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Thursday, 31 January 2008

Thank you, John and Elizabeth Edwards, for Focusing on What Matters

“We, as citizens and as a government, have a moral responsibility to each other, and what we do together matters. We must do better, if we want to live up to the great promise of this country that we all love so much.”

That’s the way John Edwards started his speech yesterday withdrawing from the US presidential race. “Thank you,” his website says today.

But I think the one who deserves thanks is John Edwards. As an example of tenacity in the service of principle, he has few current equals in public life. As an example of a couple that has emerged stronger from more than the usual travails of life, he and his wife Elizabeth have none.

Without Edwards around the discourse of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would have skittered off into irrelevancies and clouds of fine words. He kept them focused on issues, which as Paul Krugman said on Monday, was his “great contribution to this campaign.” He added: “What the Democrats should do is get back to talking about issues…and about who is best prepared to push their agenda forward.

As Hansard—the official record of the Canadian House of Commons--would put it: Some honourable members: “Hear, hear.”

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

What's Wrong with the World Department: Most Long Islanders Would Rather Drive Than Walk

The suburbs are dead, say government officials on Long Island, according to The New York Times. Lawrence Downes reports this week that two county officials from the archetypal New York suburb have been brandishing figures from a survey which show that Long Island residents are ready for more city-like life. Apparently, 38 per cent said they could see themselves living “someday” in a downtown apartment, condo or townhouse, while nearly half “said they would favor taller downtown buildings — up to four stories, from two.”

Right now I’m in the home stretch of the next book The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs Streets and Beyond, and if I sound a little fatigued, it’s because I am. My desk is piled high with books and papers and my computer’s desktop is cluttered with pdf files of reports I’ve downloaded too fast to put away in the proper folder. What I’m writing isn’t all that encouraging for someone who thinks that we made a great mistake collectively when we started driving around instead of walking. In order to keep my spirits up, I find myself looking for any indicator that people may want to try something other than an automobile-based society. So I found myself perking up when I read Downes’s column.

But then came the downside: “Fifty-nine percent of Long Islanders could never imagine themselves living in an apartment,” Downes reports. “Asked which type of neighborhood they preferred — one where you could walk to stores or one that required driving — 56 percent said they would rather drive.”

No wonder there's an obesity epidemic. No wonder foreign policy is oil-driven.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Hung out to Dry: Energy, Clothes Dryers and Who's Really Modern

So maybe we all should hang up our clothes to dry, and stop using clothes dryers? Louis-Gilles Francoeur of Le Devoir had a good story last Thursday on the movement to remove barriers to clothes lines and clothes racks. Regulations against them in some municipalities, housing developments and apartment complexes stand in the way of switching to low-tech methods of clothes drying. Such strictures should be abolished, say environmentalists.

Le Corbusier famously raged against the residents of his first high rises who hung their clothes to dry on balconies. Spoiled the whole look, he said, but of course he had not provided for any other way to dry clothes, a practical detail of great importance in ordinary life. The only place where his style of building has really succeeded—Singapore—residents hang their clothes on long poles out windows the way flags are flown in some places.

The amount of electricity or gas to run a dryer is not inconsiderable. One study of the energy balance of clothing by University of Cambridgeresearchers actually says that polyester is more environmentally friendly than cotton mainly because polyester dries so much faster. But how you dry your clothes is only a small part of our spriraling energy consumption.

“As one municipal spokesman said rather cynically,” Francoeur writes, ‘it’s not a dryer that is going to tip the energy balance in those big, unnecessarily overheated houses in spread-out neighborhoods that are far too often bought in order to show off how rich you are rather than because you need the space. It’s not a policy on clothes lines that’s needed but a way of progressively taxing consumption of electricity, gas and petroleum products.“ Needless to say the spokesman didn’t want to be identified,” Francoeur concludes.

Right on. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go hang up our wash in the basement. Not that I'm being expressly ecolo (as they say around here.) It's just that when we bought this house eons ago it only had 60 ampères, far too low for an electric dryer. When we finally got around to boosting it--to 200 amps--two years ago the electrician laughed and accused me of being "not at all modern." I had no ready answer for him then, although I did admit to being too lazy to change. But now I see I was really ahead of the wave, rather than behind it.

Photo: Pulley clotheslines extending to a pole at the end of the garden are found all over the island of Montreal. Fine for summer, a little cold for winter,

Monday, 28 January 2008

Parliament Opens: What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

Canada’s 39th Parliament resumes sitting today, so it’s an appropriate time to see what Yann Martel has been sending to Stephen Harper to read. Last spring the Mann Booker prize winning author, struck by how frazzled the Prime Minister was, began sending him a small book every two weeks. The aim was to provide an opportunity for “stillness” at the end of the day, Martel said.

So far this month Martel has sent two books—his 19th and 20th gifts. The first, sent Jan. 7, was Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination, and the second, sent Jan, 21, was The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. As always, Martel sent along letters, explaining his choices.

