Monthly Archives: October 2013

Taking our lumps of coal


New Brunswick stands poised between its very own imaginary rock and theoretical hard place as hundreds of people routinely gather to protest not the actual operations of a shale gas industry, but the very idea of one.

Such is the extraordinary depth of emotion this particular fossil fuel has plumbed in this province and many other jurisdictions around the world: There need not actually exist a wellbore pumping gas from the fracked ground to spark mass hysteria; just the threat of one.

Much of this has to do with the industry’s early record of public consultation, technical disclosure and environmental stewardship – which was not good. Some of it is related to organized information campaigns of various eco-warriors who are determined to drive the western world’s petro-chemical-industrial complex underground any way they can.

But as Premier David Alward juggles the oddly twinned priorities for shale gas development of forging ahead with supporters and stooping to chat with opponents, everyone on both sides of the issue seems blinkered to a far more tangible and existential evil.

Consider a recent Reuters report out of South Korea:

“Coal will surpass oil as the key fuel for the global economy by 2020 despite government efforts to reduce carbon emissions, energy consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie said on Monday (October 14). Rising demand in China and India will push coal past oil as the two Asian powerhouses will need to rely on the comparatively cheaper fuel to power their economies. Coal demand in the United States, Europe and the rest of Asia will hold steady.”

In fact, according to the news item, “Global coal consumption is expected to rise by 25 per cent by the end of the decade to 4,500 million tonnes of oil equivalent, overtaking oil at 4,400 million tonnes, according to Woodmac in a presentation on Monday at the World Energy Congress.”

As a source of energy, coal is both the cheapest and the dirtiest. Burning it produces a plethora of toxins, including nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, arsenic, hydrogen fluoride  chromium, mercury and cadmium. What’s more, coal’s contribution to global warming surpasses those of all other fossil fuels.

Green America, a not-for-profit environmental group that is calling for a moratorium on the stuff, lists a few other choice facts: “Coal is the largest single source of fuel for electricity generation in the world; coal is the most widely distributed fossil fuel, and is mined on all continents except Antarctica; the three of the most affected coal-mining states are Wyoming, West Virginia, and Kentucky; there is enough coal left to last about 200 more years at current rates of production.”

At which time, presumably, old fears about climate change will have become a distant memory for denizens of Planet Hothouse.

Citizens in the developed world have known about coal’s eminent dangers far better and for far longer, than they have about shale gas’s comparatively manageable environmental challenges. And yet, the filthy bitumen continues to drive energy development wherever it’s mined.

“Coal hurts communities, destroys wildlife and countryside and contributes massively to climate change,” the U.K.-based Coal Action network reports. “But coal has also been on the up in the UK over the past five years – some 50 opencast related applications have been approved in that time, and currently there are around 40 at various stages of the planning system.”

We may agree to disagree about hydraulically fracturing shale gas. But the indisputable fact is that this resource is much cleaner than coal and is, for this reason alone, an attractive energy solution.

One’s ideal world may include astonishing breakthroughs in safe, pristine, endlessly renewable power systems and storage cells. We may, some day, pilot our solar-driven airships to our local, organic green grocers.

But we won’t get there from here without deploying some form of fossil fuel to keep the lights of innovation burning into the small hours of the morning.

In this regard, it makes no sense to expand production of coal, the dirtiest form, as the means through which we finally clean up our collective act.

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Still life in the old chamber

August bodies in abeyance

August bodies in abeyance

The Senate, many Canadians seem to believe, is entitled, corrupt and well past its best before date. And given the roiling expense scandals now underway, who can really blame them?

“One could say it’s a great soap opera,” Marilyn Trenholm Counsell, a former senator, herself, told CBC Radio’s New Brunswick rolling home show last week. “Of course, it isn’t a soap opera. It’s real and it’s hurtful.”

She’s right, of course.

Deriding the Upper Chamber has become everyone’s favorite parlor game. “On a daily basis evidence piles up that reveals our upper house to be neither useful nor necessary. An incessant string of scandals and disgraceful behaviour by senators has turned the red chamber into a national embarrassment,” Macleans magazine opined earlier this year. “Its functionality has been eroded to nothing with little prospect for change, despite claims from the Harper government to champion Senate reform.”

