Sunday, June 28, 2009


The recent financial crisis delivered a death blow to the ideology of free market capitalism that reigned for the last 25 years. But are we thinking seriously enough about what dismissing it means? There are wider implications than regulatory reform.

In the Reaganite positioning, big government was bad. Supplying social services was called "tax and spend," which was equated with waste and corruption. That was just spin of course: a major function of government is necessarily the provisioning of social services. On a micro level we could think of a condominium building: if the condo association decided to collect no condo fees and provide no services, then the snow wouldn't be plowed from the driveway and the hallways wouldn't be vacuumed; the leak in the roof wouldn't get fixed; the legal requirements of the association wouldn't be met.

Throughout the last 25 years we have had a trend of government cut-backs that have been not only harmful to our well-being, but also inefficient and costly. We need to rethink government's role in providing services: ideally, we need a new philosophy for the role of the state. It's not a trivial activity and presents some major challenges. I'm not just thinking of the need for prioritizing, but also the need to rethink the government's relationship with civil service unions; devise a public credo that provides for a more equitable sense of government handouts; figure out how to handle the retiring baby boom generation; and so on. We need to change the debate to a more realistic understanding than the old neo-con slash approach: use cost-benefit analysis to show the real cost of not spending money in some cases, such as reducing money for preventative health care or the training of doctors. And so on: I don't think I've probably even skimmed the main issues.

The US has a visionary president now, but Canada can't rely on him to create a conceptual approach to this post-Libertarian era because the US has a much more limited view of social services than Canadians do. Stephen Harper is obviously not going to provide that kind of vision: he's an old-order neo-con. But Michael Ignatieff might be the perfect person for the job, with the intellectual depth and the visionary perspective necessary to forge something new and appropriate for Canada.


Sitting in the Tall Grass Waiting for a Rabbit

I'm spending time these days with a very standoffish cat. After two months of concerted effort, major food bribery and a lot of rather undignified kitty-kitty-kittying, I have got him to warm up to me enough that when I'm sitting at my laptop he will occassionally come up close enough that if I stretch out my leg as far as it will go I can touch him with my toe.

All this cat activity has got me thinking about dogs. Some anthropologists say that dogs relate to humans as they do because they first started coming around human campfires for warmth 100,000 years ago, and have evolved as part of the human community. Other anthropologists point to evidence of the domestication of dogs over 30,000 years ago.

But is domestication the reason that dogs relate better to humans than cats? Or is it that dogs are more intelligent? Or does the autonomy of cats vs the dependence of dogs show that cats are more intelligent?

I don't think any of the above are the central reason for dogs' behavior. The central reason is their dominance-submissive tendency. By nature, a dog wants to be in a hierarchy: either top dog or submissive dog. Humans, being bigger and taller, naturally dominate dogs. That makes dogs feel comfortable, and makes them want to not just obey us, but also please us.

Consequently, it's not difficult for humans to command a dog they've just met. You don't have to forge a relationship, just establish control. Which means that dogs don't need to be trained (unless they have specific problems): humans need to be trained how to relate to dogs. As an example, I developed some hand signals so I could tell my dog what to do silently, and I've found that other dogs respond to them without any training (palm facing out for stop, finger pointing down for sit, etc). It is my knowing how to tell them that matters, rather than their learning how to obey me. Also, I've noticed that dogs don't need to be "thanked" with a food bribe: they seem most content when they're comfortable in their place.

None of this works that well, of course, until the dog has emerged from its teenage lunk-head years, which often is around 18 months or so. And you have to be sensitive to the dog's preferences (individual and breed-based), as you don't want to turn the little fella into an automaton.

If dogs are happiest and most obedient when they submit, then probably the best approach is to make the dog submit totally: get the dog to roll on its back and show its belly (maybe just once will do), and then act with consistency as the dominant partner, never asking for the dog to do anything, but simply demanding it.

(The title is from Jane Sibbery's song Everything Reminds Me of My Dog.)


Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Language of Love

Some of my readers may question how a non-practising heterosexual like myself has the nerve to go out in public and write about love. However, that's the beauty of a blog: no qualifications necessary. No filter between brain and web. We bloggers get to make fools of ourselves with all the non-deniability of a google cache.