The first book was compiled from the Massey Lectures which Frye, a noted scholar and literary critic, gave in 1962. “The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life...is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in,” Frye writes at one point. “This statement has obvious political implications,” Martel comments in the cover letter. “You see why I said this book might be of interest to you.”

The second book is a work of imagination set in the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. One of the rules Martel has set for himself, he explains in his letter, is to send only fiction because it “is both more personal and more synthesized than non-fiction. … A novel is about Life itself, whereas a history remains about a specific instance of Life. A great Russian novel—remember the Tolstoy I sent you—will always have a more universal resonance than a great history of Russia; you will think of the first as being about you on some level, whereas the second is about someone else.”

To date, Martel has heard nothing from the PM about his gifts, except for a brief letter of acknowledgement for that first novel by Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych. The man deserves a lot of credit for being so persistent.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Saturday Photo: Life Style Shopping Centres and the Canadian Winter


On one of the coldest days of the year I visited the new Dix30 "life style" shopping center in Brossard on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. The much-touted, supposedly new approach to the shopping experience features many big name, high quality shops built along a "main street." The idea is that you have the advantages of a shopping street with all the parking of a shopping mall.

The hallmark of this kind of development is its open air layout, we're told. Enclosed malls are passée. People are supposed to hang out on the street, enjoying the ambiance.

Well, maybe in better weather. Nobody was loitering outside the day I was there, although the parking places on the Esplanade were filled. Walking around, the most cheerful thing I saw was this gas flame set off to the side of a terrace. There was no plaque suggesting that it commemorated something special. Perhaps the idea is that the flames will warm the cockles of shoppers' hearts on winter days.

The developers behind this mall are also those who want to put in a $1.3 billion project in Griffintown, one of Montreal's old industrial neighborhoods. If they get the go-ahead, I hope they're a little more sensitive to the particularities of the place than they appear to have been here.

What Emile Zola Has to Say about Griffintown--and Other Urban Developments

Emile Zola’s The Kill (La Curée) was the book my reading friends discussed on Wednesday night. The second novel in his 20 novel series about one extended family in the middle of the 19th century, it is set against the great urban changes which took place when Napoléon III and Georges-Eugène Haussmann completely redid the center of Paris. The story is full of sex—we agreed that nothing like it could have been published in North America at the time—but the emotion that really dominates the story is greed. The major male character is a real estate developer who makes fortunes speculating in real estate, and who steals and then loses his wife’s dowry.

More details are coming out about the proposed redevelopment plan for one of the oldest sections of Montreal, Griffintown. Devimco, the motor behind the plan, has options on much land in the old industrial area, but doesn’t own very much. Nevertheless it is trying to get the city to agree to running a trolley line down to the neighborhood as well as many other concessions. Fortunes are going to made here too. The figures involved seem all very modern--the spokesman is a well-spoken, extremely sophisticated man in young middle age--but as Yogi Berra would say, It is déjà vu all over again.

Given the way the stories and situations that Zola write about have their echoes today it is no surprise the novelist is enjoying renewed popularity among Quebec young people: Rollande reported that when she bought her copy, the young man in line next to her told her how much he liked the book. Two bistros have recently opened in the trendier parts of Montreal which take their names from other novels in the series, L’Assommoir and La Bête humaine.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Fun and Games and the Topography of Winter

This could be the coldest week of the year: after the January thaw we often have the deep freeze. This morning the radio reported temperatures of minus 25 Celsius (about minus 10 F) in the country, and minus 17 C (not quite 0 F) in town. The sun is out, though, and with the snow which fell on Tuesday it promises to be a day of blinding sunshine. Great weather, if you’re dressed properly

Last night one of my book groups met in the neighborhood, and as the five of us from Durocher walked home about 11:30 p.m. we laughed to see a big snow plow parked in front of a souvlaki place. For the night? Or just while the driver took a break?

The answer came in the next block where the snow had been carefully cleared from along the curbs, but a long ridge remained down the middle. It wasn’t interfering with traffic—at that hour there weren’t many cars out—and some how it made the quiet street seem almost country-like. How the topography changes when water vapour freezes as it falls to earth!

As I said, it was night when we passed, and even though the nearly full moon was out, I didn’t have my camera with me to take a picture. So I’m including one from December when the Hasidic boys next door played in the snow and watched the snow removal operations while they waited for their school bus.

P.S. This morning the plow AND the ridge of snow had disappeared.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Griffintown Project: A Mistake to Go off the Grid

Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s administration seems poised to make major changes to an old industrial part of the city so a developer can build a combination of housing, commercial buildings and a shopping center.

The neighborhood, Griffintown, was where Irish immigrants settled in the mid-19th century so they could be work on the Lachine canal and the industry that grew up along it. Over the last 20 years it has become a ghost town as industry moved out and housing deteriorated. Plans to build a casino and entertainment complex fell through a couple of years ago, under a barrage of protest from planners and residents.