To others, however, this conclusion, while not entirely unjustified, seems conveniently rash.

Most of the Senate’s business is in committee. It’s here where, in the words of Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, the chamber’s “heart and soul” rests. According to an information circular posted to the CBC’s website a couple of years ago, “committees discuss important social, economic and political issues and this forum is where senators hear from interested citizens.”

Indeed, “Most bills, prior to third reading, are referred to committees where they are examined closely. In the Senate committee stage, public hearings are held, the bills are studied clauses by clause, and a report on the bill is prepared and presented to the Senate. Committees, which function as study groups, include 12 to 15 senators.”

Ms. Trenholm Counsell, who also served for a time as New Brunswick’s Lieutenant-Governor, elaborated on this to good effect in her recent radio interview.

“I worked as hard in the Senate as I did anywhere else. Wonderful work is done; the committee work,” she said. “I worked on. . .studies. I worked on a study on early childhood development. I burned the midnight oil quite often.”

In fact, she observed, “It is so interesting historically. Some bills have had upward of 100 amendments. The history and the tradition has been that those amendments have been accepted. . .I think we need the studies that come out of the Senate.

“In the House of Commons, they may bring in two or three people at the committee stage to speak to a bill. In some of the great bills that have come to the Senate, we might have had as many as 100 witnesses right across this country come in and speak to the substance of the bill. From there we made amendments which, by and large, were accepted. So, the legislation was better, much better. And that is because you had the great people. . .I am worried that this greatness is going out of the thing.”

She’s not aone.

Expense scandals, aside, the Senate’s growing partisanship, its evolution into a rubber stamp for the sitting government is contributing to its compromised stature. If its historical utility was related to its function as a check on the excesses of the Commons, to its role as what John A. Macdonald famously termed a chamber of “sober second thought”, the politics of modern times might easily render these expectations both quaint and antiquated.

Still, some signs are encouraging. As the Globe and Mail reported last week, “Senators pressed the government about why a federal spy agency has been probing telecommunications in Brazil, seeking clear answers about the activities of Communications Security Establishment Canada. Asking whether the spy agency has sufficient oversight, both Liberals and Conservatives in the Red Chamber demanded more information on Thursday about CSEC and its interest in Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy.”

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, for one, appeared untroubled by his party affiliations when he pointedly commented, “Canada is the only country not to have any legislative oversight of any kind for its national-security services.”

All of which is to ask: Is there yet life in the Upper Chamber?

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How a Canadian senator goes down swinging


They will not go gently into that soft night, after all. They will scream and blame and, if they have anything to say about it, they will destroy those who set out to destroy them.

That’s what happens when former broadcast journalists turned semi-disgraced Canadian senators have nothing left to lose.

Mike Duffy had his day in the spotlight earlier this week when he declared before an assembly of his Upper Chamber colleagues in Ottawa:

“Like you, I took an solemn oath to put the interests of Canadians ahead of all else. However, the sad truth is I allowed myself to be intimidated into doing what I knew in my heart was wrong, out of a fear of losing my job and out a misguided sense of loyalty. . .Let me repeat, Deloitte investigated, their audit of my expenses related to my home in P.E.I., did not find wrongdoing. They said I had not broken the Senate’s rules.”

As for the vote to suspend him, he added, “This motion is something one might expect to see in Iraq or Iran, or in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but not in democratic Canada. It is not, I repeat, fundamental justice.”

He reserved his choicest criticism for the Prime Minister’s Office: “Today, you have an opportunity to stand strong and use your power to restrain the unaccountable power of the PMO. That’s what this Senate’s about, sober second thought, not taking dictation from kids in short pants down the hall.”

Then it came Pamela Wallin’s turn.

“The motion to suspend me is baseless and premature, and likely beyond the scope of this chamber,” she told senators. “By throwing a member of this Senate under the bus, finding her guilty without a fair hearing such as any other Canadian could expect – a right guaranteed us by the Charter – to proceed without the evidence having been adduced and considered on which the charge in the motion is based – is a fundamental affront to Canadian democracy – and makes a mockery of this chamber.”

Then out came the fangs.

