Friday, 30 November 2012

In-laws and Jane Jacobs: Densifying the Suburbs

Jane Jacobs at the end of her life was all in favour of densifying cities by allowing "in law apartments" and the like on single family lots.  In her last book, she advocated doing that in existing suburban neighborhoods, and some city planners have listened to her.  The economic troubles following 2008 have reinforced the appeal, it seems.  Boomerang young people and aging grandparents are apparently increasingly sharing space .

The New York Times reports today that some new housing developments are taking that into account. High end houses with separate entrances for either offspring or patriarchs and matriarchs are a coming trend, some developers think.

Jacobs would probablly be appalled, however. She was not in favour of more urban sprawl, but less. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

First Snow!

We've had a few flakes at least three times, but yesterday was the first snow that lasted.  Not much on the ground, but still...

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Are You Listening, Politicos? Health Care Is What Matters to Canadians

Most interesting survey got quite a bit of press yesterday: Canadians hold  the health care system more important than any other characteristic of their country.

As the Globe and Mail reported: "The online survey of 2,207 respondents by Leger Marketing found universal health care was almost universally loved, with 94 per cent calling it an important source of collective pride – including 74 per cent who called it “very important.”

"At the other end of the spectrum, just 39 per cent of respondents felt the monarchy was a source of personal or collective pride, while 59 per cent were royally unimpressed. In fact, 32 per cent of respondents found the monarchy “not at all important” – the most popular singular response. "

I do hope that Canadian politicians are listening.  Stephen Harper may not be winning the fight for the hearts and minds of Canadians when it comes to the monarchy!  He's not going to be able to cover over the hole in the ozone layer with the Queen's portrait, as this Le Devoir cartoon suggests he'd like to do.

 And politicos of other persuasions should muster more support for the health care system, too.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Is This the End? History from Taticus to The Doors and Sandra

Very interesting meditation on time and the river(s) flowing by James Atlas in The New York Times, entitled "IsThis the End?"  A sample:

"History is a series of random events organized in a seemingly sensible order. We experience it as chronology, with ourselves as the end point — not the end point, but as the culmination of events that leads to the very moment in which we happen to live."

Yet: "Every civilization must go. "  He contiues, after quoting Tacitus about a  eruption Mt. Vesuvius: " But of course it wasn’t the end of the world: it was just the end of them."

Atlas also quotes New York governor Governor Cuomo:  “'we have a 100-year flood every two years now,' which doesn’t stop rents from going up in Battery Park City. "

The message?  Is it too late to stop the rising tides? Or is time to think about moving on?

And by the way, what was the ecological damage of all that defoliation in Vietnam? We got out of it, can we get out of our current messes?

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Saturday Photo: Holly, a Harbinger of Holidays

I had always thought that you couldn't grow holly in Montreal, that the climate here is just too tough for the lovely shrub.  But I found this vigorously growing stand near the Université de Montréal not long ago.   Obviously there are some varieties that can take the cold.

Given that the markets are full of Christmas trees already and that we've been overwhelmed this week by hype about Black Friday, it's good to look at one harbinger of the holiday season that proceeds at its own lovely pace. 

Friday, 23 November 2012

What I Read During My Fall Vacation

Well, it really hasn't been a vacation, but I've been attacked by several little viruses, generously shared with us by Jeanne who picked them up at the day care centre.  The upshot is that I've been taking it easy more, and reading more light stuff than research material.

A list of what I've just finished or am part way through :

Books for various book clubs I'm involved in:

Caleb's Crossing by Genevieve Brooke
The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich
Les derniers jour de Smokey Nelson by Catherine Mavrakakis
The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life's Work at 72 by Molly Peacock

Gifts and Loans:

The Theft of History by Jack Goody
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowlings

Three Finalists from the Quebec Writers' Federation awards:

Straphanger by Taras Grescoe
Tell It to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami (also a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Prize)
All the Voices Cry by Alice Petersen 

Sometimes feeling rotten can be productive!

And Further to Thanksgiving

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Happy Thanksgiving: One Thing the US Accomlished That Maybe It Shouldn't Be so Thankful for...

Always knew this, but videos of Hillary Clinton explaining how the US funded insurgent forces in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and earlyl 1980s to defeat the Soviet invasion have been bouncing up on my radar recently. Another "mission accomplished," as George W. Bush so famously said?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

"The rich stay rich and everyone else churns around in the bottom."

