02/23/14

Lucretius and the Renaissance


WikipediaIt’s fairly clear, even after reading only a few verses, why Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things - De Rerum Natura -  made such an impact on thought, philosophy, religion and science in the Renaissance. It must have been like a lighthouse in the dark night; a “Eureka” moment for many of the age’s thinkers.

For others, especially the church leaders, it must have arrived like a mortar shell among their intellectual certainties and complacencies; shattering walls and window. An act of war that threatened to tear down whole schools of thought and belief.

While today his descriptions of atoms, void, and immortal substance may seem obvious and even a little quaint, they were revelations then, in the Renaissance. They shook the comfortable world picture of the Renaissance and challenged both faith and science.

Yet Lucretius wrote his poem in the time of Julius Caesar, before the Christian church even began. Then it was lost for more than 1,400 years, to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio was hunting lost manuscripts through European monasteries, trying to copy them so he could restore the lost words of the Romans for everyone to read. His discovery of On the Nature of Things was serendipitous in the extreme,* but it opened a Pandora’s box of effects.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent book, The Swerve, about the fortuitous discovery and its impact, opens Chapter Eight with this:

On the Nature of Things is not an easy read. Totaling 7,400 lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

So it’s a tough, challenging read, as much so today as it ever was. I’m reading it, but have to admit it’s a bit of a slog, even in the modern Penguin edition.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Book II, line 54.

It’s astounding how anyone in Caesar’s day could by reason, logical, analysis and inference alone – no highly technical equipment, no advanced mathematics, no electron microscopes, no particle colliders, no Hubble telescope – deduce the structure of the universe was based on atoms. And then to infer that those atoms were constantly in motion, indestructible and timeless.

That’s what the Epicurean philosophers did. Lucretius, perhaps the last of them (or certainly at least the last outstanding Epicurean) put their theories and ideas together into one long, rhetorical poem to teach his fellow Romans what Epicureans stood for.

In doing so, Lucretius deconstructs and dismisses the theories of his contemporaries about the nature of the universe, using the same tools of thought and reason. Those theories – now long dismissed –  fossilized into accepted dogma for many centuries before his book was rediscovered. On the Nature of Things had no less an impact on Renaissance thought than On the Origin of Species had on modern thought.

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02/21/14

Collingwood’s municipal debt and 2014 budget


Aging infrastructureTuesday, Council got a combined debt-and-budget presentation that set the stage for the upcoming, fuller 2014 budget deliberations starting next week. CAO John Brown gave us a recap of a report (produced by BMA Management Consulting) about the town’s debt situation and financial wellbeing. It was a mix of good news/bad news.

The good is that it’s not as bad as it seems, certainly not as bad as some other municipalities, but mostly in the middle of the peer group selected for the report. The bad is that it’s not as good as we’d like it to be. But barring a big tax increase to reduce the debt and funnel more into reserves, I don’t see how it could be a lot better.

His report also included a comparison of Collingwood’s financial situation to six other municipalities:

I have to wonder why several of these were chosen as comparators by the consultants. The majority are not at all like Collingwood:

  • Wilmot Township, according to its own website, is “…approximately 20,000 persons living in small towns, settlements, and on farms.”
  • Springwater Township “…consists of both urban and rural communities, with a population of over 18,000 people. There are nine settlement areas, with Midhurst and Elmvale being the largest with a population of 3100 and 1700 respectfully. Other settlement areas include Snow Valley, Centre Vespra, Minesing, Anten Mills, Phelpston, Orr Lake and Hillsdale.”
  • Prince Edward County is similarly not one urban centre, but a collection of small, rural communities, the largest of which is under 5,500 population.
  • Innisfil is similar: small communities, some bedroom residential development close to Barrie, but mostly rural. Cookstown, one of the largest centres, has a population of about 2,000.

Only Orillia and Owen Sound are similar, small urban centres. Why would we not compare ourselves to Midland or Wasaga Beach? Brockville? Uxbridge? Huntsville? Orangeville? Surely these small urban centres would provide more of the apples-to-apples comparisons.

I’d also like to have seen such data as how  many employees are on the municipal payrolls in each; if they have their own or use OPP police service (and how much their police and fire budgets were – our services for 2014 will consume 22%, or $6.1 million, for policing, and 16%, or $4.4 million, for fire: more than a third of our budget in the combined costs).

