Saturday, December 15, 2012

Too Many Goblins...

...Orcs, whatever. If you've seen it, you know what I mean. Otherwise, quite good.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Remembering the massacre

On December 6, 1989, I was on holiday in Arizona, spending a week by myself driving around the Navajo and Hopi reservations. I kept the car radio on a local Navajo station and I didn't understand much of it, but when I started to hear Montreal mentioned in newscasts I flipped to an English channel.

My first thought, given the general ignorance of Canada in the US, was that the news stories were mistaken. Back in 1989 there weren't a lot of these types of shootings, and there were certainly none in Canada. The idea of men being told to leave the room so the women could be lined up and shot, the idea of the shooter resenting educated women so much that he murdered female engineering students en masse, the idea that he could legally obtain the fire arm in Canada... it was all too much to comprehend. I didn't believe the story till I landed back in Toronto and saw the Canadian papers.

Women have come a long way since 1989: you could say that what Marc Lepine feared has come to pass. But let's not kid ourselves that women are equal yet. I don't want to make a long list so I'll mention just one small example of the real state of our world: Women's names don't appear in phone books. In most families, the man's name is listed but not the woman's. For single women, it's too dangerous to print more than an initial. We have a ways to go.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Leadership, leadership, leadership

I'm leaning towards Justin Trudeau for federal leader and Sandra Pupatello for Ontario provincial leader. But I don't claim to be engaged enough to make an informed decision this time. I argued for Bob Rae when he lost to Dion and then lost to Ignatieff and then lost to party politics. I think Dalton McGuinty was a great premier but all I ever hear in local media is that he sucks. Apparently my opinion doesn't go very far.

On the federal front, we keep putting someone up there, watch the Harper attack ads undermine their credibility, and then turf them out.

On the provincial front, it's hard to get excited about electing our version of Kim Campbell - someone who, according to reports, will fight an election that results in a drastic reduction in party support. The party's modus operandi is that whoever oversees a poor election will get turfed out (or forced to resign): what's the point of getting excited about that scenario?

If I thought our party would actually get behind a leader and help them succeed in the long term, I'd be more interested. As it is: meh.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The problem with Rob Ford's defence

Rob Ford says he didn't benefit from the conflict of interest that got him kicked out of office. He said last week, "I had nothing to gain and the city had nothing to lose". Later, a campaign ad was released on YouTube that pushed this message.

The problem is it's not true. Ford voted on a motion that would have made him reimburse $3,150 that he had improperly solicited. He had $3,150 to gain.

We in Waterloo know a lot about conflict of interest. Many councillors and mayors at the regional and municipal levels were unable to vote on the LRT because of possible conflicts of interest. Some, such as a councillor who sat out the vote because he works at the University of Waterloo, seem to have gone too far. Some, such as the regional chair whose kids own property on the route and who was active on the file until the final vote, seem to have not gone far enough. But an extraordinary amount of thought and scrutiny went into the decisions. Many councillors got advice from multiple lawyers before deciding. The local papers printed numerous articles on the topic.

You'd think that if a Waterloo city councillor making roughtly $25,000 a year could take conflict of interest seriously, the mayor of Toronto could.

Monday, December 03, 2012

A Keynesian Cliff

When we have a recession and there's a call for stimulus, a lot of people - especially on the right - dispute the effectiveness of Keynesian economics. People like Prime Minister Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty were so ideologically committed to small government that as we entered recession in 2008 they tried to cut spending... resulting in a threatened coalition and subsequent prorogation, with crisis averted only when Harper gave in to opposition demands to enact a stimulus package.

Throughout this recent recession, many on the right argued that deficit-cutting must be the priority. They didn't care that the IMF and central bank governors were calling in the strongest terms for stimulus. They disputed claims that stimulus causes the economy to grow, which reduces the deficit. They just wanted to cut.

Now we're facing the so-called fiscal cliff (Paul Krugman prefers the term "austerity bomb"): taxes will rise and spending will be cut on January 1 unless Obama and Congress can come to an agreement to stop it. The fiscal cliff is pure Keynesian economics: raising taxes and cutting spending will slow down the economy. But when it comes to the fiscal cliff, Keynesianism is suddenly acceptable. The same Stephen Harper who wanted to cut spending in 2008 is out giving speeches about the dangers of the fiscal cliff.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Soldiers as personal servants, 28-vehicle motorcades to parties, and other glimpses into the military life

We go from day to day having a certain sense of what our world is like: that all people are created equal, that strong class distinctions don't apply anymore. And then sometimes the mirror cracks and another view appears.

There are the obvious stories of the super-wealthy, of course. The story that sums it up for me is something I once read about Bill Gates: when a member of the Gates family enters a room in their massive house, the household staff must lower their eyes to the floor or turn to the wall. Gates presents himself as a down-to-earth, humanitarian, nice guy sort, but his wealth has apparently corrupted him to the point that he puts himself in a higher caste.

Then there's the diplomatic world. Leaders of democratic governments use most diplomatic posts as perks for people who have helped them gain power. With the increase in the number of sovereign states over the last decades, the opportunity for patronage posts has skyrocketed. The lavish lifestyle enjoyed by many top diplomats should be an enormous scandal, but for some reason they get away with it.

To a lesser extent, aid workers fall into the same category. When I was working in East Africa I saw a lot of that. One couple from England told me that back home, they had never even been able to afford a washing machine, but in Africa they had a staff of eight attending to their every need.

The latest crack in the mirror came about courtesy of the David Petraeus sex scandal. A Washington Post article (Petraeus scandal puts four-star general lifestyle under scrutiny) describes some of the perks that top military brass get at their homes. Some highlights:
  • Enlisted men serve as staff at their homes to do yard work, run errands, and do other menial tasks.
  • The military provides the generals with a valet and personal chef.
  • For private parties in their homes, the military will provide an orchestra or choir.
  • For personal trips, they can summon motorcades. (In one trip across town to visit Jill Kelley, Patraeous had a 28-motorcycle escort.)
  • For travel, they have jumbo jets with beds.
  • ...And then there are the usual scandals of individual excess caused by budget cutbacks that removed expense oversight.
Is there a connection between this royal treatment and the scandal now enveloping Petraeus and other top military brass? Absolutely. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be well-compensated and have perks, and I can guess that some of the perks are required in a day when you wives have jobs too. But a line is clearly crossed here. Petraeus and General Allen (he of the 30,000 pages of flirtatious email to a Tampa socialite) seem to have morphed into jet-setting celebrities - when in reality they were military commanders in a time of war.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A little respect for downtown residents - please!

I needed to go to Toronto today, and had to cross King Street in Waterloo at the start of my trip. But there was a run of some sort going down King, and cars weren't allowed to cross. I tried two intersections before I found one that even had a possibility of crossing, but even then the cop directing traffic only let a car through when there were no runners nearby. It took forever.

Waterloo talks the big talk about getting people to move downtown and create density nodes and all that, but then there is no respect for downtown residents. Any sort of traffic obstruction is okay on Sundays because businesses are closed. But hello! We live here, and we need to get around on Sunday too.

What would happen if you put a marathon through a suburb, blocking people from getting out of their neighbourhoods in their cars? Or past the big box stores or in the mall parking lot? We'll never know because nobody would ever do it. But downtown seems fair game for any kind of disruption. It sucks.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bullying, anti-bullying, and anti-anti-bullying

A couple of days ago a 15-year old Canadian girl committed suicide after a long bout of internet bullying that followed her even when she switched schools. Prior to hanging herself she drank bleach and cut herself. The RCMP are investigating online activity before the teen's death to see if any criminal charges should be laid. But the online activity after she died seems to have become even more vicious and frenzied.

The predominant online reaction to her death is sympathetic, of course, but there is also a huge presence of unsympathetic responses. Many people have even posted nasty jokes and jeers on the Facebook page that was created to honor her, "RIP Amanda Todd".

In addition to jokes and jeers in text form, dozens of people have taken the time to make homemade posters that put captions on pictures of her. Here is the text of some of these posters, preserving case and errors, that I've divided into categories.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lance Armstrong, Doping, and Testicular Cancer

The reason we have to stand up against performance-enhancing drugs is not because it's cheating. It's not to protect the people who bet on sports. The idea of protecting gamblers over competitors is heinous; it's the Hunger Games.

The reason we have to stop performance-enhancing drugs is that if any athletes do it then they all have to do it (or they might as well stay home). It's not fair to athletes to force them to take drugs, shoot up their own blood, or do anything else that could harm their health.

In the old days we saw elite athletes on steroids die of heart attacks in their twenties. We don't know what harm the current drugs do. Could they have caused Lance Armstrong's testicular cancer? There's a chance they did.

