Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Merry Month of May When We'll Hit a CO2 Danger Point

Lovely soft morning with the trees leafing out and the forsythia in bloom, which are reasons to wait for the beginning of May around here.  But Le Devoir reports on another thing that will happen this coming month that makes the day seem less promising: a UN warning that the world is about to cross a milestone level of 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere.

Looking a little further I found this interesting report on the PhysOrg website in which UN climate chief Christiana Figueres opened a conference of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by pointing out that the organization has said the atmospheric CO2 level must be limited to 400 ppm for Earth's average temperature rise to be contained at between two and 2.4 degrees Celsius (3.6 and 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit).

If not, we're headed for some major changes, documents accompanying Figueres warning said: Atmospheric levels of CO2, the main greenhouse gas, were probably last as high as 400 ppm in the Pliocene period, between 3.2 million and five million years ago when Earth was a warmer place.
The carbon concentration never exceeded 300 ppm for some 800,000 years, it added. Before the Industrial Revolution, when man first started pumping carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, CO2 levels were at about 280 ppm.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Call It Geezer Chic or Advanced Style, I'm in

Just came across this video and this story in The New York Times. Makes me feel good just to think about it!

The Rich Get Rich Dept: Academic Gap Widens between Rich and Poor Kids in the US

It's obvious in some ways, but rich kids do better in school and succeed in all sorts of things more often than poor kids do.  We all know that, but an op-ed piece in The New York Times today shows just how much that gap has grown in the US over the last 40 years.  I don't know the corresponding figures in Canada, but what's happening there has policy implication here for day care, parental leave and social services here. 

Sean F. Reardon writes in the piece that the big increase appears to have come from higher performance by richer kids who, in general, have started school with a backpack of cognitive skills that poor and middle class kids may not have.  After outlining the problem, he writes:  "Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born. Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it."  

This makes enormous sense, particularly when these days it takes two middle range incomes to assure a middle class standard of living.  Quebec, for all its faults, has had a large, mostly publicly financed child care program for the last 15 years which assures that relatively few kids arrive in kindergarten without a having listened to a lot of stories, heard songs, drew pictures, and played in a group. In addition, parental leave programs give most working families a chance for one parent to devote nearly a year to staying home with a baby. What  happens as this cohort makes its way through the school system is being studied and ought to influence policy across the country.

What is clear is that Jeanne, at two and  a half, has learned  lots of stuff asince she started day care seven months ago--putting on her coat and boots herself for example--that her mother (who's pretty smart)  wasn't doing until she was more than three. 

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Saturday Photo: The Scylla of Spring

For some reason, the scylla are particularly nice this year. How I love flowers that naturalize and come back year after year.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Shameless Self-Promotion Department: an Interview about Writing

Mary Eva of the Riverside School Board asked me a whole lot of interesting questions and I went on and on :)

Coming up on Sunday: A Blue Met Walk in the Bairro Português

I think there are still places left in the  walk I'll be leading on Sunday morning as part of the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival.

Called How the Portuguese Saved the Plateau, it will lead participants through on of Montreal's currently trendy neighborhoods which was saved from urban distruction by Portuguese immigrants.

In the best Jane Jacobs tradition, the neighborhood is a walkable village that has stood the test of time.  For info, try this link.  The photo is of the Parc du Portugal where we'll be starting about 11 a.m.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Who's Winnig the Language War in Quebec?

On Tuesday I spent a fabulous day giving workshops in a large English language high school south of Montreal.  The kids were 13 to 15, sometimes rowdy but in general open to my workshop which was about where stories come from.  I read one of my stories, talked about what inicidents in my life prompted the reflection that led to the story, and then they had to start a story about things from their lives.  A few of the boys did nothing at all, which I understand is par for them, but others created some very nice things in the 20 minutes they had to write.

They wrote in English because it was an English class in an English high school in an English school board, but at least half of them spoke to each other in French before,during and after class.  

This leaves me with one big question:  How did these  Francophone kids receive permission to go to school in English?  Obviously there are a lot of Francophone parents who want their kids to learn English well, even though there are rather strict requirements for eligibility for English instruction. 

Should be no surprise, therefore, that the PQ has just removed the idea of giving English kids first dibs on places in English cegeps to Anglophones for their new language bill.  There'd be a mutiny in the ranks....