This time around Tremblay and friends seem keen on seeing something done. They’ve frozen development for two years in the area to help Devimco, the consortium of developers, so they assemble the necessary land. Tremblay also appears to be listening to Devimco’s demands that a trolley or at the very least trolley buses be provided to link with Montreal’s business and commercial center.

But developing the land along the lines Devimco suggests would completely do away with a unique part of Montreal history, Steven Peck argued in Le Devoir on Monday. When Griffintown was laid out in 1804, it adopted the grid pattern which became standard over much of North America, but which was an innovation at the time: New York adopted the grid only in 1811. The advantages of this kind of layout were described by Jane Jacobs in the ground breaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Chief among them is the pedestrian traffic and liveliness it engenders which works toward making a neighborhood an attractive place to live and work.

Peck doesn’t go into detail about this but he does point out that the most successful redevelopment plans in other cities have taken a homegrown element and capitalized on it. To completely eliminate Griffintown’s specialness by building another highrise-big box development that might be found anywhere would be a big mistake, he says.

Could be. This is one to keep an eye on. The developers also recently completed a new Life Style shopping center on the South shore of the St. Lawrence, and I intend to visit it soon. I’ll give a report when I do.

The Importance of Being Edited: New Yorker Articles Show Why

Taken together, three recent articles in The New Yorker are the biggest argument in favouring of editors that I’ve come across in some time. Two of them concern writers of great talent who had difficulty in finding their voice—Raymond Carver and Malcolm Lowry. The third, by Adam Gopnik and available on line only as an abstract, talks about the great changes made to accepted masterpieces in a new series of abridged versions.

Raymond Carver had the good fortune to have Gordon Lish edit his work. Lish took quite good stories and pared them down to bone and sinew. How he did it—and the effect it had on Carver—is clearly seen in “track changes” version of “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” now posted on The New Yorker’s website.

Malcolm Lowry’s most important book Under the Volcano was shaped by his collaboration with his wife, Margerie, we learn in “Day of the Dead” by D. T. Max. Unlike Carver, who quit drinking about the time the quality of his writing began to be recognized, Lowry drank heroic quantities until his death. Margerie, who also drank a great deal, nevertheless helped him refine his voice, construct his story, and find the framework on which to hang his exuberant language. Without her, Max suggests, Lowry could have wallowed forever in a surfeit of words.

The Gopnik article is an appraisal of what is cut from the Orion versions. Not much of the action, it seems, but much of the idiosyncratic meanderings which give depth to the works, and raise them from simple story-telling to something more, he suggests.

If Gordon Lish and Margerie Lowry are excellent examples of the editor who can see genius underneath layers of verbiage, Gopnik warns that it is quite possible to go too far in the other direction.

Writing is among the most solitary of occupations. To do it really well, writers need to have the opinion of others about their work. That is both the good thing and the bad thing about current writing. By throwing rough drafts and casual thoughts to the winds of the Internet, a writer may find kindred spirits who will help him or her along. But because this kind of writing is by definition amateur, no editor is there to guide it, shape it, see what’s really there underneath the dross.

My own experience with editors has been positive. The best, like Marc Côté of Cormorant Books which will bring out my novel The Violets of Usambara in March, see what's wrong, ask questions, and then allow you to find the answers. The writer is ultimately responsible for what is written, but the editor has helped him or her immensely.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Proposed Fuel Efficiency Standards Are a Step Backward

Even if Quebec and Manitoba go it alone among Canadian provinces and adopt the same fuel efficiency norms that California wants, they’ll still be far behind the benchmarks established by auto manufacturers and the Canadian government 1995. That’s the astounding conclusion to draw from a study of international fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT.)

The study, released last summer, looks at Canada, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Western Europe, Louis-Gilles Francoeur reported in Saturday’s Le Devoir. It shows that automobiles in Canada currently have an average fuel efficiency of 30 miles per US gallon (mpg), compared with an average of 25 mpg in the US and 23 mpg in California. But according to a voluntary agreement worked out by the Paul Martin government and the auto industry, the average is already supposed to drop to 34 mpg by 2010, while the much-acclaimed California norms would only hit 33 mpg in 2016. George W. Bush and Canada's Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon propose hitting that target in 2020. (For details, see "Passenger Vehicle Greenhouse Gas and Fuel Economy Standards: A Global Update " found under the Car and Light Truck Fuel Efficiency category on the ICCT's website.)

The 1995 agreement is supposedly still in force, but nobody is talking about it, certainly not when the current Conservative government wants to set a target of 35 mpg or 6.7 litres per 100 km by 2020.

And to think that in 1974 the dog and I drove to Toronto in a VW hatchback and made 34 mpg! The winds were with us, but talk about being ahead of our time!

Friday, 18 January 2008

Saturday Photo: Running the Mountain

You can't let winter get you down, and these runners certainly are taking advantage of the sunshine.

This carriage road was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870s, and is now used heavily by runners, walkers, skiers and bicyclists. You don't see many of the latter this time of year--but there still are some hardy souls on bikes.

