November 18th, 2010

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[PHOTO] Allan Gardens Conservatory, from the east

The Allen Gardens Conservatory, located squarely in the Allan Gardens Park|. (founded 1858) in the east of the downtown (Jarvis and Gerrard is the intersection on the northwest corner), was formerly a greenhouse for the University of Toronto. It's now one of the most pleasant attractions in Toronto, filled with exotic plants and a perfect place to go in cold cold winter. Or even in fall, I imagine.

[META] Blogroll Expansion

It's that time again!

  • Clifford, fellow graduate of the 2003-2004 Master's English class at Queen's University, blogs at Love and Fiction, where he promotes his fiction writing and does a non-trivial amount of essay-writing himself. This essay exploring the reasons why people devote large amounts of time to their chosen specialties (see Malcolm Gladwell's thesis of ten thousand hours needed to become truly skilled) is a case in point.

  • Australian Russell Darnley's blog, Maximos' Blog, is concerned with the natural and built environment of Australia. His poist showing a trip on Sydney's only tram line is fun.

  • Recommended to my by History and Futility co-blogger The Oberamtmann, the New APPS blog is a group blog concerned with art, history, and politics. This post analyzing race in the Netherlands' Christmas figure of Sinterklass is a case in point.</a>

  • Patrick Cain, once map blogger for the Toronto Star, has patrickcain.ca now. His maps--including this set showing where Toronto war casualties in certain battles died--are grand.

  • Finally, Tim Maly's Quiet Babylon examines the interactions between computer technology and human identity. This short fiction, examining an ordinary man's uneasy relation with a perhaps excessively technophile lover, is worth reading.


  • Go, read!

    [LINK] "Who's afraid of free WiFi?"

    The Globe and Mail's Duncan Stewart examines why big-box stores, now, are offering WiFi.

    not providing WiFi access means that customers carrying smartphones and tablets have to use the cellular network. Big steel framed warehouse stores are cheap to build, fine for selling stuff – but they are hell on wheels for cell signals. So retail customers are comparison shopping on the wireless internet, but are frustrated by weak signals and slow speeds. Frustrated customers are a bad thing, and encouraging them to leave the store to get a better signal is even worse!

    Next, it turns out that one of the biggest reasons that someone doesn’t buy a TV or power tool is not that it is $10 cheaper somewhere else, it is that we are afraid it might be $100 cheaper. Once a potential buyer does a little checking and sees that there are no big savings to be had, the uncertainty has been removed. And most of us can’t be bothered to drive a few kilometres in order to save a few bucks. New behavioural analyses are showing that mobile internet comparison shopping can increase sales.

    Finally, when you give customers free WiFi, a retailer gets other benefits. Consumers spend more time in the store. They can access the store portal more easily and watch bandwidth intensive content like video demonstrations, tutorials or graphics rich catalogues, which would be difficult over cellular. They can find items more easily, learn about products, and free up sales associates. Even potentially more interesting – although a subject rife with all kinds of privacy issues – retailers may be able to glean information from the web sites the customers choose to visit. If I am selling home renovation supplies, knowing who my customers perceive as my biggest competitor for power tools is invaluable information.


    I may as mention that I've just posted this from L'espresso Bar Mercurio, at Bloor and St. George, a fantastic coffee bar that's made me a semi-regular visitor for its incredibly personally convenient location at the end of the bus line that passes by me, its superb French press coffee, and--yes--the WiFi. L'chaim.

    [LINK] "Historic hydro pact signed between N.L., N.S."

    This story is notable, for obvious reasons.

    The premiers of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia on Thursday announced a $6.2-billion deal to develop the Lower Churchill hydroelectric megaproject, bypassing a historical roadblock at the Quebec border.

    "It's a huge milestone," Premier Danny Williams told reporters in St. John's, as he and Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter revealed a complex deal that will generate power on the Churchill River, and supply energy to both provinces and possibly beyond.
    Energy companies in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia will pay at least $6.2 billion to develop the Lower Churchill power project, supplying power to both provinces and potentially beyond. Energy companies in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia will pay at least $6.2 billion to develop the Lower Churchill power project, supplying power to both provinces and potentially beyond. (CBC)

    "We think this is absolutely huge," said Williams. "This project is a go."

    [. . .]

    The deal effectively allows Nalcor to generate energy for Newfoundland and sell surplus energy to new markets, and provides a consistent source of energy to Emera, which already has commercial stakes in the Maritimes and the northeastern U.S.

    [. . .]