I don't blame Lance Armstrong for cheating. As the US Anti-Doping Agency found, it was "not possible to compete at the highest level without them" during the time he was competing. Lance Armstrong is not the problem, the system is. If we react to each scandal by blaming the athlete, we won't stop the scourge that's endangering our young athletes.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Pros and Cons of Iran Getting the Bomb

There seem to be a lot of people running around with their hair on fire, lamenting that Iran will get nuclear weapons and Israel will become a smoking hole. The history of nuclear weapons suggests otherwise. Nuking Israel would be suicide for Iran, as Israel (and the US) would retaliate in kind. There is no reason to think that Iran is suicidal. There is no cause for fear that it would behave differently from the other nuclear countries.

The main effect of an Iranian nuclear program would be that Israel would no longer be the sole nuclear power in the middle east. This could be a good thing. Creating a more balanced power structure could actually help Israel's relations with its neighbors.

I have some concerns, and I don't know how valid they are.

One: In the past, Iran has expressed some hegemonic tendencies. Its backing of Syria's suzerainty over Lebanon is a concern. However, Iran is primarily Shia Muslim, and the only other countries where Shia is the largest religious group are Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain. Shia is a minority in Syria but the government is Shia. Does this limit Iran's sphere of influence, or sphere of interest? Is there a real interest in this Shia, non-Arab country to take over Arab, Sunni states?

Two: Iran's close relationship with North Korea. However, does Iran really want to be involved with North Korea, or has it become so isolated and threatened that it's making the only ally it can?

Low Expectations are Justin's Friend

The Globe published a rather odd little article today: "Former MP Mulroney: Underestimate Justin Trudeau at Your Peril". Some of the online commenters interpreted Mulroney's statements as support for Trudeau.

As I was reading the article, I took exception to this sentence: "The 40-year-old politician is already a polarizing figure for the party, simultaneously inspiring a rockstar-like idolization and criticism that he lacks the political acumen required to take the party forward." My thought was: What bunk. I know a lot of people who admire Justin Trudeau, but I don't know anyone who idolizes him, and he's not that inexperienced...

Then it hit me.

Mulroney is bang on the money in doing the one thing to thwart Justin.

If people see Justin Trudeau as a pretty boy / charmer / son of a famous man / dilettante, then expectations for his performance will be lowered, which is exactly what he needs to get a good footing as party leader.

With Dion and Ignatieff, our expectations were so high that nobody could meet them. We wanted Instant Success - we wanted them to win in their first election - we suffered agonies when they made missteps. If the Liberal party is going to climb back up, we have to break that habit; give our leader time to grow.

During the 2000 US presidential election campaign, George Bush performed very badly, but he got away with it because he exceeded the very low expectations people had of him. During his debates with Al Gore, the commentators would say that while Gore did much better than Bush, Bush did better than expected - and they'd call the outcome a tie.

Low expectations are a powerful tool. Let's not be quick to dismiss them.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Iran, Embassies, Omar Khadr

Prime Minister Harper took a ridiculous and counter-productive hard line against Iran a couple of weeks ago. Breaking diplomatic ties with Iran was a move that left politicos around the world scratching their heads and wondering what the heck happened. Was there a threat to Canada's Tehran embassy? Had Iran done something that nobody else knew about? Apparently none of the above - there was no reason for Canada to suddenly treat Iran as Enemy Number One.

Today we discover that Harper has finally bowed to pressure and let Omar Khadr return to Canada. Harper's backers are very unhappy about Khadr's return: just look in the Comments section of today's Globe article about it. There are strong feelings that Khadr should have his citizenship revoked (despite his having been born in Canada), that he should be tried for treason (despite already having spent his entire adult life in prison for something he did at 15), that he should be executed (despite Canada not having the death penalty).

It seems likely that Harper, knowing he would be unable to keep Khadr out any longer, used Iran as a bone to throw to his base. The politicization of every policy is the hallmark of the Harper regime.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Information Age

A factoid I recently stumbled across... The price of a passport for a child under 3 years is $22. For $24, you can get a passport with 48 pages (double the usual amount). That's what we used to call a "businessman's passport".

I want to know how many toddlers have 48-page passports. I was unable to find out through Google or True Knowledge. Back in the day I'd call up the Globe & Mail fact-checking department or ask a reference librarian. There also used to be giant books of facts like the Canadian Almanac and the New York Times Desk Reference.

I had a similar problem a few months ago when I was trying to discover the closest hippopotomus to my house.

In some ways we have less access to information than we used to.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mark Carney for Liberal Leader

Okay so it's all rumors and his office is denying it, but the idea is so wonderful that I have to try to spread it further.

A leadership race between Trudeau and Carney would be... boffo. Carney on our side would be... world-changing.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

[Not] Solving Traffic Problems in Uptown Waterloo

I attended the Uptown Traffic summit last week. It was a success - over 120 people, lots of careful consideration of the problems that were posed.

In the promo for the summit, Ward 1 Councillor Melissa Durrell said, "When I was going door to door campaigning during the election, traffic was the Number One concern." Kudos to Melissa for holding the summit.

But. Big but.

The summit started with city and regional employees giving some presentations about the context. They described the Waterloo city Official Plan, city and regional Master Transportation Plans, the Complete Streets initiative (that's what is causing all our "roads on diets"), and the provincial Places to Grow plan that legislates intensification in Uptown Waterloo (among other areas). Everything they said emphasized that cars are not the priority; bikes and public transit are the priority.

Then we got into the summit, which consisted of four questions:
  1. How might we support Waterloo's desire to become a bike, pedestrian and public transit-friendly city while recognizing the significance of the car?
  2. How might we handle the increase in traffic while maintaining a neighborhood feel?
  3. How might we reduce the number of parking spots available while maintaining a strong, vibrant economy?
  4. How might we create safe streets while still enabling access for traffic?
Good questions all. But nowhere in there is a question that addresses what all those voters were talking about on the doorstep. Nowhere was there a question that would lead to solutions for how hard it is to turn left off of Alexandra onto Caroline in the morning; or the backup of cars on Bridgeport heading towards the Erb intersection in the evening; or the huge amount of traffic cutting through the Uptown on Erb, heading from the west side subdivisions to the expressway because there is no west side expressway.

There were no questions about how we're going to cope with the new traffic generated by the thousands of new residents who will move into the condos that are currently being built, many in a small area around King and Allen.

There were no questions about how we will cope with the huge impact LRT will have on Uptown traffic. John Shortreed estimates that the LRT will cause King Street to lose 60% of its capacity. He estimates that Weber can only take part of the load. Where will the other cars go? (Sidestreets.) I don't know if John has estimated the loss of capacity caused by the LRT on Caroline, but I do know that rush hour traffic is already heavy heading north on Park, jogging along William and continuing down Caroline. The Bridgeport-Caroline intersection is already very busy at rush hour, and the LRT will make it a total mess.

It seems that there is no awareness of the real traffic issues in Uptown, and no desire to fix them. What really slays me is that all these politicians and city employees who are fixated on "walking, biking and rollerblading" and who hate providing infrastructure for cars - they all have cars.

I am not an enormous proponent of the car. I never had a car when I lived in Toronto, and didn't buy a car till I was 40 (and even then, only because it was required for work). I wish Waterloo was designed in such a way that one could live conveniently without the hassle of owning a car. But it ain't. And I want my government to be based on reality, not ideology. This isn't a trivial issue. The health of the every aspect of the Uptown depends on getting this right.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


My first career was as a market research analyst, and ever since then I've been a market research hobbyist. As part of that I always volunteer to do surveys - I like to keep up with how questions are asked, critique technique, and so on.

But in recent years it has come out that the Harper Conservatives use surveys as a political device to keep tabs on voters. They maintain a huge, sophisticated database that we're all in, and that tracks not just our political affiliations but also our spending habits, activities, beliefs... who knows what. There is increasing evidence that they used this database to devise a program of voter suppression in the last election, as well as a program of dirty tricks, calling voters and pretending to be Liberals while doing things to piss the voter off, like calling late at night or sending a rude message.

It's got so that I often don't answer surveys. Surveys are supposed to be anonymous, aggregating data but protecting the privacy of each respondent, and it's clear that a lot of them aren't doing that.

Now for the latest in dirty surveys. In the lead-up to the KW by-election tomorrow, I have been getting a ton of robo-survey-calls. They start with a voice saying they want to ask some questions about the by-election. The first question asks who I would vote for if the election were held today. I answer Eric Davis, the Liberal candidate. The second question asks me if I know that Dalton McGuinty is destroying the province. Then it abruptly hangs up and I get a bleeping busy signal.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Trouble with Buskers

Before I start in with the griping, I need to say that I love the Uptown Busker Festival. I like the pulled pork barbecue and the cheesey kiddie rides. I love the two guys dressed as mounties wearing puppet horses marching around looking serious. I love the whole carnivally feel of the thing. But I have a beef with the buskers.

It seems to me that when this event started in Waterloo a number of years ago, the buskers did full performances. But now they all seem to have about one minute worth of material to fill up 20 minutes of routine. I get that they want to do some patter to attract a big crowd, but it needs to be better patter. Or more tricks. Or a better split between filler and performance. Pulleeze.

(As Carrie Fisher said, "Instant gratification? Instant gratification takes too long!")