More Horsepower, Less Horse Sense: Why We Need Tough Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

The front page of Le Devoir features a big picture of the new Tesla, an entirely electric sports car, and a big headline "Always Bigger, Always More Powerful." The story by environmental writer Louis-Gilles Francoeur reports that even though manufacturers have improved the fuel efficiency of their cars, the saving has been lost in jacking up horse power. He quotes a study by two Quebec anti-pollution, energy conservation groups of the fuel efficiency of 1997 car models and those 10 years later. It says, for example, that over the period the Honda Civic increased its horsepower from 106 to 140, a 36 per cent jump, while its fuel consumption got worse, dropping from 31 miles per gallon in town and 39 on the highway to 26 and 34 mpg respectively.

Francoeur's article is very timely. This is car show season--the Tesla is on display at Montreal's Salon de l'auto right now--and Lawrence Cannon, federal transport minister, started talking yesterday about setting the fuel consumption standard for Canada. He wants to peg it at an average 35 miles per gallon, or 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres, by the year 2020. That’s the same as what the Bush government is proposing the US, but much worse than what Arnold Schwarzenegger’s government in California would like.

The premiers of Quebec and Manitoba say they’re in favour of standards more in line with California’s, which call for hitting the 35 miles per gallon point by 2016.

Yes, let’s do that, I say. Let’s also not be led around by our noses by a Conservative government that has a vested interest in keeping oil production going and has been blindly following George W. Bush’s lead.

But at the same time, let’s give some thought to actually using automobiles less. As I work on my next book, The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs Streets and Beyond, I’m becoming convinced that for 150 years we have systematically eliminating walking as the everyday means of transportation. To bring it back would require some fundamental changes in the way we live, and what they might be is a topic that I continue to wrestle with. More about that later.

In the meantime, I checked the fuel efficiency ratings on our 2002 Toyota Corolla, and it looks like it rates pretty well: probably about an average of 31 miles per gallon. Of course we don't drive it very much: it's gone 22,000 kilometers in the five and a half years since we bought it. BMW is more our style: bus, Metro and walk.

But maybe I should figure out a relevant measure of walking efficiency. What about something along the lines of: how many chocolate chip cookies per 10 kilometers or miles per pepperoni pizza?

Thursday, 17 January 2008

A Walk on the Safe Side: Get Your Mammograms

Yesterday was a gorgeous, not-too-cold day in Montreal with fresh snow on the ground. I spent a good part of the afternoon walking around in the fine weather, arranging to send a friend's mammograms to France for her where she has moved.

I couldn't help thinking of the walks I took summer before last. Five days a week for five weeks I made my way across Mount Royal to the Montreal General Hospital for radiation after a lumpectomy of suspicious tissue, a ductal carcinoma in situ. The walks through the park were a pleasure, and I'm sure the reason I came through the treatment with absolutely no side effects is due to the big dose of nature I got every day.

Thank goodness that is behind me, but the follow-up to that train of thought is not. Women over 50 should get regular mammograms because they can show up cancer in its very early stages when treatment is extremely effective and nearly trouble-free. Take a walk on the safe side and, if you're a woman of a certain age, call about a mammogram today. If you're a man, makes sure the women in your life do so.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Short Stories Like Chocolate: To Be Savoured, One at a Time

Short stories—like most poems—should be read one at a time. Reading more than that dulls the literary palate, and the subtleties of the stories are lost the way the nuances of the best chocolates fade when you eat too many of them at one sitting.

That is why I’ve taken my sweet time to read one of my most appreciated Christmas gifts, The Best American Short Stories of 2007. One a night, the book on the bedside table to be opened only when there is enough time to read a complete story.

This year the collection is guest-edited by Stephen King who has chosen 20 stories from hundreds that he and the series editor Heidi Pitlor found in American and Canadian magazines published between January 2006 and January 2007. There’s an Alice Munro story from The New Yorker among them, but King has picked quirkier ones than usually get the nod. They include at least one that could be classified as science fiction and a couple that are exuberantly weird.

So far my favourite is “Balto” by T.C. Boyle, in which two first person narratives—a father and his pre-teen daughter—battle in a kind of “Dueling Banjos” over what really happened during an accident. But I still have three stories left, and one of the pleasures of a collection of this kind is that you never know what you’ll come upon next…

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

News from Burundi: Not a Very Happy New Year

Reports late last fall suggested that the long-standing battles in Burundi might be winding down, but that appears not to be happening. Monday IRIN, the UN’s information agency, reported that about 1,400 families-- 8,400 persons in all--have been forced from their homes in Burundi’s northwest province of Bubanza. Fighting between government forces and the rebel Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL) flared again in late December, with clashes on Dec. 28 and January 9.

According to Laurent Kagamba of the local government, the internally displaced persons (IDPs) “need food aid, blankets - the region is very cold - as well as cooking utensils, as all their properties have been looted. Even if it was time for the harvest of beans and maize, they cannot access them.”

