in Ottawa led someone who has weight both in Quebec and elsewhere. As far as I can see, the one person is Thomas Mulcair. Brian Topp, whom I've known for years and admire for his many qualities, is a great strategist. The party needs him more than ever, not as leader, but as the chess player, the guy who has the big picture in his head. The consummate back room boy, in the best sense of the term.

We've Got Rhythm (We English Speakers, That Is)

Just an addenda to the previous post about Handel's Messiah:

Listening to the great performance on Sunday and to the way the continuo led the way, I was stuck by the way a strong rhythmic beat is so appropriate to English lyrics. Unlike French or Italian (and perhaps other Romance languages) English words are strongly accented, and the basis for English poetry is the various kinds of stressed "feet." It may be harder to find rhymes in English or to sing it with the mouth open widely to let the sound soar (it doesn't have all those words ending in 'o' or 'a'), but it certainly must be easier to play with the rhythms.

Again, what a grand peformance by The Violons du Roy! Great present from Lukas and Sophie, who gave us the tickets for our birthdays this fall, and who attended with us!

And here's a flashmob that is a pale comparison to Les Violons, mais quand même is a lot of fun. I must admit that this old atheist always sings along (or at least mouths the words). It is one of the few pieces I know all the way through, having sung alto in my seventh grade music class. But I don't stand up--So what if the king did a long time ago!

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Messiah by the Violon du Roy, LePage and Nézet-Séguin at the Met: What Happens When You Put Resources into Culture

An absolutely terrific afternoon yesterday when we heard Handel's Messiah presented by the Violons du Roy. I have never heard a better performance, with particularly marvelous singing by tenor James Gilchrist and the choir, La Chapelle de Québec. The critics agree : Christophe Huss, Le Devoir's picky reviewer, called it the "concert of the year," while Arthur Kaptainis of The Gazette wrote: "The excellence of the performance also could have been foreseen, but not all the novel details Bernard Labadie teased out of (or added to) the arch-familiar score."

Last week also saw Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct the Metropolitan Opera in Gounod's Faust: the young conductor is "impressively gifted" said The New York Times. Earlier this fall, Robert LePage, another Quebec talent, mounted the third of his rethinking of Wagner's Ring Cycle, Siegfried.

There is a lesson here that is an argument for continued spending on "frills" like culture. Quebec, with a population of about 8 million, is hitting way above its weight. In large part this comes from 30 years of support for culture in all its aspects, culture that is exportable, that crosses boundaries, and enriches our lives.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Saturday Photo: Snow and Rock in the Noontime Light

Brilliant sunshine today, and a little snow. It's not enough for a white Christmas, but maybe it's a good sign.

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Future of Canada's Health Care System: Don't Forget NDP Outremont's Forum on Saturday.

Don't forget:
Three panelists of note will participate in a forum on the future of our health care system, organized by the Outremont NDP Riding Association.

Mathieu Vick, parliamentary assistant to Anne Minh Thu Quach, NDP MP for Salaberry-Beauharnois and deputy critic for Health will be the moderator.

The panelists:

Michèle Beauclair, 1st vice-president of the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec
Lucie Dagenais, associate member of Médecins québécois pour un régime public
Lee Soderstrom, economist specializing in health issues

Date: 1:30 p.m. Saturday, December 10
Place: La grande salle des Dominicains, 2715 Chemin de la Côte Ste-Catherine.
Entrance via par the parking lot on the east side (Bus129, Métro Université de Montréal)

The Annual General Meeting of the Outremont Riding Association and election of the new executive will follow at around 3:30.

And yes, that third panelist is my favourite economist, who is not a member of the NDP, but who agreed to participate because he cares so much about health care.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Fox News Attacks the Muppets for Being Dirty, Brainwashing Liberals: Will Attacks On Jesus Be Next?

I really thought this was a send-up when I first saw it: Fox News folks complaining that The Muppets are brainwashing children with an anti-corporate, anti-capitalist message. But it appears it was the real thing.

Come on, aren't these guys supposed to be Christian? And what did Christ preach? Certainly wasn't "every man for himself," cut throat stuff like these guys are pushing.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Demon on Harper's Back Versus NDP Attack

Stephen Harper's Conservatives haven't given much shrift to the international conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa. Nice to see that this negative presence has been matched by demonstrations on the ground, as witness the parody of our prime minister who appeared in media around the globe over the last few hours. The demon on his back must be whispering evil things in his ear--how else to explain how a supposedly intelligent man can ignore so much evidence about climate change?

