Saturday, July 25, 2015

Review of Hamlet (Stratford 2015)

This year's Hamlet, directed by Antoni Cimolino, makes sense. I say that as the highest praise. I've seen the play many times and it never flowed so naturally before.

Like... Ophelia's pregnant. She always struck me as a bit of a cry-baby, going bonkers because she gets jilted and her dad dies. Add the pregnancy, and we see a young woman whose brother is far away, whose father is killed by her ex-lover - who is without protectors, pregnant... it all clicks into place. When Laertes says to the other mourners at Ophelia's graveside, "Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead" - it's completely obvious that she's meant to be pregnant, but I have never seen a production before where she was.

Once Ophelia is pregnant, it makes sense that Laertes is in such a murderous rage at Hamlet, to the point that he wants to stab him with a poisoned sword and poison his wine. Ophelia becomes much more central to the plot.

Another first for me is that Cimolino's production is not introspective. Hamlet doesn't do soliloquies in this production: he narrates. He speaks directly to the audience, even at times pointing at individuals. That turns the whole play on its head. It's a much more straightforward story.

In this production, "To be or not to be" is perfectly easy to understand. There's nothing cryptic about it. Hamlet is facing two options: keep quiet and stay alive, or take action against his uncle. He knows that he has to take the second option, and that it will lead to his death, so he muses about death.

The dialog in this production is naturalistic. Everything makes sense, and the characters interact naturally. Even in very good Shakespeare productions, there is often a problem that the actors focus more on the magnificent language than on creating a character. Of course the language is the jewel, but I want distinct believable characters with depth and nuance.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Elora Festival - Bach B Minor Mass (review)

Friday night at 7:30 the audience was seated in the Gambrel Barn in Elora. Onstage were the Elora Festival Orchestra, Elora Festival Singers, the VOCES8 choir, and Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal. Noel Edison was at his podium, his back to the audience, arms at his sides. There was an almost-overlong pause, maybe a minute of dead silence. Then Edison raised his arms and the choir and orchestra opened up at full volume. It was like a knife edge between silence and music. If beauty can be shocking then that's what it was. It was so beautiful I cried.

Bach doesn't do filler. It started and then it just carried on as this breathtakingly beautiful experience. I wish the soloists hadn't walked out to the front from their places in the choir because it broke my concentration a little, but I suppose the musicians needed to catch their breath.

The Elora Festival Singers are better than ever this year. There are such distinctive, beautiful voices, and Edison has made use of them in many solos during the festival. VOCES8 added three countertenors to the choir for the B Minor Mass, and Edison created moments when their sound was able to shine through.

It's a tragedy that the barn was only two-thirds full. This was the greatest musical event of the summer in southern Ontario and seats were just $45. The production wasn't promoted or reviewed by local or Toronto media, as far as I can tell.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Berlin Wall in Waterloo Park

Back in 2011, the Record asked me to write an op-ed about the LRT (link). I outlined my major problems with the LRT proposal, including: "Waterloo Park will be sliced in two by trains. It seems likely a fence will be required, especially since the tracks border a children’s zoo. This will leave the park looking like postwar Berlin."

That reference to the Berlin Wall caused a big kerfuffle. LRT supporters claimed I was being hysterical: there would be no fence; in fact, the tracks would roll through grass in an attractive way and enhance the park setting.

This week it was announced that there needs to be a fence along the tracks in Waterloo Park and that it must be at least 6 feet high. This completely cuts the park in two. Add to this Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic's concerns about unsightly substations that will line the route to power the transit system, and postwar Berlin is starting to look pretty accurate. I wish I had been wrong.

It just breaks my heart what the LRT is doing to Waterloo Region. In the first place, it's too expensive - so expensive that it will suck all the air out of any other initiative for decades. (Just look what RIM Park did to our budgets, and it's a drop in the bucket of what LRT will end up costing residents of Waterloo.)

The route is ridiculous - going through Waterloo Park and the UW campus instead of heading straight down King Street North where a huge density area has developed. I am absolutely certain that the only reason the Powers That Be chose the campus route is that they need students to up their ridership numbers - even though student riders don't add one dime to revenues. Students are young; they can take the bus. The aging population - and the growing problem of impoverished seniors - is totally a non-issue for the people who forced the LRT on us.

During the LRT discussions I met with many politicians and staff members. It was beyond frustrating to be constantly met by lies, obfuscation and stonewalling, especially by Waterloo Region staff. They totally poo-pooed my concerns about traffic on Park Street, but now Thomas Schmidt is casually quoted in the Chronicle as saying that traffic police may be required at Park and Green after the LRT is built.

I went to just about every public forum on the LRT, and witnessed first hand that the public was lied to. In surveys, about half of local people supported the LRT; few people showed up at the anti-LRT rallies I helped organize. But people are going to be mighty unhappy once they see what they were tricked into.

Oh, one more thing. There's a perfectly reasonable solution to the fence problem. For the short distance that the train passes through the park, have it go slow. Presto-besto: no fence is needed. Freight trains have gone through the park for as long as it has been a park, and we never needed a fence BECAUSE THEY GO SLOW. I wrote Waterloo's mayor about this and he said he'd pass on my email to the LRT planners, but I know from sorrowful experience that they won't listen, not even to the Mayor of Waterloo - these outsiders who aren't elected and don't even live here want to save two seconds by running fast trains through "the Jewel of Waterloo", so we'll just have to live with a Berlin Wall that slices our park in two.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

I'm supposed to tell you you missed your flight

Not since "Did you get pears?" have I been so entranced by a Mad Men line.

Don Draper's ex-girlfriend, Rachel, appears in Don's dream and says, "I'm supposed to tell you you missed your flight." Dream-Don says, "Rachel." Rachel says, "Yes." Don says, "You're not just smooth. You're Wilkinson smooth." Rachel says, "Thanks."

The next day Don finds out that Rachel died the previous week. He goes to her apartment (where her family is sitting shiva) and meets a sister who knows about their affair (Don was married to Betty at the time) and is quite hostile. In the background, Rachel's children are very prominent. Since (if I recall correctly) Rachel dumped Don abruptly and married quickly, it seems possible that the eldest is Don's. Or maybe they're twins and both are Don's.

Several plot lines seem to have opened up in this first episode of the final season: Don's philandering past might have caught up with him. Roger and Pete's callous treatment of other people might have caught up with them. Peggy might have found "the one" (or might find that Paris is better than "the one"). Joan might have come to terms with her new status as an independently rich woman.

It's quite possible that none of this will ever get explained.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Peace, Order and Good Government

I'm not against the globalization movement. More trade is occurring, so we need safeguards to protect less powerful countries from more powerful countries, as well as protecting all people from corporations. Trade agreements should be creating those protections, and in most cases they do.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei.

Last week, WikiLeaks leaked the "Investment Chapter" of the TPP. The WikiLeaks announcement said:
The Investment Chapter highlights the intent of the TPP negotiating parties, led by the United States, to increase the power of global corporations by creating a supra-national court, or tribunal, where foreign firms can "sue" states and obtain taxpayer compensation for "expected future profits".

These investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) tribunals are designed to overrule the national court systems. ISDS tribunals introduce a mechanism by which multinational corporations can force governments to pay compensation if the tribunal states that a country's laws or policies affect the company's claimed future profits. In return, states hope that multinationals will invest more.

Similar mechanisms have already been used. For example, US tobacco company Phillip Morris used one such tribunal to sue Australia (June 2011 – ongoing) for mandating plain packaging of tobacco products on public health grounds; and by the oil giant Chevron against Ecuador in an attempt to evade a multi-billion-dollar compensation ruling for polluting the environment. The threat of future lawsuits chilled environmental and other legislation in Canada after it was sued by pesticide companies in 2008/9.

ISDS tribunals are often held in secret, have no appeal mechanism, do not subordinate themselves to human rights laws or the public interest, and have few means by which other affected parties can make representations.

The TPP negotiations have been ongoing in secrecy for five years and are now in their final stages.
Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor said: "The TPP has developed in secret an unaccountable supranational court for multinationals to sue states. This system is a challenge to parliamentary and judicial sovereignty. Similar tribunals have already been shown to chill the adoption of sane environmental protection, public health and public transport policies."


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Let's send Bardish to Ottawa!

