Thursday, December 10, 2015

Racist? Maybe. But not everyone would agree.

United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently stated, "Most of the black scientists in this country do not come from the most advanced schools." He added that many such African-American scientists actually benefited from being given the opportunity to take a "slower track."

I caught this story on CNN. The newscaster was stunned by the remark by the supreme court justice. A discussion of the remark immediately followed the report. No time was taken to consider whether there was any substance, any support, for Scalia's stance.

Was I shocked by Scalia's remarks? A little. But, I had no immediate comment and I believe the on-air folk at CNN would do well to do a little research before launching an attack in which they quickly labeled the justice "racist."

If you are curious to know what others have said on this matter, folks whose views very well may have influenced the justice, follow the links:

  • The Painful Truth About Affirmative Action: Why racial preferences in college admissions hurt minority students -- and shroud the education system in dishonesty. -- from the Atlantic.
  • Does Affirmative Action Do What It Should: Scholars have been looking more closely at how affirmative action works in practice . . . some of these scholars have come to believe that affirmative action doesn’t always help the students it’s supposed to . . . some minority students . . . might actually be better served by attending a less elite institution . . . -- New York Times
  • And just this year the Harvard Political Review ran an article Matters of Mismatch: The Debate Over Affirmative Action's Effectiveness. The article examined the controversial theory of University of California School of Law professor Richard Sander who wrote a provocative 117-page article back in 2004 and published in the Stanford Law Review, "A Systemic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools."

Is Antonin Scalia right? I don't know -- but I am certain the CNN folk are too-quick-to-voice-an-opinion. If I had the time, it would be interesting to discover just what exactly CNN has had to say on this issue in the past. When the Atlantic and the New York Times are two of the possible sources of Scalia's thoughts, it is hard not to imagine that CNN has reported Scalia's position in a more positive manner at other times.

Monday, November 30, 2015

First, horseless carriages; soon, paperless newspapers

Recently a fellow told me newspapers are dead. He was quite adamant. No one reads newspapers anymore, he said. He was, of course, overstating his case but there is a core of truth here. The big offset presses of the world will not be pumping out millions of newspapers indefinitely. At some point the rollers will stop rolling, the ink pots will go dry and fleets of trucks will be parked and sold.

But newspapers are more than just newsprint stained with ink, newspapers are also bricks and mortar, newspapers are businesses. Think of The London Free Press. But the soul of the local paper is not found in the large Goss offset press. No, the soul of the paper is found in the staff -- the journalists who gather the news, the editors who massage the information and the computer experts who make everything from the digital collection to the online delivery possible.

Reportedly, most newspapers today get no more than 15 percent of total revenues from online sources. That said, the Los Angeles Times claimed in 2008 that online income had grown to the point that it was enough to cover the cost of the paper's entire news staff, both print and digital.

Jeff Jarvis wrote in the guardian:

So in the LA Times revelation, I see hope: the possibility that online revenue could support digital journalism for a city. The enterprise will be smaller, but it could well be more profitable than its print forebears today and - here's the real news - it would grow from there. Imagine that: news as a growth industry again.

I'm a news junkie. I admit it. I still get the daily paper delivered to my door. But, I also get daily news feeds from many online sources. I first began experimenting with the paperless newspaper more than twenty years ago. Using my Apple Mac hooked up to an unbelievably slow modem, I used GENIE, General Electric Network for Information Exchange, to download text data. GENIE wasn't free but it wasn't outrageously expensive either: about $9 a month and $3 an hour after the first four hours.

About a year after I joined GENIE, I became a Crayon.net subscriber. Crayon stands for Create Your Own Newspaper. I say stands for and not stood for because Crayon is still in existence today. GENIE, on the other hand, is long gone.

As a boy, my grandfather introduced me to two magazines he felt were worth a read: the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Magazine. The Atlantic Monthly was born in 1857 and is still going today in both print and online editions. The online edition is known simply as The Atlantic and costs about half as much online as at the store. If, like many readers, you choke at the idea of paying for articles online, a lot of the content is available free online.

Harper's Magazine was first printed in 1867. It has successfully skirted some rough financial shoals and is still on sale in stores today. Like The Atlantic, it is also found online. I don't believe there is a charge for the online edition. I believe both the magazine and the Harper's Magazine Foundation are supported by purchases made from their online store.

What I find most interesting here is that Atlantic Media, the folk behind The Atlantic Monthly, a publication with a history going back more than a century and a half, is experimenting with a free, business-oriented, online paperless newspaper called Quartz. I get an e-mail every day announcing what is new.

And there are more paperless newspapers testing marketplace acceptance. Think Politico and Vox.com.

Traditional newspapers are in trouble but often their problems are amplified by the decisions of their new owners. Think of The London Free Press. To fill the daily news hole, the small, southwestern Ontario daily must run stories from Windsor and other cities located hundreds of kilometers away. Why "must" they do this? Staff cutbacks.  Everyone agrees that local stories sell papers but chain-owned newspapers can no longer afford to cover all the local stories they once would have covered.

And why the severe slashing of news staff and others? To free up money to service Post Media's massive debt ($650 million) which, in large part, is owed to a number of U.S. and Canadian hedge funds specializing in distressed assets. Gaining control of the majority of English-language daily papers in Canada was not cheap and it may not have been too bright either.

The Fisher brothers, builders of horse-drawn carriages, switched to building horseless carriages, car bodies, and stayed in business. Whether Post Media will be able to make the successful transition to a paperless newspaper is an open question. But organizations more focused on providing news rather than servicing debt may well keep journalists and their support staff, the soul of the daily paper, busy pumping out news for interested readers as has been done for generations.

And despite the fact that the baby boomer generation is aging and departing (yes, dying), the generations following are, contrary to popular opinion, still interested in news.

There is a growing body of evidence showing that the conventional wisdom about Millennials’ consumption of news is wrong. Millennials engage news sources differently than past generations to be sure, but the label “newsless” is largely inaccurate.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Music of Boomer Generation not simply pop-rock

I find it odd that baby boomers neither wrote nor performed the early music so linked to their generation. If the music of a generation is the music created by that generation then boomers should not take any bows for early rock and roll.

Take Johnny B. Goode: this is the number one top '50s hit on a list compiled by Boomers LifeJohnny B. Goode was written and performed by Chuck Berry. Berry was not a boomer. He was born in 1926. He was in his thirties when Johnny B. Goode was topped the charts.

Number two on the list is the Elvis Presley hit Jailhouse Rock. Written for the movie of the same name by the famous song writing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, both writers were born in 1933. The two were responsible for many of the early rock and roll hits. And Elvis, of course, was not a baby boomer either.

The third song, Rock Around the Clock, was written by Max Freedman and James Myers who were born in 1893 and 1919 respectively. That's right, Max Freedman was 61 when Rock Around the Clock was released. As for Bill Haley himself, the band leader was born in 1925.

My point is that life flows and as it flows it changes. What's happening today is a result of what happened yesterday. But yesterday does not determine today. If it did we could tell the future and we can't. The past influences the present but it doesn't determine it.

