Sunday, July 31, 2011

Local Real Estate

UPDATE August 14: The golf course proposal has been turned down. I'm guessing the infill with streets and houses is more unpopular than high-rises on Davis, but we'll see what happens. A small proposal nearby to turn one lot into two, with a big house on each lot, has been turned down. And now there is a date for a public meeting on proposed high-rises two doors from us: one tower 17 stories, the other 12. The meeting is August 29--that should be fun.

Newmarket, Ontario, where I live, has seen relatively modest changes over the last few years. True, the last "quadrant" of town to be developed--the north-west corner--has filled up with houses, and this has increased traffic on certain roads, but it is really not that noticeable unless you drive through the new neighbourhoods, and remember the farmland that was there. A few low-rise buildings have been built, some for seniors, maybe one high-rise, and that is about it. Of course the recession has had an effect. With maybe one or two exceptions, there has probably not been a new high-rise built since 1995. Of course, the hospital has been building constantly for many years.

Now several projects seem to be moving forward. Not far from us is the presentation centre for Eagle Heights town homes. This stretch of Eagle is an old street, with houses set back from the street much farther than would be typically allowed today. The developer obviously plans to tear down several houses and have a good-size piece of land, with trees in back, to work with. The tree are part of a conservation area.

We received a flyer a couple of years ago saying there may be a high-rise right at Millard and Yonge, a few doors from us. And there has also been a proposal for several high-rises at Yonge and Davis.

I was at a meeting last week where people were discussing planned changes to the Glenway golf course--the only course that is entirely in Newmarket. Owners are proposing to keep 9 holes for golf, with a new club house to the west, then build high-rises along Davis Drive, some medium-density townhouses a bit further in, then some single family homes and new streets where there are fairways now. Some folks who have been living there are not thrilled, and some thought it was part of the agreement when the golf course was built that it would stay golf course. But: there was some fine print allowing for infill, and the province and region are all in favour of high-rise development on certain strips, including Davis Drive.

Some of this is supposed to go with new Bus Rapid Transit lanes. We'll see.

Old Houses

Culligan came last week to install a water softening system. This is something we should have done years ago--hard water here. Over two grand to purchase the system--could have rented, free installation, salt included, for $30 per month. I don't know--do you really want to own the system? Anyway, we do. Sadly, Culligan now includes a system to improve drinking water in their sales pitch. Reverse osmosis, weird chemical tests, etc. Someone on TV said: if a person who comes to your door says your water has as much chlorine as a swimming pool, they are lying. I think a lot of people distrust their tap water now, some companies were exploiting this without bothering with water softening, so Culligan went into the business as well. A crazy world.

Also the Culligan guy quoted something like $2400, and when we hesitated, he knocked off $200. Great, the prices are really meaningful.

The weirdest part: the Culligan man cut some of our copper water pipe, in order to replace one length with his own plastic tubing. He pointed out to me that when the two copper ends touched, there were sparks. He could also make the lights flicker.

I called the electrician in kind of a panic. The good news was that this wasn't a big shock, like the main household current--instead a very small current. The electrician left a message back: probably a ground problem inside or (worse) outside, no big deal. It's fun to look it up on the internet.

So last night all the living room lights (plugged into non-grounded outlets) were flickering from time to time. This morning I taped together two pieces of copper pipe--one of which is no longer carrying water. Problem seems solved. Weird. Old houses.

Vacation coming to an end

Usually my wife schedules some work around the house and yard for my vacations, and I do my best to schedule other things. We got a weekend in Ottawa at the mid-way point of the two weeks. Very enjoyable. Not much done before that, but we slowly got going during the last week. We installed two bathroom sinks--the plumber did the basement one, with me watching, and then I did the main floor the next day. It's a good thing I watched the plumber--I had to build a new U-shape trap for underneath, and I had an idea what I was doing.

These changes triggered some housecleaning. I took a load to the recycle/waste center--$10 for a car load, including two old sinks, a stinky old rug, and lots of other things. We made several trips to Value Village and the Salvation Army, one to the hazardous waste place that takes paints, two to ReStore (Habitat for Humanity) with ceramic floor tiles and some Portland Cement.