“One of the senators who sits in judgment of all of us, who had her sights trained on me from the beginning, Senator Stewart-Olsen, has recently had questions raised about her own probity in relation to her residential expense claims,” she crowed. “But of course there will be no Deloitte audit in her case. Apparently, the Committee on Internal Economy, of which she has long been a member, intends to consider her matter in private. This is a double standard – she gets kid glove treatment and I’m unfairly singled out for a retroactive audit.”

At the heart of all of this, Wallin declared, was simple, ugly, professional jealousy.

“She (Sen. Stewart-Olsen) and Marjory LeBreton (former Conservative Senate leader) could not abide the fact that I was outspoken in caucus, or critical of their leadership – or that my level of activity brought me into the public eye and once garnered the praise of the prime minister. They resented that – they resented me being an activist senator. In this chamber, Senator Marjory LeBreton derided me, accusing me of having an inflated view of my role.”

This is how a three-ring circus becomes a bout of bare knuckle mixed martial arts – the finest display of senatorial cage fighting since the Red Chamber last updated its rules of residency some time in the 19th century.

As for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the message is simple: Bad behaviour by elected or appointed representatives will not be tolerated. Period. End of discussion. So sayest Dad: “The victims here are the CanadIan people who expect from all parliamentarians that they will treat pubic money with the appropriate respect and integrity it deserves.”

It remains to be seen, of course, how much more bad behaviour will be  uncovered  – or covered up, as the case may be – in the Senate and the PMO.

It’s all very well to rage against the dying of the light, until you realize the lights on Parliament Hill went out a long time ago.

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The Canadian Senate sends in its clowns


The federal Conservative government’s point man in the Senate now hopes to preserve the “dignity and integrity” of the Red Chamber by forcing three of its members, who have not yet been charged with the crime of expense-fiddling, to take a long, unpaid hike off a short pier.

Senators Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau are, apparently, an affront to this august body, where near-lifetime tenures proceed at the pleasure of the sitting prime minister and regional “representation” is a function of Victorian-era definitions of residency.

Still, says Tory Senate leader Claude Carignan, off with their heads.

Hear, hear, agrees his Liberal counterpart James Cowan: Suspend the rascals and be quick about it.

“It’s not a Liberal, a Conservative or an Independent (thing),” Sen. Carignan told The Toronto Star last week. Referring to Sen. Duffy, he said, “(Here’s) a senator that . . . didn’t respect the dignity and the rules of the senate. . .It’s not a question of money. It’s a question of gross misconduct. . .It’s a very severe sanction but I think it’s appropriate.”

Added Sen. Cowan: “I certainly have no sympathy for those three senators who we found deliberately breached what were clear rules and were ordered to pay significant amounts of money back. We need to take disciplinary action. These were not simple mistakes, bookkeeping errors. There was, the Senate found, a deliberate attempt to abuse the rules.”

The accused and their legal eagles say exactly the opposite is true.

According to The Canadian Press this week, Sen. Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, “spent nearly an hour (on Monday) alleging how Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s staff and key Conservative senators developed a scheme to have Duffy take the fall for wrongdoing that even they agreed he had not committed.”

What’s more, the news wire reported, “Five allegations emerged from Monday’s event.” Among these: “Government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton allegedly told Duffy in a letter that residency is not clearly defined in the Senate’s rules. . .Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s former chief of staff, allegedly told Duffy in an email last December that he had not broken any rules in relation to his housing expenses.”

Declared Bayne: “The whole political decision-making about this has been a fiasco. . .From the get-go, rather than letting the truth out, that there are flaws in the Senate system and rules, it’s the old story. The cover-up is always more damaging than the original issue.”

It’s hard to know who to watch, let alone whom to find credible, in this three-ring circus. One assumes that the serious deliberations the Senate is supposed to undertake as a large part of its official function are underway somewhere behind the curtain. But, it’s safe to say that “sober second-thinking” are not words most Canadians would associate with the Upper Chamber these days.

All of which leaves reform-minded parliamentarians in something of a quandary: How do they reconstitute the Senate and restore its reputation without appearing to admit that Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau are, in fact, victims, rather than opportunists. The rush to judge the individuals involved now seems calculated more to uphold the principle of honesty in public office untethered from the institutional context – a context that may well be so fundamentally flawed that technical breeches of the rules are, under even normal circumstances, almost inevitable.

