12/31/12

Happy New Year!


Happy New Year. 2012 is almost over. 2013 looms a few hours away. I wish you all the best of times in the upcoming year.

What a year it’s been. For council, we flailed around in the tar-baby issues of the new rec facilities and then the gambling facility (aka “casino” or “slot barn”). The rec facilities are going to built soon and will be stunning – that issue is, I hope, behind us and I expect everyone in town will enjoy them.

The gambling, well, some folks on council brought it back and I suspect it will be re-opened for debate in the New Year. It’s pretty contentious.

Aside from some minor fumbles and procedural gaffes, council had a good year and collectively accomplished a lot. Our term is half over and we have already achieved a remarkable amount – not the least being reducing our debt considerably while holding down expenses and taxes. No mean feat, that! We still maintain good relations with each other at the table, which matters a lot. We’ll see if the gambling issue fractures that coherency – but I hope not.

For me, personally, it was satisfying. I got two books published by Municipal World, as well as several articles in their prestigious monthly magazine. I also got contracts for two books to be published in 2013 for Municipal World. At the same time, I wrote a book on Machiavelli for Municipal Politicians, which I have recently put online while I hunt for a publisher. I may instead pursue the e-book market.

I started work on a novel, and fumbled my way through about 35,000 words in a few week.s Will go back to it next month. I collected a lot more books than I have bookshelf space, in my research for that and the other titles. I really, really need more speace for the books.

I started this new blog in January, and have learned a lot about coding and programming WordPress sites since.

I descended ascended to the world of Apple by getting an iPad and finding myself delighted by it. It’s the first Apple product I’ve had since I owned an original Macintosh, back in the 1980s. Got Apple TV, too, but hardly ever use it. I’ve even given serious thought to an e-reader as an accessory – for the classics and my archived books (who wouldn’t want to carry around a Shakespeare First Folio, even if only in PDF?).

Susan and I entered a new level of debt by having our kitchen redone after more than 20 years living here. Most expensive thing we’ve ever undertaken, aside from buying the house. You know those warnings the Bank of Canada frequently makes about Canadians living beyond their means? That’s us, now. Oops, too late…

For me, personally, it was satisfying. I got two books published by Municipal World, as well as several articles in their prestigious monthly magazine.

It took eight weeks – or was it ten? – for a project we expected to take two or three. Noise, dust, inconvenience, paint, washing dishes in the bathroom sink, too many microwave dinners… But the result is wonderful. Thanks to Dean of Premier Kitchens for seeing us through it and delivering a stellar product.

I got two new musical instruments to learn: an electric stand-up bass (Ergo five string), and a tenor guitar (Goldtone) as an alternative to my baritone ukuleles. Both used, bought from Kijiji sellers. Haven’t had as much time as I wished to practice, but I enjoy the time I have with them when I do.

Susan and I had our 29th anniversary earlier this month, and we’re now in our 30th year together. Not sure how she still tolerates my messy, unfocused, rambling ways, but she does and I love her all the more for it.

I was blessed with another grandchild – James. Saw him earlier this month and he’s a BIG boy. More about that in some future blog. My first grandchild is Hannah, now four. Saw her earlier this month, too. Really a beautiful kid. Jess and Tom make a great couple, and great parents.

We didn’t get to go on holidays this year, but we have been saving for 2013, although we haven’t decided where. Maybe Mexico (another Blue Agave tour?), maybe England again (my first visit there was in 2011). or maybe somewhere completely different. Depends on the money, the time, work and our pets. Sure would be nice to get away, though.

I’m sure more happened, but my memory has failed me, and it’s time to start dinner, and pour another glass of wine.

Anyway, this is just my personal wrap up for 2012. I hope yours was as good for you as mine was for me. Happy new Year and best wishes for 2013.

12/30/12

And on the video scene… bargains!


December is always a good month for movie buffs, and for anyone who wants to buy TV series on DVD (no commercials!). Lots of places have before- and after-Xmas sales that make DVD shopping more interesting this month. In particular, the bargain bins are filled with all sorts of films that either never got the media attention they needed to be successful, or simply are too old to demand the prices new movies can. Most are $5, some even less.

And I happen to like B-flicks, especially movies from the 30s to 70s. I have a nice collection of the old horror, scifi and mystery flicks made between 1930 and 60, with some real treasures. It’s amazing how a low-budget, B&W Roger Corman flick can still be more entertaining today than that overstuffed, CGI-dense monstrosity Peter Jackson did with his King Kong remake. But not all the bargains are B-flicks.