Zip sent us the movie The Invention of Lying, with Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner. Quite good, a bit weak toward the end. One idea is that if everyone told the strict truth, those who are ugly, incompetent and old would suffer the most--they really are losers, and everyone would tell them so. They tend to become suicidal until a liar cheers them up. This overlaps with Housesitter (Goldie Hawn, Steve Martin), in which lies generally make people feel better about themselves. Liar, Liar (Jim Carrey) I think has a similar idea. As someone says on the internet, Gervais takes a risk presenting the invention of a religion, a bit like Christianity, as the work of a liar who eventually says "there is no man in the sky." No one ever got rich preaching atheism to Americans.

In Ottawa we started to see The Tree of Life in a theatre, but my wife, finding it depressing, insisted on leaving after a few minutes. I very much want to see it all.

We took the baby who is staying with us to the Elmvale Zoo.

Just before the vacation, I got a couple of writing projects in better shape than before. I'm hoping to hear back from some more or less friendly critics. I'm planning my next project, and there are still some odds and ends of family tree to work on.

Running is not going particularly well. I have yet to really achieve the weekly schedule I need to prepare for a marathon, and I have a sore hip, and I'm just not enjoying it very much.

I had thought about going to Abstract Expressionism at the AGO--there's still time. I may try to access in a public library for some family tree stuff. Tomorrow is a funny kind of civic holiday, and friends are dropping by on their way from Ontario back to New Brunswick.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Missing the best part of a story

The obit for Elwy Yost in the Globe: OK OK the guy was much beloved in Ontario because he made a lot of old movies seem familiar must-sees (before VHS to say nothing of DVDs made movies so easy to find); he brought a true childlike joy to his work ...

But he was a bit of a vain fool--and that became part of the fun. Someone in Maclean's or some other Canadian magazine said his problem as a reviewer was that he had never seen a movie he didn't like. He actually wrote a letter to the editor defending himself--he thought it was his job to emphasize what was good in a movie--maybe the cinematography, maybe a particular actor's performance ....

But the best was the Frank Pranks. Frank magazine would get celebrities to comment on current events, or would pretend the individual was being considered for appointment to the Senate, or for the Order of Canada, or maybe even for Governor General. Many of them would fall for these suggestions completely, revealing the extent of their vanity--they had actually been wondering why appointments like this hadn't come along already. Elwy fell quicker, and harder, than anyone, and more than once. Supposedly on two different occasions he was caught either in the tub or on the john. "Can you just wait for one minute while I get some clothes on?" Again, somehow the joy he brought to everything made all this all the sweeter.

I once came across a fairly creepy interview with Graham Yost, Elwy's kid (writer of the movie Speed (bus making a jump), etc. Graham said his dad once kept him out of school for a day so they could watch King Kong together. The interviewer, a bit taken aback, said something like "that's quite a story," and Yost the younger said, now in tears, "that's a very cool story." Again, before VHS etc., but yeeks. King Kong? A profound exploration of man's relationship to nature, or science vs. nature, or how stereotypes of a black man raping a white woman can fit into these narratives? Give me a break.

Robbie Alomar: by all means, congrats on making it to the Hall of Fame, and thanks for some great years in Toronto. I actually dreamed during the ACLS that Alomar would get a big hit against Eckersley--and then it happened. But: wasn't there a point where Robbie was drafted lower than his brother Sandy, even though Robbie clearly had more talent, because of concern about his attitude? He'd show off making the difficult play, then blow the easy play? I can't find a source for this quickly ....

Peter Guber, Hollywood producer? One of the funnier famous stories about him is that he always looked for the happy ending, and he would use "research"--showing the movie to a local audience in LA--to support the idea that a happy ending would be popular. He tried this in the case of Rain Man, but Director Barry Levinson, who had retained creative control, would have none of it.

The Winnipeg Jets are using a picture of a CF-18 as part of their logo--partly because a squadron is based there. But: what about the famous maintenance contract that did not got to Winnipeg?

Then an opinion piece by Jeffrey Simpson: the federal Tories under Harper keep wanting to focus on crime, even though the crime rate is falling steadily. Are they not reality-based? But is has been pointed out (I believe by Carol Goar in the Star) that the poorest Canadians are often the ones who have to deal with crime--and crime makes it more difficult to do things like get jobs and decent housing.