Burundi, the non-identical twin to Rwanda in Central Africa’s Great Lake District, has been the scene of conflict since 1993 when trouble between Hutus and Tutsis broke out. Nelson Mandela helped broker a government of reconciliation in 2000, but progress has been slow. According to IRIN, although the FNL signed a ceasefire accord with the government in September 2006, it has not been fully implemented. The FNL walked out of talks over security last summer, and they "have since been accusing the facilitator, South African safety minister Charles Nqakula, of bias."

A personal note: as readers of this blog may remember, I spent some time in Burundi in 2001 as I did research for my novel The Violets of Usambara. On Friday the spring catalogue for the publisher Cormorant Books arrived, announcing the publication this spring of Violets. How sad that Burundi's travails continue!

Monday, 14 January 2008

"It's the Fashion, Stupid!" At Least in Part: The Many Varieties of Muslim Dress

Today a fashion note. Like many people who knew little about Islam until recently, I long held the stereotype of a Muslim woman as someone drably dressed with all her charm hidden. But I’ve learned that’s not true. The first hint came in 2000 when I went to Singapore: not only were the Malay-origin Muslim women there dressed in brilliant colours, but on the way back I encountered a veiled woman from one of the Arab states whose black silk robe had a discreet design, “Gucci.”

Since then I’ve grown accustomed to seeing women in hijab, or Muslim headscarf in Montreal, encountering, for example, several young Muslim mothers at a children’s hospital where I volunteer one afternoon a week.

What I do is rock babies whose parents want to take a break, or talk to them if they need an ear to tell their troubles to. (The fact that I’ve been there and done that—Lukas had meningitis as a baby—is one of the reasons I volunteer, and I suspect it's comforting for the parents of sick kids to learn that our big, smart son who’s decided he wants to be a philosopher was once a really sick baby.)

Some of the women I meet speak neither English nor French, but two weeks ago I spent a couple of hours chatting with a young mother of Lebanese descent who wore her headscarf with jeans and a sweater. The week before that I rocked the baby of a Pakistani woman in salwar kameez, the trouser and tunic outfit worn by women of many religions in South Asia. Last week there were two mothers wearing flowing, beautifully embroidered gowns. Then yesterday the fact that these women care as much about how they look as any other woman came home when I saw a young woman waiting in line at a big supermarket wearing a gorgeous green and yellow robe with her scarf pulled across her face.

Intrigued, I went looking last night on the net see what kind of fashion advice they might be listening to. I came across a very interesting article in Slate about attempts by Nordstrom to market to Muslim women, as well as a number of great YouTube videos explaining how to wrap a hijab (including one from a pretty young redhead from Iowa who calls herself the non-Muslim hijabi) and showing the latest in modest, Muslim fashion.

Before you protest that it is degrading to women to insist they cover their hair and bust, let me remind you that 50 years ago a woman could not enter a Roman Catholic church with her head uncovered, her arms bare or wearing trousers. Protestants were a little more flexible then, but my mother reared me to wear a hat, gloves, stockings and high heels to go shopping downtown, and to all major social occasions.

All that has changed, of course. But one thing remains: at least part of dress norms are fashion, and don’t you forget it.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Saturday Photo: The People Who Are Going to Buy Tata's New Car

Well, I can't say if this young couple will have the wherewithal or the desire to buy one of Indian car manufacturer's car for the masses, the Nano, which was unveiled by industrial giant Tata this week. But I do know for sure that they are part of the Indian middle class which is delighting in its increasing purchasing power.

I took their picture two years ago when I was in Kochi on the southwest coast of the subcontinent. They were at a horticultural show along with several thousand others, enjoying an afternoon outing. I took an autorickshaw to the show, letting the driver wend his way through the heavy traffic of motorbikes, light trucks, other autorickshaws and white Indian-made sedans. Those who wonder what the introduction of a cheap passenger car will do to the already intense Indian traffic and consequent greenhouse gas emissions have legitimate concerns, although Tata says the Nano will be less polluting than motorcycles.

Without a doubt, the Nano and other cheap cars being developed will be safer than motorcycles, too. I was astounded to see families on scooters: Dad driving with an older child sitting in front of him on the cross bar while Mom balanced in back, holding a baby in one arm, while she gripped the seat with her free hand. How they did it is beyond me, because the one motorbike ride I had in Kochi traffic left me with muscle cramps in my arms from hanging on to the driver for dear life.

For more about Kochi, see my post on Urbanphoto. Or check out the chapter on it in Green City: People, Nature, and Urban Places.

