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

Honesty’s the best policy if you follow it honestly

As the ad says, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Thus two American academics gave college freshpersons a few minutes to meet each other on the first day of class, and found nine weeks later that people who had initially liked or disliked each other mostly still did. I took one look at that story in the Citizen and said “Yeah, it figures.” It still does.

It certainly fits with other studies, as it does with the cliche that most job interviews are essentially over in the first 30 seconds. And that professor who seemed dull in the first lecture had you comatose by Christmas, right?

Mind you, there are two very different possible explanations. Either we mortals are shallow fools who make hasty judgments, then refuse to revise them, or else the human intellect is geared primarily toward social interaction, because we don’t have to be good at calculus if we can sense whether the engineer before us is honest and intelligent or a sneaky blowhard. I’m going with the latter. Continue reading

Television has ruined our … you know… um … whatever

How can TV be so moronic? I said HOW CAN TV … Look, would you please turn that thing off? Thank you. I’m serious. And no, I’m not seeking suggestions for new reality shows.

Television has been subject to colourful abuse from almost its earliest appearance. In Rex Stout’s 1953 The Golden Spiders, Archie Goodwin tells us the genius detective Nero Wolfe “was in the office looking at television, which gives him a lot of pleasure. I have seen him turn it on as many as eight times in one evening, glance at it from one to three minutes, turn it off, and go back to his book.” By now, TV’s mind-numbing properties are so familiar it can be a bit difficult to see the mystery. (Other than why we stare for hours at what we openly call the “boob tube.”) I hope the government will let us watch Fox News because I believe in freedom. But I can hardly suppose that adding one more channel will transform the experience from vegetative to energizing. Such a belief is no longer credible.

It once was. Whatever they think of individual programs, no one ever called radio the “idiot box.” Why should TV be so qualitatively different? The other day I was reading one of those book things, Neil Postman’s Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, and, as he often is, he was most thought-provoking when most wrong. For instance, noting that by age 20 the average American has seen 600,000 TV commercials, he asks, “Would it not have been possible to foresee in 1947 the negative consequences of television for our politics and our children? And … through social policy, political action, or education, to prepare for them and to reduce their severity?” No. No it would not. Continue reading

Playboys and hot pants – in Latin

That wacky pope. Iucundus est, nonne? Over at the Vatican, where they speak Latin for fun and official business, an institute Paul VI founded in 1976 has produced a new lexicon of terms for things like hot pants, punks and computers that weren’t around back when Caesar was crushing the Parthians or people were faking their own deaths to escape Nero’s ghastly poetry recitals. Regrettably, the actual terms they’ve invented sound as though they were produced by a committee. Which they were.

I am, unsurprisingly, in favour of Latin. I wish it were still taught in schools and some day I really will read Asterix et Normanii and Quomodo Indiviosulus Nomine Grinchus. At the moment I have a bit of an Ars longa, vita brevis problem (don’t we all?). But Latin, as any readers fortunate enough to have studied it will know, is exceptionally elegant, supple and powerful. It is inflected; that is, it is the endings of words rather than their position in the sentence that tell you what they’re up to, whether they’re performing the action, having it performed on them, or even having it performed by them. Latin even has a special case, the “ablative,” for all sorts of handy peripheral meanings like where something is happening or how it’s being done. Thus, as vis means force, to indicate that something is being done by force you need only toss it in its ablative form vi, naked, wherever in the sentence you think it would sound best. Two letters speak volumes. Is this a great language or what? Unless, unfortunately, it falls into the hands of a pontificating … sorry, pontifical, institute. Continue reading

In Oregon I hit the roof

PORTLAND, OREGON – Would you like weeds with that roof? Or perhaps a parking lot bioswale? If so, Portland, Oregon, is the place for you. And me.

It was my last stop on a tour of swing states, run by the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Press Center to help Canadian journalists understand American politics. It’s a good idea, given how many Canadian journalists vacillate between figurative and literal inability to believe George W. Bush might be re-elected. But at first I didn’t understand why the tour included Oregon, which I thought so liberal its Republicans deserve endangered-species protection. Portland is liberal (but for a coin toss it would be named Boston). But rural Oregon is Republican, the suburbs swing, and Al Gore won the state by only half a percentage point in 2000. That should worry all Democrats to the right of Dennis Kucinich, especially as Oregon has set trends from directly electing U.S. Senators to the first Nike shoe (made in Eugene on a waffle iron) to New Age spiritualism to rejecting universal health care by a four-to-one margin when shown the price tag. Continue reading