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Teaching Hate

Julian Assange is now on American terrorist trading cards in a kid's coloring book:

The sales blurb:
We Shall Never Forget 9/11 - Vol. II: The True Faces of Evil - Terror Graphic Coloring Novel - Terrorist Trading Cards

Price: $6.99
Item Number: SCB-WSNF2
Manufacturer: Really Big Coloring Books, Inc.

We Shall Never Forget 9/11 - Vol. II
The True Faces of Evil - Terror A Graphic Coloring Novel
Including Terrorist Trading Cards!
Truthful - Factual - Honorable - Indifferent to Political Correctness

The We Shall Never Forget 9/11 Vol. II The True Faces of Evil - Terror, rated PG-13, is about the real world. It is about being human: Good vs. Evil. There is no fantasy in this book. Designed as a consumer friendly, family publication for use with children and adults, this excellent graphic coloring novel helps expand understanding of the factual details and meanings in the War on Terror.

Inside this edition are several pages of perforated, removable card-stock terrorist trading cards. Inspired by real people, real life and reflecting the truth, Vol. II presents terrorism in direct open simplistic terms: what it is, what it looks like and what it means. In this book you will find names, dates, numbers and locations exposing the men, women and governments behind terror as we begin to hold them accountable. Details include a letter from within the Department of Homeland Security signed by five current Congressional Leaders a service organization page directed to the public and family friendly action notes, and The Congressional H.R. 847, the 9/11 Health & Compensation Act. Also in the book is a recap of the original 9/11 Coloring Novel published in August 2011.

Composed with a clear message the graphic coloring book novel calls out for open and honest discussion. We educate children about something besides the "TMZ Society" which bombards them with "important" news. Truthful and honest education about serious subjects for youth is an essential part of learning and considered a critical step in beginning to comprehend the world in which we live.

In describing the inherent bad nature of a terrorist we have included their horrific crimes. This is Good vs. Evil. We Shall Never Forget 9/11 Vol. II Terrorist Trading Cards clearly identifies the evil that may sit next to you on an airplane, or it could be an avowed Atheist in the parking lot of your local grocer on a sunny morning.The world should look at them, make fun of them, name them - shame them, recognize who they are and rid the earth of them. No comic book published, nor any nightmarish fiction written, can compare to the absolute evil pictured in this book. And realize as well "They" are not finished. Imagine a terrorist with a nuclear bomb.

Meanwhile, here's a really interesting article on Assange in the Guardian: The bizarre, unhealthy, blinding media contempt for Julian Assange


Monday, August 20, 2012

RIM Layoffs in Waterloo? Deafening Silence

If you go to Google News and type RIM layoffs and sort by date, you'll see a whole bunch of articles about the recent layoffs in Halifax: exact number (95), how it was done (employees were called to a meeting and told by video conference), how employees feel about how it was done (some are angry), and more.

Last week many hundreds of employees were laid off in Waterloo, a smaller town where layoffs have a larger impact, yet there is not one iota of news about it. Zilch. Zippo. I have heard through the grapevine that whole teams were let go. I have heard that some teams were replaced with low-priced contractors. I have heard that the cuts went very, very deep, but I have no idea of overall numbers.

Waterloo is a town of 100,000 where RIM recently employed over 10,000 people. Layoffs affect commercial real estate, residential real estate, the tax base, the health of most local businesses, the economic optimism of the community, and more. In an earlier post (RIM and Waterloo), I quoted someone as saying that every job at RIM creates seven other local jobs. As a city, we need to know numbers. As a community, we need to know what's happening to our neighbours and acquaintances.

RIM is notoriously careful about publicity. There have been persuasive arguments that, for its own good, RIM should be more transparent in this process (Lessons learned from layoffs in Yahoo Finance).

However, RIM seems to be more opaque than ever about the Waterloo layoffs. There is nary a mention of Waterloo layoffs on or I talked to some local media who said they are trying to find out what happened but are still in the dark.

If RIM won't step up, then maybe people who know what's going on should consider speaking up. They could call or email The Record, The Chronicle, CTV or 570 News Radio.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Bizarre, Surreal Persecution of Julian Assange

Earlier today, Britain said it might revoke Ecuador's diplomatic status and stage an assault on the embassy to get Julian Assange out. (link)

This is over an extradition request by Sweden on a charge that even if true would not be a crime in Britain... and there is much evidence that it is not true.

How far will Britain and Sweden go to help the US get their hands on Assange? So far:
  • A dozen US financial institutions, including MasterCard and Visa, blocked transfers of money to WikiLeaks.
  • Sweden is pursuing obviously false trumped up rape charges with a vigor that is never seen even for real, serious rape charges.
  • Sweden refused to interview Assange about the charges over video phone or in the UK, and insisted he return to Swedish soil.
  • Interpol issued an arrest warrant - unheard of for someone wanted for questioning in a case like this.
  • Sweden demanded extradition, and spent over a year in court
  • Britain puts Assange under house arrest for over a year, and eventually decides to extradite him.
  • When Assange takes refuge in an embassy, Britain threatens to revoke Ecuador's diplomatic status and storm the embassy!
  • Britain has 50 police outside the Ecuadorian embassy, making sure Assange doesn't escape.
All because Assange embarrassed the US. This is the most outrageous anti-democratic event of the century. We the people need to stand up for Julian Assange. The US has made a massive effort to discredit him, but his work stands for itself, and the world will be a poorer place if he is stopped from persuing his work of exposing the secrets of big corrupt organizations. Even I have to wonder: What will the US do to me for writing this? Where is free speech now?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Dylan, Asshole

In January 1974 I saw Bob Dylan perform at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. It was Dylan's first tour in eight years - the first since I was eight - and Dylan was an uber-icon. I was a pro at scoring good seats, but even though there were two shows the best I could do was on the side and high up.

The concert started late and the crowd was restless, by which I mean drunk, stoned, loud and obnoxious. Finally The Band came on and did a couple of songs. Then this guy came out with a big hat pulled down over his face and started singing Lay Lady Lay. I leaned over to my friend sitting next to me and asked, "Who the hell is that?" The guy behind us leaned in and shouted at me, "It's Dylan, asshole!"

I was expressing incredulity more than asking a question. Dylan wasn't singing the same melody he had sung on New Morning, and he was screaching out the lyrics instead of the rounded tones of his recorded versions. Dylan's singing has never been particularly musical, but his performance that night was six steps worse. He was unrecognizable.

In the previous couple of years I had been to a lot of concerts. Stadium concerts were a pretty tight show back then and I had never been disappointed by one.

This Dylan concert was something else. Only part of it was that Dylan sucked: he sang badly, stripped all the melodies from his songs, never looked up, never said a word to the crowd - and he was on stage only intermittently. The format of the concert didn't work: The Band was too different and too distinct to interspere their music with Dylan's. Also, there was a really bad vibe in Maple Leaf Gardens that night. A few drunken louts kept screaming during the songs.

After it was over and we were walking out my friend realized he'd left his mittens at his seat, so we went back into the now brightly lit, empty arena. All around our seats there was vomit and smashed liquor bottles, drug paraphenalia, fast food wrappers, cigarette butts. It hit me like a fist to the gut that this wasn't about music or even entertainment; this was just a place for druggies to hang out. The sixties ended in lots of different ways, but that's how they ended for me.

Just a couple of months before that January concert, folk singer Phil Ochs, depressed by a flatlining career and taking self-destructive risks, got mugged and strangled in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I didn't know at that point if he'd even survived the attack, and rumors were circulating that he'd permanently lost his voice (which turned out to be true).

While Dylan was too smug, Ochs was too needy. Ochs was too upfront about wanting more success; it was uncool. Other than that one characteristic, I think he could have had all the success he craved. On the other hand, Dylan's success always had a lot to do with his creation of himself as an icon - his lies about his childhood and early career, his manipulation of people.

I saw Dylan again in 1979, during his born-again Christian phase when his fan base fled, and finally saw a great Dylan show. It was at The Aud in Kitchener, with a tenth the number of seats of Maple Leaf Gardens. I wouldn't have even gone but a friend talked me into it, and boy was I glad.

Bruce Springsteen once said that the first time he heard Like a Rolling Stone it was like someone kicked open the door to his mind. Dylan's music was like that for me too.

I got to thinking about all this when I recently rewatched D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back, which provides a snapshot of a few days Dylan spent in London during a 1965 tour. Dylan seems impossibly young in the film, nasty and bombastic, and also isolated and lonely. The film is popular with Dylan fans, and I have never heard anyone say that Pennebaker meant to be critical of Dylan: I have to think that the maker and the fans of the movie held Dylan in such high regard that they didn't see anything unattractive in the scenes where he yells at people, makes snide comments about a fellow folk singer, and even - right at the end - calmly picks his nose.


Monday, August 06, 2012

* * * New Blog * * *

I'm not giving up on Yappa Ding Ding (which I have been writing for going on seven years) but I have started a work blog, Focus on Readers. It's a work in progress and as with many of my ventures, I have no idea where it will lead...