This is my official endorsement for the Waterloo Liberal Riding Association candidate to stand in the next federal election. I'm rooting for Ms. Bardish Chagger.

Bardish is an amazing person and an incredible asset to our community. She has done everything - really - go see her web site for all the details ( Most recently she served, for the last four years, as president of the Waterloo Federal Liberal Association (WFLA, formerly the KWFLA).

When Bardish talks about the five years she worked as Executive Assistant to Andrew Telegdi when he was our MP, she says, "I learned about the work of an MP, but most of all, I learned the value of helping constituents surmount their challenges. Inclusiveness, community building and social justice are at the heart of my work and of my volunteer and Liberal Party involvement – all of which position me to help return the Liberals to Ottawa."

What mostly impresses me about Bardish is her leadership ability: she draws people in, motivates, makes them part of the community. And she does it non-stop, year after year. I have interacted with her at LPC(0) AGMs, on the KWFLA board, in election campaigns, and many other places, and I have always been impressed. I don't know if her political ability is natural or learned, but she has it in spades.

I really like both of the other candidates (Dan Herman and Cathy MacLellan) and I wish them all the best, but Bardish is the best choice, by a mile, in my opinion.

The nomination meeting will be held on Sunday, February 22 from 4 pm to 7 pm at the Waterloo Inn (475 King St. N.). To vote, you must be a member of the Liberal party by now. Details are here:

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Horrible Regional Signage is Causing Construction Chaos

The Ion LRT is going to take three long years to build, three years of construction and traffic jams, three years of mud, three years of inconvenience and unpleasantness. The process started a few weeks ago, and I live in the epicenter of it. The Region has got to improve their signage.

Here is an example: Caroline Street is torn up from Allen to Erb. Park Street has no construction. However, there are signs along Park Street saying, "ROAD CLOSED LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY". Here is Park at Union (construction starts three blocks away from here):

The signs on Park should not say "ROAD CLOSED LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY". They should say something like "Caroline Street closed from Erb to Allen". Here's another confusing "ROAD CLOSED" on Park, this one near Allen:

You might think that the arrow is supposed to show that the road closure is to the right, but look at this signage on Alexandra at Euclid, which is showing that the road behind the sign is closed ahead:

In fact, the arrow directions (up, down, left, right) used in the road closed signs are inconsistent and confusing. I'm not sure about the placement of the signs in the road either. On Alexandra, they blocked the east-bound lane with a "ROAD CLOSED" sign and traffic cones, even though I have to turn there to get to my home. (A local resident kindly moved the sign to the curb so we can get by.)

Here is another example. Alexandra Street is not torn up, but it is blocked at Caroline. At the next intersection to the west, there are three ROAD CLOSED signs. Any law-abiding person driving east on Alexandra will think, as they approach Euclid, that they have to turn around and go back. On Euclid heading to the left and right there are signs saying "ROAD CLOSED LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY" and straight ahead on Alexandra there's a sign saying simply "ROAD CLOSED". It's a little difficult to see, but here's a photo taken from Alexandra looking east at the intersection with Euclid, showing "ROAD CLOSED" signs in every direction:

I have to drive past the "ROAD CLOSED" sign on Alexandra at Euclid every day, because I live on Alexandra between Euclid and Caroline. That sign should also say "LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY". People living on Alexandra and Short Street have to drive through there.

The Euclid signage saying "ROAD CLOSED LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY" appears all along Euclid even though there is no construction on or near Euclid - the signs were put up in an attempt to keep cars from cutting through on Euclid. When I complained to the Region about it I got an email saying it was required by community safety. Fair enough, but the signage should NOT say "ROAD CLOSED" when the road is not closed. When a motorist drives on a road that has been signed as closed, their insurance can be denied if they have an accident. They can be stopped by the police. The Region could put up signs saying "LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY" but it is madness to tell us that the road is closed when the road is not obstructed.

Strangely, on Caroline at Allen, where the Caroline road closure begins, there is no signage at all. Same thing at Caroline and Alexandra: there's nary a "ROAD CLOSED" sign, and in fact confused drivers have been driving along Caroline on the dirt track the construction trucks use.

Finally, here's a map showing the current construction.

  • The yellow line shows where Caroline is closed.
  • The yellow line with red dashes shows where a road is partially closed.
  • The red X's show where there are "ROAD CLOSED" signs. (I missed quite a few: for example there is also one at William and Westmount, nine blocks from any construction.) Note that these red X's are places that say "ROAD CLOSED", implying that the current road is closed.
  • The blue X shows where I live.
It is going to be a long, long three years. Currently, the Region is tearing up Caroline to move the pipes so they won't be under the LRT tracks. Then they'll repave. Then they'll tear up the road to lay the tracks. I think my new mantra should be, "Where do you live?" "I live at You-Can't-Get-There-From-Here".

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wearable tech

Forget the eye glasses, the arm band, the watch, the ring. What I want is a smartphone in a narrow stick about 18" long, and I want the controls to be based on gestures (moving the stick through the air) and voice commands. C'mon.... we have got to have wands.

Buffalo's wall of snow

Here are some photos of the blizzard that rolled into Buffalo a couple of days ago dropping five feet of snow in one day. I've seen similar photos of snow squalls around here, but none that high. Gadzooks.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

It was a joke, ya dummies

At the remembrance day ceremonies in Ottawa, CBC interviewed a guy dressed like a soldier. Later on CBC discovered that the guy was not really a soldier. CBC used print and video to condemn the guy, adding in lots of outrage from real veterans, calls for criminal prosecution, and dark speculation as to why he was impersonating a soldier.

But CBC is still in the dark: the outfit is obviously a gag. Maybe it was a dare. In the background of a CBC video you can see the man and his wife trying to keep a straight face. At one point she is laughing so hard that she wipes tears from her eyes.

This reminds me of the April 1 interview Michael Enright gave to an obviously fake Jimmy Carter, and the front page article in the Globe & Mail that Just Didn't Get the Joke.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Framing sadism

[This post is inference and speculation based on reports that have not been fully vetted (especially the claims in the @BigEarsTeddy account). In this post I wander down a line of thought that is a bit "out there".]

So what is a sadist anyway? In Jian Ghomeshi's case, it seems to be a guy who gets off on beating up women. He apparently calls this "rough sex" and "BDSM lifestyle" and "kinky sexual preference". Once we call something a sexual preference then a lot of people, myself included, feel they should be accepting – but I’m not sure that this case merits tolerance.

There are, apparently, clubs where sadists meet masochists and have fun together consensually. If Ghomeshi belongs to any of those clubs, he seems to have also strayed beyond them.

One might argue that Ghomeshi’s dating life is one long quest for the perfect girl who will let him beat, humiliate and dominate her. In that sense, you might see his alleged assaults on women as try-outs, or as mistakes based on miscues. But along with unsuspecting dates, the BigEarsTeddy account also alleges that Ghomeshi hires prostitutes to beat up, and that he lures women to his house under false pretences.

It seems odd that in some of the women’s recountings there’s no sex involved and the beating was brief. Ghomeshi seems to like to attack women on his own turf, which might simply be for sound-proofing and isolation, but might also be related to photographic equipment. There is evidence that he records his attacks. In an attempt to prove that his sadism was consensual, Ghomeshi gave CBC brass a video of himself injuring a woman, and the police now have that video. Also, the Twitter account BigEarsTeddy posted, last April, that “@jianghomeshi keeps an impressive anthology of videos and photos of the young girls he chokes out.” So the real turn-on might be watching himself hurt women.

In his Facebook post a week ago, Ghomeshi was able to get out in front of this story and frame it. He says the story is about his kinky sexual preferences. I think a lot of people, even while reviling him, are still thinking in those terms. But if you throw out the BDSM aspect then what you’re left with is a sexual predator – less a Pee-Wee Herman and more a Colonel Williams. That’s what really haunts me about this story: is what we have heard so far all there is? What if a woman fought back? What if his compulsions escalated?

It is possible that the master manipulator is still manipulating us – misdirecting, framing the story, keeping his liberal fanbase worried about sexual intolerance so they aren't sure if it's wrong. It is possible that what we know now is just the tip of the iceberg.

