Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Rape of Brunnhilde

I came to Houston this weekend to see a new production of the opera Siegfried by the Houston Grand Opera. It was stunning – breathtaking – especially the final act, when Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) is awakened by Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris).

I have written before about my fascination with Wagner’s fascination with the subjugation of women (Musings on Love and Freedom in the Ring Cycle; Hail, Isolde). It comes up again and again in the Ring Cycle and Tristan und Isolde: women are forced to marry men against their will, resulting in the repeated rape and slavery of the woman.

I don’t see any social commentary in this – these are tales of Norse gods and Celtic healer-princesses, not radio talk show hosts – and I don’t see anything of interest on the more general topic of free will. This obsession with female subjugation is more in line with Wagner’s [lesser] interest in incest (twins; an aunt and her nephew). It seems to be emerging from some moral ambiguity in Wagner’s psyche, and as I’ve written before, it feels like an itch he has to keep scratching.

In the production I saw tonight, Goerke’s voice was so inhumanly glorious that I lost myself in it for a while: I entered a state of concentration where I absorbed everything and can remember it perfectly, but at the time I had no conscious thought. When I emerged, I had the clearest sense that this was a woman who was desperately trying to stop a man from having sex with her. (And her last line in the opera, as she succumbs to Siegfried's sexual advances, is, “Laughter in death!”)

I don’t want to do some analysis based on rereading the libretto; what I’m writing about is an emotional reaction.

In bad productions of Siegfried, the final act can drag terribly. There must be 45 minutes of Brunnhilde waking up and meeting Siegfried. In most productions I’ve seen, Brunnhilde is coquettish, or needs some time to make up her mind. In this production, she is fighting him off. But I’d like to see a production that dealt with the matter even more blatantly: Wotan has magically forced her to become the slave of any man who can break through the fire that surrounds her. She fights against that, appealing to Siegfried to not force her. When he refuses, she must succumb. This should be a brutal scene: he should manhandle her; he should, against her will, remove enough of her clothing to be disturbing; she should become humiliated; and her final acceptance should be Stepford-wifish, or something along those lines.

That would make Gotterdammerung make more sense. Brunnhilde cheated in her subjugation: she knew that her nephew Siegfried would be the one to find her, and welcomed it. So when she succumbed to loving Siegfried, Siegfried quickly set off on a new quest, leaving her alone, and later was tricked into transferring the subjugation to another man who she truly loathed.

I don’t particularly like Wagner’s repeated plot lines of female subjugation, but I’d like to see a production that handles it head-on - that does it justice.

Correction: This is not a new production. It was first performed in 2007-2008 for the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía in Valencia, Spain.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Viva les Piratas Canadienses!

My friend Kate is currently in a 500 km boat race called the Ngalawa Cup in the Indian Ocean - sailing a dugout canoe with outriggers and a single sail. (Ngalawa is the Swahili word for outrigger, and this is a traditional Tanzanian fishing vessel, although in my memory they were smaller, fitting only one person, and had a simpler outrigger. They were frequently partly or completely submerged, with the fisherman standing to his ankles in water.)

I would be in awe even if Kate weren't in her mid-50s. She's a fantastic sailor and has all sorts of training in knots, navigating, weather, etc, but this still seems impossible to me.

There are ten teams, and three people on her team, the Piratas Canadienses. Here are some links to info and updates:

Video of the last Ngalawa Cup
Pre-launch news updates
Kate's Facebook
Adventurist's Facebook
Updates by team

Update: I forgot to add - Kate's team is asking people to make a donation to Cool Earth.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Memorial for Dr. Helen Bridger Ellis

My mother, Helen Ellis, died this morning. I am using this space to post information, and will update it as I have more.

Several people have asked me how old my mother was in the picture above. She was 50.

Update: I have posted more pictures here: link.

Update: On Wednesday, September 23, I buried my mother's ashes in a private ceremony. She has a lovely spot under a tree. The marker should be installed in 6-8 weeks. The location is: Memory Gardens, 2723 Victoria Street North, Breslau, Ontario, Plot 1446A. Here is a photo of the urn that her ashes are in. It's a metal rectangle that reflects her love of Art Deco:

Some interesting links

* Obituary
* UW English Department post (with a photo of my mother receiving an award at her Rollins graduation in 1949, standing next to her best friend Pat Meyer)
* Helen reminisces for the 50th anniversary of the UW English department
* Sale of mother's condo: listing and photos
* Notice in Memphis Commercial Appeal: link

This is the address given by William Wallace Ellis, Helen's brother and my uncle, at the memorial service:

"These are the days when birds come back,
A very few, a bird or two,
To take a backward look."