Saturday, July 21, 2012


In the US, the FBI monitors orders of grow lights over the internet so they can arrest poor schmucks who have a couple of pot plants in their dorm room, but they don't pay any attention to a guy whose profile screams "Unibomber" who orders a veritable arsenal of weapons and ammunition.

Friday, July 20, 2012

More than you want to know about.... mustard. Part 2

So here we have Canada with its waving fields of yellow, just screaming out for a homegrown condiment industry. "What kind of mustard do you want?" waitresses should ask all over the world, and patrons should reply, "Canadian!"

But we don't want to stick our brand on a tired old product. Not American mustard (turmeric) or Dijon (wine vinegar) or German (whole seed) or British (pure heat). We need something new. I myself feel it would be cliche to flavor our mustard with maple syrup, not to mention disgusting. I don't like sweet mustard much, so for me Saskatoon Berries and so on are out. You might be thinking Rye, but American bourbon has already cornered that idea.

So here's a proposition: smoked mustard. Has anyone done this? Sounds yummy. We can call it smustard. Or to be extra fancy, smoutarde. I offer my idea freely to anyone who will produce Smoutarde in Canada. Go for it!

(Oops. Seems that Alaska has a brand of smoked mustard called Moosetard, but I consider it an inconsequential novelty brand, unlike the serious culinary product Smoutarde.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Quite unexpectedly

I was reading about Syria today, how it's teetering at the abyss of becoming a failed state - failed like Somalia, a place with no government, a chaos of pirates and warlords - but a failed state with massive caches of chemical weapons that will almost certainly fall into the hands of terrorists and could end up killing untold numbers of people. It's WMD again but for real this time. It's almost too much to comprehend. What keeps going through my head is The End of the World by Archibald MacLeish, which describes a circus performance and ends,

Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

More than you want to know about... mustard

Canada is the world's largest producer of mustard seed, and grows about one-third of total world production. The only other major producer is Nepal (who knew!), but Nepal's production seems to be used mostly for mustard oil, dried seeds and greens.

Canada does not produce mustard-the-condiment*. The US has at least ten manufacturers of mustard-the-condiment. US mustard seed production is a tenth of Canada's, so not much of the seed is coming from there. The packaging doesn't seem to ever source the origin of the seeds, but I wrote Zatarain's (I'm a fan of their Creole mustard brand) and they said the mustard is produced in the US with seeds from Canada.

Most Dijon mustard is made in France, and 90% of Dijon mustard is made from Canadian seeds. Canada is a big importer of French mustard made with Canadian seeds.

I will not write a conclusion to this sad little litany of mustard data.

*Apologies to Kozlik's!

Monday, July 09, 2012

Eric Davis FTW

The upcoming (as yet undated) by-election in Kitchener-Waterloo could change our minority provincial government into a Liberal majority. As a Liberal and an ardent supporter of Premier McGuinty, I think that would be a pretty great thing.

I will continue to monitor all the candidates, but at this point I am so impressed with Eric Davis that I want to give him my endorsement.

I got a personal call from Eric Davis. I have never met him but we had a great chat: this is a candidate who knows how to speak substantively to voters.

I also got a persusasive email from him with the subject line "Why I'm Running." What he wrote resonates very strongly with me. Here's an excerpt:

"I knew I was a Liberal because I do not believe that the answers to today's problems lie at either end of the political spectrum; that you need to be able look at issues from a variety of different perspectives to find the appropriate solutions. I also believe that compassion, balance and compromise are important in politics. I see all those values reflected in the Liberal Party."

Eric Davis has been an active member of the Liberal party for 16 years, including serving as President of the KW Young Liberals, President of the KW Provincial Liberal Association, an Executive member of the KW Federal Liberal Association, and a volunteer on countless Liberal campaigns, including Election Day Chair for Andrew Telegdi.

Then of course he ran against Elizabeth Witmer in the last provincial election. Witmer was such a powerhouse that noone thought he could make a dent in her support, but he did - garnering 2,000 more votes than our candidate got in the previous election.

Eric Davis could win this thing. He's smart, committed, has the right vision, and is an incredibly effective politician. He would be a wonderful representative for our community. Here's his web site: It has a link for people who want to join the provincial Liberal party so they can vote at the nomination meeting.


Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Make room for aaaAAAaaa...

There's no way this could be as drawn out as the Hail to the Chief episode, and it could never get as annoying as the Pennsylvania Polka episode, and in fact some would say that having O Fortuna from Carmina Burana stuck in your head is not the worst thing in the world, but for two things: (1) it has been stuck for two weeks now; and (2) the lyrics that I'm singing in my head are from a "lyrics misheard" video and they go like this:

Gopher tuna!
Bring more tuna!
Statue of big dog with fleas

Some men like cheese
Green chalk can taste like hippies

You caught two rocks?
Pet two cool rats.
You don't like cheese or chicken.
Play chess all day
Hold his sock tip
She sold me good, hot chicken.

Saucy hot peas
Get me cod, please
Rock talks to boy who believes
Suck juice from moose
Fun, handsome goose
Cement pizza? Noobie please!

Open bra top
Got him locked up
Leaky aquariatares

Look there! Fruitloop!
Don't sue YouTube
They wrote teh dictionary

Salsa cookies!
Windmill cookies!
They gave you gonorrhea

This octopus
Let's give him boots
Send him to North Korea

Ow, paper cut
Sandpaper, ahh
Potato soup and chicken
Go taste the dip!
Made with Cool Whip!

Make room for aaaAAAaaa
Piece of lovely cake

Beware Oktoberfest
Music Fails: Opera lyrics misheard


Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Rant: Mount Everest

I recently read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and then spent a couple of days on the internet looking up information about Mount Everest and the people who attempt to reach its summit. To my mind, the most important aspect of the Mount Everest tourism industry, and the thing that is virtually never discussed, is the barbarity of the people involved in it.

I had heard about the mountains of garbage left by the "climbers" (they're not really climbers; Krakauer says few of them have any climbing experience at all, and you can read accounts of people reaching the summit who are blind, legless, elderly, or have severe rheumatoid arthritis - better to call them tourists). Apparently someone started a fund to pay Sherpas to haul down discarded oxygen tanks and other junk, so that's supposedly getting better, although recent photos still show lots of garbage.

I had heard about nearby valleys being clear-cut for firewood for the base camp. That's bad enough.

What I didn't know is that the hiking route on Everest is littered with dead human bodies. The tourists sometimes have to step over bodies on the trail. There have been dead bodies lying near the tents where they camp - lying there for years. The tourists give the bodies jovial nicknames; apparently one there right now is dubbed Green Boots. While watching videos about Everest I saw tourists pass several dead bodies, and nobody even winced.

It's not just the tourists who die. The Sherpas, who are paid a pittance compared to the western tour guides, also are regularly killed or injured. So many of their deaths, like those of the tourists, seem to be wholly preventable. People get outraged at sweatshops but the plight of Sherpas seems to me to be much more serious.

The tourists who walk up the slope don't just tolerate the bodies; in some cases they contribute to the headcount with their single-minded drive to get their money's worth and reach the summit.

At the time of Krakauer's book there was very little done to rescue people. A guide or Sherpa would refuse to help someone if they were a client of a rival tour company. In Into Thin Air, two living people were left outside, unprotected, overnight in -40 weather only 200 feet from camp - on the flat - because they couldn't walk. Basic alpine rescue equipment, like a toboggan to drag the injured, was not available.

The tourists often don't help other tourists, and even refuse to turn back to allow others to rescue someone. In just about every description of someone dying, other tourists walk past and don't help. They manage to find the time to take photos though. In this picture, note the ropes. The tourists hang on to the ropes as they walk up the mountain, so these bodies are right there.

Compare this behavior to boating, another sport that is both dangerous and held in an isolated location. It's a rule of the high seas that you can't abandon a sailor in distress. If you're in a regatta and another boat gets in trouble you are obligated to stop and help, even if it costs you the race. You'll be disqualified if you don't, and probably charged with a criminal offence.

Another issue is whether the tour companies provide adequate supplies. Oxygen could be brought up in advance and cached, but despite charging as much as $110,000 a head for the bragging rights of "climbing" Everest, the tour companies seem to operate on a shoestring. At times 300 tourists are jammed together on the trail, and tourists complain that they can't pass the slow people so everyone is slowed down and everyone's oxygen runs out. Wouldn't that indicate, at the least, that they have insufficient oxygen? This happens all the time, and just happened again in spring 2012 when a bunch of people died (link).

There seem to be lax standards, little coordination, no regulations, and precious little human decency about the Everest tourism industry.

The inhumane treatment of the injured and dead can only be happening because there's no enforcement of civilized rules of conduct. There are no police at 26,000 feet. Nepal is dirt poor and the Everest racket brings the country over $10,000 a head, so presumably there's not much incentive in Kathmandu to find a solution.