To those hypothetical readers who think I'm unqualified, I might counter that the topic of love is sorely lacking objectivity. I once had a philosophy prof who wrote a book about love. When he gave us a lecture on the topic he broke down in tears and was unable to finish. I mean, c'mon, that kind of attitude has to be skewing our thinking a little.

(Romantic sentimentalists take up part of the current conversation. At the other end of the scale are the cynics, the embittered and frustrated: man-haters, woman-haters - people who write misogynist jokes and hurtin' Country songs and all those great Blues lyrics."Sometimes I feel... like I've been tied... to a whippppin' post" - fabulous song and all, but you have to get it that that guy has pissed off a bunch of women.)

So here I am, a disinterested observer, watching all this love stuff going on everywhere, and my first thought is the unoriginal one that a single concept is used to describe too many things: romantic love, love for a child, love for a supreme being, love for objects... you get the idea. They aren't at all the same. At the least, each type of love has a distinct type of expression; and it's more complicated than this, but as a start is something like: romantic love has desire, love for a child has nurturing, religious love has obedience, love for objects has possessiveness.

In the romantic context the word "love" is too loaded with baggage to make much sense. If someone tells you "I love you" and you reply "I respect your mind" or "I admire your butt", you have made a gargantuan faux pas even though it may be a really nice thing to say and far more meaningful than "I love you." But love, ill-defined though it is, is the sine qua non of romantic relationships and, worse, a justification for the lack of other things in the relationship - a joint necessary/sufficient condition. It's everything and nothing, which isn't rational.

Now for a little digression. There's a rock & roll guitarist I used to go see in bars a lot: he spent his adult life on the road, became an alcholic, saw virtually nothing of his wife and children. He also made amazing music*. When his daughter was a teenager she decided to follow in her old man's footsteps. I heard her interviewed once and she said he said to her: you don't become a musician because you love it or because you think you'll be successful. It's a hard hard life and the only sound reason for doing it is because you can't not do it: because you need to do it.

This got me thinking that the same might be true of marriage. It must be really difficult to spend so much time with the same person: all people are, at least sometimes, sloppy and insensitive and boorish and bitchy and stinky and generally annoying. The only way I can see that anyone stands being married is if they need to be married to that other person; and I mean need in a really strong, visceral sense: a compulsion.

So in the romantic context, if we replace the word "love" with "need", then a lot of the obfuscation of the concept goes away. "Need" is a narrower term and more insightful. You can need someone without liking them, or respecting them, or desiring them. Our inability to comprehend why an abused woman stays with her abuser becomes a little clearer. And so on.

I think there's probably a lot more to be said about the nature of need but I am, after all, not interested enough in the topic to take it much further. ;-)

*David Wilcox.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is This the Region We Want?

Over at the Region's discussion forum, someone calling him/herself ncmoogks (who is obviously a transit rider) has written some very important stuff about LRT. I quote in part:
After the Region has blown its money on LRT, will it be able to sustain the operating costs while adapting to the changing needs and uses of its citizens? Will it be able to incrementally improve this system at all? Or will this end up like so many other public works projects that are touted as bold legacy projects, only to be completed as pale shadows of what they planned?

...the ONLY benefit that I MIGHT see for me, is that the LRT will improve bus service along major routes to offer a frequency that is useful. ...To have an LRT running every seven minutes is great, but if you miss your connecting bus, and have to wait 15-30 minutes for the next one, you might as well walk. In fact, I have discovered that if I want to get anywhere in the City of Waterloo without using a car, it is usually faster to walk the 20-30 minutes. However, my concern is that when the Region spends more money than it planned on this project (and it inevitably will), that it will not have the money to properly maintain and improve the rest of the network. Then, we will have an LRT line with no means of attracting people to it (either feeder lines, or park and rides) and no way of improving it.

