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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Modified cattle prods and the media

News stories just don't appear — dropped by the news gods into a reporter's lap. Stories are created: structured, modeled, fashioned and polished . The best new stories have both a protagonist and an antagonist and they unfold, inverted pyramid style, to a satisfying climax. With the climax told, the conclusion can be cut wherever a page editor must in order to fit the story onto the page.

News folk will tell you their report, their story, is true. The reply to this is, "So?" True is not necessarily balanced. Nor is true necessarily compete.

Today the local paper, where I worked for more than three decades, ran a story reporting that the Province of Ontario has agreed to a $32.7 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by residents of two now closed institutions for people with developmental handicaps: the Southwestern Regional Centre near Cedar Springs and the Rideau Regional Centre in Smith Falls.

The article rekindles memories of a long forgotten story in reporting:

Southwestern Regional Centre made headlines in the 1980s when it was revealed cattle prods were used on some patients, which advocates termed a form of "torture."

Torture at Cedar Springs: Now there is a good news story and sitting right on the door step of The London Free Press. Cedar Springs is on the distant southwestern edge of the newspaper's circulation area. With an important bureau office in Chatham and thus a reporter stationed in the immediate area, the revelations of claimed mistreatment at the mental health facility was big news.

This is the kind of story that sells papers, but was it true? Yes, it was true. Modified cattle prods were being used on residents. Was the story complete? No, I don't believe so. I know for a fact that some staff at the Cedar Springs facility would say, "Yes. The story, as reported, was true." But others would say, "No," and argue the story, as reported, was incomplete. In the past, I've heard institute staff go so far as to call the news reports inflammatory and inaccurate.

I recall stories from that period that never made it into the paper. These stories did not mesh with the thrust of the cattle prod hell-hole stories. Let me relate a couple of the stories editors ignored.

Living in an institute like Cedar Springs was not life-enriching for many of those living there. At one point it was decided to hold a food adventure party. Foods that many of the occupants rarely, if ever, sampled would be served. Some of these foods, were kept off the menu for good reason. They posed a choking danger to those residents for whom even eating was a struggle. These residents missed out on the pleasure of enjoying many foods of various flavours, temperatures and textures. And because some residents were denied these foods, other residents on the floor were often also denied access.

For the party extra staff were assigned to monitor the residents and watch for any problems. The staff, trained to handle choking situations, found the party stressful but it was a delight for residents. The alert staff prevented residents from stuffing filling their mouths with food. Thanks to the staff's watchfulness, there were no choking incidents at the party.

Another story involved a young boy afflicted with Down syndrome. His parents had decided it would be best if their young son was institutionalized. They brought the boy to Cedar Springs for evaluation.

After running a number of tests on the child the parents were told that, as difficult as it would be, the best thing for their little boy would be to remain at home. The professionals at Cedar Springs determined that the little boy was actually quite bright. Certainly as bright as a healthy five or six year old child. This little boy was bright enough to learn from his surroundings. Put him in a facility with severely developmentally challenged individuals and the little boy would learn how to fit in at the institute. He would grow up to act like the severely developmentally challenged individuals with whom he lived.

Kept him at home, in a healthy, loving atmosphere, surrounded and supported by family, he would learn social graces. He would grow up to be a functioning individual. He would function at the level of a bright child but he would function. The little boy was not institutionalized. His parents took him home.

As for the stories about cattle prods and torture, I don't want to say too much as the closing chapter for that story is still to be written. The newspaper story reports that the announced deal still requires court approval.

I don't know all the stories and I am sure there are some horror stories. But I do know there is another side to this story. I was told that most of the workers authorized to deliver shocks were themselves shocked. It was felt that those delivering shocks should have a full understanding of the pain involved. I talked with one young woman who worked at the facility who told me she had been given a shock, a painful jolt, and she never wanted to be touched with a prod again. Never.

Yet, she delivered shocks. Why? The residents she touched with the modified cattle prod were injuring themselves by pounding their heads on the hard floor. The options for protecting these residents were to physically restrain them, to lock them away in essentially a fully padded cell, to drug them into an almost comatose state or to try and modify their behaviour through the controlled application of a short but painful jolt of electricity.

Despite the news reports of cattle prods and torture in the regional centre near Chatham, the centre had not gone rogue. A surgeon does not stab or assault a patient with a deadly weapon, despite the use of  sharp blades. Mental health professionals are not engaged in torture despite the use of modified cattle prods.

Matthew Israel, the inventor of the Graduated Electronic Decelerator (DEG) used at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, Massachusetts — and only at the JRC — defended his use of painful electrical jolts to control behaviour:

Some individuals who are developmentally disabled or psychiatrically challenged display severe behavior problems such as eye-gouging to the point of blindness, skin gouging to the point of fatal blood and bone infection, biting off the tips of one’s fingers, pulling out one’s own teeth, etc. These problems require rapid and effective treatment.

Boston Magazine in an article, The Shocking Truth, looked at the use of the DEG at the JRC in Massachusetts. The reporter wrote: "Spend enough time around the machine and it will test everything you know about right and wrong." In 2008, at the time the article was written, the writer wrote: "Some Massachusetts legislators who’ve filed bills this year to limit the use of the machine call it "barbaric" and the school "like Abu Ghraib"."

If you've got the time, read the Boston Magazine article by Paul Kix. The first four pages can be tough. You will believe you are reading about sanctioned torture and you might partially be right. But on page five you will encounter P. J. Biscardi.

At age three, P.J. was diagnosed with autism. One summer, while Peter [P.J.'s dad] drove the family to Cape Cod, P.J. grabbed his father’s hair and pulled it out, blood smearing the upholstery. Peter and his wife, Maureen, had to lock everything in their house in Burlington — drawers, file cabinets, anything that could be opened — so P.J., then maybe all of 10, wouldn’t destroy the place. Or kill himself. But it didn’t matter: P.J. was violent.

P.J. was violent, and P.J. was curious. One year, at a holiday meal with the extended family, P.J. sneaked into the bathroom and sipped Drano. Drano. Maureen had never yelled louder in her life. They rushed him to the hospital, where doctors announced, mercifully, that P.J. had only suffered chemical burns.

Another time, P.J. took one of Peter’s razor blades to his arms. "Hurt, hurt," he said, when Maureen saw the blood-soaked towel. P.J. was known to ram his body into the walls; you’ve never see a linebacker hit a wall with such force, Peter says. He tipped out dresser drawers, knocked over shelves of books. P.J. bit himself so much that a giant callus formed on the skin between his thumb and wrist, growing larger every time he drew fresh blood.

The Biscardis’ other children, an older sister and younger brother, never wanted their friends over. . . . The school district didn’t want P.J. The Biscardis couldn’t keep him at home. So they tried four treatment centers. At the last place, the drugs temporarily stunted P.J.’s growth. He was 12. Peter wasn’t comfortable with the level of medication, especially since the drugs didn’t seem to do much to keep the kid calm. The school’s doctor told Peter, "If you don’t increase the dose, we’re not going to keep him here."

Today, after three decades living at JRC, P. J. Biscardi's callus on his hand has long ago disappeared. After P.J. makes a visit to the family home, the house is in the same shape it was when he arrived. And no locked cabinets.

To be fair, DEG is not modified cattle prod therapy but only a cousin of the Ontario approach. In learning more about the history of what was done in Ontario, one will encounter the late O. Ivar Lovaas. This is the man often credited with being the father of cattle prod therapy.

Early in his career, Lovaas used modified cattle prods to deliver electric shocks to autistic children in an attempt to modify their behaviour. He later renounced the method and adopted the positive approaches in keeping with B.F. Skinner's theories on how to modify and reinforce behavior. Lovaas took advantage of food treats and activity rewards and ceased the application of painful punishment.

