Not a John Lennon quote… just another bad meme

Lennon mis-quoteAnother unsourced, mis-attributed quote is going the rounds, found as are so many on Facebook, this one turning itself into another of those annoying, unsourced Internet memes that people love to share:

When I was five years old, my Mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote down “happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Nope, not by Lennon. Just another bad Internet meme, with no source ever listed, but posted and re-posted as a Lennon quotation by the gullible souls who want warm-n-fuzzy thoughts to tinkle down on the rest of us. The Net is replete with laudatory comments about how this shows just how wise John was. Well, at least someone was wise, not Lennon, since he didn’t say it. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Just get gooey and gush about how meaningful it is. Uplifting, inspirational, some call it.

Sorry, but to me a bumper sticker about fishing is about as inspirational as this misquote. It’s one of those saccharine snippets you expect to read in self-help books; all puff and no substance. Tagged on blogs and forums with glittery words like happiness, fulfillment, wisdom. Kindness demands I should merely label this quote “apocryphal,” but I can’t get past the terms “sloppy thinking” and “gullible Netiots” when I read it.
Internet jokeAt the age of 4, Lennon was in the custody of his aunt Mimi (Mary Smith), not his mother. You really think a five-year-old is that precocious and witty? Kids say the darndest things… but that Lennon kid didn’t say this. (As an aside, he started school on Nov. 12, 1945, but by April, 1946 he had been expelled from Mosspits County Primary School for misbehaviour. He then went to Dovedale Road Primary School.)

Check Wikiquote and Beatlesquotes for confirmation or at least additional challenges.

Check those quotes, says Ralph Keyes: “As for Churchill, he-like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln-is what Keyes calls a ‘flypaper figure,’ a personage so famously quotable that lesser wags’ witticisms and anonymous maxims, like the one Warner used, get stuck to him.”

The Quote Investigator also notes other lines mis-attributed to John Lennon. Lennon is also one of the Top Ten mis-quoted celebrities.

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On translating Chaucer and the joys of Middle English

Geoffrey ChaucerIn my last two visits to the nearby Chapters, I picked up from the bargain books section two recent, hardcover, versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One is a new verse translation by Burton Raffel published in 2008, the other a prose translation by Peter Ackroyd, from 2009.

These join the dozen or so other versions of Chaucer’s works I already have on my bookshelves: the Riverside Chaucer (third edition), several venerable Penguin editions (both original and translations), the New Cambridge edition, the Portable Chaucer, Hopper’s interlinear translation, and a few others. What always surprises me is how widely these translations range in wording, rhythm and style.

Chaucer, of course, wrote in Middle English, a form of English that’s not quite like our speech today, but close enough that anyone can stumble through most of it without needing a glossary. I have only skimmed some works on learning Middle English, not studied it beyond casual reading. For me, trying to read and understand Chaucer in his original tongue is part of the pleasure of it. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I figure out a verse that looked cryptic at first but clarity has broken upon me, or when the words coalesce into a tale.

There are four things to keep in mind when reading Chaucer. First is to try to read it aloud. The sound and rhythm of the spoken word often helps makes the meaning evident. Chaucer wrote to be heard, not just read. You can hear some Chaucerian poetry online to get a sense of how it sounded – a lot more Germanic than it does today. But just reading him aloud helps you appreciate his work.

Second is the pronunciation. Many words and letters were pronounced somewhat differently in Chaucer’s day, much more like Romance languages: most letters are pronounced and few are silent. For example, what we would see as a silent ‘e’ at the end of a Chaucerian word, such as ‘grete’ and likely pronounce as “greet” today would have been sounded as ‘eh’ in Chaucer’s day” ‘grey-teh’. You can get basic pronunciation guides online, too. It’s not difficult.

Third is the spelling. Chaucer didn’t use spell-check (neither, it seems, do most Facebook posters, but I digress). He was not always consistent in his spelling. Many common words in his day were also spelled differently than today. These words can look odd, but when you say them aloud, you realize they’re familiar words with different spellings. For example, these lines from the Knight’s Tale (Knightes Tale, lines 2160-64):

“His coat-armure was of clooth of Tars,
Couched with perles whyte and rounde and grete.
His sadel was of brend gold newe y-bete,
A mantelet upon his shuldre hanginge
Bret-ful of rubies rede, as fyr sparklinge.”

You should understand most of that pretty easily. Shuldre today is shoulder, sadle is saddle, perles are pearls, clooth is cloth, and so on. But what is y-bete, or brend, or armure? That’s where translations or glossaries help.
In prose translation, this can be rendered:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And here it is in poetry (from an online interlinear site):

His tunic with his coat of arms was of cloth of Tarsia (in Turkestan)
Adorned with pearls white and round and big;
His saddle was newly adorned with pure gold;
A short cloak hanging upon his shoulder,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

Raffel, I see, translates Tars as “Persian”:

…His coat was Persian silk,
Embroidered with pearls, great, and white as milk.
His saddle was hammered out of bright new gold,
And the mantle hanging high across his shoulders
Was heavy with fire-red rubies, sparkling in sunlight.

Fourth reminder is that words come and go in English, and can even change meaning from one period to the next. In Chaucer’s day, for example, the word silly meant “happy, blissful, blessed or fortunate.” By the early-16th century, it meant “deserving pity or sympathy.” It took on its current meaning of “empty-headed” or “lacking good sense” by the early 17th century. (See Steinmetz: Semantic Antics). When you read Chaucer, you will find words no longer in use, as well as words that have shifted meaning since his day. That’s one reason having a modern translation is handy. When you come to an incomprehensible line, you can see how it gets translated into today’s speech.

