Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jonathan Franzen can't write . . .

. . . English.

Here's a sentence from Freedom:

"At home, after checking on the kids, she put on a sleeveless top and little cotton shorts and came after Walter in bed. This was very unusual of her, but thankfully not so unheard-of as to provoke comment and examination; and Walter needed no persuading to oblige her. It wasn't a big deal, just a little late-evening surprise, and yet in autobiographical retrospect it now looks almost like the high point of their life together."

Nice of her to come after Walter did, even if it was unusual. No need for examination though.

Two paragraphs down:

"A few weeks later, Dorothy collapsed at the dress store in Grand Rapids. Patty, sounding like her own mother, expressed concern to Walter about the hospital care she was getting, and was tragically vindicated when Dorothy went into multiple organ failure and died."

It's too bad that Patty's concern about her poor care is vindicated by the multiple organ failure of her mother in law. Vindication can strike pretty randomly, I guess. And this is the first we hear of Dorothy's failure and death.

Turn to any page in the book and you will find at least one sentence of stunning ugliness and and another of analgesic vapidity. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

British Bank Teller Becomes Dean, is Reappointed, then Fired

On Saturday, December 18th, the Globe and Mail reported that “A bitter dispute at McMaster University’s business school . . . has led to the resignation of the school’s high-profile dean, former business executive Paul Bates.” 
The Globe was not surprised or shocked by what was to me the most startling part of this story. A man without a university education was appointed Dean. According to Macleans (see below): "Bates reportedly got his start as a bank teller in Britain before moving to Canada in the early 1970s. He went on to head up four major brokerage firms and has sat on the boards of the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Canadian Investment Dealers Association, and has served as a part-time commissioner in the Ontario Securities Commission." Before his appointment as Dean, Bates was CEO of Charles Schwab’s Canadian division and taught at the University of Toronto, where he was an adjunct professor, a designation often accorded people with valuable practical knowledge who are asked to teach university level courses. 
Universities often contemplate appointing leaders from outside academia. They should not, and this story illustrates why. Universities do not operate like companies, nor should they. Their function is to produce and transmit knowledge. The production of knowledge is necessarily a wasteful endeavour – there are a thousand bad ideas for every good one, but you don’t know an idea is bad until somebody has put it forward and others have tested it. Very few companies can tolerate this kind of waste. Moreover, ideas are produced autonomously, not at the command of an executive -- there is an important area of operations, therefore, in which academics have no boss. This drives Deans crazy, especially Deans who are used to being captains of industry.
Business executives are rarely tolerant of administrative cultures other than their own (except sometimes the command structure of the military). They regularly excoriate the fact that there aren’t more business people in politics -- read Gwyn Morgan in the Globe for a good example of this -- ignoring the fact that the public accountability of politicians differentiates their endeavour from that of a bank or brokerage. Most business executives would similarly be appalled by the chaotic, highly individualistic, non-team-oriented, non-results-oriented culture of academia. Whether they are right or wrong is not something I want to debate on this occasion. The fact is that business executives are handicapped as academic leaders.
The handicap was pretty evident in Bates's case. The Globe says that, according to a review of the school commissioned by McMaster’s President, “Faculty members soon became “perplexed” about how decisions were made on important academic matters such as chairing tenure and promotion meetings, developing research policies and developing new graduate programs.” In fact, things were so bad that the the faculty association actually took a poll:  80% of the faculty responded, and 80% of those opposed Bates's reappointment. The university’s Board of Governors ignored them. Bates was reappointed for a second term in 2009.
As it turns out, there are indications that Paul Bates was not a great respecter of people even as a business leader. Macleans magazine reported on May 11th 2010 that Bates was in the middle of an “ugly battle” with Schwab employees in 2002. According to Macleans

“A 2002 Financial Post column headlined “Slick salesmanship masked discontent,” blamed Bates for the revolt at the discount brokerage—a dozen employees sent a letter to Charles Schwab’s head office warning that management of the Canadian arm was “no longer acting in the best interest of ourselves or our clients”—and suggested Bates should have been fired as a result (instead, he oversaw the sale of the brokerage firm to Scotiabank)."