About 20 years after Lovaas distanced himself from his own modified cattle prod therapy, Anderson Cooper of CNN reported on a family who supported the jolting of their autistic son with 4500 volts. Cooper wrote about this on his blog: Parents seek shock treatment for son.

The CNN reporter told viewers that in 2006 the state of Illinois outlawed the use of electric shock treatment in group homes and community facilities. The parents of one child who could no longer be shocked sued the group home where their son lived. They hoped to force the home to bring back the modified cattle prod. Their son's life had deteriorated without the prod. The courts tossed the case out because the treatment was now illegal.

No matter where you stand on the electric shock treatment delivered in the closed Ontario centres, I believe you would have a difficult time proving the treatment was torture. You might be able to find examples of residents who were not helped by the therapy but then experts only claim success in about half the cases. And this, of course, is where it gets sticky. Shocking people who are not helped may very well injure them instead, leave them greatly distressed. I am not surprised that some former residents launched legal actions.

The big story here might NOT be the almost $33 million settlement. Nor is the big story the occasional use of modified cattle prods to modify behavior. The story might be that the Province of Ontario has closed about 16 costly facilities and yet is short of cash to assist families now forced to cope with mentally challenged sons and daughters.

I've read that each residential spot in an institute cost the government at least $100,000 a year and there were thousands and thousands of residents. As a society we seem to have shifted much of the burden of caring for these former residents from the province to the affected families. In many cases the province has foisted day to day responsibilities onto the mentally challenged themselves. Again, this isn't all bad, but it isn't all good either. Although some of the former residents have fared very poorly outside the centres, others have not only survived outside the centres but flourished. As I said, it is no big surprise that some former residents took legal action.

The practice of openly excluding the mentally challenged from society has ended, to be replaced all too often with the insidious act of quietly socially excluding this group. What some of these challenged individuals and their families face today is but another form of, forgive the word, torture.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


For some of us there is nothing like a little heart problem to add spice to life. Note, it is important that the problem be little. If it is too big, it is all consuming. That's not good. The goal is NOT to be worried about dying but to feel driven to live, to savour the linked moments we call life.

If you have followed my blog, you will know that my granddaughter, an anglaise, is enrolled in a French public school. This is not a French immersion school, a school for English children whose parents want them to speak French. This is a French school for French children.

My granddaughter seems to be getting by. The school has had no complaints about her work. I believe the school is being very supportive of her efforts. Still, I worry. I feel driven to learn a little French, to chat with my granddaughter in the language she uses at school. I want the French fabric that is her school life to be frayed a little and for threads of French to find their way into her homelife, too.

To this end I have been watching French television (mostly TV5) and reading French news stories. A new world has enveloped me. The fabric of French culture is a rich weave with lots of threads loose along its edges.

Which bring me to Joe le Taxi — a song that is among the top one hundred best-selling singles of all time in France. It is also claimed to have been number one in Canada. Are you surprised? I am. Clearly, it was a big hit in Quebec. And clearly I have not been aware of the French threads that reach into Canada but get cleanly cut at the Quebec border.

Joe le Taxi is about a black taxi driver in Paris who knows the City of Lights very well. If it's a great little bar you seek, Joe's your man. A rum drinking, saxaphone playing dude, Joe is cool on the outside with a hot passion for Latin music on the inside.

How did I find the thread that led to the discovery of this song? TV5 and a story about Vanessa Paradis. This French singer-model-actress had a fourteen year relationship with American actor Johnny Depp. This connection makes her fodder for a news machine pumping out stories for an anglais audience.

Paradis was only fourteen when she recorded Joe. Today, in her forties, she has a fourteen year old daughter of her own, Lily-Rose, who is now evolving into an artist. Her daughter already shares a writing credit with mom and another woman, a close family friend. Lily-Rose co-wrote Love Songs with them after coming up with the melody eight years earlier when she was only six.

Paradis is attempting to foster creativity in her children, she also has young son. Paradis is surrounding the two with creative people who will lead by inspired example. Paradis is filling her children's lives with threads — creative threads.

Life is made up of threads, billions of threads. We all follow threads. It is the way life works. These threads, an uncountable number, are interwoven into the fabric we call culture. I'm hoping this learning of French will encourage my granddaughter to follow threads which lead deep into the cultural tangle that is Canada than I have ever gone. I hope taking French will be inspirational for my developing granddaughter.

Too many Americans and Canadians wear large, thick cultural blinders. Many Yanks cannot get past the "greatest country in the world" hollow boast. Talk of anything outside the United States makes their eyes glaze over. I do not want my granddaughter to be trapped in a cultural straight jacket.

If a young Vanessa Paradis, barely a teen, singing a charming, little piece of pop music seems a fragile thread on which to anchor an interest in French culture, you'd be right. It is very fine thread. And yet, if you follow it, if you allow it to gently pique your interest, you will find your self travelling deeper and deeper into French pop culture.

You may find yourself immersed in French techno pop music experiencing songs like Vive la fete, Bananasplit, or Laurent Garnier, Flashback. I have followed those threads in the past thanks to a woman who was not a small thread but a large swath of wonderfully patterned cloth in my life: My mother.

In her eighties, cruising from channel to channel one evening, searching for something of interest on television, my mother chanced upon an open-air concert by Jean Michel Jarre recorded in Paris. She loved the concert, the music and the light show accompanying it. We followed the JMJ thread and found it led us to Charlotte Rampling, an English actress and his second wife. This new thread connected us with The Night Porter, a difficult movie from the '70s with Dirk Bogarde. Bogarde was one of my mother's favourite actors. The movie was not.

Threads: Life is composed of threads. The threads we follow lead us deep into the fabric we call life. Threads hold never ending interest. We pass threads from the old to the young, from the young to the old, and from the dying to the newborn. Look about, find a thread, follow it. Live!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ablation for heart flutter in the U.S. and Canada

Health care is expensive. That is a given. How a society covers the cost of health care is the big question facing both Canada and the United States. The Americans, prior to Obama, essentially relied on insurance companies to solve the problem. The solution wasn't perfect but for many Americans it worked.

Unfortunately, if you were dropped by your insurance company and you were unable to replace your coverage, you were in deep trouble. If you had a preexisting condition, the very health issue for which you needed covered, you might not be able to get that coverage. And if you could not afford the insurance premiums, you went without. The result was that in the States something between 35 and 40 percent of all Americans took a pass on health care; They didn't go to the doctor, to the dentist, or the hospital and if they did go they didn't get their prescriptions filled afterwards.

Canada has taken a different tack. It is called the single payer system, I believe. It isn't socialized medicine but Yanks see it that way. Because so many more Canadians as a proportion of society have health care coverage, the demand for health care in Canada is swamping the health care system. The U.S. system isn't swamped but then almost 40 percent of Americans are being kept on the sidelines. Comparing the Canadian system to the American one is a complex problem. The results of an indepth examination of the two systems really depends upon how you approach the issue.

My take on Canadian health care is from the angle of an aging heart patient. Treating my heart disease is time consuming and expensive. Suffering from a genetic-based heart disease (ARVC), my heart muscle is being slowly converted into fibrous tissue and fat. Neither materials are found to any great extent in strong, healthy heart tissue. As the muscle breaksdown, the weakened heart expands and fails.

I have given up jogging. Asking the heart to pump a lot of blood in a short period of time stresses the heart. It expands with resulting small tears. The small tears heal with fibrous tissue and fat filling the space.

Keeping my heart rate down and keeping a lid on my blood pressure are both important. I'm losing weight to easy the burden on my heart. I'm down to 195 pounds. I take a powerful drug to depress my heart rate. I take Lipitor to keep my cholesterol in check. And I take a blood thinner, Pradaxa, to prevent blood clots forming in my poorly functioning heart.

With my condition, heart arrhythmias are common. I suffer from a heart arrhythmia known as flutter. Arrhythmias cause the blood to swirl and stagnate in the heart. In about five percent of the time, this swirling results in the formation of blood clots which then move to the brain causing a serious stroke. Blood thinner slashes the chance of this occurring.