The structure of Middle English – the grammar – is similar enough to modern English that it’s not hard to figure out. Adjectives tend to follow nouns rather than precede them (“perles whyte” rather than “white pearls”). But if you have no problem with the syntax of Shakespeare or the King James Bible, Chaucer won’t pose significant problems,

Ah, but you also need to know where you’re reading in order to find the translated lines. In Hopper’s edition, those lines above are numbered 1303-06. In Raffel’s new translation, we find them at 1290-94. But the Riverside, New Cambridge and Penguin (original spelling) versions all use the numbering noted above.

It can be tricky finding the reference. Many translations are unnumbered, making it difficult to locate a particular line. Ackroyd’s prose version has no references, either (the lines above appear about a third of the way down on page 57):

His coat of arms was woven of rare silk and embroidered with white pearls; his saddle was of newly beaten gold, and the mantle around his shoulders was studded with glowing rubies.

Morrison’s translation in the Portable Chaucer (revised edn), is:

Over his gear a Tartar coat; each fold
With large pearls was embroidered, round and white.
His saddle was of forged gold, beaten bright.
A little mantel from his shoulders spread
Brimful of fiery rubies, glittering red.

Coghill’s translation in the Penguin Classics edition reads,

His surcoat was in cloth of Tartary,
Studded with great white pearls; beneath its fold
A saddle of new-beaten, burnished gold.
He had a mantle hanging from his shoulders,
Which, crammed with rubies,dazzled all beholders.

Here a re a few other translations of those four lines from the Web. First this one:

His coat-of-arms was cloth of the Tartars,
Begemmed with pearls, all white and round and great.
Of beaten gold his saddle, burnished late;
A mantle from his shoulders hung, the thing
Close-set with rubies red, like fire blazing.

Which I find a bit stilted (begemmed, rubies red, etc.). Then this one:

His coat of arms of cloth from Turkestan,
Adorned with large round pearls of polished white;
His pure gold saddle was a wondrous sight;
A short cloak on his shoulders all admire,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

And this prose version:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And this poetic version:

His surcoat was of cloth from Tartary,
With all the large white pearls that it could hold.
His saddle, newly forged, was burnished gold.
A mantle from his shoulders hung, attire
Brimful of rubies sparkling red as fire.

And finally this verse translation:

His surcoat was of cloth of Tartary,
Adorned with pearls, white, round and bold.
His saddle of pure freshly-beaten gold,
A short mantle on his shoulder hanging,
Dense with rubies red, like fire sparkling.

You can see how different each version is, yet how similar. The original is not really very difficult to understand – at least to my eyes – but every translator finds in it a different sense or colour. Every version above sounds particularly different from the original when read aloud, both in wording and in poetic rhythm.

Are any of them better? Is there a definitive modern translation? I have not the academic background to judge. I enjoy reading Chaucer in almost all forms, including my stumbling and fitful attempts to master the original. But these two latest versions of the Canterbury Tales are among the most enjoyable I have read in a while, and I would recommend them to anyone. You merely have to decide whether you want to read Chaucer as epic poetry (Raffel) or stories constructed like modern fiction (Ackroyd). I like both, and of course the bargain-book price didn’t hurt.

All of this is to explain why, despite several translations on my bookshelves already, I continue to purchase – and delight in reading – new translations of Chaucer.

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It wasn’t Einstein who said it…

Not an Einstein quote!Yet another incorrectly attributed quotation is being passed around the Internet, this time on Facebook. This one is, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

A saccharine, touchy-feely, warm-puppy quote that appeals to some who take comfort in them, but Einstein never said that. According to Wikiquote’s page on Einstein,

This gets almost 500k hits on google, but as far as I can tell, none has a source… Doing a Google book search and restricting the date range to 1900-1990, there are only 10 books and several of them attribute it to “Samples, 1976” which is apparently The Metaphoric Mind by Bob Samples (which also seems to be the earliest published variant)… two sections that attribute it to Einstein, but as a paraphrase rather than a direct quote, with no source given, and the author seems to be adding his own comment when he writes “It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine” so even if the first part is accurate, this part is probably not Einstein’s.
Einstein had many quotes about the value of intuition and imagination, but the specific word “gift” can be found in a comment remembered by János Plesch in the section Albert_Einstein#Posthumous_publications, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” So, Bob Samples might have been paraphrasing that comment.

Einstein, as far as I know from my reading of several biographies, was unlikely to refer to a natural faculty as a “sacred gift” – Einstein was not openly an atheist (he called himself an agnostic), but neither was he by any means religious. A “sacred gift” suggests humans get their faculties handed down by the gods, rather than developed by evolution and through effort. Einstein would have rejected that for the codswallop it is.

Einstein’s religious views were firmly in the humanist-Descartes-Spinoza model, according to Wikipedia:

He believed in the God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief which he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, and criticized atheism, preferring he said “an attitude of humility.”

One actual quote from Einstein is this:

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

But his views on religion and spirituality were amorphous and seem to have changed over the years – although not towards him becoming religious in the traditional or formal sense, but rather in a deeper sense of wonder that can be called spiritual, without any identification with a personal deity.

It’s worth reading the entire entry to see how complex this subject is.

Be that as it may, this quotation is another bad Internet meme, perpetuated by people who are don’t bother to confirm sources and simply spread the silliness. Then the gullibles pick it up and spread it around faster than a chain letter. Damn, I wish people would check first and post later.

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Was Marx right after all?

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While Marx didn’t say exactly that the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” he did state that under capitalism, poverty would inevitably increase while more and more wealth would concentrate in fewer hands. Increasing profits and increasing wages, he claimed, were contradictory. Adam Smith – the “father” of capitalism – said much of the same thing, by the way. They were right.

Karl MarxMarx’s economic and world views were fermented in the mid-19th century’s industrial age, an age without any of the mass communication technology of today. He was right about many things, but wrong about others. He did not, for example, see the rise of the financial class, nor did he predict the offshoring of manufacturing jobs. To be fair, none of his contemporaries did. But he got quite a bit right, given today’s economic crisis.

