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Monday, October 31, 2011

Perspective on a world of 7 Billion

The graphics were designed for a world of only 6.9 billion, not the 7 billion we have now, but I think the point is still valid.

North American urban sprawl is a criminal way to use Space Ship Earth.

For more interesting stuff on cities, population densities, etc., check Per Square Mile.

Links to ghost towns for Halloween

Today is Halloween and a fine time for checking out ghost towns around the world. One my favorites is the San-Zhi pod resort in Taiwan. Check it out.

If you find this interesting check out my other link. It will take you to an article on the 10 most amazing ghost towns on earth.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Art, craft and serendipity

I've discussed this in the past: art. When I was attending art school, I came to believe that art was the creative aspect of a work and craft was the skill that it took to produce the work.

I've know painters who worked for a month or more on a piece only to paint it over. The creativity and skill just didn't gel. This might not have been obvious to the observer; An onlooker doesn't know what the artist intended but failed to createbut, the artist knows. The flawed piece might look awfully good and still be a big disappointment to the artist.

Photography is no different. The photographer sees a scene, like the one featured today, and sees light and dark, highlight and shadow, the push-pull of colour on the picture plane and the contrasting juxtapositon of texture, form and direction and even mood. Like painters, photographers do their best to get all the elements in the image working together to make the desired statement. And, like painters they sometimes fail.

The first thing that attracted my eye to this image was not the colour but the soft, falling branches of the weeping willow in the background. Those branches were the perfect foil for the bright fall foliage in the foreground. The bits of blue sky were an added bonus. The strong shadows and sweeping slopes of the small rises gave the image a strong base on which to build.

I wandered about hunting for the right angle and I had to wait for the sun return from behind some clouds to get the strong, directional lighting that attracted me originally. Pictures, even simple pictures, often just don't happen. They are created.

There's a lot to think about when shooting a picture. This image pulled together nicely. It took only a little cropping to arrive at the final result shown at the top of this post. Having a clear idea of what was wanted helped. Having a number of different interpretations of the vision (a number of pictures from different angles) also helped. And in the end, having a little serendipity on my side also helped.

Do you really think that painters, or sculptures, and other traditional artists don't also benefit from a little serendipity?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Thank you Brian Lilley

I've been following the battle between Quebecor/Sun Media and the CBC for some time but I hadn't formed an opinion on the positions of either media combatant until today. Today I read Brian Lilley's piece, "CBC starting to feel heat at its feet."

Lilley made me aware that the CBC was now aggressively fighting back against the angry claims of Quebecor/Sun Media, which feel that the Canadian broadcaster, with its government backing, has an unfair advantage when competing in the world of network television.

My curiosity piqued, I began googling about the Web. I found lots of posted pages claiming that Quebecor/Sun Media is a media hog slopping back funds from the taxpayer trough. Allow me to quote just one, this one from Macleans:

"In 2010, Quebecor President Pierre-Karl Péladeau threatened to sue the Canadian Media Fund when it refused to pony up money for TVA’s Star Académie, our very own version of American Idol that is, in Péladeau’s words, “the biggest success in the history of Canadian broadcasting."

"Now why would the biggest success in Canadian broadcasting history need even one cent of taxpayer money? Sounds like the kind of hard biting question for Sun News, doesn’t it?"

Thanks Brian Lilley. Without your encouragement, I never would have read the stuff I stumbled upon. If just a fraction of the stuff I read was accurate, man, is Quebecor/Sun Media ever living up to its nickname of Faux News North.

Thanks again, Brian.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It's hard to be against urban renewal . . .

Urban renewal, urban revitalization, whatever you call it, it is hard to come out against it. It just sounds so awfully good. You've got an area of the city, often the old "heart" of the city, the downtown core, that has fared poorly over the passing years. Buildings are in disrepair, businesses have deserted the area and crime, it is believed, has move in.

I'm retired and at my age I've lived through a lot of fine sounding, filled-with-promise, urban renewal schemes. Some I liked at the time and others had a false ring right from inception. A great many failed. My gut feeling it that the majority of urban renewal schemes fail but I can't say that for sure.

One thing that many of the urban renewal schemes share is cost; they are expensive. And many dip deeply into the public pocket to cover the cost. Like I said, I'm retired. I'm on a fixed income and anything that threatens to put my annual budget out of whack draws my attention and my ire.

