Category Archives: Canada

Green all year, no mosquitos

Salon.com reports that American immigration to Canada may be increasing (see Salon.com Life | Discontented Americans consider Canada).

It’s amazing how irrational human beings can be. Most cite Canada’s health care system as a positive reason for immigrating, and yet until recently hospitals in Toronto were one of the best places in the world to catch SARS. Others like Canada’s gun control laws, and yet in recent months Canadians have been up in arms (excuse the pun) about the country’s exceedingly expensive gun control registry. One Minnesotan even wants to go for the Canadian climate! She dreamily described Vancouver as “Green all year, no mosquitos“.

Given that more Canadians continue to move to America each year than vice versa, I guess the grass really is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Canada, the 51st state

Some people claim that Canada becomes more like the United States every day, but the Washington Post published an article on Canada Day that argues against that trend: Whoa! Canada!
Legal Marijuana. Gay Marriage. Peace. What the Heck’s Going On Up North, Eh?
.

It refers to a best-selling Canadian book titled Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values which includes a New Yorker cartoon showing a man and woman enjoying drinks before dinner. The man says, “You seem familiar, yet somehow strange — are you by any chance Canadian?”

For more on the reaction to this book see The Christian Science Monitor and The Nation.

A scholastic tragedy

Last February my Canadian high school hit the headlines around the world, but for all the wrong reasons. Seven students were killed by an avalanche while on a school skiing trip in the Rocky Mountains to the west of Calgary.

This week a consultant’s report into the school’s Outdoor Education programme was released, and it makes interesting reading. While describing the programme as one of the best in Canada and praising the skill and character of the students on the trip, it criticises the school for failing to systematically assess the unavoidable risks involved and communicate them to parents. However, the parents were also criticised for complacently abdicating their responsibility for their children’s well being.

In February the disaster made the news internationally (even the BBC reported it), but the consultant’s report appears to be of more local interest. The headline in the Globe & Mail on Wednesday was Report into avalanche deaths faults school planning, while CBC Calgary susbsequently reported School to drop some outdoor trips.

Strathcona Tweedsmuir School had an ambitious outdoor education programme even when I was there, and it was the source of many of my best memories of my scholastic career. White water canoeing is the most exhilarating and simultaneously terrifying activity I have ever completed, and yet I would never have experienced it if I hadn’t attended STS. I remember one cross-country skiing trip to Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park on which the return journey was the definition of bliss. [I notice now that the Lake O’Hara Fire Road trail that we skied crosses several avalanche paths, but I don’t remember being concerned about this at the time.]

One of the most interesting segments of the report concerns the effect of the school’s “instructional style”:

Pressure from peers or teachers can affect the decision-making ability of a student or family. It may be subtle or not. A teacher applying pressure to a student may, at the time, feel that a demanding style will “motivate” a student to achieve. Others may disagree and say that the style is inappropriate.

Some parents of OE 25 students have criticized a “coercive” style they say
is prevalent among select STS outdoor education staff. The staff describe
this style as “having high expectations,” and the students interviewed gave
no evidence to suggest otherwise. To the contrary, students who were
interviewed consider the outdoor education staff at STS to employ
appropriate instructional styles and to be positive role models. However,
the school needs to be aware of and give serious consideration to this topic.

In the past, parents have talked to the high school principal and outdoor
education program staff of their concerns about outdoor education teacher
demands and instructional style. As one of his roles, the outdoor education
program coordinator should be responsible to facilitate consistent and
appropriate instructional styles within the program.

I can certainly appreciate this criticism. I remember some teachers applying pressure and itimidating students to participate in activities that didn’t at first appeal. Participating in an activity under duress is unlikely to encourage a positive experience. Everyone would be better off if the motivation to participate was derived from the anticipated rewards of the Outdoor Education programme, rather than fear of the negative consequences of staying at home.

Here’s hoping the school community can learn from this tragedy and use the knowledge to benefit future students.

Alberta bound

This week’s edition of the Economist contains an article about Canada’s potential to rival Saudi Arabia as a producer of oil (see Economist.com | Energy | There’s oil in them thar sands!).