    The deal, though, leaves undeveloped the 2,200-megawatt potential of the Gull Island site on the Churchill River, which has been on blueprints — and a dream of every Newfoundland and Labrador premier — since the 1970s.

    Even though only the smaller component of the megaproject is now being built, Williams described it as monumental, and the fact that it is bypassing Quebec is of historic significance.

    He said residents of his province "can let it go," referring to decades of ill feeling over a 65-year contract signed with Quebec in 1969 on the Upper Churchill megaproject, in which Quebec reaps the vast majority of revenues.

    Under the deal, Nalcor will pay for the development of Muskrat Falls and the companies would jointly develop subsea power lines from Labrador to Newfoundland.

    Power will flow in Newfoundland down the Northern Peninsula and along a path toward eastern Newfoundland, bypassing Gros Morne National Park. Williams had once wanted to run power lines through the area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but changed his mind after public opposition to the proposal.

    [LINK] Two Japan links

  • Spiegel International's Wieland Wagner warns that Japan may not be able to reverse its two decades of relative, now absolute, decline. Social atomization seems to be key, with people withdrawing into their families and general disengagement borne out of emotional necessity.


  • The Japanese are suffering their losses in silence. That stoicism is part of Japanese culture, which already children with a pronounced sense of shame at an early age. Instead of looking for solidarity from society, the Japanese try to take care of things by themselves.

    Even the homeless living in Tokyo parks neatly place their shoes in front of their makeshift cardboard shelters before crawling inside. People committing suicide bow politely before throwing themselves in front of trains. In Tokyo, a railway line had special, bluish lamps installed along its tracks to calm potentially suicidal commuters. Of the more than 30,000 Japanese people who commit suicide every year, many are victims of the economic decline.

    Fears about the future have been driving down consumption in the island nation. "Gekiyasu" ("super-cheap") goods are now in demand, pushing prices down and putting pressure on corporate profits. In some cases, the downward spiral continues until companies go bankrupt.


    A large share of Toyota's population of more than 400,000 depends solely on the auto industry. Outward signs of the crisis are not immediately apparent. Nevertheless, many suppliers in the surrounding vicinity are still going out of business. Many have been forced to reduce costs and prices for so long that they are no longer profitable.

    When the "Toyota shock" gripped Japan more than two years ago, because Europeans and Americans were suddenly buying far fewer Japanese cars, the company laid off thousands of temporary workers. Along with their jobs, the workers often lost the right to live in company-owned apartments, and many returned to their hometowns, where they no longer had places to live.

    [. . .]

    [Toyota city mayor Kohei] Suzuki, too, is becoming increasingly affected by the apocalyptic mood. The figures he quotes sound grim. His revenues from corporate taxes declined by an unusually drastic amount last year, he says. This is the sort of thing that happens when an entire city depends on a single company, he adds. "I was shocked," says the mayor.

    The planned expansion of the city hall was temporarily put on hold and only restarted in order not to cause additional bankruptcies among local contractors. The acquisition of new paintings for the city's art museum has been postponed. At least Suzuki hasn't had to cut social spending, thanks to a reserve of several billion yen he established during better times.

    When asked what the future holds, Suzuki pensively pushes a model of a Toyota hybrid back and forth on his desk. The Japanese version of the German "cash for clunkers" scrapping premium, with which Tokyo sought to support the auto industry, expired recently, and sales plunged. At the same time, the value of the yen went up, mostly because of the weak dollar, making exports more expensive. Japan is becoming unattractive as a place for Toyota to build its cars and trucks.

    What will he do if Toyota decides to produce all of its cars overseas? "Unthinkable," says Suzuki. "Our city can't survive without cars!


    Meanwhile, at Inter Press Service, Suvendrini Kakuchi reports that the disputes with Russia and China over the ownership of certain islands (perhaps also South Korea, too)

    Thorny territorial disputes with neighbours China and Russia appear to nudging Japan’s pacifist public toward accepting what has so far been an unpalatable prospect: a more assertive and militarily strong country.

    Almost 80 percent of those polled in a survey released on Nov. 8 by Japan’s NHK public television showed growing frustration with their socialist-leaning Prime Minister Naoto Kan over his handling of tensions over territorial rows. Many pointed to his "weak" diplomacy as the second most important reason, after the stagnating economy, for their disappointment in him.

    "Japan’s hands are tied when it comes to rapping China and Russia over the territorial disputes," Hisashi Manabu, a 62-year-old company employee said, referring to the post-war Constitution that prohibits Japan from rebuilding its military after its World War II defeat. "The stark reality is that we must be responsible for our own protection."