Summary suspensions, at this point, are patently unjust. They are, naturally, politically expedient courses of action. But they won’t address what is, almost certainly, a much bigger problem in the Senate. It’s a problem to which Conservative Senator Hugh Segal alluded in an interview with CBC Nnews last week.

“The notion that we would move to a sentencing process, which this motion is. . .is just completely unfair and a violation of every principle of fairness,” he said. “Some folks think the best way to deal with these problems is to throw everybody under the bus. Well guess what? You’re going to run out of buses and you’re going to run out of people.”

Just so.

And so goes with it dignity and integrity.

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Writing economically, not all it’s cracked up to be


Apparently, economists can’t write. Alert the media, many of whose members, by the way, also can’t write.

Perhaps, that’s not an entirely fair observation of either profession. I know plenty of journalists who can churn out truly spiffy prose. Thanks to handy Google, I even know of a few economists who possess mean turns of phrase.

There’s John Maynard Keynes: “In the long run we are all dead.”

There’s Robert Solow: “Everything reminds Milton Friedman of the money supply. Everything reminds me of sex, but I try to keep it out of my papers.”

And there’s Karl Marx: “I am not a Marxist.”

But, these are exceptions to the rule. And as a rule, economics does not specifically require of its practitioners an excellent standard of scribbling.

In fact, according to The Canadian Press the other day, “auditors examined an elite group of bank economists, most of them with graduate degrees, who regularly dissect the current state of the Canadian and international economies.”

This chore was important because the group’s advice and analysis has been crucial to the Bank of Canada, which makes the country’s monetary policy, ever since world markets lurched sideways in 2008.

The problem, or so says the audit, is that these highly educated servants of the state experience “difficulties being succinct, grammatically correct, and prioritizing the data into useful information” in the reports they write.

Consequently, “ad-hoc demands by the governor and others for quick analysis, which now absorb up to half the time of these economists, also appear to have created a paper jam as managers must then edit the below-standard English or French,” CP reported. Quoting from the audit, the news service continued: “The cause for lengthy review was in part attributed to writing skills, both in terms of basic communication, as well as how to convey an appropriate level of detail in telling ‘the story.’”

This may be a lousy turn of events for central bankers, but it’s a potential bonanza for people like me, who has spent many profitable hours, over the years, rescuing the Queen’s English from various experts on various subjects, both commonplace and arcane.

A few years ago, I had a chance to edit a thick document on a rather complex issue of social policy. A highly regarded PhD had prepared the work for a well-known Canadian think tank (no names, please).

My assignment from the board of directors was to “action item” (their words, not mine) the organization’s new plain-language policy, which gamely embraced the virtues of clear, uncluttered prose.

All of which looked good on paper.

Some days later, I emerged with a draft that, all agreed, met their expectations and fulfilled their new literacy standards. Then, the great unravelling commenced: the second-guessing; the hand-wringing over missing jargon with which they had, unbeknownst to them, grown accustomed; the startled reaction to the unfamiliar muscularity of the active grammatical voice.

It was all just too much. They quietly returned the document to its original shape and away they went, not the sorrier.

This is, of course the curse of clear writing: It doesn’t hide flawed thinking at all well. It’s aggressive, discomfiting and entirely scrutable.

“In the 20th century, economics consolidated as a profession; economists could afford to write exclusively for one another,” writes Ronald Coase in the December 2012 Harvard Business Review, “At the same time, the field experienced a paradigm shift, gradually identifying itself as a theoretical approach of economization and giving up the real-world economy as its subject matter. Today, production is marginalized in economics, and the paradigmatic question is a rather static one of resource allocation. The tools used by economists to analyze business firms are too abstract and speculative to offer any guidance to entrepreneurs and managers in their constant struggle to bring novel products to consumers at low cost.”

Or, they could be driven by the irresistible urge to commit “bafflegab”, as defined by its inventor, Milton A Smith, assistant general counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce, in 1952: “The multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution or periphrasis, inscrutability, and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilized for promulgations implementing Procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.”