As the Economist states “there may be more oil trapped in Alberta than under all of Saudi Arabia”. Trapped is an appropriate word because the oil is embedded in thick, viscous sand and cannot be extracted without considerable effort and money. The process involves injecting steam into the ground in order to reduce the viscosity of the sand such that you can pump it out of the ground and separate the oil.

Twenty years ago my first summer job after starting university was in the Reservoir Engineering department of Gulf Oil in Calgary. I was a computing major at the time, and my job was to analyse the results of a computer simulation of in-situ oil sand extraction. It was a good summer job and I learned a lot, although it was totally unlike anything I’d done before or since.

Now it seems that after considerable research and investment, it may finally be economically viable to begin developing Alberta’s oil sand industry. It’s nice to think that Alberta’s natural resources may one day lessen the developed world’s dependence on the Middle East, although according to the Economist we shouldn’t hold our breath.

An Internet Bestseller

Given the dot.com boom and bust, the long-term impact of the Internet on business largely remains to be seen, but there’s at least one industry where its effect is a huge improvement: the sale of antiquarian books.

Believe it or not, but the impact of the Internet on the sales of used books was far from certain. Would the improved ability to find specific books increase demand and sales sufficiently to offset any decline in prices that might occur if customers could easily shop around? That’s the question Björn Frank and Guntram Hepperle asked at the University of Hohenheim in Germany at the end of 2000. In the abstract to their paper entitled The Internet’s Impact on the Market for Antiquarian Books: Some Unexpected Empirical Results (click here for the whole paper in PDF format)
they concluded:

Though there is a considerable variance in most books’ prices, we do not observe the expected negative correlation between price and share of internet sales (in relation to a seller’s total sales). We find other factors which have a systematic impact on prices, but with respect to the Internet, our main result is that e-business currently contributes little or nothing to driving prices downwards.

Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca WakefieldI have to say that I’m not surprised. Yesterday a biography of one of my distant cousins arrived in the post from Hoffman’s Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio. The third edition of Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield: Missionary in East Africa was published in 1888 and written by the subject’s brother, Robert Brewin. I only discovered this book two weeks ago in the course of doing some family history research, and yet thanks to the information superhighway I already have my own copy and Hoffman’s Bookshop has another satisfied customer.

Although I purchased the book from Hoffman’s, the transaction was brokered by abebooks.com, which “connects those who buy books with those who sell them, providing abundant selection at affordable prices”. The Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield was only the second book I have purchased in this way, but I’m in the market for a third, and thanks to abebooks.com’s “want list” feature there’s every chance that I’ll find it eventually.

Last week when I was searching for the Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield there was only one copy to be found, so comparing prices was impossible; but in my limited experience prices on the Internet for books in a similar condition are also similar. So the real benefit the Internet brings is the ability to track the books down in the first place. There’s no way I would have found copies of my books without the Internet.

Of course, there’s another benefit. I have yet to set foot within 250 miles of Columbus. In fact, I’ve never been to Ohio at all; and now, fortunately, I don’t have to — at least not to spend time in its bookshops.

Update: For more on the Canadian success story abebooks.com see Giants and behemoths in The Globe and Mail.

My Desert Island Disc #2

All Fly Home album cover
All Fly Home album cover

A year ago I wrote about my first Desert Island Disc and with the advent of summer, it’s high time I wrote about my second – Al Jarreau’s Grammy-winning album from 1978 All Fly Home.

I hadn’t heard of Al Jarreau in 1978. I was introduced to his music a few years later by my second roommate at university, George Applegarth, who came from an old established family in San Francisco.

George was incredibly urbane for a freshman in small-town provincial English Canada, and I had never met anyone like him. It was clear from the start that he really wanted to enjoy student life, and in the end he had trouble adapting to the cold, serious, unsophisticated climate he found at Queen’s. Just before Halloween he called it quits and returned to his large family in warm California. During his short stay, however, I fell in love with his two recordings by Al Jarreau. I played them over and over again in our room, until even George started to complain that I was playing them too much.