Embarrassingly enough, the Financial Post report was later used as a textbook case-study of bad management. McMaster students would find photographs of their Dean in their text-books, cited as an example of poor personnel management.
At McMaster, Bates wanted to attract students with an interest in the “real world”, to treat these students as “customers”, and to remove academics from committee memberships, where (as somebody with his background might think) all they did was slow things down. These are telltale signs of a disconnect between the Dean and the entity he is administering. As Macleans observed: “while Bates’s pledge to treat students as “customers” sounds appealing on the surface, academics argue there’s an important distinction between training someone to do a job and providing them with an education.” 
Macleans continued:  

“One professor, who has been at McMaster for several decades, said it’s more than just a case of Bates and his private sector get-it-done attitude clashing with a bunch of cloistered academics. ‘It has a lot more to do with his conduct and him as a leader of an academic unit,’ he says. ‘Even after being around here for five years, he still doesn’t understand how an academic institution should be governed.’ The professor claimed that Bates appeared to recognize early on that he didn’t have the broad support of the faculty and quickly resorted to a system of rewarding those who were loyal to him—the report cites allegations that Bates attempted to influence tenure and promotion decisions—and marginalizing those who didn’t.” 

And when five of six area chairs at the business school expressed disagreement with the Dean's plans for a new facility in Burlington Ontario, they were officially reprimanded by the Provost (presumably after a complaint by the Dean). Those of us who have spent their lives in academia know how this kind of behaviour clashes with the democratic ideals of the university. Though these ideals are often breached, the bully tactics of a large firm are hardly ever seen on campus. (Incidentally, the facility in Burlington is largely devoted to an executive MBA program, hardly a part of a university's core mission. It was hardly unpredictable that the faculty would oppose this diversion of focus. Praise for the project came from other sources: the execs who took MBAs there, for instance.)
It may be that the faculty at McMaster’s business school are an academically disreputable bunch, and that Bates is being demonized for their pre-existent incompetence and lack of cooperation. But taken as exculpation, this does not strike me as particularly convincing. It is certainly true that an outsider faces resistance when brought in to reform an organization. But aren’t business executives supposed to be good at navigating organizational difficulties of this type? This excuse shouldn’t ring true even to those who think that the “private sector get-it-done attitude” should displace academic waffling.
Here is a maxim that Boards of Governors, stuffed as they are with non-academics, are reluctant to take seriously, though they really should: anybody who has responsibility for academic programs should be a capable, if not a distinguished, academic.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The King's Speech

Here's the scoop:
  • Guy appointed by god to do god's job has a speech defect. To make up for his/her lack of due diligence, god sends man to cure guy. Under man's tutelage, guy takes oath to serve god, and gives big speech committing his nation to god's care without making a fool of said god (whose faith he was defending, so win-win for god and guy).
That's about it. Colin Firth acted brilliantly as guy, Geoffrey Rush irritatingly as man, and Helena Bonham Carter cloyingly as guy's squeeze: lot's of slap and tickle there.

Thanks to Firth, the movie is extremely entertaining. 

I have been thinking how this movie is a beautiful little exercise in propaganda. First, Guy's daughter, Lilibet, now 83, is remembered less for carrying on in guy's virtuous path, than for having really silly offspring. In the movie, her adorable mom and noble father burnish her pedigree. Attention shifts from silly son (also apparently appointed by god to defend his faith). 

And not bad to revivify the story about guy's wicked elder brother (WEB). WEB is a bully, plus apparently he lost his mind when a not tremendously attractive chick lured him with tricks she learned in a brothel in Shanghai. (Guy himself, as well as WEB, learned them from a Parisienne prostitute named Flora, provided by "equerries" at Buck Pal. -- Shanghai/Paris which would drive a lustful young Englishman mad sooner? Those who say Paris: go see the movie.) 

Secondly, we are reminded that this small island in Europe (that's England, not Corsica) that saved us from Hitler -- led by guy who gave aforementioned speech. Good eh?