You may think this that this is a highly unlikely scenario, but I will end this note with another local example of public works and financial stewardship. You may be aware of a little project called RIM Park. The City of Waterloo built it as a Millennium Project. For a variety of reasons, the park cost ended up ballooning (even without the scam). Ten years later, the City is so stifled for cash, that it cannot afford to do anything but service the debt and it will continue to do so for decades to come. As a result, it is cutting budgets left, right and centre because it can't afford to do anything else. The Trails and Transportation Committee, responsible for among other things walking trails, multi-use trails and improving the City's bike lane network, has barely $100,000 to service existing and new non-car transportation. The Waterloo Concert Band, that for 150 years has been supported by the City, had $2000 cut from its $5100 budget this year because the City was tight for cash. I have worked with a variety of City staff on a variety of projects and the message is the same: there is no money, we are spending anything we have to support the RIM Park payments. Will LRT be anything different?

Is this the Region we want? We are never going to be the next big city with a consolidated downtown, no matter how much the planners try to make it so. If the LRT is voted in, the Region will remain a distributed network of old and new neighbourhoods with a single LRT line that will take 10 minutes off the current travel time and seriously disrupt the urban landscape.

Re the beginning of the last paragraph, I should add: while transit specialists say an LRT is appropriate with densities of 60,000 or preferably 80,000 at a node, the MAE (pages 51 and 52) predicts the following density for its most populace node:

Downtown Kitchener (stops Victoria, Central Kitchener, and Market)
Population 2006 - 10,900, by 2031 - 20,700
Employment 2006 -18,000, by 2031 - 24,100


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beer and Wine in the Grocery Stores!!!

I don't want to be a union-buster, but this may be an opportunity to finally mobilize public opinion to make it politically possible to change our system and allow the sale of beer and wine and - good god don't say it! - even liquor in grocery stores and corner stores.

At least two recent premiers have promised to do it, but there seem to be some powerful forces preventing it from happening. It's like when they put postal outlets in corner stores and pharmacies - lots of people were worried that service would decline, but it has worked out spendidly and is more convenient on all fronts.

Among the other benefits, it would be a great environmental boost... instead of driving across town to a Beer Store, walk leisurely to the corner. All around, an idea whose time has come.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Harvey Cashore on the Delays in Investigating Airbus

As Geoffrey Stevens put it, getting an inquiry into the Schreiber-Mulroney deals took "15 years because the people who had the most to hide were able to use the law to keep the truth hidden."


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Waterloo - Uptown Vision

Sitting in our new public square on a recent Saturday afternoon with several hundred people watching Rossini's opera La Cenerentola (Cinderella), I had one of those happy moments of optimism, a glimmer of what we as a community are becoming. The event was enlightened. It's a fun opera with good tunes and lots of laugh lines. Little kids danced around in front of the orchestra. People sat in folding chairs or on the concrete steps around the square while cars drove by on King Street (and surprisingly, the car sounds weren't intrusive). There's a bus stop by the square and most of the people who got off the bus, as well as pedestrians and bikers going by, stopped for a while.

The city has a full-time programmer for our new public square, with events throughout the summer. This is the only opera: there will be events for all ages and interests, during the day and in the evenings. The city has a calendar of events here.

The fully-programmed public square is the final piece in the new Uptown envisioned in the planning document project2007 - a document whose planning started in 1992. Many Waterloo citizens, city staff and councillors have worked hard to transform uptown into what it is now. It isn't exactly what everyone wanted, but it's pretty damn good.

I'm on a Waterloo city council advisory committee that's engaged in the next stage of long range planning for Waterloo, and is currently working to write Vision 2025. I have been working on that for a couple of years now (which is why I have such strong feelings about the impact of LRT on the uptown). I'll be writing more about uptown vision in the coming months, and always appreciate feedback and ideas.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Sustainability of Stimulus

Stimulus is a funny sort of public policy. In normal years we rightly decry government deficits, but in severe recessions deficits are not only good but necessary. It's not always easy to make the case for recession spending, especially when the media is full of "green shoots" articles claiming that the recession is easing.

These days, polls and articles are all pointing towards a shift in priorities. Six months ago everyone was worried about avoiding a depression. Today, everyone seems to be worried about the deficit.

The worst thing we could do now is pull back on deficit spending. The US did that in the 30s and the Japanese in the 90s, in both cases causing a prolonged era of economic hardship. We need to not only stay the course on deficit spending this summer, but prepare ourselves to continue to increase our deficits over the next year, perhaps longer. In other words, $50B is likely not the end of it.