If newspapers are dying, this is probably in part because they make everything a bit blander than it has to be--they miss the most interesting parts of a story, perhaps to avoid giving offence.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mental Ilness

The Alan Bennett book, A Life Like Other People's, is quite interesting.

There is a sort of central story, that he chose not to tell to much of anyone until fairly late in his life. His parents retired to a village where they had never lived before--supposedly a dream for both of them, but especially for his father. His mother started to have episodes of severe depression. Unable to do much of anything, tending to sit in one place--often on furniture that was not really meant for sitting, with a touch of paranoia--I can't go out there, they're watching. Who's watching, mother? If I told you, you wouldn't believe me. Bennett's father starts taking her to shrinks, and eventually he puts her in various institutions for various periods--generally the periods get longer over time, and she ends up with full-blown dementia, in yet another place where she's never lived before, but not far from Bennett's brother. For years her depression actually responds to some combination of 1. getting away from it all; 2. talk therapy; 3. drugs; 4. ECT or shock. Bennett says he believes ECT really helped, and he's unconvinced by critics of this therapy--too often, they just seem to say the family has to live with whatever it is, no matter how grim.

This whole story opens up another story, about the previous generation. During one of the "intake" type conversations--what symptoms has Mrs. Bennett been displaying, how long, has she been sick physically, etc., some shrink asks: how did her parents die? Alan says without hesitation "her father died of a heart attack," and describes the location and so on. Alan's father, sitting beside him, tries to give him a poke or something to get his attention. On the way to the car his father says: actually, your grandpa Peel committed suicide. The heart attack business, including the location, was a family legend.

Bennett makes it clear he never "figured out" any of his mother's depressive episodes. Did they have external causes, like moving to a strange place, feeling that "everyone was watching her" because she was new in the village, no longer having much to do because her retired husband did so much housework? Was there something chemical/biological going on, which would explain the apparent response to drugs and ECT? Did she have issues her whole life, which came to the surface rather late in life, which might explain talk therapy doing some good? He obviously starts to wonder: was there a genetic component?

Bennett reflects on the fact that both of his parents were painfully shy, and although they were certainly "nice" people, this almost prevented them from having friends. They truly never wanted to be the centre of attention--they almost didn't want to be noticed, named much less asked to speak in front of a group, etc. As an adult Bennett learned the story of their wedding. His mother had two sisters, much more outgoing than herself. As the wedding day approached, it became clear that these two as bridesmaids would take over, and thoroughly enjoy themselves. The bride-to-be said to her affianced that she would almost do anything to avoid a "big" church wedding (not that it was ever going to be all that big). She just couldn't do it. She'd call of the wedding, etc. So the young man--Bennett's father--went to a priest to ask if they could have a small ceremony at 7:30 a.m., so that he could drop his new wife at home and go to work as always. The priest said it was against the law to say the actual vows before 8:00. They eventually worked it out that all but the vows were said before 8:00, the vows themselves sharp at 8:00, then the day unfolded like any other day.

So: painful shyness. Bennett concludes that his painfully shy parents have something in common with his outgoing relatives: they believe wrongly that everyone is looking at them, or is inclined to do so. There is a kind of egomania in both, in comparison to the truth that most people are indifferent to us, most of the time. True, it is possible to do something in company that is so embarrassing, people talk about it for years, but that is very exceptional. Can these fairly common phenomena be steps on the road to mental illness? (Some of the shrinks keep insisting that depression is not mental illness--Bennett thinks they just don't want to admit that something so common is in fact an illness which they know virtually nothing about). Eeyore is sort of the depressive character in Pooh, and in Peanuts, the original children all tend toward depression or anger; the dog is about the only one who's entirely upbeat, and he eventually takes over the strip. Critics have said "the dog ate Shultz's homework." I think Shultz himself had trouble with depression.

Bennett is unable to find out much about the grandfather who committed suicide, except that the whole family kept the secret, and kept repeating the bullshit--even the relatives who would love to show off, and tell a good story. There were external factors to explain the suicide--a couple of bankruptcies, the whole family sliding down the social scale at a time when the Brits were excruciatingly aware of even small degrees of upward and downward mobility. But: it is hard to avoid thinking depression was an underlying problem.