You would think that the countries that register the tourist companies (the US, New Zealand, Switzerland, etc) would create and enforce some regulations. Or that responsible tourist companies would form an organization.

I know there is at least one responsible tourist company because at the beginning of this spring's climbing season, one company decided that the conditions were too unsafe, and cancelled all its climbs. The rest carried on, and as a result several people died. But for next year, that event sets up the same sort of tragic scenario that Krakauer documents for the 1996 season: the most responsible tourist leader had turned people back the year before, and so in '96 was under heavy pressure to get everyone to the top. As a direct consequence, he and some of his crew and clients died.

Meanwhile, tragedies (like the one in 1996 that Krakauer writes about so critically) only serve to make Everest tourism more popular. Everest is the Brangelina of mountains: no publicity is bad publicity.

The bottom line appears to be this: the tourists are so determined to reach the summit that they will not pause to save a human life, and the tour companies are so greedy for cash that they do not provide the supplies that could save lives. The entire industry is beyond barbaric. The idea that these tourists are presented as courageous heroes is mind boggling.


Monday, July 02, 2012

RIM and Waterloo

I don't have any argument today, just a report of some things I've read. I have been trying to find information on Waterloo's vulnerability to the problems at RIM.

The Economic Times of India (link) says that nearly one third of the city of Waterloo's office/plant space is owned or leased by RIM. That seems like a lot, but the Waterloo Record supports the figure; it says that RIM occupies 2M SF of office/plant space (mostly in the city of Waterloo) in a total market across Waterloo Region of 12-13M SF.

The Record also says that the local layoff announcements will hit about 3,000 locally. Since our local RIM employee base pre-layoff was about 9,000, that would suggest that around 10% of our office space will become vacant due to this initial contraction of RIM.

The Economic Times also says of Waterloo, "The company has nourished virtually every family here; for, each job at RIM has created seven jobs." I haven't seen this anywhere else; I suppose it could be a general statistic? That figure suggests that the ripple effect of 3,000 layoffs could affect 20,000 other jobs. However, again according to The Record, there are currently 1,300 vacancies at local high-tech companies, which suggests an unemployed pool of more like 1,700, which times 7 is more like 12,000. Our area has some big hitters (Open Text, Sybase, Google, Desire2Learn, etc) as well as about 500 high-tech startups - and great infrastructure for promoting startups. No doubt, some talented RIM employees will not just find other jobs but will also start companies, reducing the ripple effect even further. So the total impact on area employment is unknown.

If anyone has any other info or thoughts, please leave a comment or send me an email.

Meanwhile, a video spoof has Steve Jobs doing a drive-by shooting of a BlackBerry in Uptown Waterloo (link).

RIM dominates the Waterloo real estate market
Life after RIM: Waterloo Region real estate and RIM
KW Real Estate discussion on Canadian Money Forum


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Waterloo's Reputation Takes a Beating

Waterloo could use a boost from a good PR firm. RIM is being discussed in major media outlets around the world, and nobody seems to have anything good to say about our town.

Last week, on a day that topped 35 Celsius, one analyst site posted a photo of Waterloo in the winter, with a miserable-looking man walking in front of a RIM sign in driving snow (link).

Among the many arguments for Why RIM Failed, a prevalent one is that it is based in a podunk town with no technical talent. You read comments like: the marketing staff are all high school dropouts from rural towns around Waterloo; RIM management failed because nobody with talent would live in Waterloo; RIM would have survived if it had relocated to Kanata or Silicon Valley.

Some commenters on online Globe & Mail articles seem to think that Waterloo got an unfair advantage in having RIM here, as if the government had somehow chosen Waterloo as the recipient of the high tech company. One commenter was angry that RIM wasn't relocated to BC; another that it wasn't in Ottawa.

Nobody seems to remember the University of Waterloo or Communitech or the flourishing high tech sector in Waterloo Region other than RIM. Some even disparage the record of UW, list better schools (one commenter mentions UMass Amherst, UMich Ann Arbor and Indiana Bloomington as all being superior).

But the main thread I'm seeing is that Waterloo is not a good place to live: it's "in the middle of nowhere" and unattractive. Quite a turnaround from just a few years ago when RIM was riding high and we were "the world's most intelligent community." This is my home town so I'm biased, but I don't want to see our reputation permanently tarnished.


Friday, June 29, 2012

Henry V (review)

A pivotal moment in Shakespeare's Henry V is when Henry tells his army to kill their prisoners.

Shakespeare has taken Henry through a long epic of personal change. In Henry IV Part I, Prince Hal is a dissipate, fun-loving, rich man's son, feeling guilty about the bad deeds his father performed to get the crown. Over the three plays Hal changes a lot. As he assumes the responsibility of becoming king his transformation is so great that he initiates a war to obtain French land. But the chillingest thing he does is during the battle of Agincourt when Henry decides to kill the French prisoners - a gross violation of any rules of war or morality.

Many productions of Henry V leave out the killing of the prisoners. Branagh and Olivier both left it out, and you have to assume that they didn't want their regal portrayals of Henry to be tarnished by such brutality. It's a pity. It changes everything to leave it out.

Des McAnuff's current Stratford production of Henry V leaves in the killing of the prisoners but makes no sense of it. The production is enjoyable fluff, but it makes little sense of anything. The biggest problem is the casting of Aaron Krohn as Henry; Krohn may be a decent actor, but he's more a matinee idol than a Shakespearian: he doesn't have the gravitas or the technique for Henry.

The second biggest problem is what McAnuff has told Krohn to do. It's like Krohn is just creating scenes without any context. After Henry's ruthlessness with the prisoners, McAnuff has Henry become a lighthearted lover who inexplicably falls in love with the French princess - there's no hint that the alliance solidifies his hold on France - that Henry's transformation is now so complete that even love is for him nothing but politics.

Henry V is full of stirring moments and great lines, but this production lets them all slip away. Henry's stirring pep talk to his troops becomes a conversation with a few of his generals. "Once more into the breach... the game's afoot!" is lost in monotone. Henry has no character and the play ultimately has no meaning.

Stratford doesn't fail the way it used to. Even in this remarkably vapid production, there is much that is good and the play overall is enjoyable, with great staging, music, sets - and a huge talented cast.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mechanics of Dysfunction

When I read about towns in the US that are incorporating and privatizing (such as in the New York Times this week), my first reaction is horror at this latest outbreak of libertarianism. Communities take this route in order to shirk their responsibilities to poor people who live outside the new town limits, and they outsource local jobs to huge multinational corporations.

The problem with the ideological-emotional reaction is that it demonizes without understanding motivations, and so isn't at all pragmatic. When I look into the matter further I continue to deplore it, but start to understand it.

Parts of the US have such horrendous disparity of wealth that you find small enclaves of the middle class surrounded by a sea of poverty. It's not just that the rich don't want to pay for the poor: it's that the rich want decent services (such as good policing and roads) and they're having trouble achieving that when the county government is struggling to provide even subpar services to large poor communities. Separating might seem like the only way to attain decent services.

I don't understand racial politics in the US, but places that have incorporated are called "white flight" towns, so part of the problem seems to be racist - especially in the southern states, where poverty falls disproportionately to non-white communities.

Once incorporated, many of these towns outsource almost all of their civic services. Some are left with only one public employee. Many outsource everything except for the police and fire departments (because of insurance prices). The reason for outsourcing is the cost of unionized employees. We might call this union-busting, but think of it from the perspective of the communities that are privatizing. The New York Times quotes John Donahue of Harvard as saying, "A lot of jobs in government are middle-class jobs that in the private sector are not middle-class jobs. People aren't willing to support conditions for public workers that they themselves no longer enjoy" pensions and excellent health coverage.

While incorporation and privatization have been around for a while, they have picked up since the 2008 financial collapse because communities are going through crisis. When faced with imminent bankruptcy during a recession, there aren't a lot of options. Raising property taxes is a problem when people are already losing their homes in record numbers; in some cases it just isn't feasible because it could exacerbate the downward spiral and result in even lower tax revenue. Much of the cost structure is fixed because of union agreements. Reducing financial obligations to the rest of the county is egregious, but it saves towns millions that they might not be able to save otherwise.

Historically, Democrats prevent incorporation from happening, but in the current economic downturn Republicans are surging, and it only takes one term of Republican majority in state legislatures to allow a slew of incorporations.

The tragedy is even greater that the solution to the dysfunction is increasing the dysfunction. Incorporation and privatization are removing local jobs, increasing local poverty, and hurting social services and schools that could help pull the poor out of poverty. When one town in a county chooses white flight, it puts financial pressure on other towns and makes it more likely that they'll go too. Income inequality and racial tension continue to increase.

It's all just going to shit. That will continue until the US effectively addresses poverty. It might help to change the terminology; instead of calling it the war on poverty, call it the war on lack of opportunity, or the war on hopelessness.