Nope, I’m not a Communist, let alone a Marxist, and certainly not an economist. But look around you: if you’re not a banker, investment or hedge fund manager, if you’re not the CEO of an international corporation whose products are being made overseas, if most or all of the manufacturing jobs in your town have moved overseas, if your wages are proportionately lower compared to your expenses than they were a decade ago, if your prospects of a good-paying job are slim because those are getting sparser in your city and being replaced by minimum-wage Mcjobs, or if you live in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland or Spain, then capitalism has probably failed you.

I’m not the only one who thinks capitalism today has serious problems (its failings have been analyzed to the nth degree since the last recession and the US bailout of its financial sector). Many now think that perhaps we should not have dismissed Marx so cavalierly when Communism fell. And some of those who think Marx may have got more than one thing right are pretty prestigious thinkers.

Over at the conservative Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque, author of Betterness: Economics for Humans and The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business, wrote about Marx in late 2011:

Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed. Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but. Yet nothing’s black or white — and while Marx’s prescriptions were poor, perhaps, if we’re prepared to think subtly, it’s worthwhile separating his diagnoses from them.

Marx, it seems, it getting a sort of facelift from intellectuals today; people are beginning to realize that after the Berlin Wall fell, that Communism – a fault-ridden, overly-bureaucratic system few will miss in the nations that cast it off – was not actually based on Marx’s theories, just used Marx as a sort of bumper-sticker economics, so perhaps the old guy deserves a re-think.

In spring 2011, Yale University Press published “Was Marx Right?“, by Prof. Terry Eagleton. He examines ten of the most common objections to Marxism and attempts to demonstrate “what a woeful travesty of Marx’s own thought these assumptions are.”

In an interview with Bezinga in August, 2011, noted economist Nouriel “Dr. Doom” Roubini stated that, “Karl Marx had it right. At some point capitalism can self-destroy itself. That’s because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to capital without not having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand.” Roubini continued, “We thought that markets work. They are not working. What’s individually rational…is a self-destructive process.”

The article that follows goes on to criticize Roubini for his comments, but makes the classic fallacy of not dissociating Marx from Communism, or rather from the systems that took the name Communism but were usually little more than military dictatorships with poorly implemented, centrally-planned economies, and only nodding allegiance to anything Marx wrote. It’s easy to point to the collapse of the Soviet economy and claim it proves that Communism and therefore Marx’s economic ideas were faulty. But that’s really Leninism, and not what Marx meant by “Communism.”

It’s popular among the uber-right in the USA to label anything left of Genghis Khan as “Communist” or “socialist” but that only underscores the intellectual poverty of the right. It doesn’t actually mean anything in the political debate except that you’re arguing with fools.

Communism as Marx saw it was never actually implemented, and probably never could be today. We’re as far from his industrial age world as the Internet is from Gutenberg. But that doesn’t mean that every aspect of Marx’s thinking was wrong. Despite being drearily dense and notoriously difficult to read, his economic works contain some valid points about capitalism that – like his predecessor Adam Smith’s writings – make some salient points about capitalism that we can’t reject by tossing them out with the Soviet-tainted bathwater.

None of the above writers would be classified as Marxists or even neo-Marxists, but there are still some old, dogmatic Marxist thinkers around who treat Das Capital as gospel. As Mike Beggs wrote in Zombie Marx,

What I call Zombie Marx is different – the reanimation of a corpse which still holds organically together in some way. This is the reconstruction of Marxist economics as a coherent body of thought, not a collection of quotations… the need to ground everything in a 140-year-old text…. it is obviously a lot of intellectual hard work to “interpret Marx correctly.” It cannot be taken for granted that Marx was right; it must be proven anew with each generation, against both rival interpretations and the revisions the previous generation had found necessary to make.

Marx got some things wrong. And he got some things right. That’s pretty much true of every economic theory or policy since Adam Smith. Marx was probably more right than some – say Alan Greenspan, whose disastrous economic polices have led to much to today’s problems – but I think the point here is that we should be re-evaluating Marx in light of today’s failing capitalism and not simply dismissing him as the tail wagging the Communist dog.
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Santorum’s ‘faith’ attack incomprehensible

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyIZIiY81Ek”]I really don’t understand American politics. Watching the current campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for presidential candidacy only baffles me further. It’s stunning that so many of the Republican candidates appeal – and do so loudly and consistently – to the lowest common denominator among the population.

Topping my list of Republicans who bemuse me is Rick Santorum. His campaign only proves that you don’t have to be intelligent, open-minded, visionary, well-educated, focused or wise to run for president. He already proved earlier that any fool can become a senator. And now he’s proving that fool can also run for president and apparently get a lot of support.
The more obnoxious, narrow-minded, more critical and more hypocritical you are, it seems the more people will love you and cheer you on. Well, at least the people who share your myopic vision of the world. But there seems to be a lot of them in the Republican camp these days, at least according to the research.

Last week, Santorum turned his rabid attack away from his fellow candidates towards US President Barack Obama. Obama’s agenda, he told a meeting of the Tea Party (the uber-right-religious camp of the Republicans) is,

“…not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phoney ideal, some phoney theology — not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology…”

Despite this claim, Santorum was later unable to actually define what he meant by this outlandish and irrelevant claim, and made some confused statements about Obama “imposing his values on the church.” In a subsequent interview, Santorum clumsily backtracked, and tried to make his comments appear to be about Obama’s “world view,” stating, “I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that is what we’re here to do. We’re not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective.”

At that point, I would not have been surprised had he then criticized Obama for believing the earth orbited the sun, not the other way around. Santorum’s medieval attitude towards the environment shows that some ideas just never go away, no matter how bad or wrong they are.

