03/27/13

Enter Christopher Marlowe – Again


Back in the late 1990s, I wrote an essay about the “controversy” over who actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. I wrote, then,

Not everyone agrees that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The challenge to his authorship isn’t new: for the last three centuries it’s been the most popular whodunit of literature: trying to uncover the true identity of the author of the world’s greatest dramas and comedies. I can’t think of another author of note in the world who is considered not to have written the works under which his or her name is penned. Even Shakespeare’s many contemporaries are considered the author of the works under their names – Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher, for example. But not Bill the Bard.

I don’t think of it as a controversy as much as a conspiracy theory, since, like UFOs and chemtrails, it doesn’t get any significant traction in academia. The dating of a particular play, or even if it belongs in the canon, may be controversial, but not conspiratorial.

However, it’s one of the oldest conspiracy theories, at least in the literary world (Atlantis, the Noachian flood, and Freemasonry may be older, but not literary). And I have to admit to still enjoying reading about it. This old conspiracy still has legs. Plus, it has generated serious, intellectual and scholarly debate for centuries.* It’s even become a meme, thanks to the internet.

History PlayA couple of years ago, in my endless search for books on the Bard, I picked up History Play, by Rodney Bolt (Perennial, New York, USA, 2005). I only started to read it last week. Bolt revives an old idea: that Christopher Marlowe, contemporary playwright, was the actual author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Like that of the contemporary favourite among literary conspiracy theorists, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, Marlowe’s life presents a significant challenge to explain in terms of the theory: Marlowe was murdered in 1593.

That’s twenty years before the last known works by Shakespeare were penned (Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen). de Vere, at least, died in 1604, more than a decade after Marlowe, so his supporters have a shorter time to cover.

The “solutions” for this rather uncomfortable historical fact are either that the person in question didn’t really die, but rather went into hiding and continued to write, or that he (or she in the case of those who attribute the plays to Elizabeth I) wrote them all before, and they were released sporadically after that death.

For Marlowe, it was even more inconvenient to “die” at age 29. Considering he was in university until 1587, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to write the 36-plus plays and numerous poems attributed to Shakespeare. Unless, of course, we was really alive all this time, as Bolt suggests.

Bolt overcomes this significant problem in grand fashion: Marlowe faked his own death and fled to the continent with a copy of Hollinshead’s Chronicles in his chest (Chronicles was, of course, one of Shakespeare’s prime sources). The book is full of Elizabethan spy stories – if nothing else it’s wildly entertaining.

Marlowe has been presented as the actual author of the Bard’s works since at least 1819 (this article dates it to 1895). While it’s accepted that Marlowe influenced Shakespeare, his death usually involves some rather fantastic explanation to make him stand up among the other conspirators.

The argument is generally that a “lout” like William Shakespeare had neither the education nor experience to write about such a wide range of topics as he did. Only a nobleman like de Vere and Bacon had that background. Marlowe, despite being raised in a middle-class background similar to Shakespeare’s (Marlowe\s father was a cobbler) had better tutelage and Cambridge schooling. As it says on Shakespeare-Oxford.com:***

1) It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare’s works could have been composed by the person to whom they are traditionally assigned.

2) The qualifications necessary for the true author of these works are more adequately realized in the person of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, than in the many other candidates proposed in the last two hundred years.

So how did Shakespeare’s name get put on them? The real, noble authors would lose face if they were identified as the authors, so they used a minor actor as their mouthpiece.** Wikipedia notes:

Reasons proposed for the use of “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym vary, usually depending upon the social status of the candidate. Aristocrats such as Derby and Oxford supposedly used pseudonyms because of a prevailing “stigma of print”, a social convention that putatively restricted their literary works to private and courtly audiences—as opposed to commercial endeavours—at the risk of social disgrace if violated. In the case of commoners, the reason was to avoid prosecution by the authorities: Bacon to avoid the consequences of advocating a more republican form of government, and Marlowe to avoid imprisonment or worse after faking his death and fleeing the country.

Savage ChickensThat argument, however, doesn’t hold a lot of water since many nobles in the Elizabethan era wrote plays and poems openly, including de Vere.

It all hinges on how you perceive talent and genius. There’s a certain snobbishness in believing that one needs noble birth and university degrees to have the talent to be creative and artistic. Yet every notion we have of genius says that it belongs to individuals regardless of background, upbringing and formal education.

The argument against Shakespeare as the author overlooks simple plagiarism, too. Shakespeare’s sources are well known, and it’s clear that he lifted many of his plots, characters and settings from the works of others, even some of the dialogue. His genius lay in how he assembled them into his plays.

In Shakespeare, Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes:

You cannot reduce Shakespeare to any single power, of all his myriad gifts, and assert that he matters most because of that one glory. yet all his endowments issue from his extraordinary intelligence, which for comprehensiveness is unmatched, and not just among the greatest writers. The true Bardolatry stems from this recognition.

Personally, I find all of the arguments against Shakespeare flimsy and contrived.  Most of the arguments in favour of alternative authors depend on a lot of circumstantial evidence,  “what-if” suppositions, and interpretations of internal “evidence” in the plays.****

The conspiracy looks for answers in the shadows and ignores those in common sight. And simply because 400-plus-year-old records are incomplete or were kept in ways different from our practices today doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

But back to Bolt. His tale is fascinating reading, and he makes it clear his belief in Marlowe’s authorship is absolute. Quotes from the plays are identified as Marlowe’s work from the first pages. Yet Bolt pulls back in his afterword and teases us by saying it is all the “purest conjecture.” Despite this, and despite the trips along what is clearly leaps of intellectual faith, what Bolt offers is entertaining and well researched, and in the end a rewarding read.