Sometimes, my heart can runaway. When this happens my heart must be hit with a brief but intense electric shock. In California a defibrillator was used in the Sonoma Hospital emergency room to force my heart back into sinus rhythm. If my heart is not returned to sinus rhythm within about ten minutes I can suffer irreparable brain damage and, within a few more minutes, death.

To prevent this, the doctors in Canada installed an ICD in my chest. ICD stands for
implantable cardioverter defibrillator. My personal defibrillator has stopped my heart from racing and has returned it to sinus rhythm at least three times. The ICD has also acted early to correct potential runaway heart problems, stopping the events from continuing into the life threatening stage.

Oddly enough, when my heart isn't racing, it is hardly beating at all. My heart rate can drop into the thirties! This isn't good. My ICD is programed to notice this problem and at these times it acts like a pacemaker. In one three month period it was found that my ICD paced my heart 98 percent of the time.

Last Friday, a week ago, the cardiac specialists at the London Health Sciences Centre gave me a reprieve from my constant heart flutter. They performed a catheter ablation procedure on my heart. Opening a small hole in a major vein in my groin, the cardiac team threaded fine wires through the vein up into my heart. They found the bad electrical pathway in the heart and burned a path across it. Scar tissue will form and this barrier should prevent my heart from returning to flutter for sometime. Eventually the heart may find another route or another path may form as my heart continues to expand. A second procedure may be necessary.

Today, I feel much better. My heart is out of flutter. My chest feels, for the most part, relaxed. But, more to the point, I am relaxed. Living in Canada, I had to be patient as the doctors went about the task of extending my life but, in the end, I was not saddled with an impossible to pay bill. Nor did I face the possibility of being dropped by my insurance company or seeing my premiums climb into the stratosphere.

What a contrast to the situation resulting from my medical treatment received in California. There the doctors were also excellent, the hospital first rate, the equipment state of the art but the bill was unbelievable. And I do mean unbelievable. When I told my Canadian doctors that I was able to run up a bill closing in on $30,000 in less than 48 hours, they were totally amazed.

After dumping almost $30,000 in California and finding no reason for my V-tach event, my health insurer was exceedingly unhappy. I believe, if I were American, I would have been at risk of having my insurance coverage revoked. On my own, I could never have afforded the wealth of tests that eventually were needed to discover the genetic cause of my problem. I certainly could not have afforded the ICD that has saved my life a number of times. And I could not have paid for the ablation therapy I had last week.

Health care is a complex issue. The stories in the media are more entertaining than informative. I cannot speak for all areas of health care in Canada. But, I can tell you that in London, Ontario, the cardiac doctors at the LHCS are first-rate, the treatment excellent and the options offered very compete.

The LHSC will be mentioned in my will and today I make do by making annual donations to both the hospital and to the Robarts Research Institute which is connected to both the hospital and to the nearby university.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My little artist has discovered depth

It is a small step for a budding artist of four but it is still a major milestone. My granddaughter has discovered depth. Or should I say stumbled upon depth? She clearly liked the effect of the yellow heart sitting on top of the red shape. In fact, she liked the result so much that she overlapped a couple more shapes, creating a little row descending down the page.

I wonder if it is time to teach her about perspective lines?

I know she didn't intend it but I rather like the way the hearts morph into an almost butterfly shape by the time she reaches the top right corner of this piece. I say almost as my wife sees a dove as the final shape morphing out of a grouping of butterflies.

Whatever . . . in the end I like to leave abstract art abstract.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


In retirement, architecture has attracted a lot of my attention. At some point I was placed on the e-mail list of a firm specializing in soil stabilization. The firm sends me links to interesting sites, from an architectural standpoint, and ones that posed unique soil stabilization problems. The firm sent me pictures of the Sheraton “Huzhhou Hot Spring Spring” Hotel. Amazing. I went in search of more. Now, I want to share a link with my readers.

Lo Sheraton “Huzhhou Hot Spring Spring” Hotel.

Considering the quality of the place, the cost of a stay seems rather reasonable. I picked a couple of dates in February and found I could book a room for my wife and me for a little more than $400 a night. We won't be going anytime soon but if I'm ever in China and want to pretend that I'm a one percenter . . .

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Rebuttal to Sun Media column on company closures and layoffs

Last week Larry Cornies examined the rash of plant closures that have battered the economy of Southwestern Ontario. The London Free Press columnist slipped in one of his core business beliefs when he made the following claim: Companies — whether it’s Libby’s, Ford, Heinz, Kellogg or U.S. Steel — all act in the strategic interests of their shareholders or investors — It's their imperative, he tells us.

Mr. Cornies may be wrong, as any long-time investor in the stock market knows all too well. My guess is Mr. Cornies is well aware his position here is questionable. That is why he tries to slip his claim quickly by his readers. He makes no mention of the growing number of experts who believe the "shareholder value imperative" is a myth — a common one, an oft repeated one, especially in the media, but a myth just the same.

An entire book has been written addressing this very subject — The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations and the Public by Lynn Stout, a Distinguished Professor of Corporate & Business Law at Cornell University Law School in Itaca, NY.

Ms Stout wrote in an article published by the Utne Reader and posted online:

If we stop to examine the reality of who "the shareholder" really is — not an abstract creature obsessed with the single goal of raising the share price of a single firm today, but real human beings with the capacity to think for the future and to make binding commitments, with a wide range of investments and interests beyond the shares they happen to hold in any single firm, and with consciences that make most of them concerned, at least a bit, about the fates of others, future generations, and the planet — it soon becomes apparent that conventional shareholder primacy harms not only stakeholders and the public, but most shareholders as well.

Ms Stout points out that between 1997 and 2008, the number of companies listed on U.S. exchanges declined from 8,823 to only 5,401. The Heinz Co. has now joined the growing list of public companies taken private. This a disaster for investors in the market. Retiree shareholders, like me, are especially hard hit. The cream of the investment world is being siphoned away.

Heinz was a cash cow for its shareholders. Those who bought shares in early January 2010 saw a gain of almost 39 percent in three years, and that is just share value growth. Heinz also paid an annual dividend of $2.06 at the time it was taken private .

Admittedly, Heinz shareholders saw an immediate pop in the value of their shares with the purchase of the food giant by Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital but it was a one time event. To a great extent, Heinz is now a private cash cow.

Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway holds $8 billion in preferred shares paying a 9 percent dividend, or $720 million a year. Compare this payout to the old common-stock dividend. It only cost the Heinz Co. about $665 million.

Larry Cornies assures us that a multinational like Heinz is forced to make some hard decisions. True but Heinz was not facing any immediate hard decisions. The company was awash in $325 million free cash flow.

The hard decisions materialized when Heinz became a private multinational saddled with a lot of new and growing expenses. Heinz faced some 2000 hard decisions. That's the number of jobs cut since the company was taken private.

One big driver of the recent closures, and left unmentioned by Mr. Cornies, is greed — and greed is not good despite what Kevin O'Leary, of Dragons' Den fame, proclaims oh-so-loudly. To understand the damage caused by unbridled greed one needs to look no farther than Mr. O'leary himself.

In his memoir, Cold Hard Truth, O'Leary called The Learning Company, his patched-together business, a money-making machine. The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University begs to differ. According to the business school TLC had "questionable profitability" and "two of Learning Co.’s deals . . . rank among the 10 worst U.S. acquisitions during 1994-1996 as measured by shareholder value two years after the deal." According to The Globe and Mail, an SEC filing shows that TLC suffered net losses of $376 million in 1996, $495 million in 1997 and $105 million in 1998.

