Wednesday 29 February 2012

Rick isn't Angry about Robocalls, Eh? Don't Think So: Why We all Should Be Furious

Making Waves--the View from Where the Portuguese Began Their Voyages

Thursday I'm going to be talking about oing to be talking about Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure as part of the Atwater Library's Lunchtime series. There will be music too. Hope to see many friends and fellow Lusophiles at 12:30 p.m., Thursday March 1, in the auditorium of the library, 1200 Atwater, Montreal, Metro Atwater.

The photo is one I took at my last stop on trips I took to research the book. After running into the Portuguese and their descendants all around the world, three years ago I finally made it to Portugal itself. I had intended to travel around the country but ended up spending all my time in Lisbon, a truly fascinating city.

That's the River Tagus in the picture as seen through thae window of the Torre de Belém, which guarded the landing and departure spot for hundreds of intrepid Portuguese mariners for several hundred years. A true epic! A small country that changed the world!

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Memo to Political Parties: No Robocalls, Ever

We always knew the Conservatives were comtemptuous of democracy, and now we have even more proof with the robocall dirty tricks of May 2. Somebody up high had to okay them, because they cost a fair amount of change to set up. (And why has no one noted that this bit of electioneering took place on election day when spending limits no longer apply.)

But I think it's also time that political parties realized that robocalls with recorded messages in support of candidates or as part of polls probably are counter productive. We've had a slew of them in the last week or so from the NDP. Everybody hear just hangs up, even though we mostly pro-NDP.

Monday 27 February 2012

Because I'm Writing the Love Story Part of River Music: "Some Enchanted Evening"

This week I'm going over the latest version of my next novel River Music. "Some Enchanted Evening" the Rogers and Hammerstein song from South Pacific, has insinuated its way into the story. So here it is from a television version of the musical with Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin. Vintage schmaltz, but who cares1

Saturday 25 February 2012

Saturday Photo: Scary Plants and the Reptilian Brain

Happy little girl that she is, Jeanne has faced the world with a smile since she was tiny. She has not been phased or frightened by much...until she started to walk with facility.

Then within a couple of weeks she manifested behavior which can only be rooted in some reflex hidden deep inside. First, she encountered a spider for the first time on the floor of the kitchen and absolutely freaked, says her Papa who witnessed it. She had never seen any adult or child react to a creepy crawly with fear, but the sight somehow immediately prompted avoidance behavior of a rather extreme nature.

Then at our house, she, who had been happily cruising the living room for months on her bum, got extremely upset at an amarylis plant that was growing a bit strangely because of its relation to the ambient light. I heard her squealing and went into the living room to find her backing away fearfully from the rather snakelike flower stock. We reassured her, but until the flower bloomed and I cut it off to put in water, she avoid getting too close to it.

This kind of almost automatic reaction would have great survival value,it seems to me. Kids who are truly mobile need to learn what to avoid, and if they're scared initially by things that might bear menace, so much the better from an evolutionary point of view.

But all is not automatic. Last weekend, despite being told not to stand up in an arm chair, she persisted in doing so, and fell foward, hitting her head on the coffee table. She wasn't hurt badly, but when she came back a few days ago, she carefully pointed to the table edge and distinctly said "bobo," the kids' French for "that hurts." What's more, to my knowledge she hasn't tried to stand on the arm chair since. Burnt child shuns fire, perhaps?

Friday 24 February 2012

Another Defeat in the Information Wars? Alain Saulnier Gets the Ax at Radio Canada

This story is not likely to get much play in English Canada, but it ought to. Alain Saulnier, the head of information services (radio, TV, internet) at Radio Canada, was let go yesterday. No reason was given, but, according to Le Devoir, it's highly likely that political pressure from the federal government was a factor in the sudden decision. (A certain amount of internal backstabbing may also have played a role.)

Radio Canada so far has resisted the move toward dumbing down its news coverage far more successfully that the CBC has. I long ago stopped listening to local CBC Radio One content because it was just too superficial. The Radio Canada morning show, C'est bien meilleur le matin, is far more intelligent than the equivalent English language show here and (at least the times I've listened) in Toronto. What is more, its listenership is either number one or number two when the ratings are published, even though it's competing with the most agressive commercial radio. This, I've always thought, reflects the drawing power of solid, informative programing.

Now, though, the quality and orientation of programs like C'est bien are uncertain.

The Harper Conservative disinformation campaign is continual: Canadian scientists came out last week against the muzzling of scientists and their research, the efforts of Quebec to save data from the Long Gun Registry from this province are being blocked, there are questions about the reliabilty of census data due to the elimination of the requirement that people fill out the long form....The list goes on and on.