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A Very Funny Descendant of Zola: Marina Lewycka's Novel about Quants, Commies and Community

Seems I spoke too soon a bit ago when I asked, rather rhetorically, in my book blog: where is a current novel to compare with Zola's The Kill when it comes to dealing with the causes of our economic woes?

Marina Lewycka's hilarious Various Pets Alive and Dead does just that, however,  It begins in early September 2008, ends a year or so later, and in between hits many of the high points of radical politics in Britain in the last quaarter of the 20th century.

The main characters include Doro and Marcus, a couple who fetched up in a hugh old house in coal mining country, just as Margaret Thatcher and economic forces were conspiring to shut down that industry.  Their three children--school teacher Clara, math whiz Serge and Down's syndrome sweetie Oolie-Anna--are trying to make their own lives, free of their parents' do-gooder, pacifist ways.  Other characters include Serge's comrades in the fields of finance, the other residents who passed through the old house/commune, and Clara's fellow teachers.

What they do is very funny: I laughed out loud every 25 pages or so, and I read late into the night for sheer pleasure.  Mixed in with the farce, however, is a great deal of information about the financial shenanigans that lead to the collapse of the housing bubble.  Nowhere else have I come across such a digestible exposition of the mathematical models that underlie the making of  financial "products" and manipulation of the stock market.  Bravo for Lewycka for doing what legions of business writers haven't done while telling an engaging story!

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Lewycka's first big novelistic success (she's written four in all)  also mixes fact and story.  But whereas it looks backward to the Ukraine of the 1930s and 1940s and immigrant life in post-War England, Various Pets... is as contemporary as the latest computer hardware update.

Zola might not recognize Lewycka as working his tradition--can't think of a moment when he was funny--but they belong in the same company of writers who deal honestly with the world as they see it in books that people are going to want to read.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

How Smart Is Your Dog? A Scientist Tries to Find out

When Jeanne was old enough to behave like a dog--to go and fetch something when you asked her--we were very pleased and proud.  We laughed at the time that the day would soon come when she would stop doing that unless she felt like, and that therein lay the difference between dogs and kids.

Perhaps: Brian Hare, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University, is undertaking  big study of dog intelligence, trying to enlist thousands of dog owners to test their pets and send in the results. 

Hare says that dog  smarts are as different from those of their closest relatives, wolves, as ours are from chimpanzees'. We and our canine friends pick up cues from our fellows the way the other animals can't. 

It would be great fun to try out the tests Hare and his colleagues have developed, but we haven't a handy dog to do them.   Maybe we'll go try to borrow one.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Croissants: Now, That's the Way to Start the Day

Looks like a missed something delicious on the weekend: a dozen bakeries in the Montreal area were celebrating the croissant. 

The lovely, light bun was one of my first discovery in Montreal, because when we came here, croissants were just about unknown on the West Coast.  Now you can find them in plastic sacks in any big supermarket, but the delight of a buttery, flakey freshly baked one is something else entirely.

According to Le Devoir, the croissant has its origins in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire .  A pastry cook in Vienna  whipped them up when a sack of coffee bearing the Turkish creecent  was left behind by the fleeing Turks.  Marie Antoinette brought them with her to Frence--was her cry of "Let them eat cake" really "Let them eat croissants."

Whatever, I love them, and I know where you can get the best ones--just around the corner from us at the Croissanterie Figaro.  Here's what it looks like on nice mornings from mid-May until the snow flies.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Saturday Photo Bis: Bougainvillea

The snowdrops are up. So are a few crocuses. But the nicest flowers around this place are those on my ancient bougainvillea. 

Friday, 19 April 2013

Global Deforestation:

The buds on the trees are beginning to swell, so spring is on its way and once again I'm amazed at the way trees around here go from looking dead to be luxuriant in a couple of weeks.

. My thoughts are turning to trees because I'm back working on a non-fiction poject which will include much about human's relations with forests.  Deforestation is part of the story, and I found this most interesting video about it.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Something Not at All Political: A Short Story in Queen's Quarterly....

Shameless self-promotion department: my story "Ancient Faults" has just been published in the Spring 2013 Queen's Quarterly, Canada's oldest literary magazine.