Since moving to London, Ontario, I have felt that the city has been on a perpetual urban renewal binge. It hasn't always been the downtown core that has been the focus but there has always been a focus. A few decades ago East Of Adelaide (EOA) drew a lot of the attention. Do you recall when Dundas Street immediately east of Adelaide was ripped up and rebuilt as a wavy stretch of asphalt. Today we have a name for a stunt like this: Traffic calming.

That curving of Dundas St. cost the better part of a million bucks and it did anything but calm the neighbourhood. The area was in decline, that is why it was built. But that roadway became a focal point for the disaster that was the old EOA business district. In the end, the snaking roadway was ripped up and straightened. The cost approached a million bucks, again.

I could never see the connection between a wavy street and a successful department store, but the owner of Hudson's department store was a big believer in the curved street. Hudson's folded. The traffic may have been calmed; It slowed but it didn't stop --- at least not at Hudson's.

Today there is talk about putting in traffic calming measures in the downtown core. The city is examining the possibility of putting in what they are calling, incorrectly I believe, a Danish woonerf. London's not Denmark. I'm not going to say it wouldn't work. But, I'm not going to say that it will either.

The proposed woonerf has something in common with the former Galleria London, now Citi Plaza, popularity among a certain segment of city planners. But not all city planners are enamoured with woonerfs and pedestrian malls.

Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and authof of "The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook and Your Future,"  wrote in The New York Times:

In 1959, Kalamazoo, Mich., tried to help its downtown compete with suburban shopping malls by closing a street to auto traffic and turning it into a pedestrian mall. Over the next 30 years, more than 200 American and Canadian cities created similar malls.

Far from helping retail districts, most of these pedestrian malls killed them. Vacancy rates soared, and any pedestrians using the malls found themselves walking among boarded up shops or former department stores that had been downgraded to thrift shops or other low-rent operations.

Despite these failures, cities continued to create pedestrian malls 25 years after Kalamazoo’s initial experiment. In 1984, Buffalo closed 10 blocks of its Main Street to automobiles only to see its vacancy rates increase by 27 percent and property values decline by 48 percent.

Eventually, most of these cities, including Kalamazoo, reopened streets to auto traffic. Today few pedestrian malls remain, and the handful that could be considered successful are in college towns and resort areas.

I'd bet the sales pitches for all the failed pedestrian malls shared one thing, beautiful artist's conceptions filled with dreams.

Which brings me to the pitch for urban renewal in London. It may be hard to be against urban renewal but it is easy to distrust the artist's drawings depicting life in the reborn city core.

The dramatic Gateway Bridge is in the drawings but not in the plans.

One repeating visual motif in the urban renewal drawings it the new Gateway Bridge. It is a striking structure with a soaring, arching support and stainless steel cables dramatically holding the roadway above the forks of the Thames. It's nice --- a bit of a visual cliche, but it's nice. It is also not in the plans. I asked. It is just in the drawings as eye candy.

So, if we cannot trust the drawings, can we trust the other bumph accompanying much of the urban renewal campaign? This is a campaign clearly designed to get London taxpayers on board.

To a certain extent, I hope we can't trust them. The artist's conception of the SoHo development is, to my eye, boring. London can do better than tall apartment towers, much like the towers that presently dot the city.

We need more imagination. Maybe we could take some inspiration from Steve Jobs and his plans for a new Apple corporate headquarters.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Some question Hamilton demolition

A relief on the Hamilton-Wentworth district board of education building
The London Free Press features a couple of stories today on what two other communities, somewhat near London, are doing to revitalize their ailing downtown cores. Hamilton is stepping up to the plate with $20 million to show concrete support for the proposed McMaster Health Campus. When all the other municipal incentives are factored in, Hamilton may be on the hook for about $85 million in total.

This is good according to The Free Press and I can't argue there. I just don't have enough details. But there are Hamiltonians who are ready to go to battle against the proposal as it now stands. I was surprised to not see one word in The Free Press report on this opposing viewpoint.

The opponents have posted the following video and are working fervently to marshal support to save the building presently on the site. The opponents see the development as a win/lose proposition. They don't understand why the Steel City cannot shift the focus for the facility to some vacant land or, at the very least, towards the destruction of an undesirable, derelict building rather than demolish a perfectly good structure. This is win a new building and lose a good, older building. "Why is this necessary?" they ask.