Cutting back on deficit spending will not reduce the deficit. It's a false economy to hold back now because the subsequent fall in economic activity will reduce government revenues to the point that we'll have the deficit anyway, along with unemployment and bankruptcies and other havoc.

Anti-recessionary spending is often seen as a blunt sword: in terms of fighting the recession it doesn't much matter what you spend the money on, as long as it stays in the economy. But there are reasons why we should be very concerned with fine-tuning: (1) After the recession we'll have to drastically cut spending to get the deficit under control: there will not be money for infrastructure spending for a long time, so we'd better finance important infrastructure projects now. (2) Timing is vital: if we maintain stimulus spending too long we risk causing inflation or even stagflation.

In short, we're on life support now, and it's madness to pull the plug before we're able to breathe on our own. The outcry against deficit spending seems possible only in a world where media and policy makers are largely isolated from economic realities. Many Canadians know how bad the economy is. At the downtown Toronto office of a friend of mine, an ad was placed for one day for a minimum wage receptionist job: they got 250 resumes, some from engineers and MBAs. A woman I know at an employment agency told me that for months now, companies that routinely roll over contracts for skilled financial workers have demanded pay cuts up to 20%. On a purely economic level, every penny taken out of someone's pocket is a penny less to get the economy back on its feet. We're not out of this by a long shot.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

LRT in Uptown Waterloo

I just sent this letter to the editor of the Record:

Light rail transit, as currently planned, could be a disaster for uptown Waterloo.

LRT is slated to go straight down King through the uptown core (William to Erb), displacing parking, inconveniencing pedestrians, and making street festivals all but impossible. The stations required for LRT are huge; a third of the sidewalk from Willis Way to William will be a station.

The LRT is going to turn left across our busiest uptown intersection, King-Erb, and then run against traffic on one of our busiest uptown streets, Erb between King and Caroline.

There will be two LRT tracks criss-crossing Erb-Caroline, making such a mess of the intersection that railway gates are planned. All this just before construction of the giant BarrelYards development a hundred meters away. Besides being a major driving route, this intersection is the connection between uptown and Waterloo Park, and is the junction of the Trans Canada, Iron Horse and Laurel trails.

In addition, the LRT is going to cut a swath right through the middle of Waterloo Park. And given the turning radius required by the LRT, I don’t see how the Adult Recreation Centre at King and Allen will survive. At the very least it will lose its parking.

None of the planned station locations in Waterloo are in any need of density incentives. The provincial growth targets for uptown Waterloo for the next 25 years are going to be met in the next 5-7 years. The problem in Waterloo, if there is any, is that there may be too much development in the works.

After a lot of hard work uptown Waterloo is a great success, and the current LRT proposal is poised to destroy that success. Anyone who cares about uptown Waterloo should be very concerned about the Region's plans for LRT.

There are alternatives, such as bus rapid transit that merges in with regular traffic through uptown Waterloo; or a King streetcar, similar to the trolley bus we had until the 1970s; or modifications to the LRT route that are more sensitive to the needs of Waterloo.

Ruth Haworth

Update: Published letter


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Character Assassination

Michael Ignatieff has been nothing but responsible since taking over as leader of the Liberal party. He has given his overt support to the government. When he has put pressure on the government, he has explained exactly what the issues are; he has chosen serious issues; and he has behaved respectfully and thoughtfully.

Nonetheless, the Conservative party has launched a massive negative ad campaign, spending $750,000 per week to try to trash Michael Ignatieff's character. They paint him as a power-hungry opportunist. They make it seem like Ignatieff is trying to rush into an election, when the opposite is just the case: he turned his back on the coalition and supported Harper. For heaven's sake, he has only had a few months to rebuild the Liberal party and we are not even ready to fight an election.

The ads twist reality in more ways than one. Not only do they paint an untrue picture of Ignatieff, but they totally distort the reality of politics. Every political leader is trying to win more seats; if they weren't they would be bad leaders. There is nothing evil about playing to win. (If there were, Stephen Harper would be Beelzebub himself.)

