Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Buying Winter Boots Today: The Drama of Someone Who Hates to Shop

Have I mentioned recently how I hate to shop? Probably not, because I avoid thinking about it as much as I can. (Food, garden and book shopping, being the exceptions.)

But shopping is sometimes unavoidable, and it seems I've come to one of those moments. The perfectly good, if a little scuffed, winter boots I've worn for perhaps three years are now ripped beyond repair on the toe seams. If I don't want to spend from now until sandal time with wet feet, I've got to do something about.

Hence this rather scattered post: must go make the rounds of the various shops to see what still is available this late in the season.

This lovely shoe certainly won't do, hélas.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Harper and Old Age Security: Lessons from Mulroney and Chrétien Majorities When Public Opinion Was Heard

It's always a bit indelicate for somebody of my age to start complaining about changes in the old age security system since I'm hardly a disinterested party. But Stephen Harper's little speech in Davos last week when he mentioned raising the age of eligibility to 67 from 65 has prompted interesting reflections on the part of columnists and editorial writers.

Perhaps the most pertinent is that of Jean-Robert Sansfaçon of Le Devoir. (Please note that he was born in 1948, which makes him about to turn 65 so he's got a vested interest too.)

He writes: "The only thing that explains the sudden interest of Mr. Harper in universal social programs, is his determination to find some room for budgetary manoevres with a long time goal of reducing taxes for groups which the conservative ideology wants to favour. The rest is nothing but pretext." (My translation.)

This is just another in a long list of things on Harper's agenda which is to change fundamentally this country. He needs to be stopped, and since he has a majority government, we've got to make sure that the message that we don't agree is heard outside Parliament, in hopes that it may have some influence inside.

Sounds like a tough order, but it maybe possible. Sansfaçon notes that Brian Mulroney backed down from dis-indexing pensions in the 1980s, despite his majority. Similarly Jean Chrétien didn't use his majority to force through measures that would link the old age pension with means tests. Public opinion was against these moves and these two prime ministers reconsidered. Now, how to get the message through to Steve...

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Saturday Photo: Sledding in a Winter When the Snow Doesn't Cooperate

The picture was actually taken toward the end of last winter, when a sunny Saturday attracted many to the slopes of Mount Royal, just up from Park Avenue.

This year there has been considerably less snow, and yesterday a mixture of snow, then rain, then snow again has left a mish mash that isn't really all that inviting. But at least it's snow and this morning there were several families out, dragging little kids on sleds, either to the parks or to do errands.

This afternoon we'll be giving Jeanne her first sledding experience. Friends has given her a small sled, and she's all excited about it. Not sure if it's because of the idea of being pulled on one--and I don't think she's seen much of that--or because of the little girl whose sled it was. Jeanne loves Nana, and she's made some connection between the sled, Nana, cold and having fun. It's delightful to watch her make associations. Now we'll just have to see what she thinks about the sled outside.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Love Prevails: Photographs of a Heroic Couple Who Fought Anti-Miscegenation Laws in the US

I've discussed Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes with six book clubs now, and one thing that cmes up every time is the astonishment that marriage between people of African and European descent were forbidden in several US states until the 1960s.

The archaic rules have little to do with the novel which occurs during the 18th century, but everything to do with the world in which Hill wrote it. The child of an African American and a woman of Scandanavian ancestry, Hill grew up in a Toronto suburb because his parents didn't want to raise their children in the racially charged society that was the US in the 1950s where they had to look for a jurisdiction in which their own marriage could take place.

The anti-miscegenation laws were not struck down until 1967 by the US Supreme Court after a long fight by a another inter-racial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving of Virginia. (That's a photo of them with their children.) Their heroic, but quite ordinary story, is told in a series of photographs taken in the 1960s which now are on display at the International Center of Photography in New York City.

Some things have gotten better...

