Saturday, June 30, 2007

Plus ca Change

In 1971, 4% of married Canadian women had university degrees. For married men, the figure was 10%.

In 2001, 24% of Canadian wives and 19% of husbands had university degrees.

When the Globe & Mail reported that recently, they thought the interesting thing about the data was that couples are now more likely to have similar educational backgrounds than they were 30 years ago.

But that isn't what is staggeringly interesting about the data. That the incidence of men getting degrees has nearly doubled is pretty good. But six times as many women getting degrees: Holy smokes! And the fact that 30 years ago, men were twice as likely to have a degree as women, whereas now, women are better educated than men: Double holy smokes!

It's not the absolute numbers that are so flabbergasting, but the amazingly short span of time in which this change occurred. It makes me think that we must be on the cusp of some big changes for women and women's equality. So why are so many young women today mired in attitudes from the 1950s?

Here are some of the headlines from today's Globe & Mail Style section:

* War Zone Beauty Tips: Conflict isn't pretty, but you can be
* Low-cut Cook Wear Catches On
* Plane Clothes: What, have you given up on yourself? As the travel season takes off, Leanne Delap prescribes an antidote to the indignities of flying. Get dressed up!
* Here's to Tying One On: Don't leave home without a scarf this summer

This isn't about looking nice: it's about society inflicting norms on women. For example, I'm all for women shaving their legs if they want to, but when they're forced to, we're a little bit too much like the Taliban.

Back in the days when a woman's wealth was based on the income of her husband, you could see why it was so important that women had to doll themselves up. But nowadays, when women have their own careers, it seems bizarre that the female standard is still to be objects of sexual attraction. In fact, in a world where women don't need men to support them, it should be more like the animal world, and men should be dolling themselves up to attract women.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Dreaming Insight

The last couple of days I've been trying to problem-solve in my dreams. This is a technique I learned from the CBC radio science show Quirks & Quarks years ago. Just before falling asleep you pose yourself a question, and then in the morning you see if a dream has provided an answer. Quirks & Quarks posed a difficult riddle and asked listeners to try to solve it in their sleep: several did, and the way their dreams exposed the answer was fascinating.

So I've done it the last two nights and had some interesting results. The first night the answer was clear and unambiguous but out of the question... an option I don't want to pursue. So I posed the question again and got another answer, a bit more cryptic and a bit less from left field, but still not a winner. I think I'll give it one more try. The process is giving me some insights into myself, if not providing an answer.

If you tap your subconscious for motivation, should you follow it? Isn't the subconscious all tied up with instinct and hormones and urges to procreate and stuff like that? On the other hand, if you deny your true nature won't you be at war with yourself, with unfortunate consequences?

For many years I kept a daily journal of my thoughts, and I gave it up because I came to feel that I was distorting my development by making overt too many things that should have stayed deep. Once exposed, some things lose their power. Left unexposed my mind can work things out on its own, resulting in preferences and choices that bubble up often without conscious help. Then I can apply rational thought to the decision-making process.

The Lady Vanishes... Into a Smokescreen of Lies

I forced myself to read an article in the current New Yorker on Hillary Clinton (The Lady Vanishes: Two biographies search for the real Hillary Clinton). In a sea of material about the presidential nominee-hopeful the New Yorker is a relatively credible source, and at least one of the two new books that the article describes (Karl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge) is also relatively credible.

Nonetheless, the article is a painful example of not seeing the big picture.

Nothing has emerged that is of any importance whatsoever. She lost some billing reports from her law firm that had been subpoenaed; then she found them and handed them over. She was involved in a real estate scheme that lost money. Her husband fooled around. Yawwwwwn. Just compare that to what Bush has done: overturning the Geneva Convention, altering the US Patriot act to enable himself to appoint partisan US attornies, conducting unwarranted domestic wire taps, outing a CIA agent to exact revenge against her husband, lying to the US people and the UN to get them to support an illegal war, waging an illegal war, overseeing billions of dollars handed out to friends in dodgy contracts, overseeing billions lost to fraud in Iraq, conducting extensive coverups, etc etc etc etc etc etc.

Among Democrats, some of the most pervasive criticism of Hillary is that she is too political; she has no values; she has changed her stripes for political gain; etc. This really seems to bother people. And yet what successful federal politician does not do that? McCain and Giuliani are out wooing the right without being called hypocrites. There is a constant dance amongst all contenders in both parties to address issues in a way that will not lose them votes. Hillary is in a tougher position, as a woman, to avoid negative labels, but I don't think her integrity is any the less.

Some of the criticism of Hillary is blatant sexism, such as the huge preoccupation with her use of her maiden name. For more on this, see my previous post Mother Jones Takes on Hillary.

Some of the criticism of Hillary is a rewriting of history. For example, the article cites the "health care debacle" as one of her most serious blunders. But at the time that her attempt to reform US health care failed, Hillary was widely credited with having done a brilliant job. Congress gave her a standing ovation. The consensus was that the country just wasn't ready for it yet, that noone could have overcome the political hurdles to achieving it, that she had paved the way for universal health care to be attempted again in the future.