And so I say humbug to much of the baby boomer talk. I don't doubt there was a post Second World War baby boom. There was and it was big but there is no perfectly homogeneous, generational wave of Baby Boomers rippling through our society. We are as diverse a group as should be expected being that we span a period of some 19 years -- 1946 to 1965 in Canada.

Early rock and roll is music written and sometimes even performed by the parents of the boomers generation. I do not want to be defined by music gifted to my generation by my parents', and even my grandparents' generation.

One expert on this topic claims classic rock radio supplies an uninterrupted audio lifeline for aging boomers -- a soundtrack-of-one's-life, so to speak. The expert wrote he has fond memories linked to lot's of old rock songs. But his links are suspect.

A check of the release dates of some of the songs uncovered mismatches between the writer's memories and the dates of the songs' popularity. The writer's personal soundtrack is damaged, stretched and distorted like tape in an aging eight track. I am not surprised. At 68 years, I'm finding that linking songs to events has gotten rather iffy and is becoming more and more iffy with each passing year.

Still, I do have some early, very early, memories linked to songs. You may be surprised to learn that these songs are not early rock and roll. Think of How Much Is That Doggy in the Window: I was six when that was a hit for Patti Page. I used to listen to that song with a little girl I thought was kinda cute. We would sit and listen to her Patti Page record together.

I have more memories attached to Perry Como's crooning than I have to early rock and roll and no wonder. There was no rock and roll to speak of when I was a very young boy in the early '50s. I grew up with Perry Como. First on radio and then on television. I recall sitting in front of our large, white Coronet television watching The Perry Como Show with my family.

And my memories of our Coronet television set are as important as my memories of Perry Como. Coronet sets were made right in my hometown, Windsor, Ontario. At one point, one out of every three sets in the Windsor area carried the Coronet name. When a tube failed my mother would pick up a new one at the nearby drugstore. If a new tube didn't fix the problem, our neighbour, who owned a television sales and repair business, would stop by on his way home and put life back into the small, black and white screen.

But, I digress. I told my friends that I didn't believe top-40 radio was the whole story when it came to the baby boomer music story. I have lots of memories linked to songs by artists who got little or no pop-music airtime. My friends didn't and so they disagreed. They seemed to think that record sales numbers told the whole music-of-the-baby-boom story.

I don't think so. Think: Pat Boone. Why Pat Boone? Well, only Elvis Presley and Fats Domino surpassed Pat Boone in record sales in the early days of rock and roll. I pray no one believes the early covers released by Pat Boone represent the music of the boomer generation. That music doesn't represent me.

That said, even I admit to memories attached to some of Pat Boone's soft-pop period songs. Love Letters in the Sand recalls slow dances at weekly sock hops in evening-dark school gyms. But I have more memories attached to other songs, often by lesser known artists.

So, is early rock and roll really the music of the Boomer Generation? The simple answer: No. The music of the Boomer Generation is a rich, all-encompassing mix, composed of all the music from our still unfolding lives. Pop music is only a small part of the mix. It may be the most obvious musical thread but the other threads, though smaller, may be brighter, more colourful and more demanding of attention. In many cases, the music released by lesser known artists still reverberates strongly if only one listens.

I'd place a song with the unlikely title Fresh Garbage among the music of my generation, the boomer generation. And I am sure I am not alone in having wonderful memories linked to that early song by Spirit, a California progressive rock group.

The late '60s song received a fare amount of air time on FM underground radio or alternative rock radio. Fresh Garbage may not have sold in the numbers needed to propel it into the top 40, I don't believe it was ever released as a single, but Spirit album numbers made Fresh Garbage a hit.

When I think of Spirit , I think of 1970 and I think of Berkeley, California. I think of roaring my Morgan roadster down narrow, twisting, mountain roads above that famous college town and I think of Rebekah Wilcher and her incredible family. Her mother, Ida, an artist and her father, Denny, an early environmentalist. Both were strong, left-wing activists. Ida had a picture of herself protesting the war in Vietnam with Joan Baez. Google Denny Wilcher and be amazed. He is one of my heroes.

There is no easy, one-size-fits-all, music road taken by an entire generation. There may be a path most often taken but there are a lot of other well-trodden alternatives. If you insist on having one, all-encompassing answer to the question asking what is the music of the boomer generation, go for it. But please make some room in your answer for Spirit, Captain Beefheart, Karen Dalton, Teegarden and Van Winkle, Savoy Brown, Paul Butterfield, Vanilla Fudge, Cat Mother . . .

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

TODs are not new

Kidlets production of Squirm
Monday I took my granddaughter to Covent Garden Market where the Original Kids Theatre Company is located. Fiona was taking part in the Kidlets production of Squirm. And the kids, by the way, were simply great. Loved every minute of the performance.

What does my granddaughter's appearance in Squirm have to do with urban transit? More than you might think. To get Fiona downtown on time I picked her up at her school in northwest London and scooted her to the theatre using Riverside Drive. Using my car, I had her downtown in less than fifteen minutes.

What I find interesting in this story is that at no point did anyone suggest taking the bus. And no one even thought this strange. But it is.

When I was a boy in the '50s everyone I knew lived close to a bus route. All the schools were on bus routes. Because very few families had two cars and some families did not have a car at all, taking a child from school to a downtown event usually involved a bus trip. (When I was born in the late '40s there was only one car for every five people living in Ontario.)

I admit that even in the '50s taking a bus took a bit longer than taking a car, if a car was available, but the difference was a matter of minutes and not a choice between being on time or being late.

Since my boyhood a lot has happened in urban growth and most of it has been centred around our use of the car. Many believe the car-oriented approach to urban planning has to change and the City of London gives lip service to this argument but, for the most part, only lip service.

A New Urbanism development slated for the southeast corner of the Colonel Talbot and Southdale Road never materialized. London politicians, and worse London urban planners, like to talk the talk but time after time they fail to deliver.

Exhibit 6 seems impossible considering today's activity.
Take all the talk about TOD (Transit Oriented Development). You'd think that a TOD was something new; it isn't.

TOD is prominently featured in Smart Moves, the 2030 Transportation Master Plan. Smart Moves claims that London urban planners have determined the northeast corner of the intersection of Oxford Street West and Wonderland Road North will be the focus of a major mixed-use, transit-oriented, development. To underline the depth of their support for this they have included some art in the Smart Moves presentation. 

The off-the-shelf graphics are inadequate. Anyone familiar with TODs would realize this does not represent a world-class TOD despite claims by the city planners to the contrary.

Two story commercial with no residential being built on site.
Consider the fact that a development is going up on that very corner today and it is not at all as envisioned. Some TODs in the States and elsewhere are absolutely amazing and this didn't just happen. They were planned, nurtured, coaxed and guided to completion.

In some ways where I lived in the '50s could be thought of as an early form of TOD. Transit, commercial, residential and even industrial were all mixed. The major road through my neighbourhood was what was then known as a King's Highway. That road was four lanes wide, plus on-the-street parking and a centre boulevard. It easily supported my fully mixed-use neighbourhood. Buses moved relatively unimpeded along that road.

