Monthly Archives: March 2012

Grim outlook for Canadian manufacturing

Abandoned Arrow Shirt factory, OntarioThe outlook for Canadian manufacturing, warns the CIBC, will remain grim as long as a strong dollar keeps labour costs high, “deepening the hollowing out of the industrial heartland and boosting regional income inequality in the years ahead,” says the Huffington Post.

The Canadian loonie looks good for shoppers who buy consumer and retail goods made outside Canada. Our import prices are actually 10% lower than they were a decade ago. Back in 2002, when the loonie was $0.62CAD to the $USD, our labour costs were lower, so it made Canada a good place in to make products. Now we’re not: we’re too expensive. Our labour costs are now 20-25% higher than those in the USA (see graph, below).

The factories have moved elsewhere and they’re not coming back any time in the foreseeable future. So you have to ask which is the greater advantage for Canadians: being able to buy cheaper goods from China or having good-paying jobs so you can afford better products?

Canadian labour costs risingThe CIBC report notes that, “Canada is no longer a cost-effective location for a host of non-resource-related manufacturing activities. Initially, shutdowns were seen in sectors like apparel and furniture that had earlier hung on in part due to an undervalued exchange rate. More recently, Canada has lagged in attracting or retaining facilities for autos and parts, rail cars, steel mills, and other goods where the competition is now more weighted to US producers… barring a big correction in the currency, or a sharp shift in relative wages, factory growth will subsequently stall.”

Ontario has been hardest hit, the report continues. “Real GDP growth in that province has now trailed the rest of the country for nine straight years—underperformance that has coincided with C$ appreciation. Had Ontario kept pace with the rest of the country, its economy would be almost 10% larger than it is today, making it much easier for the government to dig itself out of deficit.”

Only last month, the HuffPost reported that Canada lost industrial plants at twice the pace of the United States in 2011. The story adds,

Ontario led the decline in industrial plants, shedding 33 of them for a total of 7,853 jobs lost, the report stated. Quebec shed 23 plants, costing nearly 3,000 jobs. Western Canada and Atlantic Canada lost fewer than 2,000 industrial plant jobs each.
But the 14,000 jobs lost at shuttered plants don’t tell the full story. According to Statistics Canada, total employment in manufacturing declined by 50,000 from December, 2010, to December, 2011.
The IIR report suggests the pace of industrial job losses will be similar this year. There are already 76 plants scheduled to close in the next few months in the U.S., while Canada already has four closings scheduled, for job losses totaling 2,700.

At the bottom of the story is a slide show that documents the 10 hardest-hit manufacturing sectors, with the greatest job losses since before the 2008 recession.

Manufacturing isn’t the only sector hit. It’s the classic domino effect. Last month we saw a story on the grim outlook for the air cargo industry: “The immediate future doesn’t look at all rosy for the air cargo business.”

A report from TD Securities just after the recession began stated, “There’s no reason to expect anything good from the Canadian manufacturing shipments report on the 16th, with every single leading indicator that we know of in negative territory.” That picture has not improved significantly. A look at their forecasts for 2012 doesn’t show any improvement predicted. The once robust automobile sector remains flat: “…there is limited upside for new auto sales over the medium term. Perhaps the most difficult challenge facing automakers is the likely absence of any meaningful pentup demand in the Canadian market.” The housing market is at a crossroads: “Overall, we expect sales to record annual average declines of 2.4% and 3.5% in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Prices are poised to suffer a similar fate – annual average declines of 1.9% in 2012 and 3.6% in 2013.”

Furniture sales forecasts have been rewritten with lower expectations. Canadian retail sales in December – the best month of the year – were lower than expected (“There is also a direct connection between the retail shopping numbers and the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) line item in gross domestic product (GDP). PCE accounts for 55% of Canada’s national output.”)

Overall, the economic future does not look rosy for Canada, and especially not for Ontario. Coupled with the Drummond Report on Ontario’s troubled economy and its recommendations for significant cuts to government spending, it looks like we’re in for a few lean years. It’s something for Collingwood Council to keep in mind when working through its next few budgets.

Nope, this quote is not from Plato

Plato“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

Seems like a wise thing to say. And I wish Plato had said it – it would have saved me a lot of time today. I spent many hours today putting together a quotation widget for this blog and trying to ascertain every quote I included came from a respectable, creditable source. Most were fairly easy to confirm, but others – like this one – just didn’t feel right for the attributed author.