Now, that’s what I call writing.

A bloodied, but unbowed, Darrell Dexter


When elected leaders finally fail at the ballot box, their post-campaign routine typically conforms to the immemorial script of the politically vanquished: Fade into the background for an obligatory period of reflection; emerge sadder, but wiser; issue subdued, yet heartfelt, expressions of remorse.

No so for former Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter who resurfaces this week making no excuses for his one-term NDP government, which lost to the Liberals on October 8. In fact, in his first full, published interview (with the Globe and Mail) since his shellacking, than man seems downright feisty.

“There is a point at which you could say. . .what more do you have to do?” he told the newspaper late last week. “What more do you have to do in order to demonstrate, if not exceptional management skills, at least acceptable management skills and a certain level of vision?”

Not that he’s complaining. Not exactly.

“We didn’t have angry mobs following us around the campaign. In fact, of all of the events I did through the campaign. . .not once did a protester ever appear. . .I think at this point you get this phenomenon where people, where they act individually, and the result happens collectively. . .that’s part of the unpredictable nature of politics.”

As for the bottom line, he says “I am completely satisfied with the decisions I made. I made them because I believed they were in the best interests of my province. I’ll live with that.”

Whether or not his decisions were, for the most part, sage and prudent, only time will tell. What is certain, however, is that they were not the unmitigated disasters some members of the Fourth Estate claimed they were. Indeed, very few of them went far enough to risk failing marginally, let alone catastrophically.

His government raised the HST by two points and, in the process, launched its four-year “Back to Balance” plan. Maureen MacDonald, the former Minister of Finance, put it this way in the 2011-12 fiscal statement: “The Public Accounts for the year ended March 31, 2012 are reporting an improvement of $141.1 million compared with the budget estimate of a $389.6 million deficit. With total revenues of $9.7 billion and total expenses of $9.9 billion, the 2011-12 deficit is $248.5 million.”

Meanwhile, “At year-end, the province’s net debt was $13.2 billion, which presented as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is 35.0 per cent for 2012. This Net Debt to GDP ratio is an improvement over previous years.”

Most famously, perhaps, Mr. Dexter took it squarely in the chin for lending Irving Shipbuilding a sizable chunk of taxpayer change to help the company win the federal government’s $25-billion naval procurement.

But, as he told the Globe, referring to the $2.2-billion windfall in expected provincial government revenues, “It seems to this day like a no-brainer. What government in its right mind would not do that when the returns are so great?”

As for his other measures, many seem worthy, if somewhat pedestrian. The NDP (says its website) “invested $8 million to ensure that every pre-school aged child with autism gets the help they need – help that was previously only available to half of them. . . .The NDP is putting what matters most first by increasing reading assistance to students, extending high school math to both semesters, and directing money from central offices to the classroom. . .The NDP’s Primary-Grade 3 class-size cap of 25 meant hiring more than 70 teachers this year.”

It’s hard to se how Mr. Dexter and his decidedly non-socialist New Democrats deserved to lose, when their mainstream policies and programs could have stemmed, just as easily, from Grit or Tory ranks.

Perhaps that’s why Mr. Dexter remains unapologetic, even a little defiant, about his fortunes these days.

In politics, just because you haven’t failed the public, doesn’t mean the public isn’t out to get you at the ballot box.

Douse the fire that rages beneath


Nothing ignites media coverage and inflames public opinion quite like images of burning cop cars. The realization that authority’s symbols can go up in smoke, just like anything else, with the strike of a match is horrifying to many; strangely satisfying to some.

But though news and opinion will inevitably focus on who started the conflagration (both literal and figurative) on a rural stretch of New Brunswick highway last week – a bonfire that claimed five police cruisers and resulted in the arrest of 40 native people protesting shale gas development in the province – the rooted issues are harder to untangle in an era when disenfranchisement is the normative language of public engagement.

Adam Huras’s excellent first-hand account, in the Telegraph-Journal, of the Thursday-morning raid of the protesters’ encampment near Rexton suggests that the RCMP may have overdosed on bowls of Wheaties the night before.

“On Thursday morning, at either end of the protest encampment were only a handful of RCMP officers learning up against a few cars,” he wrote for Friday’s edition.