Thursday, 26 January 2012

When Documentary Becomes Art: Uprooted, a Video about Suburbs

Artist Isabelle Hayeur says: "I’ve been exploring landscape issues ever since I started working with video. Through the moving image I am investigating environmental, urban planning and social concerns that I’m working on at the same time in photography. I mainly engage with altered landscapes, suburban areas and tourist sites. I show how our societies take over territories and adapt them to their own needs. "

An effective way to make a point!


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Average is Officially Over, Says Friedman, But How Can We Get People to Think

Thomas Friedman in today's New York Times points out that the unemployment rates in the US correlated inversely with education:

Americans with "less than a high school degree, 13.8 percent; those with a high school degree and no college, 8.7 percent; those with some college or associate degree, 7.7 percent; and those with bachelor’s degree or higher, 4.1 percent."

He goes on: "In a world where average is officially over, there are many things we need to do to buttress employment, but nothing would be more important than passing some kind of G.I. Bill for the 21st century that ensures that every American has access to post-high school education."

Sounds reasonable, but how to get well-educated people (who are more likely to vote than poorly education ones) to realize that they're being hoodwinked by the right wing and that social programs are important to everyone?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Lesson for Today....Maybe Even When Faced By Plutocrats

Mitt Romney Pays $6.2 Million on $45 Million: This is Obscene

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs: them's radical words, of course. But I always thought they were just, right, and what we need to build a society on.

The current discussion about taxes in the US and in Canada goes completely counter to this. How could anyone have a need for $39 million (even over two years, which is what The New York Times today reports Mitt Romney as declaring)? For that matter, how could anyone's abilities earn them $45 million, unless he or she had really accomplished something à la Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?

Perhaps it's time for all those eager Christians to ask themselves: what would Jesus do? I suspect he wouldn't have sat on all that money.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Downside of Hydroelectricity: Methane from All Those Rotting Trees

Le Devoir has an interesting story this morning about the way that the methane escaping from those big dams behind hydroelectric plants in Quebec have not been figured into the greenhouse gases produced in the province.

On paper, Quebec is doing not badly at all, largely because nearly all electricity here is produced by water power. However, if you figure in 8 megatonnes of methane from the hydro lakes now covering huge territories of forest, the picture is considerably worse.

The moral? Any production of energy is going to have its downside, from the noise of wind power installations through the risks involved in nuclear plants to the emissions from coal-fired generators. The trick is to choose the least dangerous--and also to cut down on our energy consumption.

Easier said that done....

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Saturday Photo: A Couple of Pictures from the Portuguese

We're eating Portoguese this evening, and my thoughts are wandering back to Lisbon. It's been three years since I visited that lovely city, but the images remain fresh. Here are two pictures that show different aspects of the city.

The first is of two buildings from different eras on the Rossio, the central square. The second is the interior of the "Water Temple," the old reservoir built 150 years ago.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Griffintown Redevelopment Back on the Agenda: Public Consultation Today

Just before we were all interrupted in our getting and spending by the financial crisis of 2008, plans were rolling ahead to redevelop one of the oldest neighborhoods in Montreal, Griffintown.

Supposedly the neighborhood--probably the first in North America to be set out on a classic urban street grid--would be razed and a new street and building configuration put into place. A second shopping district in the central core would be developed and a lot of up-scale housing would be built.

That all fell by the wayside, thank goodness, when the Great Recession began. But developers and some city officials have not given up on the idea. A public consultation is being held today on revised plans in the heart of the district at the Université de Québec à Montréal's engineering school. Please note that the school has been the hub of much recent, small scale redevelopment, which probably will produce a healthier urban landscape than the earlier plans.

More later....

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Why Write Novels at All: A Very Good Question

As I burrow deeper in River Music, I begin to wonder if it's worth anything at all. That's why coming across Garth Risk Hallberg's essay/review in the Sunday New York Times has provoked a lot of reflection. "To be less alone" sums up what he reports a handful of rising American literary stars as saying during a literary conclave on the Isle of Capri in 2006 Le Converzioni. The solitude in question is that of the writer as well as the reader.