To an outsider, even bringing religion into a political debate in a democracy is inexplicable. This is America, after all, not a Middle Eastern theocracy. It’s like criticizing someone because his shoe laces are a different colour. What relevance does faith have to someone’s ability to govern, to understand complex issues, to deal with social, cultural and military challenges? Faith is a private, not a public and certainly not a state matter. Dragging it into a political debate only underscores the paucity of Santorum’s platform. He obviously has scraped the bottom of his shallow barrel of ideas and now has to dip into the non-sequitor of religion.

It is equally baffling why anyone would even want to speak to the Tea Party. Everything I read and see about them further convinces me that they have slightly less understanding of political affairs than my cats do. There is more intelligence at conventions of village idiots than at the Tea Party marches I’ve seen online. Why would any political candidate want to appeal to people who are clearly fools (or as one illiterate Tea Party protester wrote on his sign, “morans” – more Tea Party signs here)?
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There is a real chance Rick Santorum could become the republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election. And if he does, all those bright Tea Party supporters will be expecting him to act in their interest. American may not be a theocracy today, but if Santorum or his religious-right ilk get into power, it will be soon.

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Why not a Napoleon theme park?

Napoleon BonaparteThere’s a sarcastic, somewhat-tongue-in-cheek commentary in the Guardian this week, called, “Why not have a Napoleon theme park?” In it, Agnès C. Poirier editorializes on a recent proposal by a French MP to build a theme park in France dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. She writes,

Abroad, observers could be forgiven for almost choking on hearing this news: why not a Stalin or a Kim Jong-il theme park too?

That made me choke, almost pushing my half-swallowed tea through my nose. Imaginations must run very high among her set if anyone can associate Napoleon Bonaparte with two of the Twentieth Century’s most ruthless, genocidal dictators. Napoleon was no Gandhi, but he was certainly not genocidal. And by the way, North Korea just revealed a new, 70-foot statue of the dictator Kim Jong-Il, so can a theme park be far behind?

Agnes offers a backhanded compliment:

In fact, in France, many distinguish between Bonaparte and Napoleon, that is to say the man before and after he became emperor in 1804, when the child of the revolution turned insatiable tyrant. During his 10 years of folie des grandeurs, which cost the lives of more than a million men, he still achieved great things, such as emancipating Europe’s Jews.

Insatiable tyrant? No one who had read in any detail the history of Napoleon’s life and career would label him thus.

Calling Napoleon a tyrant was first done by the British press as a propaganda attack during the Napoleonic Wars. A nursery rhyme warned children that Bonaparte ravenously ate naughty people. Cartoons pictures him as shorter than his actual height (he was 5′ 7″, average for the time). In 1908, psychologist Alfred Adler named an inferiority complex in which short people adopt an over-aggressive behaviour to compensate for lack of height; this inspired the term Napoleon complex, and that has coloured popular impressions of Napoleon ever since.

Napoleon was a complex character, and became increasingly dictatorial as he aged. But I find it hyperbolic to compare him with modern-day tyrants. The term tyrant orginally meant “one who illegally seized and controlled a governmental power in a polis.” It later added “connotations of a harsh and cruel ruler who places his or her own interests or the interests of an oligarchy over the best interests of the general population, which the tyrant governs or controls.” History, as Napoleon famously said, is written by the victors. Thus he has come down to us as a tyrant, rather than a hero.

Napoleon certainly placed family interests over state interests at various times, but also placed state interests over personal ones at times, when he tried to solidify his Europe-wide union of states through marriage and appointment. His reign was not that simply defined as the label suggests. Poirier realizes this, but it seems a grudging acceptance:

Napoleon is a fascinating subject, the study of which requires nuance and subtlety. The man was a tyrant, a genius, a liberator and a conqueror. What you’d call a bundle of contradictions. More than 80,000 books have been written about him and a theme park, rather than just an awkward idea, fits the current fashion in France for “war tourism”.

She then refers readers to a novel by Anthony Burgess, The Napoleon Symphony, rather than any of the thousands of non-fiction works of history, military history or biography. Myself, I’d refer people to Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon for a better appreciation of the man’s military genius. However, Chandler does not cover his social, cultural and political activities (and does not cover the bloody campaign in Spain, because it was conducted by Napoleon’s marshals rather than by Bonaparte personally).

Napoleon’s life is fascinating and complex, and no one can deny he reshaped Europe (not just France) irrevocably. Some of his changes brought Europe into the modern world – he planted the seeds of a united Germany, united Italy, created a continental trade system that resembles today’s European Union, he changed the way armies fought (and how they treated civilians), he emancipated Jews from their ghettos, he challenged social beliefs in the divine right of monarchs, he rewrote laws, promoted science and learning, restored the church that had been almost destroyed in the French Revolution and established religious tolerance, founded institutes and schools, set up networks of communications, improved roads and sewers. He replaced feudal laws with the Napoleonic Code, based on equality and justice.

But why Napoleonland, a theme park based on Napoleon? Probably because it’s about the rise of nationalism in an increasingly complex and difficult European Union (beset as it is with financial woes), it’s about reaction to the popularity of Disneyland in Paris (which attracts 15 million visitors a year and is Europe’s most popular theme park), and it’s about a changing, modern perspective on French history.

Perhaps Napoleonland will be garish and kitschy, as opponents suggest. But perhaps it will instead help the world remember and celebrate a complex, challenging but ultimately great individual whose life and work still resounds throughout Europe today.

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What Shall We Do With the Mountain View?

Globe Hotel, 1913Here’s a new song for Collingwood, sung to the tune of What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?

Unbeknownst to council, the town wants to own the Mountain View Hotel for $1.9 million. This little-known fact appeared in the 600-plus page budget document without any fanfare. or even any other sort of notice. You’d have to dig through page after page of mind-numbing arrays of figures to find it.

Normally, when the municipality wants to buy property, we go in camera to hear a staff report that justifies the purchase and we discuss the legal ramifications of the offer. This is done behind closed doors to prevent the potential seller from raising the price, and to prevent competitive bidders from becoming aware, so the property can be bought, then flipped at a profit to the municipality. So I wouldn’t be able discuss it under those circumstances.