“‘It was a slow night, you didn’t miss much,’ said one officer. ‘It’s quiet,’ added another.

And then it wasn’t. In an instant, two police cars flashing red and blue lights, closed off the road. ‘Move!’ yelled an officer. ‘And don’t you text anyone, not one person. Don’t touch your phone.’ I was being walked back to my car when the order was given to move in.”

At which point, he reported, the stuff really hit the fan: “Roughly two dozen unmarked cars, a large police van and a bus converged on the area at 7:15 a.m. – the vehicles flying down both the on and off ramps of Route 11. Jumping from them were police in full camouflage brandishing guns. About 20 Mounties entered the protest area and 20 more stood at the barricade. Wave after wave of reinforcements arrived.”

Then came the fires, set by angry protestors.

It’s tempting to think that the violence on both sides is exclusively about natural gas. The Elsipogtog First Nation, like many other groups in New Brunswick, is genuinely  concerned about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on supplies of drinking water. In this, they’ve chosen to believe fellow opponents from other parts of North America who have longer experience with the industry.

But gas merely fuels the fire that lies beneath.

An inchoate rage burns across the land. For Canada’s First Nations, it finds expression in the Idle No More movement. For others in towns and cities just about everywhere in the western world, it generates an irresistible desire to “occupy” something – a public park, a government quadrangle, the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown London.

The suspicion that governments no longer represent the interests of average people, but only those of powerful lobbies and corporate interests has evolved into a conviction. The evidence, many believe, is everywhere.

What, they point out, was the financial meltdown of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession except an implosion of greed and avarice perpetrated by the few at the expense of the many?

What, they ask, is behind widening gaps in income and economic opportunity except the wholesale abrogation of democratic principles of equal and fair representation before the juggernaut of privilege?

Why can’t legislators in Washington keep their nation open long enough to do the people’s business? Why can’t lawmakers in Ottawa respect their own environmental regulations?

Shale gas protest, though specific in its own  right, in New Brunswick is also a species of this unease with, and mistrust of, public institutions.

The only way to address it is to talk candidly and openly with one another.

No long ago, Premier David Alward and First Nations leaders in the province made a good start. In fact, according to The Canadian Press on October 6, they arranged to “continue talks Monday in an effort to resolve a growing dispute over shale gas exploration. Alward and three of his cabinet ministers met Sunday with Elsipogtog council members and other opponents of the shale gas industry at a hotel in Moncton, N.B., in an effort to end a protest that has closed a highway in eastern New Brunswick for a week.”

If last Thursday’s events are any indication, the need for dialogue has never been more urgent.

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Let us all now praise Alice


When news broke last week that Canada’s reigning master of short fiction, Alice Munro, won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, Margaret Atwood – a national trove of boundless quippery for a deadline-stalked press corps – offered the pithiest reaction.

“Okay, everyone’s calling Me to get me to write about Alice,” she tweeted. “Alice, come out from behind the tool shed and pick up the phone.”

In fact, Ms. Atwood did write about her friend, who, until recently, rusticated in Clinton, Ontario, for The Guardian last Thursday. In her piece, she wrote, “Whenever the Nobel is conferred, a deluge of media descends – like the pack of cards cascading on to that other Alice, she of Wonderland – not only on the winner, illuminated in the sudden glare of international publicity like a burglar trapped in headlights, but on every other writer who has known the chosen one. A quote, a reminiscence, an evaluation! Account for it! Why her? they clamour.”

Indeed, Ms. Atwood observed, “Munro herself is unlikely to say much along these lines: Canadians are discouraged from bragging – see the Munro story, Who Do You Think You Are? – so will probably spend much of her time hiding in the figurative tool shed. We’re all slightly furtive, we writers; especially we Canadian writers.”

One could easily extend the metaphor to include all citizens of the Great White North. Politeness may be our international brand, but that merely camouflages our instinct to break for the back door when uninvited company arrives through the front.