Here's an excerpt:

The tide is out and Rebecca sees immediately that she can walk out as far as the rock, which at high tide is a sort of tower guarding the coast. There is one place where the rushing water has cut a channel in the rock, but she knows she can jump over it. She's jumped over it before, even without holding her father's hand.
     She looks around: her mother and the carriage are still a long way away, it will take several minutes for them to get close enough for Dorothy to tell her to stop. Besides, a man is getting out of a car at the wide space at the end of the road, and her mother is talking to him. She won't notice. Rebecca will be at the tower rock, on top of the tower rock even, before she notices ...

The story will be part of a new collection of short stories I'm working on to be called Destire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Harper's Attack Ads: Will Cons Profit, or Will the NDP?

Just thinking out loud here, but is it possible that the nasty attack ads the Harper Conservatives rolled out on Monday, impugning Justin Trudeau's lack of content and maturity, make work more to the NDP's advantage than the Cons'?

Negative advertising is tricky business, because it can backfire when people decide it is unfair.  Several among the chattering classes said that, but I didn't hear anyone say how the ads may play into Tom Mulcair's hands.  The NDP leaders have said they don't want to go there when it comes to ad hominen attacks, that they want to raise politics to a higher level.  That position I think is a genuine one.

But at the same time, I'm sure there was a little chuckling the NDP backrooms over the ads, because they point out Trudeau's vividly and make Mulcair look all the better.

As for the polls, well, wait a couple of weeks and see what happens to the Liberals recent surge in popularity.

Furher to Bagpipe Alert: Black Watch Pipers Try out Musical Swings

I didn't hear or see them, but this morning Le Devoir has this great photo of Black Watch pipers swing on Montreal's musical swings yesterday.

The Royal Highland Regiment of Canada  is the oldest highland regiement in Canada, dating from 1862 as 1862 as the 5th Battalion, Volunteer Militia Rifles of Canada.  Its website says: "The rise of American military strength during the Civil War concerned Canada. The government authorized formation of militia regiments. Each of six Montreal Scottish chieftains responded by raising an infantry company for the 5th Battalion. Eventually, eight companies were raised for border service." 

Times have changed since, and the pipers, whose regimental headquarters are only a block away from the swing, obviously enjoyed their duty.  The swings have caught the eye of others, too: in March Oprah featured them on one of her programs.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Preparing for Conflict? Bagpipers in Outremont

Bagpipe alert! Somebody was practising bagpipe scales (very badly) on Durocher between St. Viateur and Fairmount this afternoon. Will be interesting to see if the player persists.

In the meantime:

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Stiglitz and Muclair VS. Trudeau and ?

Just returned from the NDP policy convention.  While I'm not pleased that those assembled voted to replace the preamble with a more touchy-feely document (the vote was something 900 to 200), I was delighted the convention kicked off with Joseph Stiglitz talking about the dangers of austerity (!!!) and proceeded with a number of speakers and policy discussions that deal with a wealth of problems.

Compare that with the coronation, also this weekend, of Justin Trudeau.  That the Libs decided not to have a real convention is very interesting: it shows their financial problems since real conventions cost a lot of money, and underlines the paucity of ideas coming from Trudeau and those around him.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Saturday Photo: Enough Snow Already!

We've had snow in April before, but for the last several years it's been warm enough for me to eat breakfast on the back porch, albeit usually with a coat on.

Last year took the cake: the week  March 21 saw really balmy temperatures: the Youtube video below made of a big student march where, as you can see, people were wearing summer clothes.

But it snowed yesterday, and while the temperature is well above freezing this morning, there's still a lot of the white stuff around.  The snow drops, which have been quite lovely, are covered again, although, as the snow melts, they've begun to live up to their French name, perce-neige, as they peek up through the snow cover.
March 22, 2012

Friday, 12 April 2013

Day One of NDP Convention: Health Resolution Gets Good Priority

Just spent the day at the NDP Convention in Montreal.  As some may know, I've spent years working for the party, but for the last several months I've taken a backseat, since there are a number of other projects I'd like to see finished.

But I couldn't resist a convention, particularly not when it's in my home town.  I went ready to fight for giving high priorities to health resolutions and was delighted ot discover that there were others, including MPs, already in line to do do just that. 

More later....