Echoing the lines of Emily Dickinson, I came here today to remember and to honor my remarkable sister.

Helen had a long life of giving to her family and her friends. Twenty years ago she purchased 64 hymnals for this church, listing the name of a relative in each volume. I thank you for nurturing her over the years, and I especially thank you for furnishing transportation to church from her Willow Street apartment.

We were all raised in a small home on a family farm in west Tennessee. Mary Martha was born four years after Helen, Cassandra Ruth three years later, William Wallace in 15 months, followed by Gwyn Watson six years later and Nat Bowe three years later. Then, when Helen was a senior at Rollins College, Nancy Lee was born.

We were surrounded by numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins. The home was one and a half miles from teh crossroad village at Capleville, where the local Methodist church and elementary school were of lasting importance. Big Memphis was ten miles to the north-west, and the Mississippi state line was four miles to the south. Seventy miles south in the Mississippi Delta Tibbs, the location of our grandfather's small country store. To the east of Tibbs in the hill country was Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi and William Faulkner.

We lost our mother in 1984 and our father in 1991. Helen became the matriarch of the family.

In "Absolom, Absolom", Faulkner wrote, "Yes, they lead beautiful lives - women." Twenty pages later he wrote, "Beautiful lives women live - women do." Helen lead a beautiful life.

"Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

In a PM, Character Matters - Be Wary of Mulcair

Years ago when Parliament was looking into Brian Mulroney's envelopes of cash from an arms dealer, I followed every minute on TV. I was most impressed by two MPs on the committee: Pat Martin and Tom Mulcair, both of the NDP. Both were particularly focused, prepared, and effective. When Mulcair became NDP party leader, I was pleased.

Now, not so much.

I have heard Mulcair tell this little joke: "NDP governments always balance the budget. There was one exception, but he turned out to be a Liberal." Hardy har har. I have heard this "joke" three times and I don't own a TV anymore, so Mulcair must have told it about a million times. It's offensive to me on several levels. One is that it's a lie that the NDP has such a great history of fiscal responsibility. Another is that his target, Bob Rae, was much more fiscally responsible than the rest of the Ontario NDP, which kept hearing Ka-ching Ka-ching and went to the mattresses to oppose any compromise on civil service payrolls. Another is that such casual condemnation of a great statesman like Rae is just icky, especially since they're former colleagues.

It's well known that Mulcair has a bad temper and can be a mean guy. We hear about how hard the NDP spin doctors are working to soften his image, even how his performance in the debate was affected by his attempts to repress his natural temperament. This should be a red flag. There is a very real chance that Mulcair will be our next prime minister, so there should be serious discussion about his character.

The last nine years have shown how much character matters in a prime minister. We have suffered through nearly a decade with a PM who is an uncaring jerk, and Harper's mean streak has been the cause of attacks on our social safety net, justice system, and other things.

I'm very much afraid that Mulcair walks the same road as Harper, character-wise. That won't result in identical policies, but could mean something like the following: we could continue to have a too-powerful, too-secretive PMO; with a power-madness that focuses too much on polls and not enough on good governance; with an inability to compromise and collaborate; that is paranoid and vindictive. I'm very afraid that Mulcair does not have the right character to be a decent prime minister of Canada.

Katrina remembered

Today is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which struck on August 29, 2005. In the days following the hurricane, I copied messages off a New Orleans message board and published them on this blog. Here are some of them.

Aug 30:
From Greg Henderson, MD
Thanks to all of you who have sent your notes of concern and your prayers. I am writing this note on Tuesday at 2PM . I wanted to update all of you as to the situation here. I don't know how much information you are getting but I am certain it is more than we are getting. Be advised that almost everything I am telling you is from direct observation or rumor from reasonable sources. They are allowing limited internet access, so I hope to send this dispatch today.

Personally, my family and I are fine. My family is safe in Jackson, MS, and I am now a temporary resident of the Ritz Carleton Hotel in New Orleans. I figured if it was my time to go, I wanted to go in a place with a good wine list. In addition, this hotel is in a very old building on Canal Street that could and did sustain little damage. Many of the other hotels sustained significant loss of windows, and we expect that many of the guests may be evacuated here.