This quote strikes me as far more modern than anything Plato ever wrote. It just see,ms to me like another touchy-feely, self-help-guru saying attributed to someone ancient to give it a patina of credibility.

Every single site that repeated that quotation of the several hundred I perused, not a single one included a source work for it. Many had sources for other Plato quotes, identifying the book from which the quotation was taken, but not this quote. That’s annoying. I spent at least an hour trying to find a proper source for this one.

Quotations attributed to the wrong author discredit both the poster and the quotation. It’s part of the general dumbing-down the Internet is doing to us all. But hundreds, even thousands of sites perpetuate this stupidity. It makes it very difficult to repeat anything we find online because few, if any, bother to track content backwards to confirm a source.

Some sites attributed (again without a source reference) it to Socrates (which points back to Plato, of course, since Socrates did not actually write anything and most of his recorded words are contained in Plato’s works).*

One site named the source as “Platone,” one as “Plate” and another as “Plata” (don’t these idiots ever use spell check?). Other sites attributed it to a real estate agent in la Jolla named “John Parker.” A poster named “kiersten11″ is noted as the source in one place. One site seems to attribute it to Abraham Lincoln (again unsourced). It’s like a dart board of dead people.

Many others just parroted it without attribution (probably a lot safer). It’s been used as an inspirational quote for both humanists and religious fundamentalists, evolutionists and creationists alike. It’s been bruited about in all sorts of simperingly saccharine posts about fear, love, fear of the dark and being one with the whatever nebulous oneness that inspires the poster.

But it isn’t from Plato. Another bloody stupid Internet meme is all it is. The equivalent of Internet chain letters. Sigh.

My bet is on it being by modern author Robin Sharma, for which I found several attributions of it from his book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. It seems to run in parallel with his other quotes, too, much more than it reads like something Plato would have written.