Thursday, 11 April 2013

New Shoes Songs: The Horrors of Shopping

I absolutely must get a new pair of walking shoes now that winter is nearly over. So I spent far too much time today looking for what I need, and which, of course, I couldn't find. When I came home I went looking for shoe songs to lift my spirits while I rested my feet. Here's what I came up with: These boots are made for walking... and Gumboots and The Red Shoes

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Is There an Upside to Climate Change? Maybe, If You're Trying to Grow Wine in Canada

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS)  a group of scientists have analyzed what climate change may mean for wine production around the world.  The news isn't good for growers in many regions that produce the best wine, like the south of France and Italy.  Drier weather and higher temperatures will stress the vines and likely reduce production  (up to 68 per cent in Mediterrean Europe, and 60 per cent in California.)

But other regions which are now on the edge of wine production may fare much better.  The study specifically mentions "high latitudes in Western North America," but high latitudes in the eastern part of the continent may also become more welcoming to wine production.

While this shift may cause problems for existing ecosystems--and the study cautions that trying to maintain a corridor of wildness for big mammals like grizzlies in the Rockies will become that much harder when faced with competition from vinyards--it also means that Canadian wine drinkers and growers may enjoy much better harvests.


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Big Brother and Studying: What's Wrong with Education I

CourseSmart is a new tool for university professors which allows them to track a students reading in e-texts.  Apparently it's a coming thing, but it seems to me to be just another symptom of the problems with higher education today.

The tool might have some use in high school, but by the time someone hits university he or she should have figured out how to study and if that hasn't been done, there's nothing like a bad grade as a wake up call. 

These texts are going to cost more than standard texts too, which means more money for the publisher (and probably not for the people who develop the content, but that's another story.)  Given the debt load of university graduates, more expenses are not what is needed. In Canada the average graduate finishes with $20,000 in debt which will take 14 years to pay off.  The figure is higher in the US.

What may be better is to rethink the idea of what a university education means.  According to a recent OECD study, slightly under 40 per cent of young people in both Canada and the US  finish post secondary degrees.  (The Slovak Republic heads the list with about 60 pe cents, followed by Ireland with about 50 per cent.)  And what use has all this education meant in terms of creating successful citizens in all senses of the term?  Since both  the US and Canada have sizeable groups that subscribe to ideologies that deny a scientific approach to the world, I'd give their  systems of higher education questionable marks.

Tracking e-reading isn't likely to change that much.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Suburbs: Inequality in the American Dream

The neighborhood I live in was built a century ago as a "garden suburb" on a street care line with housing for a mixture of incomes. 

Our block is made-up of attached, single-family houses designed, it seems, for families on the way up.  Our house, for example, has a tiny room of the kitchen that probably was one the hired girl slept in.  We know that a railway conductor and a glazier were among the first residents: lower middle class with aspirations, in other words. 

Across the back lane are triplexes with large apartments--six or seven rooms--where families the next notch down f lived.  In contrast, a block over are  semi-detached houses of the next notch up: they have much nicer rooms where their live-in helped slept.

The kids from these families would have gone to schools in the neighborhood, and their mothers--or the maids--would have shopped at the same stores.  While there were class distinctions, everyone rubbed up everyone else.  This inner suburban hodge-podge has continued, even though property prices have gone up.

But that is not the case for suburbs built later in the 20th century.  Neighborhoods were almost always stratified by income, as an interseting story in today's New York Times points out. "Suburban Disequilibrium" is the title, but it warns that inequality between nieghborhoods is likely to incnrease, not decrease: "The point is not simply that rich and poor people live in different places through a kind of class sorting in the marketplace. The places themselves help to create wealth and poverty. Because of this power of places to fix inequity over time, current patterns are likely to outlive their residents."

The article calls for property tax sharing and planning on a larger scale than is usually practiced, as well as more income equality.  Will this happen? 

Not likely unless we get some much better leadership on all levels of government.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Saturday Photo: Snow Drops and A Hymn to Spring

The snowdrops are in bloom, which does the heart good.  I planted a dozen or so bulbs 10 or 12 years ago and they have slowly spread.

Haven't got a complete cover of white flowers--they have to compete with the scylla that bloom next--but they are enough for Jeanne to be charmed by spring.

I'm also posting a lovely compilation made two years ago of videos to an instrumental version of Félix Leclerc"s Hymne au printemps.  it does the heart good too.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Trio of Shame III: If I Don't Know about It, It Doesn't Exist

I kept the way the Harper government is systematically undercutting any independent effort to find out what is happening in the environement to the last item of this trio. 

