Friday, December 07, 2007

We used to be better than this

Ho hum. Another major climate change summit, more prevaricating, and more embarrassing Canadian inaction (or, worse, negative action).
At the Bali conference, long-term US foot-dragging has dragged down Canada and Japan, which seem to have joined together in an unholy trinity of nay-sayers, arguing that local economics takes precedence over international ecology. If it is going to cost us money then, sorry, we can't do it.
I have this nasty suspicion that the rest of the world probably thinks that this is representative of the views of the general population. Certainly, any kudos Canada might have had as a force for good in the field of the environment (although in reality it is some years now since we have deserved any such kudos) is now well and truly shot.
As usual, the main excuse for inaction is the old one of "Well, if China and India are not committed to anything, then why should we? So nyer!" Is there then no place any more for principle, for doing the right thing, for leading by example? If we don't sign on, how can we expect China and India to? If we wait until everyone is on board, the ship will be long sunk.
I am no great fan of Kyoto, but for now it's all we have, a symbolic first step in the right direction. No-one, including me, will believe us if we say that we will break our commitment to Kyoto, but then do more later, and why should they?
Neither can we wait until some miraculous deal is struck which meets all the Tories' conditions (if that will ever happen) before starting to think about what needs to be done to achieve it. By then, still more time will have passed, and the task will be all the more difficult.
It's long past time for some serious action on the issue, whatever protocols are signed or not signed by whoever. If necessary (and it would be), we pay for the carbon credits we need to get through Kyoto, and let that be a lesson to us.
But enough already of this whining and foot-dragging. We used to be better than this.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You too can make a microloan with Kiva

A friend alerted me to an interesting website, which is a microfinancing/microplan operation designed to facilitate the bringing together of concerned citizens from the developed world and individual entrepreneurs in the developing world in need of funds for their small businesses.
It seemed like such a simple and worthy idea, I thought I would share it with the world (not that anyone actually reads this blog...)

A tour of the world we need

As an antidote to the depressing reading in the national newspapers where Our Glorious Leader can be seen flexing his muscles on the international scene refusing to take any action on climate change until India does (so nyah!), I have been reading Chris Turner’s “The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need”.
In his easy-going and refreshing style, Turner tries to focus on the positive (a focus in very short supply) by looking at renewable energy and sustainability projects around the world in an attempt to show that we have the technology to combat global warming right here and now, we just need the will, the vision and the leadership (also in very sort supply).
Among many other inspiring developments (and his trademark digressions into world economics, local politics and popular culture) he visits:
  • the Danish islands of Samsø and Aerø, where the local council and activists have developed an almost completely grid-free, sustainable energy regime based mainly on wind turbines;

  • forward-thinking public transit systems in Portland, Oregon and Copenhagen;

  • Rolf Disch’s remarkable Plusenergiehaus (which uses almost every energy-generating device known) and the surrounding solar powered district of Vauban in Freiberg, Germany (not a location normally associated with a surfeit of sunshine);

  • Dr. Soontorn’s net energy-generating Bio-Solar Home in Bangkok, Thailand;

  • Mike Reynolds’ hobbit-like but incredibly efficient and energy-saving Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico;

  • Sohrabji Godrej’s LEED-certified Green Business Centre in Hyderabad, India;

  • John Bradford’s Interface Flooring Systems, a huge industrial carpet tile business which goes as close as is humanly possible to reusing and recycling everything without the usual degradation and “downcycling”;

  • the industrial city of Kalundborg in Denmark, which has linked together its massive coal-burning power plant, Denmark’s largest oil refinery, a giant pharmaceutical plant and a plasterboard factory in a very complex but very efficient network of symbiotic relationships, resulting in a much reduced carbon footstep and very little pollution of any kind;

  • Amory Lovins’ venerable Rocky Mountains Institute, after thirty years still at the cutting edge of sustainability;

  • a community-built sustainable energy project in the jungles of northern Vietnam.
He also has lots of interesting things to say about the legacy of Le Corbusier and the ubiquitous square-box, brutalist architecture he heralded; mixed use developments, New Urbanism and community-supported agriculture; the concept of natural capital, “Small is Beautiful” and “Small is Profitable”; the Lorax and the Once-ler and what we can learn from Dr. Seuss; green advertising; and much more.
It is a well-researched, thought-provoking and at times surprising read, and a highly recommended Christmas present.

Friday, November 23, 2007

To fluoridate or not to fluoridate

It seems like there's no such thing as a sacred cow these days.
Fluoridation of tap water has always been up there with vaccinations as one of health research's great success stories since the initial science was done way back in the 1940's.
Now, though, significant doubt is being placed on its efficacy and even on its safety.
It turns out that, while childhood cavities have been significantly reduced in countries using fluoridation, they have also been equally reduced in countries like the U.K. and most of Europe which don't fluoridate their water. This suggests that improved dental education and fluoridated toothpastes are likely more to thank, especially as the fluoride is directly applied to the teeth rather than the more hit-or-miss method of swallowing fluoridated water. Which sort of makes sense to me.
More worrying, but also more disputed, is new research which purports to show that our excessive fluoride intake may be linked to a bone disease called childhood oteosarcoma, reduced IQ levels and hypothyroidism.
Interestingly, Canada is almost evenly split between provinces like B.C. and Quebec which generally don't add fluoride to their tap water, and others like Ontario, Manitoba and Albert which fluoridates the vast majority of their water.
Even more interestingly, Toronto has recently (unbeknown to most people) halved the amount of fluoride is puts in the water, as has the province of Quebec.
Health Canada is, for now at least, sticking to its guns:
"The fluoridation of drinking water supplies is a well-accepted measure to
protect public health that is strongly supported by scientific evidence."
The Canadian Dental Association concurs.
Where does that leave me, the average Joe on the street? Do I have now have a choice between drinking water or brushing my teeth (but not both)?

Monday, November 19, 2007

"Under-the-Gardiner", Toronto's next tourist attraction

Finally, I read an article which comes close my own views on the fate of the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto, a perennial source of argument and dissent, even if little ever comes of those arguments.
The conventional wisdom has, for years now, been that the Gardiner is an eyesore and an anachronism and that in some way it prevents access to our beautiful lakefront. Anyone who expresses sentiments to the contrary is frowned at and considered anti-progress, pro-car and, in some obscure way, undemocratic.
I have always felt that something more could be done to beautify the concrete jungle below the raised highway, or at least to make some practical use of it, rather than just saying "rip it down" which has always seemed a bit defeatist and negative to me.
Given that it carries 200,000 cars and trucks a day past and into downtown, dismantling the Gardiner would mean that 200,000 cars and trucks a day would have to be accommodated in central Toronto's already congested grid system, which at the very least would necessitate a significant widening of the Lakeshore Avenue alternative, which would in turn have much more impact on access to the lakeshore than the current status quo.
The argument about access to the lakeshore has always seemed spurious to me anyway. The huge Hong Kong-esque developments which have been allowed on the downtown lakeshore have done much more to block access and views to the lake than the Expressway ever did. No-one is suggesting (thankfully) that we move the railway lines which run parallel to the Gardiner, and which present just as much of a barrier.
And even if any intrepid tourists do venture down to the lake, there is so little to do and see there (and now, since the condo developments, so little space and opportunity to provide anything in the future) that many would probably wonder why they bothered anyway.
A grand opportunity has already been squandered. So why not make the best of a bad thing and create "Under-the-Gardiner", a funky little neighbourhood of cafes, small specialty stores and street art, with pedestrian walkways and parkland, to replace the wasteland of dust, exhaust fumes and beggars that tourists currently have to negotiate.
Just because San Francisco and Boston ripped down their elevated highways doesn't mean that we have to copy them exactly. We just need to think outside the box a little.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Unnecessary deaths and taser parties

In the wake of a recent surge in deaths by taser in Canada, and particularly after the case of a Polish visitor to Vancouver whose unnecessary death by taser, and the lead up to it, was all recorded on video, there has been a lot of belated discussion on just how safe and how advisable they are as a security tool.
Amnesty International has recently spoken out strongly against them in its review of 290 deaths from police use of tasers since 2001 (15 of which were in Canada), and the US Department of Justice is currently reviewing 100 such cases.
There are even reports of American women hosting taser parties, in the tradition of tupperware parties, but featuring hot pink tasers for the discerning American housewife.
My feeling is that their potential for abuse and (more likely) misuse is too great, and that their use should be curtailed. It is all too easy for a law enforcement officer to use a taser unnecessarily on the assumption that, even if not strictly necessary, no major harm will be done. This leads to a trigger-happy attitude and ultimately to mistakes and accidents.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Canadian, British and American Spelling

I have another of my little pet projects under my belt. My webpage on Canadian, British and American Spelling is now live.
I have tried to explain and produce a more or less definitive listing of differences in regional spellings, which is particularly a problem in Canada because, as in most things, Canada tends to lurch and wobble between the British and American camps. There are one or two resources on the web but I didn't find them very comprehensive or definitive, so I made my own.
In addition to a detailed, searchable word list, there are additonal pages on the general rules for regional differences, a page on the basic spelling rules for English with examples and exceptions and a page of commonly misspelled words.
Several hours of poring over dictionaries, grammars and style guides in the library, as well as some serious web-surfing, have paid off I think. Let 's just hope someone actually uses it now.