Erik Gustafson, manager of the Stein Roe Growth Stock Fund, a major shareholder in Mattel at the time of the TLC acquisition, is widely quoted as saying, "The present management team [at Mattel] has vaporized two thirds of the value of the company." While shareholder value was tanking, long-time Mattel workers were also suffering. 3000 lost their jobs.

So, who benefited from the Mattel financial meltdown? Kevin O'Leary for one. Bain Capital for another. When Mattel handed O'Leary his walking papers, after just months with the company, his TLC division was killing the company. O'Leary's pain of being, what some have called, fired was eased by a $5.2 million golden parachute.

Landing on his feet, O'Leary appears regularly on CBC as their business go-to-man. The Ivey Business School at Western University thinks so highly of his philosophy of greed that they have placed him on their advisory board. Does this tell you something is wrong in our accepted business model?

One can learn more about why the Southwestern Ontario region is experiencing so many mergers and subsequent closures from reading the news reports of Norm DeBono in The London Free Press and staying clear of the opinion pieces by journalism professor Larry Cornies.

According to DeBono:
A U.S. investment firm has bought and closed three London businesses in four years, shortchanging workers on severance in at least two of those businesses — and might do it again. Apparently, there are no federal or provincial restrictions in Canada that a company has to respect the law in how it treats its former workers before it can buy another business in the country. . . .
"There are laws that protect employees when there is successor-ship (another company taking over). But if a company is winding down a business, their obligations to fund may disappear," said Tim Gleason, a Toronto labour lawyer.
  • Sun Capital Partners in Boca Raton Fla in 2007 bought McCormicks in London, laying off 275 workers, refusing them severance and vacation pay and their pensions. Workers won vacation pay after a two-year legal fight.
  • In 2008 H.J. Jones Packaging in London was sold to Knight Packaging of Chicago, a Sun Capital firm. H.J. Jones was closed, cutting 45 jobs. Workers were also refused severance, but finally won a deal that gave them half of what they were owed.
  • In 2011 the year-end closure of Specialized Packaging Group in London was announced, cutting 189 jobs. It's owned by PaperWorks of Philadelphia, another Sun Capital company.

It is one thing to watch American interests close their long-time Canadian branch plants but it is quite another when an American company buys a successful Canadian business, folds it into the U.S. firm, and then closes the Canadian operation — often moving the production Stateside.

For an example of this think of Bick's. This Canadian company made pickles in Dunnville, Ontario, until the giant American company J.M. Smucker bought the operation, closed it, and moved production to Ohio.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Deals from Hell

London, Ontario, has been hard hit by company closures, as has all of Southwestern, Ontario. With thousands of Canadians losing their jobs, Sun Media columnist Larry Cornies has come out in print as an apologist for the companies. The companies are only acting in the strategic interests of their investors, he tells his readers. Corporations must seek to maximize value for shareholders, he claims.

The problem with Cornies' argument is that the executives running companies do not always put the shareholders' interests first. They might but then they might not. In many cases, the executives are looking out for Number One, themselves.

Mennonite Mutual Aid
Mennonite Mutual Aid
The title of this post was inspired by a book of the same name by Robert F. Bruner, professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. An article in The New York Times examining business mergers and whether or not they make good financial sense reported:

"Bruner is critical of this process [business mergers], which he calls financial cosmetics. 'It invites the creation of growth for appearance rather than growth that creates wealth for investors and society,' he says."

Another good name for this post would have been Pay Without Performance after the book by Harvard professor Lucien Bebchuk with Jesse Fried. Why? Because so many of the recent closures did not benefit shareholders to anywhere near the extent that the closures benefited the deal makers

Consider Heinz. If your grandparents had bought just 100 shares for $2500 when the company went public in 1946, you would have owned, after stock splits, 16,200 shares, which would have been worth almost $1 million at the time Berkshire Hathaway and 3G made their offer. Those shares were yielding $33,372 annually in dividends. (Admittedly, Heinz shares did enjoy a $12 pop thanks to the buyout.)

Over the years, Heinz, the-public-company, was a cash cow for its shareholders. Now Heinz, the-private-company, will be a cash cow for Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and 3G Capital. It will not be a continuing cash cow for its buy-and-hold shareholders.

To argue that Heinz, an American company, would not have closed its large, Canadian plant is impossible. I have no crystal ball. But I can tell you this: Bloomberg Personal Finance reports that annual interest expense at Heinz probably doubled to $560 million since the takeover. Plus, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway now holds $8 billion in preferred shares paying a 9 percent dividend, or $720 million a year.

If $720 million sounds like a lot, it is. Going private may have eliminated the common-stock dividend but that dividend only cost Heinz about $665 million.

Larry Cornies tells us: "For a multinational like Heinz, the comparative costs of labour, raw materials, power, land, machinery and other inputs in some other part of the world forced hard decisions here."

He's right. But what Cornies doesn't mention is that Heinz posted $2.01 billion in ebitda last year on $11.5 billion in revenue. Ebitda stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. After deducting those expenses, the company was awash in $325 million free cash flow. Heinz wasn't facing any immediate hard decisions.

The hard decisions materialized when Heinz became a private multinational saddled with a lot of expenses associated with going private. Heinz faced something in the neighbourhood of 2000 hard decisions. That's the number of jobs Heinz has cut since being taken private.


One last thought. One that I couldn't fit into the post above. All shareholders are not as shallow as Cornies apparently believes or as amoral. Cornies is a Mennonite and proud to be a Mennonite. Yet, I believe, there are Mennonites who would take a different tack that he does in his Free Press piece.

The following is from Crossroads, Eastern Mennonite University:

"No business that wants to last can afford to ignore in its financial statements the depletion of its productive assets, yet that is precisely what the global economy is doing. . . . Disaster looms precisely because the current economic model has no built-in limits – no stopping point short of a crisis generated by environmental or social collapse."

James M. Harder and Karen Klassen Harder, Bluffton University

I'd like to see Cornies tackle the closure of so many Canadian plants, many successful. These Canadian businesses were bought by American interests, sometimes private equity firms, the work moved to the States and the Canadian operations closed.

Possibly Cornies should read David Steward's Doing Business by the Good Book. Steward writes: "The investment community can apply tremendous pressure to produce quarterly profits. This outside persuasion sometimes tempts management to think short-term, reduce expenditures, and forgo quality. . . . the demand put on management for three-month gains isn’t necessarily good for a company’s [or its shareholders] long-term interests.”

Monday, December 9, 2013

Civilizations don't die, they commit suicide

London, Ontario, the city I call home, has problems. These problems are common and challenge cities everywhere. London the town grew into London the city but it did so without a vision, without a plan. Like so many places, London sprawls out over the precious farmland of Southwestern Ontario, like ink leaking from a faulty pen destroying the shirt. Most cities on the planet leak people.

Sprawl has been going on for as long as there have been cities. It is not a new problem. It is the scale and global nature of today's sprawl that is new. As I write this my memory flashes back to the early '70s and my days at university in Toronto and I recall a book that I had to read for one of my classes: The Limits to Growth, a report on a Club of Rome project.

Selling more than 30 million copies, that book had a big effect on a lot of people, young and idealistic at that time four decades distant. Unable to find my copy, I found the following linked article online: Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All? (Part One) by Matthew Simmons.

Simmons' article was interesting in that it didn't find fault with The Limits to Growth but instead found fault with many of the criticisms that have flooded the popular press in the intervening decades. Simmons tells us:

Nowhere in the book was there any mention about running out of anything by 2000. . . .
The book postulated a continuation of the exponential growth of the seventies . . . would result in severe constraints on all known global resources by 2050 to 2070.

The task was to examine the complex problems troubling "men of all nations; poverty in the midst of plenty, degradation of the environment, loss of faith in institutions, uncontrolled urban spread, etc."

While many readers concocted various 'imaginary' assumptions, the book's conclusions were quite simple. . . . a limit to the growth that our planet has enjoyed would be reached sometime within the next 100 years.