And back then mixed use really did mean mixed. There were lovely apartments above many of the commercial businesses lining the King's Highway. I had school friends who lived above some of those stores. This was a common feature of business districts built in the early part of the last century. My aunt in Brantford lived above a store and many friends in art school in Detroit walked to school from their apartments above nearby stores.

And there was also a lot of industrial included in the mix. It was not uncommon for people living in my neighbourhood to walk to work, to walk to stores and even to walk to church. If your doctor was in the Medical Arts building, you probably took the bus to see your doctor. The main library was downtown, the locally owned department store, Bartlet, McDonald and Gow, was also downtown, and, of course, the biggest and best movie theatres were all in the city core. Taking the bus was an integral part of living in the city.
Apartments north of the intersection are a wee bit boring.
Come to think of it, the present development at the Oxford and Wonderland corner could be thought of as a poor attempt at a TOD. Without these two major thoroughfares I doubt the forest of high-rise apartments would have sprung just north in this intersection.

But the apartments sit bunched together separated from the commercial. In many parts of the world, small stores would fill the first floor of many of these apartments but not in London.

This intersection earns no praise for imaginative planning. I doubt it will be an absolute visual delight in the future no matter how good the transit system.

To learn more about TODs:

A key point of the PowerPoint presentation above is that the TOD value come more from the actual mixed use neighbourhood created and not simply from the transit itself. Think: Quality. Look at the pictures posted from the London intersection. Do you immediately think "quality"?

Simply adding rapid transit, bus or light rail, is not enough to instantly create a successful TOD.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Canadian health care may not be as poor as the CBC would have you believe

This morning Heather Hiscox used a story about a B.C. man who has been unable to find a surgeon to operate on his pineal gland as her program hook to hold listeners and keep them from slipping away during the commercial break.

It was a good hook but proved to be a poor story. Heather Hiscox is a bright lady. I knew her at Western many years ago. She is a trained journalist. She has a Masters degree from the London, Ontario, university. Why can't she read this bumph before taking it to air and spike it rather than reading it.

Is Hiscox really nothing more than a talking head, a television personality? Has she forsaken her journalist roots? Here is a link to the story, headlined on the Web as B.C. man sells everything to pay for brain surgery in U.S. after being denied in Canada - Canadian system maintains surgery unnecessary for certain patients.

The U.S. study to which the CBC story links begins by stating "Surgical indications for patients with pineal cysts are controversial." A quick search of the Web uncovers an American doctor, Derek A. Bruce of the Children's National Medical Center, who posted the following on the Web:
I have never in my career, 43 years, found it necessary to operate on a pineal cyst. . . . The incidence of asymptomatic pineal cysts at autopsy is 10%. . . . Do not operate on this lesion until you are completely convinced that it is causing progressive hydrocephalus with symptoms.
Does the fellow in the CBC story need surgery on his pineal gland -- a gland buried deep in the brain. Maybe. It is a possibility. But another possibility is that the Canadian surgeon who said "it's not ethical to cut into your head for no reason" may be voicing a solid concern -- a concern shared by many American doctors as well as Canadian ones. Maybe this surgery IS unnecessary for certain patients.

I understand that American doctors face more threat of being sued for malpractice than Canadian ones. The fact, reported by the Los Angeles Times, that the doctor slated to do the surgery on the Canadian man "has been sued for malpractice about 17 times in his career" may mean nothing. And the fact that a judge said the U.S. doctor was "more interested in marketing than he was in medicine" may also mean nothing.

Still, the judge did find that the doctor "committed fraud when he performed an inappropriate surgery." Read the L.A. Times story, L.A. surgeon ordered to pay Maryland couple $800,600 in malpractice case, and make your own decision.

There is a story here. There may be a number of stories here. And one of the stories may find that a multitude of Canadians have undergone brain surgery at great expense south of the border for questionable reasons.

The other story may be that the resistance to doing pineal gland surgery is misplaced and it is time for more neurosurgeons to offer this option to their patients. Whatever, the story is not the one emotionally presented by the CBC reporter

Friday, September 11, 2015

Mandatory flu shots for healthcare workers: Good or bad idea?

Are mandatory flu shots for nurses and other health-care workers a good or bad idea? The answer depends on the newspaper article and the reporter one consults. If you read The London Free Press you can be forgiven for believing mandatory vaccination is a critical weapon in the fight against the deadly flu virus. But do a Google search and you may find the answer is not so clear cut.

For instance, a report in the Cochrane Library states there is no evidence that vaccinating health-care workers prevents flu or its complications ( such as death due to lower respiratory tract infection) in individuals aged 60 or over. There is no evidence of a pressing need to institute compulsory vaccination of health-care workers caring for those 60 and over.

The Globe and Mail reports Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto, thinks the growing trend toward mandating flu shots to health-care workers is a bad idea.

According to the Globe article:

It turns out that the evidence in favour of mandatory vaccination policies is far from conclusive.

Just for the record, I personally like the flu shot. I get mine annually and as early as possible. I have heart and lung problems. I don't feel like sitting on the fence waiting for the definitive answer. If the shot doesn't help me, I am not worried that it may hurt me. In all the years that I have had the shot, I have never had a bad reaction and, it may be coincidence, but I have not had a serious bout of flu either.

This post is not an attack on the flu shot. I simply believe newspapers should strive to be more balanced.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Seniors are not embracing downtown living en masse

How truthiness is spread by the media. Image edited in Photoshop.

There is a myth, almost an urban legend, that aging baby boomers in high rise apartment filling numbers are forsaking their suburban homes to relocate in city centres. My local paper tells me the move to downtown is "typical of what's happening in other cities." But is it typical?

Joel Kotkin wrote in Forbes / Business a couple of years ago:

Perhaps no urban legend has played as long and loudly as the notion that “empty nesters” are abandoning their dull lives in the suburbs for the excitement of inner city living.

But there’s a problem here: a look at Census data shows . . . that rather than flocking into cities, there were roughly a million fewer boomers in 2010 within a five-mile radius of the centers of the nation’s (U.S.) 51 largest metro areas compared to a decade earlier.

If boomers change residences, they tend to move further from the core, and particularly to less dense places outside metropolitan areas.

It must be admitted that Joel Kotkin is not a promoter of downtown living at the expense of the suburbs. Kotkin has an agenda but, with all that out in the open, one must acknowledge that Kotkin may be right. Now, Kotkin is American but the figures in Canada tell a similar story. Using Stats Canada numbers only made available to researchers, a Concordia University study found "seniors prefer the suburbs."

Lookout Crt. view the equal of those from many apartments.
Capital preservation is a big goal of many retirees, if not most. It is not a fear of death that occupies the minds of many seniors but a fear of living -- a fear of living so long that they out live their wealth.

My home in Byron has three bedrooms, three full bathrooms, and a lovely view of the city from the side of the glacial moraine on which it is built. My property taxes, heating and cooling plus water and electricity costs amount to about $8610 a year ($717.50 per month). This is small change in comparison to the $25,200 a two bedroom, two bath apartment in a new luxury downtown London high rise might run.