This time, however, it’s public, part of the proposed budget. Everyone is able to hear about it before we make any move. Page 364 of the budget reads,

This project is for the completion of the First Street (Hwy 26 Connecting Link) at the Hurontario Intersection. Purchase and removal of Mountainview Hotel, Brownfield restoration and construction of the five lane section as per the First Street design.
This project is subject to MTO funding and successful agreement to purchase the Mountainview Hotel. The project will not proceed without prior funding approval of MTO

I don’t see a lot of “restoration” in this proposal, however.

Globe Hotel, late 1800sOdd thing, that process. Not at all expected. Council never had the opportunity to have a say in the matter before this and it wasn’t identified in our recent strategic planning sessions. During the early budget debate I said the process was flawed: first council should decide if it wants to own the building, then what to do with it, and only after that discussion should we be discussing how much it will cost.

And, I added, it should involve the public in the process.

The Mountain View is the former Globe Hotel, one of Collingwood’s oldest hotels, built in the mid-1800s, just after the town was incorporated. It had one of the most beautiful interiors – stunning woodwork and banisters – in the region. I’m told some of that that woodwork was removed for use in a private home when the hotel was closed. The first pavement sidewalk was laid in front of the Globe. Quite a lot of history in that old building.

The Mountain View was purchased in 2004 from owner John Wheeler, and closed. However, neglect led to internal problems and for a while it looked like it would be demolished. The building was not included within the Heritage District boundaries, nor is it designated a heritage building. Why not? I have no idea. I have asked the heritage committee to comment on it.

The provincial Ministry of Transport, we’re told, wants to widen Highway 26 at the intersection with Hurontario Street, and add a fifth (turning) lane. That isn’t possible, apparently, without demolishing the building. The MOT has not conveyed that request to council, however. As I understand it, this is part of the long-term plan for Highway 26, presented and approved a couple of councils back. We have been told by staff that the MOT will pay for the purchase through “connecting link” payments to the town.

In my view, if the MOT wants the road widened, let the MOT buy it. I would not even consider such a purchase without a written request that not only confirms immediate repayment of any costs (including legal, engineering, etc.), but also acknowledges that it is the province that wants to demolish one of the oldest buildings in town, not the town. I certainly don’t want the town to be the agency that tears it down.

In fact, if the town DID buy it, I would move to have it restored and turned into a community arts and cultural centre. Not demolished. Based on the brouhaha over the Tremont and Livery buildings (and comments made at last Saturday’s open budget session), I would suggest the public would not look favourably on the town demolishing it.

Globe Hotel stampEven if the town gets the money back, the cost (almost $2 million) would probably be debentured – adding to our debt. Most debentures have to be paid out over the full term, and don’t have early closing clauses. Would the town be on the hook for demolition costs as well? Legal and other costs? I don’t know, but suspect so.

Once the road is widened, what will the town do with the oddly-shaped piece of land that remains? It will be too small for development, too small for a park. Wait, I know, a commemorative plaque showing a faded photo of the glory that used to be the Globe Hotel. Or sell it, no doubt at a loss.

As for widening the street: why? As I understand it, narrowing is a commonly used method of traffic calming. It’s used throughout Europe to get drivers to reduce speeds. Isn’t that supposed to be important here,too? It’s mentioned in our active transportation plan. The current street design performs the important role of slowing down traffic at a critical intersection, rather than letting drivers race through town unimpeded. Let’s keep it like that.

The issue will return towards the end of the budget debate. I expect financial considerations will put the proposal on hold, and give council the opportunity to properly discuss it, with, of course, public input.

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Let’s get the terms of this debate correct

Aborton cartoonThere’s a recent story in the Winnipeg Free Press with the headlines that, “Liberals fear pro-lifers trying to take over weakened federal party.”

Gawd, I hate such inaccurate, slanted reporting. It’s bad enough when politicians engage in it, but the media should be more objective.

Let’s get the terms straight, shall we? Then we can try for objectivity.

To call one side “pro-life” is to give credibility to the implication that the other side is “anti-life.” That’s spinelessly accepting a one-sided spin on the debate. It appeals to the emotions, not the facts, and certainly not to logic.

Neither side is “anti-life” – unless that life happens to belong to one of your opponents’ abortion doctors. Then it seems to be okay to commit murder. It’s inappropriate to put a ‘pro-life’ label on someone who condones murdering doctors. “Pro-life-except-for-abortion-doctors” is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s honest.

The abortion issue is better described as “pro-choice” versus “anti-choice” – a debate over who has the right to choose: the pregnant woman or some third party, a person usually not associated with the woman by marriage or family ties, and usually whose religious beliefs are not shared by the woman in question.

I doubt that the religious people on the anti-choice side would take well to the notion of someone from a different faith making them follow their different rules. Would they, for example, accept a Taliban decree that all Christian women must wear the hijab? Unlikely. Yet they are quite comfortable making more important and life-altering decisions for people who do not share their particular brand of faith. That’s hypocrisy in my books. But I digress.

Pro-choice versus anti-choice is at least a more accurate label. But it’s also a bit hazy as a description, because some of the anti-abortion side would agree that abortion might be allowable under some conditions (such as the mother’s life being in danger, incest or rape). They may not be entirely anti-choice (although from what I’ve read, they still want an outsider with specific religious views to have the final say, not the woman). Calling them anti-pregnant-woman’s-choice-except-when-we-permit-it, however, is also a bit clumsy for a headline.

You can argue that it’s really “late-life” versus “early-life” supporters, because one of the key issues is when individual life actually takes effect – at conception, at some point in the womb, or at birth. That begins to sound a bit too intellectual and distant from the issue. You also learn when trying to pinpoint a time that there are not two clearly-defined sides on that question, but rather several shades of grey.