If only all conspiracy theories were so much fun to read.

~~~~~

* In his book, Contested Will, James Shapiro identifies at least 50 persons have been put forward as potential authors of the Shakespearean canon, since the notion of alternate authorship was first raised, in 1785. Wikipedia includes other dates for doubters.

** I’ve heard similar conspiracies about local blogs.

*** The site also boasts an “honor role” of skeptics who doubted Shakespeare as the author. However, simply because others believe in it, does not make it true, regardless of the perceived eminence of the skeptic. Just because some doctors smoke does not make the practice healthy or sanitary, no matter how good they are as surgeons. I cannot see any names of literary scholars or historians on the list, but there are a lot of actors.

**** I’m seldom convinced by interpretations by critics, historians and scholars that try to tell me what the author intended, thought, believed, or felt. Only the author can do that. Interpretations too often assume that what is written is not what was meant.

02/2/13

The other conspiracy theories….


Red Queen and AliceAfter writing about the nonsensical “chemtrail” conspiracy theory and its tin-foil-hat brigade believers, I amused myself by reading up on some of the other conspiracies-du-jour on the internet. And no, I don’t mean your garden-variety secret-mushroom-farm, PRA dome, lobbyists-and-rec-facilities, aliens-in-disguise-running-the-library, Eddie-Bush-is-falling-down, Scoop-is-working-for-the-town or other local conspiracies. I mean real conspiracies: meaty stuff shared by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of wingnuts. Maybe millions…

Wikipedia – gotta love that site, even though it may be a conspiracy itself (see below) – has a list of popular conspiracy theories. Now it’s not a full list (there’s not a single mention of a mushroom, but a search for “mushroom conspiracy” on Google produces nearly 3,000 pages, and 1.92 million without the quote marks – but curiously, mushroom conspiracy collingwood produces 2.04 million…), but it has oodles of entertaining conspiracies to pursue.

Anyway, back to Wikipedia:

The list of conspiracy theories is a collection of the most popular unproven theories related but not limited to clandestine government plans, elaborate murder plots, suppression of secret technology and knowledge, and other supposed schemes behind certain political, cultural, and historical events. Some theories are meant to cover up the accusers’ own schemes, such as Holocaust denial.

Conspiracy theories usually go against a consensus or cannot be proven using the historical method and are typically not considered to be similar to verified conspiracies such as Germany’s pretense for invading Poland in World War II.

Got that? Unproven. Keyword here. Okay. Scroll down the page to “paranormal” (aka wiki-wacky wingnut) conspiracies. Click on “evil aliens.” Opens to a page about “reptilians.” Now if you thought chemtrails made Scientology look smart, the reptilian conspiracy goes well beyond into  the loony tune zone:

According to British writer David Icke, 5- to 12-foot (1.5–3.7 m) tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system, now hiding in underground bases, are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy against humanity.[7] He contends that most of the world’s leaders are related to these reptilians, including George W. Bush of the United States, and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Icke’s conspiracy theories now have supporters in 47 countries and he frequently gives lectures to crowds of 2,500 or more. American writer Vicki Santillano ranked the notion that “Reptilian humanoids control all of us” as one of the 10 most popular conspiracy theories.

Reptilian HilaryPopular, of course, doesn’t mean smart. Or logical. Or even sane. But David Icke clearly has some brains: he makes money off this silliness. He sells his ideas, including through a premium membership on his website. Non-subscribers have to put up with the annoying Google ads and invitations to join to get to only a portion of the tin-foil-hat stuff. Icke’s stuff is a treasure trove of nuttiness that encompasses a wide range of weirdness. Be prepared to spend at least an hour reading his stuff and giggling aloud at it.

So I can guess Icke’s reasons for promoting this silliness (money is a powerful motivator). But what motivates the people who follow him or who have spun off their own theories from his? What motivates the self-described “Nibiruan Council“?

Welcome to the official site of the Nibiruan Council, a multidimensional off-world council whose members are connected to the people of the planet Nibiru and the Nibiruans’ ancient ancestors, the 9D Nibiruans.

The Nibiruans’ mission is to prepare humanity to take their rightful place in the greater galactic community. The Nibiruans are especially interested in assisting starseeds and walk-ins. Multidimensional ascension tools along with an accelerated program for DNA recoding will prepare them to be the teachers and wayshowers needed today. Jelaila Starr is the Nibiruan Councils’ messenger and channel. Through her articles, workshops, and lectures, the Nibiruan Council’s message has touched the hearts of many people around the world inspiring hope and understanding.

Or the Alien Nation?

The reptilian and other entities, which are manipulating our world by possessing “human” bodies, operate in frequencies between the Third and Fourth densities. These are referred to as “hidden spaces and planes unknown to man”, in the apparently ancient Emerald Tablets, which I quote from in “Children of the Matrix”. For simplicity, I refer to this “between world” in my books as the lower fourth dimension.

It is from here that they police our vibrational prison – the Matrix – and seek to addict and restrict us to the dense physical senses. This world was once far less dense than it is today and the “fall” down the frequencies, caused by the manipulation of incarnate consciousness and DNA infiltration, has made it so much more difficult to maintain a multi-dimensional connection while in physical form. We are now in a cycle of change when the vibration of this “world” will be raised out of dense physicality and return to where it once was. In doing so, the reptilians’ ability to manipulate our physical form will be removed and this is why they are in such a panic at this time to prevent this shift from opening the vibrational prison door.

The reptilians and other manipulating entities exist only just outside the frequency range of our physical senses. Their own physical form has broken down and they can no longer re-produce. Thus they have sought to infiltrate human form and so use that to exist and control in this dimension. They chose the Earth for this infiltration because it most resembles in vibration the locations from which they originate. These reptilians are addicted to the dense physical “world” and the sensations it offers and they have no desire to advance higher. Their aim in this period is to stop the Earth and incarnate humanity from making the shift from dense physical prison into multi-dimensional paradise.

A conspiracy theory explains an event as … an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public. Wikipedia.

Conspiracy theories aren’t new by a long shot. They’re as old as humankind. I’m sure there were residents of Nineveh, 2,600 years ago, meeting in dark storerooms to mutter “Ashurbanipal is a secret agent for the Egyptians.” But in the age of mass media, these conspiracies gained a lot more traction than they ever had because they could be shared among millions with ease. And they have become a lot stranger and less believable than ever. But that doesn’t seem to deter the True Believers.

Rational Wiki has a longer list of conspiracy theories, but even it can’t cover the sheer number of conspiracies that have erupted online over the last two decades (although you have to read about the conspiracy that a Yiddish secret society is using Wikipedia to dominate the world!).

There must be a thousand different paranoid right-wing conspiracies about President Obama’s health care plan alone. Hell, Obama himself has generated a gazillion truly astounding conspiracy theories, including that he visited Mars as a teenager (really…)