The Limits to Growth is not the only book with a tone that reflects my gut concerns about the massive loss of  Southwestern Ontario farmland. For a more on-point discussion of the problem (without actually confronting it head-on) read Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Malcolm Gladwell and published originally in the New Yorker.

This is a review of the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. According to Gladwell, Collapse is a book about the most prosaic elements of the earth’s ecosystem — soil, trees, and water — because societies fail, in Diamond’s view, when they mismanage those environmental factors. . . . The lesson of Collapse is that societies, as often as not, aren’t murdered. They commit suicide . . .

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Quebecor_Mindless twits runnng Canada's newspapers

Sun Media, owned by Quebecor, announced yet another Christmas layoff. I understand about 200 jobs are being cut with about 50 of those being editorial positions.

The Quebecor/Sun Media execs are twits. My guess is they know little or nothing about newspapers. They seem to have but one response when asked to improve profits and that is to cut costs and one of the simplest ways to cut costs is to cut staff.

If these twits were running a car factory, they would leave the back seat out of the cars produced. It would save money. Maybe they would eliminate the paint booths. Now that would really cut costs. Of course, these moves would also cut quality and that would cut sales.

Cutting editorial staff is cutting quality and cutting quality is cutting circulation. And what is the answer to falling circulation and the monetary loss that follows? Why more layoffs. Like I said, these folk are twits.

I understand Google may make in excess of  $55 billion annually. Wow! Makes one wonder what would have happened if years ago newspapers had worked with Google at figuring out how to market news with linked ads.

Instead of the newspapers across Canada and across the continent working together to deliver the best and the latest information to their readers, newspapers cut their links to each other, unless the other papers were part of the same chain. Newspapers cut links and slashed the quality of the print product. Circulation collapsed. No surprise.

Google seems to be a very inventive company, very creative. It may not be too late to approach Google, hat in hand, seeking some much needed help. Maybe the folk at Google would be willing to put on a thinking cap while examining the problem wearing Google Glass.

I sold an antique car this summer. I sold it without placing even one car ad. Why bother? It was a special car, a heritage vehicle. It was valuable — read expensive. An ad running just in The London Free Press would simply not reach enough potential buyers. So I didn't buy an ad. But let's say that newspapers across Canada were linked, at least their electronic editions.

Place and ad in the paper in London and find a buyer in Vancouver. Ah, now that is the way an automobile ad should work. But, they don't and so I didn't. Like I said, the folks running newspapers, the ones behind the multiple layoffs and buyouts, are twits — unimaginative twits.

Before writing this I found an ad in The London Free Press, copied some specific information, and did a search of the Toronto Sun website using the pasted information. I found the two newspaper sites poorly designed and the Toronto Sun site did not find the The London Free Press ad. Yes, the folks at the helm of the newspaper chains are certified twits.

My heartfelt sympathies to those newspaper folk losing their jobs. Knowing the folk at the top are heartless twits doesn't make it any easier.

Can Leamington Heinz plant jobs be saved?

Recently, the Letter to Editor column in The London Free Press has carried a number of submissions discussing the closing of the 104-year-old Heinz plant in Leamington. Despite what is being said, the truth may be that the plant was headed for closure. No amount of wage cutting and/or benefit trimming would have saved the plant.

Reportedly Rob Crawford, president of the union representing Leamington Heinz workers, offered to open the collective agreement. The new Heinz owners, Berkshire Hathaway and the giant Brazilian private-equity group 3G Capital, were not interested.

Possibly the folk in Leamington should take inspiration from events unfolding in Girgarre, Australia, where Heinz closed a tomato processing plant in 2011. A coalition of workers, growers and community leaders created the Goulburn Valley Food Co-op. Their first goal is to build a factory replacing Heinz while continuing the local tradition of turning local ingredients into quality foods.

The reason the Aussies are looking to build a new factory is simple. Heinz practised a scorched earth policy when it came to the plant. Before being put onto the marke, the place was hollowed out, stripped of all equipment necessary to operate the plant. Even the rat barriers were removed.

The claim is made that the co-op in Girgarre, Australia, was inspired by the actions taken by Argentinian workers a little more than a decade ago. You may recall that in 2001 the large South American country suffered a financial and political collapse with thousands of companies declaring bankruptcy. The Argentinian owners walked away from these concerns to escape the burden of debt these companies had accumulated.

In some cases, the workers occupied the plants and kept them running despite of abandonment by the owners. More than a decade later, many of these worker-run factories, these co-operatives, are still operating.

According to AlterNet:

As a result of the severe 2002-2003 economic crisis, worker-run companies began to mushroom in a broad range of areas, including the food industry, steel, textile, footwear and plastic factories, meat-packing plants, ceramic, glass and rubber manufacturers, graphic design companies, transport firms, restaurants, health businesses and even a five-star hotel.

The companies were reclaimed by their workers after the owners disappeared overnight, leaving behind jobless employees, piles of debt, factories stripped of everything not bolted down -- and, often, charges of tax evasion or fraud.

Many of the companies are producing and even exporting again after they were taken over by the workers, who were owed months and sometimes years of back wages.

What AlterNet doesn't mention is that many of the abandoned companies claimed by workers have been hit with legal actions by the owners wanting to reclaim their former businesses.

For instance, the sons of Marcelo Iurcovich, once the clear owner of the then five-star hotel Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires, were in court in 2012 battling to regain control of the building. Previously, an attempt had been made to evict the workers but without success.

The hotel was built in 1978 for the FIFA World Cup and financed with public money provided by the military dictatorship then ruling the country. The loan was never repaid. The ownership of the building will now be decided by the courts.

The hotel may be open but it is just limping along, it is no longer a five-star destination. Once the ownership question is settled, possibly there will be an influx of capital to refurbish the aging place.

All this Google searching made me aware of Robert Owen, an owner of the New Lanark Mills in Scotland in 1799. Thanks to his visionary management policies, Owen inspired the co-operative movement and was an early force in trade unionism and the garden city movement. Today New Lanark is a World Heritage Site.

The co-operative movement still has followers in Scotland. The Co-operative Party, the political arm of the movement, is the fourth largest party in the Scottish parliament. Globally, the United Nations calculates nearly 1 billion people own shares in cooperatives. The top 300 cooperatives around the world — known as the '300 List' — are said to be worth an estimated $1.6 trillion.
According to the U.N., cooperatives — member-driven business enterprises that put people front and centre — offer an alternative economic model.

When I consider the long list of business closures that have rippled through Southwestern Ontario in recent years, I cannot help but wonder if it is not time to give the co-operative movement serious consideration.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pedantic? Yes. Still, some in the media once cared.

The Caduseus should not be used to symbolize medicine.

Not being up on ancient symbols and Greek mythology, I once thought the winged staff with two intertwined serpents was nothing more than a visually balanced, slightly fancier version of a simpler symbol with a single snake wrapped in a similar fashion about a staff. Both symbols are associated with medicine and health care but one is wrong.

The symbol with two snakes on a winged rod is the Caduceus or the magic wand of the Greek god Hermes, who, according to the Toronto Police, under the Romans morphed into Mercury, the God of Commerce. The police, in explaining their logo online, make no mention of any medical connection. (Click the link and scroll to page nine.)

The simpler symbol is the staff of Asclepius, the early Greek God of Medicine. According to an Internet site English-Word Information, legend has it the physician Asclepius cured so many people that Pluto complained to Zeus that Hades was becoming under populated.

Angered at the physician tampering with life and death, Zeus struck the good doctor with a thunderbolt.

After death, Asclepius became a god. The sick and maimed visited his temples to pray and give sacrifice, trusting the physician/god would cure them. If temple records are to be believed, thousands and thousands of sick people throughout the centuries were freed from pain and restored to health. (Maybe Asclepius should be the god of the placebo.)