And have you listened to Type A, the program from Alberta that is Conservative to its core? I accidently caught an episode called "Productivity" which was not only amateurish in its production values, but also almost pure Con propaganda. What's it doing on the national network?

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Extra Billing: Thousands of Dollars Paid by Patients at Montreal Private Clinic

Extra-billing and kick-backs to doctors in Quebec have been in the news these last couple of days. First the Quebec College of Physicians charged that at least two cardiologists have been accepting "envelopes of cash" to push patients up the waiting list for surgery. Equally as bad, the College alleges that doctors have been directing patients to the private sector by saying that the waiting lists in public facilities are too long.

Next the agency which governs the health care system in this province, the Régie des assurances maladie du Québec, has revealed the results of an investigaton of a private clinic, Rockland MD approved for performing surgery. Extra fees amounting to several hundred thousand dollars have been charged for services covered by the public system. These include charges for nurses and anethesologists present during surgery as well as "forfaits santé" or a fee for being considered for the treatment in the clinic. RAMQ will reimburse patients for these fees, and will collect them from the clinic.

This should be no surprise, really, to anyone who has been following Quebec's health system. Two years ago the protocol for certain surgeries covered by the system was modified. Previously, only three kinds of surgery were approved for private clinics, but under the changes, 56 are now allowed. In addition, doctors are now able to work both in private and public institutions.

Critics at the time of passage of the changes warned that it was an invitation to abuse on the part of greedy medical professionals who wanted to work both sides of the health system. Unfortunately, they were right.

Now it remains to be seen whether these revelations will result in a move away from giving private clinics a larger role in providing surgery. The argument always is that a mixed system will provide more options, but it's clear that the results are bad for everybody except the docs making extra money.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Identikits and Imagination: How Do You Imagine Emma Bovary and Mr. Rochester?

The Atlantic has an interesting feature about using Identikits, those visual aids used by police to figure out who might have done it, to draw portraits of characters from fiction.

Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre and Emma Bovary from Madame Bovary are two, who come out looking like nothing I ever imagined. But then it's rare that a film version shows a character as I imagine either. Certainly Mr. Rochester played by Toby Stephens is much better looking than the description: "I knew my traveller with his broad and jetty eyebrows; his square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair.

I recognised his decisive nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils, denoting, I thought, choler; his grim mouth, chin, and jaw–yes, all three were very grim, and no mistake. "
(See here for more.)

Only Isabelle Huppert playing Emma looks both like the description and the police portrait: "She was pale all over, white as a sheet; the skin of her nose was drawn at the nostrils, her eyes looked at you vaguely. After discovering three grey hairs on her temples, she talked much of her old age…Her eyelids seemed chiseled expressly for her long amorous looks in which the pupil disappeared, while a strong inspiration expanded her delicate nostrils and raised the fleshy corner of her lips, shaded in the light by a little black down.

As for me, I've always thought Emma looked like something from a Renoir painting--maybe pale but a lot more voluptuous than Huppert. And Rochester: well, I see a dour someone from a Victorian photograph.

But that of course is part of the pleasure of reading: you fill in the gaps, you're there in a way that you can't be in a movie. Whatever you imagine is going to be a lot more alive than an Identikit portrait, too.

Monday 20 February 2012

Let's Not Do a Europe: Krugman's Lessons for Ontario

As usual, Paul Krugman is worth reading to day. He once again points out just how counter-productive austerity measures have been in keeping Europe afloat.

What he says should be taken seriously by the government of Ontario which is, so we're told, faced with some terrible choices in order to keep financially afloat.

But austerity in the face of economic hard times is nonsense, Krugman says. What is needed is economic vigor, and to accomplish this in the US, "all the federal government needs to do to give the economy a big boost is provide aid to lower-level governments, allowing these governments to rehire the hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers they have laid off and restart the building and maintenance projects they have canceled."

So, cutting and slashing is supposed to get Ontario back on the track to better economic times? No. The answer from those who've been watching governments that have been there and done that, is clear: Don't.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Saturday Photo: The Way to Recover from What Ails You

Gastroenteritis has attacked, and a number of family members are writhing away. Won't last, of course, but it would be a lot nicer to rest in the sun in a nice park than to huddle under covers on a late winter day.

This picture was taken a couple of years ago at the end of September when we all, including the guy in the photo, knew that winter was coming on. Now the days are growing longer, and it's nice to think of long, not-too-hot days in our collective future. Maybe I ought to look at the lawn furniture this afternoon, in preparation, particularly since the patients seem to be doing better...