The NDP has much better things to say, thank goodness. Leadership candidate Thomas Mulcair criticized the Conservatives stance roundly yesterday, while Deputy Environment Critic Laurin Liu. A recent McGill grad, she was one of the flock of young Quebeckers elected last spring, and has definitely found a niche for herself in Ottawa. Good on her.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Inequality and Its Perverse Effects from The Help to Rising Birth Rates among Educated Women

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is in the news this morning because of the report it has just published Divided We Stand: Wby Inequality Keeps Rising. The report's analysis ranks countries by economic inequality, showing that in Canada it has increased markedly in recent years, although things are still considerably better than the US. The effect is due to a widening disparity in labour earnings between high- and low-paid workers, and less redistribution through taxes.

The Globe and Mail reports:

"The average income of the top 10 per cent of Canadians in 2008 was $103,500 – 10 times than that of the bottom 10 per cent, who had an average income of $10,260, an increase from a ratio of 8 to 1 in the early 1990s....At the same time, the top federal marginal income tax rates tumbled – to 29 per cent in 2010 from 43 per cent in 1981."

Last week the Globe had a story which must be read in tandem with this. It details how educated women are having more children in the US than in Canada. One of the many reasons, it seems, is because the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor in the US "has created both a class of women who can afford to hire help in their homes and a pool of workers who are willing to provide it cheaply...

"Because wages of unskilled workers have fallen for the past 30 years in the U.S. (30 per cent by some estimates), favourably employed working parents can afford to hire housekeepers and nannies – and they can afford to have more children as well."

What a sorry state of affairs. The report, please note, comes at a time when The Help by Katherine Stockett about African American maids and their employers in the 1960s is still on best seller lists and the movie from the novel is making waves. Not much has changed, except the maids now may be from foreign countries.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Saturday Photo: A Cat's Eye View of the World

It's chilly today, although there's no snow on the ground. The sun at the moment is flooding into our house, and lighting up this cat's window as well.

Actually, now that the leaves are off the trees many house plants go through a new growth spurt. And cats, who like to sun themselves, have new places to do that.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Message from One Canadian Steve to Another: Violence Is Actually Decreasing

The New York Times on Tuesday had an interesting interview with Montreal-born psychologist Steven Pinker, whose new book The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that violence has become less and less present in human life over history.

He says the "idea for the book took root in his mind...when he stumbled across graphs of historical rates of violence. In England, for example, homicide rates are about a hundredth of what they were in 1400." Shortly afterwards he was invited to write an essay on what he was optimistic about, and he quickly agreed to write about "the death of violence."

In 2006 Dr. Pinker was invited to write an essay on the theme “What Are You Optimistic About?” His answer: “The decline of violence.”

The NYT reports that reaction came quickly. "I started hearing from scholars from fields that I was barely aware of, saying, ‘There’s much more evidence on this trend than you were aware of,’ he said.

The video is a little old, but it gives a most interesting summary of his thinking. Steven Harper, who wants us to think that things are getting worse, would do well to watch it.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Saturday Photo: The End of Something, the Begiinning of Something Else

A few leaves left floating in a fountain before the winter snow comes. Got the boots and winter coats out, even wore them earlier this week. But the snow disappeared, not before Jeanne got to walk in it--not even crying when one boot came off and she traipsed along in her stocking feet. Guess the novelty outweighed the shock of the cold!

Who's Profiting from Those Day Care Centres--Families or Entrepreneurs

Jeanne and her parents are looking for good child care these days. She's 15 months old, and until now they've been able to work their schedules so that one of them is free, with a healthy amount of baby sitting by grandparents. But waiting lists are long for the usually-excellent provincially funded centers which charge $7 a day. Even good private day cares, where families fare better than in other provinces since they get a break through an income tax credit for child care expenses, aren't that easy to find.

So I--along with many others--was furious to read the report of the Quebec auditor general which says that not only have the Liberal government's promises about how many day care centres would be set up, but nearly a third of those approved did not meet standards. Instead they got the green light from the minister responsible for family affairs.

The opposition Parti Québécois points out that many of those who received permits were contributors to the Quebec Liberal Party.

Come on, let's not play games with our kids.... The principles behind the system are good, but the quality should be good too.