The two albums were This Time and All Fly Home, and to be honest I don’t know which I would choose as my favourite. Whenever I introduce friends to Jarreau’s music, however, I always play All Fly Home because I know that one particular track is guaranteed to impress them: Jarreau’s version of the Beatles┬ásong She’s Leaving Home.

The song tells the story of a girl running away with her boyfriend to escape the oppressive control of her parents. It was inspired by a true story that Lennnon and McCartney spotted in The Daily Mail, and you can tell from the lyrics (“She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years“) that they understood the feelings of disaffected youth very well.

It’s hard to describe what Jarreau does to this song, but no one ever recognises it as Lennon and McCartney even if they are familiar with the original. It’s arranged for jazz trio and, freed from the constraints of pop, lasts twice as long as the original. At this point in his career, Jarreau was a true jazz musician, and as fans will know, when not singing words, his voice becomes a fourth instrument in the band.

His interpretation of She’s Leaving Home is about as far removed from the Beetles’ version as I can imagine possible, and yet it remains incredibly true to the spirit of the original song. In fact, more so. I think it is arguably better at expressing the painful regret of past failures than the original Beatles recording.

Even though I haven’t heard them all, Jarreau’s performance is so good that I’m sure it’s the best rendition of this piece (according to The Covers Project there have been eight). It’s a masterpiece of understanding, expressed through a song all about misunderstanding, and for that reason alone it would have to be among my desert island discs. Besides, how many cover versions are better than the original?

Springtime distractions

When people ask me why I live in Britain, I tell them it’s for the wonderful weather. Of course they usually react with disbelief, but here’s news of the climate in which I grew up (via Radio Canada International):

CALGARY: ALBERTANS DIG OUT AFTER RECORD SNOWFALL
People in southern Alberta Sunday [27 April 2003] continued to mop up heavy, wet snow after a record-breaking spring blizzard. As much as 30 to 60 centimetres of snow in some areas Saturday left people battling slick roads, power failures, cancelled flights and back-breaking shovelling. Calgary and the surrounding area got blasted with snow throughout the entire day Saturday. The snowfall amount was a record for the date since Environment Canada began recording weather 118 years ago. The storm stranded hundreds of travellers, closed highways, toppled trees and knocked out power to thousands of homes. Two Calgary men, aged 58 and 62, died from heart attacks while shovelling. In all, paramedics responded to six patients suffering such attacks while digging out from under the blizzard. Snow fell as far north as Grande Prairie and heavy snowfall warnings were in effect Sunday night for most of central and north-western Alberta, including the Edmonton area. Forecasters were calling for 10 to 15 centimetres.

It’s on record as having snowed in Calgary in every month of the year. I have even experienced snow in August in the Rocky Mountains to the west of the city. I’ll take Britain’s milder climate over western Canada’s extremes any day.

As it happens, we’ve had fantastic weather in the UK this spring. The gardening correspondent of the Financial Times recently described it as “divine” and the myriad of statistics produced by the Met Office confirms the perception that it’s been a beautifully distracting spring.

That’s partly why I haven’t written much in this virtual space in April. It’s been beautiful, and I’ve been busy tackling real world pursuits.

Cold Canadian pursuits

What do you do on a cold day in Canada? This report from Radio Canada International reveals the answer:

The Manitoba chapter of the Huntington Society of Canada has topped its own world record for the longest continuous line of moving snowmobiles. Officials say 316 of them took to the ice on Lake Winnipeg on Saturday, bettering last year’s record of 307 sleds. Although the effort was well short of the 600 organizers had hoped for, spokesman Vern Barrett was happy. He said it was minus-35 Celsius and some people had trouble starting their cars, let alone snowmobiles. The event raised about $32,000 for the Huntington Society. The record-breaking performance will be mailed to Guinness officials, who must certify the record claim. But Manitobans may not hold the record long. The former record holders in Trout Lake, Ontario are rumoured to be planning another run at the title.