Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jane Jacobs on LRT

Thanks to Mona Lynn for sending me this excerpt from Jane Jacobs' book Dark Age Ahead. This is Jane Jacobs' description of a discussion she had with Paul Martin. Jacobs doesn't provide a date for the conversation, but it must have been after he became prime minister in 2003 and before the book was published in 2005.

[Paul Martin] told me that he intended to announce a program of federal grants enabling municipalities to install light-rail public transit. Now it was my turn to demur.

I told him that unfortunate experiences already showed that fixed transit routes were expensive failures when they were not preceded by evidence of sufficient demand. Underused routes not only are a drain on transit systems but are ill-suited as contributors to the needs and convenience of users. In the past, designers of transit systems had usually chosen to locate rail routes by observing which bus routes were most heavily used, a pragmatic method that worked well in Toronto and elsewhere. After it was apparently lost to transit engineers' memories in the 1960's, Toronto and a number of other cities, among them Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago, tried rail routes justified by other goals and these have been unable to pull their weights, literally or figuratively. They don't have enough passengers.

I asserted that a prudent program to promote transit must be flexible enough to encourage experiments with routes, should that be what a city wanted to do, and possibly experiment with bus sizes, before settling on fixed rail routes. Why not specify grants for transit? I wondered aloud. Why specify from on high what form the transit must take?

... [Mr. Martin] pointed out that the mayors of every large city had asked for light-rail transit grants. I told him that I had attended the meetings where they arrived at this unanimity; they reasoned that asking for light-rail grants was politically more realistic than asking for other kinds of public transit equipment or more general transit help, such as grants for operating costs, the most desperate need in some municipalities.

Mr. Martin perfunctorily conceded that flexibility might be worth taking into consideration. Again I saw that our points of view were different. What he could contemplate as attractive bonanzas for clamoring cities and perhaps for complaining corporations producing rails and streetcars, I feared as foregone fiascoes.


Questions about Imagine Adoption and Conservative MP Gary Goodyear

Further to my previous post.

The police are now conducting a fraud investigation of Imagine Adoption. I have some questions I'd like answered about the possible involvement of Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear.


Gary Goodyear (a chiropractor by trade) and his wife Valerie Goodyear own a company called Constant Energy. This company owns a property at 382 Queen Street West, Cambridge, which it has rented for the past three years to Imagine Adoption for a fee of $3,000/month. The property is occupied by the Hespeler Community Chiropractic Centre. Constant Energy has apparently not collected any rent from Imagine Adoption.

Valerie Goodyear is a senior employee at Imagine Adoption. It seems that the directors of Imagine Adoption have been into some serious fraud. Their big salaries, luxury cars and first class travel are one thing: using agency funds to renovate their homes, take non-business related trips, and buy clothes and horses is another level of inpropriety - and all the information we have so far is just from reported expenses.


1. Is Goodyear (through his company Constant Energy) claiming a tax loss on the unpaid rent on 382 Queen Street West?

2. How much rent does the Hespeler Community Chiropractic Centre pay, and to whom?

3. What is Goodyear's relationship with the people at the Hespeler Community Chiropractic Centre?

4. What about the other properties Imagine Adoption rents but doesn't use?

5. Do Gary Goodyear, his wife or their companies own any other properties?

6. How much salary did Goodyear's wife Valerie get from Imagine Adoption, and what were her expenses?

7. What about the other charities owned by Susan and Rick Hayhow?

8. What is the real policy of our federal government on ensuring ethical behavior by cabinet ministers?


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Free Market Civil Society

After the Asian tsunami, Ian Smillie proposed a new system for disaster relief, modeled on the British system. He made the observation that there is so much competition among relief organizations in most countries that it results in (1) unnecessary fund-raising costs and (2) lower donations due to public burnout from too much solicitation.

By contrast, in the British system, which has been operating since the 60s, the 12 main disaster relief organizations have formed a Disasters Emergency Committee. This committee:

- Maintains a fund so they can respond to disasters immediately.
- Coordinates their activities.
- Has relationships with TV networks, banks and the post office to streamline and hasten the donation process.
- Keeps fund-raising costs low.
- Gives the money to organizations deemed most likely to be effective in that particular location/type of disaster.