Link to the Facebook site dedicated to the preservation of the Hamilton-Wentworth district board of education building.

Save The Board of Education Building - Please Share from Matt Jelly on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Kevin O'Leary: More Myth than Magic

Some months after posting my take on Kevin O'Leary, the Globe and Mail ran an O'Leary story. Here is a link: Kevin O'Leary: He's not a billionaire, he just plays one on TV.

For the O'Leary story, the Globe disabled comments. The editor explained:

Comments have been closed on this story because an overwhelming number of readers were making offensive statements about other commentators and/or the individual or individuals mentioned in the story. . . . and so the comment function has been turned off.

Time magazine also ran a piece on O'Leary. Here is a link: No business whiz.

Time said:

Over the years, O'Leary has often been an outspoken critic of fund managers who underperform the market. . . . (O'Leary has been quoted saying:) "There are a lot of idiot fund managers out there who add no value to the process at all." If O'Leary doesn't turn things around at his funds, he can add one more manager to his list.

And now for my take on the O'Leary story. 


Is Kevin O'Leary a successful capitalist? The short answer is yes; Kevin O'Leary is a successful pulled-himself-up-by-the-bootstraps capitalist. But is he a successful capitalist by the standards O'Leary himself has set? The short answer here may also be yes; Google "StorageNow."

On the other hand, the long answer appears to be no. A Google search to confirm the no answer is more complex but is well worth doing.

Recently, O'Leary had an on-air altercation with a guest on his CBC program. He called an American journalist, Chris Hedges, a "nutbar." For this he had his wrists slapped by the CBC Ombudsman: "O’Leary . . . breached policy.” The Ombudsman, Kirk LaPointe, went on to reveal that CBC News issued a private apology to Mr. Hedges after the interview. LaPointe said it would have been better if the apology had been made publicly on-air.

During the interview Hedges tells O'Leary, "Corporations don't produce anything." O'Leary responds, "Oh really?" Hedges continues: "They are speculators. I'm talking about the financial institutions like Goldman Sachs. They don't manufacture. They don't make anything. They gamble. . . "

There are those who would argue that O'Leary, as bright and as successful as he is, has been at times more gambler than entrepreneur, more promoter than producer — and at times, a destroyer rather than creator of jobs. 

It's interesting where a Google inquiry leads when one starts asking the search engine about O'Leary. One quickly learns that there may be more myth than magic in the story of the self-made billionaire. For instance, he isn't a billionaire. And he may NOT have run a successful software business. It all depends on how you define successful.

According to a fine article in Canadian Business by Joe Castaldo on O'Leary, his SoftKey software business, renamed The Learning Company (TLC) after taking over of a competitor carrying that name, was a money losing concern at times.

While TLC grossed US$839 million in 1998, it lost $105 million. It recorded losses the two previous years as well. . . . "That's not true," O'Leary told Castaldo. "The company was profitable when sold to Mattel. Who said it wasn't profitable?" Castaldo read him the earnings taken from the company's annual reports, and O'Leary asked to see the reporter's notes. "You know, I gotta check. This doesn't look right to me," he said. After another moment of scrutiny, he tossed the notes back on the table. "Those were public numbers, so whatever they were, they were," he concluded.

O'Leary holds to his position that his company was a solid performer. According to Castaldo, long-time software executive Bernard Stolar, brought in by Mattel to turn around the new division, disagrees. "It [TLC] was in horrible condition." Stolar believes the acquisition spree was solely to add revenue. "They didn't even care if they were losing money or not."

Mattel's dismal bottom line was exacerbated by a shocking US$105-million loss in the TLC division. Mattel's stock crashed, wiping out US$3 billion of shareholder value in one day. Though O'Leary had signed a contract to stay with Mattel for three years, six months after the deal closed, he was gone. He left with more than US $5 million in severance.

During the interview for Canadian Business, the bravado left O'Leary's face just once. It was when he recounted how the outcome affected his employees. "I feel like I let them down," he said. "They'd worked so hard." But, the sentimental tone didn't last long, Castaldo writes: "That's the thing about business. It's very Darwinian," explains O'Leary.

It's survival of the fittest and O'Leary emerged very fit from the TLC fiasco. His fall was cushioned by a $5.2 million golden parachute. As I write this, O'Leary is serving on the executive board of the Richard Ivey School of Business at The University of Western Ontario and he is the chair of the investment committee of Boston’s 107-year old Hamilton Trust. Yes, he is surviving very well.