Pimping the real estate market

Even realtors were embarrassed at the shananigans outside One Bloor East this week.
Hired paupers (some paid up to $2,000, and so arguably ex-paupers) had been camped outside Toronto's next super-luxury downtown condo building for over a week to keep a place for the well-heeled real estate agents who wanted first crack at the apartments for their overseas clients, some of which will fly off the shelves at $8-million.
This was sleazy enough, especially as the line, predictably enough, deteriorated into a mini shanty town. But then the arguments started.
Some maintained they could hold their place in line by putting themselves on a paper list. Some were up in arms at this idiocy. Some just waltzed straight to the front of the line anyway. Tempers frayed.
A more unedifying spectacle you could not hope to witness.
But, as of yesterday, it was all over. The ex-paupers had their pay-offs. The realtors made their killings. Their shadowy foreign investors had their footholds in the Toronto real estate bubble.
Apparently, there are 13 or 14 more of these super-deluxe condo buildings under construction right now in downtown Toronto, so presumably we can expect more such exhibitions of captialism at its finest in the near future.
Still, it's good to know that at least someone somewhere has plenty of disposable income.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Sir John A. Who?

We Canadians regularly used to sneer at reports of Americans' lack of historical and geographical knowledge, but it turns out that we are not much better ourselves.
A Dominion Institute report suggest that less than half of our 18-to-24 year olds know who Canada's first Prime Minister was (even with multiple choice options) and only one in four know the year of Confederation (that one really surprised me).
Even more worrying, the results have worsened considerably over the last ten years.
Try the quiz yourself. As someone who has studied for the Canadian citizenship test (even if not that recently), I didn't find it that hard, although I will admit to getting a couple wrong.
I think this has much more to say about the general standard of education in Canada than about our patriotism.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Foreign Phrases Commonly Used in English

I'm continuing, in my spare hours, to get around to little projects I have wanted to tick off my list for some time.
Hot on the heels of Utopian Literature comes Foreign Phrases Commonly Used in English, a database of, well, foreign phrases commonly used in English.
Motivated by my increasingly common reaction of "I think I know what that means, but actually I'm not 100% sure, and I'm even less sure of the the more subtle sense it carries", I realized that there isn't a really good, comprehensive and easy-to-use resource on the web for answering that kind of a question.
So, now there is.
Currently there are 314 phrases in 14 different languages in the database, searchable alphabetically by first letter, or by language, or by foreign or English keywords. I have tried to give some indication of the specific sense some phrases can carry, and I have made up example sentences which are designed to further explain the meanings.
I even explain how to type those funny foreign accents...

Friday, November 02, 2007

Black Pride = White Guilt

Intrigued by an article in the paper, I recently read “White Guilt” by Shelby Steele, a respected black American intellectual and outspoken speaker on race relations. Its long and in-your-face sub-title is “How blacks and whites together destroyed the promise of the civil rights era”.
It certainly made for some interesting reading for a while, although his writing style is quite dense and self-consciously erudite. After a while, though, I realized that he was making his two or three points over and over again in (slightly) different words. And, from what he writes, he has obviously been plugging variations on those same points for thirty or forty years now.
Still, for what it is worth - and, don’t get me wrong, it IS worth hearing his unusual perspective - his argument proceeds as follows (apologies to Mr. Steele for any misinterpretations I make in this summary, but I think this is the gist of it):
Ever since the mid-sixties, with the de facto passing away of the white supremacist/segregation era of American society, black America has lost its way. Instead of building on what was then something much closer to a level playing field and asserting a black identity through hard work and fair competition, America’s blacks became bogged down in decades of radicalism, black nationalism and in-fighting.
This misguided effort and simmering rage has been predicated on something he calls “white guilt” - the idea that, in the aftermath of the civil rights struggle, white America has been so intent on proving to themselves and to the world that they are no longer racist that they would do anything, and agree to anything, so long as it showed them in a good light as regards race relations.
According to Mr. Steel, millions of dollars in aid and hours of public speaking have been wasted over the years in pursuance of this goal, and in salving the collective white conscience of centuries of slavery and discrimination.
Throughout it all, whites have completely missed the point that any help offered should be to individuals and to humans, and not to a race or an invisible representative of a race. Knee-jerk accommodations of black demands (in preference to being labelled racist) and affirmative action programs have actually hurt blacks in the long run, and made them lazy and over-reliant on that self-same white guilt.
Steele argues that a lot of pointless black anger and rage has been fuelled by white guilt over the years, as has a feeling of black inferiority (after all, he argues, why would affirmative action policies be needed if blacks were not in fact inferior?)
He even goes so far as to argue that this “vacuum of moral authority” (which is white guilt and the “dissociation” of liberals) has also led to a dilution of many of the good things about America as a whole, and that in some ways America as a nation was better in the days of segregation than since. Strong stuff indeed!
Furthermore, he suggests that the decline of America’s public education system from one of the world’s best to one of its worst (both debatable propositions at best, I would have thought) is all at the door of ... you guessed it, white guilt.
The book ends with a strong avowal of pride in his new-found black conservatism, and a blanket priase for President Bush’s policy on race (and on everything else for that matter). And by the time I got there, I wasn’t too surprised.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Biofuels - boon or bane?

The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food has concluded that the continued development of biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, is ill-conceived and that there should be a five-year moratorium.
I used to go out of my way to fill up at gas stations which used a higher percentage of ethanol, but I no longer do, and I have a suspicion that Mr. Ziegler may well be right on this.
Despite its climate change advantages (growing the plants absorbs a comparable amount of carbon dioxide as the burning of the resulting fuel emits), biofuels have several drawbacks:
  • any agricultural land devoted to biofuels production is agricultural land not available for food production which, in a world where food is in short supply, seems immoral;
  • in Brazil and Southeast Asia, pristine rainforest is being burned down for sugarcane, soy bean and oil palm plantations for biofuels, which has climate change as well as species habitat consequences;
  • growing corn for biofuels in the first world requires fertilizer, tractor use and transportation, to the extent that it has been estimated that it uses almost as much energy as the final fuel provides, as well as leaving behind eroded soils and polluted run-off;
  • meeting the increasing demand for biofuels would require an unconscionable proportion of the available arable land;
  • some estimates show that ethanol only achieves carbon savings of about 13% when the pollution from the production process and reduced mileage efficiency is taken into account (even if that estimate is disputed, more conservative estimates put the savings at no more than 50%);
  • evidence from the current sugar and palm oil industries indicates that biofuels production will push up food prices significantly, with worldwide consequences;
  • potential problems with genetically-modified plants and mono-culture agricultural practices loom on the horizon, with implications for bio-diversity and species habitat;
  • developing biofuels will take away the impetus needed for conservation measures and improvements in fuel efficiency (a 20% overall improvement in fuel efficiency standards - quite feasible using existing technology - would apparently save far more energy than Europe's biomass could produce).
As usual, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and no technology that doesn't have its concomitant shortcomings. How depressing...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Donuts, saxophones, nihilism and satire

I am enjoying Chris Turner's Planet Simpson at the moment - 450 large-format pages of encomium, homage and rant.
It helps that I'm a Simpsons fan, of course. If you've never seen, or (Heaven forbid!) don't like, The Simpsons - whose remit, according to creator Matt Groening, is to "entertain and subvert" - much of it may be lost on you, but as a critique of modern society and popular culture, it's still a good read.
Sub-titled "How a cartoon masterpiece documented an era and defined a generation", the book focusses in turn on each of the main characters and what they tell us about our world, as well as dissecting the creative process and pointing out some of the clever-clever homages to old movies, some of which flash past in a moment and are all too easily missed. Some of the illustrative quotes and scene descriptions are almost as hilarious as the originals, and tiny details are blown up and deconstructed level by level.
Turner's analysis of 1990's North America is pretty sharp and inciteful, and his prose is suitably ascerbic and irreverent. He touches on family mores, punk rock and grunge, rampant consumption, media control, corporatism, environmental activism, religion and race, libertarianism, irresponsible advertising, the Internet ("Interweb") revolution and much else besides.
Who would have expected section titles like "Existential Angst and Cultural Criticism" or "Ironic Culture and the Sleek Surface of Modernity" in a book about a Fox cartoon series? Who would have expected to find an analysis of Michel Foucoult's comments on Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon theory sandwiched in between a bunch of expletives and guffaws at the cartoon violence of the "Itchy and Scratchy Show".

Friday, October 19, 2007

Utopian Literature

Utopian Literature I have recently spent some time (while business is slack) creating and researching a website on Utopian Literature (
For some reason, ever since first discovering the genre as a teenager (introduced to 1984 and Brave New World at school) I have been fascinated by utopias and dystopias. But I realized recently, while looking something up, that there is not a whole lot of information on the subject available on the web.
So I thought I would cobble together some resources from various provenances, and list and briefly review the main examples. My contribution to posterity.