List25 has a list of (you guessed it) the “top 25″ conspiracy theories. Frankly it’s a bit thin, and lacks any links or proper explanations. But it does include the “phantom time” conspiracy, which is so entertaining you should look it up. This conspiracy says 297 years of history between 614 and 911 CE (the early Middle Ages) never happened. Instead, these dates were added to the calendar by historian conspirators who faked all the artifacts. ‘Nuff said. have fun: it’s on par with UFOs and Bosnian pyramids.  Spoiler: Skeptoid debunks it.

After the shooting of children in Sandy Hook, “truthers” (a pejorative for conspiracy theorists who call their wacky ideas “truth”) developed a raft of conspiracies around the tragedy that ranged from there-was-no-shooting to the-government-killed-the-children-to-take-away-your-guns. More than 40 YouTube videos claiming to expose the “”Sandy Hook hoax” had more than 100,000 views. YouTube is a godsend* for “truthers” (and self-alleged “psychics” who share the same level of truthiness…)

Time Magazine has a list of ten of the top conspiracy theories, most of which are pre-internet doozies most of us know and have waded into:

  • The JFK Assassination
  • 9/11 Cover-Up
  • Area 51 and the Aliens
  • Paul Is Dead
  • Secret Societies Control the World
  • The Moon Landings Were Faked
  • Jesus and Mary Magdalene
  • Holocaust Revisionism
  • The CIA and AIDS
  • The Reptilian Elite

The internet has allowed every fruit loop to publish online and garner an audience of starry-eyed idiots. Who needs critical thinking when you have the internet?

Since the vaccination conspiracy doesn’t show on the Wikipedia list, I did some searching and was able to pull up hundreds of wingnut pages in which vaccinations are blamed for all sorts of improbable acts and evils, usually perpetuated by the anonymous, secretive but authoritarian “government.” For example, this site warns (comically but very sincerely):

…the government places miniscule tracking devices in these vaccinations. These tracking devices act as beacons for various satellites. In this way, similar to the technology found in controlling airplane traffic, the government knows where we are at all times. Indeed, it is unclear how much information is provided in these beacon devices… As new technology has developed over the years, the need to vaccinate each and every one of us has become more creative, particularly with older citizens. Enter the Flu Vaccination. The flu vaccination has provided a perfect way for the government to implant updated beacon devices, particularly for those individuals who recieved vaccinations fourty or more years ago, whose beacons may not have had the benefit of various technological advances. These vaccinations are also used for experimental weapon purposes as well. The government not only implants various forms of biological and chemical warfare within the citzenry for experimental purposes, but also for mind control techniques, such as implanting specific types of criminal or anti-social behavior — also for warfare experimental purposes. In conclusion, the vaccination process has provided the government with a convenient way not only to plant beacon devices within the entire citizenry, but also to test experimental warfare and mind-control techniques.

I know, I know. It’s hard not to guffaw. But vaccination theories are dangerous, not just foolish: they are killing people gullible enough to believe that it’s safer not to vaccinate your kids or yourself. Despite hundreds of children’s deaths from measles in Pakistan (there were 306 deaths from measles in 2012 alone), one woman has written a book encouraging children to delight in the joys of this and other potentially lethal childhood diseases.

What will she write about next? The fun of polio? Happy meningitis? The delights of diabetes? This anti-vaccination stuff is seriously DANGEROUS.

If you want to read how insidious this particular stupidity is, just spend a few minutes on Google. Look at the list of madness a search for “vaccination conspiracy” produces. One site associates vaccinations with fracking, cannibalism, GMO foods, government education, nuclear power, fluoride and cancer. All at once. This is really scary, not fun. It’s worrisome that these people can not only vote, but can own guns and are not locked away in institutions.

And that’s just part of the problem. People who willingly delude themselves about one bit of bizarre pseudoscience like chemtrails or homeopathy** will usually swallow the rest of the conspiracy Kool-Aid and accept pretty much all of these wacky ideas wholesale, just abandoning all common sense and critical thinking. It’s a stunningly short jump from believing governments are vaccinating everyone through airplane exhaust at 25,000 feet to believing reptiloid aliens are masquerading as humans and running governments.

For example, the author quoted above isn’t done with vaccinations. He links these vaccine-inserted nano-beacons with highway building projects, information technology, West Nile virus, supercomputers and the CIA:

Indeed, although states are replacing water pipes, they are also, unknowingly, installing millions of miles of fiber optics and other receptor cells. As discussed earlier, these wires are used to monitor everything, sometimes as a backup to satellite system monitoring or to more specific monitoring strategies to fill any gaps of satellite technology…
The West Nile Virus, or other types of viruses with different names, will likely “spread” to other parts of the country. This will prompt public outcry — which is manipulated by the media — for more sprayings…
The partnership between this unnamed drug corporation and the United States Military continues.
In the late 1940’s, the government created a supercomputer, known as Ergo9. Ergo9 was used, in conjunction with various satellites, to spy on the Russians….

Uh, I hate to break your bubble, Mr. Fruity Loop, but the first satellite – Sputnik 1 – was launched in October 1957. The USA didn’t launch its own satellite – Explorer 1 – until 1958. The first reconnaissance satellite was not launched until 1962, (GRAB).

This site also seems to be the source for the Ergo9 reference, which gets repeated on a few other paranoid conspiracy-theory sites, but hasn’t grown legs. Yet. These things require time to gestate into full-blown ludicrosity – even though Ergo9 is almost as daft as the local “Rick-owns-your-mortgage-and-your-car,” “Elvis-is-still-alive” or “pro-wrestling-is-real” conspiracies. Spoiler alert: supercomputers weren’t invented until the 1960s when Seymour Cray designed the first one. The small-building-size Eniac computer of 1946 was hardly a “supercomputer.”

Most of the conspiracy theory sites are a mashup of the bizarre, the curious, the angry, the paranoid, the gullible, historically and factually incorrect, and the stupid.They’re often based on either misunderstanding or misrepresentation of facts. Particularly the angry. The amount of vituperation is incredible. People writing about these conspiracies get angry and then angrier as they cobble their theories together.

And it’s not just the Tea Party supporters who walk the conspiracy trail into the deep woods of angry paranoia (although illiterate, right-wing Christian fundamentalists seem particularly prone to them – just Google the Westboro Baptist Church wackos). It almost seems infectious. Once you believe in one impossible thing, you start to believe in them all, from mushroom-farm conspiracies to vaccinations-implant-homing-beacons-for-the-government to reptilians-are-masquerading-as-municipal-councillors…

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland.

Although these crazy conspiracies give the rest of us a fair bit of entertainment, we can’t ignore them just because they are ridiculous: some of these crazy, deluded people are in government (or plan to be). Some of them are already among policy makers and bureaucrats (for example there are creationists in government, even holding on the US Congress Science Committee!). Can you imagine people who believe in vaccine conspiracies getting appointed to a ministry of health? Or someone who believes in chemtrails getting onto a national research council board?

It could happen. That’s just one reason we have to push more rationality, critical thinking and plain common sense online. Let’s keep debunking and ridiculing this stuff so that it doesn’t get any further grip on the gullible among us.