Imagine a film without car chase scenes, gun battles, choreographed stunts, egregious and explicit sex, profanity, or CGI. I know, it’s hard to – given the number of  Hollywood flicks that substitute visual display for content like acting, dialogue, and plot. But The Very Best Exotic Marigold Hotel hasn’t got a single car crash in it, no buffed, naked bodies and no one swears once. Yet it’s one of the most entertaining and delightful films I’ve seen all year. The sets are gorgeous and I was ready to move to India after watching it.

Of course the fact that it’s about seniors trying to figure out how to live the rest of their retired lives on a shoestring, so perhaps it appealed to me that way. They find themselves outside their comfort zone in a very alien land, trying to come to grips with it all.

It has a great, British cast, a good if not really deep story, plausible and fun dialogue, real sets (it was shot in India in an actual former palace) and it is genuinely touching. It’s also British and in general, I find British film significantly superior to American because the Brits concentrate on character, not on effects. This one gets five out of five stars. An A-Flick for sure. This was an inexpensive Blu-Ray at Wal-Mart ($10?).

Next up: Camelot, The Complete Series. I never watch series on TV channels because I hate ads. My attention span for commercials is about two commercials tops. After that, I’m fiddling with the Blackberry or iPad, rooting through the cupboard for my wasabi peas, or getting up to take the dog to the corner. When the show does come back – four to six minutes later – I have lost pretty much any interest in continuing with it. Instead, I buy series in DVD so I can watch at my own pace. Who cares if they’re not current?

Camelot was a Canadian-British joint venture that attempted to remake the Arthurian legend in an almost-new way (a bit of the Jack Whyte stories in it). It gathered together a collection of wooden characters (and Joseph Fiennes, who is one of the few who can actually act in this series), mostly young and fit so you could see them without their clothes on (which keeps your interest when the plots prove thin or the dialogue makes you shudder). This was a disappointment, because I have a passion for the Arthurian legends and generally always like new approaches.

It has some great, lush landscapes, some good and well-staged battle scenes, and the world of Camelot in Post-Roman/Dark Ages Britain is reasonably gritty and realistic if a bit under-developed. And there are enough twists to Mallory’s portrayal to keep you intrigued as to how they will frame his story in a new way.

But Arthur is a whiny, spoiled brat (as unsuited for the role as Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors), Guinevere is bland and belongs on a California beach. The knights are generally cutouts with no real role aside from propping up Arthur. Too many characters almost rise to the surface, then sink.

The two bright lights are Fiennes as Merlin – a complex, dark role but under-developed and never allowed to become the sort of wizard we hoped to see – and Eva Green as Morgana, who plays a deliciously evil role that is a little too often allowed to descend into caricature (the scenes with her and not Arthur are a nice respite from the brat, and she does take her clothes off). Claire Forlani as Igraine has some good moments, too, but also some overly-dramatic bits that make her seem weak; she never has much chance to develop her potential. Overall, too many young actors in lead roles, not enough mature ones, no real focus or direction for the overall series.

It’s a western set in Dark Ages Britain. But for the discounted set price, you get ten episodes without commercials, and it has enough entertainment value to keep you watching and wondering how they will develop the story line. The biggest disappointment is that the end of the sole season doesn’t really resolve anything, and leaves you hanging. When the price falls below $20 it will be a real bargain.

Big Nothing. Simon Pegg, Alice Eve and David Schwimmer play in this 2006 odd comedy-thriller-drama about three losers who try to pull off a blackmail that goes wrong. I picked it up for $5 and was surprised at how much better it was than I expected. It’s got a lot of Coen Brothers style in it. It’s also got some unexpected twists and snappy dialogue that take it from a  lightweight romp to film noir.

Pegg and Eve are great (they’re Brits); Schwimmer so-so. I don’t care much for him and his typical hang-dog acting. But for $5, a tangled plot and a surprising end, I can put up with him. There are also come interesting previews of films that I had never heard of, on this disk.

No sex, some violence, good dialogue. It’s a $10 movie at half price. Picked it up downtown at the store in the old Shopper’s Drug Mart site.

Tower Heist. Released on DVD in early 2012, this one found its way into Wal-Mart’s $7 bin for Xmas. It’s an overlooked gem, with a great cast and one of the smartest heist ideas I’ve seen in years. It’s a comedy-drama, where a group of losers and misfits decide to rob the richest man in the USA after it turns out he is a scam artist. Very contemporary theme. Only problem is that he lives in the most advanced, most secure building in New York.