Friday 17 February 2012

Gastroenteritis and Other Trials...

Jeanne had a stomach flu earlier in the week, but seems to be better. Her mother, however, came down with it shortly after the two of them arrived to spend a couple of days with us. Much unpleasantness, although nothing serious. The upshot is that I've spent much time today riding herd on Jeanne while her mother recovers so this post is pretty uninspiring. Hope I don't come down with the bug, though...

Thursday 16 February 2012

Social Change through Music: El Sistema and a Film That Meryl Streep Didn't Win an Oscar For

The New York Times has a fine story today about classical music bringing social change in Venezuale: "Fighting Poverty, Armed with Violins." El Sistema, an innovative way of making music matter change kids lives, was the subject of a conference at McGill last year, too.

The idea is nothing new, really: in 1999 Meryl Streep was nominated for an Oscar for playing a New York teacher who brought violins to a school in Harlem.

What is too bad is that people in power keep forgetting what an important role music can play in nurturing the young, raising their aspirations and giving everyone pleasure.

Memo to Stephen Harper and provincial premiers: Fiscal reformers should remember that keeping kids out of trouble is a lot more cost-effective that building prisons.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Prince Justin the Flake Says What I've Been Thinking: Canada Is Becoming Something I Don't Recognize

If there are two words that I use with scorn, they are "flake" and "princess." In my mind they sum up a panoply of selfish, unhelpful characteristics. The latter I tend to use for women who have an exagerated sense of entitlement just because they've always been someone's darling. The former I use transgenderly to describe someone without depth, who doesn't take things seriouslly and, all too frequently, shoots of his or her mouth.

Justin Trudeau often is a flake, and, I realize, would qualify for the designation as "prince," should I want to expand my name-calling. But his statement on the weekend that he'd reconsider making Quebec a country if he thought that Canada was really "Stephen Harper's Canada" and that we "were backtracking in ten thousand ways" makes great sense to me.

The reaction in the Anglophone press has been predictable: how dare the whippersnapper sully his father's memory etc. But Stephen Harper's Canada is not Pierre Trudeau's Canada, nor Brian Mulroney's Canada for that matter. It is obvious to anyone paying attention that the Conservative plan is to remake this country profoundly, and maybe Quebec may turn out to be the one place where social and economic values espoused by Justin's Dad have a chance for survival.

If you don't think there's a difference between Quebec and the Rest of Canada, remember that the Prince made his comments on the most popular Sunday morning radio show in French, and it took two days for them to be heard outside.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Celebrate Valentine's Day with a Few Random Acts of Kindness

The photo isn't new--I used it two years ago, but I still like it a lot. As for the holiday, well, it's problematic. Just another opportunity to sell something? For man, certainly. The Globe and Mail starts out its editorial decrying that:
"What a grotesque farce is Valentine’s Day... it is a ridiculous confection fraught with peril for millions of Canadian men and women whose amorous relations are perfectly fine on Feb. 13 and Feb. 15, but somehow can’t survive the day in-between without conspicuous and expensive displays of mutual reassurance."

All too true. But on the other hand it's kind of nice to have something like this lift the spirits in the dead of winter. It also is an opportunity to think of what pleases those we love--and what might make the world a more pleasant place.

So I'm declaring a new purpose for the day: let us all do a few random acts of kindness and see if it helps things along.

Event the Globe ends its rant headed in that direction: "One way or another, we all tend to wind up thinking about love, and about the people we love, on Valentine’s Day. There are worse things that can happen to us in February."

Monday 13 February 2012

The Great Gatsby Tonight: A Story for Our Time, although It's Unlikely That Jay Gatz Would Do As Well Today

It's book discussion week, which kicks off with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby tonight in Pierrefonds. I had kept rereading the book to the last since the three others are weighty, lengthy tomes that I wanted to make sure I finished in time to think about.

So what a pleasure to read this relatively short, elegantly written, sharply drawn novel! It's been a couple of years since I revisited it and I was amazed to find how relevant the implicit criticism of American society ages. The story takes place in the 1920s when times were good and fortunes were being made. The center will not hold, though, since the Crash was only a few years away. In many respects the action could have been taken during the height of the fury or just before the 2008 crash.

Jay Gatz, the poor Mid Western boy, who makes his fortune and become The Great Gatsby, does so by catching a wave that has long ago dissipated, however. He starts out his education by going to a small liberal-arts college, St. Olaf's. It still exists but its yearly expenses would be out of sight for a boy of like Jay: nearly $60,000. He bails out, but not because of financial problems, ends up qualifying for officer training during the First World War and spends five months at Oxford.

