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From the WSJ, not about Wall Street

Posted by on 22 Sep 2008 | Tagged as: Books, Stuff

From the back page of the WSJ last week, buried under all the financial meltdown news, a thoughtful and evocative piece, if sad in the context, which has been reproduced in a few other places:

Wake up and smell the listeria

Posted by on 11 Sep 2008 | Tagged as: Current Events, Stuff

Finally, someone says it: the handling of the listeria outbreak has been abysmal. Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with the sluggish public health response of a less educated, far less blessed nation. 16 people have died during the outbreak, and not one of the public officials or government members responsible for food safety has apologized or given any assurance that steps will be taken to improve the food safety regime. Instead, the Canadian public has been assured that Canadian food safety standards are the best of the world (they’re not) and that the system worked as it should. Right.

In 2002, eight people died in a listeria outbreak linked to sliced meat products from Pilgrim’s Pride in the United States. The subsequent fallout led to major changes in the U.S. food safety regime — the same ones resisted in Canada. Eight out of 300 million led to action, but 17 out of 30 million has so far led to a promise of an inquiry at some point that might issue some conclusions. I guess the threat of lawsuits helps spur action.

Why exactly will we wait for an inquiry to have changes even discussed? As Andre Picard observes in the Globe today:

Obviously, [meat-slicing] machines of this kind – and maybe all meat-slicing machines – have to be cleaned differently and inspections have to be more thorough. You don’t need a six-month inquiry to figure that out.

Nor do you need an esteemed judge and hours of cross-examination by top-notch legal counsel to know that the response to suspected contamination of mass-produced meat products was far too slow and secretive.

Picard goes on to detail the foot-dragging timetable of the first illness to the first notice to the first recall. Around the world, Canadian public health professionals help developing nations to establish information programs around food- and water-borne diseases, but here at home:

The way the CFIA warns the public of food-borne threats and manages recalls is a disgrace. Transparency and good communication are essential in responding to any public health threat but, at the CFIA, information is released in dribs and drabs, without coherence or context, and almost always on a voluntary basis by manufacturers.

The CFIA’s communications strategy, if it can be called that, is certainly effective at one thing — keeping the listeria story from grabbing headlines. A sixteenth death? Oh, well. Commenters at the website certainly aren’t concerned.

There will always be food that makes people sick. But Canadians have every right to expect good public health and food safety systems. When those things don’t work, we should all be asking why — after all, we’re the ones paying.

RX: Ikea

Posted by on 08 Aug 2008 | Tagged as: Stuff

I’ve avoided posting anything from the Globe Facts and Arguments page until now, I think, but yesterday’s essay is just too dreary and sad to ignore.

The author is a Globe copy editor who has taken a dream job — which, amazingly, given the generally subpar morale of the Globe newsroom, appears to be her current position — in Toronto while her husband and children continue to live elsewhere. There’s a vague hint toward the end of a happy reunion to come, but otherwise, anyone beginning to read the piece halfway through might reasonably assume her family has died, the tone is that elegiac:

If I didn’t work out and go to bed exhausted, I’d cry myself to sleep. If I met up with old and new friends after work, I’d return to my apartment to a crushing wave of guilt, as though I’d cheated on my family by having fun without them. And then I’d cry myself to sleep.

Is it really surprising that this cheerless bundle of joy hasn’t managed to connect with the neighbours in her apartment building?

This is the first time this 36-year-old woman has ever lived on her own, having gone directly from university to a house — sorry, home –with her husband. I don’t doubt that leaving your children for five days a week is a hard choice leading to feelings of guilt and loss. But the author is so conflicted about her choice that’s she’s exacerbating her own situation:

I won’t buy furniture, because that feels like a selfish luxury lavished on top of mortgage and rent. I have a chair, an exercise ball, a lamp, a sleeping bag and a pillow.

If this was all that greeted me when I came home at night, I might cry myself to sleep, too. Isn’t there a difference between “selfish luxury” and “living like an adult professional”? Does anyone have any furniture in the basement we might drop off at the Globe building for Ms. MacWhirter? I volunteer my old TV, which will allow her to do more than watch CSI while doing squats in the building gym.