...or not. I am certainly not claiming the guy is a murderer, but it seems that there are kinky, consensual role-playing sadists and then there are narcissistic, sociopathic serial-assault sadists. And Ghomeshi might be trying to confuse us as to which type of sadist he is.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Ain’t love grand

“Happy Monday!” he gushed to me in an early morning tweet. He told me that he wanted a family and that I was “the one”. He was smitten with me. His eyes lit up when he saw me. He couldn’t keep his hands off me.

Those memories were recounted by women who dated Jian Ghomeshi, some of whom he allegedly beat up and some of whom he didn’t. He certainly didn’t marry any of them.

One of them recalled a bizarre, hot and cold relationship with Ghomeshi. She concluded, “Jian was grooming me for the same violence he inflicted on other women. I think he was pursuing and encouraging me because of the existing power imbalance, creating a level of emotional intensity as a preface to his “big reveal” so that I would ether acquiesce or never tell. He trained me to feel sorry for him, to feel guilty about not giving enough of myself to him, to believe I was special to him.”

Some insight might be gleaned from research on pedophiles. In a 2012 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about how child molesters ingratiate themselves into communities, create a persona that makes sexual abuse seem unlikely, get access to a large pool of potential victims, and then start the selection process. Gladwell writes about “standard child-molester tradecraft”:

The successful pedophile does not select his targets arbitrarily. He culls them from a larger pool, testing and probing until he finds the most vulnerable. Clay, for example, first put himself in a place with easy access to children—an elementary school. Then he worked his way through his class. He began by simply asking boys if they wanted to stay after school. “Those who could not do so without parental permission were screened out,” van Dam writes. Children with vigilant parents are too risky. Those who remained were then caressed on the back, first over the shirt and then, if there was no objection from the child, under the shirt. “The child’s response was evaluated by waiting to see what was reported to the parents,” she goes on. “Parents inquiring about this behavior were told by Mr. Clay that he had simply been checking their child for signs of chicken pox. Those children were not targeted further.” The rest were “selected for more contact,” gradually moving below the belt and then to the genitals. ... The child molester’s key strategy is one of escalation, desensitizing the target with an ever-expanding touch.

Ghomeshi, so cool in some ways, was remarkably uncool in others. Were the overly-strong cologne, the creepy grab-hand way he first approached women, the corny pickup lines, the early hair pulling, all part of a cull? Was there method in his uncoolness? The alleged assaults have occurred for over a decade without anyone reporting Ghomeshi to the police, so it seems he was doing something right.

To grossly paraphrase Gladwell, "When monsters roam free, we assume that their victims ought to have reported them. But that might be wishful thinking. A sexual predator is someone adept not just at preying on women but at manipulating, intimidating, deceiving, and charming them."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Terrorism, really?

He was a homeless, mentally ill drug addict. He had a single gun, an old hunting rifle that held seven bullets. He had four bullets left when he entered Parliament. The RCMP has said that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had no connections to terrorist organizations.

Still, our prime minister made a speech that referred to Zehaf-Bibeau's actions as ISIS-inspired terrorism. The media in Canada and around the world has piled on with the terrorist rhetoric.

The truth that is emerging is very different. Far from inspiring violence, it seems that conversion to Islam was a search for goodness and an attempt to cure himself. It seems he wanted to go to Saudi Arabia not to join a jihadist group but to find religious guidance to help conquer his demons. In fact, over the last several years Zehaf-Bibeau has made several attempts to get help for his drug addictions, including robbing a restaurant with a pointy stick and then asking the judge to incarcerate him so he could get help.

So what do I know. Zehaf-Bibeau's trigger looks to have been our government's decision to participate in the bombing of Iraq, but I can't see this as Islamic terrorism, and I suspect that the only reason it's being called terrorism is that half of the guy's name is Arabic. Even that is from his adoptive father. Until he was 13 his name was Mike Hall.

Monday, September 01, 2014

King & University: a traffic problem?

Taxi drivers are saying that they are risking their lives to pick up and drop off passengers outside the new high rises on King Street north of University Ave. The problem is that the buildings have no pull-in area so cabs have to stop on busy King Street. I have noticed private cars stopping on the street to pick people up, too.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Waterloo Square Withers

Some photos of Waterloo Square yesterday... that's BEFORE the surrounding streets are shut down for extended periods to build the LRT. Where's the uptown success story now? What's going on? At a guess:

*There is no longer enough convenient parking.
*Dozens of big box stores with loads of convenient parking have recently gone up nearby.
*Rents are too high (I have heard this from store owners).

Waterloo Square has a good and popular grocery store, a great flower shop and a drug store, but it needs another anchor: an LCBO, beer store, department store, Starbucks, City Cafe Bakery... something like that. It needs more convenient parking (currently, the Station Lot at Regina and Erb is considered parking for Waterloo Square in parking studies).

We need activities in the Square that really draw people - people who shop at the stores in the square. During the Winterloo Festival I walked into some stores asking how the festival affected business, and some retailers told me that it decreased sales. Sadly, some of those stores are now shuttered.

Uptown Waterloo became successful through a lot of hard work. Are we becoming complacent and letting it slip away?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Another Olympics, Another Scandal

So Canada is the alleged victim in another Olympic figure skating scandal, this time in ice dance. There are the usual calls for ending all judged sports at the Olympics, as if questions about fairness arise only in judged sports. (I guess these people haven’t heard about questionable calls by referees in team sports.) Every sport is plagued by allegations of unfairness, and there is rarely much recourse: the decisions of officials are almost always final.

In this case, rumors of dirty dealing started early. During the team event at the beginning of the Games, Canadian skaters were apparently subjected to drug tests that seemed aimed to disrupt their performances: some were awakened in the middle of the night; one was disturbed during her pre-performance nap. (Drug tests are typically held after a performance, not before.)

Next up, a magazine in France called L’Equipe reported an anonymous source saying that US and Russian judges had entered a deal to give the team event gold to Russia and the ice dance gold to the US. I suspect that this “anonymous source” was a con to mess with Canadian skaters: provoke a reaction, cause an anti-Canada backlash, and throw the skaters off their game. In 2002, there was collusion between the Russian and French judges, but this allegation involves Americans, who have a lot more credibility.

The team event involves all four figure skating disciplines, each of which has its own judges. Rigging it would be a heck of a big conspiracy. In the end, Russia won gold by a landslide, with 75 overall points to Canada’s second place finish of 65. There were the usual questions about the judging (such as Evgeny Plushenko beating Kevin Reynolds), but there were no signs of egregious judging. Russia medaled in every leg of the competition, and won gold in most of them.

Then we had the short program in ice dance, which Davis/White won, 2.5 points ahead of Virtue/Moir. The main reason for DW's win was the difficulty level given to the Finnstep portion: VM were awarded a difficulty level of 3, while DW got a 4. Finnish ice dance legend Petri Kokko (who invented the Finnstep) stirred things up with two tweets yesterday: "I don’t understand the judging in #icedancing. @Virtue_Moir should be leading in my honest opinion." and "Hope @Virtue_Moir wins. Americans timing off in the #finnstep and restrained even otherwise."

The Globe is critical of the judging, but admits that "the most tangible difference between their two performances appeared to be a small bobble by Virtue and Moir in their Finnstep segment." A small bobble could make the difference between a 3 and a 4. (In fact, that had already happened to VM twice this season.)

According to our own CBC commentators during the Davis/White performance, Davis/White have not been defeated since the World Championships in 2012, and they have set six world records with their short dance - this performance is just the latest time they've broken their own record.

The history is this: DW and VM are close friends; they train together and share a coach; White and Moir have been friends since childhood. For the last five or six years they have been the top two teams in the world. For the first several years of that period, VM consistently topped the podium, and then DW got the edge.

Their scores tend to be extremely close, but they’re very different skaters. As the Washington Post wrote yesterday, “Virtue and Moir are fighting to solidify their legitimacy as the best ice dancing team since Great Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. They are a team of exquisite detail – pointed toes, extension body lines – and have tremendous chemistry on the ice. Davis and White are different. They are rugged and powerful and fast.” To my eye, White looks a little rough around the edges: in particular, his leg extensions are poor, he doesn't have great artistic interpretation, and he's sort of heavy on the ice - the opposite of light and elegant.