This was a bad year for us financially. Our furnace failed last Christmas and we had to cough up some $8700 come March. We replaced both the furnace and the central air. This summer we had to have some extensive remedial brick work done. This cost about $1650. Still, even an expensive year in our home only set us back $18,960. We saved $6340 over living in a beautiful new apartment in the core.

From my Byron home I can walk to a couple of grocery stores, to three drug stores, an LCBO and more but I admit I often drive. I burn 17-cents of diesel fuel when I drive to the nearby No Frills and back. Am I an aberration? Not according to Stats Canada which reported:

Seniors do not use public transit more often as their main form of transportation as they get older. Nor does occasional use increase with age. Rather, the proportion who had used public transit at least once in the previous month declined with increasing age . . . 

I opened with one urban legend (seniors are moving downtown en masse) and I'm closing with another (many seniors choose to use public transit over the car.) Sadly, urban legends which feel true are all too often spread by an unquestioning media. Stephen Colbert had a word for this: "Truthiness."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The United States is not healthcare nirvana.

A recent newspaper story introduced a young girl with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome to tens of thousands of readers across Ontario and possibly Canada. The story originated at The London Free Press and was carried by many other papers owned by the same chain. The young teen has found it impossible to get treatment in Ontario and the province is balking at paying the out-of-province treatment costs — costs that can easily surpass the 100 thousand dollar mark.

If you didn't see the story, you must be wondering "What exactly is Ehlers-Danlos syndrome?" Answer: It is a group of inherited disorders affecting connective tissues — mainly skin, joints and blood vessel walls. According to the paper, the disorder "affects one in 5,000, only some of whom suffer the worst symptoms." The paper goes on to claim that this translates into about 100 Ontarians with Ehlers-Danlos with 20 of those having symptoms so severe their lives are consumed seeking help from doctors who don’t know what to do.

A little bit of quick, ballpark math says that a province with population of some 13 million must contain about 2600 people touched by the genetic disorder. It is interesting the reporter only discovered 100 known Ehlers-Danlos patients in Ontario. A little googling reveals why: The condition is under diagnosed. Doctors, both in Canada and the States, lack familiarity with it and there is no consensus regarding diagnostic criteria — this revelation is from the American Journal of Nursing.

But what really troubled me was the claim "there is speedy treatment south of the border." Not true. The wait time to see a specialist is often months and if the doctor does not accept insurance, or the patient is uninsured, the cost of treatment in the States may be prohibitive. One American with the disorder wrote, "I do not have insurance, nor can I get it privately. Testing and surgery will have to wait."

Read a comment taken from the newspaper's own Internet site:

"I'm in the US and recently was diagnosed with EDS after being told for 30+ years, on and off, it was all in my head too. I'm so sorry that you have to endure the ignorance of the medical community and the additional pain that comes with all that. I have been waiting for a list of experts from my insurance company in the US for 2 months now ever since my diagnosis. From what I am told, all the"true experts" in EDS are on the East Coast. I live on the West Coast 3000 miles away...like another country away and my insurance may not cover the referrals. This syndrome is probably not as 'rare' as it has been made out to be, just rarely diagnosed. It's time that doctors become aware and learn how to treat it. Keep fighting and keep having faith."

The treatment for Ehlers-Danlos is expensive. The newspaper got this fact right. And the costs are never ending. This can be a painful, genetic disorder keeping sufferers awake at night while giving medical insurance actuaries nightmares. To further complicate the financial picture, the Stateside specialist the young Canadian is seeing is an out-of-network provider.

About Health has this to say about out-of-network specialists: An out-of-network provider is one which has not contracted with an insurance company for reimbursement at a negotiated rate. Some health plans, like HMOs, do not reimburse out-of-network providers at all, which means patients are responsible for the full amount charged by the doctor. Other health plans offer coverage for out-of-network providers, but the patient responsibility is higher than it would for an in-network provider.

Read the Barbara Calder story in The Wall Street Journal: How U.S. Health System Can Fail Even the Insured. Calder has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome but despite having health insurance she spent a year battling numerous roadblocks just to see a specialist who could diagnose her condition.

According to The Wall Street Journal:

Mrs. Calder's difficulties mirror those of millions of insured Americans who get lost in the U.S. health-care system's giant maze. For many, the journey is frustrated by coverage limits, denied claims and impersonal service.

When Barbara Calder finally succeeded at getting an appointment with a specialist, she learned the doctor had an eight week waiting list. Unfortunately, her husband had lost his job and their insurance was coming to an end. The couple could not afford the $1,267 a month in premiums.

Ontario has to do better. Our health care system needs improvement. In this, the newspaper position is dead-on. But health care heaven is not to be found just an hour or two down the highway.

Just as Canadians seem to be going to the States for treatment, Barbara Calder has been looking outside her home turf for medical help. According to the journal, Barbara Calder has been lobbying her husband and her children to move to Belgium, where she once lived, arguing that they could get good care there cheaply through the country's universal health-care system. One of the leading researchers of EDS is a Belgian geneticist working at the University of Ghent.

Calder's bright hopes for finding help in Belgium might come as a surprise to EDS patients living in the small, European country:

Every day is a kind of fight against the pain, the fatigue . . . but also against the institutions when you try to obtain support to cope with the disease".Florence Simonis, president of the Belgian GESED (Groupe d'Entraide des Syndrômes d'Ehlers-Danlosa support group for Ehlers-Danlos patients). She suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) herself.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A must read for those concerned with the state of journalism

The Sad Story of Canadian Geographic

Former employees say the nature magazine became a paid mouthpiece for oil companies and others.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Pizza that adhers to Weight Watchers guidelines

This thick layer of artichokes, sweet peppers, mushrooms and pepperoni is sitting a a pizza.

Dr.Oetker pizzas often go on sale. One can pick up the doctor's four cheese pizza for just under three bucks. My wife and I like to stock-up whenever we get a chance. We use these pizzas for the base on which to build our own Weight Watcher friendly pizzas every Tuesday night: our Pizza night.

One half a pizza, two slices, of our enhanced Dr. Oetker pizza is 14 points. That's a lot of points but not crazy high. We watch our points during the day, taking care to leave some head room, or in this case stomach room, for the pizza.

I add lots of mushrooms - no points, sweet peppers - again, no points, artichokes - no points, pepperoni - one point and hot pickled peppers - no points. Our pizza is filling, healthy (low in cholesterol and saturated fat) and delicious. (I precook the mushrooms, sweet peppers and pepperoni. This cuts down on the fat and removes some of the excess water from the vegetables. The hot peppers and artichokes go straight onto the pizza.)

Can we really afford to have this pizza once a week. I can't afford not to. I weighed about 215 pounds when I started eating Weight Watchers friendly meals with my wife. Today, I weight just under 170 pounds. My waist has dropped from 41-inches to about 37-inches. I may have to buy a new belt. I've tightened my present belt to the point that I'm running out of holes. I don't want to lose too much more. Please, pass the pizza.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tasty can be healthy

Not a fine photo but it was a fine dinner. Maybe I'll get a better shot next time.