Such a path upward is increasingly unlikely in today's US, as many recent studies show. Rather than being a land of opportunity, the country is becoming more class- stratified. Probably it should be no surprise that the book is being made into a movie once again, with Leonardo Di Caprio playing Gatsby...

Sunday 12 February 2012

Saturday Photo: Spring Day in Le Jardin des Tuileries.

The days are getting longer, no question about it. Which means that I've begun thinking of what fun it would be to go travelling. Probably nothing will materialize this spring, but I can't help returning to the pictures taken the last time we were in Paris.

Something to dream about....

Friday 10 February 2012

Another One of Jeanne's Favourite Videos: Feist for Kids Outdraws Feist for Grownups

Jeanne's around today which makes life exciting. Here is her current video favourite--and at not quite 18 months she recognizes "4" in a number of contexts:

And here's a music video of Feist singing the original song.

Please note that the first video has received more than 19 MILLION hits on Youtube, while the second has a paltry 134,000. The kids are all right.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Guess Whose Appointment Won't be Renewed: Kevin Page Contradicts Harper with the Facts about Funding Pensions

Don't have much time today to go into this in detail because I'm involved in setting up an interesting conversation about jobs and the economy, "Working in Canada Today: A Real Challenge." As I wrote yesterday Tom Mulcair will talk about his economic plans after a couple of union reps will telll about their difficult experiences with the Harper government.

But I must draw you attention to the great gulf between what Stephen Harper says will happen to our pension system in the next few years and what the Parliamentary Budget Office Kevin Page says in a report released yesterday. In essence, he says things will be fine, but Finance Minister Jim Flaherty called Page "unbelievable, unreliable, incredible" it was reported several places.

So who do you think will keep his job?

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Babies in the House of Commons: Why Not?

There has been much chat this morning about a young MP from the South Shore of Montreal who brought her three month old baby into the House yesterday. She says she'd been recalled suddenly for a vote, and couldn't find her husband who ordinarily is there to take care of the little guy when she's in the house.

Now, this is not the first time a baby has been in the house: I think there was a photo op with Sheila Copps 30 years ago when she brought her daughter. But some of the reaction has been amazing today, with a message on the talk shows from some saying that she shouldn't be in the House if she has a new born.

A baby who isn't fussing causes nobody trouble, and bringing him in when there are no alternativies seems to me to be fine. And do the arithmetic: Sana Hassainia was elected on the Orange Wave last May 2. There's an excellent chance that she didn't even know she was pregnant then, and certainly didn't when she agreed to run!

And in the "Politics Make Strange Bedfellows" department: I always thought that one of the most charming things about Joe Clark was the way his one and only daughter (Nov. 6, 1976) was born about nine months after he was elected Leader of the Progressive Conservatives (February 22, 1976.) Can you imagine Stephen Harper celebrating in the same manner?

The picture, by the way, has nothing to do with Ms. Hassainia (who was not feeding her baby in the House) and everything to do with a campaign for breastfeeding. Very appropriate in this context though.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Final Steps toward an Electronic Rights Defence Committiee Settlement

I should have posted this link last week: ERDC notices to members of its class action.

After nearly 16 years, the Electronic Rights Defence Committee case against The Gazette is winding up. The case was against five legal entities, all charged with being implicated in uncompensated, unauthorized electronic publications of work originally published in the Montreal newspaper. The big settlements came a year or so ago, but two parts of the suit--against Hollinger and CEDROM-SNI--have been hanging fire.

Last week, Quebec Superior Court approved notices to members which should lead to settlement with these final defendants. And with any luck, in a few months we should be starting the process of making individual claims in view of paying out the money received in the settlements.

Update on "Working in Canada: A Real Challenge"--More Input from Embattled Workers

Last week I posted about the the informal end-of the-day reception coming up on Thursday and organized by the NPD Association of Outremont. on "Working in Canada Today: A Real Challenge."

Now we're expecting to have a representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers of Canada (UFCA) who'll talk about their difficulties in organizing and in the treatment of immigrant workers. Richard De Stephano of the machinists union at Air Canada ((l'Association Internationale des Machinistes et des travailleurs et travailleuses de l'Aérospatiale) will also speak about being forced back to work by the Conservative government last year after union members were locked out,. Thomas Mulcair, Outremont MP and candidate for the NDP leadership, will round out the discussion with his ideas about the economy and what the NDP can do.

Place: "The Bay" on the first floor of the Côtes des Neiges community centre, 6767 Côte des Neiges Road (165 and 435 buses, with 161 and 160 buses not far away.)