A lot of the criticism is fueled by a brilliant conservative campaign to create an image of Hillary Clinton that is unappealing. Hillary, in the growing scenario, is a megalomaniacal ball-breaker whose ambition is so extreme as to be sociopathic.

This is of course just spin. Remember when Al Gore was running for president? He was painted as a delusional liar who claimed to have invented the internet, been the inspiration for Love Story, and a bunch of other absurd things. After he lost the election all that was completely debunked. None of it was true. The brilliance of the lies was that they were so absurd that Gore never knew how to respond to them. How could anyone believe such patent untruths? And yet everyone did - for just long enough for him to lose the presidency.

It reminds me of a (possibly apocryphal) story about Lyndon Johnson's early career. Johnson is supposed to have told his campaign manager to spread a rumor that his opponent had sex with barnyard animals. "But noone will believe that," his manager responded, to which Johnson replied, "No, but I want to hear the son of a bitch deny it!"

Hillary Clinton is not a megalomaniac, sociopathic ball-breaker. There is no evidence that she has done anything corrupt (and she, along with her husband, has been scrutinized down to her toe nails). The media and US public are once again being duped by a very effective Republican PR campaign.

These campaigns work in many ways. They allow Republicans to demonize the opposition. But even for Democrats who support Hillary, the campaign makes us less enthusiastic in our support. Insidiously, they sow doubt.

Bill Clinton managed to turn the attacks around, in part, by taking such a huge number of hits early in his campaign that people started to disbelieve the attacks. But then Bill Clinton was a dazzling candidate, intelligent and informed and well-spoken, and he blew the competition out of the water on his own merits. There aren't any current candidates, including Hillary, who rise above the pack that clearly. Also, Hillary has the huge disadvantage that her image is distorted by her gender, and it doesn't look like society is changing in that regard.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

It's Time to Start Thinking About Cutting Our Losses

A couple of years ago our local paper asked former Toronto mayor John Sewell to come to Kitchener and say what he thought should be done to improve the downtown (a seedy strip of pawn shops and dance clubs that has resisted years of upgrade attempts). The comment I recall the clearest was about the Waterloo Regional Children's Museum. Sewell said it was a mistake and will be a drain on the city for years to come.

The Children's Museum is a spectacular failure and recent moves to turn it around will probably only increase the drain on city resources.

The museum has an unfortunate history. The brain child of a local artist, the museum's board of directors decided to change direction and fired the originator. The manager who took over was later fired. The planning and creation of the museum was plagued by infighting. No organization should leave such a toll of damaged careers and bitterness.

The result is plain crummy. The museum, probably in an attempt to attract school groups, is too boringly educational, and is aimed too much at science-oriented 9 year old boys. There are way too many signs telling children not to climb on an exhibit or not to touch. There's a great deal of empty space, and many of the exhibits are broken (or at least they were when I was there last year). The location is unfortunate: there are no other tourist sites within walking distance, and the street outside is more comfortable for the many residents of nearby half-way houses than for children. Even the pricing is poorly thought out: it's $7 for everyone aged 3-54, with no family discounts.

When the old Goudy's department store was revamped to make the museum, too much of the floor space was removed, leaving a huge trendy open space the height of the building and lots of railings. How cool it would have been if they had left the old wooden floors and multi-levelled little rooms; the coffee shop in the basement with the exotic wood grain in the high-backed booths; and (if I remember correctly) the pneumatic tubes that clerks used to send paperwork around the store.

Not surprisingly, the museum is not attracting many kids and is hemorrhaging money. Last year it spent over a quarter of its $4M endowment.

Now, in a desperate move to do something, the museum has partnered with the University of Waterloo's Canadian Centre of Arts and Technology to bring a multimedia center to the museum. UW is rumored to be contributing a million dollars to the project. The problem? Most of what they plan to offer is already available on base-price PCs. It may have been a great thrill 10 years ago for kids to have a place to film themselves and edit videos, but now they have access to that technology at home, school, even the library.

The K-W Record reports, "Another area of the new gallery will feature a video-conferencing classroom that would have the potential to link students to other children on the other side of the country or the world." Uh, geeze guys: Computer cameras cost less than a movie on DVD. Macs have cameras built-in. There are a ton of sites that facilitate kids talking to other kids around the world. Given the wide availability of computers, will kids want to go to a museum to sit at a keyboard? I don't think so.

I have been to some pretty cool children's museums, all unique, in Ottawa, Chattanooga and Memphis. The Ottawa one is in the Museum of Civilization, and one of the highlights is a replica cargo ship where little ones can pick up a pint-sized broom and swab the decks, while older ones can operate a crane to lift bales of cotton on and off the ship. Another fun part is an old-timey food market with stands full of plastic food that kids can toss around or juggle or otherwise play with. The Memphis children's museum includes the front end of a passenger plane that lets kids (and adults) try out the pilot's seat. None of this is overtly educational, but it's mind expanding and fun.