Ben Stiller plays himself, which, like Schwimmer’s persona, is a bit worn these days. Eddie Murphy isn’t aging well and doesn’t really fit the role of wisecracking, comic thief he tries to reprise from 48 Hours. But he does it passably well. In fact, the cast works quite well together, the plot is well crafted and smart, the dialogue good and generally snappy, the comedy subdued but fun, and it never lags. No sex, no gun battles, little profanity. For $7 at Wal-Mart, it’s worth watching.

Elvira’s Movie Macabre. There’s a store in downtown Collingwood opened only for the season, selling a lot of discount books, games, toys, movies and posters. Among the movies are numerous B-Flicks for $5 (including The Haunting, a brilliant B&W ghost story from 1963). There are several of the “Elvira” series – some of the worst, most easily forgotten of the horror genre. Not today’s morbid slasher films with their all-too-realistic gore. These are almost comic in their effects. And I love them. Most anyway.

They are generally poor quality, poor acting and cheap sets. Budget films. But they are – for me at least – fun. They are a window into a whole sub-genre of film making and studios where a lot of great actors learned their trade (Steve McQueen starred in the B-flick, The Blob, for example) and a lot of others never progressed beyond the genre. Some – like Bruce Hamilton, Steve Reeves and Bela Lugosi – have become icons in their B class. Most, however, are forgotten.

A few of these films have developed cult status, most not. But there are so many of them to consider. Every Hallowe’en you can usually buy a box set of them and get a dozen or so films for $10. If you’re a B-flick fan, check out the store in the former Shopper’s Drug Mart building. There’s something for every taste.

Among the others I picked up this season: The Mask of Zorro and the Legend of Zorro at Loblaws. If you’ve never seen these two action-adventure flicks, you’re missing a lot of fun that the whole family can enjoy (no sex, no graphic violence, n profanity). Banderas and Zeta-Jones are a great pair in the first (Mask), and pair well with Hopkins. Good dialogue, good swordfighting, fun and fulfilling plot. DVD extras are worth watching too. The second (Legend) is a bit thinner (and has no supporting actor like Hopkins), but still a lot of fun.

Animal Crackers is one of two Marx Brothers’ films in the $5 bin at Zellers, along with a Three Stooges’ collection called Hapless Half-Wits. Both worth buying. In the same bin is a Sherlock Holmes movie that’s just silly – dinosaurs, robots and Mycroft-turned-villain, but remarkably well made with good effects (I think it’s the same film company that produced Camelot). Teenagers From Outer Space is marked down to $2.99, which is about what it’s worth. I also found It Came From Outer Space and Moby Dick (Gregory Peck) in the same bin, for $5 each. The latter is a truly great film everyone should see, the former an attempt at a thoughtful alien invasion flick that doesn’t quite make it. I also got Universal Solider: Regeneration, the third in the series, for $5. The best thing you can say about it is that it’s better than I expected. The sets are great – shot in Bulgaria at an abandoned steel factory. The DVD extras behind-the-scenes stuff was actually quite interesting, too. And we got a set of three James Bond films, all starring Pearce Brosnan, for under $10. A good deal and easy to watch again. For Scoop: The Simpsons’ Movie was also in the Wal-Mart $5 bin.

12/28/12

The Bedside Library


Bedside booksWhen the books stacked beside the bed get tall enough to hold not only a cup of tea at easy reach, but a plate of toast with no threat of falling, then perhaps it’s time to cull the pile and put aside those books not being actively read. That takes some time to sort out the reading-right-now from the reading-now-and-then, and the reading-for-a-purpose from the reading-when-it-pleases-me books. There is at least a shelf of books beside my bedside, perhaps more.

I’m not sure how many of my blog readers have a bedside book stack, but it goes without saying that reading at bedtime is a practice of the civilized life. Books have a revered place within arm’s reach of the covers.

Under some circumstances, I might grudgingly accept an e-reader, as a modern accessory to permit reading in other situations (like travel abroad), but in a bedroom, a TV is a place where only Philistines cavort.

Or, actually, stare vacantly at their piece of furniture. TV does not encourage participation, discussion or engagement.

Susan agrees wholeheartedly with my prejudices against TV sets in bedrooms, and has her own book stack, albeit in a more tidy and shevelled* manor than mine.

TVs belong in public places, like airports, bus depots or family living rooms. They do not belong in intimate places like bedrooms where couples can shed their daily woes. Watching a TV is a passive, submissive act, an act of self-inflicted mental slavery.