~~~~~

* What would an atheist say instead of “godsend”? Are there any good but secular synonyms that carry the same sense? Imaginary-deity-send doesn’t quite cut it. Words like blessing, miracle and, manna carry a religious sense, too. Calling something a stroke of luck or windfall suggests it was mere coincidence, which godsend does not mean. Have to think about that… Apple lovers probably use Jobs-send…
** This is also true of those who believe in so-called psychics, palm readers, astrologers or faith healers. Once you believe in the paranormal, you’re doomed to misunderstand and mis-appreciate science. You’ll start believing in creationism and all sorts of codswallop, like phrenology, homeopathy, numerology and other crackpot ideas.

01/29/13

The mayor sets the record straight about the PRA


PRA dome conceptThe following is a statement made verbally by Mayor Sandra Cooper, at Collingwood Council, Mon., Jan. 28, 2013. It explains the timeline of events between the Pretty River Academy and the Town of Collingwood. It should set the record straight and clear up the misinformation around this issue:

JANUARY 28, 2013 – MAYOR’S STATEMENT ON THE PRETTY RIVER ACADEMY

As noted at last week’s Council meeting, as Mayor, I agreed to provide an update to the community about the facts surrounding the erroneous and misleading statements regarding the Town’s past and present dealings with the Pretty River Academy, that have been alleged in the press, social media and a recent letter mass-mailed to Collingwood residents.

Fiction vs. Fact

1. FICTION: A public private partnership (community use agreement) was signed on November 30, 2009.
FACT: Council authorized entering into an agreement on November 30, 2009. That was signed only by the Town. The Academy did not agree to the terms and conditions and suggested revisions. After ongoing discussions with respect to the community use agreement, a letter from the former CAO, dated October 12, 2010, was sent to PRA to confirm that the original intent of the agreement as approved by Council had not been maintained. The Town would not be in a position to repay or finance the capital investment of the private asset. If the original intent of the agreement was not maintained, then the Town would be unable to support this initiative. An agreement was never finalized.