Smillie is a level-headed, pragmatic fellow who is always coming up with good ideas and insightful comments. His suggestion that other countries adopt this approach is bang on.

But the other thing that interests me about this idea is the depiction of the civil society as a competitive free market (which of course it is). While all of us who are bombarded with junk mail from NGOs know this, we don't normally think of it that way.

For example, Wikipedia defines civil society as being "the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state's political system) and commercial institutions of the market."

Part of the problem with the Wikipedia entry is that it's wrong to say that civil society is voluntary. Many positions within NGOs are paid, and some command some very hefty salaries. (To be fair, the British word for NGO is VCO, Voluntary and Community Organizations, which may explain the Wikipedia definition.) But the other problem is the distinction of civil society and the commercial market.

We have an idealistic view of NGOs (charities, advocacy groups, church organizations, community groups, unions, professional organizations) that they are somehow selfless, outward-oriented organizations. Of course they aren't. Their goal, just like corporations, is to meet payroll, grow, provide services, and improve their brand. Many have endowment funds. Like corporations, most have boards of directors and auditors. Operationally, the distinction from for-profit corporations is often not great.

Many charities have a lot of influence over very vulnerable people, whether at home or in poor countries, and many have enormous resources. They may have do-gooder intentions, but they don't always do good - such as when they go to countries with high rates of AIDS infection and tell people they'll go to hell if they use condoms (Catholic church) or they tell women who've been raped that they'll go to hell if they have an abortion (American evangelicals) or when they have general tax exempt status but only help people who profess to be of the same faith (of which there are tons of examples, but just one is many groups that work in prisons).

They might just be incompetent, like charities that bring canned fish to disaster areas where starving people think of fish as gross and inedible (many non-coastal parts of Africa) or they may do good works that have unintended but dire consequences, like setting up refugee camps that lead to deforestation and destruction of roads (giant UNHCR trucks) or arriving at a disaster zone without a plan and impeding real help (everyone but the Red Cross). Then there are leftists who like to go to Africa to tell people that all their problems are caused by colonialism, which disempowers Africans and wrecks attempts to solve their problems.

None of that even touches the issues of lack of coordination, obnoxious and expensive fund-raising, inefficient duplication of efforts, and so on.

There are some attempts at coordinating NGOs, but not enough. (I worked at an umbrella organization for NGOs in Tanzania in the 90s so know a bit about the difficulties of doing that - we had physical altercations sometimes among warring factions.) There are some attempts at collective disclosure, such as web sites that compare NGOs on percentage of funds that go to the intended targets, but not enough. Tax exemption rules have some built-in safeguards. There are attempts at self-regulation within civil society. I wonder if there should be more direction provided to this competitive arena by government. Smillie says (link above) that it was the BBC that made UK charities coordinate their efforts. Perhaps our government should be regulating, or at least playing a role in advising, our NGOs.

Buth there are problems. For example, it's not true that the best-run charity is one that spends the maximum percentage of its funds on its targets - because you have to have adequate planning and auditing, and that costs money.

When the UK government commissioned a large study on this issue in 2005 (Better Regulation for Civil Society), they found that regulation dampened enthusiasm and innovation in civil society. It was red tape that many NGOs don't have the resources to maintain.

So it looks like small steps are the way to go, like the Disasters Emergency Committee - and more clear-headed thinking about what NGOs really are and what they should be doing.

Correction: My dad the philosopher sent the following to me in an email (which shows that I should discuss these things before posting!): "“Voluntary” when applied to civil society doesn’t connect with “volunteering”. Wikipedia was alluding to the classical view of the distinction between society and the state, where the state is said to be coercive and compulsory [you can’t unilaterally withdraw from the state, but it has to let you go and it has a monopoly on force] whereas society is voluntary [you choose to join social groups are not]. So whether people in civil society are paid or not is beside the point. I wrote a paper a long time ago criticizing this standard view of the distinction between state and society, arguing that a state could have only laws that are permissive [promising rewards if people do wanted things] and none that threaten people with punishment for non-compliance; such a state could collect the money it needs not through coercive taxation but through raffles, etc. One might say that such an institution would not be a state, but in my view that would involve circular reasoning or begging the question."