Reading is an active act, a participation between reader and author, a sharing of ideas, an exploration of new worlds.

Reading is one of the few acts we engage in, in which we share the immortality of another, in which we get close to another’s thoughts. Reading is second only to sex for intimacy. Reading Shakespeare or Chaucer is a time machine that allows me to visit a world that would otherwise be beyond my grasp. But it is equally so for Raymond Chandler, Charles Dickens, Mike Hammer and Emily Bronte. Doors open when you read, worlds are laid at your feet. Neurons fire up when you read.

TV, on the other hand, is about as intimate as any dentist’s office. That’s one reason it should be kept out of places like bedrooms. Doors close when you watch TV. So do minds. Neurons sleep when you watch TV.

My own reading habits and Susan’s are polar opposites. She reads a book, one at a time, cover to cover, word for word, then tackles the next. I read a chapter here, there, picking up books from the pile in no order, usually having a dozen on the go at any time. I have separate books in different bathrooms, books for travel, books for comfort, books for study, books for inspiration, books to argue with, books to teach. I read like a magpie, picking at bits and pieces.

A few years past, when we went to Mexico, I foolishly took a box of books as a separate item of luggage. In our two weeks, I got through most; at least those I wanted to complete or read the specific portions if not all (I took, for example, a complete works of Shakespeare, and read three plays). I can easily appreciate the value of an e-reader in these circumstances, since it can carry hundreds of works in one light unit.

Susan, on the other hand, took a few of her own books, read them, and then traded them for others from hotel guests and friends. Clever girl.

My reluctance to get an e-reader is based on three basic issues. First is that I am uneasy about paying for a digital book that doesn’t translate into something on my bookshelf I can handle, read in the bath, or lend to others. The sheer physicality of books is its own reward. I love holding one, turning the pages, feeling the heft, smelling the paper and ink. An old or vintage book is a sensual time machine. An e-book is… what? An electric charge in a machine?

The second is that I tend to read mostly non-fiction and most of what I read isn’t yet available in e-reader format, at least as far as I’ve been able to discern. That may be changing for contemporary works, but my library also has a large component of older books that predate e-readers by a few decades, sometimes by a century or more. I can find books to read on Abebooks, but not in Kindle format.

Would I be able to get all of my old Edgar Rice Burroughs on an e-reader? Or my 12-volume edition of Casanova’s memoirs? The chess books I still have (gathering dust, I admit, but nonetheless beloved) from my chess heyday 30-plus years ago, but still pick up now and then to peruse?

My third sticking point is price. I am willing to pay for a physical book, but when I see an e-book version that costs almost as much, I fail to see the advantage of the investment. Years later, the physical book will still be on my shelf (assuming I have not donated it to the local library as I like to do), but the e-book? Gone, forgotten. Digital dust. Maybe even deleted by the seller after its limited licence runs out. What do you leave in your will of an e-reader’s contents?

For me, an e-reader will be great for classics – Darwin, Dickens, Kipling, Austen, Machiavelli – the authors in the public domain (thus free or inexpensive). But I would never purchase a new book that way without assurances that it would not be deleted without my approval, that it could be printed or text copied from it (for transmission by email if necessary) and that I had some price bonus like a discount when I decided to buy the physical version. But would it give me the same joy as when I open a volume of the 1930s’ collected works of Rudyard Kipling and start reading a story or poem at random?

Right now, beside the bed, I am reading a book on how Shakespeare’s first folio changed publishing, several books on etymology, language and grammar, one on the history of Christianity and another on biblical archeology (odd for an atheist, I know, but religion fascinates me as a social and historical topic and I read a lot about it), two books on demonology and the history of the idea of evil (for a novel I’m playing with), several books on marketing and public relations (for another book I’m writing), some books on Machiavelli and Renaissance politics (always learning about him), about Tudor history (with Jacobean, is a favourite topic of mine), about CSS and HTML (to improve my coding skills), a few novels (Christopher Moore, Michael Quinn and a Tom Clancy, plus a couple of fantasy and scifi novels), some books on technological changes and developments (for another book), an annotated Municipal Act (for council), a book on emerging viruses, another on the history of vaccines (and one on the emergence of “fear” cultures including the current New Age anti-vaccine mania), a book on the Mufti of Jerusalem’s Nazi connections in the 1930s, a revised history of the fall of Rome, a book on creative design and architecture, a book on urban startup communities, a book on gambling culture in Canada, Anthony and Cleopatra, Cicero’s speeches, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and a few others I can’t recall because I pulled them off the bookshelves to look something up and will put them back in the next day or two. Plus, of course, an Oxford Dictionary, and a thesaurus, which are ever-present.