Sports is full of questionable acts, and figure skating has an atrocious history of skating scandals: judges caught on camera colluding; a brave Canadian judge who gathered evidence of cheating but was suspended by the ISU for doing it; decades of dominance by Russian skaters that seemed dubious at best. Within the Russian competitions, scandals have been even bigger: skaters’ cars getting blown up the day before a competition, a skater’s fiancĂ© being kidnapped.

But after the 2002 Salt Lake City fiasco, the ISU cleaned itself up. Scores are based on well-defined criteria now; judges’ scores are anonymous (so it’s more difficult to pay them off); high and low scores are kicked out. Insiders say that the sport is a lot fairer now. One big piece of evidence for the success of the new rules is this: the Russians no longer dominate ice dance.

I'm no judge, but I'm not bothered about the outcome of the Olympic ice dance contest, for a number of reasons.
  • Both teams skated beautifully, along with the rest of the field, so the event was a treat to watch.
  • I do not believe that American judges would get messed up in a cheating scandal with the Russians.
  • Even if the Americans were unscrupulous, there was no need to fix this fight: Davis and White have been besting Virtue and Moir all season.
  • Virtue and Moir are already Olympic champions, from 2010.

Virtue and Moir's influence will resonate for a long time for their hard work, athleticism, artistry, fine lines, ability to put down their finest performances in the highest stakes competitions, and their ability to simultaneously be tough-as-nails competitors and friendly collaborators.

Winning in figure skating is about adding up points on elements, and Davis/White got the most points today. I firmly believe that Virtue and Moir are the greatest ice dancers in the world, and their silver medal does not diminish that. The Canadian commentators even said today that after attaining Olympic gold in 2010, VM made a conscious effort to do things in their programs that advanced the sport, rather than single-mindedly going after points.

I can't wait to see what they do next.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


Artists create ice sculptures while people skate in the background, at Winterloo 2014 today:

I like community events that are community celebrations. What could be better than an Urban Iditirod (a pub crawl by people pushing each other in shopping carts) or a Zombie Walk or Parade of the Species? The Ice Dogs Festival was one of those charming events: it was organized by people who love ice and love dogs, and it wasn't afraid to be goofy. Here's my glowing review of the 2010 event: Ice Dogs.

A couple of years ago someone apparently decided that Ice Dogs needed a more professional approach, and they rebranded it as the Winterloo Festival, which is on this weekend. Gone are the contests for people who look like their dogs. Gone is the free food and carnival atmosphere. Gone are most of the dogs. And there didn't seem to be nearly as many people, either. (What there appears to be more of is play events for small children, which is nice but shouldn't be so much the focus.)

One decision I applaud was to combine Winterloo with the Uptown Family Day celebration (which used to be on separate weekends), and so create a three-day event. That's cool. But the rest: meh. As far as I can see, they took a charming and popular local festival and they turned it into something bland and boring.

My first career was in market research and I can't help myself from doing surveys all the time - I walked into most of the establishments in Waterloo Square today and asked how uptown festivals affect their business. The consensus was: for restaurants, festivals boost business a bit; for retail, they're a detriment. The shops in Waterloo Square are hanging on by a thread these days (another one, the shoe store, is closing) and I wish we were doing more to boost them.

Winterloo desperately needs to more fully engage the community. Let's add a kazooba band parade or some winter flash mobs. This festival is falling splat in the middle of Canada's biggest winter sporting event - the winter Olympics - so why aren't there some fun Olympic-themed events? Prizes could be gift certificates to shops in Waterloo Square (after all, they're losing business because there's no parking this weekend). And where's the interesting food? This year there are two food stands: hot dogs and popcorn (neither free). Aren't there local businesses that would like to sell us some street food?

I realize that volunteers have put a lot of hard work into Winterloo, and I apologise for being critical, but I perceive a change in the uptown that I don't like. It's a change from amateur to professional, from quirky to bland, from bottom-up to top-down. I have all kinds of respect for the people who manage the Public Square and I'm not sure quite what the problem is, but nothing is as fun as it should be.

A final crabby note: someone should have cleared the snow around the public seating. Sure it's -9, but it's sunny and it would have been nice to be able to hang out.

Here's the Winterloo schedule of events for this weekend: Schedule

Chili Cook-Off in Uptown

I take my chili seriously. One of the nicest things anyone ever did for me occurred a number of years ago when a colleague brought a container of his chili to work - and his recipe. He used coffee, cocoa, beer, cumin and oregano in his chili. I have been riffing off that recipe ever since.

At today's 4th annual Uptown Waterloo Chili Cook-Off, the people's choice award and judge's award both went to Dana Shortt Gourmet. Here is my assessment.

Winner: Taco Farm
This was a sophisticated chili. Instead of simmering everything together for a long time, it tasted like some of the ingredients were mixed in at the last minute. The base was smoked beef shoulder in a light-colored, smoky-hot sauce. Along with that came crunchy vinegar-marinated sweet onion slices, fresh corn kernels, chopped jalapenos and fresh cilantro. The chili was arguably a tiny bit too sour when eaten with a spoon, but it was perfect on a homemade tortilla chip (which they provided). This is a recipe I am going to try to replicate.

The Taco Farm team dressed up like Mexican wrestlers:

Runner Up: McMullans
McMullans dished up a classic ground beef chili, heavy on the meat. It could have used some condiments: with some grated cheese, chopped raw onion and hot sauce, it would have been great. (Condiments weren't part of the cook-off however.) McMullans also deserves kudos for being the only establishment to have participated in all four years of the uptown chili cook-off.

Honorable Mention: Dana Shortt
Shortt made a braised beef brisket chili. The beef was cooked perfectly - moist and falling apart - but the chili was bland and did not have much depth of flavor. Worse, it was sweet (this is a particular bugaboo of mine). The main ingredient was meat, and other than sauce and a few beans there was nothing in it. To sum up: it was well-executed but not to my taste. It came with a peculiar deep-fried avocado ball.

Sad Regrets: The Red House
The Red House ran out of chili just before I arrived. The Red House is my favorite uptown eatery and my go-to spot on a Friday night, so I was very disappointed in myself for tardiness. Next year (shaking my fist), I vow to not be late...

Olympic Update

CBC coverage of the Olympics has been fantastic. I don't have TV reception in my home so have been watching events via CBC shows live events, webcasts of the entire event (including qualifying), highlights of individual performances, and editorials. Commentators are former competitors and do an excellent job.

I have a quibble though: coverage of women's curling assumes that the audience is knowledgeable. I have curled, but I'm baffled. Most galling is when they make comments about the ignorance of the Russian crowd cheering for the wrong things - but don't explain why the audience is wrong, or what's right.

My favorite sports are ones where people fly through the air while twisting: figure skating, snowboarding, freestyle skiing. Here's a competitor bonking the doll in slopestyle skiing:

I think slopestyle defies the laws of physics. Here's a truck driver grab in slopestyle. I assume the name is because the arms are spread as if grabbing a large steering wheel.

(Watch the slopestyle finals here:

Much as I enjoy figure skating, I nearly died laughing while watching this spoof. Oh, so simple and so classic. Figure Farting

A recent poll found that for most Canadians, the only gold that really matters is men's hockey. (That doesn't mean that the entire country isn't riveted on every other event, and that women's hockey isn't huge.) I'm the ultimate fair weather fan: I watch hockey every four years, when the Canadian men and women are in the finals, and never any other time. Still, I love those Olympic finals. Here's what I wrote four years ago when the Canadian men beat the US: Losing is not an option.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Waterloo needs a west-side expressway

Rush hour traffic in uptown Waterloo is a mess. Some of the busiest intersections - William/Caroline, Erb/Caroline - are going to get even worse when the LRT goes through them.

What we need to relieve the congestion in uptown is an expressway, or at least a rapid road, on the west side of town. Currently the Conestoga Parkway (shown in yellow below) is only two-thirds of a ring road.
In recent years much of our growth has been in the north-west, an area not serviced by the Conestoga Parkway. People in those subdivisions clog up Erb and University getting to the parkway, and a lot of them drive across the uptown getting there.

As more and more condos are built in the uptown, too much of that commuter traffic is heading east, putting pressure on Park, William, Caroline, and other streets that feed onto the Conestoga Parkway. If more of that traffic could be funnelled west, much pressure would be relieved.