Interesting analysis of the Fraser Institute's recent study of income mobility just put out by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

The right wing think tank suggests that four out of five low income Canadians moved up the income ladder over the ten year period of 1990-2000. But, CCPA (often a welcome counterweight to the Fraser bunch) points out that most of the "mobility" was from "very poor" to "poor."

Not what you'd hope for when you're trying to make a country a place here income inequality is minimal.  The CCPA's Daniel Macdonald comments: "Although this isn’t the report’s conclusion, my conclusion from the same data is that the rich stay rich and everyone else churns around in the bottom."

Doesn't surprise me in the least...

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Twinkies in the Service of Science

Great story in The New York Times today about the use of Twinkies, those disgusting little cakes, in science experiments.  Seems they don't burn, can be shown to be made up mostly of air, and several other things which demonstrate how to measure materials and how to test  hypotheses.

The company that makes them, Hostess, has declared the death knell for them (or so it seems),  There probably are substitutes, though.  Just got to go on another sort of scientific expedition....

Monday, 19 November 2012

Why Historical Novels? Why Not Just History?

For my various book groups I found myself reading two historical novels this week end.  One is Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks and the other is The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich. 

The first is the first person tale of a 17th century woman on Nantucket, growing up Puritan  where Native American society is just a stone's throw away.  The second takes place about 100 years earlier in Venice where a Jewish midwife has discovered how to use forceps to help in difficult deliveries.  Both appear very well researched, and present moving stories of plucky women.  Childbirth features prominently in both too.

My friend Ann Charney  once said she didn't see the point in historical novels.  "Why doesn't one just read history?" I remember her as saying.  At the time--and it wasn't too long after I'd strugged with fictionalized biography of the Lower Canadian Patriot Robert Nelson--I was surprised.  A fiction about the past seemed to me to be a great way of making an imaginative leap in time.

However, I've become more critical of the genre lately.  It is true that sometimes an historical novel can present fascinating facts that would otherwise be accessible only through extensive research.  Sometimes, also, the story told can be worth reading.  And, frequently, I suspect, a reader may feel  less ambivalent about reading a page turner when an otherwise-cliched story is coated with a nourishing coat of fact.

But to find out what really happened during the time evoked in a novel, you really have to read some original documents and good history yourself.  If an historical novel is not well written  there's just no reason to read it.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Saturday Photo: Upside of Climate Change Is Longer Biking Season

Let me say straight out that I don't ride bikes unless my life depends on doing so--got hit by one when I was little and was traumatized.  But I appreciate that more and more people around here are using them as a means of transport.

That's good in ecological terms and might do something to improve our sorry situation concerning green house gas emissions and their consequences for climate change.  Consider what Michael Kesterton reported in Monday's Globe and Mail on a "a ground-breaking method for turning ordinary foodstuffs into fuel.” 

He quotes  Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan of “The potential is boundless as practically any food item will do – pumpkin seeds, cereal and salmon fillets can all transform into the energy required to get you almost anywhere you need to go while emitting almost no extra greenhouse gases. Here’s how it works: Eat food. Allow your digestive system to turn it into glycogen, which provides energy to your muscles that can be used to power physical motion. Then walk.”

Same thing for biking.  The irony is that with milder winters brought on by climate change also lengthenn the cycling season.  Could this be the start of a benevolent circle as opposed to a vicious one?

Friday, 16 November 2012

Part of the Story Behind the Montreal Super-Hospital Projects: Residential Developoment of the Mountain?

For some time I've wondered about the reasons why many parts of the Montreal community were so gung-ho for building two new super-hospitals.  The story goes back nearly two decades, with years of in-fighting over the sites and assurances that there would be both English and French hospital centres.

Now I think the answer lies in the real estate adage: Location, location, location...and greed.

The original arguments for the new health facities were that new structures were needed to meet the technical challenges of cutting edge health care, and replace aging infrastructures.

There was no discussion at all of the effects of closing down three existing hospitals, the Royal Victoria, Hôtel-Dieu and the Shriners.  All three are on prime real estate, either on Mount Royal itself, or just beside it with grand views of Montreal's most striking topographic feature. Now extremely troubling news is coming out about the way these projects got underway and the profits to be made by construction companies, developers and their friends.