I don't recall how I discovered Elena Paravantes' blog Olive Tomato but as someone who regularly enjoys Mediterranean cooking I have found her blog inspirational. A recent post encouraged readers to quickly fry sliced zucchini and serve it warm with sprinkles of parsley and feta cheese. The picture that Paravantes posted made her zucchini look quite appealing. Inspired, I decided to use a both yellow and green zucchini as a side dish.

My wife and I are trying to adhere to the diet advised by my heart and stroke doctor while also trying to adhere to a Weight Watchers-friendly diet. This dinner met both requirements: low in fat, low in cholesterol as there's neither meat nor eggs but lots of fresh vegetables. This dinner delivered a Weight Watchers low point total.

The star of this dinner was potato gnocchi. At a little over 100gms per portion, the gnocchi contained only four points. It was boiled until it rose to the top of the bubbling water. After a minute it was removed using a slotted spoon.

Meanwhile the small tomatoes were fried in a little olive oil seasoned with finely diced garlic . The zucchini was fried in the same pan at the same time. Two minutes on each side in a very hot fry pan was enough for the zucchini. The tomatoes were removed when the skins began to split. Both vegetables were placed on waiting dinner dishes.

The chopped asparagus was tossed into the hot fry pan with a little more finely diced garlic. After a minute the gnocchi was added to the pan with the asparagus. At this point about 90 gms of Alfredo sauce diluted with an ounce of the gnocchi water was added. The sauce immediately began bubbling, thickened, and coated everything in the pan. A couple of tablespoons of chopped dill were stirred in and the mixture spooned onto the dishes with the zucchini.

While I cooked the gnocchi and asparagus my wife sprinkled parsley and feta cheese on the hot zucchini and tomato. Next, she sprinkled a little grated Parmesan onto the still hot food. With a small glass of wine, this dinner came in at only 15 points. It may have been even less. The only cholesterol was in the small amount of cheese and the light cream used in the sauce.

I have been eating like this for a little more than a year. I had my arteries checked a couple of months ago and the plaque has diminished. Of course, I am also taking some powerful drugs and so it is impossible to say to what extent the Mediterranean diet has been responsible for the improvement.

There is one improvement that I can credit to my new eating habits: My weight. I've lost some 45 pounds.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Originally I posted this image on Facebook and Google+ but now I'm sharing it here as well.

There has been about twice the normal amount of rain this June. It has forced me to stay indoors with my youngest granddaughter. Last Friday I had had enough. I decided to take Isla, 2, outside to show her some temporary treasures created by the stormy weather.

Treasures is the term my grandchildren use for beautiful, found objects. In this case, the treasures were the drops of water beaded up on the plants and flowers surrounding our home. Although we could not stuff these treasures into granddad's pocket, we could capture them with his camera.

Wearing her biggest, highest boots and a raincoat with hood, my little 25-month-old granddaughter wandered about the yard seeking treasures that might "make a picture." She would point and I would aim the camera. When she was happy with what she was seeing on the large monitor on the camera back, Isla would snap the picture. She shook with excitement every time she saw the image she wanted appear on the back of the camera. 

We stayed outside until both of us were dripping with water like the foliage and flowers we had been shooting. Oh, how I wish someone had been there to take a picture of us. I think, for me, that picture would have been a treasure.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Can food be art?

Can food be art?
A piece in the New York Times, widely quoted on the Internet, states unequivocally that beautifully prepared and presented food is not art. I beg to differ.

Taking my inspiration from R.G. Collingwood, I have no problem calling some food creations art. For a short summary of Collingwood's work in aesthetics please read the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It will quickly become apparent I play fast and loose with Collingwood's ideas.

For me, I make a quick and easy divide, placing art on one side and craft on the other. Art requires creativity and the results are often unique. Craft, on the other hand, demands skill and the resulting product is cranked out repeatedly.

Most people can appreciate craft (skill) and they like their art (creativity) mixed with craft as well. This is why Jackson Pollock just doesn't cut it with many people. His work may be creative but "a child could do it." Pollock's splatter approach to art, to these viewers, doesn't appear to require a finely honed skill.

The creation of a new food dish is, in the beginning, an act of craft driven by art or creativity. But once an artistic result is achieved, then craft, the skill of being able to duplicate the artistic work, quickly becomes the force pushing the entire endeavor forward. Great chefs are both artists and craftspeople. They develop unique dishes and then prepare them on demand.

I had this at the Blackfriars Bistro.
Take the cold, potato salad I make. The olive oil used is the result of both an art decision and a craft decision. My goal is to delight the sense of taste and I want to do it repeatedly. My personal favourite oil for this salad is one from Provence in the south of France. It has a very light flavour that doesn't mask the flavour of the potatoes. This oil is dependable when it comes to its flavour and thus the resulting potato salad is at once satisfying and yet holds no surprises -- at least, not for those who have enjoyed it before.

I often serve meals that are high quality when it comes to craft but are partial failures on the artistic side. Why? These dinners taste great but fail to impress the eye. A great dish ripples across one senses like a hand playing chords on a piano. A perfect dish delights the eyes, teases the nose and surprises and satisfies the taste buds. Restaurant chefs have perfected the skill of the presentation.

And with this post, I am now ready for my meeting with a lady from the art gallery here in London, Ontario. Apparently the gallery is about to mount a show featuring food and I have been invited to give some input. I believe I can now argue food can be art but, as is true with a lot of art, many people insist on a good smattering of skillful craft with their art.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Pluck must be partnered with a moral compass

According to Larry Cornies, Canadians have become "weak-kneed." We lack "political pluck." Cornies writes:

My, but what weak-kneed nation builders we’ve become.

Forget the formidable challenges that faced our forebears: stitching together a new federation from scattered and diverse colonies, or building a transcontinental railroad, or aspiring to be a nation that would one day stand upright, on its own, on the world stage.

Forget all that. These days, the prospect of merely reforming and renewing the upper chamber of our bicameral parliament is enough to make us cower like frightened turtles.

Cornies tells us, "the nation builders . . . seldom flinched when it came to difficult political negotiations or the job of building a better Canada . . . "

Wow! I thought flinching was in a politician's job description. When I started looking into our Canadian forebears, I found more flinching was the least of their crimes. Our forebears are no better than the folk in power today and possibly quite  a bit worse. I posted something on this -- No saints found despite newspaper's praise.

I learned Sir John A. Macdonald was a shakedown artist. A plucky shakedown artist but still a shakedown artist -- a crook. The following is from a page posted by the Canadian government.

In April 1873, the government of Sir John A. Macdonald was charged with accepting illicit funds from Sir Hugh Allan. In return for these payments, Allan was assured that he would be awarded the lucrative contract to construct the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. When evidence of the agreement was made public by Opposition members of Parliament and published in newspapers across Canada, the episode became known as the "Pacific Scandal."
A telegram from Macdonald to Allan's legal adviser read: "I must have another ten thousand; will be the last time of calling; do not fail me; answer today."