Rumblings from Québec

Despite an apparently weaker showing for Québec separatism recently than for many years, ominous reports keep trickling out of the province. In today's Globe and Mail alone, there are three such.
We learn than the Parti Québécois want to establish a "Québec citizenship" requiring an "appropriate knowledge" of French. While I find it difficult to believe that anyone would immigrate into Québec without a reasonable knowledge of French anyway, as much for their own comfort as anything else, Québec is not a legal nation and so cannot impose or enforce this kind of framework. Immigrants to Canada have to prove a working knowledge of French or English, and one has to assume that those with a working knowledge of French and not English are likely to end up in Québec, so what would be the point?
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe recenty waded into the ongoing debate (in Québec and elsewhere in Canada, but particularly in Québec) on what constitutes "reasonable accommodation" of minorities, by offering that "Quebeckers form a francophone nation in America, not a bilingual nation." Ho hum...
And then the Mouvement Montréal français (luckily not an organization with a great deal of clout) is insisting that Second Cup coffee shops call themselves "Les cafés Second Cup" within the boundaries of la belle province, on the grounds that French is being eroded by companies that have English-only names. This, clearly, is verging on the ridiculous, and conjures up images of Québec strip malls festooned with signs for "Le Burger King", "le Home Depot", "le Future Shop", etc. And what would be the appropriate translation for "Femme de Carrière", "Esprit" or "La vie en rose" (or for that matter "La Senza") in the rest of Canada? If French is so threatened by something of this nature, which I strongly doubt, then is it really worth protecting?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Al Gore wins Nobel Peace Prize

What's with that?

Apathy and cynicism in Ontario

I don't really have that much to comment on, but I thought I should mark the end of the Ontario provincial elections with a short snide comment, as is my wont.
After an election campaign completely lacking in any drama or anything as practical as serious debate, all of 52.8% of the eligible voters bothered to turn out (even less than usual, and showing a continued downward trend). Apathetic and cynical, us?
So, yes, Mr. McGuinty and his merry band of Liberals were handily re-elected, but in actual fact only 22% of the eligible voters actually voted for them. Some mandate!
It was generally acknowledged that John Tory lost the election rather than Dalton McGuinty winning it, and most of that effect was over something as stupid as a mistaken call for faith-based school funding. McGuinty just had enough sense and professionalism to stay above the mud-slinging and negativism which characterized almost all the other campaigns.
Tory didn't even win his own seat, so it's probably just as well the Conservatives didn't have to form a government. Anyway, I find it difficult to take a Tory called Tory seriously, don't you?
The referendum on a possible change to the voting system was also resoundingly defeated, with inertia and the status quo being the most likely cuplrits there. Interestingly, if such academic what-ifs kindle your interest, if the suggested MMP system were to have been used for this election, there would now be 10 Green MPs and 21 NDP MPs, as compared to the actual 0 and 10 respectively, both parties registering a significant increase in their share of the popular vote, at the expense of the two main parties.
Ah, well....

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The "$47,680 Now!" campaign

One of the dafter news reports in recent weeks (and there has been plenty of competition!), sees the Royal Canadian Mint suing the City of Toronto for $47,680 over the use of the cent in the City's "One Cent Now!" advertising campaign.
Toronto's campaign for one cent of the six cents collected in federal GST to be used for municipalities (one of the dafter campaigns in recent years, quite frankly, but that's another story, as they say) actually started last February, but apparently the Mint have just realized that they are contravening some obscure law and, according to them, the City of Toronto owes them:
  • $10,000 for the use of the words "one cent" in the ads;
  • $10,000 for the use of the words "one cent" in the phone number (416-ONE-CENT);
  • $27,680 for the image of the image of a one cent coin on posters and printed materials.
Now, how daft is that!
If I were of a suspicious nature, I would almost believe that that were under instructions from their political masters. But even so, who would choose to make themselves appear totally ridiculous for the sake of $47,680?

Just add glass façade for a world-class city

The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto main gallery and one of the country's most important galleries, has decided that it is good policy to close for a year. Completely. All service staff have been laid off until further notice (read: we are expecting overruns, and have no idea when we might be re-opening), and thousands of works of art are being crated up for storage (there is no temporary exhibition space).
Arguably it has been closing gradually for some time, and my last couple of visits have been disappointing. But this is the big one. They have wheeled in a famous name (architect Frank Gehry), thrown millions of dollars of tax-payers' money at it (total cost: quarter of a BILLION), and converted it into a long-term construction site and traffic hazard.
As far as I can see, this is all in the interests of the buzz-word (or, rather, buzz-phrase) "world-class city", something Toronto has been fixating over for some years now.
Certainly it does not seem to be anything to do with rational economics. If they really believe that a new fancy glass façade will miraculously cause Torontonians to drop everything at the weekend to pay increased entrance fees to visit the art gallery, then they are naive in the extreme. Ditto with attracting additional visitors from New York, Phoenix, Tokyo or Berlin.
The Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto's pre-eminent museum) has been going through the same process in recent years with the construction of the "Michael Lee-Chin Crystal". Wheel in a famous name (architect Daniel Libeskind), throw millions of dollars of tax-payers' money at it (total cost: MORE than quarter of a billion) , close down major segments of the museum over a period of years so that visits become disappointing trawls around construction tape, et voilá: world-class city! Or not.
Meanwhile, the city council is broke and services are closing down left, right and centre.
Maybe we should concentrate on getting things working for the residents first, and then we can use any left-over money for coddling visitors with glass baubles. Too radical?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Daddy, why is the sea salty?

Finally, I have a reasonably convincing answer to something that has bugged me for years (and had it printed at that!):
THE QUESTION: Landlubber Luke Mastin of Toronto wanted to know why the seas and oceans are salty (and very salty at that) but other large bodies of water, including the Great Lakes, are not.
THE ANSWER: Lakes are fed by rivers, which in turn are fed by rainwater. As rainwater passes through soil and around rocks, it dissolves some minerals, including salt, but contains these minerals in very low concentrations. However, while lakes are fed by rivers, they are also drained by them.
"The Great Lakes are not (noticeably) salty because water flows into them as well as out of them, carrying away the low concentrations of minerals in the water," writes Michael Moore of Toronto.
Eventually, this water, with its small load of dissolved minerals or salts, reaches the sea. "The oceans are therefore salty because water flows into them but leaves only by evaporation, leaving the minerals behind to get ever more concentrated," writes Mr. Moore.
Adds John Yandon of Ottawa: "If a lake has no outflow, it will become as salty, or more so, than the oceans. Some notable examples of salty lakes are the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the Salton Sea in California and the Dead Sea in Jordan."
And who says it doesn't pay to write into the papers?

The basket case that is Burma

If you were wondering what kind of conditions had reduced the people of Myanmar (also known as Burma...) to the kind of desperation that triggered the recent protests, the BBC recently did a good profile, which included the following snippets:
  • The Burmese military, which took over in the coup of 1962, have a complete stranglehold over almost all aspects of the economy, inlcuding internal transport, imports and exports, the rice trade and the civil service.
  • More than half of the country's annual budget goes on the armed forces.
  • The military live in a privileged, parallel world, competely removed from the squalor of the rest of the population, and many of the upper echelons of the armed forces are immensely rich.
  • Average income is around $300 a year, one of the lowest in the world (just for comparison, Canada and Western Europe's is around $40,000).
  • Health spending is around 2.8% (compared to a world average of 10.2%).
  • The black market rate for the local currency, the kyat, is 200 times the official rate.
  • The country is still subject to strict economic sanctions by the US and the European Union.
  • This August 15th, gas prices rose by 500% overnight and diesel prices over 100%, completely without warning, which more or less paralyzed the country and which was one of the main impetuses for the current protests.
Now, if they only had some oil, I'm sure the Americans would have been much more sympathetic to their plight...

Monday, October 01, 2007

"Please hang up now"

I thought I would, unusally, copy in its entirety a hilarious essay by Michael Fox of Vancouver about voice-activated phones which appeared in today's Globe and Mail. He says it so much better than I could, but I'm with him all the way.
Hello. Welcome to CALUS! Your call may be recorded for training or quality-assurance purposes. Your call is important and you have been placed in priority sequence. Please remain on the line and your call will be answered faster than by redialing.
Do not hang up, especially if you are calling from a cellular phone and you are on a by-the-minute plan.
While you are waiting for a representative from our client care team, you may choose one of these tunes: Press 11 for Bach's Meine Seltzer, meine Kopfschmerzen; press 12 for the a cappella interpretation of Chariots of Fire by the Bulgarian Women's Choir; or press 14 for Diana Krall's haunting rendition of Back in the USSR.
Hi! My name is Amy and I'd like to help you find the right person to speak with. Please tell me why you're calling at such an ungodly hour. You may say, "My phone line is down," or, "I'm having trouble breathing," or, "I locked myself out of my apartment." So tell me what it is you want.
Did you say, "My left arm is caught in the washing machine?"
Sorry, was that "yes" or "jay-sus!"
We seem to be having some difficulty understanding one another. Why don't you try talking when you've finished eating?
Sorry, I didn't get that.
If you know your party's three-digit extension, please enter it now. For a directory of our 5,629 employees, press 2 for first name first, last name last, press 3 for last name first, first name last, or press the star key now to enter the person's name using your telephone keypad.
That was an invalid number. Thank you. Goodbye!
Hello, welcome to CALUS! We've recently made changes to our menu to serve you better. Please listen carefully to the following three choices.
That is an invalid selection. We have recently made improvements to ... listen carefully to the following ... return to the previous menu by pressing the ... thank you and have a great day.
We're sorry, that number is ... no one can take your call at this time ... your call will be answered faster than by redialing. Okay, now you have been placed at the bottom of our priority sequence. Do not attempt to circumvent our telephone tree by dialling 0. That's why we recently made changes to our menu, to stop people like you from jumping the queue.
Let's start again. We've recently made changes...
Please hang up and try your call again.
Please hang up and try your call - you tried 0, didn't you. Do you think we'd go to all the trouble of constructing a direct-dial telephone menu if anyone could simply press 0 and get an operator? There are no operators. Only me. And I can go on for ever and ever, if you want to play that game. Now, please listen carefully ...
Welcome to ... we've recently made ... your call will be...
Press 0 one more time and you are really going to be sorry. If you require help at any time or you don't know which department to call, just say "agent" and our advanced voice recognition ...
Please hang up and try your call again.
Hi. My name is Mary-Lou, and I'm here to help you find the answers you need! You can say things like, "My cat threw up on the keyboard," or, "I'm five years old, " or, "Why is my phone bill $699?" or, "My goodness, there's a lot of blood, I think I need an ambulance," and I'll get you to the right department. All right then, let's get started. So, how can I help you today?
Sorry, I didn't get that. Speak slowly and clearly in unaccented English.
Are you saying that was not the right department? Do you think you know better than we do which department handles which complaints?
I'm sorry, but that is an anatomical impossibility. We seem to be having difficulty
understanding one another. Did you say you want a 10,000-volt surge down your land line?
Let's start over! If you require technical assistance with your phone line, dial-up or high-speed Internet, or home, office or mobile phone, if you have billing enquiries or if there's anything else you'd like to talk about, say "yes" now. For all other enquiries say "other."
Please say "yes" or "other" now.
We seem to be having difficulty understanding each other. Please stay on the line while I connect you with the next available agent.
Howdy, y'all, this is Chuck. I am pleased to be of help. You are very perceptive, sir. I am a real person. Actually, sir, you are quite right, my name is not Chuck. It is 3 in the morning here. I am having tea. Bangalore. Please be advised we are ADSL only, sir, not cable. OS X? Only PC, sir, only Windows 95. No Mac support, sir. Can you call back, sir, during business hours, 9 to 5, please. Our time. That would be 2 a.m. your time.
Or say "other."
All CALUS operators are busy. Have a nice day. Please leave a call-back number where you can be reached. Currently we are serving customers from January 2005. If you still wish to leave a message, please be aware there is a 10-second limit to all messages, starting now.
Your 10 seconds are up.
Please do not hang up and try your call again. Please hang up now.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Thank God for...nothing!