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Making Information Pop

As a technical writer, I am constantly thinking about how to help readers absorb and retain information. It's not enough for my documentation to be correct and complete; it has to be useful to readers in that it results in a more effective user experience. So the metric of quality for software documentation is how well users can use the software (in full realization that nobody likes to read the documentation and will consult it as little as possible). That means that I have to be very creative when creating help.

Re the above video, it's exciting to see someone who got creative about statistical reporting with such success. They have not only created more sophisticated analysis and a zippier view (using a Google gadget called motion charts), but he has turned a statistical lecture into storytelling.

I have long believed in the importance of an emotional element to help people absorb and retain information. I once read an abstract of a PhD thesis in technical writing that found people retain information better if it makes them happy - but I suspect happiness is just a subset of emotions that will achieve the same end. I recently saw a lecture (I've lost the link, unfortunately, but it was on TED) about how graphics engage different parts of the brain and get people to make connections that words alone cannot make.

Seeing this brilliant statistical presentation approach reinforces something I've thought for a long time: documentation should have graphics: cartoons and photos as well as UML diagrams and screenshots. As an example, I have an old copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Java 2, and it includes a repeated cartoon of a woman yelling out, "Hey stupid!" with a caption underneath that gives a little bit of info about Java. More than once I have flipped through the book reading all the "Hey stupid"s with rapt attention.

On one hand the field of technical writing is prone to a lot of gimmicky ideas and useless bells-and-whistles. On the other, it is held back by localization concerns: many cultures are said to object to representations of humans (even of hands), and Germans are said not to appreciate humor in business, and generally we are warned not to try anything funny in case it offends someone. Nevertheless, I think graphics are integral to engaging readers and should be considered more seriously as core elements of good documentation.

I specialize in documentation for developers, and mostly write reference material, tutorials, and very dense user guides. My books are not read cover to cover, but are generally read piecemeal as the developer needs the info. So not just any graphics will do: like Hans Rosling's statistical presentation software, above, we need to develop really effective, engaging graphics. Graphics that not just provide useful information, but that engage the mind in a novel way.

For more on the new approach to presenting statistics, and lots more examples of it, see

Update: The lecture I was thinking of is Tom Wujec on 3 ways the brain creates meaning. The comments provide some needed caveats.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009


It seems to be a prevalent view among City of Waterloo staff that the way to meet environmental goals is to reduce parking in uptown. They want less parking overall, including less convenient parking and less free parking. They think parking reductions will encourage people to "walk, bike, and rollerblade" as well as to take transit. Increasingly, they seem to think that a well-planned urban core is one that has few cars. This has permeated all the recent planning documents - even the draft urban design guidelines, which makes repeated mention of reducing uptown parking.

I have spent a fair bit of time trying to justify their point of view, but I just can't do it, because:

1. There's plenty of free parking at the new Wal-Mart, at the malls, and at the big box store complexes. Reducing parking only in uptown just encourages more people to drive to the outskirts to shop.

2. Economic viability is what makes uptown work. There are some of us (myself included) who live close enough to Waterloo Square to carry groceries home. Most people will not shop at a grocery store unless they can park close by. When we lose street parking on King between William and Erb (the core of our uptown) due to the LRT, it's not clear what will happen to businesses there. Will anyone go to lunch at the restaurants in that area if they have to walk several blocks from parking? Will they continue to shop at great Waterloo institutions like Words Worth Books and Ontario Seed?

Street festivals are an important part of uptown Waterloo's success. In a recent survey I did of uptown shoppers, employees and employers, the latter group cited festivals as a major way of attracting business. They said that even if people didn't shop at their store on the day of the festival, they saw stores and came back later. We are not going to attract families from the suburbs to our festivals if there is nowhere for them to park. They are not going to have a positive feeling about uptown if they end up driving around looking for a spot.

