September 20th, 2010

[URBAN NOTE] On Rob Ford's likely victory and what it says for Toronto

The rumours I'd heard in the Twittersphere were true: Rob Ford easily leads in the polls, suggesting that unless something radical occurs he'll be Toronto's next mayor.

A new poll suggests Toronto mayoral candidate Rob Ford is leading the pack with the support of 45.8 per cent of decided voters, giving him a 24-point lead over his closest rival.

The Nanos Research telephone poll, commissioned by CTV and the Globe and Mail, surveyed 1,021 Torontonians between Sept. 14 and 16. The poll has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

It places George Smitherman at 21.3 per cent of the vote. In third place is Joe Pantalone with 16.8, while Rocco Rossi is in fourth with 9.7 per cent and Sarah Thomson fifth with 6.4.

In June, a Nanos poll showed Ford doing well only in Etobicoke while the latest poll shows Ford doing well everywhere, including in the old city of Toronto. "I think we're entering a new part of the campaign," said Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research.

"I think the next part of the campaign is going to be focused on two questions: Is Rob Ford up for the job to be the next mayor of Toronto? If not, who is the main challenger that could be an alternative to him in case Rob Ford falters in the next weeks?"

At blogTO, Tomasz Bugajski wondered if Mayor Rob Ford might work out like Mayor Mel Lastman, a man renowned for gaffes like not knowing what the World Health Organization was during the 2003 SARS crisis, or joking about being afraid about being eaten by cannibals before a visit to Africa, but who also did a lot of good.

Lastman was more than his gaffes. Unlike Ford, whose father was an established business owner and politician, Lastman was born to Polish-Jewish immigrants who ran a fruit stand in Kensington Market. He was a self-made man, naturally prone to salesmanship, and made a name for himself selling appliances and then starting Bad Boy Furniture.

Lastman first became mayor of North York in 1972 and held the position for 25 years. North York developed from a quiet suburb to an urban destination for businesses, shoppers, and residents during this period - something which Lastman can proudly take credit for.

As mayor of Toronto, Lastman successfully presided over the largest municipal amalgamation in Canadian history. He led efforts to make Toronto restaurants smoke-free, secured $1.5 billion in funding for the redevelopment of Toronto's waterfront, and was a strong advocate for more federal and provincial support for the city.

Opinions of Lastman's record are surely mixed. His 1999 decision to bring in Canada's military to help with that year's blizzard made Toronto a laughing stock to the rest of Canada and his prized Sheppard subway line goes nearly unused today.

But overall, over three decades, he was a major factor in our city's growth.

Bugajski ultimately doesn't think Ford could be a Lastman, since Ford doesn't have Lastman's track record of multiple achievements. That's also the opinion of eye weekly's Edward Keenan, who writes in a front-page article ("When Rob Ford becomes mayor ...") that Ford isn't likely to achieve many of his grand plans simply because Toronto has a weak mayor and a strong city council, and that Ford's inability to form substantive alliances without other city councillors and the realities of politics (the province is not going to let Ford cancel Transit City and use the money for whatever plan he wants) will practically ensure gridlock.

[W]e’re looking at four years of angry shouting and a loud, probably unproductive argument between Ford and council (and between Ford and the province and between Ford and the city’s labour unions and between Ford and city staff…).

He might well succeed in stopping progress altogether in a few areas: grinding Transit City to a halt, cutting some taxes and slashing spending on arts and cultural programs. The city’s years-in-progress bike plan might be scrapped or halted, environmental progress rolled back. But Ford would replace those with nothing.

The opportunity cost — what we’ll miss out on by taking no action — will be huge. Development will slow as the planning department becomes paralyzed by political deadlock. Transit growth will stop and basic maintenance and service will be cut as the commission endlessly debates how to square financial and contractual circles. Basic infrastructure will be neglected. In short, the city will start to rot.

The thing is, Ford wouldn't be doing nearly so well if his competitors actually were attractive in their own rights, with George Smitherman dropped in from the Ontario provincial government and Rocco Rossi from the Liberal Party, and Joe Pantalone the only sort of heir to David Miller's sad, confused legacy. Ford's policies might be mostly ill-founded, but he has these policies, thus he has the positive appeal necessary to make breakthroughs.

[LINK] "First Habitable Exoplanet Could Be Discovered By May"

The progress of astronomy in the past two decades always has amazed me. It's worth noting that by "habitability" the authors of the paper described seem to be talking about :potential habitability"; Earth-sized worlds in Earth-like orbits could be uninhabitable for one reason or another. Our Venus might arguably be a case in point.

“There is some wiggle room,” said Samuel Arbesman of the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science, lead author of a new paper posted online and to be published in PLoS ONE Oct. 4. His calculations predict a 50 percent probability that the first habitable exoplanet will be discovered in May 2011, a 66 percent chance by the end of 2013 and 75 percent chance by 2020.

“This is, as far as we can tell, right around the corner,” said exoplanet expert Greg Laughlin of the University of California, Santa Cruz, co-author of the paper.

[. . .] Arbesman and Laughlin devised a mathematical way to define habitability using the techniques of scientometrics, the scientific study of science itself.

The pair considered a planet’s mass and its surface temperature at the points in its orbits when it is closest and furthest away from its star, and calculated which of these properties would be friendliest to liquid water (and, therefore, presumably, life). Then they plotted their habitability function on a scale of 0 to 1, where 0 is uninhabitable and 1 is a clone of Earth.