So how did the Caduceus become the symbol of medicine? Well, according to Dr. Lanny Close, writing for the Johns Hopkins Medicine Magazine:

"The misconception that the Caduceus is the symbol of medicine stems from the adoption of the Caduceus by a U.S. Army Medical Corps officer in 1902 as a symbol for that group. Since the Caduceus is associated with commerce, theft, deception, and death, we, in medicine, are well advised not to use it to represent our profession."

Are folks who worry about this just being pedantic? Maybe. But, a lot of folk in the medical profession get their knickers all in a knot over the use of the Caduseus. The Amercian Medical Association went so far as to drop the winged wand with two serpents from their logo almost nine decades ago.

The Royal Army Medical Corps (Britain), Royal Canadian Medical Corps and just about all medical doctors and clinics, at least, in Europe use the single snake symbol.

And how did I become aware of this controversy? Some years ago one of the American networks announced it was no longer using the intertwined snakes symbol, the Caduseus, as their on-air symbol for medicine. They said those in the know convinced them the Caduseus is tainted. It is associated with theft, deception, and death.

I'm going to leave the last word to Dr. Timothy Rodgers:

"In these days of malpractice suits, HMO’s, avaricious insurance, pharmaceutical companies, and societal values where cosmetic surgery seems to be more important than health care, the cynic might say that the Caduceus is the more representative symbol of modern medicine."

Hmmm. Maybe The London Free Press wasn't so far off after all.

Now, the use by the Toronto Police maybe another matter. I wonder if they know about the theft and deception connections?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Don't baby boomers ever die?

Don't baby boomers ever die? Reporter Dan Brown of The London Free Press warns readers of The London Free Press that by 2061 aging "so-called baby boomers" will  make up "24% to 28%" of Canada's population. Among other things, all these seniors will put a huge strain our health care system.

Actually, I don't think Brown should be too concerned. The youngest baby boomers will be about 95 years old by then and the oldest will be about 114. I don't like foretelling the future, but in this case I feel safe; By 2061 there will not be enough centenarian boomers to stress our health care system.

Brown, without knowing it, ended his curse-of-the-baby-boomers story on an upbeat note: Japan's population is already old folk heavy today. 25 percent of the population is seniors, according to Brown. Why is this a hopeful sign? Well, despite the heavy burden of seniors, Japan spends less per capita on health care than Canada while the average life expectancy is longer.

At this point, Canada has a full 48 years to catch-up with the Japanese.
Comparing International Health Care Systems_PBS NewsHour

Saturday, November 23, 2013


English/French actress Jane Birkin puts a jazz twist to a song written by Englishman Eric Maschwitz who was suffering from his break-up with lover, Anna May Wong, a Chinese/American.

There are concerns being expressed by some members of my family that sending my granddaughter, Fiona, to a French language school may separate her from her culture. The worry is that she may miss out on such important cultural milestones as Shakespeare. Some fear she has been removed from her cultural surroundings, cut loose from her English-culture anchor. They may be right.

Still, I was quite excited on learning Fiona's parents were attempting to enroll the little girl in a French language school. I was proud of my granddaughter when I learned she had been accepted; She had to show a strong aptitude for language and she apparently did. She cleared the big hurdle of a face-to-face interview. Impressive. I was so taken with the possibility of her enriching her life with the addition of a second language, a second culture, I totally forgot time spent on French culture is time not spent on English.

I've thought a lot about this 'problem' and I've decided that today it is a non-issue. Culture today is not what it once was — take my grandfather. He was born in Princeton, Ontario, in 1876. This was a time when it was not uncommon to be born, raised, mature and die all within the same little hamlet.

My grandfather was among those that broke the mold; Well, at least he bent it. He went off to university to become a pharmacist. He took a job in Chicago with the then young Cunningham pharmacy chain, but the draw of his own country, of his small town ambitions, of his Southwestern Ontario culture, drew him to Brantford, Ontario, just a short drive from his hometown.

My grandfather spent most of the remainder of his life in Brantford. He traveled little, not even on vacation. He married and remained married to the same woman until his death in his 90s. He raised four children and two remained close to home. One even became a pharmacist and worked for years for and with granddad.

I compared my grandfather's experience with those of many of the kids with whom I went to school back in the '50s and '60s. My best friend in high school was an Armenian girl born in Cairo. Rose was a rich mix of cultures. She spoke English, Armenian, Egyptian Arabic, French and smattering of Italian. Born in Cairo, Egypt, but raised in Windsor, Ontario, she loved to spend summers in Montreal. The French/Anglo metropolis was simply so cosmopolitan, she said. Today I believe she lives in Los Angeles, California, another cosmopolitan city. Rose has lived a life deeply enmeshed in international culture and benefited from the resulting cultural richness.

Today cultures no longer just collide but they also mesh, they butt up to each other and blend, forced together by the great mixing of people on the move, by movies and other forms of entertainment which span the globe, and by business demands . . . Do I hope Fiona will read Shakespeare and watch a Shakespearean play? Yes, of course.

But I also hope that someday she will watch movies like the little French/English film Daddy Nostalgia. Directed by French film director Bertrand Tavernier and co-written by his English-born ex-wife Colo Tavernier O'Hagan. The film features Dirk Bogarde, born in England but who had his ashes skattered in France, Jane Birkin, another actor with strong British/France connections and the French actress and cabaret singer Odette Laure. Both Bogarde and Birkin were fluent in both English and French and it shows in the movie. What isn't so evident is that Bogarde was gay.

The film was beautifully filmed but not by a man but by a woman: Solange Martin. This is important because Martin, a woman, is not only a cinematographer but also a director as well as a screenwriter. In the culture in which I hope Fiona will live, women will tackle whatever interests them. Being a woman will not be an impediment blocking certain avenues of interest.

Daddy Nostalgia was also released under the title These Foolish Things. Roger Ebert wrote in his review: "That (title) refers to the song that haunts the movie, with some of the most bittersweet lyrics ever written, about how these foolish things remind me of you. Bertrand Tavernier’s whole movie is told in the tone of that song, as a fond, elegiac memory."

That song, These Foolish Things, was written around 1935 by Eric Maschwitz with music by Jack Strachey, both were Englishmen. The lingering tone of loss, of heartache, were said to be inspired by the feelings Maschwitz had for Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. While working in Hollywood, Maschwitz loved Wong but they separated with Maschwitz returning to England. The words to These Foolish Things were a very public expression of his loss. (Adding a little extra to the cultural soup, Maschwitz was the son of a Lithuanian Jew.)

I hope little Fiona grows into big Fiona, culturally rich Fiona, a young woman confident in herself and fully at ease in her world. I do hope she knows a little of Shakespeare, I do, but I also hope she knows a lot more about a lot more.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Bistro dining on a budget

A cottage roll with vegetables done in a slow cooker makes for an inexpensive bistro meal.

Sometime ago a reporter with the local paper moaned about the prospect of eating pet food in retirement. Stories about the high cost of food are popular in the media and how the unemployed and struggling, retired seniors are forced to eat pet food. What silliness.
My wife watches the food ads carefully. About twice a year she picks up some cottage rolls for about $1 to $1.25 a pound. Three pound cottage rolls can be picked up for as little as $3 and what cannot be used immediately can be frozen for later. I confess that I paid a little more for the one in the picture but it still came with a big discount. It was near its best before date.

I placed the three pound cottage roll in a crock pot, surrounded it with chopped onion (1), chopped celery (2 stalks), chopped carrot (4) and chopped potato (4 peeled). I poured in a litre of vegetable broth and added enough water to just cover all. I didn't salt the cottage roll. It didn't need it. I did pepper the meat and float a dozen pepper corns in the liquid. Six hours on high and the bistro quality meal was ready to serve.

All the vegetables plus the broth were bought on sale. I like to stock up on boxed broth, low sodium version, whenever it is on sale. When stocking up on sale priced food stuffs, all must have a good shelf life, but done with care this can help slash your food budget.