I’d like to know their total budget, including operations, capital, how many buses they run, and so on. What are they spending their money on and why? What reserves do they have, what assets? Municipal finance isn’t so simple it can be reduced to a few lines.

Rural communities have very different needs, infrastructure demands, growth issues, etc. that make it difficult to adequately compare them to Collingwood.

We are also a combined retirement and tourist destination centre, which creates different sorts of challenges for services and infrastructure. Our percentage of people 65 and older is about 23% – much higher than the provincial average of 14.6%, and our percentage of people under the age of 55 is lower than the provincial average. That has implications for housing, employers, services, and commercial and industrial growth.

On page 8 of the report, it notes that the average percentage of farmland by assessment value in our comparators was 5.2%, while the amount is only 0.1% in Collingwood. But if you look at the maps, the actual, physical amount of farmland in those four “peers” significantly dwarfs the whole area of the Town of Collingwood. Farmland is the lowest on the assessment ladder, so having less is good for potential tax revenue.

We also have a higher percentage of commercial and industrial assessment, which is equally good for tax revenue.

What we never learned from the report was how much money had any of them invested in major infrastructure projects or municipal facilities over the past decade or more. Collingwood has had an ongoing infrastructure upgrade and replacement program, as reflected by the projects paid for by debentures. Plus we have a fairly modern museum, a new municipal building (library and planning services), a new fire station, upgraded police station, new parks, new recreational facilities, new trails, new works building, an airport, a harbour and a comprehensive municipal transit system. Not many municipalities can boast all of that.

Our CAO explained that debt wasn’t all bad – debt means you are building, upgrading and maintaining infrastructure, erecting new facilities. We maintain our infrastructure constantly else face higher costs when it fails. Debt isn’t operational: it’s used for capital projects.

But, the CAO cautioned, it’s important to manage that debt wisely. Which this council has been doing. And, he said, we can’t continue the status quo; we don’t want to push our debt capacity to its limit.

First, of course, we have to manage our spending. The initial overview of the budget has a projected 2.1% increase (about $67 per average household). However, in light of the CAO’s sobering presentation, I would not be surprised if department heads were told to come back with lower budgets, even in the negative area. I will certainly argue for a lower amount in many areas.

Personally, I’d rather see an overall increase in taxes no more than 1.2%, but even better would be a small reduction, say -1% or even -2%.

Of course, it may mean a reduction of non-essential service in some areas. You cannot continue to provide certain levels of service without paying for them – and costs always increase. Utility costs, inflation, fuel costs, food, wages, benefit costs, materials – they all go up. So to maintain even a zero-increase-based budget, you need to cut something or someone. Essential services won’t be affected.

Therein lies the rub. Quality of life is measured by some of those services. Taxpayers pay for a good life – and we do have a good life here in Collingwood. So what, if anything, are they willing to forego in order to avoid any increase? Or would they rather pay a little more to retain these services?

What can council or staff find in the budget that is non-essential and can be removed or reduced without affecting that perceived quality of life?  We need to find more opportunities for shared and contracted services.

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02/17/14

Should councillors abstain from voting?


Abstain from votingIn an earlier post, I wrote that Collingwood’s Integrity Commissioner, Robert Swayze, proposed two changes to the town’s Procedural Bylaw: amending section 13.7 and deleting section 13.8. Last post I dealt with the former; here I will explain my concerns about the latter.

Section 13.8 currently reads:

13.8 No vote – deemed negative – exception
Notwithstanding the provisions of Section 13.7 of this By-law, every Member who is not disqualified from voting by reason of a declared pecuniary interest shall be deemed to be voting against the motion if he/she declines or abstains from voting.

In other words, no member of council, board or committee can abstain from voting when at the table: everyone present has to vote or have the abstention counted as a negative vote.

This is partially derived from Section 246 of the Municipal Act, which reads

Recorded vote
246. (1) If a member present at a meeting at the time of a vote requests immediately before or after the taking of the vote that the vote be recorded, each member present, except a member who is disqualified from voting by any Act, shall announce his or her vote openly and the clerk shall record each vote. 2001, c. 25, s. 246 (1).
Failure to vote
(2) A failure to vote under subsection (1) by a member who is present at the meeting at the time of the vote and who is qualified to vote shall be deemed to be a negative vote. 2001, c. 25, s. 246 (2).