3. At the moment, residential projects are booming in uptown. For a healthy uptown, we need a balance of residential, commercial (shopping/restaurant), and employee growth. The expansion of uptown office space is being curtailed by the lack of parking - and that's before further parking reductions are implemented (due to LRT, the new hotel on Willis, the Balsillie School, etc). Uptown's big employers - such as SunLife, KPMG, Allen Square, and the Bauer Lofts - are all having problems because of the parking crunch. There's plenty of employee parking in the industrial parks - which, by the way, encourages companies to locate in places not well served by public transit.

4. When you walk around the uptown core, it's apparent that there is heavy use by seniors and by people with small children in strollers. Many of these people can't get out without cars, and can't walk from far-flung parking lots. Uptown is ringed by eight senior facilities/residences. Residents at Water Park, a primarily senior comlex of two large buildings, tend to be drivers. They are close enough to uptown to walk in good weather, but that's only a small part of the year. We have an aging demographic and seniors must be accommodated.

5. City and region staff who work in uptown have great parking: some underground and some in a convenient, dedicated lot behind their building. If they want to benefit the environment by reducing car use, they should start by shutting their own lots, charging employees hefty fees to park there, or forcing employees to walk several blocks from parking. Once they have done that they can start to talk about imposing parking restrictions on other employees and shoppers.

Staff likes to quote a parking study done a few years ago that found that there was excess parking in uptown. However, (1) much of that parking was inconvenient, such as at the station lot on Regina, and (2) the situation has changed completely since the new public square was built, reducing parking, while parking demand has increased. Both sides of the Waterloo Square parking lot are now regularly jammed, as is street parking. We need at least two multi-story parking structures immediately: one in the Waterloo Square lot near Erb, and one on King Street north of Erb. It would greatly reduce the pressure on uptown if SunLife could be prevailed upon to build a parking structure on their land at Union and King.

Waterloo Park is also being targeted as a car-free zone: the draft Waterloo Park Master Plan proposes closing all the parking lots in the park. Just walk around the park on any given day, and you'll see that many of the regulars have babies in strollers, are elderly people, or are picnicking. In many cases, those people will not be able to use the park when the lots are closed.

Conclusion: Start with Carrots
Parking strategy is truly the dog the wags the tail of uptown development. It threatens to drag us down, and that's a pity because it's so wrong-headed. You shouldn't use the stick before you use the carrot. We still have a long way to go in improvements such as:

* Providing bike lanes and bike parking.
* Creating safe pedestrian crossings (especially Caroline from Willis to Alexandra; Albert between Erb and Dupont; and the difficult Erb-Caroline intersection).
* Removing snow/ice from transit stops and sidewalks so that they meet accessibility standards. (A person with a walker cannot walk from Water Park to uptown in the winter.) Winter walking is treacherous on many sidewalks, such as on Caroline alongside the city lots from Alexandra to Father David Bauer Drive.
* Joining up our trail system (it falls into a black hole in uptown, picking up at Erb-Caroline to the north and Park-Allen to the south).
* Creating a proper walking/biking path along the railway tracks and connecting it to paths into Kitchener.
* Working on innovative approaches such as a cheap shuttle bus that runs through the uptown core.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Minister of State Gary Goodyear Moves From Small Time Scandals to the Big Time

It's a story that has all the hallmarks of a full-blown political scandal: small children in desperate need, millions of dollars in fees paid by would-be adoptive parents, the Christian fundamentalists who run the adoption agency diverting funds into their own pockets - and finally, a federal cabinet minister (married to one of the principals at the agency) who got on the gravy train in the form of $3,000/month rent for offices the agency didn't use.

It's a scandal that's exploding, with stories in papers across Canada and the United States. Meanwhile the three directors of Imagine Adoption (also known as Kids Link International) are out of the country and out of touch, leading to speculation that they'll disappear with the money (both from a recent mortgage on a home renovated with the agency's funds and, possibly, fees diverted from the agency).