2. FICTION: On the date the Dome was completed (December 19, 2012), with no forewarning, we (PRA) were handed a letter from the Town stating we could not rent the facility and the zoning was wrong.
FACT: Representatives from the Academy had been advised of the limits of their current zoning since the consideration of the Community Use Agreement (2009), Site Plan Amendment application (2010), and prior to issuance of the temporary permit on December 6th, 2012. The Academy applied for the rezoning on December 14, 2012.

The Town became aware that the School was aggressively advertising the rental of this facility. Staff contacted the school to reiterate that renting the facility was not in compliance with the zoning by-law until it is approved by Council. The matter was reviewed with our solicitor, and it was agreed that a formal letter be forwarded to the school to confirm that the Town would forebear enforcement of the zoning by-law until the zoning application was received and processed. The school was advised of this prior to receiving the formal letter. The letter never stated that they could NOT rent the facility.

3. FACT: The School is not legally allowed to rent the facility at this time.
However as noted above, the Town has formally advised the School that we will not enforce the zoning by-law until Council has considered the School’s Zoning By-law amendment application that, if approved, will permit the school to rent their facility, similar to other public schools in Town.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that the Town has been, and continues to work cooperatively with the Academy to achieve their goals, and expand opportunities.

Timeline

The Town has been working cooperatively with Pretty River Academy since it was constructed in 2006.

Discussions with respect to a sports dome commenced in 2009 after the school was successfully awarded government funding. Concern was raised with respect to a private school being awarded public funding. Council, at that time, also had an appreciation for the benefits that a year round sports facility could have for the community and offered to partner with the Academy for community uses that are permitted by a public authority (being the Town).

Council authorized entering into such an agreement in November 2009 (it was signed by the former Mayor and Clerk). However, the Pretty River Academy was not satisfied with the terms at that time, and the agreement was never finalized. The Academy committed to revising the agreement to terms that would be mutually acceptable.

In May 2010, the PRA submitted an application to amend the site plan that would provide for the construction of a sports dome. A site development meeting to review the application was held in June 2010, together with representatives of the PRA. The internal comments submitted to the PRA expressly addressed the zoning and permitted uses.

Council authorized executing the amending site plan agreement on August 2010 to allow the construction of a sports dome. Unfortunately, in a staff report, it was incorrectly noted that an agreement for the community use had been executed, as approved in November 2009.

In October 2010, after ongoing discussions with respect to the community use agreement, a letter from former CAO was sent to PRA to confirm that the original intent of the agreement as approved by Council has not been maintained. The Town would not be in a position to repay or finance the capital investment of the private asset. If the original intent of the agreement was not maintained, then the Town would be unable to support this initiative (community use agreement). An agreement was never finalized.

In September 2012, the PRA was now in a position to proceed with the construction of the dome and apply for a building permit. Upon issuance of a building permit the respective development charges for the Town, County and School Board become payable. The PRA was not aware that changes in 2009 to the development charges by-law required the PRA to pay (development charges) in excess of $278,000. Following a deputation from the PRA in October 2012, staff has been continuing to work cooperatively with representatives to identify any mechanism available that would allow the Academy to construct the dome, with no impact on our taxpayers or infrastructure, and be economically viable for the school.

At that time, it was also suggested that if the Academy was able to manage their own bookings they would also be able to retain the 15% fee that was to be provided to the Town for the service.

The amicable solution was to proceed with permitting the dome as a temporary structure.

PRA’s zoning amendment application seeks to revise the limitation of the current zoning maximum 120 days that the dome could be erected. In addition, they requested that the use provisions be changed to allow them to rent out the facility on their own – without the involvement of a “public authority” similar to the zoning rules for public schools. The Academy filed their application on December 14th, 2012.

As earlier noted, they could continue to use their facilities as they were, and the Town would forebear enforcement until the rezoning was decided. A public meeting is scheduled for February 4th, 2013 on this matter.

01/24/13

Not the expected blog post, I’m afraid


FrazzledSorry to disappoint those readers who expected this to be a blog post on ukuleles, tequila or our beautiful Mexican Sister City, Zihuatanejo (“Zee-hwa” for those in the know). I refer, of course, to comments in the recent parody video, in which my blog was commented upon (as if blogging was something conspiratorial, but it seems pretty much everything is, these days for some folks…).

However, my energies have of late been taken up by several other pressing projects, meetings and local political issues, so those topics have become back-burner projects. Sorry.

Speaking of conspiracies, my main research  – online and through books – these last two weeks has been on the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478. This event irrevocably changed the politics of Florence, and of Italy, but how did it play in the development of the young Machiavelli’s political thought? Machiavelli was eight when the assassination attempt took place, and lived through the city’s wars and social unrest that raged for the next decade and a half. But few biographers discuss the event in anything more than passing mention.

The complexity of the Pazzi conspiracy has taken me much more time than I expected, because it involves so many people, states, and families. It has given me new insight into Florentine politics, and the opportunity to reread Machiavelli’s writing on conspiracies (real conspiracies, not the alien-abduction-reptiloid-mushroom-farm kind that saturates the internet). Eventually my research and conclusions will be written up as a post on my Machiavelli site (I’ve already written more than 1,200 words on it – still working on it).