The most serious involves Dr. Arthur Porter, brought in about a decade ago  to captain the McGill University Health Centre project.    La Presse reported last month that  he is implicated in $22 million in doubtful payments made by the engineering consulting firm SNC-Lavalin  during the awarding of the contract for the hospital project.   This last is part of the puzzle that Quebec's commission on corruption in the construction industry is now putting together.  Payments, kickbacks and death threats have been asserted daily since the Charbonneau Commission began sitting in September.

(It should be noted that Porter  also headed Canada's top spy agency, but resigned last year after The National Post reported he had "wired $200,000 in personal funds to Ari Ben-Menashe, a Montreal-based businessman who often acts as a middleman in negotiations between the Russian Federation and developing countries.")

This month McGill started proceedings to sue  Porter for $287,000 for non-repayment of a "housing loan" which has involves a condo right across from the soon-to-be-vacated hospitals.

But Porter is nowhere to be found.  He left post office box addresses in the Caribbean, and when La Presse sent reporters to check out one of properties he owns in the Bahamas, he answered a telephone call, but responded to no questions and said he was "out of the country."

Hmmmm.  Very interesting.  So is the fact that Université de Montréal sold for a vertiable song a convent buildiing it had acquired as  part of an elaborate plan de expand  its medical school to one of the suspect construction companies implicated in the construction scandal.  It should be noted that in this case the building also is prime real estate on the flanc  of Mount Royal. 

The watch dog group Les Amis de la montagne is calling for public hearings on the future of Mount Royal next spring, but it is probably too late to stop more infringements on the mountain.

And it certainly is too late to stop millions being made by speculators and others using  public money and playing on our desire to have good health care to cut themselves some nice deals. 

Building on a Swamp Doesn't Make It Not a Swamp, Or My Mother on Rising Sea Levels

The New York Times has an opinion piece today arguing that rebuilding along the New York and New Jersey shoreline in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is not a good idea.   "Retreat from the Beach" it's called, and it points out that people know what locations are chancey, and have a for a long time.

"Respecting the power of these storms is not new," writes Orrin H. Pilkey. "American Indians who occupied barrier islands during the warm months moved to the mainland during the winter storm season. In the early days of European settlement in North America, some communities restricted building to the bay sides of barrier islands to minimize damage. In Colombia and Nigeria, where some people choose to live next to beaches to reduce exposure to malarial mosquitoes, houses are routinely built to be easily moved. "

My mother, who loved the beach and delighted in living not far from one in San Diego, also was careful to buy a house on high ground.  "You can build on a swamp, but that doesn't make it any less a swamp," she said many times.  It was good advice decades and decades ago,  and it becomes more pertinent as sea levels rise with climate change.

BTW, the picture is of Sunset Cliffs, where she loved to sit and watch the surf, but where she would never have bought. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Super Rich, Austerity and Life in the These Difficult Times

Chrystia Freeland says that the top .01 per cent control about 8 per cent of the world's wealth.  So crazy that's is probably true!  Check out her interview on CBC's The Current  or her book. The Plutocrats.

So why should anybody be surprised that, finally, protests against austerity for everybody else are coming together in Southern Europe

Maybe the next revolutionary slogan should be: ordinary folk of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but you bosses.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Jeanne Visitng, Grandma Busy...

Elin and her friends are heading for Victoria today, to round out their Western tour.  They got a lovely feature in Vancouver's Georgia Straight, and sounds like their audiences have been most appreciative.

Jeanne and Emmanuel have done quite nicely in Elin's absence, but he's doing school workshops this week, so Jeanne has come to spend some quality and quantity time with Grandma and Grandpa (or Mana and Bada as she calls us: go figure.)  That means that my posts will be sporadic this week while we have a good time together....

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Saturday Photo: The Burning Bush

Don't know the name of this shrub, but it has been spectacular over the last week or so.  The leaves are falling now, but for a while they blazed.

Gorgeous, and perhaps a harbinger, which we didn't see, of the end of the long slog toward a slightly left  of centre election in the US.

US--Finally, Perhaps--Becomes More Secular, But What Does That Mean for Science?

The results of Tuesday's election seem to show that the appeal and influence of the Christian right wing, both Catholic and Protestant, is waning.  Maybe not a lot, but enough so thata Obama won as did measures to legalize same-sex marriage and decriminalize marijuana possession.  The New York Times today has an interesting analysis of this trend.