If you add in all the recent novels in which books have saved people, from Mr. Pip to The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the importance of a fictional world to frequently isolated readers becomes clear. Hallberg's essay ends by wondering if this enough, however.

I have no idea. All I know that at the moment I am beating my head against a wall in a story where music is very important, where it is a life raft for at least one solitary young woman. Music cannot be reduced to words, which makes trying to explain what she feels all that more difficult.

Aaargh! Back to work.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Umberto Eco's Strange New Book: The Prague Cemetery

There are no library book discussions in January--it is January, after all, and there is no telling what weather will befall us in this climate--so in addition to reading Christmas gift books, I'm getting a jump on the books for February.

Last night I finished Umberto Eco's latest novel. Called The Prague Cemetery in English, its 550 pages cover most of 19th century French, Italian and Russian history, as it presents the thoroughly unpleasant people behind the grossly false Protocols of he Elders of Zion. Even though I put it on the library reading lists, I'm not sure at this momrnet if it is worth reading: having a month to reflect on it before I have to lead a discusison is probably a very good things.

In the meantime, here's a presentation he gave last fall in Toronto, which tells a bit about his aims in writing the book and how he researched it in conversation with Michael Enright.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

You've Come a Long Way Baby Dept.: Who's Catering to Men?

What is appropriate dress is as much a matter of fashion and wanting to please as it is of following strictures laid down by authority.

Interesting question for my female friends: what would you wear if you didn't give a thought to what others thought?

Monday, 16 January 2012

Pink Ribbon Nonsense--Or Is It Even More Sinister?

As someone who has gone through a breast cancer scare (excision of suspect tissue and radiotherapy, and, thank you for your concern, five years later all seems well) I have been annoyed by the hullaballoo about "surviving breast cancer." My concern has been that women may be scared off by all the hype and those who are post-menopausal may be afraid to have mammograms for fear of what might be discovered.

Le Devoir this morning has a story that makes that concern seem not terribly important, however. The National Film Board of Canada is releasing Pink Ribbons Inc. into theatres February 3, and it sounds like required viewing for anyone who is concerned about health issues, health system financing and preventing cancer.

The film explores the links between "breast cancer awareness" initiatives and the cosmetic, chemical and pharmaceutical companies that finance them. In short, it appears likely that $1.5 billion (yes, billion!) raised in recent years has not been spent wisely, and that some of the sponsors have been using the campaigns to divert attention from their own role in the increase in breast cancer rates.

Oh, and did I mention that the surgeon who did' my operation and who insisted I needed to take Tamoxifen, was a share holder in the company that makes the drug? When I produced articles in The Lancet about a random controlled trial of the drug in Australia, the UK and New Zealand that counseled against prescribing the drug for women older than 54, he in effect told me that I was being silly. Taking the drug reduces new breast cancer by 50 per cent, he said, not mentioning that 1) the reduction was for all women (not just old ones) and from 4 per cent to 2 per cent and that 2) there were serious, sometimes fatal side effects, from taking it.

Needless to say, I went looking for another doctor to follow me.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Saturday Photo: No Holly, But Some Ivy

It's January 14 and the end of year holidays are over for everyone (although Russian Orthodox Epiphany will be next week and the Asiatic New Year is just around the coner.)

We've just had our first big snow fall, and it's bitterly cold, if sunny, today. That means that my little ivy plant would not survive outside. Living

Friday, 13 January 2012

Public Debt Explained in a Few Minutes, and If You Don't Have Tax Enforcers Taxes Don't Get Paid

An interesting explanation of public debt from Le Monde with English subtitles. The context is European but the principles apply on this side of the Atlantic too

And here's the link to another aspect of public sector cuts: if you don't have employees at IRS (or in in Canada the CRA) to make sure people pay taxes, they won't be paid and the debt gets worse.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Hommage to a Woman Whose Research and Advocacy Has Saved Immense Numbers of Premature Babies: Mary Ellen Avery

Everyone whose life has been touched over the last 40 years by a premature baby who survived owes a debt to a woman whose death was reported this morning in The New York Times, Mary Ellen Avery.