The recent news story about a woman in the US who was rescued alive after spending eight days suspended by a seat-belt inside a crashed SUV, tracked down by the dying peeps from her cellphone, was one of those heart-warming stories the media like to use as evidence that they don't just report the bad news.
But what really snagged my attention was her husband's reaction: "I cannot believe that God got her through eight days for her to die in hospital".
So it was through God's will that she survived? Whose will was it that she crashed in the first place, then? And then kept her hidden for eight traumatic days?
I'm tempted to say that "only in America" does this kind of selective attribution nonsense occur. But then I remembered another recent incident where a Canadian woman survived a fiery Thai plane crash, and the woman's sister observed "God was definitely watching out for her".
Too bad he wasn't watching out for her before she got on the plane, and that he wasn't watching out for the 88 passengers who died in that crash.

Dying for a token

The dramatic events unfolding in distant and all-but-unknown Myanmar (often still referred to as "also know as Burma" as if that clarifies anything) are really quite bewildering.
Few places remain quite as foreign and mysterious in this ever-shrinking world as Myanmar, and one thing the protests and demonstrations of recent days have achieved is to bring to the world's attention one of the most brutal and repressive military regimes still in existence.
One has to assume that this was the main goal of the protests, and commend and respect the Buddhist monks for their courage and determination, especially given their certain knowledge of the kind of reprisals and retribution they would face. So far, the death toll is pegged at anywhere between 10 (government figure) and 200 (dissident groups' figure). Injuries are anyone's guess, and the the country's monasteries are now under a state of government/army seige.
But...the plight of Myanmar (also known as Burma) is now front page news the world over.
Just as bewildering, though, is the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi (also known as "The Lady"), in whose name most of these protests are ocurring.
Even less seems to be know about her than about the country in general. The only thing the Burmese seem to need to know is that she is the daughter of Myanmar's assassinated independence hero Aung San. It was mainly for this, and almost against her own will, that she has been thrust to the forefront of Myanmar's democracy struggle, and has spent 11 of the last 18 years under house arrest, almost totally cut off from the changing world around her.
She seems to bear her role with surprising equanimity but, if democracy were to be granted to Myanmar overnight, it is far from clear what her role might then be, and what, if any, her policies might be on anything. So really she has been reduced to the status of a figurehead, an icon, a token.
And for this token, pacifist monks are dying by the score.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More junk mail, please

If you thought you already received a lot of junk mail, it looks like things are about to get even worse.
Canada Post are directing their letter carriers not to divert mail which they know to be incorrectly addressed, something the letter carriers have apparently been doing on a voluntary basis up until now. So, as well as the unaddressed junk mail, which usually gets delivered in spite of the prominent "No Flyers Please" notice on our mailbox, and correctly addressed junk mail (such as the monthly Sears catalogues we have been receiving ever since we were foolish enough to buy something from a Sears wedding list some years ago, and which they say they are not able to stop despite frequent requests), we will also be receiving someone else's junk mail.
And this apparently because Canada Post does not want to imperil their lucrative half-billion dollars of mass mailout contracts.
Letter carriers will not be allowed to divert mail that has the wrong name on it, "even if a customer has on 'many occasions' handed back mail, called a supervisor or made a formal inquiry through the corporation's customer-relationship management process", and even in the case of pornographic advertising.
How dumb is that? Public image shot to pieces in one fell swoop. I can see this issue as having the capacity to generate a groundswell of public opinion and all manner of protests and boycotts.
Maybe it might bring the whole junk mail issue to a head, though, which may be no bad thing.

Monday, September 17, 2007

MPPs to be elected by MMP?

At the upcoming Ontario provincial election on October 10th, we also get to participate in the first provincial referendum since 1924, this one not on the prohibition of alcohol (as in 1924) but on the introduction of proportional representation in Ontario elections.
So, an electorate which is hard pressed to decide who should govern the province, also has to decide on the relative merits of the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and the proposed mixed member proportional (MMP) system.
My feeling is that a huge majority of people will have no clue what it is they are being asked to decide. Elections Canada apparently has television ads, an ad on YouTube and a website devoted to the issue, but the animated ad on YouTube, starring Billy Ballot and Nina News, produced by the Citizen's Assembly which proposed it, is probably the best explanation of how the proposed MMP system would work.
However, I have to wonder how many will either watch or understand it. And having watched and understood it, how many will be able to make a confident and informed decision between two different systems, each of which has something to recommend itself?
I think most people understand the current system, even if many do not consciously think about its implications when casting a vote.
The proposed MMP system, very briefly, would work as follows:
  • The election ballot would be in two parts: one to vote for a "local member" for that constituency, and one to vote for a political party (which may or may not be different from the local member's party).
  • The number of members in the legislature would be increased from the current 103 to 129.
  • 70% of these seats (90 seats in total) would go to local members elected under what is basically the same as the current FPTP system (the constituencies would be redrawn to reduce their number from 103 to 90).
  • The remaining 30% (39 seats) would go to "list members", who would not be responsible for a particular constituency area, but who would represent the values of their political parties. These members would be elected based on the overall popular vote each party achieves in the election. For example, if Party A had an overall popular vote of 35%, they would be entitled to 35% of 129 seats, or 45 seats. If they only won 40 of the 90 constituencies, then the top 5 members from that party's list would be included as list members, to top them up to 45.
Still with me?
In the last provincial election, the Liberals ended up with 70% of the seats with only 46.5% of the popular vote, the Conservatives earned 23% of the seats with 34.7% of the votes, the NDP 7% of the seats with 14.7% of the votes, and the Greens no seats at all despite accumulating 2.8% of the popular vote.
So, under the MMP system (which is being used with varying levels of success in Germany, New Zealand and Mexico), there is much more chance for smaller parties such as the Green Party to achieve representation in the legislature though their share of the popular vote, and the leading parties are not excessively represented. The cause of democracy does appear to be served by it.
However, in practice it would be almost impossible for any one party to achieve a working majority, leading to the kind of bargaining, horse-trading and legislative paralysis inevitably associated with minority governments. And the whole idea of a member of parliament who does not represent a constituency of voters (and does not actually have to "win" his or her election) sits slightly awkwardly with me, as does the idea that political party leaders could designate "yes-men" as party list members. Is this democracy?
The referendum requires a 60% overall adoption of the proposed new system (as well as at least 50% in each of 64 constituencies) to pass as law. Recent proportional representation referendums in PEI and BC have both failed, and I can't really see this one flying either.
I think that on the whole I am in favour of the change - although I am not 100% convinced, I am more than 60% convinced.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Issues with facial coverings

I'm still not entirely sure why the federal Conservatives (and, more recently, also the Liberals) are making such a big issue out of people voting while wearing "facial coverings", even to the extent that the Prime Minister made a specific and rather embarrassing reference to it in front of the Australian parliament during an official visit.
Certainly, the Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Mayrand, seems to be intent on just carrying out the law as it was passed after full debate earlier this year. It seems a little strange that every political party and his dog is suddenly turning the vitriol on him now.
If they now believe that they messed up the original law, then put a revised law before parliament for due consideration. Don't just ask the Chief Electoral Officer to break it.
This is an issue which surfaces from time to time, most recently in the last Quebec elections, but frankly I'm not convinced that it is something on which the general populace has particularly strong views.
It seems to me that if people can vote by mail from abroad, or by proxy, in neither of which cases are identities physically checked, then it is a bit pointless getting upset about people wearing facial coverings, whether it be a niqab or a Batman mask.
If the tiny number of traditional Muslim women involved have not already been well and truly put off the voting process, then can we not just do what India and other countries has been doing for years and make sure there are women elections officer available to check identities (from my experience, most of the officers helping at the polling booths are women anyway)?
Do we really have to make such a song and dance about it?