As a member of the Liberal party, I protest this continuing character assassination of whoever we choose as leader. The Conservative party under Stephen Harper has become a US neocon-style attack organization, seeking to dupe the public and distort the system rather than win on their own merits. Federal politics has been hijacked by a bunch of right-wing Albertan donors who are willing to turn Canadian politics into a game of hate. It was bad enough when they spent millions making fun of Stephane Dion's Gallic shrug; now it's just gone too far. Enough is enough.

The truth about our current situation is this: last fall Harper behaved so badly that he lost the confidence of Parliament, which formed a coalition to replace him as Prime Minister. Michael Ignatieff stepped in and supported Harper on the condition that Harper handle the recession in a reasonable manner. There are serious questions about whether Harper has met his end of the bargain. Ignatieff could overthrow Harper at any time, but instead of doing so, he is negotiating with Harper to try to improve the government's economic performance.

For the first few weeks the Conservative attack ads had no effect, but slowly they are taking root in the minds of Canadians. For example, a recent commenter in the Globe wrote, "Mr. Ignatieff is only in this for himself. ...He wants to be Prime Minister and will do whatever it takes to force an election." You hear that more and more. Rational argument is ultimately useless in the face of a good PR firm and a huge budget. The Liberal party has resisted the temptation to fight back with their own negative ads, which I applaud. A compelling reason for an early election is to end the Harper Hate campaign before it can become fully effective.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Five Good Reasons to Have a Summer Election

Michael Ignatieff is spending his weekend reviewing the government's economic performance and will announce his decision about calling an election tomorrow, Monday. He is the one who has to decide, but here are some reasons to go for a summer election...

1. Economic mismanagement of the recession
According to the 22 mayors, Harper is flat-out lying when he says that stimulus money is getting to the designated projects. The mayors say the government is dragging its feet so egregiously that they won't be able to spend the money till next summer.

Stimulus money has to be spent now. Spent now, it will give the economy a boost and help us out of the recession. Spent next summer, it could add to inflation. Not acting responsibly is going to cost us big-time down the road. We can't continue with the neo-con ideology-based negligence of Harper/Flaherty.

For God's sake... Under Harper, Ontario has turned into a have-not province! That wasn't an accident. He has never hidden his disdain for Ontario; at the start he seemed to delight in slighting us.

Now more than ever we need responsible economic leadership, and in Canada that means Liberal. (As I have said many times, the Liberals are never able to adequately balance economic responsibility and social progressiveness, but they're the only party even trying.)

2. Lack of help for the unemployed
Half of unemployed Canadians are ineligible for EI. (If I were unemployed I would be ineligible, even though I contribute and have worked the requisite hours.) There are gross inequities across the country in how many hours you need to have worked to get EI, and in how many weeks you can collect it.

This isn't something to start talking about; this is something we need to fix fast - or at least put in temporary measures. EI is anathema to Harper, who calls Canada a "social welfare state in the worst sense of the word" and thinks the unemployed are lazy and criminal. Meanwhile we have a human crisis unfolding all around us... and that hardship is going to further drag down the economy and cost us in the long run.

3. Counter the hate
The Conservatives are spending $750,000 per week to run negative ads attacking the character of Michael Ignatieff. So far their ads are having no effect, but eventually that kind of money and that kind of character-based assault will start to take effect. We let Harper's US-style neo-con politics of hate destroy one Liberal leader; we don't have to pretend that they're playing by gentleman's rules. Let's get mad and take them down.

4. The polls show that Canadians want a change
Canadians - especially the over 50% of Canadians living in Ontario and Quebec - no longer support Stephen Harper. They're fed up and they want a change. A summer election would be a tough fight but it's the right thing to do.

5. An election will provide a good jolt of stimulus
People complain that elections are expensive, but what we need right now is a good jolt of money into the pockets of the unemployed, underemployed, and people living on fixed incomes who are hurting from the stock market crash. An election would be excellent stimulus, providing tens of thousands of part-time jobs.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Too Thin to Plow, Too Thick to Drink

I spent some time in the state of Mississippi recently attending a family wedding. The happy event was in Natchez, a town full of antebellum mansions that escaped destruction during the Civil War because it was (to its current embarrassment) a hot-bed of Union sympathizers. Also, the crippling taxes of the Reconstruction era targeted agricultural production, while Natchez was primarily the second home for plantation owners. It had long been a place to party rather than to grow cotton.