Poor Robin Sharma if it really is his. How will he ever retrieve it from Plato?

~~~~~

* Update: I mis-spoke in my earlier version. Socrates is quoted by several classical authors, but of them only Plato was his actual student; Xenophon has been called a disciple but is from my reading more a contemporary or colleague. And Plato and Xenophon differ in a few p[laces what they claim Socrates said.
The rest of the authors use third-hand or more distant sources since they never knew or studied under Socrates. The Socratic problem is trying to determine what Socrates actually believed, since classical authors used him to voice their own sentiments and ideas.

English suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous punctuation

Grammar TalesThere’s a chip wagon in town that offers “fresh cut fries.” When I see that sign, I always wonder what “cut fries” are, and how they compare with uncut fries. Does this chipster offer stale cut fries as well as fresh ones?

The former library is becoming an old building. The sign in front tells us a “senior facility” is coming soon. Sad to see a relatively new building forced to age.

A sign in a local department store advises me “video’s” are on sale. A grocery store offers “mango’s” and “avocado’s”. These common ‘apostrophe catastrophes‘ can be seen daily on signs and in official documents pretty much everywhere English is misspoken.

I was warned to “drive safe” when I left a store on a blustery winter’s day. I responded that the safe didn’t have an engine, so I could not possible drive it. When told to “dress warm” I asked “dress a warm what?”

A local restaurant calls itself the Olde’ Towne Terrace. Aside from the inappropriate apostrophe dangling at the end of the word, olde was a correct spelling in earlier forms of English, but not today. As this sites notes, it’s just an affectation today: “Other ways of pretending to be ancient are the addition of unnecessary ‘e’ at the end of words, ‘olde’, ‘shoppe’, again a holdover from Middle English where the ‘e’ was pronounced… fake English spelling affects all parts of the English-speaking world.”

ToonpoolI suppose I’m urinating against the wind here. There are hundreds of sites and blogs dedicated to documenting and correcting the tsunami of improper spelling, punctuation and grammar all around us. My protest is a mere ripple in comparison. Some writers offer constructive correction (like Melissa Donovan in Writing Forward), but people don’t check before they make signs. It strikes me the job of creating those messages is always assigned to the least literate employee.

There’s the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, a Flickr collection of signs with bad grammar and spelling (and not just at Tea Party rallies, either!) and another set here, here, and here.

Canada’s favourite coffee shop annoys me daily with its incorrect punctuation: Tim Hortons (sic). According to Wikipedia, this error was actually a conscious decision: “The chain’s first store opened in 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario, under the name “Tim Horton Donuts”; the name was later abbreviated to “Tim Horton’s” and then changed to “Tim Hortons” without the possessive apostrophe. The business was founded by Tim Horton, who played in the National Hockey League from 1949 until his death in a car accident in 1974.”

Why, you ask, would any company deliberately dumb-down its signs and open itself to ridicule? To appease the anglophobes in Quebec: “Some older locations retain signage with the company’s name including a possessive apostrophe, despite the fact that the official styling of the company’s name has been Tim Hortons, without an apostrophe, for at least a decade. The company had removed the apostrophe after signs using the apostrophe were considered to be breaking the language sign laws of the Province of Quebec in 1993. The removal of the apostrophe allowed the company to have one common sign image across Canada.” I can only feel for the franchise owners who stubbornly refuse to give in to corporate silliness. The company will offend millions of English language speakers by making an egregious error in punctuation, but not anyone in Quebec. Nice message to send the rest of us, eh? Seems the missing apostrophe has even spawned boycotts of the place and petitions to have it restored.

Fortunately, Collingwood Council has not gone the way of Birmingham, England, and declared apostrophes outdated on its signs. I treat this declaration with the same reverence I treat my dog barking at a squirrel that eludes it: pointless and annoying. Birmingham has become the “city where apostrophes arent welcome” and ridiculed for the decision in the media.

If you don’t think punctuation matters, read this story about a comma that cost Rogers $2.13 million!

Does all this matter any more? Is the number of people who care about language usage, about punctuation, grammar and spelling dwindling, fighting a losing battle against tweets and text messages? I fervently hope not. Even some Chinese cities have undertaken campaigns to correct English on their signs. If they care that much about English, surely we, its native speakers, should do so, too.

Maybe Canada needs a National Punctuation Day (Sept. 24) or a National Grammar Day (March 4) like the US has. Would it make any difference? Aside, that is, from giving geeks like me something else to whinge about?

The Drummond Report: economic disaster or salvation?


“It’s not all doom and gloom,” quips Rick Mercer in this video. “Drummond predicts the province could still turn things around, if it acts now, and no one gets sick, needs a job, or educates their children, for the next… ever.”

The Drummond Report – from the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services headed by economist Don Drummond – was released last week. It’s a sweeping, 529-page, brick-thick study of Ontario’s fiscal policies and structures, with 362 recommendations about how the province should run its public service. It reads like the findings of an inquest after a particularly gruesome series of industrial accidents. Perhaps it is.

If followed, those recommendations will have a huge impact on municipalities and taxpayers (Drummond says government spending must decrease 16.2% every year for every man, woman and child in this province). Adopting them is the only way, says the report’s author, to get the province out of its $16 billion deficit before we become North America’s Greece with a $30 billion deficit.