So under the MA, you need to call a recorded vote to have an abstention deemed negative. That can get tedious. Other provinces don’t have this requirement. Saskatchewan’s guide for municipal councillors notes:

All Members Must Vote
Legislation requires every member of council including the mayor or reeve, to vote on every question. Members must not abstain from voting unless they have a pecuniary interest. If a member abstains from voting for any other reason legislation deems his or her vote as opposed to the motion. Minutes are required to record all abstentions from voting.

There’s a bit of confusion about rules of order and what rules to follow. Some people think our municipal meetings  - including board and committee – are governed by either Robert’s or Bourinot’s Rules of Order. That’s incorrect: we are governed by the Municipal Act and our Procedural Bylaw. Council and all boards, committees and task forces created by the municipality are bound by the procedural bylaw.

Mr. Swayze wrote in his report to council:

In my opinion, all members of Council should be encouraged to declare a conflict, whether pecuniary or not, if the member feels that he or she cannot be impartial in voting on a matter. If for example, a member sits on the board of directors of a charity and awarding grants to the charity is before Council, the Councillor should declare a conflict, refrain from voting and such a declaration should not be deemed to be a vote against the charity. I have recommended in Appendix “D” that personal conflicts be added to section 13.7 and that 13.8 be deleted from the Procedural By-law.

Like in my previous post, my concern is in the implementation, not the intent.

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02/16/14

Legal Versus “Personal” Conflicts of Interest


Conflict of interest?In May, 2013, I wrote my thoughts about Ontario’s Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and the effect it had on the governance and procedural behaviour of municipal councillors. Back then, I wrote,

The Act allows no grey areas: there are no “perceived” conflicts in law, only clearly defined legal ones. This is obviously intended by the stringent wording that lays out what construes a conflict of interest.

This clarity absolves everyone of trying to second guess the intention of the Act, or trying to interpret degrees of conflict.

For the MCOI Act, only pecuniary – i.e. financial – conflicts matter: only they have to be declared; only they affect procedure and governance. And only the person and his or her direct family – parents and/or children – are involved. Siblings or other relatives, friends and coworkers are not considered to present a conflict:

Indirect pecuniary interest
2. For the purposes of this Act, a member has an indirect pecuniary interest in any matter in which the council or local board, as the case may be, is concerned, if,
(a) the member or his or her nominee,
(i) is a shareholder in, or a director or senior officer of, a corporation that does not offer its securities to the public,
(ii) has a controlling interest in or is a director or senior officer of, a corporation that offers its securities to the public, or
(iii) is a member of a body,
that has a pecuniary interest in the matter; or
(b) the member is a partner of a person or is in the employment of a person or body that has a pecuniary interest in the matter. R.S.O. 1990, c. M.50, s. 2.
Interest of certain persons deemed that of member
3. For the purposes of this Act, the pecuniary interest, direct or indirect, of a parent or the spouse or any child of the member shall, if known to the member, be deemed to be also the pecuniary interest of the member. R.S.O. 1990, c. M.50, s. 3; 1999, c. 6, s. 41 (2); 2005, c. 5, s. 45 (3).

Last week at our Feb. 10 council meeting, in his report to council, Collingwood’s Integrity Commissioner, Robert Swayze, proposed changes to two sections of the town’s Procedural Bylaw. The proposed change to section 13.7 would add a clause for “personal conflict” to the bylaw, and I address that below. I’ll deal with the changes to section 13.8 in a subsequent post.

In his report, Mr. Swayze said,

In my opinion, all members of Council should be encouraged to declare a conflict, whether pecuniary or not, if the member feels that he or she cannot be impartial in voting on a matter. If for example, a member sits on the board of directors of a charity and awarding grants to the charity is before Council, the Councillor should declare a conflict, refrain from voting and such a declaration should not be deemed to be a vote against the charity. I have recommended in Appendix “D” that personal conflicts be added to section 13.7 and that 13.8 be deleted from the Procedural By-law.

In his oral presentation, he said that other municipalities had included similar “personal conflict” conditions in their own governance regulations. I did some research into those regulations this past week.