The other issue is how to transform into the post-union world we're becoming. Unions served a useful purpose a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, maybe even twenty years ago; but now their time is done. We need a better transition than moving from unionized income for life to outsourced minimum wage jobs. (And in the US, even the low minimum wage is under attack from business lobbyists.) We need stronger employment laws and better retirement savings options for everyone.

See also:
Did Philip K Dick Dream of Palm Jumeirah?


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Some scattered thoughts about Alan Turing

It is Alan Turing’s 100th birthday today, June 23. Earlier this week I went to a documentary about Turing at Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing and then did some reading. Here are a few things I found interesting...

Early computers were referred to by many names, including radio brains, universal Turing machines, and automatic computing engines. Turing didn’t just envision the computer; he worked on teams that built some. The public archives at preserve fascinating letters and memos from that work.

Turing apparently committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple. Turing’s friend Alan Garner (one of my favorite authors) wrote recently that Turing had “a fascination with Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, especially the transformation of the Wicked Queen into the Witch. He used to go over the scene in detail, dwelling on the ambiguity of the apple, red on one side, green on the other, one of which gave death.” (link)

After being convicted of gross indecency for being gay, Turing worried that his work would be discredited. He wrote facetiously, “Turing believes machines think, Turing lies with men, Therefore machines do not think.” But that argument may also be taken to be causal, as the turmoil of his last years meant that he never published his neural net sketches of intelligent machinery or his ideas for how to program.

I don't find his famous question, Can machines think?, at all interesting. It seems ridiculous: if the Turing Test determines whether machines think, and machines fail the test until something is added to them that makes it possible for them to pass the test, then it follows that machines thought after they passed the test but did not think before they passed the test - even though they did substantially the same thing. Obviously I'm wrong: the Turing Test kicked off the study of artificial intelligence and was enormously significant. Turing's thinking about the similarities of machines and human brains seems also to be based in his understanding that human thinking, including intuition and originality, are computable processes that can be replicated by machines. And of course it's increasingly possible; we could program computers to have emotional responses, lizard brain responses, a collective unconscious, and fallibility (along with things like heuristics and fuzzy logic).

So much of the writing about Turing dwells on the salacious and pathetic. It's his birthday and it seems a day to celebrate the man's accomplishments rather than swap gossip about him.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Liberal Leaders: Guaranteed Support?

Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure. We Liberals have blown through four leaders in recent years (I count Bob Rae among the four because he has been much more than a caretaker). Our leaders have all failed - because we have not supported them. When the Harper attack ads started, we let ourselves be affected. When a new leader had some missteps out of the gate, we called for his head. When the first election the leader presided over didn't go well, we dumped his sorry ass.

It's obvious that what we need to do is give our next leader the time to learn the job. Historically, new party leaders falter in the beginning. Most Prime Ministers didn't get there on their first try. Many didn't look too sharp for the first term or two.

In particular, when we know the leader we've chosen is inexperienced (like Ignatieff), we have to not only give him some slack but be supportive. Any of our last four leaders could have led us to victory, given time and support. What failed is us, the party, not them.

Why does this happen? We have the recent memory of being called Canada's natural ruling party, and there is an impatience to regain our former stature. We blame the leader for not doing it - even though we should all know that it is going to take time for a leader to not just learn, but develop the right team, develop policies, build support in the electorate, make allies, and on and on. I suspect we also have a party loaded up with formerly powerful politicians who are now invested in finding controversial topics to please editors.

We may have to face a situation where our choices for leader are all at the bottom of the barrel. Gerard Kennedy's name is being bandied about - he with a three year college degree, little French, a trumped-up CV and unable to even keep his seat: the definition of an empty pretty boy. He may be what we get. Whoever we get, it is our responsibility to make the most of him: not to whine and complain and demand a replacement.

Why don't we guarantee our next leader that he or she gets the time needed to succeed? Why not say from the outset that they have a two-election term - and we don't expect that they will significantly increase seats in the first of those elections? What about making a pledge (with specifics) to support and help our next leader?

Why would ANYONE agree to take the position without something along those lines? Why would Justin Trudeau want to follow his four predecessors into the pit of humiliating failure?

I have been supporting Bob Rae for leader since he first threw his hat in the ring six years ago. Most of the party divided their support between the four front-runners (in order of support at the convention): Ignatieff, Rae, Dion, Kennedy. Supporters of the first three men have watched the party choose and then pick to death their candidate. It hasn't been a happy experience for any of us. It definitely hasn't helped the party. And it shouldn't happen again.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Sad Regret that Rae Said No

Of all our options for permanent leader, Bob Rae is the most competent, experienced, principled, classy, witty, formidable, erudite and knowledgeable. We would have been very lucky to have him as permanent leader.

I was amazed he was willing to continue to stand for the job. It is six years since he first announced he would run for leader. In that time, two other candidates were chosen over him and then the party executive effectively boxed him out. His continuing interest in being permanent leader was a selfless act; the job ahead is to slowly rebuild a crumbling party, or destroy it in a merger with a stronger party, or watch it die. I believe he wanted to stand because he knew he was the best person to save the party.

Unfortunately, the party, or at least some influential parts, made that impossible. For Rae, personally, this has to be the best choice. As for the party, it is definitely a sad day. And let's remember this: it was Harper's attack ads that took down Dion and Ignatieff, but it was the Liberal party itself that brought down Rae.


Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury had a profound effect on me: my interests, sensibilities, sense of awe, dreams, desires, ideal writing style, values, phobias. When I was a kid I devoured his books: especially Something Wicked This Way Comes, The October Country, and the like; but I loved all of them. There's one story about a boy who has had to wear stiff leather shoes all winter, but now summer is here and he's saved up his money to buy a pair of sneakers that are in the window of a shoe shop on his main street. The long, detailed description of how those shoes feel as he bounces up and down in them is my touchstone for shoe shopping to do this day. And so much more.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Blind Justice?

Ten years ago it seemed shocking when an American politician complained, "We used to put people in jail because we were afraid of them. Now we put people in jail because we don't like them."

Today it seems that not liking someone is an accepted reason for prosecution.

John Edwards had two main things against him: he acted like a scumbag to his former wife, who was a very sympathetic woman; and he was a partisan politician during the reign of another party. That seemed to be enough. Not only was he charged with numerous offences that were widely known to be trumped up, but there was very little public outcry.

I don't want to repeat the whole sad story, but there's a good analysis of it here: John Edwards case was once thought too sensitive, Justice official says and Government failed to prove case in Edwards trial, jurors say.

For the people behind the prosecution it was win/win: even without a conviction, Edwards' dirty laundry has been so thoroughly aired that not only is his career unrecoverable, but his party's reputation is tarnished as well.

It's easy to call for justice in cases like that of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize who was detained for decades by a military junta. It's not so easy to stand up for someone like John Edwards, who is thoroughly unlikable. The big story in the John Edwards case is not that he cheated on his dying wife, but that he was a victim of malicious and politically-motivated prosecution.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Some tips for finding a job

While I hope noone loses their job, it's not looking good. Here are job hunting tips that worked for me. These might be of general interest but are aimed at technical writers in Waterloo.

Post your resume on,, and Keep in mind that employers and recruiters search these sites electronically, so make sure you include all the keywords, software and skills that they will use when looking for someone for a job you want. Look at job ads to figure out what those words are. Set up an alert from Monster to get emails with new job postings. Every few weeks, update your resume on Monster and Workopolis (updates trigger interest).

On LinkedIn, get three people to give you recommendations. (Apparently it is not uncommon for employers and recruiters to filter searches to people with at least three recommendations.)

Register with the major recruitment companies in your town and in any town you would be willing to work in. Try to make an appointment to meet with one of their recruiters and treat it like a job interview. Ask them for advice about your resume. I am registered with a bunch, including Procom, Ian Martin, ProVision... I can't remember them all. Here's a site that has links to some recruiters and similar companies: KW Jobs, but there are loads out there.

Set up a job alert at Before my recent job switch, I got a daily alert from of all writer jobs in Waterloo Region and Toronto. Indeed is a little different from other sites because it trawls through corporate careers pages finding job postings, so catches some that aren't posted on Monster or wherever.

Bookmark sites that have job postings you're interested in, such as Southwestern Ontario STC, Data Shaping, Charity Village and Mobile Dev Jobs.

If you're interested in living in the US, two must-see sites are and the US STC job bank.

There are millions of online sources of advice, but here's a good one: STC job bootcamp. My main piece of advice is to have a friend revise your resume. The biggest mistake on resumes is that people don't sell themselves sufficiently: an objective person can point out where you need to beef up your sales pitch.

The University of Waterloo careers department has a boffo career consulting service. If you are a UW alumna, you get three free sessions; otherwise there's a modest fee. It is well, well worth it. You can sign up on this site, which also has lots of great info: UW career action.

I wish everyone well.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

RIM, BlackBerrys and Waterloo

The Globe & Mail announced this morning that RIM is planning large layoffs in the next couple of weeks, probably more than 2,000 of its 16,500 worldwide workforce. I got out just in time: I resigned from RIM so recently that my last day was this week and I haven't even started my new job yet. But I live in Waterloo, and RIM's fate affects all of us here.