Those Funny Light Bulbs Really Are Disagreeable, the New York Times Finds

Stock up on incandescent light bulbs, because it still is hard to find an energy efficient light bulb that is nice to have around. That seems to be the message underlying a story in The New York Times this week. The NYT’s House and Home staff rated 21 different kinds of bulbs, including 14 compact fluorescents, as governments proceed toward mandatory requirements that bulbs reduce energy consumption by 20-25 per cent. Only 10 per cent of the energy used by an incandescent light bulb is emitted as light. The rest is heat, as anyone who has hurt fingers when trying to unscrew a suddenly burnt-out bulb can tell you. What is being proposed to replace incandescents, though, leaves a great deal to be desired.

A couple of the new bulbs tested didn’t rate too badly, but the light from most seemed to change the colour of everything it illuminated, from skin tones to the walls of rooms. Their light was also judged to look “unnatural.” That’s probably because the spectrum of the light they emit is considerably different from that of incandescent bulbs—and of sun or fire light which is the light we humans evolved in.

The story says that manufacturers are working toward making energy efficient bulbs with more pleasing light, so perhaps help is on the way. In the meantime, at our house we intend to keep using the ordinary bulbs. Certainly there are other ways to keep down consumption of electricity. I didn’t see many people railing about the amount used on Christmas lights, for example.

For Lee's birthday he got an old suitcase full of 100 watt incandescent bulbs that I found--after some searching--at a local hardware store. The others in the family can expect similar presents in the future from me as the count-down to contraband-status proceeds. I don't call it hoarding, I call it wise shopping.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Carbon Tax and January Thaw: The Ups and Downs of Climate Change

It’s fitting that the temperature hit record highs this week across Canada, as an advisory panel to the federal government recommended the speedy introduction of a carbon tax. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government doesn’t like the idea much. They contend that regulations will be sufficient to get us to cut down on green house gas emissions. That’s possibly true, but first of all you have to formulate regulations, and that’s exactly what the Conservatives aren’t doing. The Quebec government put in place a carbon tax in October, by the way, and complaints so far have been few.

As our neighbor McGill University meteorologist Jacques Derome told Le Devoir last month, wildly changeable weather seems to be a hallmark of all the models for climate change. Certainly that is what we have this year. Montreal got nearly as much snow in December as we usually receive all winter, but now it is almost all gone. Last Thursday when Lukas and Sophie went cross country skiing in the Laurentians, in places the snow was deeper than five foot Sophie is tall. There probably is more snow left there now than there is in town, but they were lucky their trip was planned for last week, not this.

The only up side to the current warm spell that I can see is that perhaps I’ll be able to rake up the last of the leaves in back before spring. I’d been waiting for them all to fall, but the snow arrived so early and so abundantly that the job didn’t get done. Maybe if the leaves are raked up before the maples leaf out, we won't have so much tar spot on the leaves next August: apparently the spores that cause the disease overwinter in fallen leaves and infest the tree in spring.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

"It's the Economy, Stupid!" or the US Sixteen Years Later: Less Racist Than in 1992, But Just as Troubled

So Obama won Iowa but Clinton wins New Hampshire? The big question now is, of course, who will best combat whatever Republican gets the nod.

In his The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman has some interesting things to say about how changing attitudes and demographics could make a big difference in the chances of electing a left of center president. Americans are less racist, he asserts. He also argues that the increasing numbers of Hispanic and Asian voters, combined with the African-American vote could make a “movement conservative” attempt to play the race or fear card much less effective than it has been for the last 30 years. But, as he said in his New York Times column Monday, it’s going to be a tough fight.

Reading between the lines, it appears to me that Krugman thinks Clinton would be better at that than Obama with his hopeful albeit rather undetailed message.
But the fact that Obama won in the rural areas of New Hampshire suggests that Krugman is right in maintaining the nation is becoming less racist. I sure would like to think so.

It’s also telling that New Hampshire’s urban areas went for Clinton. Here it may well be “it’s the economy, stupid” just as it was when Bill Clinton came back to win the state’s primary in 1992.

Memo to political junkies: get "The War Room"--about James Carville and Bill's brilliant campaign--from the video store this weekend.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

When Speaking the Same Language Matters: Tanzania, Kenya and Kiswahili

It is always risky to make comments about societies which you have only observed briefly, but listening and reading news reports about post-election trouble in Kenya, I find myself returning again and again to the short time I spent in East Africa in 2001.

I went to research a novel The Violets of Usambara, which will finally—after nearly 10 years of work—be published this spring. Before I left I did not bother to learn any Kiswahili: half the time would be spent in the former Belgian colony of Burundi and I speak good French, and I thought I’d find plenty of people who spoke English in the former British colonies of Tanzania and Kenya where I went for the second part of the trip. That was a mistake. French served me well in Burundi, but outside Dar es Salaam, only the more educated Tanzanians spoke English, making communication a little difficult.

At independence Tanzania named Kiswahili the “national” language as a way to unify a new country where about 100 tribal languages were spoken. Now primary education in state schools is in Kiswahili, with English instruction reserved for secondary schools. Nearly all signs were in Kiswahili as well as English when I was there, and while there were daily newspapers in Kiswahili for sale in every little town, I couldn’t find the English paper outside Dar.