In the strictest terms, it is a pro-abortion versus anti-abortion debate, and should not be categorized by any of the emotionally-laden terms each group prefers to see itself as cloaked in. Let’s call it what it is, and not indulge anyone in their propaganda efforts to position their side on the moral high ground.

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Collingwood’s population on the rise, faster than Canada’s

Census cartoonStatistics Canada has released some of the key data data from its 2011 Census. In the five years since our last census (2006), Canada has grown in population size almost 6% to 33,476,688. That’s ten times larger than we were in 1861. Once again, our growth rate was the highest among G8 countries.

According to the StatsCan analysis of the data, “every province and most territories saw its population increase between 2006 and 2011.” However, it notes that, “The rate of population growth increased in all provinces and territories between 2006 and 2011, except in Ontario, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut… The rate of Ontario’s population growth declined slightly in the past five years to 5.7%, its lowest level since the period between the 1981 and 1986 censuses.”

Meanwhile, as our planner, Mark Bryan, pointed out to council via email this morning, Collingwood’s population continues to grow. Last census the population figure was 17,290; in 2011 it was pegged at 19,241 people. Mark points out that’s an increase of 11.3% in five years, much higher than our growth during 2001-2006, when it was 7.8%. Mark noted:

The total number of dwellings in the town now stands at 10,695, of which 8,339 are occupied by usual residents. In other words 78% of the dwellings in town are occupied by permanent residents while 22% are occupied by ‘seasonal’ residents. This split remains unchanged from the 2006 census.

That means 2,356 dwellings belong to seasonal residents, one in five. That’s significant for our planning, strategic goals, and service delivery methodology.

There were 1,379 new dwelling units added since 2006. I’d really like to know how many of those new units were affordable, and how many were bought by seasonal residents. The percentage of seasonal-to-permanent residents has fallen (78.55 to 77.97%) but not significantly.

Mark also noted that our municipal neighbours have wildly varying growth rates: Wasaga Beach (17,537 in 2011) is at the top, with a growth rate of 16.7%. Clearview (13,734) and The Town of the Blue Mountains (6,453) saw population decreases of 2.5% and 5.5%, respectively. He commented on the population decline in TOBM as “interesting since the actual number of dwellings increased from 5,619 to 6,200, an increase of about 10%… It is likely that the seasonal population is increasing with new and converted dwelling units adjacent to recreational opportunities. The permanent population, likely due to aging and out migration, appears to be decreasing.” So where are they going, one wonders.

Wasaga Beach’s split between permanent and seasonal residents is also quite different: 65% of dwellings are permanent, or one in three is seasonal, a modest increase in the percentage since 2006. The town saw 1,929 new homes since last census, roughly 50% more than Collingwood in that time. However, Collingwood has 33.46 sq. km with an average density of 575.1 people/sq. km. Wasaga Beach has 58.43 sq. km with a density of 300.1.

Simcoe County rose from 422,204 in 2006 to 446,063, a 5.7% increase.

More data will be released in May, 20102, including age and sex numbers. I’ll fill in some of the blanks when that is available.

For now, read some of the news stories on the census: National Post, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and of course the CBC.

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Bad Lao Tzu meme adds to growing list of mis-identified quotes online

This bad meme is going the Internet rounds:

“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.” Lao Tzu

Well, although deep – if a bit saccharine – it’s not from the Tao Teh Ching, the only work that the Old Master (the literal translation of his name) ever produced.

The Tao Teh Ching is a notoriously difficult book to translate. Although it consists of a mere 5,000 Chinese characters, translations can vary wildly. Compare this one with the one linked above for example. One site compares three versions (Legge, Suzuki and Goddard). This site has 175 translations of the first verse alone, dating from the late 19th to early 21st centuries, which indicates the numerous, complex ways translators have approached this work and how many ways there are at trying to wrestle the meaning from it.

Hua Hu ChingThe quote actually comes from a translation of another Taoist work called the Hua Hu Ching (Huahujing), which although attributed to Lao Tzu, is actually a forgery. According to scholars, the Huahujing was actually written some 500 years after Lao Tzu lived, by Taoist Wang Fou, ca. 300 CE. Apparently he wrote it as an anti-Buddhist polemic after he was defeated in debate by the Chinese Buddhist monk Bo Yuan. The earliest text was only one section, but by the beginning of the eighth century it had been expanded into ten or eleven.

Historical Chinese records suggest it was first produced in the late third century CE. Some scholars give it a later date because the earliest reference to to the work is from the period of 420–477 CE. The oldest extant version is from a slightly later period. The content suggests it is much later than Lao Tzu because it contains references to all sorts of later Taoist practices such as herbal medicine, feng shui, tai chi and sex:

A person’s approach to sexuality is a sign of his level of evolution. Unevolved persons practice ordinary sexual intercourse. Placing all emphasis upon the sexual organs, they neglect the body’s other organs and systems. Whatever physical energy is accumulated is summarily discharged, and the subtle energies are similarly dissipated and disordered. It is a great backward leap. For those who aspire to the higher realms of living, there is angelic dual cultivation. Because every portion of the body, mind, and spirit yearns for the integration of yin and yang, angelic intercourse is led by the spirit rather than the sexual organs. Where ordinary intercourse is effortful, angelic cultivation is calm, relaxed, quiet, and natural. Where ordinary intercourse unites sex organs with sex organs, angelic cultivation unites spirit with spirit, mind with mind, and every cell of one body with every cell of the other body. Culminating not in dissolution but in integration, it is an opportunity for a man and woman to mutually transform and uplift each other into the realm of bliss and wholeness. The sacred ways of angelic intercourse are taught only by one who has himself achieved total energy integration, and taught only to students who follow the Integral Way with profound devotion, seeking to purify and pacify the entire world along with their own being. However, if your virtue is especially radiant, it can be possible to open a pathway to the subtle realm and receive these celestial teachings directly from the immortals.