Mississauga has the term in its procedural bylaw, I found, but it lacks a firm definition of the term, leaving it open to individual interpretation. The other references I’ve found are in codes of conduct or policy statements.

I’m troubled by the potential pitfalls of implementation as presented, rather than the intent, and argue below that the appropriate place for such terms is in the town’s Code of Conduct.

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02/15/14

BL2: Resistance is futile


Borderlands 2I tried to resist. I really did. I avoided it for more than a year, skillfully averting my eyes from the store shelves where it sat, ignoring the emails with invitations, sales offers that dangled newly-released DLC packages before me. I looked the other way when ads popped on on websites.

I have more serious things to do, I’d tell myself. Getting too old for games, I’d mutter under my breath. I have better things to do with my time. Like reading. Studying. Developing website material. Learning music. Besides, I’m running out of hard disc space.

But then I saw the intro, below. And I succumbed. It just seemed way too much fun. And I love the theme song (it was also the theme for the excellent British action TV series, Flash Point). Watch it. Stick with it because it gets fun around the 1:50 mark.

I had seen the “Wimoweh” trailer, below, before I saw the one above, and it almost convinced me. It’s hard to resist such a call. And if you haven’t seen it either, give it a watch.

Late in 2013, Steam had Borderlands 2 on sale – the whole Game of The year package at one low price – and I gave in. GOTY was just too damned tempting.

Now I have a handful of characters scattered throughout Pandora in various stages of game completion, edging up their stats slowly as I learn and test each one’s style, weapons and special features. Finishing quests. Opening chests of loot. Gathering eridium. To be honest, I’ve played only three of the possible six characters so far, but I plan to try them all.

And I’m not alone. On many missions, I am accompanied by a friend in Nova Scotia who joins me for co-op play sessions. Two old farts playing edgy computer games. What a lark.

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02/14/14

Amo, Amas, Amat…. and what?


Wheelock's LatinMy well-thumbed copy of Eugene Ehrlich’s book, Amo, Amas, Amat and More, is dated 1985. It’s amusingly subtitled “How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others.”

It’s still in print, it seems, or was as recently as 2006. I’ve read my copy on and off for the past 25-plus years, but have not been able to effectively astonish anyone with my grasp of Latin.

Possibly the reason for this is that my grasp of Latin is small. Very small. I had a single year of Latin classes in high school; lessons mostly relegated to the dustbin of my mind along with solving quadratic equations. The rest I’ve scrounged from other books and sources. It’s less a grasp than a smattering of random bits.

I’d like it to be better. As in to actually be able to read and understand at least elementary Latin, not merely recognize that the words on the page are in Latin. Which is, at present, Greek to me (if you’ll pardon the inexecrable joke…). And certainly better able to write it than cutting-and-pasting the inevitable Lorem ipsum placeholder into a draft design project.

So last week I took the plunge and ordered a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, 7th Edition, from Amazon with the intention of teaching myself. And hope not get too distracted by other books, baking, computer games, politics, pets and Friday housework… ooh, a new ukulele….

My learning accomplishments in Latin to date include reading the first 40 or so pages (mostly introduction and pronunciation basics) and memorizing the present tense verb conjugations of two -are and -ere verbs in Lesson One. Which means I’m about a hundred years of effort from having enough Latin in my grey matter to astonish anyone other than my dogs.

Laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant… plus the imperative: lauda and laudate. Impressed yet? Yeah, so were my dogs. But it’s one small step further along this path than last week. A journey of a thousand li starts beneath one’s feet, as Lao Tzu wrote. This is my early footing, then.

I dug my Ehrlich off the shelf this morning, along with a couple of aged Latin dictionaries and every book about Latin I could find in my collection. It’s a fairly thin lot. But I need some extra help as struggle through Wheelock’s Latin on my own – a lot more than I currently have on the shelves.

I need at least one collection of Latin verbs nicely conjugated for my enjoyment, plus grammar guides, workbooks, and some better dictionaries. And maybe some source material (interlinear translations would be nice), like the one I have for the Canterbury Tales).

Ka-ching, the Amazon.ca cash register is singing (hinc illae lacrimae…) (okay, I had to dig that one out of a file of Latin phrases…)

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