I can’t imagine that an e-reader could fill that void if the books were all to vanish. And certainly all the TV shows in the world for an entire year would never, ever compensate for the loss of a single book. It would be like trading a world for a piece of simple gravel. It would be turning off my mind and joining the sheep in mindless adoration of the flickering screen.

I will sort, I will change my bedside books, but I will never get rid of that pile. Besides, where would I put my Ovaltine when I’m reading at night before sleep?

 ~~~~~

* The opposite of dishevelled, of course.

 

12/28/12

A Council Christmas Carol – Part 2


STAVE TWO (continued from Part 1).

THE FIRST OF THE THREE SPIRITS.

I awoke in the dark, late Friday night. Winter days are so short that sometimes it seems a mere moment passes between sunrise and sunset. The day had whizzed by, a flurry of phone calls, reading, emails, walking the dog and shovelling the driveway as the snow continued to fall. By the time Susan came home and we had dinner, I was tired and aching from tossing snow. Sleep came quickly that evening, but didn’t last long.

Now I was awake, mulling over last night’s events in my head. Looking from the bed, I could scarcely distinguish the window from the opaque walls of the bedroom. The heavy clouds dampened the night sky, and not even the moon could pierce them. I could see the digital readout of the alarm clock; its bright red numbers piercing the dark like little demonic digits. Eleven fifty eight.

Was that correct? I’d been asleep for only about two hours. It felt like more. I saw the display turn over to twelve. Midnight! I was wide awake and not going to get back to sleep in my state.

I  scrambled out of bed, and groped my way to the window, stepping over the dog asleep at the foot of the bed. It was still snowing very hard, and evidently extremely cold. The snow muffled all the sounds; there was no noise of cars driving to and fro.

No point waking Susan. I grabbed my housecoat from the back of the door, slipped into the hall, and closed the bedroom door. I quietly walked downstairs to the living room, where I could read without disturbing her. I might be able to get 50 or so more pages of the agenda done. Might make a cup of Ovaltine and watch a B flick on TV, too, to help me relax.

Last night’s ghostly visitation bothered me exceedingly. I kept trying to tell myself it was all a dream, but my mind flew back again, like a strong spring released, to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, “Was it a dream or not?”

I sat there, in the chair for three quarters of an hour, when I remembered, on a sudden, that the ghost had warned me of a visitation when the bell tolled one. I resolved to stay awake until the hour had passed. I checked the clock on the cable box. Yes: 12:45 a.m.

The next 15 minutes seemed so long that I was more than once convinced I must have sunk into a doze unconsciously, and missed the clock turning over to 1:00. But as I watched, it moved inexorably from 12:59 to the next minute. And nothing happened.

“The hour itself,” I said triumphantly to myself, “and nothing else!”

But as I spoke, light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and I found himself face to face with another unearthly visitor. Drat. I hadn’t escaped after all.

It was a strangely familiar figure— dressed like a child in shorts and a worn blue T-shirt that read “Harper: 2006″ in big letters - yet he was not unlike an adult, just shorter. Around his neck was what looked like a mayoral chain of office, polished to a lustrous sheen. He held a gavel in his right hand.

This was not his strangest quality. The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever. As if inside this one spirit were many others trying to get out. Slippery bugger, I thought to myself.

“So you’re back again?” I asked.

“I am not!” the spirit answered, “I mean, I am here for the first time. Wooooo….

The voice was soft and gentle, almost feminine in its thin attempt to sound scary.

“No you’re not. I saw you last night,” I replied. “In town hall. You don’t remember?”

“That wasn’t me. Wooooooo….

“Yes it was. I recognize you. You just changed clothes. And please stop that moaning. You’ll wake up my wife.”

The ghost took on a pouty look. “It wasn’t me. You’ve never seen me before. I am the Ghost of Councils Past.”

“Long past?” I inquired, observant of its dwarfish stature.

“No. Your past.”

“Look, I know you’re the same ghost as yesterday. Come on. You’re not fooling anyone in that outfit. What business brings you here tonight?”.

“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.

“Much obliged, but a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. Besides, you’re wearing a Harper T-shirt. We all know what he thinks about welfare.”

“Your reclamation, then. Take heed!” It put out a hand and clasped me gently by the arm. “Rise! and walk with me!”

“Have you looked outside? The weather is not exactly suitable for pedestrian purpose. The thermometer is a long way below freezing and I’m wearing slippers and my housecoat. Besides, my Ovaltine will get cold.”