Macleans magazine has a good, brief summary here. Local papers have stories today here and here. There is a lot more digging to do: Conservative MP Gary Goodyear is a chiropractor, and the office he charged the adoption agency $3,000/month to rent is 382 Queen Street West, Cambrdige, a chiropractic clinic. Also, it appears that early estimates about the amount of money involved are understated: the agency has about 450 adoptive families paying an average of $15,000 each, plus some sizable charitable donations, which may bring revenues closer to $10M than the $800,000 initially reported.

Those of us who live in or near Goodyear's Cambridge riding are not all that surprised at his involvement in this distasteful business. Goodyear's political career has always had a shady undertone.

This isn't Goodyear's first scandal involving rent. In his first election campaign in 2004, Goodyear took a campaign contribution kickback to lease his campaign office. (His campaign manager later admitted to this, although he provided a dodgy explanation that avoided prosecution.)

In his first major parliamentary appointment (as chair of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee subcommittee on Parliament Hill Security), Goodyear behaved so badly that the committee ousted him with a vote of non-confidence.

After being named Minister of State for Science and Technology by Stephen Harper, Goodyear was asked about evolution, and answered, "I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate." Later he clarified, saying he does believe in evolution, but later he clarified his clarification, saying he doesn't believe that evolution was the process by which we were created. This controversy unfolded as Goodyear oversaw $150M in funding cuts for science, including massive cuts to Genome Canada, with both controversies creating widespread outrage in the scientific community.

Just recently Goodyear was back in the news, using his cabinet clout to interfere with academic freedom. James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said, "I'm not aware, (in) the history of granting councils in this country, of any minister doing what Minister Goodyear has done. Almost everyone understands that's crossing the line."

Prior to revelations of Goodyear's involvement in the adoption scandal, I chalked up a lot of his mistakes to inexperience and mediocrity. After all, here's a guy who bombed out of university and is a small businessman, thrown into a political arena where he was clearly out of his depth. Harper has a well-established practice of appointing loyal but incompetent MPs to his cabinet - it's the only way he has to keep such a strong grip on all portfolios. Harper's government has consequently had a much higher than average number of cabinet scandals, and in the end you have to blame the boss, not the dupes who take the fall for him.

But this scandal has the potential to really do in Gary Goodyear. Unless he can explain why a company he owns is charging his wife's employer $3,000/month for an office they don't use, it looks like he is not just associated with crooks, but a crook himself.

Update: MP Goodyear linked to bankrupt agency (The Record, July 22)


Monday, July 13, 2009

Planning for Flu Season

In past posts I have made light of the swine flu (H1N1) pandemic, arguing that it's unlikely to be the magnitude of the 1918 or even 1968 outbreaks. I have changed my mind about the seriousness of the situation, because:

1) Lack of immunity to this new strain of flu means that we are facing a problem this fall and winter, even if H1N1 doesn't mutate to a more virulent form. We are facing a much worse flu season than usual, at the very least.
2) When one child died of swine flu in New York City this spring, numerous schools were closed. The same thing happened in Texas, even though the child who died was a pre-schooler visiting from Mexico. We in Toronto should remember the enormous impact of SARS. The reaction to swine flu (whether we agree with it or not) will cause severe disruption.
3) Our precarious global economic condition means that we are more vulnerable as a society: less able to cope, and more prone to negative economic/social impact. This added shock will tip more companies over the edge into bankruptcy. All levels of government will be less able to summon resources. At this point, a bad flu season could send us into inflation, stagflation, and even a depression.

In light of this, it seems vital that we all plan for the coming flu season (December through April). With luck, enough of us will get the flu shot that this year's flu season won't be a disaster. But there's enough of a chance of serious problems that we should all be thinking ahead and making plans.

I remember the 1968 flu season, when I was 10. Kids in upper grades had to help run the classrooms of kids in lower grades because so many teachers were ill. At my school there seemed to be no plan at all for how to cope - and that might have been because the principal was out sick. Planning requires committees and written strategies that don't rely on the health of any individuals.