And, man oh man, has the company ever come calling for Ms. Munro, who at 82 is the first Canadian to win the prestigious prize for writing and only the 13th woman to do so. Her name enters a list that includes Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who actually refused to accept his 1964 honour on the grounds that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”

For better or worse, that does appear to be Ms. Munro’s fate. The arcana collectors have been working round the clock to answer the question: What do we really know about Alice?

For one thing, reports The Toronto Star, “she grew up in the countryside. Her father, Robert Eric Laidlaw, raised foxes and poultry, while her mother was a schoolteacher.”

For another thing, “Munro’s first marriage to James Munro, who ran a bookshop, produced three daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1972. She remarried, but her second husband, Gerald Fremlin, died in April.”

In fact, The Star itemizes eight other “should-knows” about the author before it reproduces the list word for word – just in case, presumably, you missed something the first time through.

No one, it seems, is prouder of Ms. Munro and her accomplishment than her long-time publisher Douglas Gibson who, in a letter to the Globe and Mail this week, argued that “all levels of government should immediately join forces in a race” purchase and transform two of the author’s former homes into literary museums.

“Arrangements to buy both properties – at a fair price, and an appropriate time – should begin today,” he declared. “Parks Canada should be involved, on behalf of the millions of future literary tourists who will surely flock to see ‘Alice Munro Country.’”

As the Globe reports, neither Queen’s Park nor Ottawa are especially enamored of the idea.

“I join all Canadians in congratulating Ms. Munro for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature,” Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq told the newspaper. “Unfortunately, under the current national historic site designation rules, her homes may not be eligible for designation.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne observed, “We believe that local municipalities are in the best position to determine how to manage those properties.”

Still, all may not be lost in the effort to lionize Ms. Munro. Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa Thompson told the Globe, “[The Nobel] is just a wonderful icing on the proverbial cake for Alice. We need to just revisit what’s already being done and if there’s anything more that can be done, I think all three levels of government need to, in partnership with Alice, determine what the right recognition is.”

That is, if they can coax her from her perch behind the tool shed.

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Log rolling on astroturf


Currently, the Internet is ablaze on the subject of “astroturf”. Not the trademarked plastic grass, mind you; not the noun.

I’m referring to the habit of writing one’s own good reviews and passing them off as someone else’s “objective” critique of one’s abilities and talents. Or, more commonly, paying someone to undertake the chore, in which case it is, according to the finest online sources, “the practice of masking the sponsors of a message (e.g. political, advertising, or public relations) to give the appearance of it coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant.”

Indeed, “astroturfing is intended to give the statements the credibility of an independent entity by withholding information about the source’s financial connection.”

And, just in case you missed the broader pile, the bigger rug, as it were, is this: “The term astroturfing is a derivation of AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.”

That comes from Wikipedia, where such matters. . .well, matter.

You’re welcome.

Last year, The New York Times dug into the phenomenon. In one piece, it quoted Bing Liu, a “data-mining expert” and the University of Chicago: “The wheels of online commerce run on positive reviews. . .But almost no one wants to write five-star reviews, so many of them have to be created.”

In fact, the Times piece reported, “Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

“The Federal Trade Commission has issued guidelines stating that all online endorsements need to make clear when there is a financial relationship, but enforcement has been minimal and there has been a lot of confusion in the blogosphere over how this affects traditional book reviews.”

None of which stopped New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman from cracking down, last month, on the perps of this fraud.

Writing in the Legislative Gazette, Tanique Williams reported on September 30, “Nineteen companies have agreed to stop producing fake online consumer reviews for businesses and pay more than $350,000 in penalties, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced last week.

“The agreement concludes a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry, the manipulation of consumer-review websites, and the practice of “astroturfing” – a practice Schneiderman says is the 21st century version of false advertising.

“The investigation called Operation Clean Turf found that businesses and search engine optimization companies offering online reputation management were responsible for a flood of fake consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, CitySearch, and Google Local.”

Of course, by its very nature, the Internet tends to imbue seedy, time-honoured behaviour with fresh significance – as if sin, itself, were a lamentable byproduct of some search engine.

The fact is fake – or, at least, strategically goosed – reviews are nothing new. Back before the advent of cyberspace, Spy Magazine carried a famously funny section entitled, “Log Rolling in Our Time”. It documented the tendency among certain authors to give each other fabulous reviews of their respective works, to, in effect, scratch each other’s backs.