We'll get about ten meals from my slow cooker dinner. I'll bet these meals are costing us less than some popular pet foods. Truth be told, if you want to eat pet food in retirement it will cost you. Pet food is not inexpensive. You will do better learning how to cook.

p.s. If you watch the sales at the LCBO, you can pick up a box of Shiraz containing a mix of Canadian grapes and imported grape concentrate, often South American, and for about a dollar you can enjoy a small glass of wine with dinner. We like the offering from Jackson-Triggs.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Where's Santa? Where's an editor.

The Free Press story claimed for adult Londoners this was a parade that "took them back childhood."

Years ago I taught photography to students in the MA journalism program at Western, the university in London, Ontario. I stopped teaching because I burned out. Bluntly, the last classes I taught stunk. Yet, even those classes touched on the obvious failings of the Santa Claus parade picture published online by The London Free Press.

Newspaper sales are down. Responding to falling readership numbers chains like Sun Media, owned by Quebecor, have been slashing jobs. Sadly, along with slashing jobs they have been slashing professionalism. But the loss of professionalism starts at the top. The published picture is a snap shot and the story is filled with errors but the responsibility for this debacle should be dumped at the feet of the newspaper chain owners.

With the photo staff in tatters and the editorial staff equally hard hit, people at newspapers are simply too hard pressed. There was a reason why in the past publications insisted that those taking photographs understand photography and halftone production. There were reasons stories were given to story editors and checked by proof readers.

Jonathan Sher is an excellent investigative reporter. He is an award winner and rightly so. But force Jonathan to take the photos, to write the story and to get the whole package up and onto the net ASAP, along with whatever other assignments he had that day, and errors will not creep in but flood in. It will be an embarrassment. And newspaper people from the past, those with years of experience in the business, could have told Quebecor what was in store.

I took a few moments to attempt removing the yellow cast.
A reader, Maureen Cartmell-Smithers said it all: "The writing of this article is full of very poor grammar. Would have been nice to see some of the floats in the article. Thank you."

An editor would have cleaned up the prose, adding missing prepositions, etc.

A photographer would have supplied a real picture, something that told a stronger story. And a photographer would have not have handed in an image with a garish, yellow colour cast.

The Sun Media and Quebecor owners should be ashamed.

I shot the Hyde Park parade last year. See what a retired Free Press photographer captures with a small point and shoot when he is out recording memories for his family's photo album.

If The Free Press reporter could have shot RAW with a fast lens, he could have told a lot more of the parade story. He could have shown smiling, excited faces, parade floats, candy tossers and candy catchers; He could have shown us images of the folk in the story; And speaking of those in the story, he could have shown us Santa Claus.

There are reasons for our newspaper's shabby coverage but none of the reasons provide an excuse.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

▶ Alvin Lee, the blues and upcoming heart surgery

▶ Alvin Lee(Ten Years After) - The Bluest Blues - Vidéo Dailymotion
To hear Alvin Lee, click the link and be patient. This loaded slowly on my computer.

I'm going into the hospital in mid-December. I must have ablation surgery to put an end to the arrhythmia that has affected my heart for the past few month. I'm getting a little tired of doctors working on the old ticker. It's beginning to wear on my nerves. I'm looking forward to life without the arrhythmia but I am not looking forward to the ablation, the physical destruction of the electrical pathway that carries the flutter signal.

Trying to take my mind off the upcoming surgery I decided to listen to some old rock artists. I started with Lou Reed, worked into Savoy Brown and continued on to Alvin Lee of Ten Years After fame. I learned that Alvin Lee died this spring in Spain of complications from surgery to correct an arrhythmia.

So much for taking my mind off my upcoming surgery. Oh well . . . best just to listen to Alvin Lee and rejoice in his life. The man played a great blues guitar.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What do babies think?

A very young Fiona entertaining herself with a book.

I've been intrigued by the babies that have recently entered my life: Fiona, Eloise and Isla - my three granddaughters. All show signs of doing a lot of thinking long before they are able to share those thoughts with others.

When Fiona was still a little baby, scooting about the house on her little bum, Fiona could communicate, she could make me aware of her desire to go outside. 

One day the little girl dragged my heavy, winter coat to where I was working on my computer. She left the coat at my feet, scooted from the room and returned almost immediately with my boots, then my gloves and finally my camera bag. I bundled her up against the cold and off I went with little child held tightly in my arms. I almost never used a stroller -- too impersonal.

When I saw this Ted Talk video I immediately wanted to share it. It isn't overly long. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

When myths take over

The headline read: "When The Kids Take Over." According to the article in The London Free Press, aging baby boomers will soon lose control of the housing market as their children, the echo boomers or generation Y, become the local real estate market movers and shakers.

This is undoubtedly true. The echo generation is a big one, almost as big as the baby boom. At 9.1 million, it falls just half a million short of equaling the baby boom. Some of those echo "kids" are already 41 years old, so it is no surprise they are buying homes and raising families.

Still, it will be awhile before the old timers are no longer a major market force. According to Stats Canada, "over three quarters of Canadian households own their homes by the age of 65." It is important to remember that the youngest boomers are only 49 today. Many face years of monthly mortgage payments before taking full title to their home.

Despite all the stories about aging empty-nesters moving to retirement communities, the truth is older folk love their family homes. As baby boomers reach 65, these seniors are not going to immediately start contemplating the sale of their fully-paid-for-homes. Mortgage free homes are often inexpensive places to live and so it should come as no surprise that home ownership among seniors doesn't begin declining in any meaningful way until after age 75. There are nine years remaining before the first wave of baby boomers hits that 75 year mark and even then many will hold onto their homes.

I doubt Sean Quigley, executive director of Emerging Leaders, is correct when he says echo boomers are not as likely to buy suburban homes as their parents. Echo boomers will prefer to live in a downtown neighbourhood according to Quigley. I lived in a neighbourhood almost downtown when I was in my twenties and thirties. My home was by Labatt Park, but that didn't stop me from buying a home in Byron when I needed a place suitable for my aging mother and my growing family. A fifteen minute commute was not a deal breaker.

Still, I wish he was right, it would lessen urban sprawl, but I'm sure he is wrong. I can see little to gain by living in the core. Downtown London, like so many downtowns in cities right around the globe, is broken. Millions have been spent in an attempt to fix the core but at this time the money has only succeeded in applying some expensive band-aids to the crippled neighbourhood.

Unlike the downtown, damaged by the passing years and all the accompanying changes, the suburbs were built damaged. If we are going to have a better city, fixing the downtown while ignoring the suburbs is not a complete answer.

I'm lucky. My Byron home is well situated. I can walk to stores and restaurants and parks. If I decide to drive, I can go to the grocery store and be home within five minutes as long as there is no long line-up at the check-out.

Suburbia in London is not the same as suburbia in Toronto or other major cities. By many definitions of suburbia, my Byron home is in the city and not in the suburbs at all.

A young boy from next door shovels my walk.
I agree with The Free Press that echo boomers are buying homes in the core and in Old South, but echo boomers are also buying homes in Byron and the other so-called suburbs. Already, I believe, almost 40 percent of the homes on my court are owned by young couples who are the sons and daughters of baby boomers. These "kids", as the paper calls them, have chosen to raise their families outside the core.

And for me, this is a good thing. The neighbourhood teens shovel the snow from my walk in the winter, rake the leaves and crab apples from my lawn in the fall and cut my grass in the spring and summer. Young people give my neighbourhood a sense of life, of continuity.

And those echo boomer children are making staying in the family home just that much easier for my wife and me.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On buying new clothes and L.L.Bean

The yellow window-pane check shirt is a bit brighter than I'm showing.