This is not to say Macdonald didn't achieve a lot of good. He did. After all he was one of the Fathers of Confederation. But he also did a lot that was bad. We should not forget this as Larry Cornies appears to have done.

But, when I think of important Canadian forebears, I don't think just of politicians but I also think of all those wielding power outside the political arena. For instance, I think of the chap Sir John A. was shaking down, a fellow by the name of Sir Hugh Allan. Hugh Allan is most certainly a Canadian forebear and a very determined one. Allan had pluck (spirit and resolve). Unfortunately, he didn't have a working moral compass. At the very least, he ignored it.

Richard J. Gwyn in his book, Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times 1867-1891, tells the following story: During a dinner at her home, Lady Macdonald asked Sir Hugh Allan for a donation for her church. "You can't take it with you," she told Allan. From the other side of the table her husband, Sir John A. Macdonald, quietly added, "It would soon melt if he did."

Curious as to who this fellow Allan was and why he enjoyed dinner at Macdonald's home, I began to read biographies on Allan. The words associated with Allan paint a sad picture: scandal, stock manipulation, haphazard bookkeeping, unwarranted dividends, debt, bribery . . . .  Allan called the rumours surrounding him "absurd" and "senseless." I suspect many, including Macdonald, would not agree.

Another term appearing again and again is "political patronage." Sir Hugh Allan controlled Canada's second largest bank. But Allan controlled more than the bank; Allan controlled influential people. For instance, the ex-finance minister John Rose was the bank’s London solicitor, in 1866 the future prime minister of Canada J. J. C. Abbott was kept on a $1,000 annual retainer as the bank’s Montreal lawyer and in 1883 both Sir Charles Tupper and Sir John A. Macdonald were special solicitors for the Winnipeg branch. Well known politicians pop up time and time again on the bank's employment rolls.

And the bank had another way to keep politicians on a tight leash: debt. For instance, Sir John A. Macdonald was probably the bank’s most prominent debtor.

Allan's corrupt ways spilled over to stain the manner in which employees were treated. A Royal Commission revealed the oppressive exploitation of workers by Allan. Many of the longshoremen employed by the Allan Line fleet of ships were compelled to work 30 to 35 hours at a stretch for the wretched wage of 20 cents an hour. Plus, the Allan Line, according to the Commission, retained one per cent of the workers' wages to provide the employees with insurance from Citizens’ Insurance Company. A company that had Sir Hugh Allan coincidentally at the helm.

The commission found that the longshoremen of the Allan Line paid a premium equivalent to an annual premium of $9.12 for protection lasting no more than ten hours a day during 365 days. Better coverage could be obtained elsewhere for $8.75, payable per quarter, and providing coverage for not only accidents happening during the ten hours of the work but all the accidents that could happen during the twenty-four hours of the day.

Sir Hugh Allan: a Canadian forebear. And sadly, he is but one embarrassment among many.

Some links to other Internet sites dealing with this topic:
Chartered Libertine? A Case Against Sir John Macdonald and Some AnswersA History of Canadian Wealth/Chapter XII
Charles Tupper and his "reputation for parliamentary blather"

Monday, June 15, 2015

No saints found despite newspaper's praise

An opinion piece in The London Free Press this Saturday told me, "When we lack the political pluck needed to reform the Senate, we're not keeping faith with our forebears." And yes, the word in the paper is 'forebear' and the newspaper is correct. Google 'forebearer' to read why.

According to the paper we have become quite the "weak-kneed" group since the nation-builders of 1867 successfully tackled the difficult job of creating Canada. Apparently, these leaders from the past were chaps who "seldom flinched" when facing tough problems. Be it building a nation or building a railroad, these chaps were up to the task, or so claimed The Free Press.

I believe the editorial writer would call me a cynic because such glowing praise immediately made me question the truth in all of this. Were our early politicians actually more akin to saints than sinners? If so, what happened? The quick answer is "Nothing happened." Our early political leaders were quite human. Sainthood eluded them.

I quote from A History of the Vote in Canada from Elections Canada and a discussion of corruption in the early years of our nation:

The figures on members who lost their seats because of fraud or corrupt electoral practices indicate the extent of the problem. Between 1867 and 1873, when petitions protesting the outcome of an election were presented to a committee of the House of Commons, just one of 45 contested elections was invalidated. 

When the courts began to look impartially at claims . . . the number of voided elections soared. Between 1874 and 1878, 49 of the 65 contested elections submitted to the courts were voided, forcing nearly one third of the members of the House of Commons to resign. 

The rigorous approach of the courts appeared to lower the incidence of fraud, at least temporarily. Between 1878 and 1887, some 25 members were unseated following contested elections. Corruption flared up again, however, between 1887 and 1896, with some 60 members losing their seats after court challenges. 

By the end of the century, the number of members convicted of election fraud or corrupt practices began to decline again – not because of any improvement in election practices, but because of the political parties' increasing use of "saw-offs" – friendly agreements to withdraw equal numbers of contested election petitions before appealing to the courts. 

Yes sir, these fellows would surely have solved the problems facing the Senate in Canada today. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

As for the building the railroad, the stain of corruption is found here as well. The following is from Library and Archives Canada: The Pacific Scandal.

Sir John A. Macdonald
In April 1873, the government of Sir John A. Macdonald was charged with accepting illicit funds from Sir Hugh Allan. In return for these payments, Allan was assured that he would be awarded the lucrative contract to construct the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. When evidence of the agreement was made public by Opposition members of Parliament and published in newspapers across Canada, the episode became known as the "Pacific Scandal."

Allan's correspondence revealed that he and his American partners had attempted to influence a range of public figures, including journalists and politicians. During the election campaign of 1872, large sums were contributed to individuals such as George-Étienne Cartier and Hector-Louis Langevin. A telegram from Macdonald to Allan's legal adviser, John J. C. Abbott, provided the scandal's most sensational evidence, as it read: "I must have another ten thousand; will be the last time of calling; do not fail me; answer today."

Macdonald employed a number of delay tactics in an attempt to avoid the political consequences of the scandal. However, there was no avoiding the public backlash and unrelenting attacks of the Opposition. The political cartoonist J. W. Bengough became popular for his illustrated commentaries on the Pacific Scandal.

A Royal Commission was appointed in August 1873 to examine the matter, and in November Macdonald's government finally resigned. A general election followed, and Macdonald managed to keep his seat in Parliament. For many individuals involved in the scandal, the long-term consequences were negligible. Macdonald's party returned to power in 1878 and Macdonald served as prime minister until his death in 1891, when he was succeeded by none other than John Abbott.

Ah yes, those were the days. I believe some of our disgraced Senators today would feel quite comfortable sitting among the distinguished members from days long gone.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Stretching our imagination and the Thames

An old French map shows the river now known as the Thames flowing above the Grand River.
In an earlier post I mentioned that at one time I wrote a weekly column, Celebrate the Thames, for the local paper, The London Free Press. (If you are thinking my writing doesn't seem good enough for a daily paper, you're right. I thank the excellent editors at the paper for cleaning up my prose for publication. Oh, how I wish I had those people helping me now.)