Kenya made different choices, which were apparent as soon as we crossed the border on the road from Arusha to Nairobi. Signs were in English with Kiswahili added only on some “keep out” ones, and while I could find two English dailies in Nairobi, there seemed to be far fewer Kiswahili papers as well as fewer people reading newspapers on buses and street corners too.

So when there was talk of Rwanda-like ethnic conflict last week in Kenya, I began to wonder if part of the problem was due to lack of success in making one nation out of many tribal groups by building on one language.

I don’t know. Certainly people who speak the same language don’t always get along. In Rwanda and Burundi Hutus and Tutsis speak the same languages, but that hasn’t stopped them from hating and killing each other. Yet all other things being equal, it is easier to communicate, to discuss, and to negotiate if the players--at all levels of society--can communicate in a language that everyone knows well.

The importance of Kiswahili—a sophisticated language with written poetry going back 800 or so years—in Eastern and Central Africa was underscored before I left Tanzania. When I spent a day at the UN genocide trials in Arusha, I passed one of the recesses talking to a Rwandan reporter fluent in French. About half way through our conversation a UN library employee from Tanzania’s coast with whom I’d been speaking in English earlier came up. I introduced the two men and started to translate back and forth from French to English. But then they realized that they both spoke Kiswahili and the conversation took off, with them translating occasionally for me so I could understand what they were saying.

I never picked up more than a few words of Kiswahili: hapana, no; sawa, okay; karibu, welcome; mzungu, white person; duka, shop; choo, WC, and, of course, asante sana, thank you very much.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

What if the Three Wise Men Were Three Wise Women: Notes on the End of a Fine Holiday Season

The holiday is really over: Sunday was Armenian Christmas, and today the Orthodox churches celebrate, while part of the Western world calls January 6 Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men brought their gifts to the baby Jesus. Sophie goes back to teaching today, Lee had to show up last Thursday, and Lukas, having handed in his thesis, will get ready for whatever comes next.

We topped the holiday off with a great dinner Saturday cooked by Elin’s significant other Emmanuel, whose brother, sister-in-law and baby niece are visiting from Paris. Choucroute—the best sauerkraut and sausages I’ve ever eaten—were on the menu, which turns out to be the traditional dish for New Year’s in Bénédicte’s family in Belgium. It was a very nice combination of old and new customs.

But before the festivities are over, have a laugh, courtesy of of my friend Élisabeth Humbolt-Lapointe (my translation.)

What would have happened if the Three Kings had been women?

They would have asked for directions, and arrived on time, and been able to help with the birth, and would have cleaned the stable, and would have made a fondue, and would have brought some useful presents.

What would they have said after they left?

Mary’s sandals didn’t go with her dress…
The baby didn’t look like Joseph…
I can’t get over the way they keep animals in the house..
It looks like Joseph is out of work….
And...
Virgin? My eye!

Friday, 4 January 2008

Saturday Photo: 7 a.m., Sunday, January, Toronto

Well, actually the picture was taken about a year ago--there is more snow in Toronto this January, I gather. But it was 7 a.m. on a Sunday and I'd gone out for a walk early: I was in town for some meetings that weekend, and the thought of sitting several hours more in a hotel conference room was pretty depressing.

There weren't many people out, and no one else skating on the rink at Nathan Phillips Square. The man went round and round, not doing anything particularly spectacular but obviously enjoying having the ice to himself.

I came across my skates in the back of the closet a couple of weeks ago when I was looking for an extra knitted cap. Perhaps I should get them out and try out the ice at our local outdoor rinks which have been in operation since mid-December.

From "Beginners" to the Accomplished: Gordon Lish Edits Raymond Carver

If anyone ever doubted the importance of editors, The New Yorker’s on-line publication of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” complete with Gordon Lish’s edits, will lay those doubts to rest.

Carver’s story, originally called “Beginners,” had whole pages cut from it by Lish. It wasn’t a bad story—that’s clear from the original—but the edgy, pared-down writing and enigmatic tone that made Carver so admired weren’t there. Now Carver’s widow—he died nearly 20 years ago—wants to publish the original version of it and other Carver stories in their pre-Lish form, to show just what her husband was aiming for.

Doing so would do more than fuel a controversy over the relation between Carver and Lish. It underlines just how much a careful, outside eye can see in someone else’s writing. As an accompanying article in The New Yorker points out, what Lish did is not that much different from the edit Ezra Pound gave to T.S. Eliot’s landmark poem “The Waste Land” or what Maxwell Perkins did when he cut 65,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.

This kind of editing is a thing of the past. Publishing houses today are unlikely to allow editors the time to seek out and work carefully with writers of promise the way Lish did with Carver. If a text isn't already formed and polished it is unlikely an editor or agent will read past the first couple of paragraphs. This--combined with the way the blogosphere and e-publishing tempt many writers to rush anything to the Web or print-out--means that careful editing is now as rare and quaint as an Underwood typewriter.