I always enjoy touring historic houses and went to several. The docents tend to be local people with great enthusiasm and knowledge about the history of their part of the world (and in the South, they also tend to be great story tellers). In Natchez, as is typical in the South, history means the Civil War. During one tour someone asked a question about the American war of independence, and the docent said she didn't know anything about that, adding, "Around here we don't learn about the Revolutionary War in school. It isn't part of our history."

I have one Southern parent so I've grown up with a lot of exposure to Southern ways, and I've always noticed how steeped the South still is in the Civil War, but I never heard it put as blatantly as that before.

Growing up, it took me a while to understand how strange it is that the South is obsessed by an event that ended 144 years ago. My great-grandfather (universally known as Pappy), who died when I was 17 and who I was lucky to know very well, was born only ten years after the end of the War, so it is not surprising that he talked about it. But my entire family history is dominated by stories of the War. I know a great deal about what my ancestors did in the Civil War but virtually nothing about their activities in more recent conflicts.

I grew up hearing about Uncle Hoot's ex-slave helping Uncle Hoot walk home, injured, from a battlefield in Alabama, and their arrival two years after the end of the War when everyone thought Hoot long dead. There was also Uncle John who refused to wear blue jeans (Union colors) for twenty years after the end of the War, who then declared in 1885, "We fought that war for the wrong reasons" and finally put away his grey flannels. We still make pilgrimages to see the obelisk erected on his own gravesite by my great-great-grandfather, who had printed on its sides:
Robert Bruce Bowe
Born in
Petersburg, VA
Feb 29, 1833
Raised in
Hanover Co.
Moved to Miss.
Feb. 1, 1860
Oct. 11, 1907

Co. A 7th Tenn. Cavalry CSA
July 1861 - Apr. 1865
We rode from Vicksburg to Nashville,
from Atlanta to Corinth,
to Fort Pillow and to Belmont, Mo.
Many a day and night
nothing to eat, our bed the cold sod,
the Stars and Bars and dear Mal were
the idols of my heart.

My aim through life was to do
unto others as would have them do
unto me, though some times had to fight
old Nick with fire.

I have no Flag or Country since 1865,
an Alien in the land that my fore Fathers
defended in war since 1624.
Providence taking the side with the strong and
against the weak and just
has caused me to live in doubt
the last Forty years
and fear I will die so.

Growing up, many times I heard the story that my ancestors never acceded to the Union, with the conclusion left unsaid: that the authorities may think we're Americans, but in our hearts we still belong to Dixie.

I used to think that Civil War nostalgia was all about recalling a time when we were wealthy. People I knew in the South grew up poor, but their ancestors had lost immense wealth during and after the War. I was (and am) horrified by the slave-owning history in my own family and thought of the Civil War as primarily a way to preserve that barbaric practice.

But maybe I just wasn't Southern enough to get it. The South was and is a culture unto itself, and the Yankees really were oppressors. I used to think that Pappy's Uncle John finally came to his senses when he went back to wearing denim coveralls, but now I wonder if his original reaction wasn't the right one.

(The title of this post is an old joke about the Mississippi River.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Lipsynch (review)

One of my favorite scenes in Robert Lepage's nine-hour play Lipsynch occurs at the end of the first act. The young man Jeremy has fought with his adoptive mother and is in a plane flying off to make a new life for himself. We see him lighted in a window of the plane, clouds scudding behind it. It's startling when his adoptive mother (an opera singer) appears outside the still-airborne plane, singing a beautiful piece from Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, and even grippier when his dead birth mother climbs on top of the plane and begins walking above him. Lepage manages to put the audience completely in Jeremy's head and give us his feelings of longing, love and sadness for his two mothers.

A lot of skill was required to make that scene work - to make us able for a moment to accept we were at 40,000 feet watching Jeremy through his little oval window; make us able to morph into being inside Jeremy's head. The plane set had been introduced much earlier and played with: we first saw the inside; then it became an airport bus. This is a pattern in the play: in each act there is one piece of set that is changed in a fluid, transformative way that made the sets central to the production rather than just a prop.