While writing that column, I would hear from local history keeners who had their own take on a local stories and were eager to get these stories, their stories, given a public airing. One story I heard repeatedly was that the Thames River, contrary to local folklore, was part of the reason that London did not become the capital of Upper Canada. The little river was simply not up to the task.

According to this interpretation of history, it was the myth of the Thames River and not the river itself that encouraged thoughts of London as the capital of Upper Canada. When reality hit, the truth doomed the dream and the growth of London was stalled for decades. This, of course, is not the version of history bandied about by city and river boosters today.

According the folk who contacted me, years before all the talk about a city at The Forks there were people in Europe who believed the Thames River, known then as La Trenchée (among other names), was a mighty river offering hundreds of miles of navigable waterway as it carved a path through thick, wooded wilderness. Maps at the time showed the river headwaters in the Halton Hills northwest of present day Toronto.

A quick search of the Internet found a map of Upper Canada done for John Graves Simcoe. Note the length of the Thames River and the placement of the Forks of the Thames on this map. The forks are shown many miles west of the true position. The river flows north of the Grand River, extending all the way to a spot a little northwest of Toronto.

Clearly, the Thames as depicted almost reaches a river flowing south into Lake Ontario. This map hints at the possibility the military could use the Thames River to travel safely from Lake St. Clair all the way to Lake Ontario after the completion of just a little river work and the addition of a short canal. (Click on the map to see an enlarged version.)

The Forks of the Thames are circled and are wrong - much too far east.

It is interesting to note that one can easily find backing for these revisionist arguments. Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe’s conviction that the capital of Upper Canada should be build at the Forks of the Thames River did not come to him as a revelation inspired by a visit to the site. No, Simcoe selected the Forks of the Thames as the ideal site before he left England.

Early in 1791, Simcoe wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society:

I mean to establish a capital in the very heart of the country, upon the River La Tranche, which is navigable for batteauxs for 150miles—and near to where the Grand River which falls into Erie, and others that communicate with Huron and Ontario, almost interlock.

A city built on such a long, navigable river would not be as open to an attack by the Americans as a city built right on the edge of one of the Great Lakes. It would be a city protected by location but not isolated by it. One not only had the Thames River to carry military craft but the nearby Grand River as well. To a military man, it was the perfect site except for one thing — it was perfectly wrong.

Simcoe did not visit the Forks until 1793. The position of the Forks was well east of where he had imagined. The location of the Forks and the small size of the river itself may have come as a surprise to the Englishman. Simcoe, who fought openly with Lord Dorchester on many matters, did not completely dropped his plans for a capital at the Forks but he did acquiesce quickly to Lord Dorchester and soon Toronto was the chosen capital.

With Back to the River calling the Forks of the Thames "the heart of London: past, present and future" and pressing hard for a river revitalization project, it may be a good time to fight for the true Thames River and not the mythological one.

As should now be clear, when "Sir John Graves Simcoe stood at the forks of the Thames and imagined it to be the site of the provincial capital," as local journalist and historian Larry Cornies recently wrote, Simcoe was not having a sudden, and quite unexpected, revelation. Simcoe sought out the Forks for confirmation of his already formed thoughts on where to best place the capital of Upper Canada.

The Thames River may be small but the river of public opinion against Simcoe's decision was huge and growing. In the year before Simcoe's historic visit and pronouncement, Kingston merchant Richard Cartwright called the idea "perfectly Utopian " in a letter to a friend. Cartwright appeared to mock the Thames River as a navigable waterway saying an "ingenious invention" was needed and suggesting, tongue-in-cheek, hot-air balloons might fill the bill.

It is a little early to know what direction the London Back to the River movement is heading but the early signs are not all promising. The plans seem more Disneyland than necessary. The talk is all fountains, splash pads, man-made beaches beside huge swimming pools, sweeping sidewalks and a constant flow of major riverside events. Pittsburgh has been mentioned as a model to follow.

City insists the broken Springbank Dam will be repaired.
Simcoe was out of touch with the river. When he formed his opinions he was still in England on the other side of the Atlantic. Are the Londoners pushing Back to the River also out of touch? One can only wait and see but there are signs folks in power still do not appreciate the true Thames, the little Thames, the natural Thames.

Think of the Springbank Dam that failed some years ago after undergoing expensive repairs and modifications. CTV London reported the dam plays no role in flood protection. Its only value is to keep water levels unnaturally high during the summer.

John Fleming, city planner
The dammed river, more accurately called a reservoir, is a crucial part of the city's new Downtown Master Plan. John Fleming, city planner, is quoted as saying, "That higher water level really is important."

Is it really important? According to the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, removing the dam is what is important to the river, if by important we mean beneficial. Read: Springbank Dam’s Benefits Far Outweighed by Damage to River’s Ecosystem by Barry Wells.

And how navigable is or was the river?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Back to the river, the small, pretty, little river

Glen Pearson, former member of parliament for London North Centre and co-director of the London Food Bank, is also on the board of the London Community Foundation, the group behind the Back to the River initiative.

Monday night I briefly sat beside Mr. Pearson at a Back to the River consultation session. At one point, Mr. Pearson informed us how 500 or more cities are actively engaged in river renewal projects. He made the point that people everywhere are rediscovering the rivers which flow through their cities. In the past, he has called this "a global movement."

I thought this was interesting, especially the number — 500. But, I wondered, what were the goals of these other cities? And were these goals similar to the goals being expressed at this consultation meeting? Was the thinking in London in sync with the thinking in those other cities or are we out-of-step with the rest of the world? I wanted to ask Mr. Pearson these questions and more but the opportunity never arose.

Mr. Pearson delved deeper into the actions of one specific city from his list of 500: Pittsburgh.  He said of all the cities on the long list, Londoners would be most familiar with Pittsburgh and what the former steel town has accomplished when it comes to rediscovering their river — actually, three rivers: Allegheny, Monogahela and Ohio.

I knew a little about what the American city had accomplished but I was no expert. Now, I was curious. I began reading about Pittsburgh. It had been a great American city in the early part of the last century. But, unlike many other cities from that period, it entered the present century changed but with some of its great city attributes intact.

At this point I direct you to Downtown Pittsburgh, Renaissance and Renewal by Edward K. Muller. This is an interesting read that details the historic battle to save downtown Pittsburgh and the fight to keep the downtown relevant in a changing world. I noted a surprising number of similarities between London and Pittsburgh. Clearly there are lessons to be learned but in some ways London has already closed doors that Pittsburgh opened and rushed through.

Benedum Center         Photo courtesy of Christian Carrasco.
For instance, in Pittsburgh the former Stanley Theatre was converted into the Benedum Center for Performing Arts. In London, the former Capitol Theatre auditorium was demolished for a parking lot. The city turned its back on not one but two fine, heritage movie houses. Today, the city is still longing for a new performing arts centre but does not seem to be even close to seeing this dream realized.