Companies should be gearing up right now to prepare for a prolonged period when many employees can't get into work. (Employees might be ill, but also their kids might be ill or their schools might be closed; transit could be affected by transit employee absenteeism; the public might be warned against taking public transit due to disease transmission; who knows.) IT departments should be busily setting up VPN so that employees can work from home computers. Some employees should be issued laptops. Everyone should be signing up for Skype. There should be identification of people who must be in the office and they should be planned for: where will they park if transit is down and parking is congested; etc.

HR should be creating guidelines for dealing with new issues that will arise: How to encourage people to come to work? How to make employees take hygiene seriously in the office? How to handle prolonged staff absenteeism, sometimes when not directly ill? There may be opportunities: for example, employees with medical conditions may be higher on the list for the vaccine.

Plans should be made for reducing vulnerabilities: what will you do if your suppliers are unable to provide you with inputs? (Alternative suppliers should be geographically distant in case an area is shut down.) How will you cope if your courier company has no working employees, or your employees and customers can't travel?

Organizations can also take steps to reduce illness. A humidifier in the office might reduce transmission. Plans should be made for getting flu vaccine for your staff (keeping in mind that there's not going to be enough for everyone). Anti-virals (Tamiflu, Relenza) may also help for staff who have to work with the public (although anti-virals may not be the silver bullet we hope, in part because the timing of delivery is crucial and because the virus could mutate to be resistant).

In a bad pandemic, the public may be warned against handling cash, cheques or post because of their ability to transfer disease. If this might affect a business, what can be done?

Companies who foresee problems and plan for them may have a competitive advantage over companies that do not.

Here are some useful checklists.

On a personal level, the main way to avoid getting infected is to practice social distancing: keep more than a meter away from other people. We all need to educate ourselves about how to reduce the severity of the flu. During an outbreak we should stop shaking hands. Cash and mail have been serious problems in previous flu outbreaks. Face masks can be effective but only if handled properly. When sick, you need to stay home, take care of yourself and avoid exposure to other disease. If you must go out while sick, you must wear a mask.

People with kids need to plan for what they'll do if schools close. Adults with some teaching ability might consider applying to be a supply teacher to help schools stay open.

If the flu incidence is high, pharmacies and even grocery stores might operate at reduced hours. There might be days when transit isn't running, or we might be warned against taking it. It is recommended that we all have food, water and medicine to last us at least two weeks.

People on contract don't get paid when they don't work, so contractors should be prepared for some non-paid time. In addition, vulnerable companies might not make it: there are going to be more lay-offs.

Here is a personal checklist.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Bigger is Better (review)

Opening nights at the Elora Festival tend to be wowee experiences. Tonight went beyond wowee. My ears are ringing. I feel drained and buoyant, energized and rung out. I'm not sure I understand what I heard or how it fit together, but it sure did sound good.

Noel Edison mounted the Berlioz Requiem. Along with the 20 members of the Elora Festival Singers he had the entire Mendelssohn Choir, so there were over 150 singers. The rest of the stage was packed with about twice as many orchestra players as a usual performance. There was a timpani player on the floor in front of the stage, and another somewhere at the back of the hall. There were two sets of trumpet players at the back of the hall (one in each corner, as Berlioz intended). Then there was a tenor dead center in the hall, in the middle aisle.

The Gambrel Barn has great acoustics. It's not like a church and it's not like a concert hall: it's big and has that big-house sound, but it's sort of unique. I've heard a lot of great music there over the years I've been addicted to the Elora Festival, but tonight was in a class of its own just by having so many musicians. I think the ratio of audience to musician was about 2 to 1. It was big. This provided new opportunities for layers of sound to weave through the big space and show off new acoustical properties.

The Berlioz Requiem is in turns dramatic, punchy, wrenching, sublime, and weird. There are weird tunings and weird little solo bits. At times the tenors sing a falsetto like a boy's choir but not... at times the basses were so powerful that I felt like their voices were reverberating inside the cellos. (The men really shone.) The tenor solos, sung by Lawrence Wiliford in a brilliant bit of casting, made me cry.