OverworkedI have always believed – and have written in my two recent books – that blogging is important for municipal politicians. In fact, I have encouraged politicians and municipal staff to use all social media. It’s a way to engage with the electorate and to create a political perspective of yourself for residents. It’s a way to let people know the reason behind your vote or stand, to expand on comments made at the council table, and to get comments back from the electorate. But it’s not for the thin-skinned or faint of heart.

However, since blogging is simply a hobby, not a profession, I have to attend to other matters and work on more economically sustainable projects, like my next two books (drafts due at the publisher’s soon…). I am, after all, not retired, but simply a freelance writer who needs to earn an income and I have to prioritize… ;-)

I blog mostly because I love to write and it fulfills a need within me to be creative. I usually blog when something strikes me, rather than planning it in advance (some attempts at fiction being the exception). I kick around many ideas for posts but they don’t always get past the draft or idea mode. I will turn them into posts when I have the time. Perhaps then I will be able to live up to my readers’ expectations, and again write posts on ukuleles, tequila, and Mexico in the near future. I am buoyed by the knowledge that I will have a ready-made audience for them, when I do.

01/19/13

What’s this nonsense about mushrooms?


Specialty mushroomsIn the middle of a video parody on YouTube that skewers council on our new rec facilities, there’s a comment about “the mushroom farm debacle.” It then goes on, rather erratically, to rail about “two yanks” and mushrooms growing in manure and “enobe” mushrooms.

What debacle?

Clearly the video’s creator never actually watched the public presentation made to council a year ago about a possible use for the terminals as an indoor mushroom farm. Or read the stories in both newspapers. Or heard the news reports on local radio. Or asked anyone on staff or council about the proposal. Or did any online research. But don’t worry if actually verifying the facts was too much work: I’ll do the hard work for you here.

And as far as I am aware, the two gentlemen who made the presentation are both Canadian, not American. One is a local chiropractor.

The mushrooms in question are not your standard grocery-store button mushrooms (most of which may come from China*, by the way!): what was proposed were specialty (gourmet) mushrooms that grow on substrate: commonly wood chips, sawdust, used coffee grounds and composted or processed vegetable material (such as the corn waste produced by the now-former Amaizeingly Green plant). Manure, the proponents said several times during the presentation, would not be not used. There would be no odour.

The USDA, in one of its brochures on mushroom cultivation, notes that oyster mushrooms,

Although commonly grown on sterile straw from wheat or rice, they will also grow on a wide variety of high-cellulose waste materials. Some of these materials do not require sterilization, only pasteurization, which is less expensive. Another advantage of growing oyster mushrooms is that a high percentage of the substrate converts to fruiting bodies, increasing the potential profitability.

There are no similar, large mushroom farms growing these specialty – and expensive – mushrooms in Ontario (or, I believe, in Canada**). There is potential for considerable profit in a big and growing marketplace, we were told, for a successful farm that grows these mushrooms (oyster, shiitake, enoki (not “enobe”) and so on). The University of Missouri’s Centre for Agroforestry, notes that specialty mushrooms are a growing and sustainable industry:

Not only can specialty mushrooms be grown on a range of acreage allotments, mushroom cultivation is a sustainable and profitable way to recycle low-value forestry by-products, including non-merchantable stems and branch wood. Utilizing shade levels and understory from a forest farming practice, UMCA scientists and collaborators are determining the best suited types of mushrooms for Missouri soils. The goal of this research is to refine established production techniques for a diverse suite of outdoor mushroom species and enable Missouri landowners to capture a growing gourmet market… One of the state’s most significant demonstrations of a successful forest farming practice is Dan Hellmuth and Nicola Macpherson’s Ozark Forest Mushrooms, Timber, Mo. The entrepreneurial couple established the specialty mushroom operation in 1990 on what was then a timber operation, and coordinate every step of the value-added process, from the inoculated log to packaged, consumer-friendly products. Under the guidelines of the Stewardship Incentive Program, administered by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Hellmuth and Macpherson harvest a renewable supply of mushroom bed logs while simultaneously maintaining their forested acres in a healthy ecological state – and what began 14 years ago with only 100 oak logs in production has grown to include 12,000 shiitake logs in production.

Penn State University has a similar agribusiness program. They note that the market for specialty mushrooms is growing by leaps and bounds:

For the past 8 years, specialty mushroom production has increased an average of 20%. Based on recent and historical trends, it is expected that diversification of the mushroom industry will continue in the United States and many other western countries. The development of improved technology to cultivate each species more efficiently, will allow consumer prices to decline.

These mushrooms are not solely for food: they are an important source of nutraceuticals used in alternative and traditional medical practices (see also here). A gourmet mushroom farm has the potential to spin off a side industry of medical research and product preparation. More jobs.

Then, the video says these “yanks…want to buy our precious grain terminal for one dollar.” Again, someone wasn’t listening. Or reading. Or thinking.

Enoki mushroomsThe proposal – made in front of council, the media and TV cameras – suggested a nominal one-dollar purchase PLUS a percentage of the profits, should the proposal be accepted. The proponents also proposed to cover all costs for remediation of the building.

The “precious” terminals had been publicly declared surplus in fall of 2011 (motion 392). The motion called for “input from the public, developers and respective agencies” on any potential uses for the building. The unsolicited, public presentation to council on January, 16, 2012, from the proponents, was part of that process.