Then there is the aunt. One of the two outgoing ones, she remains unmarried until fairly late--in fact, retired from a job she had always enjoyed. She marries an Aussie who fit in rather poorly in the family. He kept wanting to move to Oz, she clearly did not want to do so. She loses her address book, which she used to keep in touch with many acquaintances, and what had always been her endless stream of talk and note-writing became much accelerated, yet senseless. She eventually wandered out of a home she was in, and died of exposure.

Of course if we start saying that all kinds of "ordinary unhappiness" are mental illness, then we may be re-naming the human condition. Bennett seems to agree with Kingsley Amis (Memoirs--see Aunt Dora in "Family," and the chapter called "Shrinks"; Stanley and the Women) that when you encounter actual mental illness, you know it even if you can't name it. Crazy people aren't fascinating as some authors (including Freud) make them out to be; they don't shine at cocktail parties. (That would be Tourette's syndrome--an actual neurological disorder). They don't immediately raise the possibility that they have some deep insight that the rest of us lack. Rather, then tend to be almost unbelievably repetititious, simple-minded, monosyllabic, and tedious. Their world is limited and grey--and holds out no promise of anything better--and their conversation reflects those facts.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Cop and the PM in Britain

Amazing stuff. Sir Paul Stephenson, the London police commissioner (head of Scotland Yard?) resigns over the "phone hacking" scandal. He employed Neil Wallis to do PR for the police for about a year, from September 2009 to September 2010. This was after Wallis had lost his position with News of the World over the earlier phone hacking scandal--apparently confined to celebrities and royalty. Earlier this year Stephenson accepted hospitality from a spa or resort (he was recovering from surgery), and by this time, Wallis was working on a contract with this spa. The Daily Telegraph has diligently worked out that:

Sir Paul was offered hospitality by News International on 15 occasions between April 2007 and March 2010 - accepting 14 of the invitations.

What's amazing is that in his televised statement on his resignation, Stephenson pointed the finger right at Cameron. At no time did Stephenson hire Wallis, or have business dealings with him, knowing the extent of his involvement in the hacking scandal--or perhaps, knowing there was any involvement. The PM hired Andy Coulson after a much wider scandal was well known.

The Globe and Mail:

Mr. Stephenson resigned Sunday over his ties to a former News of the World executive editor who has been arrested over the scandal. In his resignation speech Stephenson made pointed reference to Cameron's hiring of Andy Coulson, a former editor of the shuttered tabloid who was arrested earlier this month over hacking.

Mr. Cameron said the situations of the government and the police were “completely different,” because allegations of police corruption “have had a direct bearing on public confidence into the police inquiry into the News of the World and indeed into the police themselves.”


Mr. Stephenson said he did not make the decision to hire Mr. Wallis and had no knowledge of allegations that he was linked to phone hacking, but he wanted his police force to focus on preparing for the 2012 London Olympics instead of wondering about a possible leadership change.

“I had no knowledge of the extent of this disgraceful practice and the repugnant nature of the selection of victims that is now emerging,” Mr. Stephenson said. “I will not lose any sleep over my personal integrity.”

The Spectator focuses in a bit better here and here.

It seems that British politicians in general sucked up to the Murdoch empire, accepted favours, etc., and senior police do so to some extent as well. But it's beginning to look like no one did so more than David Cameron. Now: an emergency debate in the British Commons. Fun.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Microsoft and Patents

The Android system involves perhaps one million pieces of code that were more or less new with that system. Do any of them violate someone's patent? The Google folks don't know--they don't take the time to check such things as they develop a product--they simply hope their lawyers can take care of any problems that develop. So now Microsoft can squeeze money out of a lot of companies using Android, saying: for all you know, you are in violation of one of our 18,000 patents; to avoid the hassle of checking and/or fighting it out legally, pay up. And they do. This has become almost traditional: IBM used to do it a lot. Not encouraging innovation; more like stifling it.

Microsoft may once again be the evil empire. h/t Instapundit.