After the performance we were treated to a reception with wine and lots of good food, but the highlight was a spectacular fireworks display (I heard Noel say that he and the Elora Festival chair paid for it out of their own pockets). What a way to start their 30th season.

Upcoming performances include Carmina Burana (July 24), the Fairy Queen (July 26) and A Night at the Opera (July 31). There's a lot of other stuff... those are just ones I have tickets for.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fringe Toronto 2009 Round-Up

I only made it to five plays this year, but four of them were magnifico. There's nothing like a Fringe. The festival continues through Sunday. (Complete schedule and mini-reviews here.)

Pen Pals
Two guys, best friends, are trying to break into the TV/movie business as script writers. They collaborate on screenplays. They're also roommates and soul mates. The two actors do not give the most polished performances I've ever seen but they create compelling characters nonetheless. The writing is brilliant: very very funny, especially when they're pitching ideas to each other. I was laughing so hard at a couple of points that I feared I'd start snorting. Delightful.

Written and performed by Andrew Patterson and Holm Bradwell.

A reconceptualizing of Aristophane's classic sex comedy. This is a play I've read but never seen before; this team really brought it to life. The plot is that women in Greece stage a sex strike to force their men to end the Peloponnesian war. In this production the anti-war message is emphasized. It went from being a sex farce to a hard-hitting drama and just when I wondered how they'd pull it all together, they did... with some help from Abba.

Written by Peter McGarry. Performed by Nell Corrin, Dee Watson, Lara Bradban, and Carly Tarett.

Today Is All Your Birthdays
It's essentially a bunch of skits performed by four guys in coveralls, but the piece is unexpectedly woven together into a story about a rift in the space time continuum, employees at the CERN large Hadron collider, Darwin, and, well... I really need to see it again. It's very, very funny and flawlessly performed by actors who are bursting out with talent and appeal.

Written and performed by the Uncalled For troupe.

One-man play about a little boy remembering when he was seven and the circus came to town. (Warning: spoiler alert.) This is one of those things that seem to be about one thing and then turn out to be about something else. The boy thinks he's telling a story about a supernatural circus that somehow took over his soul and changed him into something evil, but gradually we see that he's telling a story about being the victim of child abuse: his mother, a creepy blind woman who speaks in psycho-Dr Suess rhymes, beats him and drugs him until he loses his sanity. The slow unfolding of the real story means it's not difficult to watch: we think we're seeing one kind of horror and then later realize we've seen another.

Written and performed by Sebastian Kroon.

The only dud I saw, and it was still watchable. A musical about serial killers in the 50s, this story has been told many times (Natural Born Killers was about the same duo), and this production adds nothing whatsoever to the story. Plus, the female actor simply wasn't very good. Still: a musical about serial killers!

Written by Kevin McGarry. Performed by Lindsey Frazier, Kevin McGarry, and Gabriel Antonacci.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Fourth Way: Proactive Liberal Reaction to Crisis

Like many people, I have been floating along assuming that the recent utter failure of unregulated-market theory would result in a change to more regulation, more government oversight, and more involvement of the public purse.

The opposite may be happening. Large economies are acquiring such massive deficits that national agendas will be overwhelmed in the years 2010-2015 with the need to restore fiscal health. As happened in many countries throughout the 1990s, even liberal governments will become deficit hawks and make restraint their number one priority. Everything will be slashed, including much-needed social programs, foreign aid that has long-term economic benefits... even budgets for regulatory agencies.

Despite all the talk about reducing business cycles, we are now in fact creating a world in which business cycles are enhanced by tag-along government spending cycles. We have a market crash and/or recession, followed by government bailouts and/or stimulus, followed by the development of a new market bubble and/or economic growth, followed by government cutbacks to pay off the bailout/stimulus.

You could argue that the government cutbacks put a damper on the upswing, and they might in fact have a positive effect on dampening inflation, but the problem is that by always reacting to market-caused problems, we never have a coherent, cost-effective or humane economic policy.