Things were obviously bad yesterday, but they are much worse today. Overnight the water arrived. Now Canal Street (true to its origins) is indeed a canal. The first floor of all downtown buildings is underwater. I have heard that Charity Hospital and Tulane are limited in their ability to care for patients because of water. Ochsner is the only hospital that remains fully functional. However, I spoke with them today and they too are on generator and losing food and water fast. The city now has no clean water, no sewerage system, no electricity, and no real communications. Bodies are still being recovered floating in the floods. We are worried about a cholera epidemic. Even the police are without effective communications. We have a group of armed police here with us at the hotel that are admirably trying to exert some local law enforcement. This is tough because looting is now rampant. Most of it is not malicious looting. These are poor and desperate people with no housing and n!
o medical care and no food or water trying to take care of themselves and their families. Unfortunately, the people are armed and dangerous. We hear gunshots frequently. Most of Canal street is occupied by armed looters who have a low threshold for discharging their weapons. We hear gunshots frequently. The looters are using makeshift boats made of pieces of styrofoam to access. We are still waiting for a significant national guard presence.

The health care situation here has dramatically worsened overnight. Many people in the hotel are elderly and small children. Many other guests have
Have unusual diseases. They are unfortunately . 'We have better medical letter. There are ID physicians in at this hotel attending an HiV confection. We have commandered the world famous French Quarter Bar to turn into an makeshift clinic. There is a team of about 7 doctors and PA and pharmacists. We anticipate that this will be the major medical facility in the central business district and French Quarter.

Our biggest adventure today was raiding the Walgreens on Canal under police escort. The pharmacy was dark and fool of water. We basically scooped the entire drug sets into gargace bags and removed them. All uner police excort. The looters had to be held back at gun point. After a dose of prophylactic Cipro I hope to be fine.

In all we are faring well. We have set up a hospital in the the French Qarter bar in the hotel, and will start admitting patients today. Many with be from the hotel, but many with not. We are anticipating to dealing with multiple medical problems, medications and and acute injuries. Infection and perhaps even cholera are anticipated major problems. Food and water shortages are iminent.

The biggest question to all of us is where is the national guard. We hear jet fignters and helicopters, but no real armed presence, and hence the rampant looting. There is no Red Cross and no salvation army.

In a sort of cliché way, this is an edifying experience. Once is rapidly focused away from the transient and material to the bare necessities of life. It has been challenging to me to learn how to be a primary care phyisican. We are under martial law so return to our homes is impossible. I don't know how long it will be and this is my greatest fear. Despite it all, this is a soul edify experience. The greatest pain is to think about the loss. And how long the rebuid will. And the horror of so many dead people .

PLEASE SEND THIS DISPATCH TO ALL YOU THING MA Y BE INTERSTED IN A DISPATCH From the front. I will send more according to your interest. Hopefully their collective prayers will be answered. By the way suture packs, sterile gloves and stethoscopes will be needed as the Ritz turns into a MASH

Sept 2:
I have a friend who along with a group of about a dozen others are still holed up in the French Quarter, inside and in the vicinity of the Chateau Motor Hotel. St. Phillip @ Chartres. They do have shelter and are all in relatively good health for now, but they have a very limited supply of food and water.

They are all afraid to move to the buses at the Superdome or Convention Center. They have limited communications and are NOT fully aware of the situation outside the neighborhood. They need help to get out.

The National Guard is in town, but are assisting other parts of the city. Those in the French Quarter are venturing out to find supplies for the neighbors. This area is in need of immediate relief.

If someone in the city can get the word out, please. They're not alone in the neighborhood. Other tourists are stuck in hotels. If anyone gets information about when this area is supposed to get relief, please let me know!

Sept 2:
Will Someone please tell whoever will listen that they still have people in
St.Bernard parish that are very much alive and their families are not hearing
anything about them on the news. WHERE IS THE HELP FOR ST.BERNARD
The men and women of the Levee Board are pumping water out and the sheriffs
office and fire depatment or still rescuing people off of rooftops and out of
BACK BURNER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sept 2:
Please help me to get this story out. We need to get the truth out and these people helped.

Jeff Rau, a family and now personal friend to whom I will forever be linked, and I were volunteering with a boat and pulling people out of the water on Wednesday. I have a first-hand experience of what we encountered. In my opinion, everything that is going on in the media is a complete bastardization of what is really happening. The result is that good people are dying and losing family members.