TLC Chairman Michael Perik, like O'Leary, also took home a U.S. $5.2 severance package. From a brief reading of my Google hits, it seems Perik has returned to the education software business and is now heading Princeton Review, a provider of test preparation and related education services. There are signs the same stresses that threatened SoftKey and TLC have also put Princeton Review under stress.

Jill Barad, the CEO at the helm of Mattel when the toy company completed one of the worst acquisitions in corporate history lost her job, that should come as no surprise, but she still did O.K. The following is from The Last Male Bastion by Douglas Routledge:

The Mattel board was generous to its fallen CEO. She would pay $1 for her limousine, office furnishings, and 52-doll Barbie collection. She would receive a $50 million severance, including a $598,000 yearly pension, and forgiveness of a $3 million loan. She left Mattel with shares worth $22 million selling at the time at all-time low levels.

There are lots of other names and connections that pop up when one googles the Kevin O'Leary SoftKey story. Although each story is different, there are a couple of common threads running through many of the stories. First, many would argue that these executives were grossly over-compensated when compared to historic rates and to remuneration available in other countries. Second, these executives were not always job creators; they often destroyed jobs, ruining lives.

For instance, after the take-over of Tyco by Mattel, Barad eliminated 2,700 jobs, nearly 10 percent of the combined workforce. A quiet, thoughtful discussion between O'Leary and Hedges on the matter of job creation and role played by large corporations could have made excellent television. Much better than the fiasco that was presented. 

I'd love to watch a rematch between Kevin O'Leary and Chris Hedges. I'm sure Hedges would be prepared. He'd do his research. He might confront O'Leary with some hard truths, and among those truths might be the fact that it is not only American bankers who bleed the capitalist system.

Let's leave this story with these paragraphs from The Last Male Bastion:
[The new Mattel] CEO Robert Eckert, former president of Kraft Foods, wasted no time. He closed Mattel’s Murray, Kentucky, manufacturing facility. Mattel then would manufacture every toy outside of the United States, in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Mexico.

He quickly put TLC on the sales block, hoping to get as much as one-third of the $3.5 billion Mattel had invested. The divestiture proved to be as big a debacle as the acquisition. Mattel would sell The Learning Company to Gores Technology Group, a closely held Los Angeles “vulture” group specializing in fallen technology companies. Mattel would receive no cash, the purchase price being a share of future TLC earnings, if any. Moreover, Mattel would have to pay off TLC’s $500 million in debt, delivering a debt-free asset to Gores Technology. 

During its brief ownership of TLC, Mattel had absorbed a further $500 million in losses. With the announcement of the sale, Mattel cut its annual dividend from 36 to 5 cents a share, saving $130 million per year. Analysts agree that Mattel’s acquisition of TLC, which cost out of pocket $4.3 billion and resulted in the loss by Mattel of two-thirds of its market capitalization, may have been the biggest “dumb acquisition” of all time.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Grand Rapids is still grand!

It is a little old, and maybe you've already seen it, but I just saw it and wanted to share it. What is it? It is "The Grand Rapids Lip Dub."

I love Grand Rapids. I have a soft spot in my heart for aging, rust-bucket American cities. I am old enough to recall when they were among the best cities on earth. They were fine places and one can only hope that they will again be great places.

In 2010, my wife and I spent a night in Grand Rapids on our way to the West Coast. We stayed in a fine old mansion in the Heritage Hill District — I mentioned the experience in a blog. We had a pleasant dinner in a Mexican restaurant and I spent the rest of the evening strolling about the neighbourhood in which were staying. I just loved it and hope to go back and drag some other Morgan owners along for the adventure.

London, my town, doesn't like to admit it but it is a Canadian cousin to those American rust-bucket burgs. London shows signs of the classic doughnut urban blight. The cities response has also been classic; It is deep into urban navel gazing.

The newspaper is running a series entitled "What's London?" As part of the series they are running videos inspired by a word deemed to have an important connection to London. I've posted a link to one of these videos below.

20 Objects: The Needle | London | News | London Free Press

The videos, and articles themselves, are good but not a one seems to say, "We love London!" That's sad because London, like Grand Rapids, still has lots of residents enthralled with their town.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Kevin O'Leary demonstrates how not to conduct an interview

I've never thought a lot of Kevin O'Leary. He comes on and I change the channel. The little that I've heard from his mouth has left me thinking that he is nothing more than a too-full-of-himself boor. Until I saw this video, I would have readily admitted that I might be wrong.