The spirit’s grasp, though gentle, was not to be resisted. He walked towards the window, clearly intending to walk through it, dragging me along.

“Hey! I flunked walking through walls classes,” I remonstrated, “Can’t we use a door like normal folk?”

“Bear but a touch of my hand there,” said the spirit, laying it upon my heart, “and you shall pass more than this!”

“Not gas, I hope. I had beans for dinner. Oops!”

As my words were spoken, we passed through the wall, and stood in a large, empty room, where chairs were arranged in neat rows. Several tables had been lined up at the front with chairs facing the soon-to-be audience, with microphones in front of several. Small pieces of cardboard listed the names of those who would sit at the tables. I recognized them from the very first election I had won.

“Gosh!” I said, clasping my hands together, as I looked about at. “The Legion. I made my first public speech in this place. I was but a boy then! Compared to now, that is. This is where the all-candidates meeting is held every election. What memories. Is that where Terry sat?”

The Spirit gazed upon me mildly, slowly shaking his head. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to my old man’s sense of feeling. I was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air – beer from the adjoining Legion pub, mostly – each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!

“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”

I muttered, with an unusual catching in my voice, that it was just a zit; and begged the Ghost to lead me where he would.

“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.

“Remember it!” I cried with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”

We walked to the front of the room, where I gazed over the name tags of all those who ran in that campaign, a decade past. My mind drifted back to the fall of that year, walking door to door, meeting residents, campaigning, handing out pamphlets. And the terrible anxiety, waiting to see the results come in after the polls had closed. I turned and noticed the back rows of chairs were staring to fill with the audience, while others worked their way towards the front.

“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”

The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, I knew and named almost every one. My eyes glistened, and my heart leapt as they went past! I was filled with gladness when I heard them give each other ‘good evening’, as they settled in.

“The parking lot is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A small group, neglected by the former council, abused by them some might say, gathers outside.”

I almost sobbed. The remnants of the Vision 2020 committee. I had sat with them, had brainstormed in their midst, had made presentations to council on the issues that mattered most to us. And had seen my words ignored, my advice given cold shoulder. I knew what anger fermented in these folks’ psyches. I had moved on, but they remained mired in their morose mood.

They had left the high-road, a well-remembered lane for me, but clearly one no longer travelled by all. We stood beside them for a while, listening to their low whispers of unrest as they huddled around a grimy SUV in the parking lot. There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up in front of council to make a report the term previous.

We went, the Ghost and I, across the lot to stand in front of a small Toyota Matrix in which sat a younger man reading a page in the dying light of evening; I almost wept to see my poor, forgotten self as I used to be. So optimistic, so keen, so naive. Well, as much as a former reporter and eternal skeptic can be.

The Spirit touched me on the arm, and pointed to my younger self, intent upon memorizing my speech. Suddenly a man, in a sharp suit: wonderfully real and distinct to look at, stood outside the car window.

“Why, it’s the Mayor!” I exclaimed in ecstasy. “It’s dear old honest Terry! One time, when yonder solitary wannabe councillor was feeling all alone and confused, he did come and give me advice. Buoyed my spirits.” I said. “I never forgot that kindness.”

To hear me expending all the earnestness of my nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see my heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to my crusty media friends, indeed.

The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another sight!”

Suddenly, my former self was not reading now, but sitting in an office crowded with desks, littered with papers, cameras and books. A monochrome computer screen was perched in front of me. Outside, through the windows, the world was white and snowy. I looked at the Ghost, who, with a mournful shaking of his head, glanced towards the door.

It opened; and a reporter, much younger than the man seated in the office, came darting in, and, shrugging off his coat, put his camera on a desk with a thud, and raised a fist into the air. “Yeee-ah! We got ‘em.”