Nothing hidden there. Someone had a creative idea and brought it to council. It was one of those “outside the box” ideas that surprised me because it was so unusual and innovative. Is that what bothers some folks? Or was it the potential to create a sustainable, safe industry that offered well-paying jobs?

The idea was presented in greater detail when the town put forward a “request for proposal” on the terminals, along with the proponents’ financials. However, to date, no decision has been made about selling the “precious” terminals (it’s an abandoned brownfield, a heritage building on the waterfront, resting on wooden piles almost a century old, with asbestos and other pollutants inside, sitting beside a waste dump; adjacent to a publicly-used harbour, within a stone’s throw of protected wetlands; it has inadequate power, water and no waste-water outlet for other uses, and has leases for telecommunications equipment and the yacht club associated – there are MANY legal, procedural and environmental issues that we must resolve before we can move forward with any proponent).

No money ever changed hands, not even the imaginary dollar that seems to haunt some folks. (What’s with that dollar? It’s never explained why $1 matters; it just raises its ectoplasmic head on the Ouija board of this conspiracy.)

The proponents asked council if they could have a biologist examine the building to see if it was suitable for such an idea, and to determine what, if any, work would be required to make it happen. We’d allow any potential buyer’s engineer or building inspector to check it out, why not a biologist?

They also requested permission to run a very small test inside the building to find out if the idea was actually viable – a “proof of concept.” This would involve (as I recall the discussion) putting two small table-top-size trays in the terminals, with spores on a base material (sawdust, I believe), to see if these exotic mushrooms would actually grow. The test would take a few weeks, and would not involve doing anything to the building aside from cleaning the space for the test, then putting the trays inside, and waiting.

Council said yes. We are pro-business, after all, and permitting this non-invasive test simply made sense. If the test proved it was not viable, then the proponents would not invest further money in testing and inspection, and would not give us a proposal when we asked for RFPs.

Staff agreed. A facility report on the proposal, in late January and provided by the former CAO to council, noted,

…the proponents cannot invest substantially without knowing if their process is likely to work. Therefore, they have put forward the following stepwise program as the “Proof of Concept” phase.

  1. Initially, they would bring in a microbiologist to identify if there are existing competing species of life in the facility and whether the environmental conditions prove to be favourable for their process.
  2. Then, they suggest that up to three of the North-South hallways (approx. 8’ X 96’) in the basement would be cleaned and sanitized and set up with trial rooms for various species of mushrooms…

The first two steps, if they have a plan to maintain adequate egress and air quality, are fairly benign. With careful preparation and adequate monitoring, staff do not have serious concerns with them doing this.

The former CAO was directed by council to have the caretaker let them in so their microbiologist could examine the building, and they could conduct this test.

This council wants to overcome an impression of the past that “Collingwood is closed for business.” Had we refused, we would – fairly – have been accused of being closed. But then the conspiracy would have been about why council was putting up roadblocks to local businessmen.

It was all public and very straightforward. The test was done, the building examined, and the proponents made a formal proposal when the town called for an RFP.

But somehow, for some folks, it became a conspiracy.

Last September, the town received an anonymous letter that warned, ominously, “Mushroom plants are known to cause odors (sic) and have the possibility to cause health issues…” and then goes on for four pages railing against mushroom farms and dangerous manure odours in other locales. Obviously the author didn’t watch the presentation or read the stories, either (the spelling suggests an American, so perhaps he or she has no access to local council coverage – in which case, what is the interest in a Collingwood proposal?).

In October, a letter was circulating among a small group that asked, among other things, “Who gave the mushroom people the key to the terminal building when was that decision approved?” (sic)

The letter never explained why knowing who gave the proponents the key was important or even relevant.*** Conspiracy theories are like that: they’re not about logic.

Then, in December, similar questions were asked of staff and council in an email (quoted as sent):

Have you been able to find any member of council or staff that;

  1. Gave permission for the tenants to use the terminals (the original email or note confirming this would be great)
  2. Who physically handed them the keys
  3. Who has collected any money (even as little as the $1 they offered) during their use of the facility.

Again, no explanation was ever made as to why any of this was relevant. It was just part of that dark Machiavellian council doing evil behind closed doors. Of course the fact that this was all done openly and presented publicly and made good business sense doesn’t make the conspiracy play very well.

In response, the current CAO replied:

As I previously mentioned the proponents made an open presentation to Council where they requested an opportunity for a “proof of concept” and offered the “symbolic” dollar for the lease to do so. I was informed that Council were all generally interested in the proposal but realized that the proof of concept was required for the gentlemen to provide an unsolicited proposal to Council. As I understand, the issue was referred to staff whereby permission was given to complete the proof of concept. There has not been any collection of money nor has it been asked for.

But even that didn’t kill the conspiracy. It pops up again in the video (linked above in the first paragraph). No rational explanation seems to satisfy some folks that nothing untoward happened.

So I have to ask: What’s all this nonsense about? It was a public process; it was pro-business; the land was declared surplus openly and approved in the fall of 2011; we had open discussions about the property at the council table in front of the media; we had open discussions with the proponent and about the proposal at council, and we have a staff report on the request that indicates all the issues, and staff support for doing the ‘proof of concept’ test.

Why are some folks treating this like some political zombie they continue to resurrect? Put it to rest!