I keep my clothes for a long time -- a very long time. For instance, I'm still wearing a cotton shirt purchased from Beaver Canoe more than a decade ago. It simply refuses to die. I'm on the edge of tossing a similar Royal Robbins cotton shirt. Like the Beaver Canoe shirt, it isn't frayed but it has a stain. My wife is soaking it in OxyClean. We'll see how that works. And I have an Eddie Bauer plaid shirt that in my opinion is as good today as when new.

Still, my supply of shirts is getting thin. It is time to go on a buying spree. I wandered the malls, I hit the box stores, I came up almost empty. The style of stuff I buy does not seem to be found in the London stores.

I turned to L.L.Bean -- the American retailer specializing in mail-order. My wife bought a few things from them in the past and that put us on their mailing list. We get catalogs and we get offers. A few weeks back we got a great offer. It promised 20 percent off everything ordered.

I went online. I quickly found six suitable shirts. Nice. I ordered a yellow shirt with a small, window-pane check, three shirts in solid colours -- white, forest green and light blue -- an Oxford cloth shirt with soft blue stripes and a bright red shirt in a cotton twill.

The prices were amazing. Despite some of the shirts being on sale, the catalog discount code was still honoured. The discounts more than paid the duty. And shipping was free . . . as was the guilt.

I prefer buying locally. I used to buy from a small store downtown called Muskox. It's gone. Eatons? Also gone. Eddie Bauer is an American chain but there were two stores in London: One downtown and another in the large mall in the north end of the city. Both stores are now gone.

It is a new world. As a boy I bought from a clothing store just a couple of blocks from my home. A locally owned store named Robert Holmes, as I recall. It carried beautiful stuff with most items made in Canada -- like shirts from Forsyth. The John Forsyth Shirt Company was born in Waterloo, Ontario, in 1903. The company was sold in the '70s and after some more changes of ownership it closed for good earlier this year.

The same story is attached to almost every brand of shirt, sweater or pants that I bought as a boy. If the brand is available at all, the clothing is now made in Bangladesh, China, Pakistan or elsewhere, as long as elsewhere is not in Canada.

I bought my newest shirts from a store in Maine. I got some for less than $30. Some are wrinkle resistant. They are all 100 percent cotton. I feel bad about leaving Canada to buy my clothes but L.L.Bean seems to be a good company. If I can't buy from Robert Holmes, I'll make do buying from L.L.Bean.

One caveat: If you do decide to order from L.L.Bean, don't order a size larger in order to take shrinkage into account. Nothing my wife and I have ordered from L.L.Bean has ever shrunk. The material is good quality and the descriptions in the catalog are dead-on.

I placed my order Sunday night and the shirts were delivered to my London, Ontario, home late Wednesday afternoon. I immediately tried them on. All fit perfectly as expected. I guess those Peruvians make good shirts. That's right, some L.L.Bean shirts are made in Peru --- in South America -- that's a long way from Waterloo, Ontario.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Heritage districts: Often illusions

This Wednesday evening the London public has been invited to a meeting at the Convention Centre: Our Move Forward - Downtown Master Plan Community Consultation. I have mixed feelings about the approach being taken. With ReThink London still on the go, may I be so bold as to suggest that it is time for Londoners to rethink our historical districts and the preservation that such districts demand.

For an interesting take on the North American longing for lost heritage, read Ada Louise Huxtable's The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion. When I read the posted piece, the first chapter of Huxtable's book, the talk of Colonial Williamsburg brought to mind Lower Town in Old Quebec City. I am old enough to recall when many of the present "heritage" structures were not there. Many of these buildings were not restored but recreated. Much of the area's 18th century ambiance so loved by tourists is faux.

At this point I had planned on blogging about the importance of thinking about cities in their entirety, of the advantage gained by respecting all city neighbourhoods and not just those designated heritage districts. I will get to that blog in time. But I have been sidetracked by a growing interest in the late Ada Louise Huxtable. The woman was amazing and her writing well worth our time.

If you love cities and architecture, click the link: Rereading Ada Louise Huxtable: 5 Essential Pieces.

Another heritage building was lost in downtown London. The usual folk are mourning the loss. I wish the city planners and the heritage lovers would get with the game -- and the game is not simply saving all the remaining old buildings

The following is a scene from Old Quebec. The top view is a photo from early in the last century. Note the tall hotel on the left. It was relatively new at the time. Older images do not show the large hotel but they do show some of the structure, the bottom two floors, before they were incorporated into the expanded structure.

The lower photo is from Google StreetViews. Note how the upper floors of the old hotel were removed and the streetscape "returned", I use the word loosely, to its proper heritage appearance.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Photos and copyright

Recently Facebook pulled a dating ad featuring the picture of a young Canadian girl who had killed herself after suffering more than a year of online bullying. The online publication of her picture by an online dating site was in all likelihood illegal. Such a use of this young woman's image is prohibited by both Canadian and American copyright laws.

I spent my life working as a staff photographer for a daily newspaper. I was not a lawyer. My understanding of copyright law as it applies to photographs was gained not at work but at art school. The newspapers were run by "word people" whose interests leaned more toward the scalping of images than protecting them. The art school was run by artists, folk whose creative world was financed by the arts. The image-scalping editors at newspapers were the artists' sworn enemies.

At art school in Detroit I was taught all works of art come into this world protected by a copyright angel. An artist does not have to do another thing. Create it and it is yours. Period. Seems simple but as I said I am not a lawyer. Once lawyers enter the picture, the picture grows murky.

First, let me say that I went to art school in the States but I'm Canadian. Copyright law in the U.S. may not be the same as in Canada. Let me say again, "I am not a lawyer." Still, I am sure there's a lot of overlap not only between Canadian and American law but around the world. I refer you to the Universal Copyright Convention to which both Canada and the United States are signatories.

For more info on U.S. law, I refer you to The United States Copyright Office. If you click the link you will learn, among other things, American law automatically protects a work from the moment of its creation. Of course, legal protection can be incredibly weak protection. Think of a bike. It is illegal to steal a bike but that does not stop the theft of hundreds of thousands of bikes annually across North America.

Stealing an image posted on the Web is far easier than stealing a bike. Often a copy of a picture can be simply "drag and dropped" from the Net onto an image pirate's desktop. The ease of this theft frightens a lot of people. They worry, and with some reason, that posted images of themselves and their family can be easily stolen and re-posted on the Web for a myriad of illegal purposes.

An image reused without authorization. © Ken Wightman
I checked more than a dozen of my posted images. Two are being used without my authorization: one a shot of locked out workers at Electromotive Diesel here in London, Ontario, and the other a shot of an abandoned factory in Detroit. I found no posted pictures of family members being reused.

I'm a little disappointed. In fact, I'm downright insulted. Heck, even the image-scrapping robots didn't think my images worth stealing.

What should we learn from the Facebook fiasco? Images can be stolen and those stolen images can get the thief in trouble. The dating service has been banned from Facebook.

What I found interesting in researching this topic is that software developers have created image-scrapping programs to prowl the Net looking for and copying images. While work on the Internet is publicly accessible, it cannot legally be treated as if it were in the public domain. It isn't. These bots are breaking the law.

Also, copyright applies whether or not there is a copyright notice. Posting a © or placing a copyright notice on your work may make you feel better, and may even deter some from stealing your work, but it does not guarantee your work will not be illegally copied and reused.

I may start putting the 'C' in a circle, along with my name, under my posted pictures. (To type the copyright symbol hold down the Alt key while typing 0169 on the numeric keypad.)
For more info, check out Top Ten Common Copyright Myths. This was posted by the UK Copyright Service but thanks to the universal nature of copyright law, it is still worth a look. The U.S. Library of Congress also hosts a good site: Taking the Mystery Out of Copyright. And if you are Canadian and would like to read an upsetting take on what companies in the image-providing business are doing to enforce their copyright, then read Excess Copyright: Watching Getty Images Watching Canadians.