I wish the Waterloo Regional Children's Museum luck in turning things around and becoming a good destination for children, but I don't see it happening. There is an art to designing a good museum. Some of the best I've been to are the civil rights museums in Birmingham and Memphis and the Holocaust museums in Berlin and Washington, DC - all of which left me awe-struck at the innovative and varied approaches to being both educational and interesting. I don't have any illusions that I could design a museum, and I wonder whether the people running our Children's Museum have the necessary skills either.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Report from New Orleans

It has been 21 months since Katrina struck New Orleans, but big chunks of the city are still uninhabitable. Something like 200,000 of the displaced people are still unable to go home. Beyond the damage to the culture, the ongoing human suffering overwhelmed me: people paying mortgages and taxes on their destroyed homes while they are stuck in shelters in other states - two years after the disaster - trying to clean up and rebuild their lives, but being prevented from doing so.

In the days I spent there last week, I could almost believe there was a conspiracy to keep residents from coming home. Things preventing people from rebuilding their homes include:

- Promised government funding that hasn't come through.
- Inadequate compensation by government (I saw a house that was purchased for $200,000 just before Katrina; the house was destroyed by a nearby faulty levee, so the government must compensate the owners, except the government will only pay $70,000 for the house and land, which is less than the mortgage).
- Government incompetence. FEMA paid contractors $44/ton to remove debris. The contractors subcontracted for $34/ton. The subcontractors hired locals at $9/ton to do the work.
- Insurance companies refusing to compensate people even though most people had flood insurance as well as regular home insurance.
- Water, sanitation, electricity and other infrastructure that are still unavailable in some areas.
- Lots of confusion around new building regulations.
- Levees that are still not safe - and won't be safe even after they're rebuilt, because of restrictions on government disaster funds that allows only replacement and prevents improvements.
- No progress in getting rid of "Mister Go" (the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet), a useless canal that was the cause of much of the flooding.
- Unsolved, ongoing problems with pumps and with flood prevention procedures.

Out in the affected neighborhoods I saw thousands of empty, wrecked houses, some still furnished but made toxic by mold; a boat stuck in a house roof; a car floating in the lake; ruined roads; piles of debris; block after deserted block.

The residents have done a ton to get their city back on track. Locals drive out to the City Park with their own lawn mowers and try to keep the grass cut. People have set up soup kitchens and public washing facilities. People are still rescuing pets. One school is being manned by teachers who live in a makeshift trailer park across the street. Locals also seem extremely well-informed in what needs to be done to protect the city, and have become very politicized - necessarily, after being treated with criminal indifference by their government.

The French Quarter is as lovely as ever, but the problems show. All those great music halls and restaurants were made possible by the people who are the local culture, and many of those people aren't there anymore. One restaurant I went to has managed to hire 7 people, but they had 27 employees before Katrina struck. They get by with a reduced menu and hours. One of the joys of New Orleans is the food, drink, music and architecture of fine old establishments like Antoine's and Arnaud's. Those establishments are hanging on, but I can't imagine they'll last much longer.

The Disneyfication of New Orleans seems to be well under way, with more tourist glitz on top of less authentic culture, but the seedy side is also greatly on the rise. Bourbon Street is worse than ever, a place for drunk college boys looking for the sleaziest of strip clubs. The murder rate has skyrocketed, making New Orleans the murder capital of the US. Until two weeks ago there wasn't even a forensic lab in the city after Katrina. It gives a whole new meaning to the term "wide open city."

Locals insist that the events of August 2005 were not a natural disaster. Katrina passed the city with very little damage. The disaster was a canal to the gulf (the MR GO) that brought a storm surge; levees that were so inadequate that they were breached from below; the entire Mississippi River system being mismanaged (which resulted in the marshes dying south of NO, which in past hurricanes had cushioned the blow); and negligence during the aftermath.

The country was so outraged about government negligence and incompetence after Katrina and was so vocal about it that afterwards we all believed we had been heard and that government (federal, state and municipal) would take this disaster seriously and handle it responsibly. In fact, the government response to New Orleans has only got worse and worse. It's mind-boggling.

See also my collection of emails sent by locals during Katrina: Voices From Katrina

Friday, June 01, 2007

It Must Be Waterloo

If a resident of New York City wanted to bring glory to his home town, would he build a monument in Newark? If a Memphis resident wanted to honor her home town, would she pour her funds into Tupelo?

Of course not.

Waterloo hometown billionaire Jim Balsillie got himself an NHL team, and now he's thinking of parking it in... Hamilton? Cambridge?

Let's not kid ourselves. Hamilton, with the eager folks at Copps Coloseum, is a more convenient location. But sport isn't about business. Bringing the teams back to the fans is about heart and pride and patriotism and all that good stuff. This is about bringing the players back to the country they represent in the Olympics. This is about hometown pride. This is about ending the diaspora.

What more can I say. Come on, Jim, bring 'em home to Waterloo. Please.