Surely there are other conspiracies to pursue****. Just because the Mayan Apocalypse didn’t work out for you, doesn’t mean this one will turn out any better. Please, let this be the end of it.

~~~~~
* See plantpath.psu.edu/facilities/mushroom/resources/specialty-mushrooms: “Mainland China is the major producer (3,918,300t-or about 64% of the total) of edible mushrooms (Chang 1999, 2002).” The manure used for button mushrooms here in Canada, at least, is sterilized first. But these aren’t button mushrooms, so it’s moot point.
** There is a small scale one in Markdale, however.
*** As far as I know, they didn’t get one; the caretaker opened the door for them, but even if they did – so what? It’s not the key to Fort Knox. It’s an abandoned building. Never mind that it makes no sense for a member of council to have the keys to the building or the authority to collect as much as $1 from anyone (we don’t).
**** If you must pursue a mushroom conspiracy, look for one with some substance or at least greater entertainment value. For example this, this, this, this or this one.

And as a disclaimer: I speak for myself alone here, not for anyone else or any organization. I have no vested interest in any of the proposals for the terminal use, nor have any conflicts of interest in the process.
Conspiracy theories

12/11/12

Conspiracies, Secret Meetings and Backroom Deals


Conspiracy theoriesAs the year comes to a close, I think it’s about time I ‘fessed up about the conspiracies, secret meetings, backroom deals, hidden commissions and other underhanded dealings council has had this term.

There haven’t been any.

Sorry about that. I know how many people have built little, angry sand castles out of the notion we have been secretly plotting in backrooms and handing out commission cheques like drunken pirates on a shore leave, but the simple truth is that we haven’t.

I know, I know, that ruins the whole conspiracy theory thing for some folks. I might as well have said UFO abductions aren’t real or that homeopathy isn’t medicine.

I can only offer a glimmer of hope that we still have two years left to go, so there’s still a chance we might fail to live up to our oath of office in future. A slim chance, mind you, but those odds don’t stop people from buying lottery tickets.

Take the terminals, for example. It’s a lot more fun to imagine nefarious deals struck in the dark corners of the silos (Who handed them the keys? Who took their dollar? Whose idea was this? Dorothy, I’ve got your dog….) than to believe we met in camera to deal with the rather mundane but lengthy process of due diligence, replete with sleep-inducing discussions over convoluted contracts, terms, liability and finances. It takes the glow off everything when our dark secret involves advice from the town’s real estate brokers and legal opinions about selling an old, creaky industrial building (and all the liability and complexity that a brownfield-cum-heritage site on the waterfront entails).

Could some of that have been discussed in the open? Perhaps a little. But it’s not so easy to extract those fragments of property matters from the rest, and sometimes it’s hard to tell until after a discussion whether all of it needed to be in camera. If I failed to stop the meeting so we could rise to public session to debate, say, the condition of the roof, and then retreat back in camera to continue with the rest, I apologize. It wasn’t done to hide anything, just that the discussion moved quickly and most issues were properly dealt with in camera.

I understand that from the outside, it may look like we’re doing the double-double-toil-and-trouble routine in the “cone of silence” but all we were doing is just treading the slow path of bureaucracy and legality, under the watchful eyes of staff (who wield a rather mean Municipal Act when we stray). We call it “due diligence.”

It must disappoint a few readers that this council has had a LOT fewer closed-door meetings than last council, where it seemed sometimes, we were closeted for hours at a time, every Monday. The prosaic but dull truth is that as the municipal government, we have issues we need to discuss in camera and the Municipal Act clearly lays them out. Just read the Act.

Conspiracy theory 2Are their malevolent lobbyists scurrying around in the shadows, twisting our arms to broker their deals, perhaps mesmerizing us with under-the-table gifts so we vote a certain way? Another apology. I know that some of you really want to believe that, but not one councillor I have spoken to was approached a single time or lobbied over any decision we’ve made at the table. As for gifts, I have yet to be bought a coffee by a lobbyist, let alone a yacht or a Mediterranean cruise.

We’re anachronisms, it seems, by today’s political standards: tediously honest and boringly dedicated.

And the town didn’t cut anyone a cheque for those services or sales. No commission cheques. That must burst a few bubbles, and not the ice rink-swimming pool kind. I know you won’t rest easy until you can lift every rock and uncover something untoward, but so far that search has proven as barren of life as the soils of Mars. Just because it never happened shouldn’t stop anyone from filing a Freedom of Information request, if you need the reassurance. Again.

Backroom deals? You mean the “barbeque politics” where we do the nudge-nudge-wink-wink over a beer and a slap on the back? Haven’t been any that I’ve been invited to. I’ve had coffee a few mornings with one or two councillors, and we’ve exchanged personal thoughts on agenda items and municipal matters, but two or even three  councillors meeting at public places is a pretty thin context for a conspiracy, let alone a coup. We’re having all of our “awkward discussions” in public, at the table, I’m afraid, not in cliques.

Yes, we’ve stumbled here and there over procedural issues and we’re not always good at communicating with the public. We’re so eager to get things done, and move on, that we might appear hasty to some people. Overall, those are minor faults; they don’t exactly point to a cabal of malfeasant councillors scheming and plotting for personal gain. By and large this is a good, effective, council.

For those of you who like to dabble in conspiracy theories, I’m afraid this council is a disappointment. You won’t get much satisfaction from us this term. But take heart: all is not lost, You still have the Mayan Apocalypse to look forward to.