A typical sequence might go a little like this:

“Y’s writing makes you want to cry: It’s that good. I might just have to hang up my typewriter and take up animal husbandry. Y has said it all for everyone” – Author X, Times Literary Supplement, October 20.

“X has produced a masterpiece. There is no doubt now that his is one of our most important voices. The culture cannot do without X, nor should it want to” – Author Y, Times Literary Supplement, November 17.

Personally, I’ve never been tempted to log roll with anyone. I work hard for the good reviews I get, such as this one:

“Mr. Bruce’s prose sparkles like sunlight on a limpid pool of spring water: fresh, clear, nourishing, necessary.”

My mom wrote that.

But, you know, I’m sure she meant it.

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Counting down the days to the Great Transformation


The world as we know it has been coming to end for years now. We haven’t had to look far to perceive the portents of impending doom: in the entrails of Wall Street corpses; in the tea leaves of governments that no longer work; in the uromancy that predicts widening income gaps between the rich and the rest.

We just haven’t been able to reliably nail down a year for the Great Transformation. Until now.

A researcher at the University of Hawaii, who used to work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., thinks he knows. The point of no return will arrive. . .wait for it. . .in 2047. . .give or take.

Camillo Mora, who studies numbers for a living, tells the Globe and Mail’s science reporter Ivan Semeniuk that, overall, this is the year in which climate change will become a permanent feature of life on Earth. . .more or less.

According to the article, “The turning point arrives. . .as a worldwide average, if fossil fuel consumption continues unabated; as late as 2069 if carbon emissions are curbed. City by city, the numbers are a bit more revealing. In Montreal, for example, the new normal will arrive in 2046, and for Vancouver not until 2056. But the real spotlight of Dr. Mora’s study is the tropics, where profound changes could be entrenched in little more than a decade.”

As the good doctor says, “Today, when people talk about climate change, the images that come to mind are melting ice and polar bears. People might infer from this that the tropics will be less affected.”

People would be wrong.

But, then, there’s nothing new about that.

Once, not very long ago, people assumed that economic globalization would insert several chickens in pots from Beijing to Kalamazoo – that gross domestic products around the world would rise like juggernauts, heedless of any and all counterforces they may encounter.

Once, not very long ago, people assumed that democratically elected governments served the best, common interests of the majority of voters – that reason and circumspection would effectively quell fanatical and reactionary figures intent on reshaping the public sphere in their own ideologically pinched and impoverished image.

Now comes word from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that, generally speaking, the world’s got itself in an economic ringer – one from which it is not likely to emerge any time soon. Welcome to the age of slow growth.

“Emerging economies have cooled off,” an item in The New York Times reveals. “Europe remains in the doldrums. The United States is facing fiscal uncertainty, and its powerful central bank is contemplating easing up on its extraordinary stimulus efforts, with potentially global ramifications.”

As things stand, the IMF “foresees the world economy increasing by about 2.9 per cent in 2013 and 3.6 per cent in 2014. That is down from 5.4 per cent in 2007, before the global recession hit.”

If its predictions pan out, a few will be spared, thanks to their impenetrable cocoons of wealth and privilege. But most can expect lower standards of living, fewer good jobs, higher costs and increasing poverty and homelessness.

Meanwhile, over in Washington, D.C., legislators are twiddling their thumbs.

“The federal government shutdown and looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling have merged into one major problem on Capitol Hill, though neither issue has a resolution in sight as the government shutdown heads into its second week,” CBS News reports. “Democrats and Republicans (have) dug further into their respective positions: Republicans are calling on Democrats to negotiate over a short-term spending bill and a debt-ceiling increase, and President Obama says he is ready to negotiate over any topic – once the Republicans pass legislation to re-open the government and raise the U.S. borrowing limit without any conditions.”

All of which prompted Laurence Booth of the University of Toronto’s esteemed Rotman School of Management to tell the Toronto Star, “Any sane person obviously believes the U.S. isn’t going to default. That would cause an earthquake in financial markets around the globe.”

Of course, once upon a time, any sane person obviously believed that climate change could very well spell the end of the world – at least, as we know it.

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