Eight people in particular who stood out during our rescue and whose stories deserve to be told:

1.) We were in motor boats all day ferrying people back and forth approximately a mile and a half each way (from Carrolton down Airline Hwy to the Causeway overpass). Early in the day, we witnessed a black man in a boat with no motor paddling with a piece of lumber. He rescued people in the boat and paddled them to safety (a mile and a half). He then, amidst all of the boats with motors, turned around and paddled back out across the mile and a half stretch to do his part in getting more people out. He refused to give up or occupy any of the motored boat resources because he did not want to slow us down in our efforts. I saw him at about 5:00 p.m., paddling away from the rescue point back out into the neighborhoods with about a half mile until he got to the neighborhood, just two hours before nightfall. I am sure that his trip took at least an hour and a half each trip, and he was going back to get more people knowing that he'd run out of daylight. He did all of this wit! h a t!

2.) One of the groups that we rescued were 50 people standing on the bridge that crosses over Airline Hwy just before getting to Carrolton Ave going toward downtown. Most of these people had been there, with no food, water, or anyplace to go since Monday morning (we got to them Wed afternoon) and surrounded by 10 feet of water all around them. There was one guy who had been there since the beginning, organizing people and helping more people to get to the bridge safely as more water rose on Wednesday morning. He did not leave the bridge until everyone got off safely, even deferring to people who had gotten to the bridge Wed a.m. and, although inconvenienced by loss of power and weather damage, did have the luxury of some food and some water as late as Tuesday evening. This guy waited on the bridge until dusk, and was one of the last boats out that night. He could have easily not made it out that night and been stranded on the bridge alone.

3.) The third story may be the most compelling. I will not mince words. This was in a really rough neighborhood and we came across five seemingly unsavory characters. One had scars from what seemed to be gunshot wounds. We found these guys at a two-story recreational complex, one of the only two-story buildings in the neighborhood. They broke into the center and tried to rustle as many people as possible from the neighborhood into the center. These guys stayed outside in the center all day, getting everyone out of the rec center onto boats. We approached them at approximately 6:30 p.m., obviously one of the last trips of the day, and they sent us further into the neighborhood to get more people out of homes and off rooftops instead of getting on themselves. This at the risk of their not getting out and having to stay in the water for an undetermined (you have to understand the uncertainly that all of the people in these accounts faced without having any info on the resc! ue ef!
forts, how far or deep the flooding was, or where to go if they want to swim or walk out) amount of time. These five guys were on the last boat out of the neighborhood at sundown. They were incredibly grateful, mentioned numerous times 'God is going to bless y'all for this'. When we got them to the dock, they offered us an Allen Iverson jersey off of one of their backs as a gesture of gratitude, which was literally probably the most valuable possession among them all. Obviously, we declined, but I remain tremendously impacted by this gesture.

I don't know what to do with all of this, but I think we need to get this story out. Some of what is being portrayed among the media is happening and is terrible, but it is among a very small group of people, not the majority. They make it seem like New Orleans has somehow taken the atmosphere of the mobs in Mogadishu portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," which is making volunteers (including us) more hesitant and rescue attempts more difficult. As a result, people are dying. My family has been volunteering at the shelters here in Houma and can count on one hand the number of people among thousands who have not said "Thank You." or "God Bless You." Their lives shattered and families torn apart, gracious just to have us serve them beans and rice.

If anything, these eight people's stories deserve to be told, so that people across the world will know what they really did in the midst of this devastation. So that it will not be assumed that they were looting hospitals, they were shooting at helicopters. It must be known that they, like many other people that we encountered, sacrificed themselves during all of this to help other people in more dire straits than their own.

It is also important to know that this account is coming from someone who is politically conservative, believes in capitalism and free enterprise, and is traditionally against many of the opinions and stances of activists like Michael Moore and other liberals on most of the hot-topic political issues of the day. Believe me, I am not the political activist. This transcends politics. This is about humanity and helping mankind. We need to get these people out. Save their lives. We can sort out all of the political and social issues later. People need to know the truth of what is going on at the ground level so that they know that New Orleans and the people stranded there are, despite being panicked and desperate, gracious people and they deserve the chance to live. They need all of our help, as well.

This is an accurate account of things. Jeffery Rau would probably tell the same exact stories.

Sept 2:
Is it possible for you to contact someone (media) ,senators, and the governor about University Hospital with 1100 people STILL STRANDED 9/2/2005 8:30 pm? It seems to have fallen off the priority list. I'm just heartbroken about the way my community is being treated!!

