Monthly Archives: September 2004

Canada’s cities can be less ugly

Admit it, our cities are hideous. Our homes may be nice, along with the occasional building and some of the parks. But generally speaking, the roads, buildings and parking lots are horrible. And you know, cities didn’t have to look like this.

The other day I happened to glimpse Parliament Hill from across the river, through glorious autumn trees, with the Peace Tower floating above the trees like a medieval church spire greeting a weary traveller. Only an ugly utilitarian concrete bridge spoiled the view. But get up close and, with a few exceptions, the buildings are bad and the roads are worse. Brutal cement everywhere. Millions of people flock to medieval Italian sites every year. But no one would visit the ruins of modern Ottawa. So why do we put up with it?

I confess that for a long time I didn’t give it much thought. Years ago, Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House left me with an allergic reaction to the aggressively featureless glass-and-steel “Yale Box.” But by and large I simply assumed that what you see in the modern urban landscape is, regrettably, what buildings and roads look like. Continue reading

Someone must be truly deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize

The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Oct. 8. With what forgettable twit will the committee poke George W. Bush in the eye? Who should follow in the footsteps of Albert Gobat, Carl von Ossietsky, Lord Boyd Orr? Perhaps a search party.

Don’t get me wrong. I prefer peace to war. But I still think, as in 1997, that it would be nice if the prize went to someone who’d actually contributed to peace. Back then I suggested Ronald McDonald because no two nations with a McDonald’s restaurant had ever fought a war. Instead the prize went to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. (In 1999, Bill Clinton and Jean Chretien attacked Serbia without UN approval, blowing up the McDonald’s theory.) And while I’m generally opposed to people having their legs blown off, I make an exception for, say, Nazi soldiers attacking Canadian troops in Normandy. I’m not convinced disarming the good guys has a good track record. Which raises the surely pertinent question of what causes war and what, therefore, helps prevent it.

The Nobel Peace Prize site fudges it: “The ways and means to achieve peace are as diverse as the individuals and organizations rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize.” But as John Maynard Keynes famously observed, “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.” Some Nobel Peace Prize awards are just bizarre. (For instance 1969’s to the International Labour Organization; could an archeologist now tell us what that was about? As for 1910’s Permanent International Peace Bureau, could a paleontologist find its shin bone today?) But, generally speaking, explanations of the root causes of war fall into three categories: the nature of the international system, the nature of particular regimes, or the nature of human beings. And so do the awards. Continue reading

An order of fries with your culture

It’s Bud the Spud, from the bright red mud, goin’ down the highway smiling. Actually it’s not. Bud was from P.E.I., while Potato World’s spokes-spud is from New Brunswick. But both bring a welcome, earthy reality to SimCity or whatever virtual community you inhabit.

Potato World, in case you missed the story, is a giant $1.5-million museum and science and technology centre just outside Florenceville, New Brunswick. Its executive director calls it “the Disney World” of spuds: a claim easy to ridicule if you’re one of them urban sophisticates who think a real museum should contain unmade beds and pickled sharks rather than a Potato World Hall of Recognition it hopes will draw in some of the tourists already visiting Hartland’s famous covered bridge nearby.

The executive director of Potatoes New Brunswick, a growers’ association, says “I’ve been to potato museums all over North America, but this one is by far the best. The one in Blackfoot, Idaho, has always been considered the big deal, but this one is really something.” Pride in surpassing the previous Yukon Gold standard could make some folks think Dukes of Hazzard. Not me. Continue reading

Unlike the first ministers, I admit when I am wrong

In August, I predicted the televised first ministers’ health summit would be a vacuous exercise in feel-good rhetoric. I was wrong. It was highly revealing. These guys even do fake badly.

In 1934, economist John Maynard Keynes famously visited U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to urge him to tackle the Great Depression through deficit spending, and emerged muttering that frankly he’d “supposed the president was more literate, economically speaking.” I suffered no similar disappointment this week. I knew our politicians were, in economist William Watson’s words, “amateur clinicians … gathering every few years to make their best guess — governed … by fad” on health.

H.L. Mencken once called government “a gang of men exactly like you and me” with “no special talent for the business of government … only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device … is to seek out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get and promise to give it to them. Nine times out of 10, that promise is worth nothing.” For instance, last year’s National Health Council, or 2002’s Integrated Pan-Canadian Healthy Living Strategy. Continue reading

A tale of spin, not spin-offs

The Canadian International Development Agency was just caught in a bit of a fib. It claimed to know that, by distributing vitamin A in the Third World, it had saved 1.5 million lives. But auditors say the agency didn’t count, it just ran a computer model. Bow your heads, O people: You stand in the presence of social science.

It bestrides the modern world like a clay-footed colossus. When we were in Cleveland recently, an AFL-CIO agency bombarded us with statistics on manufacturing job losses by quarter and county. The per-cent bone’s connected to the graph bone, the graph bone’s connected to the decimal bone, now hear the word of the Lord: “45,734 Ohio jobs lost between 1995 and October 2003 can be directly traced to international trade.” Not 45,733 or 45,735; 45,734. The Pope should be so infallible.

Look, if you like playing SimCity, go ahead. But in those terrible middle ages no one thought real knights jumped over things in an L or castles zoomed about in straight lines, the way they did in chess (many a king may privately have felt his queen was more powerful, but never mind). And no peasant could be so superstitious as to believe all human experience could be reduced to a series of linear equations, then solved to yield orderly, scientific happiness. Especially not after watching Robert McNamara run the Vietnam War that way. But like Ptolemaic circles, if you’re committed to the concept, you patch the model here and fudge a variable there and get so focused on it you forget the original point lay outside your study. Continue reading