The New Yorker, strangely, does not say who wrote the interesting comments on the exchange of letters between Carver and Lish. Is this another evidence of the devaluing of the editor? If so, too bad.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

A New Year’s Resolution for Stephen Harper: Read to His Kids

Our Prime Minister has a reputation for being a good family man, so it’s not surprising that the books Yann Martel sent him December 24 are good ones to read to children. Martel has been giving books to Harper every two weeks since last spring, as a part of a campaign to encourage the PM to find some "tranquility" at the end of the day by reading.

The latest, holiday shipment is the 19th in the series. So far Martel has received one acknowledgement—for the first book, The Death of Ivan Illytch by Leo Tolstoy.

The books this time around--“three books to make you and your family dream”--are The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren ; Imagine A Day, by Sarah L. Thomson and Rob Gonsalves; and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg. In the cover letter Martel offers a little meditation about the importance of religious freedom in the Canadian Charter of Rights, congratulates Harper for being discreet in his Christian faith, and ends by speaking of the joy that is expressed in the birth of a baby at Christmas.

Martel’s holiday choices are quite a switch from his last offering: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Like all three of the Christmas books, Kafka's grim little fable involves a great leap of imagination, but the magic in it is dark and troubling. “A sort of cautionary tale,” Martel writes in the letter accompanying that gift.

No, Metamorphosis is not a book to read to the kids, but perhaps the Christmas parcel will make it through to the Harper family. Martel gets full marks for his persistence and the care with which he chooses his gifts.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

New Year's Resolution 2: Novels by Lawrence Hill and Mary Novik

Two more books on the 2008 Must-Read list: Mary Novik’s Conceit and Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. called Someone Knows My Name in the U.S.

Two of the more interesting things I do is review book for Quill and Quire and lead book discussions at Montreal-area libraries. Both give me the occasion to read many good books and to reflect on their meaning and the skill with which their authors tell the stories. This year two novels stand out from the 35 or so I read for work: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill and Conceit by Mary Novik. Both Canadian writers have unique stories to tell. As it happens both, are historically based, but they differ greatly in style and subject.

Lawrence Hill has Aminiata Diallo or Meena Dee tell the epoch story of a woman captured into slavery in the mid-18th century and then transported to North America, back to Africa and finally to England. It is an enormous canvas—at one point Meena thinks about what a map of her travels would look like-0-but it also is an intimate story of a strong woman’s courage, intelligence an resolve.

Mary Novik’s story begins a hundred years before when John Donne’s daughter rescues his effigy from St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Great Fire of 1666. Where Hill’s narrative jumps around in time, but is generally straight forward, Novik’s his lyrical and filled with resonances too Donne’s poetry and scenes from period refracted by the lens of brilliant woman’s passion.

Both books were long listed for the Scotiabank Giller prize, but so far neither has won a big prize. A shame. They both deserve large audiences.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

New Year's Resolution: Books by Paul Krugman and Chantal Hébert That You Must Read

Two books you have to read in 2008, whatever other resolutions you might make: The Conscience of a Liberal by Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and French Kiss: Stephen Harper’s Blind Date with Quebec by Chantal Hébert, columnist for The Toronto Star, Le Devoir, CBC and Radio Canada. The first analyses what has gone wrong in the United States over the last 30 years, with the ascendancy of movement conservatism. The second takes a look at the complicated relations between the Rest of Canada and Quebec, and between what I have long thought of as "Canadian values" and the spin Harper’s brand of conservatism would like to bring about here.

I read the Hébert book last spring shortly after it came out, and was impressed by her clear-eyed view of ideology and belief in this country. In particular, I was fascinated by her suggestion that Alberta is squandering a tremendous chance to improve the world by passing back its petroleum windfall to corporations, not investing in its society. What, she asks, would happen if Alberta used Quebec’s strategies to support culture and science instead? Quebec has done pretty well in developing research and cultural industries with much more limited resources (think Cirque du Soleil, Bombardier, computer animation and SNC-Lavalin.) Alberta could do much better if it wanted. But it won’t because that’s against the conservative ideological grain.

The Krugman book examines how that same sort of belief system has destroyed the American middle class since Ronald Reagan’s time, creating a country where income distribution is more inequitable now than at any time since the Gilded Age of the early 19th century. Race has been the way that a large proportion of white Americans have been distracted from what has been going on, he argues quite convincingly. He ends by saying that perhaps movement conservatism's power will be overturned in the next few years, in large part because Americans are now less racist, and because the truly bad news about what has happened to the US is finally sinking in. Instituting a system of universal health insurance would be the best way to turn things around, he says, adding that he is encouraged by the way all the Democratic presidential candidates have rather detailed ideas about how to do this.

Both books are written engagingly: I devoured the Krugman one on Boxing Day, while the Hébert book filled a couple of quiet spring evenings. The questions they pose and the actions they suggest to people who care about the way their countries work, however, may lead to some sleeplessness—and, hopefully, political action in the days ahead.