England is in tough spot these days, and needs every little boost that its debt-ridden populace can get. Publicly funded films about the glory of the realm don't hurt. When the yobs get excited about Harry and Kate, not to mention the Olympics, the wounded economy may get a little tickle/stimulus. Good investment, guys.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Is There Supposed to be Something Wrong with Germany?

In this morning's (25/11/10) Globe and Mail, Timothy Garton Ash has an argument that goes something like this: 
  1. Germany is very successful. 
  2. Ireland and others are not. 
  3. But Germany wants Ireland and others to stay in the eurozone. 
  Conclusion: Germany should make Ireland and others feel better by becoming less German. "The right balance may be: 70 per cent other euro zone countries become more 'German', 30 per cent Germany becomes less so."

This is of a piece with articles that I have been reading recently, which go something like this. Go to Turkey/Portugal/Britain. You'll find a lot of German goods on the shelves/on the roads/in the home. This is not good. Germany should stop it.

Can I say? -- I don't get it. Everybody in the world wants either a Mercedes Benz, or a BMW, or an Audi. (Oh ok: 90%. Some want a Maserati. But who exactly wants a Honda, really wants a Honda?) When they can't have one of those German brands, they'd rather settle for a Volkswagen than a Toyota. So what are the Germans supposed to do? Build in a few problems with the accelerator pedal? This seems to be Garton Ash's solution.

While I am on the topic, Germany illustrates to me why we all want more government. There's piles of government there. But there's prosperity, culture, and lots of public transit. And as far as I can tell, Angela Merkel doesn't keep showing up and telling you what to do. What do Sarah Palin/Glenn Beck think about this? That Germany should become 30% less civilized?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Memories of 1956

To say that Hungarians are masters of memory is perhaps to risk cliché. But I couldn't help being moved at their genius for preservation. 

Here is the extraordinary statue of Imre Nagy, the leader of the breakaway Hungarian government, executed by the Russians two years later:

He gazes at the Parliament Building.

Here is a flag that commemorates the one from which the rebels ripped the Soviet emblem:

It flies next to a symbolic grave of people killed there.

Finally, here's a more humorous one, of Istvan Szechenyi, who endowed the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and built the iconic Chain bridge in the centre of Budapest:

Two Classical Bridges

I came across two bridges with significance derived from ancient Greece. The first is the Eisener Steg in Frankfurt, an old iron footbridge that crosses the Main river in central Frankfurt.

The inscription is from Homer's Odyssey: "to many foreigners on a wine-dark sea". No clear explanation of what that quotation is supposed to mean on this bridge.

And then there is this:


"This river I step in is not the river I stand in", an allusion to Heraclitus on a bridge that crosses the Don Valley on Queen Street East in Toronto. No more comprehensible -- and why the allusion, rather than the exact quote? -- but equally charming.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

G20 protesters: Boxed in

On Sunday morning, strolling past Toronto Police Headquarters (two minutes away from where I live), I struck up a conversation with a police constable.  Why, I asked him, did the police not protect property during the G20 disturbances of the previous day?  He replied, quite reasonably, that the police did not want to risk bodily harm to protect windows.  They would have intervened if people had been at risk.  Nobody was harmed, he pointed out, nor was anybody placed under that threat.

That sounded right.  But it was an odd echo of something a rioter from the notorious "Black Block" told the Globe and Mail: "We're not violent," he said, "all we damaged was property -- not a single person was hurt."  (That might sound a tad disingenuous: what would have happened if police had tried to arrest one of the rioters while he was smashing a window with a hammer? -- But let's not chase the thought down that hole.)  Ironically, the scary rioter was making the same distinction as my charming constable acquaintance.  Hurting property is different from hurting people.  Morally different.