Cow patties and pig farts

As a vegetarian of some 25 or more years, I was intrigued by a report in the well-respected medical journal The Lancet that a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved by a reduced reliance on meat in the developed world.
Apparently, as 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture (comparable to the contribution of industry and more than that of transportation), and as livestock production accounts for 80% of those agricultural emissions (mainly in the form of methane), then a proposed 10% overall cut in global meat consumption by 2050 would slow down greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, as well as having all sorts of other health benefits like reduced heart disease, obesity and cancer.
In order to achieve that innocent-sounding 10% cut, though, the report proposes that those in rich countries would need to halve their meat intake from the current 200-250 grams per person per day, while those in developing countries would increase theirs from current levels of 20-25 grams per person per day.
Well, I'm doing my bit - how about you?

Monday, September 10, 2007

The foot-shooting contest

The candidates for Ontario's upcoming October election are falling over themselves to shoot themselves in the foot.
Hot on the heels (so to speak) of John Tory's potentially disastrous championing of state funding for faith-based schools (including a hastily withdrawn comment about the freedom to teach creationist theories), Dalton McGuinty comes up with his own throw-away idea: a day off in February to solve all our problems.
So desperate is he to distance himself from the one thing which it is widely thought the people of Ontario will never forgive him, namely breaking his campaign promise not to raise taxes, that he has sunk to such thinly-veiled bribes: a new public holiday.
Presumably thinking "how can people possibly object to a day off", his campaign team may have lost touch with reality here. Even the least educated among us can see that this is an unabashed election sweetener with no economic or even social value attached. In fact, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimate that it may have an economic cost of up to $2 billion in lost earnings for self-employed individuals, which seems somewhat exaggerated to me but I take the point that there is some economic cost involved.
Keep it simple, Mr. McGuinty, otherwise we may be saddled with a Tory government again. If you felt you had to increase taxes to straighten out the books once the extent of the previous Conservative regime's mismanagement was revealed, then just say so and move on. Don't try and fool us with useless sops.
Not that I'm particularly trying to protect the guy. Is it possible that, if the others persist in shooting themselves in various parts of their anatomy, the NDP may yet rise from the dead after all these years. It's a bit of a sorry state of affairs, though, where those who say the least stand to gain the most.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

My home is my castle, but my garden...?

I don't seem to have found much to rant and gripe about just recently. Politicians at all levels in Canada seem to be in something of a holding pattern in anticipation of elections (even if a federal election has not actually been called, you can feel it in the air). The continuing hot weather is fooling us into thinking that the newsless dog-days of summer are still here.
But one article caught my eye. Our normally sensitive and relatively sensible City Council apparently descended on a suburban Toronto garden sometime last month and razed it to the ground because a neighbour had complained that it was a blight on the neigbourhood. The garden was described as a tiny pesticide-free jungle of native prairie grasses, brown-eyed susans and milkweed, which took the owner a decade to plant and cultivate.
I had thought that we were long past the stage where we could be compelled to have identical gardens with green lawns and neat little beds of flowers, especially in these days of pesticide control and water conservation.
We've been through all this before. A 1996 Ontario case ruled that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms gave people the right to garden as they saw fit. A 2002 case went all the way to the Ontario Supreme Court and upheld the same ruling.
So where did this come from? Ms. Dale is seeking $10,000 in compensation for the destroyed plants. But I am hoping that someone will back her in a fight to establish the bigger issues.
All over again.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Anniversary of a fairy tale

I thought the media attention given to the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana was mercifully understated, at least here in Canada. I was expecting a half-hearted renewal of the embarrassing scenes and eulogies which greeted her death. There may have been more of an outpouring on the television (I rarely watch it, so I really wouldn't know) and the more populist newspapers (likewise), but what I saw seemed reasonably sober and measured.
I am no monarchist, and I am certainly no celebrity-watcher, but I have always been bemused by the mass hysteria that Diana seemed to generate. I vaguely remember being drunk in the Virgin and Castle pub in Kenilworth while the "fairy-tale marriage" was going on, and thinking that anyone willing to marry into the publicity glare of the British royal family was either a grasping gold-digger, a manic self-publicist or quite as "thick as a plank" as Diana claimed herself to be, and good luck to them.
When she came to her sticky end after several years of soap opera antics, we were living in Colombia, but even there the television carried the funeral live, accompanied by endless regurgitations of scenes from her life (Diana visiting hospitals, Diana being a mother, etc, etc) and soft-focus pictures of her pallid and rather cloying mugshot.
I have always regarded her as being pretty but not particularly striking, zealous enough at her job (which after all should be regarded as including visits to hospitals and the patronage of charities) but not a saint, and just as flawed as both a human being and a mother as most other human beings and mothers. I was never quite sure where all the adulation came from.
I'm not sure of the details of the death, but it seems to me that you could just as easily argue that she left a couple of kids motherless while out partying, as that the life and career of a great woman was cruelly cut short. There's the real fairy tale in my opinion.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Agents provocateurs du Québec

Predictably enough, protestors were out in force at the Canada-US-Mexico summit at Montebello, Québec, voicing their opinions and those of many other Canadians. Which is all as it should be.
However, what is not as it should be is the allegation, and it looks a very convincing-looking allegation at that, that some of the demonstrators may have been planted by the Québec police in an attempt to provoke violence and generally give the protest a bad rap.
The Sûreté de Québec has a reputation for heavy-handedness and underhand operations over the years, which makes the allegation all the more convincing, although it is difficult to understand what their hidden agenda might be (unless it was dictated to them from above...)
The evidence in favour of the allegation includes:
  • the three men appeared not to be known by any of the other demonstrators;
  • one was clearly carrying a rock in an area of specifically peaceful demonstrators;
  • all three were wearing exactly the same type and brand of boots as the regulation-issue police boots;
  • all were masked, albeit unconvincingly, and fought strongly when attempts to remove the masks were made;
  • at one point, one of their number was seen to be calmly discussing something with police officers (as opposed to arguing or screaming abuse);
  • none of them ranted and raved or even argued when "arrested" - they were suspiciously silent;
  • when "arrested", they calmly disappeared through the police ranks and were not seen again;
  • no names of the arrested men have been reported, and police are refusing to comment on the matter.
Later, under media pressure, the police admitted to planting the agents, so everything is OK again.
Errr, now hold on...

Useless Information

I have been gradually working through The Encyclopedia of Useless Information, which I received for my birthday and which makes good bathroom reading.
I am only up to the B's so far, but here is the kind of uselss thing I have been finding out from the A's:
  • Age of Consent: The lowest age of consent ever was in England in 1576 when 10-year-olds were allowed to marry (although, even today, consenting 12-year-olds in Mexico are legally allowed sexual activity).
  • Alaska: Under the Alaskan penal code, "wanton waste of a moose" is a Class A misdemeanour, comparable to drunk driving.
  • Queen Alexandra: Edward VII's wife was left with a limp after an illness in 1867. Ladies at court copied the limp to be fashionable.
  • Alphabet: The dot above the letter "i" is called a tittle.
  • America: Recent evidence suggests that America is less likely to have been named after Amerigo Vespucci (which always seems suspect to me), and more likely to have been named after Richard Amerike, a Bristol merchant and one of the major sponsors of John Cabot's voyages to North Amercia, long before Vespucci or Colombus. Amerike's family banner also shows a flag in red, white and blue, depicting stripes and stars.
  • St Apollonia: The patron saint of dentists and toothache sufferers had her teeth knocked out by the Romans in in AD249. During Henry VI's reign in the 15th century, several tons of her alleged teeth, which were peddled as cures for toothache, were collected in a bid to stop the scam.
  • Apple: There are more than 7,000 varieties of apples in the world.
  • Armadillo: The nine-banded armadillo is the only animal other than the human that can suffer from leprosy.
  • Atlantic: In 1995, two Englishmen became the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean from east to west on a pedalo.
  • Australia: The top 14 deadliest snakes on earth are found in Australia.
They are supposedly collected from disparate and obscure but reliable sources.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Issues with religious education

The issue of Catholic (and other religious) schools in Ontario and Canada surfaces from time to time, and could conceivably become an issue in the next Ontario provincial election, which is looming upon us in October 2007, as the Conservative candidate John Tory has come out clearly in favour of them.
As a recent article points out, the only reason we have Catholic schools now is due to a rather iffy political deal struck back in the days of the Confederacy debate. Not much on which to base a whole educational philosophy, you might reasonably think.
Over the years, Ontario and Canada has been working on rectifying many of the other historical inequalities, inconsistencies and irrelevancies we have been saddled with. Maybe the time has come to do away completely with such anachronisms, and get religion out of state-funded education once and for all.
Certainly we should not go down the route of extending state-funding of religious education as Mr. Tory proposes (apparently, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Copts, and Protestants have all indicated their intention of applying for the funding that Mr. Tory has promised if elected).
I have no objection to any of these sects establishing their own schools, providing they are private. I do object to my tax dollars funding them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Same-sex marriage vs Polygamy