Drummond says we must accept all of his recommendations or face financial meltdown. All, not just some. We can’t pick from them like a smorgasbord, he says. But that’s just what Premier Dalton McGuinty has already done, with his recent announcements about what he won’t implement or cut.

I’m not sure if that’s McGuinty’s way of telling us he doesn’t have the backbone to implement unpopular recommendations, or he’s just dancing one last song with political popularity while the ship sinks, or that we should buckle up because the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train called The Deficit. But maybe, he’s actually wiser than we normally give him credit for being.

In a few short weeks, the report has spawned a small, but intense industry of commentators who have weighed in on the pros and cons of Drummond’s recommendations. Rex Murphy, for example, penned this scathing comment in the National Post:

With the exception of the writings of the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah at their bleakest, flavoured with a touch of H.P. Lovecraft on the days when that lightless mind was wrestling with a migraine, the recent meditations of Don Drummond on Ontario’s fiscal situation set the standard for prose that vibrates with gloom and foreboding.

To be fair, the chances of any National Post writer making even the most remotely backhanded compliment about anything even vaguely Liberal is akin to my chances of winning the lottery, so we have to take his comments in the conservative spirit in which they were written: a self-righteous, anti-Liberal, “I told you so.”

And as expected, the Toronto Star weighed in against it, albeit from another side. Thomas Walkom wrote:

That the rich will fare best under Drummond is true by definition.
The well-to-do depend less on government programs than the poor and middle class. That is a fact. Drummond’s call for government to roll back the Ontario Child Benefit will hurt poor families who receive the subsidy. It will not affect the rich who do not.
Nor are the wealthy being asked to chip in through higher progressive taxes. Drummond did advocate that some taxes, including those on property and gasoline, be hiked. He even wants a special tax (he calls it a user fee) levied on rural parents who bus their children to school.
But these kinds of regressive taxes hit the poor and middle class proportionally harder than the rich. A surtax on high-income earners could correct that bias. But Premier Dalton McGuinty specifically told Drummond to stay away from such remedies.
Add to this the real world of politics, a world in which some groups have clout and others do not.

AMO – the Association of Municipalities of Ontario – has weighed in with an early comment, noting:

AMO is anxious about the potential for altering the upload agreement and the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund. The Commission is recommending to delay planned uploads of provincial costs from the municipal property tax base by two years.

Translation: Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals promised to reverse the downloading of services and expenses onto municipalities perpetuated by Premier Mike Harris. McGuinty has been undoing it, albeit slowly. He reiterated his promise to continue the uploading at the annual AMO convention, in 2011, and again at the ROMA/OGRA convention in 2012. He promised to have it all reversed by 2018. Drummond suggests pushing that to 2021, which means additional years of expenses to Ontario’s municipalities (you, the taxpayers will pay either way).

AMO credited Drummond with several worthwhile recommendations in the areas of social programs and housing, health care, infrastructure, real estate, electricity, full-cost pricing for water and wastewater treatment services, the justice system, and improving the arbitration system. However, why these recommendations are worthy and others are not is not explained

AMO executives may not want to stray too far into critical commentary because it could alienate the organization from the government, and that would backfire on municipalities. Still, even if it is preliminary, the response noted above is annoyingly vague. I hope to see a much more comprehensive analysis from AMO in the near future, one that looks more closely at what the recommendations mean to municipalities.

Exhaustive as it may appear to some, the report has gaping holes in it. One area, for example, is in the labour arbitration process. Municipalities are frequently burdened with high salary agreements through arbitration. But the executive summary in the report says, “The interest arbitration system has come under increasing scrutiny and attack. We do not find the system to be broken, though it can be improved.” To any municipality trying to wrestle with the escalating costs of, say, their fire service, that statement is a mere nod and a wink to a seriously broken and very expensive process. School boards face the same issue with local teachers’ unions.

Like Walkom pointed out, the provincial tax structure was overlooked and most of the recommendations will have the greatest effect on those with the lowest incomes. One example is full-day kindergarten (which the right-wing QMI media’s writer, Christina Blizzard, caustically calls “free baby sitting”). Working parents who struggle to make ends meet depend on all-day kindergarten to enable them both to stay in the workforce. It’s not a handout.

Drummond’s recommended cuts could slash another 250,000 jobs from the provincial workforce and reduce the provincial economy by billions of dollars. McGuinty may be right by not leaping into these waters without carefully looking at what’s lurking in their depths first.

To the right who view every government program with suspicion, Drummond didn’t go far enough and the cuts should be made regardless of their impact on lower-income and working-class families. To the left, Drummond’s recommendations are a recipe for disaster that will decimate our workforce, our economy and cripple our already struggling labour force with additional costs. These are simplistic views. We’re in a mess and we need to fix it, but Drummond’s report is not the sole answer. It’s a start and some of what he recommends will be necessary, but not all. So Dalton may be right to proceed with caution and not simply dive in without some serious thought to what has to be done.