The Tao Teh Ching has none of this material: it was added later to his teachings.

Hua Hu ChingThe Hua Hu Ching is a work of Taoist philosophy and practice also known as “the scripture of transforming the barbarians.” That’s because it’s recounts a fictional journey by Lao Tzu out to the “Western Regions” and into India, where, the legend goes, his teachings formed the basis of Buddhism. The work seeks to position Taoism as the supreme philosophy over other beliefs, especially Buddhism which at the time it was written was challenging Taoism for popularity among the Chinese populace:

The world is full of half-enlightened masters. Overly clever, too “sensitive” to live in the real world, they surround themselves with selfish pleasures and bestow their grandiose teachings upon the unwary. Prematurely publicizing themselves, intent upon reaching some spiritual climax, they constantly sacrifice the truth and deviate from the Tao.

Hardly objective: it’s a strong, often angry, political stance about the superiority of Taoist beliefs. The message is clear: there’s a fight over the hearts and minds of the populace here. To prove their superiority, Taoists had to portray Buddhism as a weakened, distorted version of Taoism.

The fault of attribution lies both with the people who repeat this quote online without checking its source, and the translator. This verse is from a translation by Brian Walker. The full verse (no. 75) reads:

Would you like to liberate yourself from the lower realms of life? Would you like to save the world from the degradation and destruction it seems destined for? Then step away from shallow mass movements and quietly go to work on your own self-awareness. If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation. So find a teacher who is an integral being, a beacon who extends his light and virtue with equal ease to those who appreciate him and those who don’t. Shape yourself in his mold, bathe in his nourishing radiance, and reflect it out to the rest of the world. You will come to understand an eternal truth: there is always a peaceful home for a virtuous being.

People have cherry-picked from the work, taking lines out of context. It’s actually an interesting, deep and complex work, well worth reading for its historical and political context. You can’t simply remove lines without losing some of the meaning. In this case the verse exhorts the reader to find a suitable teacher and submit to his/her discipline in order to achieve self-transformation. It also assumes the reader’s beliefs are in concert with Taoist and Chinese beliefs about “lower realms.” Similarly other verses refer to the “immortals.”

Walker attributes the work to Lao Tzu, which is a surprising statement given the easily available research on its origins. A lot of material is available in English to explain when and why the book was written. In his 1993 introduction, Walker wrote,

The Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu is … believed among Westerners to be Lao Tzu’s only book. Few are aware that a collection of his oral teachings on the subject of attaining enlightenment and mastery were also recorded in a book called the Hua Hu Ching (pronounced “wha hoo jing”). The teachings of the Hua Hu Ching are of enormous power and consequence, a literal road map to the divine realm for ordinary human beings. Perhaps predictably, the book was banned during a period of political discord in China, and all copies were ordered to be burned. Were it not for the Taoist tradition of oral transmission of sacred scriptures from master to student, they would have been lost forever. I am permanently indebted to Taoist Master Ni Hua-Ching for sharing his version of these teachings with the Western world after his emigration from China in 1976. My work here is largely based upon his teaching.

Walker’s work is skillful, poignant and poetic, but scholarly writing I’ve found contradicts his attribution to Lao Tzu. He suggests it only exists in oral form, however, a copy was found in 1997 in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, China, dating from around the late 4th or early 5th century CE. Walker seems to ignore the inconsistencies in the text or its evident political stance.

One of the problems that oral traditions face is that transmission from one generation to the next is seldom if ever entirely accurate. Memories fail, ideologies intrude to change the message, people can mishear a word. verses handed down orally for 1,500 or more years is bound to be corrupt when compared with a written version. Walker’s work has to be read with that in mind.

An alternate translation of the book, by Hua-Ching Ni, is much longer than Walker’s version, and retains the debate format so it reads as a series of question-and-answer dialogues between a young prince and a learned Taoist master. It, too, incorrectly attributes the authorship to Lao Tzu despite the very obvious references to later practices and beliefs that post-dated Lao Tzu.

Here’s another bad quote mis-attributed to Lao Tzu, this one from Facebook, mis-identified as coming from Lao Tzu:

“Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. Love still stands when all else has fallen.”

This is actually from the New Testament (Corinthians), not Lao Tzu. Once again the problem is that lazy people don’t check sources to confirm the author, and simply attribute it to whomever they decide seems like a likely source. Never assume that what is posted online – especially anything posted on Facebook – is accurate. Always research the content before you spread another bad meme or urban myth.

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Why Admiral Collingwood should go ahead

Juxtaposition.

That’s the issue Collingwood Council has to wrestle with, Monday: what effect will the juxtaposition of the proposed development’s size and height have on the existing, smaller buildings? Some people are afraid our existing heritage buildings will be diminished by this project.

Last week I was in Toronto. At the corner of York and Wellington Streets, I saw the Toronto Club; a beautifully preserved, late 19th-century red-brick, three-storey building. It’s in the, heart of financial district, surrounded by tall, modern skyscrapers, some 30 or more storeys high. What made this building stand out was the contrast with, not the similarity to, the buildings around it.

Art Gallery of OntarioI later walked along Dundas Street to the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is a big, modern building redesigned by architect Frank Gehry. At 21m, It is roughly the same height of the proposed Admiral building, but much longer. Across the street are typical three-storey, Toronto brick homes, many turned into galleries and businesses. Further west along Dundas Street, Chinatown is a mix of two to four-storey buildings.

The gallery dominates the visual landscape, but instead of diminishing the others, the contrast makes them stand out more.

JerusalemA few decades ago, I visited Jerusalem. The Old City has 2,500 years of history visible in its walls and narrow streets. What makes the Old City so spectacular is how it contrasts against the modern city just outside its walls. The beauty of the Old City shines in the juxtaposition.

Duke of York pubIn London, England, this fall, I walked through 13th century cathedrals, and 15th-century castles where Henry VIII lived. I had a beer in an 18th century pub in the heart of the city, a small building surrounded by much taller and more modern ones.