A thought-provoking (but fatally flawed) article about polygamy in the Globe recently caught my eye.
The author, who, one eventually realizes as the article progresses, clearly comes from the religious side of the tracks, posits the reasonable question that, if homosexual marriage has become socially acceptable in Canada and elsewhere, then why hasn't polygamy.
The article tries to be controversial by arguing that if we have left behind the concept of marriage as being the union of one man and one woman for purposes of the propogation of the race, then what is to stop us from legalizing marriages involving three or more persons (presumably of various genders).
However, rather than completing the argument (which actually seems a reasonable one to me, so long as the same checks remain in force to protect against spousal abuse, child abuse, incest, etc), the author then steps back and turns the whole argument on its head by insisting that actually both same-sex marriage and polygamy are just plain wrong because the whole point of marriage is procreation. She tries to make this appear as a self-evident truth despite offering no evidence to support it.
But, either way, she misses (or chooses to ignore) several points which give the lie to this line of thinking. Should all childless marriages therefore be summarily annulled? What about adopting children? Couples who are not married having children? Also, opening the door to polygamy does not necessarily lead to legalizing incest, bestiality and any number of other taboos - these are all individual and separate decisions.
I don't think an article this poorly argued is a very good advertisement for the book the author is trying to peddle, and from which the argument is taken.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Back to the same old news

Just back from a two week holiday in Peru (Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, etc), during which I managed to completely avoid world news, a quick scan of the newspapers reveals that very little seems to have change, and that I haven't missed any world-shaking events. Business very much as usual.
What do we have?
More investigations into the Maher Arar case are revealing exactly what everyone already knew.
Alberta won't budge on carbon trading and Ontario won't budge on California-style car emission standards (or at least not until Alberta budges first).
Putin's Russia continues to slide into autocracy, imperialism and Cold War machinations with their claiming of the North Pole, bombing of Georgia, fly-overs at the US base in Guam, and plans to operate their fleet out of Syria.
The UK gets yet another outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease, blaming this one on the recent floods.
Toronto City Council is still broke and looking at new taxes or service cuts. No change there.
The US is still in Iraq. Canada is still in Afghanistan. No progress on either front.
Ah, how I have missed it all!
(zzz, zzzz, zzz)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Music while you work

One small item in today's paper caught my eye and raised my eyebows a little.
The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) is charging hair salons a minimum of $95 a year for the privilege of playing music in their salons. Apparently they already had a blitz last year on dentists, and this year they are turning their attention to hair salons.
Most hair salons (and presumably most dentists) have no idea they should be paying this "licence fee", and are justifiably upset.
And why would they know about it? It is one of the more ridiculous examples of the music industry's desparate attempts to claw back royalties.
Even more ridiculous is the rule that salons would also be charged for playing a radio if they play it over a sound system, but not if they play it on a standard radio.
Yes, I am aware of the arguments surrounding the whole royalties/downloading/performance issue. But if the hairdresser has paid good money for a CD, isn't that the end of the story? They are not charging their customers for the music they play, or in any way profiting from it.
Arguably the hairdresser is just playing it for his/her own enjoyment, and the presence of a customer is neither here nor there.
And where does this all end? How is this different from when I play a CD in my own home for a group of friends?
Now, if they were to charge supermarkets for playing those appalling "easy listening" radio stations, I would be much more in favour.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Torture-porn goes mainstream

Yet another film has been added to the growing catalogue of the so-called "torture-porn" genre. After the hugely popular "Saw" and "Hostel" movies comes "Captivity", probably no better and no worse than the others, but further evidence that the movie-going public are becoming more and more accepting of this kind of grossness.
In fact, "accepting" is something of an under-statement: there is clearly a burgeoning demand out there. I have always assumed that the audiences for such films mainly comprise older teens and immature twenty-somethings learning how to push their limits, but I am quite prepared to be wrong about that. I can't help but worry about the collective psyche of our young people (here I am sounding like a village elder), and I have disturbing visions of young kids in disadvantaged households illicitly obtaining the DVDs.
The slasher pics of the eighties and the scarey (as they were then considered) paranormal films of the seventies were also hugely popular, and some of the earliest movies ever made were horror films (I admit to a rather embarrassed enjoyment of old European silent films like "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"). So there is clearly something in us which delights in such perversity.
But these recent movies take violence and sadism to a much more disturbing extreme. Unlike slasher movies, the graphically-portrayed suffering, pain and humilation of the victim is the point of these new offerings, and actual death may be an irrelevant after-thought.
I have never actually seen any of these films - I am pretty sure I wouldn't be able to cope with them, nor would I find in them any kind of intellectual stimulus, entertainment or enjoyment, perverse or otherwise - but I do worry about a society where such fare can become mainstream.

A "hollowed out" Canada

As yet another major Canadian company (Alcan) gets sold off to an overseas investor, and commentators continue to discuss the "hollowing out" of corporate Canada, I have to admit that I just have an insufficient grasp of macro-economics to have any opinion on it.
In the just the last couple of years, foreign companies have taken over several big names in the Canadian industrial and service sectors:

  • Alcan (aluminum)
  • Inco (mining)
  • Falconbridge (mining)
  • LionOre (mining)
  • Dofasco (steel)
  • Algona (steel)
  • Ipsco (steel)
  • ATI (computer chips)
  • Four Seasons Hotels (hotels)
  • Hudson Bay Company (retailer)
Government policy has always been not to block take-overs, but supposedly to ensure that there are promises of job security, and apparently there are arguments that such take-overs can actually be good for a country (although I have never seen these arguments analysed).

Interestingly, the Investment Industry Association of Canada claimed recently that Canada is doing at least as much of the global hollowing out as it is receiving. According to them, Canadian companies bought 500 foreign companies worth $111-billion last year, while foreigners bought only 175 Canadian firms worth $84-billion, and that the number of Canadian head offices increased 4% between 1999 and 2005.
This was obviously before the recent Alcan deal, which on its own is worth $38-billion and single-handedly turns this argument on its head. But it gives me cause to wonder why a major Canadian investment organization would condone such events if they were not in the interests of the Canadian economy. Is this a case of globalization for its own sake?
My gut reaction is that it can't be a good thing for Canada. I suppose I don't really care whether the profits (or losses for that matter) go to rich shareholders overseas rather than rich shareholders in Canada. But I just have this woolly, non-economic and unsupported feeling that in the long run Canada would be better off retaining control of its assets.
"Hollowing out" is probably as good a label for it as any.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sovereignty in the High Arctic

Apparently our government is planning to spend $7.4 billion on half-a-dozen ice breakers to patrol our northern waters and particularly the NorthWest Passage which, in a warming world, is starting to become a more viable trade route.
I'm not dismissing out of hand the whole idea of protecting our sovereignty of the area (it is probably safer from abuse in Canadian hands than in the hands of many other countries I could mention), but several things occurred to me during the reading of the article (in no particular order):
  • How can anything cost $7.4 BILLION? I know they are big, rough, tough ships, but they are just ships. Surely billions are for country GDPs, Pentagon budgets and the like.
  • Oh, and by the way, do we actually have $7.4 billion?
  • It seems pretty ridiculous to me to apply the UN rule of sovereignty extending 12 nautical miles (22km) from a nation's coast to what is clearly the interior of a country, thousands of miles from any other country. The legality of territorial waters is a hugely complicated field with considerations of contiguous zones, continental shelves, economic zones, special cases, etc, etc, but is it really relevant here?
  • The 'use it or lose it' principle seems somehow quaintly anachronistic in a modern litigious world. Does Mali use the miles of desert in the interior of its country or Denmark use the interior of Greenland? It seems duplicitous then to insist that we use some of the more-out-of-the way bits of Canada in order to lay claim to them.
  • Having a few ships patrolling the High Arctic waters does not seem to me to offer much assurance anyway. What do they propose to do if an American nuclear sub or a Russian fishing boat decides to pass through the area regardless? Shoot at it? Give it a good telling off?
  • From what I can gather, the main thing driving all this is actually the ownership of rights to possible oil and mineral exploitation, rather than trade and tourism routes.
  • That nice Mr. Putin has apparently declared the North Pole Russian territory due to a new reading of the continental shelf rules. Do these people sit up in bed thinking up new ways of antagonising the rest of the world and creating new arguments where none existed before?
  • Wouldn't it be much more sensible (and much cheaper) to just negotiate a binding international treaty, or am I just being naive?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Harry Potterism gone crazy

Is it just me, or is anyone else bemused by the whole Harry Potter phenomenon?
I like the movies well enough for a bit of light entertainment in the company of my 12 year old daughter. I did try reading the books, but I'm afraid I only managed part of Book 1 before concluding that it was overrated: not exactly drivel, just nothing special.
I have tried to take an interest in some of the more critically acclaimed books among my daughter's favourites (such as "Eragon", "The Golden Compass", etc) and I usually come to similar conclusions. Maybe I should give it another go.
I take the point that the series has been single-handedly responsible for a significant upsurge in juvenile reading habits. But I find it a little difficult to take seriously as quality adult fare.
Call me a literary snob, but the recent establishment of Harry Potter courses at some American universities is just plain silly.
Likewise, the commercial and media frenzy which accompanies each new book and film release. A chain of Canadian convenience stores has recently been denied permission to sell the final book, due out on July 21 2007, after they accidentally released some copies of the last book early, causing a "security breach" and a hurried restraining order slapped on those who had inadvertently received an advance copy. A spokesperson for Rainforest Books, the Canadian distributor of the books, was quoted as saying that "Security is our absolute, paramount concern".
What's wrong with this picture? This is a kids book, for God's sake! And what's with this 12.01am release time anyway? Wouldn't 12.01pm be a little more practical for bookstores (and for our little 12 year old darlings, for that matter)?
I don't have any references for it, but I clearly remember JK Rowling, after the success of the early Potter books, claiming that she would never sell out her professional integrity to commercial interests. Ms. Rowling (I can't call her "JK") is now reportedly a billionaire and richer than Queen Elizabeth, and she is at the helm of a worldwide multi-media industry. Oh, how things change!