(Full disclosure: I do not have any confidential information, and if I did I wouldn't spill it here. But with skin in this game, I have spent a lot of the last year reading the industry analysts and thinking about these issues.)

In a town of 100,000, RIM is the largest employer with nearly 10,000 employees located here. RIM occupies approximately 30 buildings in Waterloo, most in the Phillip-Columbia neighborhood.

Waterloo has done very, very well as RIM flourished. Property values are significantly higher than the rest of the region, meaning our tax revenues are also very high.

For many local businesses, from business support to sandwich shops to retail, RIM or RIM employees are the major customers.

As an interesting side note, the salaries at RIM have brought in a particular kind of business. Many RIM employees (not me) receive enormous salaries. Our subdivisions are packed with huge luxury houses. A friend who works at a jewelery store tells me that they regularly sell Rolex watches at more than $15,000 each, always to RIM executives. Waterloo has a disproportionate number of high end shops and restaurants.

We're all hoping that RIM turns things around and becomes a booming business once more, but there is very little chance that that will happen. RIM is pinning all its hopes on its new operating system, BB10. Since RIM unveiled BB10 at the beginning of this month, the stock price has fallen more than 30%. Analysts do not think BB10 will save the company for a number of reasons, including:
  • This year's release will be 1.0, meaning that it will have lots of insufficiencies and bugs that will take years to work out, and RIM doesn't have time.
  • The new OS has some good features, but not enough to make it competitive against Apple and Android, especially as Apple is set to release iPhone5 around the same time as RIM expects to release its BB10 phones.
  • And most importantly, consumers are more interested in apps than hardware, so a smartphone lives or dies on its apps. RIM just can't attract enough app developers to get the apps built.
The success of the company isn't just based on the quality of its products. According to analysts' reports, RIM has significant inventory problems these days. They say that its attempt to be competitive in the low end smartphone market (its sales have moved from richer to poorer countries) has resulted in lower quality phones with markedly higher return rates. Public perception of the company has also taken a huge hit recently, partly because of its inability to meet deadlines and release quality products, partly because of unintentionally funny and/or annoying ad campaigns, and partly because of stunts like a recent scandal in Australia where RIM secretly hired people to stage an anti-iPhone rally.

So what's going to happen?

In the near term, the Globe says that layoffs will occur on June 1 (next Friday). The Globe reports that the first to go will be from the legal department, HR, finance, sales and marketing. I could add (as pure speculation) that people working on the old Java-based operating system are vulnerable, along with internal support personnel, manufacturing workers, and employees who fill secondary roles.

Over the next year we can expect more layoffs; RIM will start to vacate many of its Waterloo buildings. In the long term, RIM will probably survive as a smallish company; for example, QNX, which is an Ottawa-based company that RIM purchased last year, has a successful business creating the operating system for automobiles. At some point parts of RIM will probably be purchased by other companies, although an all-out sale seems unlikely (RIM has courted a number of companies and all passed on buying it so far). By 2014 or so, in a good-case scenario RIM may have consolidated its remaining local employees into its three buildngs at Northfield and University.

For employees who work outside of Waterloo, there shouldn't be too many difficulties in finding other jobs. In Waterloo, the situation is quite different. For example, RIM probably employs as many technical writers in Waterloo as all other local companies combined. As those technical writers get laid off, there simply won't be local jobs for them. But it is quite possible that local house prices will fall after layoffs, so it isn't going to be easy for some of them to move.

As for the city of Waterloo, the tide has already started to turn. Waterloo property values are so high that the high tech hub has started to move to Kitchener, which is not only cheaper and more central to transit but also has a large number of empty manufacturing buildings that make attractive office space. (Communitech and Google have gorgeous offices in the Lang Tannery.)

Currently, a building on King Street in Uptown Waterloo (store on bottom, a couple of apartments up top) will set you back $600,000 to a over a million dollars. In downtown Kitchener, you can pay half that. Downtown Kitchener still has a scuzziness factor, but it is fast improving - and it is a much more interesting and varied downtown than Waterloo. If Waterloo's high end boutiques lose their clientele, you have to expect that there will be some dramatic changes.

One has to hope that someone at Waterloo City Hall has started to prepare for what might be coming. I hope they're running a series of projections of tax revenue given several possible scenarios, and thinking about how to cope with each. Uptown Waterloo was planned as an upscale, boutique shopping destination: will that vision survive the fall of RIM? (And is anyone thinking about the possibility that the Uptown could become a club district as Kitchener did, with the problems that would bring?) Does the city have a plan for attracting new businesses to the empty office buildings? If Waterloo has thousands of new unemployed people, what will the impact be on social services?

Don't get me wrong. I hope RIM can survive and thrive. But there is enough reason to think it won't that we need to be prepared.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Throw the Bum Out!

Okay now. I was willing to let Conrad Black be, on the principle that when someone has served their time they should be left alone to live their life - unless they are a danger to society.

Black has been back in Canada such a short time, and already Black the Bully has re-emerged. Already he has:
  • Threatened to sue the head of the Official Opposition.
  • Hinted that he's starting new business ventures (just not public ones).
  • Announced that he's completely unrepentent.

In short, he's made it clear that he's back and it's business as usual. Is there a word for a business psychopath? Are we to return to the days when investigative journalists had banks of lawyers to neuter their articles because of fear of Black's lawyers?

I'm not exaggerating... some time ago I noticed in my blog stats that lawyers were looking at posts I had written about Black. And I am as small potatoes as it gets.

Nope, this is something up with which we should not put (to copy Black's literary style).

The man has got to go. He is not a Canadian citizen. He is a convicted felon. He has made ample demonstration that he is not of good character. The visa that lets him be here is wholly unprecedented, and mighty shady.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What Makes a Great Superhero Movie?

A few hours ago I plunked myself down in a movie theater, 3D glasses on nose, popcorn and diet coke to hand, ready to watch an action movie that got 93% on Rotten Tomatoes - The Avengers.

And I was bored. The movie was packed with great actors doing fine work. The characters had depth and interactions. The casting was inspired (Mark Ruffalo is a perfect Hulk). The writer and director, Joss Whedon, is a favorite of mine. No expense was spared. Why was it so flat for me? What is it that I want in a superhero movie?

Rollercoaster ride action
Action needs to have some punch for the viewer. Surprise me. I remember when I saw the first Jurassic Park, I had to sit up straight and tuck in my legs because I kept involuntarily kicking out when a dinosaur sneezed or bit someone's head off. That was great!

It's not like we're really worried that Thor is going to die when he plunges 30,000 feet in a glass cage. We know he's going to survive. We need some chills and thrills, or at least some arresting visuals. The 3D actually interfered with that because everyone looked so teeny tiny on the screen, like little GI Joe dolls.

Plot, please
This movie kept telegraphing that the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were manipulating the superheroes into becoming a fighting force on behalf of mankind, and then the ending was -surprise!- that the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had manipulated the superheroes into becoming a fighting force on behalf of mankind. Other than that, the plot was verrrrry thin.

Hello, romance!
Or bromance. Or fromance. The season finale of The Big Bang Theory had more human resonance than The Avengers, and it's about a bunch of Aspergery geeks.

This movie had so many main characters that I didn't come to care about any of them. If we have to have all six Avengers, couldn't we emphasize some over the others? Or see the events from the perspective of one of them? This felt like equal time had to be given to each of the dozen movie stars.

Bring back the auteur
Like the last Batman movie, this felt like something created by a committee. Just because it's an action movie doesn't mean it can't have vision and passion. Like Back to the Future or the Matrix movies or the Tim Burton Batmans or the first Iron Man. You know you're going to make a billion dollars in the first week, but why not pour your heart into it and make it art? (We all know the answer to that: in Hollywood, money is the only measure of success. But Joss Whedon should know better.)

I've heard the complaints that there are too many superhero movies. I don't agree. I'm aware that ever since Disney bought Marvel the brand has become a hollow copy of its previous hollow copy of its golden days in the 1960s. I still think we can have (and that we deserve!) great superhero movies. I remember the first time I saw Kill Bill Part One: when the last line was delivered I hopped out of my seat and punched my fist in the air and whooped. That's what I want.


Saturday, May 05, 2012

Olga Picasso in Transition

I have long been fascinated by Picasso's portraits of his first wife, Ballet Russes dancer Olga Kokhlova. Not so much the sculptures and pictures at the end of their relationship, when he hated her for interfering in his latest affair and portrayed her as an ugly, evil animal - but from the decade or so when he loved her, and his view of her changed from a bourgeois, genteel creature to a Spanish aristocrat (he was Spanish, she was Ukranian) and then (with the birth of their son) to some sort of elemental icon. (And no, she didn't gain weight or change hair or skin color in real life.) I don't have any words for what these pictures mean to me, so I'll just display my idea of their progression.

Musings on Robocalls

At this point, can we avoid falling into a state where political power is seized rather than awarded by the public?