Time: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 9, 2012

Monday 6 February 2012

Cyberflanage, Or the Delights and Dangers of Lateral Thinking

The New York Times had an interesting article yesterday by Evgeny Morozov about what he thinks is a missed opportunity in the Internet Age: the way it allowed us to poke around, looking for gems of ideas or perceptions. He compares it to the very Parisian idea of flanage, which sometimes is translated as loitering. But it's something far more interesting: strolling and looking, a habit that was lauded by Walter Benjamin and others as a delightful and instructive way to pass time.

Unfortunately, says Morozov, the way Google and Facebook have begun to order what they think we want to know, given our past searches, the lovely serendipity of stumbling across new information, new images, new ideas is much less frequent.

I'm not sure it's all that bad, but I do know that if I have the time I still can spend hours following the leads presented by suggestions on the various web sites I come across. Start, for example, with Gustave Caillebotte, whose painting of floor scrapers we saw in the Musée d'Orsay a few years ago. Lee was delighted to see it because it depicts ordinary folk working, something not that common in the 19th century. He bought a print, only to discover to his amusement that the wine bottle is cropped out of the picture. Now, that observation can lead to seaches about the temperance movement in France, through Zola and his great series of novels in which drunkeness is a terrible curse (See L'Assommoir, for example) to reflections on the Mediterranean diet and the role of red wine in cardiac health.

The problem, I think, is that there just isn't enough time to follow up these fascinating lines of research. If you are a lateral thinker, the Web is full of riches. The trick is to learn how to follow your own tastes--and not to become drunk on all the information out there.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Saturday Photo: Snowy Day in a Canadian Suburb

There is something to be said for the trees and gardens of post-World War II suburbs. On a winter afternoon the setting is peaceful. This was taken in Don Mills, one of Canada's first such developments, which still maintains many of the best points of suburban living.

There aren't sidewalks in this part, but it's important to remember that it was laid out with paths along the backs of the houses which allowed walking to school and to the nearby shoppng center. The center recently underwent a big makeover, which makes it more of a regional center than a shopping space got the neighborhood.

Friday 3 February 2012

As Harper Picks Away at Canadian Values, Krugman Suggests What May Be Ahead

If I seem to be spending too much time on this Canadian and Quebec blog talking about the US, it's because I'm afraid that Stephen Harper and his friends slowly pushing us in the direction of the US right wing vision of what a country should be to its citizens.

The latest warning comes from Paul Krugman's analysis today of what Mitt Romney is proposing South of the Border. Specificially, when Romney said on CNN that “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there," Krugman points out that Romney and his friends are systematically trying to dismantle whatever exists in the US in the way of a safety net. Who is going to benefit from Romeny's proposals? Not the middle class, but the very rich.

Krugman continues: "Even conservative politicians used to find it necessary to pretend that they cared about the poor. Remember “compassionate conservatism”? Mr. Romney has, however, done away with that pretense.

"At this rate, we may soon have politicians who admit what has been obvious all along: that they don’t care about the middle class either, that they aren’t concerned about the lives of ordinary Americans, and never were."

This is coming from a "moderate" Republican, remember.

Give those guys an inch and they'll take a mile--or in Canadian terms, allow the Harperites a centimeter and they'll take a klick and a half.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Working in Canada Today: A Real Challenge: Air Canada Machinists and Tom Mulcair to Talk about Work and Jobs Thursday, Feb. 9

Come and discuss the economy and jobs at an informal end-of the-day reception, organized by the NPD Associaion of Outremont. Thursday, The topic of conversation will be "Working in Canada Today: A Real Challenge."

Richard De Stephano of the machinists union at Air Canada ((l'Association Internationale des Machinistes et des travailleurs et travailleuses de l'Aérospatiale)) who were forced back to work by the Conservative government last year after they locked out, will be on hand to tell of their experience. Thomas Mulcair, Outremont MP and candidate for the NDP leadership, will round out the discussion with his ideas about the economy and what the NDP can do.

Place: "The Bay" on the first floor of the Côtes des Neiges community centre, 6767 Côte des Neiges Road (165 and 435 buses, with 161 and 160 buses not far away.)

Time: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 9, 2012

There will be light refreshments. And your friends are welcome too: please feel free to invite them!

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Talking the Talk: Shakespeare Didn't Say It the Way We Do

This is something for all those North Americans who find it strange to see "pain" rhyme with "again" in some English poetry. Language is a living thing, and, strangely, I find this explanation of what Shakespeare's actors might have sounded like during his lifetime frequently easier to understand than British Received Pronunciation. Probabaly has something to do with the time at which English began to be spoken on this continent.