As one 36-year-old woman living on her own to another, some tips:

1. Buy some furniture, for God’s sake. At least a bed or futon frame, which will allow you to read at night and escape your constant misery.

2. Get a library card and check out some books. You know how when your kids were small you felt like you had no time to read? Well, now you do. Make the most of it.

3. Get a radio, or start listening to the radio through your computer (if you’ve permitted yourself such a luxury). Having voices in the background can make you feel less alone.

4. Take a photo of yourself in the apartment. This is, as your essay makes clear, your first ever foray into independence. I understand this doesn’t fit your idea of what you should be doing in your life — you mention that you’re not sure this is as worthy as the other things you were proud enough to take photos of, like your first home and your first car — but it’s part of your life. The life you’re you’re actually living, that is, rather than the airbrushed version you’d prefer to preserve.

5. It’s all part of growing up. Having gone straight from school to husband to children, you haven’t had a chance to become an adult female with a personality independent of your roles in relation to the rest of your family. Someday — as an empty-nester, widow, divorcee, what have you — you might find you need one.

Bottle up and explode

Posted by on 28 Jul 2008 | Tagged as: Stuff

As one among the 29% of Canadians who, really, couldn’t care less about the increase in prices at the pump, I read the Canwest story “Pent-up anger unites nation” feeling like I imagine separatists do when Canadian nationalists bemoan the possibly imminent departure of Quebec:

According to a new poll by Ipsos Reid, carried out for Canwest News Service and Global Television, 71 per cent of Canadians are “really angry or upset” about gas prices.

In my experience, many drivers feel really angry about gas prices no matter what the prices are. They also complain a lot about paying for parking. And then, when they can’t take it any more and move to public transit, they complain about poor service and “sardine-like” conditions. (Apparently there is some special Canadian packaging for sardines that I’ve yet to see that has a few fish almost touching at either end of the package, with an inexplicable unused space of about 12 centimetres in between. Sounds interesting — I’ll have to keep my eye out for it.)

If that were all that Canadians felt mad about, it’s certainly not news. But apparently, the dark northern rage is more serious than that:

Of the 1,022 people surveyed in the poll, 62 per cent say they’re angry about inaction on environmental issues, 53 per cent are angry about taxes, 51 per cent are upset about neighbourhood crime and 47 per cent are upset by Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

Does anyone else find the anger about environmental issues somewhat at odds with the fury about gas prices? Just me? And given that fewer and fewer Canadians are actually experiencing neighbourhood crime, the anger they feel about it seems… well… misdirected?

20% of the respondents overall were angry and committed to acting upon their anger, while another 35% of respondents were mad, but, I guess, can take it indefinitely, because they don’t think there’s anything they can do. Ipsos-Reid vice-president John Wright thinks that’s “deeply concerning”: “It’s like having natural gas in the air, and if there’s a spark of some kind, it can explode.”

Oooh, explode. That sounds alarming. What happens when dull-edged Canadian survey participants explode, I wonder? Maybe something like this, from an anecdote further on in the story:

In 2004, when gas prices were still under $1 per litre but rising fast, [Terry] Blake decided to make a statement.

He drove to a nearby station, pumped $25 worth of fuel and gave the attendant only $20 — saying that’s what the gas was really worth.

The woman said to me, ‘Don’t do this.’ I said, ‘I’m doing it. You’ll probably call the police, but give me 10 or 15 minutes to get away. If they want to come and get me, that’s fine.’ ”

The Ontario Provincial Police said he’d be arrested if he didn’t hand over the remaining $5, which he later did. But Blake had made his point, and soon he was being interviewed on television and radio stations as far away as California.

Scary stuff indeed.

From Great Unwind to Greater Depression?

Posted by on 03 Jul 2008 | Tagged as: Business, Stuff

While thoughts of deflation are rippling through the Anglosphere, the European Central Bank is still more concerned about rising prices, hiking interest rates again today.

There are a couple of reasons this makes sense: one, the ECB’s only mission is to contain inflation, while the US Federal Reserve, the shadow of which hangs over all anglo monetary policy, is also charged with maximizing employment; two, the less flexible labour force in much of Europe would probably mean wage inflation would necessarily follow price inflation, while the link between the two is much weaker where English reigns supreme.