Dr. Avery, who was for a time at McGill University and Montreal Children's Hospital but whose career basically was in the US, made the link between the absence of surfuctant in the lungs of babies born before term and their inability to breathe properly.

The condition knew no class barriers: the third child of President John Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Bouvier lived only two days after he was born five and a half weeks prematurely in August, 1963. At the time, treatment pioneered by Dr. Avery and her colleagues had not been perfected. But since then, it is quite usual for children born at 7 months or even less to survive with no lasting problems.

One of the most difficult periods of Lee's and my life together was the time when we had twins, stillborn at 23 weeks. Babies born that prematurely survive rarely even today--and perhaps shouldn't because the medical challenges they face are immense. But this summer when friends of Elin and Emmanuel had a baby at 32 weeks it was wonderful to think that Sivan's parents didn't have to worry about the problem Dr. Avery's research solved.

She's doing very well, it seems. And in our case, Lukas was born a year after the twins, ready to take on the world...

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

A Laugh from Musicians, That Might Work for Writers Too

Deep in rewriting my novel about a pianist, I'm seeing music everywhere. The latest is this multiple choice chart that might give you some advice.

I particularly like the sequence that takes you through "Do you love money." Should you answer "yes," it says then "STOP THINKING ABOUT MUSIC."

Being an artist is all too often its own reward.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Hugs Versus Inequality: Investments in Social Programs Are Essential to Equality of Opportunity

More about the increasingly unequal society that is the US: Today Paul Krugman rails against those who are bent on making the playing field even more bumpy. After pointing out how Mitt Romney disparages President Obama by lies and inuendo he adds: "someone who really wanted equal opportunity would be very concerned about the inequality of our current system.

"He would support more nutritional aid for low-income mothers-to-be and young children. He would try to improve the quality of public schools. He would support aid to low-income college students. And he would support what every other advanced country has, a universal health care system, so that nobody need worry about untreated illness or crushing medical bills. If Mr. Romney has come out for any of these things, I’ve missed it. And the Congressional wing of his party seems determined to make upward mobility even harder. "

On Sunday Nicolas Kristoff in the same illustrious newspaper, pointed to research which shows that protecting children from stress from the beginning of their lives is an effective way to "chip away at poverty and crime." The roots of impairment and underachievement are biologically embedded, but preventable. he says quoting Jack P. Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatriciam" “This is the biology of social class disparities,...Early experiences are literally built into our bodies.”

Kristoff continues: "The implication is that the most cost-effective window to bring about change isn’t high school or even kindergarten — although much greater efforts are needed in schools as well — but in the early years of life, or even before birth.

“Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society, including limited educational achievement, diminished economic productivity, criminality, and disparities in health."

Quote that to anyone who wants to chip away at Canada's social safety net.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Saturday Photo: Finally, Skating....

Or there was until about an hour ago. Many years the outdoor skating rinks around here begin iln the first of second week in December. This year, not much happened until last week because of the crazy weather.

Last night when I walked home, the boys of winter were playing a pickup game of hockey, and little kids were sledding in Parc Beaubien. Nice to see everyone enjoying the wonders of winter.

But today it's warmer and I don't know how long things are going to last. Another case of carpe diem.

Friday, 6 January 2012

The Feast of the Three Kings from Persia: How Times Have Changed

Just where exactly the Magi came from is uncertain, as far as I can tell. But it would seem that at least some of them were astronomers from Persia. Therefore on this feast day , it is appropriate to take a look at the Persian tradition through the lense of music by Albert Ketèlby, whose In a Persian Market celebrates it.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Nasty Words Don't Survive Translation: The T-Word Means F%@&-All in English

For those who arn't plugged in local controversies, the cartoon from this morning's Montreal Gazette refers to the fact that the new head coach for the Montreal Canadien's doesn't speak French. Promoted to the post in a few weeks ago when nothing was working for the Habs, Ron Cunneyworth's record hasn't been stellar since--and criticism about his being a unilingual Anglophone has gotten louder.