My younger self looked up from the editorial desk, questioningly. “Got whom, young Jimmy Olsen wannabe?”

“Whom? Geez, do you read grammar books in your sleep? You nerd!” said the younger man, clapping his hands, and bending down to laugh. “I brought home the bacon! My FOI requests are here! Santa came early!”

“Here, on this night so close to Christmas?” I returned. “What powers do you have to compel municipal staff to work on your behalf this late in the season? I suspect the dark arts at play.”

“Yes!” said the reporter, brimful of glee, waving a fistful of papers. “Here for us to dissect and hang them all in this edition. Give me an hour and I’ll have a story that tears down the walls of this sleepy town. Those bastards will strangle democracy no more, once I have finished with them! We’re going to have the merriest time in all the world.”

“You are quite a reporter,” exclaimed my editorial self.”A real scoop for us. But I wonder….”

The reporter halted his furious typing and looked up from the computer screen. “Wonder, Obi Wan?”

“Well, it’s Christmas after all. How will we finish remaking the front page in time to make it to the pub before closing?”

Suddenly, a terrible voice cried from the corner office, “Bring me the front page. Now!” and in the doorway appeared the publisher himself, a young but curiously gnarled man who glared on the editor with a ferocious condescension. He threw my young self into a dreadful state of mind by waving me and the reporter into the veriest old well of a shivering office that ever was seen, where the circulation maps upon the wall, and the celestial and terrestrial globes of advertising sales were waxy with cold. He pored over the front page and nodded, tapping the headlines with a crooked finger.

“Yesssss, my precisoussssss….” he muttered as he traced each letter and mouthed the words they made. “Exssssssssssssssssellent…”

“Uh, wrong tale,” I muttered to the Ghost beside me. But the spirit was already waving his hands at the hunched publisher. “He was a delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered, but he had a good taste when choosing new paint colours.”

“So he had,” I responded. “And almost suffered a union as a result.”

“He moved on,” said the Ghost. “So should you. Pay no attention to man in the corner office.”

“So where was this going?” I asked, looking at the scene. But the Ghost merely pointed to the newsroom, where the editor and reporter were back, mulling over the reporter’s stack of Freedom of Information results.

“See this one?” the reporter pointed to a page on the desk and tapped it thrice. “That’s a conflict of interest, for sure. We’ll nail him with this. Look here, this one shows the cone of silence was drawn down for no good reason! We’ll capture the mayor and maybe the clerk for that faux pas. This is rich stuff!”

“Yeah,” said my younger self. “But before we put in another several hours and hold up printing the paper, you have to ask yourself, one thing.”

“What? Could anything be more important than championing the cause of democracy?”

“A pint of Guinness at the Post.” my editorial self replied. “Or even two, before the night closes and we close up shop for the next few days.”

The reporter paused to consider the options.Visions of sugarplums danced in his head.

“Ask yourself,” the editor said. “What would Jimmy Olsen do? I mean, if Superman had taken off and left him alone on Christmas eve with a finished paper and the bars still open for a few hours while Supe was busy decimating some super villain far, far away? Besides, the dwarf in the corner office is satisfied. Why tax his brain with something new?”

“Old Fezziwig likes it, eh?” the reporter rubbed his chin. “Okay.If Fezziwig is happy and the corner office isn’t leaking any noxious fumes from his cogitations, I can let it it simmer until the New Year.”

My younger self laid down my pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of three. I rubbed my hands; adjusted my bowtie, then said, “Then we give the nod to the printer to run the paper, and onwards to the pub!”

“Right-oh!” replied the plucky reporter, grabbing at his coat and gloves. “Besides, this will really make them boil over when it comes out the day before the mayor’s levee. Why waste it now when it would be so much more effective in a week or so?”

They left the door as the scene faded away.

“Spirit!” I said as the two vanishedor, “Show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”

The relentless Ghost poked me in the ribs, then slapped my cheek, and said with a clucking voice as he noogied my head, “Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.” 

“Remove me!” I exclaimed, “I cannot bear it!”

I turned upon the Ghost, and cried, “Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”

Suddenly, I was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in my own bedroom. I gave the cat a parting pat, and relaxed. I had barely time to reel to bed, before I sank into a heavy sleep.