But justified or not, the ECB’s move came under heavy fire to today from several quarters. If the great unwind becomes a worldwide recession, blame old Europe, according to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph:

This is madness. It is the mirror image of the early 1930s, when the Federal Reserve (cowed by the Chicago liquidationists) precipitated the collapse of 4,000 banks, and transmitted their fervour to rest of the world through the Gold Standard. This time there is no Gold Standard. But the globalised capital and currency markets — egged on by Trichet — are playing much the same role.

Evans-Pritchard goes on to describe the outcome of the ECB move: a higher euro, lower dollar, and even higher crude prices since oil prices are trading as the inverse of the US$. Essentially, this move to ostensibly cap inflation will only generate more, since the majority of the 4% inflation the eurozone is experiencing is the result of soaring commodity (mostly oil) prices. As an English columnist, he can’t resist taking a poke at the Francophone head of the ECB:

The ECB mantra is that Europe and the world is on the cusp of a wage-price spiral along the lines of the 1970s. This directly contradicts Ben Bernanke at the Fed, who insists — correctly — that today’s conditions are not remotely like the 1970s.

(Perhaps this is uncivil, but I might add that Bernanke is one of the greatest economists of our age. Trichet studied political administration at ENA. He is a fine and honourable man, but he is a politician, not an economic historian)

But he doles out respect to Frenchmen when respect is due:

For once I find myself in total agreement with France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, who said the EBC rise was “at best pointless, at worst counter-productive.”

In the end, the ECB’s Trichet may escape blame no matter what the outcome. With things as bad as they are, and so many tiny pieces of bad news piling up, how would we ever be able to tell whether this decision made things worse or not?

The TTC does fine, except for the actual riders –

Posted by on 26 Jun 2008 | Tagged as: Stuff, Toronto

The original hat tip for this in the Toronto blogosphere goes to 299bloorcallcontrol, as far as I’m aware, though Spacing has weighed in:

The TTC has just begun installing a new 2008 edition of its subway network maps in subway cars … The TTC did away with just displaying the approximate address numbers along Yonge, Bloor, Danforth and Sheppard (only printing the street name where the subway deviated form one of those four streets), and now has the precise municipal address for each station. Coxwell Station now has a Strathmore Boulevard address, instead of 1568 Danforth Avenue, and Rosedale is now at 7 Crescent Road instead of 1009 Yonge.

This new system is useless when looking for the closest station to an address on Bloor or Danforth. On Yonge, this is especially redundant, as not only are the stations already named for the cross streets, Yonge is also the origin point for addresses east and west of that street. So knowing that Dundas Station is actually at 3 Dundas Street East is not that helpful.

Has anyone else noticed that two of the addresses are wrong? St. Andrew Station should be on King Street West, not East, and Castle Frank Station should be on Bloor Street East, not West.

Comment by Annika

June 26, 2008 @ 12:18 am


The neighbourhood is different. The crime is the same.

Posted by on 19 Jun 2008 | Tagged as: Current Events, Stuff, Toronto

Do you remember Tyler Roulston? What about Tristan Wright? Jonathan Rodrigues? What high schools did they go to? They were all shooting victims under the age of 25 this year in Toronto. One may have been known to police. Another was shot in front of a house party with dozens of witnesses. Another was killed at home. Unfortunately, since they all died in the “east end”, where shootings are apparently just another inconvenience of being poor, not white, and living in a high-rise, I can’t tell you much more about them.

On the other hand, I know a lot about Dylan Ellis and Oliver Martin. They grew up in Rosedale. They’d completed postsecondary education. Girls had crushes on them. They participated in organized sports. This morning’s Globe and Mail even tells me what one of them liked as a favourite snack. Did I mention they grew up in Rosedale?

And, it seems, the police also know a lot about the two. In some magical fashion, although the two were “not known” to police, Det. Sgt. Gary Giroux was almost instantly able to assert to reporters just hours after they were shot that they were “certainly not – and never have been – living any high-risk or criminal lifestyle”. It’s easy to see why this conclusion was easy to draw. As we all know, the wealthy are never involved in criminal activity.