I don't need every theatrical production I attend to provide a new interpretation or employ new narrative techniques. But when something as startlingly innovative as Lipsynch comes along, it's an enormous rush.

I know Lepage through his direction of opera (Bluebeard's Castle, Erwartung, The Damnation of Faust), where he uses dazzling high-tech tricks to add emotional wallop to the production. From seeing his operas, I expected zowie special effects. But Lipsynch isn't like that at all. It uses a lot of new effects, but I wasn't immediately aware of many of them as special effects.

For example - All the dialog was miked, but the sound system was good so you didn't really realize it was miked. The importance of the miking was that the actors could talk quietly - naturally - so there was none of the staginess of a typical live play. I don't have any problem with staginess, but the naturalness (you might even say TVishness) created a totally different theater experience, and very interesting.

Another example of an effective but understated effect: When Lupe, who at 15 was forced into the prostitution, appears in a scanty costume, she stands before a bank of fluorescent light bulbs, making it painful to look at her: a really good way to ensure that a story about exploitation is not itself exploitative.

Lipsynch is simply a new type of play. The intimacy of the quiet, understated dialog is part of it. The structure is another: there isn't the usual narrative arc, but nine separate portraits of characters whose connections aren't always immediately apparent. The play was written by the actors, and it is self-consciously a collaborative effort, showing a plethora of visions. I had the sense that everything I saw or heard was deliberate and important, but there was no single crux to it all. The main themes are communication and artifice. For part of the play, the two themes are used to produce a sort of autocommentary: theater exposing the mechanics of theater. It is also about all the different ways that humans communicate and the things about communication that hold them back. It is also about sexual abuse and exploitation.

The structure of the plot concerns two women who were abused and exploited. Lupe starts and ends the play and all the other characters radiate out from her, but the other story of sexual exploitation is in some ways even more central (and seems to be the story that created the title).

The play uses a real recording done in a BBC studio of a woman named Sarah who was interviewed about being a prostitute, and the actors lipsynch the lines. While Lupe was unable to express herself because of language and age barriers, Sarah is extremeley eloquent but eerily detached and clinical, as if she is unable to feel what has happened to her. The BBC interviewer sounds totally unsympathetic, as if she was asking about a shopping excursion rather than childhood abuse and a life of horror on the streets. Later in the plot, the way Sarah is treated is brutal but nonchalant. We never even find out how her story winds up (just as noone knows what happened to the voice in the interview): our society doesn't treat female sex workers as our equals.

Sarah is the character who sticks with me the most. While narratively she's a side story, memorializing her experience seemed to me to be the central import of the play. It was after I saw the play that I learned that Sarah's lines were lipsynched and that we had heard her real voice. The production had playfully tricked us on a few occasions, making us think we were seeing one thing and then showing us it was really something else. The lipsynched scene was like a scarlet letter, an exposed but unseen nugget of real, raw humanity.

The play has some goofy moments (very enjoyable), and I think such moments are virtually a requirement of a long piece of theater. When I saw Kenneth Branagh with his Renaissance Theater group doing Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V all in one day, his direction called for some pretty outrageous stunts by Henry V to wake us up and keep us alert. Branagh had the invasion of France done by WWII-era tanks and a huge banner that said "Fuck the French!", along with bright, loud explosions. Lepage has a dead man farting and a few other jokes, but it accomplishes the same thing. The nine hours were an enjoyable, sometimes intense, sometimes funny odyssey.

Note: This play has been a work in progress for a couple of years. The production I saw was at the Toronto 2009 Luminato Festival.


Saturday, June 06, 2009

Taxpayers for Sensible Transit

I have created a Facebook group Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (T4ST), with the stated purpose:
Waterloo, Ontario-based group formed to express concern about the Region of Waterloo's planned Light Rail Transit and to promote positive ideas for better transit planning in Waterloo Region.

The idea for a Facebook group and the name both came from a group of local citizens who are concerned about the Region's rapid transit proposal. Many of them are not opposed to the idea outright (as I am), but favor a more flexible, cheaper bus option, or have other concerns about the implementation of rapid transit.