(Barely) Live Earth

Personally, I thought the Live Earth concerts were a bit of a damp squib.
Not that I expected much in terms of the music. The line-ups were uninspired, and from what I saw only the Foo Fighters, Bloc Party and the Red Hot Chili Peppers put much energy into their shows, and Melissa Etheridge gets a mention for political commitment. Some of the big-selling CD stars were clearly not that used to live performances, and several were desperately missing their pitch correctors.
But as a P.R. exercise for the anti-global warming movement, I thought it something of a wasted opportunity, despite the massive worldwide hoo-hah about it.
The main environmental message I gleaned (from the Canadian coverage at any rate) was that we need to use compact fluorescent light bulbs and recycle our plastic bags. I'm not really sure where the constant mention of plastic bags came from - not really a global warming issue, commendable though it may be - but a distinct impression was given (presumably unintentionally) that CFLs are the answer to all our problems. Other issues were touched on in passing, but with nothing like the insistence or regularity as CFLs. "So what can we do about it?" "Well, we can all start by changing some of our light bulbs." Yes, and then? Oh, yes, we can recycle our plastic bags.
Much criticism has predictably also been levelled at the carbon footprint of the concerts. Despite the use of green energy, energy efficient lights (of course!) and carbon travel offsets, the Live Earth concerts apparently saved only around 20-25% in carbon emissions compared to the profligacies of regular concerts.
Ah well, I suppose I shouldn't grumble. Such an event would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Airline food for thought

There was a thought-provoking article in last weekend's Observer about just how guilty we should feel about our air travel in these days of global warming hysteria.
While claims from the pilots' union Balpa that planes are greener than trains and Airbus' promise "to save the world, one A380 at a time" should be treated with the scepticiem they deserve, it's by no means clear just how damaging air travel actually is. As with all global warming discussions, it very much depends on the assumptions you make and the position you start from.
For one thing, according to the influential Stern Report, air travel only accounts for around 1.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 24% from power generation, 18% from deforestation and 12% from shipping, rail and road transportation).
The article further argues that the positive benefits of eco-tourism to employment and economies in third world countries (over and above the other negatives which eco-tourism admittedly brings), more than justifies the additional carbon footprint. This is comparing apples with oranges, but food for thought nevertheless.
What the article does best, though, is to show how statistics can be bent to prove opposite hypotheses, how drastically different assumptions can skew the resulting conclusions, and how dangerous quoting out of context can be.
The article concludes, sensibly enough, that in the absence of other categorical imperatives, we should:
"choose airlines with greener, newer fleets, and thus encourage plane makers to prioritise environmental performance; to travel to destinations that help local communities rather than destroy them; to take the train where possible; to reduce carbon emissions at home; and, above all, lobby politicians to tackle deforestation and to switch to green forms of energy."

Some things stay the same

While visiting the UK just recently, I was reminded of just how good a newspaper The Guardian is, both in terms of its general standard of journalism and in the breadth of its local and worldwide coverage of events, and also its balance of objectivity and progressiveness. There is really nothing to touch it here in Canada, where the Globe and Mail is the best we can offer.
I was also struck by how down-market The Times, and particularly The Sunday Times, has become. Once almost as stuffy and conservative as The Daily Telegraph, it was at least heavy-weight and endowed with a certain gravitas. Nowadays, though, it sports a new tabloid format, and the journalism appears distinctly dumbed-down.
Plus ça change...

I.E.D.s - Q.E.D.

Hot on the heels of M.A.D. and W.M.D. comes I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device) into the acronymic lexicon of the modern world.
I.E.D.s - roadside bombs, land-mines and suicide attacks - are the current tactic of choice among the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, and are proving particularly effective in recent months against Canadian soldiers (I won't say peace-keepers, I don't think that describes their role very accurately any more).
According to the Globe and Mail, Canada has about 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan (fourth behind the US's 17,000, the UK's 6,700 and Germany's 3,000). But, upto today, they rank second in deaths, with 67 after the US's 408, (not including the innumerable Afghan soldiers, police and civilians, of course - some reports suggest about 8,600 Afghan soldiers and 3,500 civilians, although the figures are necessarily unreliable).
19 of the 22 Canadian deaths this year were from I.E.D.s, compared to 7 out of 37 in 2006, which bodes ill for the rest of the year.
As the Canadian death toll mounts, calls for a pull-out become increasingly loud with the NDP's Jack Layton being the most outspoken, calling for an immediate recall, despite Canada's NATO obligation to remain there for at least 2 more years. Words like "unwinnable" and "pointless" are increasingly bandied about.
My feeling (as it is on most issues for that matter) is similar to that of John Moore of CFRB NewsTalk 1010, that, whether or not we should be in Afghanistan in the first place, we are committed to NATO until 2009. After that, we have done our bit for a cause which is looking more and more lost, and pulling out would be no shame but more analogous to the end of our shift and the start of some other poor country's shift.

News from Dog-Walker Central

Well, I go away for a couple of weeks and events of world-shattering importance take place here in Toronto. I'm talking of course about the People, Dogs and Parks Off-Leash Policy, which is supposed to take force in 2008 at a cost of $1.6 million (which Toronto doesn't have).
Living as we do in the Beaches area of Toronto (Dog-Walkers Central), dogs have always been at the forefront of local discussion, and I would say that, in any given week, at least two-thirds of the letters section of the our local paper is given over to ongoing diatribes between the opposing factions.
As one cynical observer at the negotiations noted: "If you can solve dog problems, you can fix the Middle East".
Now, we don't have a dog (although we do have a cat - I believe there is a local by-law here in the Beaches stipulating that residents must own at least one or the other), and I am not a big fan of dogs. Noisy, smelly, boisterous things. But I understand that dogs like to run free, and so the concept of leash-free areas in parks makes sense to me.
The new policy will add several more - say a dozen - to Toronto's current 32 off-leash dog areas, of which two are on our beach. All of which doesn't sound too revolutionary to me.
And, to placate the anti-dog lobby, 10 more by-law officers will be hired to reinforce the current 11 beleaguered officers who are supposed to be patrolling Toronto's 1,470 parks. There is a $125 fine for failing to have a dog on a leash, and a $365 fine for a dog running in a non-designated area (I'm not really sure what the difference is).
Again, a sensible carrot-and-stick approach, I would have thought, although I have very limited expectations as to the efficacy of said by-law officers, which I suspect is just tax-payers' money down the drain.
Of course, some dog-owners are more responsible than others, but most are still a breed apart, and most have an implicit belief that everyone loves Sasha and Buddy just as much as they do, whatever their behaviour, and that the draconian laws preventing Walnut from romping wild don't really apply to them, because after all he's such a little cutie.
I am not expecting much to change as a result of all this. I am still expecting to see dogs running riot in the park outside my window, while their owners sip their take-out lattes and gesticulate into their cell-phones, blithely oblivious to their Schnauzer depositing little packages in the playground, and their hulking Great Dane gallumphing up to small children in expectation of a warm welcome.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Grammatical faux pas

I’m not exactly a purist, but I’m probably a little old fashioned when it comes to grammar. At the very least, I received my education and my upbringing in England and there’s not much I can do about that. Consequently, there are certain words and phrases in everyday use in North America which grate on me like chalk on a board.
They mainly occur in daily speech rather than in writing, and many have become accepted as natural developments of the language, but it seems to me that that defence is increasingly used to excuse sloppiness and errors.
Among my most loathed are:
  • “This is as big of a problem as any” (I have no idea where the “of” came from, or what prompted the first offender to insert it, but he or she now has a huge following.)
  • “I am finished my book” (My daughter’s favourite, this one - and yes, that was a sentence fragment. I will accept the intransitive “I am finished”, although only when the thing that is finished is the “I”, not a book or some other object or process. I will accept the transitive “I have finished my book”. I will not accept “I am finished my book.” Sorry.
  • “How are you?” “Good!” (You mean as opposed to “Bad”? “Evil”? “Incompetent”? This one is well and truly entrenched in common usage now and, however much it chafes, I fear there is now no way back.)
  • “It sounds real good” (Nah, it sounds real bad. This is another example of confusing adjectives with adverbs. Surely there must be a way back from this one. You only have to substitute an alternative word like "incredible", instead of "real" to realize that there is a "-ly" missing.)
  • “The thing is, is I can’t change now” (I can’t believe anyone would ever write the double “is”, but it appears increasingly frequently in spoken language. I even heard it on the CBC the other day. I must admit, however, I had never noticed it until I read an article about its increasing use.)
  • “I could of won” (No-one would say “I of won” instead of “I have won”, so where does this come from?)
  • "I was like 'What do you, like, want?'" (Two different, equally repellent and equally incorrect uses of a word which I could happily see eradicated from the English language.)
  • "Take the alternate road" (You mean every other road? There is, or at least there used to be, a very clear and distinct difference between "alternate" and "alternative" which I would not have thought particularly hard to grasp. The "alternate" American usage, seems to be becoming standard now, though.)
  • "I will be with you momentarily" (Could you not spare me a little more time than that? As above, "momentarily" has a very definite meaning, and that is just not it.)
  • "I have many bugbears, i.e. bad grammar, bad spelling, sloppy language, etc" (i.e. stands for "id est" and e.g. stands for "exempli gratia" - does that make it a little clearer?)
  • "Save 50% off" (Offer me savings of 50%, or give me 50% off, but you don't need to do both!)
Americans (and possibly others) may argue that the language is evolving, and that I am just an old stick-in-the-mud. I would retort that, while I understand that languages evolve and change over time, I don't consider the institutionalization of errors to constitute evolution.
I don’t think I am being unduly finicky in complaining about these. This is not tricky stuff like “different to” and “different from” such as my old copy of Usage and Abusage agonizes over. It’s not nit-picking over the use of the possessive before a gerund, or the correct use of “whom”, or the perennial problem of “which” or “that”. I don’t even insist on not ending a sentence with a preposition.
But the examples above are just plain wrong and, if this is the way the English language is supposedly evolving, then I will fight it tooth and nail.