But if the US is becoming more secular, will that have any effect on the striking scientific nay-saying that shows up in attitudes toward evolution?  A poll released last summer showed that 46 per cent of Americans believe in Creationism,  32 percent believed in theistic evolution and 15 percent believed in evolution without any divine intervention.

There's a lot of talk about making Ameicans cutting edge when it comes to science and technology, but when one of the foundation blocks of scientific thinking is so roundly denied, one can't have much hope.

BTW,  61 percent of Canadians and 69 per cent of Britons think human beings evolved from simpler life forms.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Small World Dept: The Walter Art Museum Shows a Portrait of Africans in Europe Long Ago

One of the things that fascinated me in my research for Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure was the evidence of contact on a nearly-equal basis between some Europeans and Africans  following the great European wave of exploration. 

For example, after the Portuguese reached Kongo at the end of the 15th century, Dom Affonso, the Kongolese king, sent his son and other members of his family to study in Portugal, and he himself wrote quite acceptable Portuguese.  

And  the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was the grandson of a man from an African royal family (sometimes recorded as being from Chad, sometimes Abyssinia), who was captured, sent to the Turkish capital of Constantinople in the mid-eighteenth century, and then sold to the Russian Tsar.  His elite status was recognized from the beginning; he was sent to France for military training and ended up marrying into a wealthy land-owning family.

 These contacts left traces in a number of works of art, many of which are on display at recently opened exhibit ‘Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe,’ at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.  The portrait of the  thoughtful woman above dates from 1580: she was a slave but her steady, intelligent gaze says much about her character and about what the painter (probably Anibale Caracci) thought about her. 

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Getting Things to Work: It's up to the Republicans

First question of the day: how will Obama convince the Republican majority House to sign on to his plans?
Probably the only way that  will happen is if the Republicans themselves change.

Second question of the day: Will they?
Maybe, with two "ifs." If they decide to change in order to appeal to a broader base, and if they realize that big money can't buy elections.
 Place your bets, Mesdames, Messieurs.

Google Annoys Me with Birthday Greetings

How does Google know when my birthday is?  I have very deliberately avoided listing it on Facebook (although apparently you can find it: a friend did yesterday) and in replying to those who ask to include me on their birthday calendars.

Nevertheless, this morning when I opened Google I was greeted with "Google" spelled out in cakes and candles.  I presume they got that information from my registry info but I certainly never gave permission for them to use it in any way.

Bah humbug!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Krugman Speaks from the Other Side of the World: Obama Won't Do Anything Stupid

Seems that Paul Krugman was in Singapore yesterday (must have voted in an advance poll or by mail.)   He had some most interesting things to say, as quoted in the Bloomberg newsletter:

“If it’s possible, we could use some modest additional stimulus, mostly in the form of aid to state and local governments.

“A lot of what’s required right now is just plain not doing anything stupid that derails the recovery. We can count on President Obama not to do anything stupid.

“We have a still very extreme Republican party so legislation is going to be very difficult to pass and there are going to be sharp limits on what Obama can do. To the extent that he is going to have big achievements in his second term, it’s mostly because he’s already passed the legislation.”

Work on the Ground Wins Election for Obama

Mitt Romney helped Obama a bit with his stupid comment about Big Bird, but what really won the election was slogging in the trenches, that is work on the ground.

You have to connect with the voters, have to be on the game all the time if you want to get them out to the polls.

Occasionally there are crazy sweeps, like the Orange Wave in Canada in 2011, or times when public enthusiasm runs ahead of the ground game.  That happened in 2008 with the Obama victory, but this time around it was just plain, hard work.

There's a lesson here for all of us political junkies.  Now let us hope that the Obama team turns it attention to wresting the country away from the Republicans in Congress, and listening to people like Paul Krugman who really have the interests of the country and the world at heart. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Politics in November 2012: Now in the Autumn of Our Discontent...

Shakespeare was has Richard III say "winter"  but the sentiment is appropriate this season.  Not only has a liar got a chance at winning the White House, Gerald Tremblay, the mayor of Montreal, has resigned after flurry of revelations about corruption in city government.

To give Tremblay credit, I don't think he ever was as self-deluding a prevaricator as Romney seems to have always been.  And in this legal system, a person is innocent until proven guilty.  But it is tragic that politics has once again thrown up evidence of the way twisted men can manipulate the system.

Tremblay began his resignation speech by saying, in French,  that "When I was a young man, my father told me not to get into politics because it was dirty and would destroy me."  The current scandals do nothing to change that impression among a large percentage of the population, unfortunately.