Here’s an idea Drummond didn’t offer, but I put forward for your consideration. Once upon a time, the province used to charge licencing fees for vehicles based on their number of cylinders. That was dropped, inexplicably. Why not return to that system and put the extra revenue directly into infrastructure spending? Or perhaps base the license fee on the vehicle’s gas mileage ratio? It would serve the double duty of discouraging sales of gas guzzlers, which will only help our environment.

You really think they’re, like, linguistic pioneers? OMG!


Are the Kardashians, Valley Girls or the Jersey Shores’ starlets pioneers of language? Or just inept, barely literate, somewhat dim young women of dubious talent? I tend to believe the latter. Writer Douglas Quequa suggested the former in the New York Times this week. He opens with this line:

“Whether it be uptalk (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?), creating slang words like “bitchin’ ” and “ridic,” or the incessant use of “like” as a conversation filler, vocal trends associated with young women are often seen as markers of immaturity or even stupidity.”

Well, of course, yes. If you speak like an idiot, people naturally assume you are one. Language conveys the speaker’s intelligence, education, upbringing, experience and communications skills. Anyone who sticks “like” into every sentence does not come across as a particularly well-educated or even bright communicator. Anyone who thinks the Kardashians are brilliant orators is, like, oh-my-god, a moron.

It doesn’t have to be women: men do it too albeit usually with different words and cadence (the affected pseudo-“homie” talk of young men is particularly painful to listen to), but the cultural stereotype of the mindless, barely literate babble has been rather unfortunately pinned mostly on young women. Sadly, a few, it seems, deserve the label:

But linguists — many of whom once promoted theories consistent with that attitude — now say such thinking is outmoded. Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.”

I agree that these verbalizations fulfill a stylistic function, but interactional? It’s difficult to interact properly with someone who peppers “like” throughout a sentence. When someone says “I’m, like, happy,” should I ask what being similar to happy means to them?

If you mean “um”, say “um,” and not “like.” Basically both are an interruption of thought, but “like” has become an accepted stylistic form among some groups, spread like a virus, without deliberate effort. The abuse of the word “like” in speech is a bad gene on the language chromosome we need to expunge. Quequa writes,

The same can be said for the word “like,” when used in a grammatically superfluous way or to add cadence to a sentence. (Because, like, people tend to talk this way when impersonating, like, teenage girls?) …while young people tended to use “like” more often than older people, men used it more frequently than women… The use of “like” in a sentence, “apparently without meaning or syntactic function, but possibly as emphasis,” has made its way into the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition — this newspaper’s reference Bible — where the example given is: “It’s, like, hot.” Anyone who has seen a television show featuring the Kardashian sisters will be more than familiar with this usage.

Making it into any dictionary does not convey credibility or even acceptability. Dictionaries document use, but don’t make any effort to correct usage. They are tools for mapping the language, not arbiters of its use. Words also disappear from dictionaries, but not because they’re worthless. They may be expunged simply for lack of space. How many dictionaries still carry the word “mumpsimus”?

As an editorial note, Quequa doesn’t qualify his statement as to how (or even if) his quoted sources, “once promoted theories consistent with that attitude.” We never get any inkling of what those those earlier theories say. Or even if they are theories (they could be mere hypotheses…)

I suppose if I really wanted to be hip (wait, does that colloquialism show my age?) I’d write Valley “Gurlz” because the rage among the marketing and advertising illiterates is to replace a proper ‘s’ with a ‘z’ and pretend they’re actually the same sound (they’re not, but it’s like arguing cosmology with goldfish…). These are the same dimwits who brought us “lite” instead of light and “E-Z” instead of easy. Pay no attention to them and they will probably slink back into their caves.

Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

Oh, puh-leez. That’s codswallop. That’s akin to saying my dog is pioneering veterinary treatments because she got better after the medicine. The spread of linguistic forms is often little more than mimicry based on popular culture and pressure from peer usage. It’s just like fashion and popular culture. Just look at Internet memes and viral videos. Pioneering requires someone or some group to actually do the pioneering, not simply repeat what others do. I am not a pioneer of the telephone simply because I use one.

In the Sixties we talked about “rip offs” and said “cool, man”; in the Fifties it was “Daddy-oh” and “hipster.” Were we language pioneers or just parrots? These young women are products of their age and pop cultures, influenced by TV, the Net and movies to absorb these aspects.

Every generation has its own language, its own slang. But slang and sociolects age like political humour, losing their relevance within a few years and get dropped. Who today uses terms that were once in daily speeeh in the 1920s? Who says twenty-three skidoo or  see you later alligator?

What Quequa overlooks is that the patois of Valleyspeak and its ilk are not evolving languages as much as they are variant sociolects that have become a cross-pollinating meme. A sociolect, or social dialect, is, according to Wikipedia:

…a variety of language (a dialect) associated with a social group such as a socioeconomic class, an ethnic group, an age group, etc… interaction in written and other media can also lead to sociolects, and many can be found in online communities.

There’s nothing wrong with slang or sociolects; they’ve been around since language was invented. But there’s a world of difference between pioneering language forms and merely using them. And certainly a difference between pioneering and parroting.

Language is a tool. It can be used with finesse, like a scalpel, or bluntly and coarsely, like a chainsaw. Girl slang is certainly closer to the latter than the former as a mode of communication. Shakespeare was a pioneer of language, introducing many neologisms and developing new forms of expression. I simply cannot countenance putting the Kardashians on the same level as Shakespeare.