A few years ago it was widely believed that Ira Needles Boulevard would be the west side rapid road, but then it was lined with dozens of big box stores and it can barely support local traffic. Our options are more limited now, but there has to be a solution.

Child abuse

Imagine if you will a 7 year old girl who said that the male adult in her home had molested her; the police were called and said that while they found substance to the allegation, they thought the girl was too fragile to be a witness in a prosecution, and so declined to prosecute. Now imagine that 22 years later she repeated her allegations. Take away the celebrity parents. How would you want our society to react?

I hope that you would want them to support the girl. But nobody in the press seems to want to support Dylan Previn (or whatever her name is now). Article after article, including by respectable writers in the Globe and Mail, are trashing her. As Kate Taylor wrote today, "the man has a right to be tried in a court of law not the court of Twitter."

This issue is important because of the people who are watching it play out: the abuse victims who are afraid to speak up, the abusers who are getting away with it, the potential abusers who are reckoning whether they can get away with it, the witnesses who are trying to decide if they should risk speaking up. This isn't about celebrities; it's about children who are being heinously harmed.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The attack on peace

Twice this weekend I heard the local Talk Radio station lead their news broadcast with these words: "A handful of university students have hopped aboard the left-wing Rideau Institute's "white poppy" bandwagon for Remembrance Day, promoting their pacifist ideology by piggybacking on the Royal Canadian Legion's red poppy campaign."

I googled part of the quote and discovered that the entire news story was lifted from an article in the Toronto Sun (link). The Sun article, of course, includes additional invective and links to other stories about outrage towards the white poppy campaign.

So, first off, shame on me for listening to a radio station that takes its newscasts verbatim from the gutter press, but there's more to this. We first noticed this trend in the US, where any objection to war was deemed to be disrespect to members of the armed forces (even though the situation is exactly the opposite). Now in Canada people can't take a slightly different view of Remembrance Day without being viciously attacked.

There is something seriously, seriously wrong here.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

King & University: Density node? Neighborhood? Mess?

The density at King & University has been a long time coming. When I was a teenager in the 70s there were already large apartment buildings on Regina Street North. University Avenue in the King-Regina area has been steadily growing with apartments and strip malls. WLU is building more and more student residences in the area.

We now have one of the densest parts of the region (perhaps the densest in Waterloo) located at King & University, and it's difficult to see any coordination or planning whatsoever. It's the node that Waterloo City Hall forgot.

The intersection at King & University is one of the most dangerous in the Region. In 2012 there were 41,000 vehicles and 6,000 pedestrians using the intersection each day, and there were 130 collisions, including 11 involving pedestrians. (link) City Council recently debated installing a pedestrian scramble there but decided not to, apparently because it would cause even greater traffic delays.

Both King and University are major routes for drivers going cross town. The intersection is a bottleneck, largely because of the lack of a right turn lane for traffic heading south on King turning west on University. Traffic backs up because those right-turners have to wait for all the pedestrians to clear the crosswalk.

It's a real problem that such a dense neighborhood lacks a grocery store. The area was recently reduced to just one corner store when Forwells threw in the towel. And there are other amenities that should be apportioned to neighborhoods, such as a park. For the student population, you'd think a beer store would be appreciated. For non-students, some sort of sports field or playground might be useful.

There are some student eateries in the area (notably Frat Burger, Burrito Boyz, Morty's, and a Starbucks), but the retail shopping is not aimed at the local population or pedestrians in general. There is an automotive repair place, a store that sells 20-liter bottles of water, specialty medical buildings.

For pedestrians, the area is inconvenient and unpleasant. The sidewalks abut against the street. The strip malls have large parking lots out front. The stores are widely spaced. And then there's that dangerous intersection, which is no fun at all to cross.

The City of Waterloo can't help that the Region decided to make the LRT bypass King & University: the Region was bound and determined to route the LRT through the UW campus so that its ridership numbers will be bolstered by students with free transit passes. But the city has to do something to improve the King & University neighborhood. For starters, it needs a name. Next, it needs a vision. Then it needs a plan.

Maybe we need to restrict cars from turning off of King and/or University. Add pedestrian islands in the crosswalks. The area could use a streetscape improvement plan with better sidewalks, planters, trees, and benches. A beer store could perhaps anchor a development with a grocer's. It's all going to be time consuming and expensive, but it's too important an area to overlook any longer. Just consider how much time and money Waterloo has spent on Claire Lake (a pond in a wealthy subdivision) or the Clay & Glass Museum (which practically nobody goes to except school children who have no choice).

And almost more important than anything else, if we built a proper hiway on the west side of Waterloo, we could hugely reduce the traffic that floods down University and Erb to the Conestoga Parkway - a hiway that connects major arteries like the 401 with the east side of town.

Before any decisions are made, we need a solid understanding of the neighborhood now and in the future. Think you know everything? This is being built just a couple of blocks away:

Update, January 10, 2014:
I drove down King from Columbia to William last Thursday around 10 PM. In the area from Hickory to Lodge there were masses of people on the snowy sidewalks. The uptown had less than half as many people, even including those at the skating rink in Waterloo Square.

Cell phones > Smartphones > Superphones > ?

Just fooling around here, but with the rapid evolution of smartphone technology, you have to be wondering where it's going.

Earlier this year we learned of an imager chip that lets mobile phones see through walls, clothes, and other objects.

With Square, we see an evolution to peripheral devices that free consumers from the sales cycle of phone manufacturers. (Square sells a little piece of hardware that turns phones into credit card readers.)

And of course, wearable phones are here, currently as glasses or watches.

But we still seem to be just on the cusp of fundamental change. There is emerging technology that lets finger and hand gestures do many things, that lets brain power direct objects without physical intervention, that replaces phone screens with public viewing areas. In five years the paradigm of typing on tiny keyboards and peering at tiny screens may seem ludicrous. More interestingly, there may be a fundamental change in what we do with our mobile devices.

I don't pretend to have any clear view of the future, but I wonder what the social effects will be. Economist Tyler Cowen worries that technological change will kill the middle class, although he doesn't argue the case very convincingly.

The internet was built on porn. More recently, the economic driver of technological change appears to be advertising and its insatiable need for more and better data on consumers. Game developers even talk about the importance of "digital exhaust" - making gold of information previously thought worthless, like how long certain demographics of player linger on a level in a game.

What will happen if data becomes available to everyone - if, just as free access to the internet became seen as a right of humanity, access to data becomes a right? The killer apps of the future could be ones that mine, analyse, present, and use data. That seems like a future I can get excited about.

* * *
This post is cross-posted on my work blog: Focus on Readers

Musings on love and freedom in the Ring Cycle

Wagner's Ring Cycle is about a curse on a ring, but in another (even larger) sense it's about a curse on women. Four women in the four operas are forced to marry and submit to a man against their will.

The first we encounter is Freia, who is Wotan's sister-in-law. Wotan contracts with two giants to build Valhalla, and he agrees that if he is unable to pay he will give them Freia. He never had a way to pay them, so when they demand their money he gives them Freia (to the horror of Freia and her siblings) - but then discovers that the gods will lose their immortality without her, so he steals the Rhine gold to give the giants instead.

In the next opera we encounter Siegmund, who is pursued after trying to free a woman who is being forced into marriage by her brothers. Siegmund seeks refuge in a house, only to discover that his twin sister Sieglinde lives there - they were separated years before when bandits abducted her and forced her into marriage with the cruel Hunding.

Next up is Brunnhilde herself. Daughter of the earth goddess Erda and the sky god Wotan, she is the head of the warrior clan the Walkures. A virgin goddess, no mortal man can meet her gaze and live. But she disobeys Wotan and in punishment he turns her into a mortal, leaving her helpless on a mountain to become the slave of the first man who finds her. She thinks she has broken the curse by convincing Wotan to surround her sleeping form with fire so that only the greatest hero will be able to win her - and that plan seems to work until her hero, Siegfried, is drugged and duped into forcing her to marry another man.

Other characters suffer minor versions of the this sexual predation. Fricka is humiliated by her philandering husband Wotan. Erda is duped by Wotan into giving up wisdom, and after bearing Brunnhilde for him she loses much of her power. (Even one male character, Siegfried, is given a drug that makes him forget his wife Brunnhilde and think he loves Gutrune. But you have to feel that Siegfried is partly to blame: why did he leave Brunnhilde so soon after finding her? Why did he trust his hosts so stupidly?)