Politics should be a high calling.  Politicians have the well being of everyone in their hands.  That millions will wait in line to vote in the US today, and that thousands around here are looking for change for the better is a tribute to faith in the system.  Let us hope that faith is respected.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Hello There, Are You Listening? Obama for President

Four years ago I spent the three days before the US presidential election telephoning to prospective voters in a several states, particularly Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nevada.  The message was a general get out the vote one, much like what we use around here, and I figured that calling where my accent wouldn't be offensive might help the cause. (I'm a dual citizen and vote by absentee in California, so I feel I have every right to campaign in the US for president)

This time around it seems that the phone banks are even more efficient, but people aren't answering.  In an evening of calling into Ohio last week, I only got one person who picked up, which according to The New York Times is par for the course. People are tired of getting calls, although someone knocking on your door still gets an answer.

Campaigns are about getting out the vote as much as they are about issues.  As a foot soldier in many, many elections, I know what a slog it can be, but also just how important it is.

Needless to say, I was discouraged after my evening's effort, so despite the fact that I expected I'd spend quite a bit of time helping out with telephones, I'm reduced to keeping my fingers crossed when it comes to the US.

But the unspent energy may come in handy here, where we've got a big battle ahead of us, three years down the line...

Sunday, 4 November 2012

A Milestone Passed for 2012

Snow flakes this morning!  Reprieve from the worst?

My birthday is Nov. 8, and ever since we've been in Montreal, the first snow flakes have fallen before then.  Lee was sure that we wouldn't get any this year--not with temperatures in the 20s last week as warm air was sucked north by Sandy. 

But this morning, as we were preparing to go for a walk with Jeanne, it flurried for about 10 minutes.  Nothing on the ground, but still....

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Saturday Photo: Leaves Almost All Gone...

Frost forecast for tomorrow.  The season is finally changing...

Friday, 2 November 2012

Come Talk about Richler's Best--Barney's Version--in French and English

I'm nearly to the end of Barney's Version, Mordecai Richler's last novel.  It's not the first time I've read it, but next Tuesday I'll be leading a causerie littéraire at the Bibliothèque Robert-Bourassa in Outremont on the book.

It was suggested by one of the core members, and since the group is mostly Francophone, I imagine that the French translation, Le monde de Barney,  will be in front of participants Tuesday. 

In a way that's too bad, because the translation doesn't do Richler's work justice.  I switched over the English original after about 100 pages in frustration.  But the work is very interesting, the best thing Richler did after Duddy Kravitz, who BTW makes a cameo appearance in the book. 

So I'd like to extend an invitation to everyone who hates or loves Richler to come discuss this funny, provoking book at 7:30 pm. Tuesday, November 6 in the Salle Joseph-Beaubien of the Bibliothèque Robert-Bourassa (and wouldn't Richler love that irony), 41, St. Just, Outremont. 

Go Figure Department: Gas Shortages in New York/New Jersey But Rises Low in Montreal

If you ever wondered why or how gasoline prices are determined, your questions should get deeper this week.  We've been told that spikes in prices comes from shortages:  shutting down production at various drilling operatons because of hurricans has been given in the past as a reason for summertime increases.

Over the last couple of weeks prices in Montreal have been as high as $1.43 a litre--not as high in the summer of 2008, but almost.  Then came Sandy, and you'd think the price would continue to rise.  Certainly The New York Times notes this morning that a scarcity of gasoline in the greater New York agglomeration is making life more difficult for people trying to cope with Sandy's aftermath.

But, hey, last night the price here was around $1.26  a litre!  Makes no sense at all, even if you take into considertion  the fact that Montreal and New York aren't the same market. 

And last week I bought gas at $1.36 a litre, thinking I was doing well.  We haven't driven much since then, so there was no point in trying to fill up yesterday, one of the ironies of not driving much being that sometimes you can't take advantage of a bargain.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Pumpkin Pie Coming Up, One of These Days

No, I haven't made the pie yet.  The pumpkin with the face that Jeanne and I carved last weekend is still on the front porch.

But never fear, it will be used to make pumpkin pie whenever I get a few minutes.

Waste not, want not: I was appalled at how many pumpkins were sitting out to be collected by the trash man today.  In busy, two career families, I can see how making pies can disappear in the cracks of daily living, but it still makes me sad to see the waste.