Last weekend, I thought I'd mention the end of the Experimental Lakes Area project, and call it a day.  But there seem to be an increasing number of funding cuts which seem to have no real purpose other than to remove the possiblity of any objective comment coming from the scientific community.  These include Canada's withdrawal  from the UN Convention on Desertification and the muzzling of scientists who must get approval from the communications wonks before they can say anything

The truth will make you free, eh?  Well, not if you don't have it.

BTW, the photo is from this morning's Le Devoir, and is of an ice sculpture on display in Montreal now.  The idea is underline how quickly the Arctic ice is melting.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Trio of Shame II: New Citizenship Guide Has More Monarchy, Less History

This isn't entirely a new story, because it seems that the official Canadian Citizenship Guide was published last fall, but I'd not heard much about it until Le Devoir's Marie Vastel published a comparison of the old and the new versions today.

The upshot: lots more about the Queen and Canada's relation to the Empire, and not very much at all about some interesting aspects of the country's history, like the Rebellions of 1837-38.  All part of the Harperites reinventing the country.  

And there are very few faces of visible minorities in the guide.  You'd think there would be more, given the countries from which most new Canadians are coming.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Trio of Shame I: Clark Says Canada is Losing Its Influence Abroad

It's always interesting when a former Prime Minister comments on what is going on at the moment, but it's especially so when the ex-PM criticizes his political descendants.  While Joe Clark was a Progressive Conversative (which always seemed to be an oxymoron, but seems to be less so day by day) so far he's mostly kept his mouth shut when it comes to the current Conservative government.

Yet today Le Devoir reports Clark has taken on the Harperites for pulling out of the UN the UN Convention on Desertification.  "You can't withdraw from organizations as important as this because, sometimes, they don't agree with you," Clark said in a telephone interview with the newspaper.  "In fact, on the contrary, the bst thing to do is when there is disagreement is to stay and to defend your point of view in order ot convince them that you are right." (My translation of: "Vous ne pouvez pas rester à l’écart d’organisations aussi précieuses parce que, parfois, elles sont en désaccord avec vous. En fait, au contraire, la meilleure chose à faire lorsqu’il y a des désaccords c’est de défendre votre point de vue auprès de ceux qui ont à être convaincus."

Clark's statement appear  not to have been picked up elsewhere, which is a shame.  It is a bit of a consolation, though, that there are others speaking out about the Harper government's action on this matter.

Monday, 1 April 2013

First Siting: Another Sign of Spring!

Well, actually the bikes aren't there yet (the photo was taken just before they were warehoused for the winter), but over the weekend, Bixi workers began putting out stands for the rental bikes.  The first ones in the 'hood are the corner of Avenue du Parc and St-Viateur and Laurier and Jeanne-Mance.

Almost as encouraging as the two skeins of geese that flew over Saturday morning!

North Korea Sabre Rattling: Flash from the Past...and the Future?

Over the Easter weekend my head has been elsewhere, so it is only this morning that I caught up on the back-and-forth going on in the two Koreas.  Will the apparently completely off the wall North Korean leader really send missiles and nuclear bombs soaring toward South Korea?  Why the hell did hte US and the South Koreans go ahead with their planned manoeuvres?  This can't be an April Fool, can it?

No, unfortunately: it seems that everybody is playing Chicken, and nobody plans on blinking.  I am reminded of the first International Crisis I followed. That was in the  summer of 1950, when the North pushed South, the UN intervened and the the US began sending troops.  We were living in a small town in Washington State then, and the local radio station did what has come to be called a "streeter"--clips of ordinary folk giving their opinion.  Should we go in?  Sure, said those interviewed.  Got to show those folks who's boss.

That scared me, stirring up memories of uncertainty born during WWII when I was only old enough to know that very bad things happen in war.  Since then I've spent far more time than I like to have done marching in anti-war, pro-peace events.  Indeed, one of the things I'm most proud of is having been among the 200,000 who marched in Montreal on February 15, 2003 against involvement in the Second Iraq War.  Those protests turned the tide, and Canada, while involved in Afghanistan, stayed out of Iraq.

So are we headed in that direction again?  I doubt it.  But remember that North Korea is not the only "Third World" nation that has nuclear weapons.  So do India and Pakistan, and quite likely Israel  As we used to say: The Only Shelter is Peace.