But Montrealers like to win, and so given last night's victory--the first in far too long--Aislin, The Gazette's fine cartoonist, mocks how success can change perceptions.

"Taburnack!" refers to the tabernacle in which the eucharist is stored in the Roman Catholic churches, which might raise a loud ho-hum from people elsewhere. But it's one of those words you don't use in polite Quebec society: there was a point when Lukas (aged 7 or 8) was scandalized to learn that one of our Christmas records had been made by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The word is so strong that this morning on the Radio Can French language service, a commentator referred to it (in French) as the "T-word."

This same guy has not shied away from using the "F-word" in English on occasion when quoting someone directly. That would not happen on the CBC where the soldiers on the long-running radio series Afghanada were always talking about "freaking this" and "freaking" that.

So what do you swear by, religion? or sex?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Suburbs, Stress and the Myth of the Good Life: More Evidence from North of Montreal

"Suburban" in North America conjures up visions of single family houses on streets lined with grass, good schools, a good life away from the struggles of the city. But that appears to be changing.

Stress is higher in the suburbs north of Montreal, according to The Montreal Gazette. Taking data from a Stats Can household health survey, researcher Jack Jedwab found that more than "half of people age 35-44 in the Laurentians said most days in their lives are quite a bit or extremely stressful." The figure was 36.6 per cent for Quebecers that age as a whole, compared to 31.9 per cent in Montreal, and 29.8 in Canada overall.

Why is this? A large part is due to the problems of commuting to work in Montreal. We saw a bit of that last year when most of the tradesmen working on our house repairs came from lower Laurentian communities. They'd leave home by 5:30 a.m. and on a good morning arrive shortly before 7 a.m., the hour when municipal bylaws say construction work can begin. Usually they'd call it a day by 3 p.m., but they were clocking in up to three hours a day on the road.

The effects on family life have got to be disastrous.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Sunny and Cold Day: Time to Think of Adventures in the Mountains

Many, many years ago Lee and I spent a lot of time hiking in the Sierra Nevada of California. Ever since then there is a particular kind of cold, blue sunshine that I associate with mountain mornings, and which make me want to get moving.

This morning it's considerably colder than those mornings in late summer and fall so long ago, but the light is the same. When I went looking for something to evoke that time, I came up with this video. A bit self-indulgent, but some of it is pretty nice.

And under the tree this year was a book My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir, which is worth looking at, particularly when the mountains are far away.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Taxes Quebeckers Pay Go up, Taxes Companies Pay Go Down

Canada now has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world: 15 per cent as of midnight on Sunday. But are businesses going to use that tax windfall to reinvest in Canada?

Not likely, say a chorus of economists.

The bottom line (and don't all those financial types like talking about the bottom line?) is that Stats Can figures show investment actually falling as corporate tax rates decline. Back in April, before the federal election The Globe and Mail reported that the "rate of investment in machinery and equipment has declined in lockstep with falling corporate tax rates over the past decade. At the same time...businesses have added $83-billion to their cash reserves since the onset of the recession in 2008."

But New Year's Day also marked an increase in taxes for ordinary folk in Quebec. The sales tax went up a percent to 9.5 per cent, slightly lower than the 10 per cent charged in Nova Scotia, and the 10.5 per cent in PEI.

Payroll taxes across the country will also rise this year, as employment insurance premiums increase 5 cents per $100 of insurable earnings and federal pension plan contributions fo up. The Toronto Star reports that it means "employees will have to give up a total of $3,147 in payroll taxes next year — an increase of about $142 over this year.

"Employers will have to shell out about $164 more in payroll taxes next year, for a total of $3,483.

"The combined net increase of 4.84 per cent is the highest since 2002."

There's something wrong with this picture, don't you think?