My son e-mails in response to this: "Don't hate the player. It's not microsoft's fault, they're just taking full advantage of a really dumb system." He and I have talked before about how the patent system does not seem able to keep up with new technology.

Psychiatry: is the dam breaking?

Ian Brown writes in the Globe: psychiatry seems more controversial with the passing of time, rather than less, and there seem to be more rather than fewer sick people to deal with--because the categories are broad, hard to define, possibly meaningless, and spreading.

The beginning of the piece seems fairly devastating: One guy, Robert Spitzer, had a lot to do with writing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that has been in increasingly widespread use.

The manual’s flashy exactitude, however exaggerated, dovetailed profitably with the interests of drug companies, which were further revolutionizing psychiatry with psychoactive drugs, starting with the tranquillizer Thorazine in 1954 and by no means peaking with Prozac in 1987. It all helped popularize the theory that mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.

Brown hedges a bit as to whether the drugs are more or less harmless, like a placebo, or positively harmful, especially in the medium to long term. And towards the end he lets mainstream psychiatrists speak, saying they base their work more and more on objective evidence, and their science is at an early stage compared to other branches of medicine. There is little elaboration of the possibility that somewhat eccentric people are going to be branded as somehow not normal, and encouraged to take dangerous drugs; nor that psychiatry is causing or worsening an epidemic of serious mental illness.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Meech Lake: Quietly Now in Place?

A provocative piece by Chantal Hébert in the Star: "Meech Lake foes won the battle, lost the war."

When he stood up in the National Assembly to comment on the demise of the Meech Lake Accord in June 1990, then-Quebec premier Robert Bourassa could not have imagined that two decades later, one of his successors would be negotiating the social transfer for health care one-on-one with the prime minister of the day.

Nor could Bourassa have predicted that Quebec would spread its international wings to stake out positions independent and, sometimes, different from the federal government on issues as wide ranging as trade and climate change . . . and that the other premiers would follow suit.

The risk that the accord negotiated by Brian Mulroney at Meech Lake would neuter future federal governments was uppermost in the arguments of its vocal opponents, with the defence of provincial equality coming a close second.

Two decades later, it seems that in winning the battle, the Meech detractors lost the war.

Not only did the demise of the accord not prevent power from shifting from Ottawa to the provinces but the notion of provincial equality accelerated the movement.

The most famous "foe" of the Meech Lake Accord was Pierre Trudeau. It seemed at the time that he had once again inspired the Liberal Party to rally behind his leadership, and the Party would remain opposed to the provisions of the Meech Lake Accord. What actually happened?

Over the second half of Jean Chrétien’s tenure, billions of federal surplus revenues were transferred to the provinces and/or spent on tax cuts. With that money went the federal capacity of initiate a top-down expansion of Canada’s social infrastructure.

In Chrétien’s wake, Paul Martin negotiated separate child-care funding agreements with each province. In the name of asymmetrical federalism, he offered Quebec different modalities in the 2004 Health Accord

The federal government genuinely cut spending, and reduced its own role in various areas of public policy. The provinces gained responsibility, often with federal agreement.

What all did Meech provide for?


The accord was negotiated at a meeting between Mulroney and provincial premiers at Willson House at Meech Lake in the Gatineau Hills in 1987.[1]
It identified five main modifications to the Canadian constitution:
a recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society"
a constitutional veto for Quebec and the other provinces
increased provincial powers with respect to immigration
extension and regulation of the right for a reasonable financial compensation to any province that chooses to opt out of any future federal programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction
provincial input in appointing senators and Supreme Court judges

The deal-breaker at the time seemed to be "Quebec as a distinct society." What happened?

After the 1995 Quebec referendum, the federal government under Jean Chrétien did endorse recognition of Quebec's distinct society.[4][7] That recognition asked institutions of government "to take note of this recognition and be guided in their conduct accordingly."[8] The term is still absent from the Constitution.

(This was a motion passed by the House of Commons).

In November 2006, the House passed another motion, this time introduced by Stephen Harper, reading "That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada."

In 1996, the First Ministers of Canada, again with Chrétien in the lead, adopted the Social Union Framework in order to move away from unilateral federal action on health and social policy.