Here is another head-scratcher from that Sunday.  A lot of people, including some suspected of carrying dangerous weapons, were milling around in the vicinity of Queen and Spadina.  (See below.)  Police suspected some of these people of carrying nasty items, such as Molotov cocktails.  So they told everybody they had to go, unless detained.  The crowd didn't disperse.  So the police boxed the crowd in -- presumably, they wanted to hold the malfeasant types in until they were ready to be inspected without resisting.  Problem is they held the whole crowd there for several hours in the pouring rain, until they could be inspected, and then detained or released.  Many of the people in the box were peaceful and legitimate protesters; one was a freelancer working for the Guardian newspaper in London. (I really do not want to say that the Guardian's coverage of the Vancouver Olympics makes it ok to punch their journalists in the stomach -- but I confess the thought did cross my mind.)  

Now, here's the question.  Were those who were not charged illegally detained? Were their civil rights violated?


I don't know anything about the law.  But here's what puzzles me.  The police claim that the crowd was ordered to disperse.  Suppose this is true.  Then, supposing that the order was delivered audibly, clearly, and repeatedly, not dispersing puts you in risk of some coercive action.  So on this scenario, some of the people in the box knowingly disobeyed an order given by peace officers.  They could not find their way out of a place that they had been told to vacate.  Look: if you wander into a place where there is a clearly posted Keep Out sign, you can't really complain.  Maybe the person who put the sign there had no right to -- but surely the police do have a right to ask citizens not to interfere with their actions.  (Hell, they do that every time I venture out onto an expressway in Toronto.  There's always some "investigation" that lasts for hours and backs the Gardiner up forever.)

Let's stick with the scenario for a moment.  Some of those people in the box claim that they didn't hear the order.  They may not have heard it -- that it was given audibly doesn't imply that everybody heard it.  Some may have been distracted; some may have been talking to their friends; some may have had other things on their minds.  But this doesn't put them in the clear, legally speaking, as far as I know.  If the order is properly given, not having heard it is not an excuse for disobeying.  Nor does it cut the mustard to say, as some did say, that they were waiting for a bus.  Once riot police tell you to clear out, the transit option disappears.  Better to think of walking, or taking a taxi, or hiking up to Dundas to see if transit is running better up there.  Inconvenient . . . but what else are you going to do?

Still sticking with the warning-was-given scenario, the best sense I can make of the just-hanging-around scenario is that, given the situation and its political implications, some people wanted to disobey the police.  That's civil disobedience.  I admire civil disobedience -- it's a much more lofty option than insisting that you have to catch the street car.  Hey, I was brought up in India, and Gandhi is my hero.  You are not going to catch me saying that peaceful civil disobedience is morally less-than-heroic.

But: and this was Gandhi's point -- watch the Ben Kingsley/Leslie Howard scene if you don't believe me -- that civil disobedience comes with the duty to suffer the duly administered legal penalty.  If you break the law for a noble political end, then assuming you want to change the state not destroy it, you accept the penalty.  What's this about civil rights being violated?  You don't have a civil right to hang out at the corner of Queen and Spadina when a peace officer has told you to move on.  Assuming, of course, that he has a right to do so.  (If you think he doesn't have that right, then why not say so -- rather than all this "I didn't hear him" nonsense?)

OK, let's come off the scenario now.  It hasn't yet been established that the police did clearly, loudly, and repeatedly enough make it clear that people had to disperse.  I would think, though, that this is easily established.  There must be film, right?  The guy/gal who took the photo above probably could tell you, if s/he was contacted and asked nicely.  If they just boxed people in without giving them a chance to leave, and kept them there for hours in the pouring rain, and didn't give them anything to eat or a private place to relieve themselves -- well, that is a crime.  How would you like to be treated that way? 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Canada's "Founding" Peoples

A couple of weeks ago, retired Supreme Court Justice John Major released his final report on the aftermath of the Air India crash of more than twenty years ago.  That crash was the result of a bomb.  The Major report itemized the Keystone Cop procedures within Canadian intelligence services and the RCMP that led them to ignore clear warnings of an attempted bombing that very weekend, the destructive squabbles between these two agencies that led to failed prosecutions, and other disgusting breaches of basic competence in the security services that are supposed to protect us.