Next, the researchers turned to the exoplanets that have already been found. They calculated the habitability metric for 370 exoplanets whose masses and distances from their stars are relatively well-known, and plotted that number against the planet’s date of discovery. Then they used a statistical method called bootstrapping, which looks at subsets of data to get a better idea of the overall distribution, to extrapolate forward to a planet with a habitability value of 1.

The median date for this planet to make its grand entrance, they found, is early next May.

[LINK] "Rock 'n' rolling off the mother tongue"

This article about Cree musician Art Napoleon says interesting things about the translatability of popular music--popular culture as a whole--across languages. The Cree language, to provide some context, is one of the most widely spoken First Nations languages in Canada, spoken by more than one hundred thousand people, but this language--like even other vital First Nations language, like Navajo in the United States--is threatened with disappearance as intergenerational language transmission tapers off. Having Cree-language popular music could help change that.

“Certain words are not translatable,” [Art Napoleon] said. “Certain words in English take a whole sentence in Cree. The other way there are certain words in Cree for which you have to say a sentence, or phrase to describe that.”

For example, the Cree word moskomaw means singing in so powerful a fashion as to bring a listener to tears.

Some concepts simply don’t exist.

“We don’t have a word for resource. We don’t have a word for management. We don’t have a word for time."

Over time, he eased his frustrations by taking artistic license with his Cree.

“At first I found it difficult as I was trying to be a perfectionist. Once I relaxed, it got easier and then got better as the process rolled along.

“This is a first crack at it. Next time, we’ll satisfy the linguists.”

He sings in Cree Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, John Fogerty’s Long As I Can See the Light, and Neil Young’s Pocahontas, an ironic selection. His cover of the the Beatles’ Rain, originally released by the Fab Four on a single with Paperback Writer, is a killer, while two Hank Williams’ standards — Jambalaya and Weary Blues from Waiting – sound like Cree classics. The most powerful number on the disc is a stirring folk rendition of Redemption Song.

[LINK] "The Loyal Orangeman Versus the Mayor of All the People"

I've talked about Toronto's Orange Order past before. Historicist this Saturday past described how its cultural hegemony failed thanks to the efforts of one Nathan Phillips.

For the first half of the twentieth century, one prerequisite to be a serious contender for the mayor’s chair in Toronto was membership in good standing with the Orange Order. As 1954 dawned, it didn’t appear that the situation would change much: Orangeman Allan Lamport had won a third term and the challenger most likely to run against or in place of him that December, Leslie Saunders, was a high-ranking official in the Order. Yet 1954 wound up being the beginning of the end of Orange dominance over civic affairs, thanks partly to a series of snafus by Saunders. The municipal election of 1954 not only proved a key element in breaking the Order’s hold, but showed that antagonizing the press wasn’t a good idea and that you didn’t have to be Protestant to take the mayor’s chair, even if it took you three efforts.

Our story begins at the Toronto Transit Commission, where the combination of an expanded administrative board and the death of Chairman W.C. O’Brien left several key vacancies. Sensing the prospects of steadier employment with the TTC than at the whim of voters, Mayor Lamport resigned from office in June to make himself available as a candidate for O’Brien’s job (he wound up as Vice-Chairman when William G. Russell won the top spot). On June 29, Saunders, a veteran member of the Board of Control who was serving as president of City Council, assumed the mayoralty amid general respect for his abilities as an administrator.

Saunders’s honeymoon was short-lived. Shortly after assuming office, Saunders was also named Deputy Grand Master of the Orange Lodge, just in time for the annual Orange parade in early July to celebrate William III’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Saunders decided the parade would be the perfect opportunity to issue a statement to Torontonians "reminding them of their British heritage" by stressing how important that the battle was as a victory for democratic and religious freedoms for all (even if some of faiths were deemed less worthy than others). Amid its glorification of the Orange Order, the statement requested citizens "to thank God for those whose courage against wrong hastened the dawn of freedom," and compared the triumph of Protestants over Catholics to more recent victories against "the Hun, the Nazi and the Fascist." One problem: Saunders issued the statement on official city stationery.

To Catholic councillors and other Orangemen in the city government whose views were less fervent than Saunders, the statement was received like an intolerant slap against citizens who weren’t connected to the Order. Controller David Balfour felt that the mayor should represent all faiths; in response, local Orange Order Secretary B.G. Louden challenged the Catholic Balfour to run for mayor. Saunders did not apologize for issuing the statement. "I’m proud," he said, "to be able to make a statement of this kind to the people of Toronto on this great day in Orange history." His statement did not find favour among the press, whose views were best summed by an editorial in the Telegram which noted that "the only rivers that Leslie Saunders is expected to concern himself with as Mayor of Toronto are the Don and the Humber."

Watching from the sidelines was former city councillor Nathan Phillips, who was taking a rest from elected office after a quarter of a century as an alderman and two unsuccessful mayoral runs against Lamport in 1951 and 1952. As controversy about Saunders’s statement grew, Phillips was contacted by Star reporter Bob McDonald to see if he would consider a third run for the mayor’s chair. Phillips decided he would, but only if his wife supported another run (she did) and if he could secure more newspaper support beyond the Star, which had backed his previous campaigns. He soon contacted Telegram publisher John Bassett, who indicated that Phillips could soon tell anyone he "damned well pleased" that he had Bassett’s full support. That Phillips was Jewish would make for an interesting angle in editorials in all of the city’s papers criticizing Saunders for trying to provoke religious strife. Upon hearing of Phillips’s entry, Saunders told the press on July 10 that when all the ballots were counted, he would be "be sitting right where I am now."

Go, read the article in full.