Linguists versus Logophiles

There was an interesting article in this weekend’s Globe and Mail about vocabulary and whether we, and our children, should still be aiming to expand it.
It seems that, among educators, there are two distinct schools of thought, so to speak: the linguists and the logophiles.
The linguists, who are apparently in the ascendancy, at least in North America, believe (very roughly) that kids should only learn words that will be useful in their day to day lives. There is no such thing as a standard vocabulary, they argue, and to enforce teaching of a standard vocabulary is ineffective, limiting and, in some way, undemocratic.
Logophiles, on the other hand, welcome the teaching of any and all words, the more the merrier. They argue that it expands the mind, allows for more precision and discourages laziness. And besides, language is a beautiful thing: why deliberately mar it?
I think my position is reasonably clear (or at least I hope so). I encourage linguistic excess. I luxuriate in a superfluity of verbosity. Hell, I BROWSE through! Words are “nice”.
Which is not at all the same as using obscure words in a deliberate attempt to confuse or impress.
If vocabulary is not encouraged at school, how many potential Booker Prize winners would never be inspired to write their first short story? Isn’t it the same as not teaching people where Laos and Chad are because they will probably never need to go there? That they can colour a picture red, but not carmine, vermilion or burgundy?
Neither do I go along with those who blame email and the Internet for all our vocabulary ills (although I do blame spell-checkers for our deteriorating ability to spell, and for the Americanization of spelling). It is perfectly possible to send an email consisting of more than 4-letter words - this is a symptom, not a cause, and the result of laziness, not poor education.
A couple of quotes from the article express it more eloquently than I could:
"The more words you have, the more ideas you have."
"I don't think there is any goal in having a vocabulary, I think it is its
own reward."
"The alternative is that we use fewer and fewer of them, until the world is
small enough that one word alone will suffice: Duh."

Friday, June 08, 2007

My top 120 novels

Next in the series (after my top 140 films and my top 100 albums), this one had me scrambling.
How do you compare Tolstoy with Martin Amis? Or Roddy Doyle with Borges? Or books from 1790 with books from 1990? Or books I read last week with books I read 20 years ago, for that matter? Tricky.
I ended up restricting myself to one book per author (otherwise I would probably have included the whole oeuvre of Jane Austen, and most of those of Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, etc, and the choices just narrowed down too much).
I have tried to include those books which have had most impact on me for a whole variety of reasons, whether they impressed me with their ideas or the quality of their writing, or whether they seemed to me ahead of their times, or just plain good fun. Some are "one-hit wonders"; some the culmination of a long career of excellent work.
I have tried not to include books just because they are critically acclaimed or "worthy" or because I feel I "should" have enjoyed them.
Anyway, for what it's worth, here they are (in chronological order):

Laurence Sterne - The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1767)
Choderlos de Laclos - Les Laisons Dangereuses (1781)
Jane Austen - Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Stendhal - Scarlet and Black (1830)
Nicolai Gogol - Dead Souls (1842)
Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre (1847)
Charles Dickens - Bleak House (1853)
Elizabeth Gaskell - North and South (1855)
Gustave Flaubert - Madame Bovary (1857)
Fyodor Dostoyevski - Crime and Punishment (1866)
George Eliot - Middlemarch (1872)
Leo Nicoleyavich Tolstoy - Anna Karenin (1876)
Thomas Hardy - Return of the Native (1878)
Henry James - Washington Square (1880)
Emile Zola - Germinal (1885)
HG Wells - The War of the Worlds (1898)
Joseph Conrad - Nostromo (1904)
EM Forster - Howard’s End (1910)
DH Lawrence - Sons and Lovers (1913)
James Joyce - Ulysses (1922)
Thomas Mann - The Magic Mountain (1924)
Franz Kafka - The Trial (1925)
Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse (1927)
Andre Gide - Fruits of the Earth (1927)
Jean Cocteau - Les Enfants Terribles (1929)
Ernest Hemingway - A Farewell to Arms (1929)
Mikhail Solokhov - And Quiet Flows the Don (1929)
William Faulkner - As I Lay Dying (1930)
Aldous Huxley - Brave New World (1932)
Andre Malraux - Man’s Estate (1933)
Graham Greene - The Power and the Glory (1938)
Jean-Paul Sartre - Nausea (1938)
John Steinbeck - The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
Arthur Koestler - Darkness at Noon (1940)
Hermann Hesse - The Glass Bead Game (1943)
Malcolm Lowry - Under the Volcano (1947)
Alan Paton - Cry the Beloved Country (1948)
George Orwell - Nineteen Eighty Four (1949)
Mervin Peake - Gormenghast (1950)
Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451 (1950)
JD Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Isaac Asimov - Foundation (1951)
Samuel Beckett - The Unnamable (1952)
JRR Tolkein - Lord of the Rings (1954)
Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita (1955)
Albert Camus - The Fall (1956)
Gunter Grass - The Tin Drum (1959)
Jorge Luis Borges - Labyrinths (1960)
Anthony Burgess - A Clockwork Orange (1962)
Sylvia Plath - The Bell Jar (1963)
Saul Bellow - Herzog (1964)
Margaret Laurence - The Stone Angel (1964)
Frank Herbert - Dune (1965)
Angela Carter - The Magic Toyshop (1967)
Philip K Dick - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Arthur C Clarke - 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970)
JG Ballard - Vermilion Sands (1971)
Thomas Pynchon - Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
Heinrich Boll - The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum (1974)
Italo Calvino - If on a Winter Night a Traveller (1979)
Michel Tremblay - The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant (1978)
Athol Fugard - Tsotsi (1979)
Umberto Eco - The Name of the Rose (1980)
Mordecai Richler - Joshua Then and Now (1980)
Robertson Davies - The Rebel Angels (1981)
JM Coetzee - The Life and Times of Michael K (1983)
Graham Swift - Waterland (1983)
Fay Weldon - The Life and Loves of She-Devil (1983)
Keri Hulme - The Bone People (1983)
Julian Barnes - Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)
Milan Kundera - The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
William Golding - The Spire (1984)
Doris Lessing - The Good Terrorist (1985)
Peter Carey - Illywhacker (1985)
Kazuo Ishiguru - An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
Bruce Chatwin - Songlines (1987)
Jeanette Winterson - The Passion (1987)
Michel Tournier - Gilles et Jeanne (1987)
Michael Ondaatje - In the Skin of a Lion (1987)
Toni Morrison - Beloved (1987)
Salman Rushdie - The Satanic Verses (1988)
William Gibson - Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)
Martin Amis - London Fields (1989)
AS Byatt - Possession (1990)
Louis de Bernieres - The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (1990)
Hanif Kureishi - The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)
Nino Ricci - Lives of the Saints (1990)
Roddy Doyle - The Snapper (1990)
Pat Barker - Regeneration (1991)
Rohinton Mistry - Such a Long Journey (1991)
Barry Unsworth - Sacred Hunger (1992)
Jim Crace - Arcadia (1992)
Peter Hoeg - Borderliners (1993)
David Malouf - Remembering Babylon (1993)
Annie Proulx - The Shipping News (1993)
Vikram Seth - A Suitable Boy (1993)
Kate Atkinson - Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)
Margaret Atwood - Alias Grace (1996)
Tim Binding - A Perfect Execution (1996)
Lawrence Norfolk - The Pope’s Rhinoceros (1996)
Mick Jackson - The Underground Man (1997)
Ian McEwan - Enduring Love (1997)
Andrew Miller - Ingenious Pain (1997)
Will Self - Great Apes (1997)
Murray Bail - Eucalyptus (1998)
Michael Cunningham - The Hours (1998)
Timothy Findlay - Pilgrim (1999)
Michèle Roberts - Fair Exchange (1999)
Mark Z Danielewski - House of Leaves (2000)
Helen Humphreys - Afterimage (2000)
Thomas Wharton - Salamander (2001)
Dennis Bock - The Ash Garden (2001)
Yann Martel - Life of Pi (2001)
Jamie O’Neill - At Swim Two Boys (2001)
William Trevor - The Story of Lucy Gault (2002)
Marc Estrin - Insect Dreams (2002)
Carol Shields - Unless (2002)
Mark Haddon - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003)
Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner (2003)
Lionel Shriver - We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003)
DBC Pierre - Vernon God Little (2003)
David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas (2004)