An interesting sidelight of the report was Justice Major's bewilderment that after the crash Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, called the Indian Prime Minister to commiserate with him about India's loss.  Bewildering because by far the larger portion of the people who died in the crash were Canadian citizens and residents.  One commentator said, in a silly and unfeeling, but nonetheless revealing, exaggeration: "All that India lost was a plane."  Native-born white Canadians tended for a couple of decades to treat the Air India crash as if it were an incident that happened in a foreign country (other than England).

I have been seething about this, and doubtless this explains why I was irritated afresh by the plaque that the City of Toronto placed under the imposing equestrian statue of King Edward VII in Queen's Park. 

It reads: 

"Originally standing in Edward Park, Delhi, India, this statue was erected on the present site through the generous subscriptions of the citizens of this area.

"This gift to the City of Toronto was made possible by the Government of India and the former Canadian High Commissioner to India, His Excellency, The Right Honourable Roland Michener CC, CD, Governor General of Canada, and brought to the City through the personal generosity of Henry R. Jackman CC."  William Dennison, Mayor.

The plaque does not say who made the gift, for it equates the role of the Government of India (GOI) with that of Michener. In fact, the story is that the statue had been relegated to a graveyard for imperial statues in Delhi, and Michener begged it for Toronto from GOI.  Then Henry Jackman paid for the transportation, and local citizens for its erection in Queen's Park.

In her disgustingly arrogant memoir, Michener's daughter tells the story, but expresses no gratitude at all, complaining instead of the delays in transferring the edifice which she attributes to Babu bureaucracy.  She writes as if the thing were her property, tied up by some backward Customs poo-bah.

The plaque gives the impression that the local citizens of Toronto are to be thanked ahead of the actual donors -- the people of India.  The latter are never acknowledged, much less thanked.

A small matter, yes: but indicative of the respect that immigrants and non-English foreigners used to receive in Canada and in Toronto.   

Monday, April 5, 2010

Three Calgary Restaurants

I have been spending some time in Calgary, and took the opportunity to visit three restaurants that people think well of here.

Catch is a restaurant that specializes mostly in fish.  It's located in an older stone building on Centre Street and 8th Avenue, on the well-preserved Stephens Street Mall.  There's an "oyster bar" -- really a pub -- downstairs and an attractive restaurant upstairs.  The restaurant is a very pleasant room and fun to eat in.  

We had the tasting menu.  It started with a risotto cake on caramelized onions.  This dish didn't work.  The cakes were nice and crisp on the outside, but the risotto itself was a disaster -- tasteless and mushy, it had all the culinary pizazz of porridge for babies.  This was followed by an indifferent ravioli with spot prawns -- it's a bit early for spot prawns, I think, and maybe these were frozen last year.  Anyway, they didn't have much flavour -- and when has one ever said that about a freshly caught spot prawn?  The third dish was excellent -- a beautifully prepared broiled "silk" snapper.  The broiler worked perfectly on this one -- though the server told us that most of his customers scrape off the skin.

Overall: B-.

The Osteria de Medici is an expensive restaurant that people like to be seen at -- George W. Bush was taken there, and recently the Edmonton Oilers had a dispute there when they drank themselves silly and then balked at the $20,000 bill.  I was flattered that the Philosophy Department chose this after my talk.  The food, however, was a disasterA limp bruschetta as an amuse bouche, followed by mushy tortellini in a brodo that showed its tomato origins in an slick of pink oil.  Then a spongy grilled chicken breast on undressed vegetables.  Bad cooking, a server who would have been ok at a much less expensive place.  No redeeming virtue.

Overall: F.

The River Cafe is a rustic stone building on Prince's Island.  My daughter and I went there for a lazy lunch on my birthday.  They seated us in a sunbeam by a large window, and we basked for two hours.  I had beautifully prepared pork belly -- slowly cooked so that a rich, almost winey, flavour suffused the whole piece, which was topped by crisp crackling, scored to create a striking pattern.  Accompanied by a small bean and spinach.  Drank a lovely Sicilian Planeta, which complemented the pork perfectly.  Premala ate scallops, for which she expressed great satisfaction.

Overall: A-. 