The only way we can maintain good governance is to soundly reject the many corrupt practices of the Harper government: but how do we do that with three years left on their majority rule? Time and again they have been exposed and have gotten away with it. Even when Elections Canada found them guilty of In & Out, they paid no political price. Each time they get away with something, they are emboldened to go further and be more unscrupulous. Each time Harper shrugs off one of these scandals, his supporters get the message that this is the way they should operate.

Sharing the world's longest border with the anti-democratic cess pool that is the United States doesn't help. American politics is a never-ending source of inspiration for the corrupt, and still surpasses Canada in so many ways: gerrymandering, lobbying, campaign finance... We need to stop looking south, and adopt other jurisdictions as our sense of normal.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Note to Bob Rae: Get a little tougher

We have been hearing that the Liberals won't take any more crap from the Conservative attack machine: Rae has said that he is prepared to give as good as he gets. Rae is such an effective and feisty politician that I believed him.

Then we had our first Conservative attack ad against Rae, and the response was a video about the Conservative record on buying military jets. I'm a political junkie and I couldn't completely follow the video, or get its relevance. It certainly didn't seem like much of a response to me.

Rae is a principled, ethical guy, and he has stated in public that personal attacks have no place in politics. But when they attack us personally, we need to respond in kind. That doesn't mean that we lower our standards forever, but in the moment we need to drop the gloves and (in Tom Mulcair's words) hit to hurt. Or if that seems too mean, we could at least do a parody of the Conservative attack ad. Something effective is needed. Timing is everything. We have to be prepared, either with some already created video, or at least with a team that can work fast.

Conservative attack ads have taken a toll on the Liberal party. I have recently read articles arguing that attack ads aren't the sole reason for a leader's defeat, which is such a red herring: of course they're not the sole reason. But they're debilitating, especially when the timing and execution is just right. They strengthen the resolve of our opposition; they make us second-guess our leaders; they reduce the confidence of our leaders; they throw off our momentum; they diminish our support perhaps only temporarily, but sometimes they cause it fall just when it's needed most.

Conservative attacks go beyond ads aimed at the leader. For example, I suspect that the Conservatives realized that Sheila Copps was their biggest threat as party president, and so their trolls ridiculed her. We need to strike back at the big attacks so that we can start to build up our defences against the little attacks too: and the only way to defend ourselves is to immunize our ranks. And to let the bastards know that when they hit us we hit back - double.


Cross-party cooperation

The leader of the NDP is a former Liberal, and the leader of the Liberals is a former New Democrat. Both leaders joined their new parties within the last six or seven years. Tom Mulcair is to the right of the NDP; Bob Rae is to the left of the Liberals.

Both Mulcair and Rae were my personal first pick for leader of their respective parties. Both are smart, prepared, experienced, and responsible. Both are pragmatic progressives, and that's the sort of politics I support.

Just looking at the leaders, you might wonder what the difference is between the NDP and Liberals at this point. I think the differences are still there, but the differences are mostly in the members and supporters of the two parties.

The NDP continues to be much more ideological than the Liberals. It represents unions and other interest groups; it is truly the Left. The party is largely made up of activists, unions, students and academics.

The Liberals, on the other hand, continue to be a Centrist party in that they stand for good governance above everything else. The Liberals are all about finding a balance between fiscal responsibility and progressive social policies. The membership crosses all boundaries. (And currently, being the party of good governance with 20% popular support is sort of a sad situation.)

I support the Liberals because I think they form the best governments. I used to support the NDP (and continue to like the party) because they generate great policies. I supported Mulcair not just because I liked him best but because - for the first time - the NDP has a chance of forming a federal government, and he was the only candidate who is qualified for that eventuality.

I'm still of a mind that both parties have a place in Canada and we'd be worse off if they merged - but I'm starting to waver. In any event, the leadership has become so similar that I don't see how either party can compete in an election without some sort of cooperation. The big question is how to do that, and luckily we have some time to sort it out before the next election.


Friday, March 02, 2012

Rally against voter suppression by robo-calls

Sunday, March 11, 2-5

Here's the Toronto rally's facebook page: (Yonge and

There's a local group that seems to be setting something up:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Robert Lepage Wrecked the Ring Cycle

He had help.

Throughout, the costumes were an unfortunate distraction. They didn't enhance the characterization or help to set a tone or place. They were unflattering. Poor Waltraud Meier, who played a thrilling Waltraute in Gotterdammerung, had a bodice about three inches too low for her age, and the typically over-close Met HD camera work never let us look away from her huge cleavage wrinkles. I don't even want to remember Wotan's giant leather pants or the faux-leather codpiece-bedecked gods in Das Rheingold.

At times, the harsh white lighting made the filming look like a 1970s era sitcom. I'm a fan of well-lit operas (the Toronto Ring was so dark that I couldn't see whole chunks from my seat at the back of Ring 3), but this production was at times ridiculous.

Good god, when will the Met HD get it together in the filming department?
  • In Valkyrie, Jonas Kaufmann was brilliant as Siegmund, but the poor man drools, and the camera relentlessly zoomed in on those great gobs of drool falling out of his mouth, down his chin, and off in gobby strands to the floor. It was icky and embarrassing and completely unnecessary - he didn't drool continuously, and they could have changed to a long shot when he did.
  • In Gotterdammerung, Deborah Voigt wore running shoes under her long dress, and kudos to her for doing that: she's on stage for the better part of six hours, after all. Nobody needed to ever see those running shoes, but the Met HD cinematography department made sure we saw them several times.
  • The Ring is a grandiose piece of art describing the destruction of the gods, but it is built around intimate, one-on-one moments. When two people are interacting, it removes the effectiveness to focus on only one face at a time. The cinema has a huge screen: they don't need to zoom in on people so much.
The cast
There were a lot of geniuses in the cast, but in Met performances you expect them all to be great: great singers and great actors. This Ring had too many weak links. At its center, Deborah Voigt's middle register is not pleasant to listen to: it has a strained sharpness. In addition, she mugged and aped without creating a believable Brunnhilde. The problem with her acting could have been one of scale; she was acting for the back row and it didn't work on the big screen. But surely the director should have figured that out. This was Voigt's first Brunnhilde and she clearly wasn't ready.

The other main characters were superb, as you'd expect, but there were problems with some of the small parts. Patricia Bardon was an embarrassment as Erda in Siegfried (and you had to wonder if her dress threw her off: it clung tightly to her full body including her hands and was covered with sharp-edged pieces of broken mirror). In the broadcast of Gotterdammerung, Iain Paterson as Gunther was very uneven: his acting was wonderful but his voice was at times warbly and weird. There were little glitches like that throughout, and that just shouldn't happen in a Met Ring Cycle.

Special effects
Siegfried establishes himself as a hero by killing the terrifying dragon (and giant) Fafner. Lepage's dragon looked like a big, silly muppet. It was hands down the worst special effect I have seen in a Ring cycle - and this from Lepage, the supposed master of FX. When special effects failed (as also happened with the horse and on several occasions with The Machine), I kept suspecting that what we saw was an incomplete idea or a last-minute substitution.

And then, of course there was The Machine, which dominated every single goddamn scene - that's four operas: 15 hours of looking at a giant xylaphone. It had its advantages: it served as a screen for some good animation; it was nice that there was never any need for scene changes; and some scenes worked. But ultimately it was a failure. It was there all the time, and three-quarters of the time it shouldn't have been. It was a distraction from the opera. It forced the singers to do most of their performing on a thin strip at the front of the stage. And we spent half the opera staring at the castors on the end of the planks - how I came to hate those castors! After all the deficiencies and flaws in the four operas, the really unforgiving thing about Lepage's Ring Cycle was the ending. Or should I say non-ending. The ending of the Ring Cycle is paramount. After all the emotional highs of the series of operas, the ending should be a great emotional release. The final bars of the score are the lietmotif of humanity: the coming of a new era after the age of the gods. What did Lepage show us, after Brunnhilde sat on a fake horse and rolled towards an underwhelming funeral pyre? --Some statue heads exploded and then there was nothing for the last several moments: just the ugly xylaphone. It meant nothing and it emoted nothing, except disappointment.

I'm a huge Lepage fan, having seen several other operas he's directed (Damnation of Faust, Erwartung, Bluebeard's Castle, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables). In a 2009 post I reviewed his 9 hour play Lipsynch. I'm a huge Ring Cycle fan, having seen the 2006 Toronto production, Otto Schenk's previous Met production, Francesca Zambello's 2011 San Francisco Opera production, and others. In fact, I'm hard to disappoint on either count, but Lepage did it... and I think that calls into question his approach of theater as experimentation. It's one thing to create a play like Lipsynch in an iterative process over several years. It's another thing to present a half-assed, unfinished Ring Cycle at Lincoln Center.

Update: This post was quoted in Macleans. Update 2: I went to New York to see this production remounted in 2019. The problems with is were all resolved to my satisfaction--or at least there were fewer so I didn't mind them--and it was fabulous.