Sept 2:
I live in Oregon, but like Americans all over the country, I've been horrified and heartbroken by the news stories from New Orleans, a city I've always loved not only for its beauty but for the warm-heartedness of its citizens.

Finally, this morning, I'd had enough. I emailed Mark C. Smith, Public Information Officer at the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness. I thought you might be interested in his response to what I had to say. Note especially the description of the Convention Center as "not an approved site"!

From: Amelia Hard
Date: Fri, 02 Sep 2005 09:20:48

I don't understand why you aren't moving heaven and earth to get water IMMEDIATELY to the refugees in the N.O. Convention Center. As of this
morning, according to NBC news reports, they STILL DON'T HAVE WATER, two babies have died already of dehydration, and more will die today if they don't get water and formula.

There is no excuse not to do WHATEVER IS NEEDED, be it air-drops or armed convoys. It is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE for American babies to die of dehydration.

Amelia Hard

From:"Mark Smith"
Date: Fri, 2 Sep 2005 20:34:41 +0000 GMT

Lady as soon as we found out that residents were at the convention center-not an approved site-we dispatched trucks with food
and water. That was yesterday. Don't believe you see on the news

Mark C. Smith
Public Information Officer
Louisiana Office of Homeland Security &
Emergency Preparedness

(225) 925-7427 Office
(225) 276-7177 Cell

Sept 3:
Art Thompson trapped in Park Plaza hotel with 100 plus guest. No water and no food. Please evacuate asap. Art is manager of hotel

Sept 3:
Please tell authorities, there are about 300 people trapped in the Crowne Plaza hotel on Canal Street. The water there is still up to theee 2nd floor and they can't get out!!PLEASE send help!! My cousin Tracy Smith is one of them.

Sept 3:
Story: There are 100+ people trapped at the former Radisson/Wyndham Hotel on Canal street. It is at the end of Canal near the I-10 overpass. They are running out of food and water only one day left. Please help, Please contact authorities.

Sept 3:
Can someone get to the authorities there. I have worked for the past three years at the Park Plaza Hotel in NO. The GM called me yesterday from a pay phone that works in the hotel. There are between 100-150 ppl still trapped in there surrounded by water. NO one has been there at all, no one knows they are there. They have been on the fire escapes outside of the building but because of the water, no one has been close to them. There are four elderly people that were guest there that are critical and the GM is desperate to get them out to get help but it needs to be by boat. I have tried and tried emergency lines but cannot get anyone to answer. If you can help, please pass this along.

Sept 3:
Ten federal employees are trapped on the roof of the police jury complex in St. Bernard parish in Chalmette, LA. St. Bernard parish has been hit harder by flooding than New Orleans. There has been no coverage. You can contact Kim Owens, who is on the roof, at 504.239.7105. They have a generator and can get cell calls and text messages. Please investigate why they haven't been rescued or had supplies dropped to them. There have been many deaths in St. Bernard's parish (county). Another contact is Christie Spegall at 225.664.2736 in Baton Rouge.

Sept 3:
I recieved email from family members about my niece who is a dispatcher for the St Bernard Sheriffs Deparment. They have been trapped inside the Courthouse Building on the third floor for 5 days now. No Food or water, and bodies of co workers float around them. My niece has a young son and husband that need her. Please send help.

Sept 3:
this letter is to let people be aware that there are people still alive and in need of medical attention. the area they are located in Delille Senior Citizens home . The address is 6924 chef menteur hwy. in n.o. east. a few people are still in there and in need of attention. please send someone over there to see about these persons.

Sept 3:
I wanted to respond to an article posted about 1100 people still at University Hospital. My boyfriend is a doctor there and called me around 4:30 EST and told me they had evacuated the entire hospital and he was on a bus to Dallas. I'm assuming the rest of the hospital staff is going to Dallas as well. If you can let Lisa Reidsema know that they have been evacuated, maybe that can bring some comfort.

More of my writing about Katrina: label=Katrina

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 powerful 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, she becomes much more central to the plot. For example, 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.

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 took me a bit to get used to that.

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.

Update: Some time later I read that this guy was convicted for this act. I'm not sure what the charge was. I can see that we might not want people pretending to be military personnel on duty, but impersonating a veteran seems to be a harmless prank. Throwing the book at this guy, or even being outraged at his act, smacks of patriotic hysteria.

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 fiancé 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.

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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