A paragraph in the Globe clumsily highlights why this story has been the focus of so much ink, when random shootings of young men in the city are anything but unusual:

The violent crime shook the city and surprised many who struggled to understand why the young men from Rosedale were killed in a brand of crime associated with neighbourhoods very different from their own.

I don’t mean to be minimize the sadness of this situation. It just seems to me that the violent, random, untimely deaths of young men who had little are just as tragic as the violent, random, untimely deaths of young men who had it all. And it also seems to me that Martin and Ellis’ families now have a lot in common with many other bereaved families in neighbourhoods “very different from their own” — whatever the reporting around this story might suggest.

The longest post in the last five minutes

Posted by on 11 Jun 2008 | Tagged as: Business, Stuff

Business reporters are constantly under pressure to quantify whatever they’re writing about. Unfortunately, there’s so little context associated with this that the reader is left with absolutely no idea as to whether the information is significant or not. Case in point: the dreaded “in XX period of time” construct. First example, from today’s

Prices for new homes increased just 5.2 per cent in April from a year earlier, marking the slowest pace in more than two and a half years, Statistics Canada says.

The Star:

The U.S. trade deficit widened in April, meanwhile, as the surging cost of oil boosted imports to a record, overshadowing the biggest gain in exports in four years.


Canadian industrial companies used less of their production capacity last quarter than at any time in the past 15 years, as auto manufacturers and lumber mills slowed production.

(Not surprisingly, given Bloomberg’s position as business news behemoth, its short article contains more than one of these constructs, also highlighting the fact that Canadian GDP contracted for the first time in five years in the first quarter.)

Now put all together, one might assume that all these indicators point to one thing: a slowing economy. I do. But it’s also possible, if we look only at the “lowest in XX years” phrasing, that they’re all one-time blips that are an aberration from an overall trend, whether it’s after two and a half years or fifteen. It’s particularly easy with the aid of a Bloomberg terminal or a simple spreadsheet to come up with these calculations. But in the end, it’s simply a way to add numbers to stories — numbers that really don’t mean very much.

Nothing but blue skies does he see

Posted by on 21 May 2008 | Tagged as: Business, Stuff

Rudyard Griffiths of the Dominion Institute, who has become a pundit-for-all-seasons, sees gloom ahead:

While the fear of a recession seems like the last thing on the mind of the average Torontonian, I for one cannot figure out how the Ontario economy can avoid a prolonged economic turndown, and most likely a nasty one at that.

Rudyard, you’re not alone. But for another take, perennially upbeat Doug Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO has just issued yet another numbered lists of reasons the Canadian economy won’t follow the U.S. into recession (leaving aside the possibility that some areas, namely Ontario, already have). The spin is in overdrive this time, as Doug’s usual list of four to five easily attacked assertions about the economy have now expanded to a top ten.

I won’t reproduce the entire list here — anyone interested can follow the link. It’s worth noting that “strong commodity prices” and “superpowerful, though almost imperceptible personal tax cuts” aren’t on the new list. Number one is “low inflation”, which Canada is certainly (if selectively) experiencing now, but will fail to be shielded by once the year-over-year numbers start comparing to last fall, when the Canadian dollar approached parity.

And number 10 is, as always, healthy housing markets. Sales across Canada are down by double-digits, and inventory has soared. Prices continue to march upward, though, which is a sign that more higher-end homes are selling as lower-income buyers are pushed out of the market. That explains continued price wars in central Toronto neighbourhoods, for example — as does the 40-year amortization product that expands affordability where it would otherwise have ceased to exist.

But ultimately, that’s a problem. Let’s not forget the housing market needs plankton as well as big fish.

What’s the contribution to GDP of the geek sector?

Posted by on 18 May 2008 | Tagged as: Stuff

If one ever needed confirmation that the component of the economy devoted to the care, maintenance and entertainment of geeks is large and thriving, look no further.

Yes folks, it’s a crew served, direct fire, nerf support weapon. Needless to say, I want one. Be afraid cats, be very afraid…

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