~~~~~

To be continued…

12/26/12

The Municipal Machiavelli is online


Niccolo MachiavelliI’ve spent much of the past few days putting online my book in which I assess and rewrite Niccolo Machiavelli’s famous (or infamous) work, The Prince, in a WordPress format. I wrote this book earlier this year, but was unable to find a publisher (I got distracted from my search). Maybe having it online will help.

The new site is here:

The Municipal Machiavelli

The book slightly tops 69,000 words, has more than 400 quotations from The Prince and other works by Machiavelli, as well as from many other authors including Robert Greene, Nietzsche, Cicero, Sun Tzu, Han Fei Tzu, Napoleon and more. The majority of these were also transferred to the quote widget displayed on the sidebar of the pages for the online version.

There are 26 chapters that parallel Machiavelli’s own book, with ten additional chapters (addenda) including a bibliography, biography, and maxims from his Art of War. I slightly revised the work while copying the content over.

I’ve done some minor tweaks to the CSS code for improved display purposes (might do a bit more this week), and have a couple of things to add (like a background image and some additional header images). but the majority of the work (the core text and quotes) is complete.

The online version is a bit longer than the original because this week I added a new addendum today, called The Ten Faults, based on a part of Han Fei Tzu’s work, that I had written as a blog entry back in 2007 (as a studied criticism of the former mayor’s leadership that factionalized the former council). I revised that post to present a more generic comment on municipal governance and leadership (another post I wrote, in 2009, about leadership is here).

 I have plans to release The Municipal Machiavelli as an e-book, or PDF, perhaps on iTunes, in the coming weeks. Please let me know if you’re interested in a copy.

12/24/12

Explaining Council Expenses


Australian council expensesTip of the hat to Ian Adams for clearing up any misrepresentation of council’s expenses and clarifying some information, in his most recent blog post.

The total council expense allotment is well under budget this year. It usually is; we are very cautious in how we use our rather limited allotment. However, Scoop doesn’t explain a couple of things about how the allotment affects us individually.

We don’t generally have enough in our council expense accounts to attend more than one event a year – the amount ($4,000 each) alloted has remained the same since at least 2003, although hotel, transportation, booking, events, food, and other costs have all gone up since then.

The conferences we attend are very valuable – there are many workshops, seminars, discussion groups, plus vendor areas where we get to see other types of product and services. It was at Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference that many of us first encountered fabric buildings as alternate structures for recreation and other uses. In fact, we provided sales material about them to staff at least as far back as 2010.

I’ve attended workshops at these conventions on communications, social media, asset management, the Municipal Act, QR codes, online security, budgeting, sustainability, waste management, library collection management, staffing, libel and slander, infrastructure life cycles, planning issues, building codes… and many other topics.

At some of these conferences, there are so many interesting or useful seminars that it’s difficult to select the few we can schedule. AMO is usually a very busy three days.

Plus there is a lot of networking at these events – talking with other councillors, staff or board members from other municipalities, discussing contemporary issues, hearing how they resolved problems, what they’re dealing with, and so on. 

At AMO, we can also meet with provincial ministers and their representatives, to discuss specific topics of local interest such as funding opportunities. Because we’re in Ottawa for AMO, we also have the opportunity to meet with federal politicians and departments.

Adams notes:

Ian Chadwick’s expenses in 2012 are $5,100 (he’s gone a little overbudget this year). I can only assume he was using the money to feed his ukelele addiction, as there can be no other explanation for it.

Sorry, Ian (and conspiracy theorists). I have a less nefarious explanation.

This year I attended two conferences, AMO (which I usually attend rather than FCM which is most often out of province – I’ve only ever been to FCM when it was held in Toronto at which time I didn’t get to AMO), and the Ontario Library Association conference in Toronto. First time in my 20 years on the board I’ve attended the OLA conference, and first time I’ve attended two conferences in a year.

The OLA event used to be paid for from the library budget, but because council reduced the library’s budget after the event was booked and paid for, the money had to be added to my council expenses, not the library’s. So my expenses ran over - it’s the first time in the last decade that it has done so. Mea culpa, but not going would have cost the registration fee anyway.

Not a single ukulele was added to my collection as a result of my attendance (not even at my own expense…). However, some books from the vendor area at OLA were added to the library’s collection, and the library has purchased a new digital newsreader for its customers. That comes from spending a couple of hours in the vendor area talking to publishers, service providers and manufacturers about what they had on display.

Council cell phone/data charges are billed to our expenses, too, as are per-diem payments for day-long events. These total roughly $1,000 a year per councillor, or about a quarter of our allotment. That doesn’t leave a lot for professional development. AMO alone costs each of us between $2,000 and-$2,500 – registration, hotel, transportation to and from Ottawa, meals, etc.

This is a challenge because there are several other events - regional AMO workshops, governance seminars or board-related conventions – many of us would also like to attend to help build our knowledge and understanding. Our budgets generally don’t allow us to do that much more professional development without doing over the established limit. Certainly we don’t have enough for two major conferences in a year.

I’ve asked staff to look at our expenses at budget time to see what options we have for improved professional development.

Anyway, the point of all this is that council is very parsimonious with its expenses (not like those characters shown in the photos, above). We face challenges in trying to achieve a reasonable level of professional development within that budget, and to effectively make ourselves, better, more knowledgeable and better-connected council members. Thanks to Adams for raising this, so I could explain. Merry Christmas.