Thursday, March 18, 2010


It's probably after the fact as far as usage is concerned, but may I protest about the use of 'intent' for 'intention'?  As in:  'He chased his dog with the intent of taking it home' instead of '. . . with the intention of taking it home.'

I am pontificating here, and doing so even without proper research (like looking the word up in the Oxford English Dictionary).  But here goes.  'Intent' is an adjective, as in 'She was intent upon ruining our fun'.  It gets turned into an adverb in the usual way, and the adverb reveals the meaning: 'She studied intently'.  'Intent' is a slightly odd adjective in that it requires a complement.  Usually, you cannot be intent without being intent on something.  Hence it can't be used attributively: you can't say 'She is an intent person' because this would be incomplete.  -- Or perhaps you can, meaning that she is to an unusual degree intent on things that she takes up.  But it is surely odd to say 'She is an intent on ruining our fun person'.  

'Intention' is, of course, a noun, and refers to the purpose of an action.

So how did 'intent' come to be used for 'intention'?  One natural, but false, theory is that since 'She was intent on spoiling our fun' means the same as 'She had the intention of spoiling our fun', 'intent' replaced 'intention' in the second.  As I said, this is wrong: the two sentences are not equivalent.   For when you say 'She was intent on . . . ', you don't merely mean that she had the intention, but that she displayed a certain focus and concentration on it.  That's what is revealed by the adverbial transformation to 'intently'.

I think that the confusion came in with the legalism 'with intent'.  I think this is properly used when a course of action has a point of focus, or when everything somebody did was focused on a single point.  'With intent' naturally takes the complement 'to', which says what that focus was.  Thus, 'She drove with intent to break the speed record' suggests that everything she did while driving was directed to this aim.  But then some people slipped into using it where the weaker "with the intention to" or "with the intention of" would have been more appropriate.  Thus, "She drove to Toronto with the intention of saving money" does not properly suggest that all of her driving-related actions were aimed at being money-saving -- she may have driven uneconomically fast -- just that the choice to drive (rather than to fly) were so aimed.

Coming back to 'He chased the dog with the intent to take it home': it suggests that his manner of chasing was particularly well suited to taking the dog home after he caught it.  But surely this is not right.  So maybe there are circumstances in which it would be right to say '. . . with intent to catch it', but not ' . . . with the intent to take it home'.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Two Places I Once Lived In (in Edmonton)

The one above (10908 126th St.) has been thoroughly renovated, which is good, since it was such a cold house.  But I was glad to see the colours I chose myself.   It's a beautiful house on a beautiful street.

The one above (10317 Villa Ave, I think) is truly a gorgeous old brick place from 1911.  It retains its stately dignity.

Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton

So what do we think of the new art gallery in Edmonton?  My own view is that it is a bit too small for its very large ribbons, and doesn't have the grace of Frank Gehry's Chicago Millenium Park bridge.  But it does bring some drama to Winston Churchill Square, which has the City Hall glass pyramid, the Winspear concert hall, and the still charming Citadel Theatre.

Here's a shot of the lobby:

One odd feature is the ribbons are made of stainless steel plates, with exposed (but flush) rivets, much like an aircraft wing.  But there are water stains from the rivets (still much like aircraft wings) and places where the plates are not flush to each other (not like a wing).

Harvest Room, Edmonton

Is there a nicer room to eat in than the Harvest Room in the Macdonald Hotel in Edmonton?

This is my friend, Alex, and though the left picture behind him is a little crooked, you must admit that it is an awfully nice place to have lunch.

The food itself used to be better.  The menu for lunch is restricted -- one fish, saltimbocca, a steak, and a vegetarian dish.  Both Alex and I settled on the saltimbocca, which was nice enough -- crisp outside, nice ham inside, and the sage leaf rather tasty.  But whose idea was it serve this on a salad with croutons?

We did have a lovely wine with lunch though -- a Nk'Mip Qwam Qwmt Merlot from the Okanagan, on this last day of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  A complex, chocolate heavy, but still fruity wine from the burgeoning wine industry in British Columbia.  The day before we tasted a Sandhill Sangiovese, which was truly sensational.  Go British Columbia!