There is nothing subtle about Wagner's theme that women are not free in love - the repetition and drama smash us over the head with it. In a piece of art that is so preoccupied with the idea of love, this is a heavy undercurrent of darkness and cynicism.

(Love is not all rosy in other ways, either. Alberich is able to steal the Rhine gold only after he renounces love - but he does that after some pretty cruel taunting. The two great romances in the cycle are both incestuous: Siegmund with his twin sister Sieglinde, and Brunnhilde with her nephew Siegfried. There is much passionate love-making, but all of it is creepy.)

Erda, the earth goddess, has a relationship with Wotan off-stage, between the first and second operas. All we know is that he wooed her to obtain her wisdom, and then Brunhilde was born. Erda goes into a steady decline after that, sleeping almost all the time. When Wotan cut a branch of the World Ash tree to use as his staff of power, the tree slowly withered and died; the same seems to happen to Erda: this appears to be a zero-sum game, where power gained by one player causes another to lose it.

The only married female character who is not in an unwanted sexual relationship is Fricka, Wotan's wife. Fricka is the goddess of marriage and her major motivation in the text is to find ways to keep her husband from dallying with other women. (She is not successful.)

There are other female characters in the Ring Cycle. The Walkures are virgin goddesses, depicted as proud and free (although they exist to serve Wotan by collecting heroes who die in battle to serve in Wotan's army). The Norns, daughters of Erda, don't appear to have lives outside of their job of untangling the ropes of fate. The Rhine maidens, mermaids who guard the Rhine gold, are definitely sexual beings, but it is not clear that they do more than flirt. Finally there is Gutrune, spinster, who drugs Siegfried to make him love her, but her actions are manipulated by Hagen, who is scheming to get the ring.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

In praise of bus bays

A lot of rush hour traffic jams are at least partially preventable. If we had bus bays that let GRT buses get off the road when they stop to pick up passengers, cars wouldn't have to queue up behind them.

The reason we don't have bus bays, according to local councillors and staff, is that cars don't let buses back on the road. But that problem is solvable. Many local buses don't even have Yield signs on their backs. We need a PR campaign to inform drivers that they must yield to buses pulling into traffic, and we need enforcement.

Increasingly, the cities and Region are reducing roads from four lanes to two. The LRT will increase that trend. The Region is also putting more buses on the roads - a great initiative, but one that will increasingly cause headaches for drivers.

Many local government staff are committed to making driving inconvenient as a way to encourage people to stop driving. Unfortunately, the main effect of this movement is to encourage people to avoid the downtowns and shop in the malls instead - the malls have good multi-lane access roads that aren't jammed up with buses.

In praise of speed bumps

The reason we have roundabouts is that they let traffic flow without stopping through intersections. The problem with roundabouts is that having traffic flow without stopping is extremely hazardous to pedestrians. Roundabouts seemed like a great idea when when we were building them on roads that don't have pedestrians, but then we started putting roundabouts in front of high schools and other high-pedestrian areas, and now we have one hell of a mess. Since the Homer Watson/Block Line roundabout was built, pedestrian accidents and injuries have doubled.*

It was folly to build so many roundabouts so quickly, but now we have them - at great expense - and we have to find a way to make them safe for pedestrians. The only solution I can see is speed bumps. For new roundabouts we could use temporary metal speedbumps until drivers get used to them. Problem roundabouts like the one on Homer Watson should have permanent speed bumps.

Jeff Outhit has argued that speedbumps are bone rattling, snowplough-wrecking menaces (I may be exaggerating here) that fire departments loathe. But well-built speedbumps are shallow and smooth - it's mostly parking lot speedbumps that are the bone rattlers. Plus, nobody, not even a fire truck or ambulance, should be speeding through a roundabout.

Most of our roundabouts were built on the edge of town where there are few pedestrians, but as we increase density there will be more people travelling on foot. We've got to fix our roundabouts so pedestrians, even children, can be safe on them.

*According to Jeff Outhit in The Record, during the 509 days before the Homer Watson roundabout was built seven people were hurt, none seriously, in five injury-causing collisions. In the 509 days after the roundabout was built 14 people were hurt, including two seriously, in 10 injury-causing collisions.

Rob Ford's not drunk

A video was released today of Rob Ford in a living room, ranting about someone he wanted to kill in a boxing ring. Almost immediately, Ford went on camera and said he was very inebriated in the video; his mother went on TV and said Ford doesn't do drugs but he does drink to excess. This inebriation story seems to have bamboozled the press; in every online article about it, the Globe uses the word "inebriation".

But Rob Ford's not drunk in that video. He's high on crack. Crack makes people hyperactive. It makes their heart race. It causes a mix of paranoia and euphoria. In the video, Ford doesn't slur his words like a drunk; he speaks clearly except that he's talking so fast that his words run together.

Decide for yourself: Rob Ford on crack

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Will/Should John Chen move BlackBerry to California?

I worked at Sybase for eight years under John Chen, the new CEO of BlackBerry. He was an interesting CEO - refreshingly (almost appallingly) frank. I remember he once came to the Waterloo office and told us that our market was shrinking, and that he felt like the captain of a leaky boat that was destined to sink. It seemed like Sybase did pretty well under Chen.

Another thing I remember, I think correctly, is that Chen moved the California HQ of Sybase from one town to another about an hour's drive away. This greatly upset the many employees who had purchased homes around the initial office, especially because the new building was close to Chen's house.

All this got me thinking about the future of BlackBerry under Chen. The best thing for BlackBerry might be a move to California, for lots of reasons.

BlackBerry isn't going to survive unless it can change its corporate culture. RIM got whammied with a perfect shitstorm that created that culture: the lawsuit, the hyper growth, the duality at the top. There are still too many people at BlackBerry - especially leaders - who don't sufficiently value productivity and quality. By moving the company, Chen could switch out a lot of the current personnel with Californians, thus transforming the culture relatively quickly.

Another factor is the corporate culture of Waterloo. How can I put this delicately... oh hang it: in Waterloo, many people work to live rather than live to work. That's great: their priority is their families and friends. But all too often, ambition in Waterloo is a sense of entitlement; there often isn't the right environment to hone and select the best leaders.

Waterloo is a great place for a development office, what with all the high class talent coming out of the University of Waterloo, but it might not be the best place to headquarter a large, cutting edge tech firm. We have so many startups here that the corporate culture might change, but for now, California could be BlackBerry's best bet.

(With apologies to the many brilliant people I have worked with in Waterloo.)

Saturday, September 07, 2013

More for Uptown, Part 3: Accessibility

I first understood accessibility issues in uptown Waterloo when my mother started using a walker. My mother lives in easy walking distance of the uptown. Her health and emotional well-being were enhanced by a daily walk to uptown, but accessibility problems often prevented her.

When my mother started using a walker, many of her favorite establishments were closed to her: Whole Lotta Gelatto, Wordsworth Books (in its original location), Uptown 21, and many others. The main culprit was a large step up from the sidewalk. An additional problem was buildings with two entry doors and a tiny vestibule - you just can't hold on to a walker and pull open a heavy door in a cramped space. The accessibility of toilets (the thing most people focus on) was the least of her worries.

Getting into stores was not her only problem. Navigating the two blocks from her apartment at Erb and Willow was increasingly difficult. All of her routes presented challenges:
- The sidewalk on Erb St between William and King is broken and bumpy. She managed it for a while, but it made her arms ache and she eventually had to give it up.
- The path that runs along the railway tracks from Willow to King would have been ideal, but it is ungraded, unpaved, and unfinished. She tried it but couldn't manage certain parts, like crossing the tracks.
- The sidewalk on William between Willow and King is a longer route but the sidewalk is smoother. However, the pavement was frequently obstructed with dirt or branches.

Here's a stretch of bumpy sidewalk on Erb near Peppler:

In the winter my mother often became a shut-in because of uncleared snow. The south side of Erb between Peppler and Regina was particularly bad, but she couldn't cross at the Peppler crosswalk because the bump left by the snow plough was never cleared. People have to climb over the snow pile to get from the sidewalk onto the crosswalk. Even when sidewalks were shoveled, they frequently were so poorly cleared that she had to navigate over packed snow and ice.