England has some very rigid laws about heritage buildings to make sure they are preserved and maintained. But when there is nothing to preserve, they allow builders and architects to be creative. There are some stunningly modern and exciting buildings in London within a stone’s throw of well-preserved 17th and 18th century heritage sites. The contrast between them makes London vibrant.

It is contrast and the mix that makes any city dynamic, not its homogeneity.

I love the old buildings, I love the preserved cultural heritage sites I’ve had the privilege to visit.

But heritage is a sentimental concept, a romanticizing of an ideal past; it is not a technical term. In fact, it’s difficult to get people to agree on what it means. The whole history of the architecture conservation movement is not much older than our own town.

Our heritage district is not a museum of empty buildings: it is a place where people live and work. We want our heritage buildings to look old from the outside, but not inside.

No one wants outdoor privies and gas lanterns, no one wants to get water from a well or keep groceries in a cold cellar. We want all the modern conveniences the original owners never had: electricity, refrigeration, insulation, modern plumbing and air conditioning. Our heritage is skin deep: it’s just the façade that matters.

The definition of what is heritage changes with every generation. Many of the buildings in Collingwood’s heritage district would have been new in my grandfather’s youth. Some would have been new when my father was a teenager, a generation later. Both men would have thought of these buildings as modern, not as heritage sites.

banks in the heritage districtA generation or two from now, our children and grandchildren may see the Admiral development as heritage, something they want to protect and preserve. They may also want to preserve the blocky modern buildings like several downtown banks, the former bingo hall and former drugstore, even the town hall annex – because they will be heritage sites in the future.

is this future heritage?Today many here would like nothing more than to have those buildings torn down and something that looks more 19th-century erected in their place. Even though these and other modern buildings are within the heritage district, does anyone care if this proposed development diminishes those modern buildings? Of course not.

Admiral Collingwood developmentProtecting our heritage doesn’t mean we can only erect fakes that externally conform to our current sentimental ideal. We can allow contrast, we can allow change without in any way diminishing the value or appearance of our existing heritage buildings or district.

We have a duty to the community as a whole, not just to one segment. The economic wellbeing of our downtown is at stake, not merely its look.

Let’s stop agonizing over this and let it go forward.

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Mayor Ford’s troubles a lesson for all Canadian mayors

Toronto Mayor Rob FordOn days like this, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford must be banging his head against the wall. This week he – and indeed every Canadian mayor – was reminded that a mayor’s powers are limited to a single vote.

That point was driven home when Councillor Joe Mihevc asked for a legal opinion on Ford’s unilateral decision to kill the Transit City plan, in December 2010, without consulting council. Mihevc also claimed Ford did not have the authority to sign a memorandum of understanding with the province to spend money from the Transit City project to put the proposed Eglinton LRT entirely underground.

The legal opinion suggested Ford did, indeed, overstep his authority. The province, too, has indicated that any agreement must be approved by the “governing body,” not just the mayor. The mayor is not an autocrat, no matter what he thinks his role is.

Unlike mayors in the USA, in Canada mayors have no additional power, and certainly no veto, that are not granted to any other member of council. Much of their authority is assumed by position or given by respect, rather than granted through legislation. They may act as chair, set the agenda, and control their own office budget, but can do little else outside the context of the democratic process. Unilateral decisions are not permitted.

In Canada, municipalities are children of their respective province, a role descended from the original British North America Act and as out of touch with current times as the BNA would be today. Cities, even our largest, have no independence as many American and European cities have. In every province, legislation defines what power, what authority and what responsibility municipalities enjoy. This antiquated – almost medieval – hierarchy puts our major cities on the same legislative level as any hamlet or village. And it puts every mayor on the same level as any other member of council: one vote, no veto.

Whether this is good or bad governance is a debate that provincial municipal organizations should be pressing on the provinces. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities should be demanding the federal government examine necessary changes to federal laws to facilitate provincial changes.

Author Gord Hume discussed this and related issues in his recent book, Taking Back Our Cities. Unfortunately for municipal politicians in Canada, Hume is a lone voice; provincial and federal municipal associations are unaccountably silent on the changes needed (and long overdue) in the provincial-municipal relationship. In fact, there seems to be a slightly too-cozy relationship between the provinces and their respective provincial associations. Association executives exhibit a tad too much reluctance to ‘rock the boat’ and upset that relationship.

The fight with Ford is not about transit dollars. It’s about authority and governance. I can sympathize: in the previous Collingwood council, I argued similarly against what I perceived as overstepping mayoral authority. It’s somewhat understandable that mayors assume they have more significance than their fellow council members because they are elected at large and, at least in Ford’s case, with a larger vote count that councillors get. But that significance is not defined in any legislation. They cannot act alone.

In the Globe and Mail, Patrick White writes,

The controversy has sparked a debate about whether he did or didn’t overstep his authority under the City of Toronto Act and, subsequently, whether it is Mr. Ford or the legislation that needs to change.

The Act may well need revision, but until such time as the province agrees to do so – and the province is very reluctant to relinquish any of its authority to municipalities, regardless of any election promises or claims to partnerships – Ford is the one who has to change.

Do some or all Canadian mayors need powers comparable to what their American counterparts enjoy? That would be a big debate, a fascinating and probably contentious one. It’s not likely to happen under the current Ontario government. None of the parties have expressed more than bland platitudes about the municipal-provincial relationship; their leaders usually smugly calling us “partners” without offering us a seat at the table for any decision that affects municipalities. In the province’s eyes, that partnership is a subservient role and municipalities have to tug their virtual forelocks in obedience.

As for the federal government, it won’t act until the provinces pressure it to do so. That day will come only when our municipal organizations show the spine to fight for a renewed, revised relationship. That will not happen, I suspect, until Hell freezes over.

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