    [. . .]

    These open challenges that China and Russia threw at Japan have pushed Tokyo to step up moves to court the United States, an approach that is quite a departure from earlier pronouncements by Kan’s socialist-leaning government. When it took office in June 2010, it promised to align Japan closer with its Asian neighbours.

    Likewise, Japan’s leading daily, the ‘Yomiuri’, reported that the Defence Ministry plans to beef up the country’s military, called the Self Defence Forces, by sending a new unit to the Yonekuni island, which lies in close proximity to the Senkaku islands.

    The unit will monitor via radar the movements of Chinese warships that have increasingly been active in the East China Sea, defence ministry officials say.

    [. . .]

    "The new thrust by Japan takes place against a historic shift in power in East Asia with the rise of China’s influence," said Prof Yuichi Hosoya, who specialises in international politics at Keio University.

    But he expresses the hope that these diplomatic maneuverings, which will continue as Asia reacts to China’s clout, would lead to a more balanced power configuration, and not more instability, in the region. Said Hoyosa: "A stronger Japan supporting the United States must become not a threat to Beijing, but rather produce a balance of power in Asia that will be welcomed by all."


    The trends reported by these two news items can't possibly have negative consequences, can they?

    [LINK] "Dog bites man, East Timor lends money to Portugal"

    Over at the Power and the Money, Noel Maurer convinces me that the East Timorese purchase of Portuguese debt actually makes sense from a business perspective.

    Portuguese bonds are a pretty good investment. The 10-year bond is yielding 6.7% — that’s 2.7 times the yield on German bonds. Unless Portugal repudiates past-due interest payments (and in postwar debt restructurings, only Argentina has done that) bondholders would come out ahead as long as the haircut on debt principal is less than 25%. (To be fair, the math is a bit more complicated, because it depends on when Portugal defaults, but that serves to make the bonds more attractive.) In other words, the East Timorese deal is far from charity.

    [. . . The purchase has the obvious additional benefit of buying some Portuguese goodwill, which ain’t nothing, considering that Portuguese aid averaged €42.6 million per year between 1999 and 2009. Moreover, Portugal has been cutting foreign aid significantly, so buying goodwill could have a big return. Considering that East Timor will earn €34.4 million per year on its investment, that is a pretty cheap way to buy goodwill.

    From Portugal’s point-of-view, however, there is no charity. First, the loan is a drop in the bucket compared to the country’s total debt of €145 billion. Second, the loan is being made at commercial rates, and will involve buying existing sovereign debt, not the provision of new money. Third, it might not all involve Portuguese sovereign debt: the Timorese authorities have added the following weasel words: “Investments could be made in highly successful public or quasi-governmental enterprises that guarantee high returns.” Considering that $700 million is a legal maximum for East Timor, which has to invest 90% of its assets in U.S. Treasury bonds, the implication is that the Portuguese government will get less than that.

    In other words, Portugal will get a small amount of help from a source with every incentive to lend it money regardless of political connections.


    At least noteworthy is the fact that East Timor has the money to invest, having put its oil revenues in a well-managed investment fund. If I read Noel correctly, moderate optimism about the long-term future of this fund--and, one may infer, East Timor--is justified.
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    [PHOTO] Me, 2003/2004

    Recently, I picked up from Shopper's Drug Mart the photos developed from some ancient disposable cameras of mine, dating from 2004, even 2003 before I left. Would anything remain?

    As it happened, yes. I've pictures from Charlottetown, from my August 2003 visit to Montréal, and from Kingston. I plan on sharing them as I identify these images.

    For now, here's two vintage pictures of me from (I think) 2004, a Kingston Livejournalers' meetup. (mortonofski, can you confirm?) I'm pretty sure of the date because I bought the blue checked shirt in Kingston, part of my first effort to develop a personal fashion style.

    Me, facing forward

    Me, turning

    [DM] "The Spiegel on East German workforce shortages" and "On the difficulties of emigration in Sene

    For a change, I've got two posts up at Demography Matters.

  • The first one notes briefly that, after twenty years of mass emigration, the former East Germany is starting to experience labour shortages. And with two decades of ultra-low birthrates, things won't be getting better.

  • The second one looks at the problems facing communiities dependent on emigration in Senegal, on one island where people are willing to take enormous risks to get to Spain, and in one mainland city where so many men have left for so long that some wives may as well be single mothers or widows.


  • Go, read.