Her problems didn't stop when she got to the uptown. Many of the pavements on King Street are broken and bumpy. In winter portions tend to not be salted, and can be treacherous with ice. Increasingly, where she was able to go depended on the state of the sidewalks on King.

My mother is not an isolated case. The uptown is heavily populated by seniors: the Adult Recreation Center (ARC) at King and Allen, Water Park condos (mostly senior), Terrace on the Square retirement home, and others. You frequently see seniors with walkers and scooters navigating through the uptown. I once saw an elderly woman with a walker take a bad fall on an icy sidewalk on Park near William; she landed on her back and had passing motorists not seen her, she would have been stuck there for some time.

Beyond seniors, there is a large and vocal community of wheelchair users in Waterloo. They appear at every public forum and make the case very persuasively that the uptown is not accessible. All the politicians and staff listen and agree with them and promise action. This has been going on for years and years and years, and yet the problems persist.

Accessibility is part of the Uptown Streetscape Improvement project, which has been languishing in the planning stage since 2004. A new round of public forums is currently in progress but frankly, I have given up on these public forums: I don't believe that anyone is actually really listening. Once council has agreed on a principle, like improving accessibility, why not make a commitment to make some improvement every year? (And rather than endlessly asking the public what they want but only attracting the same small group of activists every time, why not do proper market research?)

In Kitchener, Belmont Village was made accessible with very little fuss a couple of years ago. Every business with a step got a small ramp, as shown below. It's my understanding that the businesses chipped in to the cost.

Installing ramps in the uptown is made more difficult by planters that make the sidewalk very narrow in places:

When the Ali Baba closed on King near William, the owners of the building did a fantastic job renovating the building. It was a major renovation and it looks great, but why weren't they required to make the entrance accessible? We have a Complete Streets policy whereby whenever we make repairs to a street, we have to add bike lanes. Why can't we have a similar program for accessibility? It's outrageous that this brand new entrance in the heart of uptown has two steps and no ramp. It would have been so easy to make this restaurant accessible to everyone.

More info
Waterloo Region Accessibility Watch Facebook page
Wondeful Waterloo Accessibility page
Access Waterloo Region

Monday, September 02, 2013

Let's rethink the St Jacobs Farmer's Market

Waterloo woke this morning to the sad news that the main building of the St Jacobs Farmer's Market had burned to the ground. Already there is an outpouring of sympathy and support to the owner, Mercedes Corp. I am afraid that this post has a somewhat different tone. I see this tragedy as an opportunity to rethink our approach to the market - and make some substantive changes.

In a 2009 post (Market Memories) I was quite critical of Mercedes Corp. I wrote that post when Mercedes shut down the Waterloo Mennonite market and moved the vendors across the street to their tourist-oriented site, which locals historically called the Stockyards. That site is now our sole farmer's market - the St Jacob's Farmer's Market - and is the site of last night's fire.

A farmer's market is part of our heritage, an important part of our economy, and a vital link between the rural and urban parts of our community. It is much more than a tourist attraction. It is a resource for the community: for farmers and small businesses to sell their goods, and for people to purchase locally-made food and other items.

Mercedes Corp did not invent the market. We always had one. Mercedes Corp was somehow able to purchase the market, but many of the shoppers and best vendors predate Mercedes. Over the years I have increasingly felt that the market should not be in private hands, or at the least should be more influenced by the needs of its stakeholders.

My particular concerns are:

1. I am concerned that Mercedes Corp does not provide a fair environment for the vendors. The vendors seem to have no security - apparently they can be (and are) moved or kicked out without notice. I haven't asked vendors recently about the price they pay to have stands at the market, but a few years ago they said that the prices were doubling and then tripling. The vendors are rationally afraid to speak out, but the ones I talk to say that their sales have dropped as the number of visitors increase: the marketing strategy of Mercedes Corp has attracted too many non-shopping tourists, or people who are there for cheap sunglasses and tube socks. This isn't a new problem, but it continues to get worse.

2. I am concerned that Mercedes Corp does not provide a safe and convenient environment for shoppers. The aisles are too narrow for the crowds. That means that people waiting to buy on both sides of the aisle leave only a narrow space for people trying to move down the middle. The problem is compounded by the many enormous baby buggies. The overcrowding isn't just inconvenient; it's unsafe: God forbid something happen during market hours. (The new building should have wider aisles or it should have bollards that prevent non-pedestrians from entering the shopping aisles.)

3. I am concerned that the business model of the current market allows only for vendor-businesses, and shuts out homegrown initiatives. I remember one summer buying sweet peas from two teenage boys who had created summer jobs for themselves by planting a lot of flowers and renting a table at the market for part of the summer. You used to see a lot of that sort of thing, but the current market seems to have no amateur or short-term vendors.

4. I am concerned that the market is no longer Mennonite-friendly. There are fewer and fewer Old Order Mennonites there, although there appear to be some vendors who impersonate Mennonites (heavy eye make-up under a bonnet is a suspicious clue).

I'm 55 now. I've been shopping at Waterloo's farmer's markets since I was 7, and I still go to the St Jacobs market weekly. I do hope that the building will be replaced speedily, for the good of the vendors, the shoppers, and Mercedes Corp. I strongly believe that the new market needs to be more attentive to the needs of its stakeholders, but I fear that Mercedes Corp will use this opportunity to make the market even more commercial and take it even further from its roots.

See also my 2009 post: Market Memories.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Musings on Manning

I worked for Reuters back in the 80s and 90s, and still get email sometimes about things that happen to Reuters employees. I got one today concerning the murder of Reuters journalists that was exposed by Pfc Manning, the US soldier recently convicted of leaking confidential documents to WikiLeaks. The email contained a press release from Amnesty International calling on President Obama to pardon Manning, and included a link to a YouTube video: Iraq shooting exposed by Manning and WikiLeaks.

The video is difficult to watch. The dispassionate attitude of the military personnel is offset by the incredible force of their guns - enough force to knock over a minibus. (A minibus containing children.)

Sometimes news coverage gets so caught up in daily details that we forget the real story behind the news: in this case, why Manning leaked confidential US documents. That video certainly reminded me.

In the private electronic exchange that got Manning arrested, Manning sounds haunted. Manning wrote, "If you... saw incredible things, awful things ... things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC ... what would you do?”

During the three years after arrest and before trial, Manning was subjected to conditions so foul that they have been described as torture. Initially Manning was held in an 8 by 8 by 8 foot wire mesh cage, and then was moved to an even smaller 8 by 6 foot cell, in total isolation (even nearby isolation cells were kept vacant). For at least nine months Manning was forced to sleep on his side facing a bright lamp; kept naked and shoeless much of the time, without even sheets or blankets; shackled when leaving the cell; denied access to visitors, including a lawyer, for long periods; and not allowed any amusements, not even pictures or books or writing materials.

Manning has said that the only thing he had to amuse himself was a small mirror, and he spent a lot of time looking at himself. He also said that he danced as much as he could in his tiny cell, just to keep moving (there was no music of course). His guards said in court that he licked the bars on his cell a lot.

Given the prolonged privations and abuse that Manning suffered, I have to wonder about his decision to become a woman. Can a person in that situation be competent to make that decision? Manning is 5'2" and slight, and she (I will respect her gender identification from this point forward) may have thought about gender reassignment in her past life, but lots of people have thoughts about things that they never pursue fully. If Obama actually did pardon Manning and she had a few years to recover from this ordeal, I wonder if her decision would be the same.

My final thoughts about Manning are about the huge difference in outcome for Manning and America's other famous whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, was tried for treason but not convicted. Manning got 35 years. There are a lot of differences - class (Ellsberg has a PhD), context (Manning was tried in a military court), government abuse (Nixon's henchmen plotted to kill Ellsberg and raided the office of his psychiatrist), etc - but the essential difference between Manning and Ellsberg seems to be the difference in public opinion. In 1971, the American public was outraged by the lies and abuses that Ellsberg exposed about Viet Nam. People were politically active and engaged. In 2013, the US public consumes infotainment instead of news; they are politically unengaged and ignorant. In short, they could care less about civil and human rights within or outside the US. I wish I could say that Canada was any better.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rally round the Ex!

