Saturday, August 24, 2013

Musings on Manning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rally round the Ex!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 09, 2013

Woolwich walking trails

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

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

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

Here are some shots from the trail.

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

Monday, August 05, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demand more for uptown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Libertarians return to school

The Wall Street Journal published an article this week that, in line with its usual far-right stance, argued that a libertarian approach to education is far superior to the American system of hiring permanent, accredited teachers.

The article started with the premise, “South Korea's students rank among the best in the world, and its top teachers can make a fortune. Can the US learn from this academic superpower?” The article focused on one South Korean teacher who makes $4M per year, and quoted him as saying, “The harder I work, the more I make... I like that.” In describing this man’s work environment, the article says that 10% of the teachers are fired every year (compared to 2% of public school teachers in the US) and “the teachers are free agents. They don't need to be certified. They don't have benefits or even a guaranteed base salary.“

The monumental idiocy (or deceit) of the article is that it is comparing apples and oranges. South Korea has schools, but what the article is describing is after-school tutoring. The tutor being described creates online classes that are charged per view.

The US also has after-school tutors, and it has companies that seek to make big profits off of tutoring. The difference isn’t the availability of teachers or online courses. The difference is demand, and the real question is why parents in North America aren’t as driven to have their children excel at school. I don’t know about South Korea, but in many colonial countries access to education is competitive, which encourages higher performance but puts the emphasis on rote learning. This pattern exists across a variety of school environments.

In any event, the real problem facing the US is lack of access to post-secondary education. The article focuses on South Korea’s higher rate of high school completion, but a diploma is important mostly as a means of getting into college or university. Many US families know that they can’t afford higher education for their kids. Even where there is an affordable school, the affordable schools tend not to provide first rate training in subjects that lead to high-paid jobs. Government involvement in education should be just the opposite of the libertarian approach. Government should be setting goals for the graduation of doctors, engineers, computer science and the like, and finding ways to meet those goals.

Back in the 90s the center-left was changed by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bob Rae, Jean Chretien and others to what was then called “the third way”. It became a tenet of progressivism that the economy must be healthy, and that progressive governments must be good economic stewards. The idea is to focus on the size of the pie and not just the size of the pieces.

More recently the right has transformed itself just as radically. Conservatism is increasingly becoming libertarian – and libertarianism is a crazy philosophy. Milton Friedman argued that there should be no requirements for calling yourself a medical doctor as the market would sort it out. I always thought of Friedman as a thorough Libertarian nutbar, but this disingenuous WSJ article is calling for the same thing for US public school teachers. It’s difficult for me to understand how these people could be so irrational, wrong-headed and irresponsible.