The T4ST page includes a discussion forum for sharing our concerns and plans. The immediate issue is planning for representations to Regional Council's public forum on June 10. I have also added links to information about the transit proposal.

I hope you will consider joining. The group page is here. If you have trouble joining, drop me a line with your email (my email link is in the top right corner of this blog) and I'll send you a Facebook invitation.

Next step: an online petition, either to express concern or to call for a referendum. Any ideas on wording?


Friday, June 05, 2009

The Problem with Waterloo Region's LRT Proposal

Okay, there are lots of problems. It costs too much. It will continue to cost too much. Once built, it will cost a fortune to change the route. It will drain resources from regular bus routes; it will be a drain on our budgets (and cause tax increases) for decades to come. The route through the core of Uptown Waterloo, turning left across our major intersection and then ploughing through the middle of our major park, is insane.

But the main problem with the Region's rapid transit proposal is that it's rapid transit. Rapid transit means that there aren't very many stops.

Here's an example: between Victoria Street in Kitchener and William Street in Waterloo, the King Street bus route has ten stops. In the same area, the rapid transit proposal has one stop (at the hospital). There's a stop in Uptown Waterloo and then no more stops till the University of Waterloo. This means that to use the LRT, people will either have to drive to a stop, walk a long distance, or transfer to buses. However, there is not even a sensible plan for convenient bus transfer points. And there are no plans for building parking lots near the stops.

Advocates like to say that we all need more exercise. That's true but completely irrelevant. We live in a climate that's cold six months of the year and raining some percentage of the rest. We have an aging population. Many of us have young children. To woo people out of their cars and on to transit, transit simply must be more convenient.

You might think that fewer stops would make the transit rapid. However, Waterloo's LRT is barely faster than the iXpress that currently runs the same route. It still runs on regular roads with speed limits and traffic lights. Being fast and convenient is not even the goal of LRT in Waterloo Region: the goal is to create density nodes and try (for the umpteenth time) to revitalize downtown Kitchener.

Rapid transit is the wrong approach for Waterloo Region.


Policy Prescriptions for Retirement

There's an excellent article in today's Globe called Saving for Retirement Baffles the Boomers, by Doug Peters and Arthur Donner. Unfortunately, the article's subtitle, "Take a breath, think longevity, public policy and type of plan," is somewhat misleading. The advice in the article is: change public policy so that we have larger public pensions. Here's part of what they have to say:

The large pension plan knows how long we'll live because it deals in large numbers of people and uses averages for life expectancy. Thus, large defined-benefit plans can estimate fairly precisely the amount of savings one needs for the lifespan of the average pensioner in their plan. The large defined-benefit plan can also take a long-term view of interest rates and market returns, a perspective not often available to the individual investor. This again increases the economic efficiency of such plans as the CPP.

Three obvious public policy conclusions flow from this analysis:

Substantially increase the size of the CPP so it provides for a much larger proportion of income replacement on the retirement of Canadians. Many studies have recommended this idea. An increase in CPP contributions and coverage could be done over several years in a way that ensures the CPP remains fully funded.

Develop a system whereby companies and their employees can buy additional defined-benefit pension coverage from the CPP. These supplementary pensions would need to be fully funded and would be fully portable (as they are held in the CPP). An add-on plan to the CPP would provide companies and individuals with the economic efficiencies and the substantial cost savings that only a large plan can generate.

Develop a strategy to get companies that have lost the incentive to provide defined-benefit plans back into the business of offering them. This will not be easy. Companies have moved away from such plans because of complex pension laws designed to protect workers, and their experience that such plans are costly and difficult to manage. In addition, employees are wary of such plans when they see large companies fail to fully fund their plans or go bankrupt with their pension plans underfunded.

A policy of both increasing the CPP and allowing companies and individuals to buy supplementary pensions from the CPP is one acceptable policy move. Another is a much closer monitoring of pension plans by regulators. A positive move in this direction would be the establishment of the proposed national pension guarantee system.

Another feature of such a system would be to require underfunded pension plans to pay higher premiums for coverage. In other words, any company that requests relief from its required funding - that is, additional time to make up a pension deficiency - should pay an additional premium for such forbearance.