But let's cut to the chase: the river. Pittsburgh sits at the confluence of three mighty rivers, each of which dwarfs the London river. The Allegheny and Monogahela Rivers together drain an area eight and a half times that of the Thames River watershed. The Ohio River watershed is more than 80 times that of the Thames. Comparing the confluence of rivers where Pittsburgh sits to the Forks of the Thames is quite the stretch.

The Thames is not a mighty river. It is a small river. As one person at the consultation session pointed out, in the summer, during hot dry spells, the Thames River almost runs dry in certain spots. But the dearth of water at these times can be deceiving. I once lived quite close to The Forks of the Thames in a small, brick and stucco home built in the 1920s. Labatt Park was directly behind my home and behind the park was the river.

Ivey Family London Room, London (Ontario) Public Library
When I bought that home I looked at the river and thought "looks good for canoeing but probably best after a heavy rain." At the time, I didn't know about the recreational Springbank dam. I bought a canoe.

The following spring there were sandbags holding down the sewer maintenance covers in my neighbourhood. I linked some new words to the river, at least new for me: flood, fear and respect.

A neighbour brought me up to speed concerning the likelihood of being caught in a flood while living on the west side of the Thames River at the forks. A flood not only could happen, it would happen. The question was simply when.

I learned, floods had happened quite a number of times in the past. One of the worst, the flood of '37, left more than a thousand buildings sitting seven or eight feet deep in river water. Included among those flooded buildings was my home. I now understood why my main floor hardwood floors and downstairs plaster walls all showed signs of serious water damage.

There were five deaths in the watershed associated with the flood in '37 — an amazingly low death toll considering that a river surge, after a severe rain storm in 1883, took the lives of 17 Londoners.

Glen Pearson writes, "The allure of rivers — aesthetics, economic development, environmental sustainability, and recreation — is easy for us to grasp . . . " All true. What can be harder to grasp are the dangers urban rivers, even small ones, represent. Rivers are beautiful but unpredictable. Developing the land beside a river is always a temptation and often a mistake.

After the flood of '37, it was suggested that all homes built on the flood plain should be purchased and razed. It was argued this would cost less than building the multiple flood control dams demanded for flood protection. The idea failed to gain traction and the homes were not demolished.

Instead, some years later, Fanshawe Dam was built north of the city, plus dams were built at Wildwood near Stratford and Pittock at Woodstock. Another dam, the Glengowan Dam, was planned but never constructed. This is no big deal, as far as London is concerned, as it promised the city little in the way of additional flood protection.

Now, almost eight decades after the Great Flood, London city planners have rediscovered the river and are promoting the forks as a centrepiece of their newest designs for downtown. At one point, the city planners were showing a picture of South Bank beach in Brisbane, Australia. The planners were making noises about having a similar man-made beach created at The Forks of the Thames.

How has the man-made beach worked out for the Aussies? Well, in 2011 the Brisbane River overflowed its banks, lifted concrete slabs, washed away tons of beach sand and left the liner of the giant pool badly damaged. The tally was some $7 million Australian. The lesson here is if you are going to build on a flood plain, you had better have deep pockets and a short memory.

Point State Park fountain being repaired. Photo courtesy of Zack Weinberg.

And, I might add, Pittsburgh appears to have deep pockets, too. The incredible Point Park State fountain and surrounding plaza were extensively repaired, upgraded and finally reopened in 2013. Why? Repeated flood damage for one thing. Total cost of the restoration and rejuvenation project: $35 million U.S. It was the largest park project in Pennsylvania history.

But there is more to know about Pennsylvania and rivers than just the Pittsburgh Riverlife project. Early this year (2015) it was announced that for the 12th year in a row, more dams were removed in Pennsylvania than in any other state. Now, there is a fact that has real relevance to London which is under pressure to decommission and remove the city's damaged Springbank recreational dam.

Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, said in a press release about dam removals:

The river restoration movement in our country is stronger than ever. Communities nationwide are removing dams because they recognize that a healthy, free-flowing river is a tremendous asset.

Over the past 20 years the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has assisted in the removal of some 350 dams throughout the state and Pennsylvania is not alone in deciding rivers are best when  not dammed. As Mr. Pearson said quite accurately, it is "a global movement."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why can't Londoners get the name of the Thames River right?

Years ago I wrote a column for The London Free Press called Celebrate the Thames. I'm ashamed to admit but the newspaper was more than simply careless when it came to the name of the river being celebrated. The newspaper editors followed the newspaper's style guide and it was wrong and it was followed religiously. I wrote about the South Branch of the Thames when I knew there was no such river. It's the Thames River: period. There is no South Branch.

Don't believe me? Check the Geographical Names Board of Canada site. You will discover that the Thames River flows from its headwaters near Tavistock southwest through Innerkip where it turns southeast toward Woodstock and London.

Both maps reproduced above are screen grabs from the Geographical Names Board of Canada online site.

And to be exact, you might like to say pedantic, there is no North Branch of the Thames River either. It is simply the North Thames River.

You may well wonder, how did I become aware of this? Well, I wanted to do a column on finding the headwaters of the Thames River. The folk at the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority assured me the Thames River originated near Tavistock. The London river was not born in two places as suggested by use of the South Branch and North Branch labels use so carelessly by many, including, UTRCA itself and the Canadian Heritage Rivers folk.

If the river actually split into two branches, merging at The Forks of the Thames, then the Thames River proper would start in the downtown core of London, and that, as one can see by the map on the left, is the present mythology. And that is patently untrue.

Back in the days when London was in the running to be named the capital of Upper Canada, some believed the mythical Thames River of their dreams ran west almost as far as the Don River in Toronto.

These mad dreamers suggested a canal could be dug to link the two watersheds. According to this line of thought, the Thames River and the Don River together offered a short, safe route from Lake St. Clair to Lake Ontario via London. When this was shown to be completely ludicrous, it was just one more reason for not making London the capital. London was not sitting at the forks of a mighty river. The Thames River was not the Mississippi or even the Grand.

Why is all this interesting? Well London likes to profess a great love of the beautiful little river meandering through the city. Yet, it often seems that these folk love the mythical Thames River of years past more than the actual river of today.

The city planning department sees the river as central to their vision of  a renewed urban core. Gosh how they love the little river. Sadly, they don't love it enough to get the name right. Nor do they love it enough to consider abandoning the push to repair the Springbank Dam.

Given the choice between a healthy river and an almost stagnant reservoir at The Forks, the folk in charge at city hall choose a reservoir every time.The reservoir fits in with the myth better than the real, but little, river.

All around the globe the latest buzz word for river projects is restoration. Channels are being abandoned, dams are being demolished, rivers are being allowed to run free. The only restrictions are linked to flood prevention. But this is not happening in London despite all the grand talk about rethinking this and rethinking that.

As I write this I realize that I am being pedantic. The smallest, least meaningful mistake being made by the city when it comes to the river is getting the name of the river wrong. This naming error is simply par for this course.

There is a North Thames River and a Thames River but no mention of branches or a South Thames River.