Part of the challenge is to create the bureaucratic and public will to achieve something without letting the entire rest of the agenda get swept along. For example, the biggest regulatory debacle in the recent financial crisis was caused by the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), an American regulatory board that was created after the Savings and Loans crisis in an attempt to impose more effective regulations. But the OTS was created in the early 90s - during the era of deficit reduction priorities - and keeping an eye on the bottom line resulted in the creation of a regulatory board that was directly financed by, and so overly beholden to, the institutions it was supposed to regulate. (More about that here.) The fiscal restraint culture resulted in a new regulatory body that provided less protection and more hazard than ever before.

Conservative politicians revel in the idea of being able to reshape the country during fiscal restraint: it's a great excuse for further gutting public health and ushering in two-tier health care; gutting social spending; and so on. But liberal politicians could prepare for the coming half-decade of government cutbacks by creating a strategic vision for how to handle it.

If we accept that business cycles happen and plan for them, then we can have a more coherent economic agenda. This goes beyond having "shovel ready" infrastructure projects always queued up in anticipation of stimulus need. It may mean forging a new relationship with civil service unions that creates more flexibility in the system - even if not as much flexibility as exists with private sector employees, then at least somewhat more. It means long range economic planning that includes crisis management and that creates strategic priorities that can be maintained through good times and bad. (For example, perhaps instead of granting annual budgets to programs, governments should set up endowments.) It means finding a way to cut back spending that is temporary and humane.

Two decades ago, the "third way" transformed liberal politics by melding fiscal restraint with social progressiveness: by taking responsibility for how to pay for what we want to achieve as a society. Now we need a way to expand liberal principles to deal with economic crises in humanitarian, cost-effective, and coherent ways. Government needs to become less reactive to market shocks. It's not fair to create lavish social programs during rosy times and then slash them a few years later. Equally as disturbing, it's inefficient.


Thursday, July 02, 2009

Executive Compensation

The Globe & Mail published their most bone-headed editorial ever this week. The logic was so assinine that I wonder if they were trying to undermine their own argument.

It went like this: People are concerned about executive compensation. That concern was justified when CEOs didn't, on average, make less bucks last year after share prices fell - so people are saying there's not enough of a link between pay and performance. But wait! "The good news" the Globe says, "is that such a link is becoming the holy grail of compensation design."

At which point thoughtful readers everywhere started thinking: Well that's not right. Canadian CEOs weren't responsible for the biggest financial crisis ever to strike the five inner planets. When crisis hits, do we not need the best CEOs we can get to protect us? Performance metrics are a pretty sucky idea.

Of course performance metrics are just one aspesct of a huge issue of behavior so unethical it should have serious jail time attached. The Globe might have mentioned that fifty years ago, CEOs made 20 times what frontline employees made while today they make 300 times frontline wages. They might have cited the growing cries to create some legal protection for shareholders and employees, say by reducing the ability of the guys at the top to remunerate themselves, or by putting firm limits on how much they can suck the corporations dry... viz a maximum wage. Noone would expect the Globe to say that as long as the CEO-director cabal continues to run major corporations as a giant cookie jar for their own super-sized enrichment, we're not living in capitalism but just a corrupt oligarchy... but it seems rather pertinent too.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with making $919M in one year, like the CEO of Och-Ziff Capital Management. There are situations in which making a bundle is perfectly ethical. For example, if I were ever to publish my collection of poems about bi-valve evolution, it would of course sell many copies and I would become very wealthy. If I got $2 per book in royalties, I might make, what... about $200 million in the first year. (I'm not completely acquainted with the income of poets but it's something like that.) I don't think there's any issue of unfairness in that income - after all it's volume that caused the figure to be so high.

But the incestuous little community of CEOs and directors, who set their own remuneration levels and move from company to company scratching each other's backs, is hoovering up vaster and vaster percentages of profit purely because they have the power, balls and lack of shame to allow them to grab other people's money. I'm not saying that they aren't qualified or that they shouldn't be well compensated, just that (1) they shouldn't have the nearly-unfettered ability to take as much as they like and (2) no-one deserves labor income in excess of $100,000 a week.