I feel terrible about the illness at the Ex yesterday. As it happened, I myself was at the Ex yesterday. I had fantastic food there: roasted corn on the cob, an ice cream waffle, a Korean taco, freshly squeezed lemonade, ice coffee.

I saw the stand that was selling Cronut Burgers (the supposed cause of the illness). I noted it because nobody was buying any. I'd hazard a guess that not many people actually buy one, and maybe that's why the cooking area became contaminated.

I feel terrible because this bad publicity will probably reduce attendance this year, and reduce food purchases even more. I have heard lots of comments about how awful the food is at the Ex, which is purely ignorant. In the Food Building you can get fantastic Indian, Caribbean, Greek, Korean, German, Mexican, Thai, etc etc etc - as well as all kinds of meat, veg, fruit, and dessert. It's charming. You can get a giant dill pickle on a stick, or a hot dog wrapped in bacon. Preferably, both.

Just a week ago a bunch of prominent Torontonians were published in the Globe saying that the Ex is a waste of space. They all suggested something for the Exhibition grounds, and all of their plans involved tearing down historic buildings and replacing them with condos, casinos, restaurants, retail, or similar.

The Ex is an historic gem and should be preserved. I know that some of the old Beaux-Arts buildings are designated as heritage buildings, but that assures us of nothing: after all, the old Bay Street Toronto Stock Exchange was designated and yet it was gutted, leaving only the facade hidden in a sea of uncomplementary black glass.

I am very lucky that for many years I lived just a couple of blocks north of the Princes' Gates. I regularly cut through the grounds on my bike, went to the CNE and Royal Winter Fair, attended craft shows and conventions, and even went to the surprisingly good Medieval Times. The grounds are used year round. They're an oasis in an acne outbreak of high-rise condos. We need to respect our history and leave the Ex be.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Woolwich walking trails

There's a lovely trail in Woolwich township, about a five minute drive from the Waterloo market (and from my workplace). It's at the first bridge on Three Bridges Road.

The bridge is an old Mennonite horse bridge. It isn't fancy but it's a nifty design. Low and flat, when the river is in flood the water flows over the top. Horses can cross through the water, and there are poles that make the boundaries of the bridge visible to them.

In the 19th century there was a Mennonite mill near the bridge, but all that's left is the waterfall and mill race. The trail follows the old mill race all the way to St. Jacobs and beyond. It's a charming walk.

Here are some shots from the trail.

Three Bridges Road starts at Lobsinger Line (the road that runs between Heidelberg and King Street). Just a couple of minutes drive down Three Bridges, the road takes a 90 degree turn and you're there... there are pull-overs for parking right before the bridge. Here's a map. The red dot marks the spot:

Monday, August 05, 2013

More for Uptown, Part 2: Parks at King and William

At the corner of King and William there are two little parks of identical size and shape. This one, on the east side of King, is called Heritage Green. You can see Knox Presbyterian church in the background. Some years ago the park was partly covered in concrete in an attempt to create an impromptu performance space (a nice idea that unfortunately failed completely). Locals call this park "the bunker". The concrete is full of weeds. I have never seen anyone using this park.

The other park, on the west side of King, is called Brewmeister Green. You can see the Terrace on the Square retirement home in the background. The main features of the park are a Glockenspiel (in the gazebo; it has been broken for many years) and a fountain.

Brewmeister Green used to be called Kuntz Brewery Park. The current fountain (built in 1950, but lost in the greenery for many years) is small and plain. Historically it was a larger fountain and was a popular place to cool off. Here are some photos of Kuntz Brewery Park from 1900-1925:

I think Brewmeister Green is used a little bit more than Heritage Green, and I imagine it's a nice resource for the people in the retirement home, even if it's only to look out the window. Both parks have some mature trees and lovely flower plantings.

A few years ago, a local group raised funds to erect a giant obelisk in Heritage Green. The obelisk was going to portray our history in carvings from the bottom to the top. I saw details of the plans and I (along with many others) thought the finished piece would be a terrible mistake. (Luckily City Council killed the idea.) The concrete in Heritage Green and the Glockenspiel/gazebo in Brewmeister Green seem like similar well-intentioned but dubious ideas.

These two identically sized parks, positioned at a major intersection in the uptown, provide a fantastic opportunity both aesthetically and to provide greenspace for uptown residents, workers and visitors. They also provide an opportunity to regain our heritage.

My suggestion for the parks is to decide on goals, which I propose as:
  • Make the parks address the wants and needs of local residents and workers.
  • Preserve existing trees.
  • Regain heritage features and uses.
  • Create an attractive harmonized look for the two parks.
I would proceed as follows:
  • Watch the parks at various times of day to see how they're being used now (if they are).
  • Survey local residents and workers to find out how they'd use the park. Would workers eat lunch there? Would residents use it? And so on.
  • Do research to find more about the history of the parks.
  • Ask all residents of Waterloo for opinions and designs.
  • Hire a professional park architect to design the spaces.
Just for fun, here's a fragment of a 1908 map of uptown Waterloo, showing the two parks (called "Public Squares" here). King Street is unmarked in the middle.

Demand more for uptown

Development in Waterloo is booming. Four large high-rises are going up: 144 Park, 155 Caroline, a condo building in the Barrelyards (Erb and Father David Bauer Drive), and a rental building in the Barrelyards. Many projects are recent or almost finished, like 186/8 King South (The Red). Other large high-rises are in the planning stages, like 31 Alexandra Ave.

I have a nagging worry that the pace of development is so fast that there will be negative repercussions, but I am by nature a worrywart and I can't provide any foundation for those concerns.

My major concern is that the city is not being proactive enough to provide amenities to balance all these new residents.

All of the development to date is based on the cachet of the uptown. The small, pricey condos are aimed at well-off people without kids. Many of them are retirees who want to be able to walk to a coffee shop or a restaurant. Many of them are tech workers (like myself) who are seeking a vibrant urban environment.

The sad truth is that the uptown could be a lot more vibrant and a lot more interesting to live in. We have the Public Square, which is great, but let's face it, it's a small expanse of white concrete with a smattering of under-attended programming. Downtown Kitchener, for all its many problems, has always been more vibrant and interesting than uptown Waterloo, and has always had more interesting events.

Waterloo simply needs to up its game. There are so many things we could do:

  • Revitalize King north of Erb with a new streetscape and better parking.
  • Do something spectacular with the Post Office land at King and Bridgeport.
  • Finish the two little parks on the east and west of King, on the south side of William.
  • Revitalize the park east of City Hall (it had flower plantings until a few years ago, and now is just an abandoned area with a cenotaph).
  • Finish the path that follows the railway tracks across Waterloo Square - and in general, connect the trails through the uptown.
  • Beautify the exposed parts of Laurel Creek behind City Hall.
  • Do something spectacular with the Pumping Station on William Street across from Regina.
  • Fix and use the fountain in front of the Parkade at King and Willis Way
  • Make better use of the east-side train station.
  • Add amenities to the Public Square.
  • Engage the public in programming the Public Square. For example, start a citizen's advisory committee to handle part of the programming.
  • Get serious about making the uptown accessible to people with wheelchairs, walkers, and baby push-carts.
  • Get serious - in a pragmatic, not ideological way - about traffic in the uptown.
  • Develop an arts strategy that cuts loose the money-pit that is the Clay and Glass Gallery, and creates some serious artistic attractions in the uptown
To get these things done, City Council has to force developers to pitch in more. The developers don't need any incentive to build in the uptown, and they're getting rich by building here. The recent controversy over moving the Iron Horse Trail left a bad taste in everyone's mouth because it seemed that the developer pulled a fast one on Council, and because Council caved without demanding more in return. What many people don't know is that Council is giving in to developers on lots of other issues: increasing density, reducing surface parking, changing agreed-on setbacks, and so on, which is going to have a profound effect on the livability of the uptown, particularly as density increases.

Despite all the new development Waterloo is strapped, largely because of RIM Park debt and the unplanned costs of the LRT, so we need to be creative in funding. But we can't stop moving forward. The current attractiveness of the uptown is based on vision that was formulated in the 90s. The uptown badly needs visionary leadership that is rooted in the needs and wants of: uptown residents, uptown businesses and workers, and the residents of Waterloo for whom the uptown should be a central resource.

Over the next few posts I'll explore some of these ideas in more detail.