O'Leary has answered the question, at least for me, of whether or not his talents are worth airtime. They`re not. (If you'd like some confirmation of O'Leary spotty business acumen, read ". . . No Business Whiz" in Time Business or my post on the O'Leary history.)

If you're offended by O'Leary's boorish treatment of Chris Hedges, write the CBC Ombudsman. (I got the idea from a comment below the YouTube video. I thought it was a fine thought.) But, if you do, you are now late. The CBC Office of the Ombudsman has released its findings:

The ombudsman "found the remarks violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy. While the program acted responsibly in quickly apologizing to Hedges [and] concluded it would have better fulfilled the spirit of its policy by communicating its acknowledgment of error to the audience."

I found the remarks violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy. While the program acted responsibly in quickly apologizing to Hedges, I concluded it would have better fulfilled the spirit of its policy by communicating its acknowledgment of error to the audience.

One thing that offends me about the interview is that O'Leary clearly does not know to whom he is speaking. A few moments of googling his guest's name would have alerted him to the fact that Hedges is a well respected journalist of Pulitzer award-winning talents. If there is one thing that he is not, it is a "nutbar" as O'Leary called Hedges as the Canadian dipped into his bag of personal insults rather than into his reservoir of knowledge. A good, professional interviewer draws on knowledge and not insults while questioning a guest.

One may or may not agree with Hedges but O'Leary's incompetence brings the interviewer down all by itself. With the CBC facing more staff cuts, maybe it is time to cut O'Leary.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Apple revolution

I believe the computer on the left is my Mac Plus.
Somewhere in my basement sits a hollow, beige shell in an large, olive-green, Apple-logo decorated, canvas bag. It's the remains of my original Mac 128.

Today it is just a hollow case as I had my original Mac upgraded to a MacPlus at Lyon's Logic, an early Apple store in London, Ontario. When the upgrade was complete, Lyon's made sure to return the original, now hollow, case. It was valuable.

Why was it valuable? Because embossed inside were the signatures of most of the members of the original Macintosh development team. It was a cool, personalizing touch for a cool and very personal computer.

One thing I recall from those early, first days of Mac ownership was the scorn heaped on the Mac by many in the  newsroom at The London Free Press. The newsroom used the Atex system. They had no use for a personal computer. Many of the folks running the place were proud to call themselves Luddites.

I actually brought my Mac to work once and demonstrated how easy it would be to keep photo records using a small Mac. No one was interested. The photo department, I was told, had two IBM Selectric typewriters -- both with a correction ribbon. There was no demand for my toy.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece I called "Newspapers must evolve." Part of that evolution will be either changing the attitudes of management or changing management. The paper's present editor-in-chief, Joe Ruscitti, in keeping with newsroom tradition, likes to claim he is a Luddite. It is hard to argue with Joe about his computer savvy.

Three days after Steve Jobs died at 56, the newspaper carried a column about Steve Jobs. The story celebrated his life, his achievements and the lessons we can take from his example. Allow me to add my two cents, or should I say Google executive Vic Gundotra's two cents.

It seems that one Sunday Gundotra got at church. It was Jobs calling to say he thought the shade of yellow in the second “o” of the Google logo wasn’t quite right. Furthermore, Jobs said he had tasked someone with improving it. 

"In the end, when I think about leadership, passion and attention to detail, I think back to the call I received from Steve Jobs on a Sunday morning in January. It was a lesson I’ll never forget. CEOs should care about details. Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday."

I think folk like Joe Ruscitti should try to emulate Steve Jobs and his attention to detail. It is only professional.

Check out the following screen grab from The London Free Press online site. It seems even an Editor-in-Chief can use an editor.

Ruscitti's  name is spelled incorrectly on one of his Free Press posts. The final "i" has been dropped. On the one post where his job title follows his name, an accent called a cedilla has been added below the "c" in chief. And newshounds is one word. I learned that from a former Free Press editor and just checked my Canadian Oxford Dictionary as a second source.

It is funny that Joe's name is spelled incorrectly on his post "We're doing just fine . . . " These errors are months old. There is no reason to not correct these errors unless Joe doesn't even know about them. Unless Joe doesn't even check his online posts.

If only Steve Jobs had called Joe at church.