Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘Canada’

Closing time

Leonard Cohen is dead. Not an untimely or tragic end. But an end.

I never felt like he knew the secret of life. Not even that he knew reasons for hope. But maybe that he was pointing out something head intuited about how to live without hope. (Now may be a good time to go back and read Camus…)

I’ve been listening to his music a lot in the past few weeks. It suited my mood and, I thought, the mood of the times. I first encountered the song Everybody Knows in the soundtrack of the 1990 film Pump up the Volume, and was so impressed by it that I followed the credits to find out who was responsible for the song. Leonard Cohen. Never heard of him.

In those pre-amazonian days it was not an easy matter to find an unknown recording. I went to several record stores before I found a greatest hits CD, which give me my first hearing of Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Who By Fire, and so many more. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. Whereas people argue about whether Bob Dylan’s songs are poetry, with Leonard Cohen it’s not entirely clear whether his songs are really songs. And it’s clear that he was never sure himself, and he always seemed somewhat abashed by the fact, but as long as people thought they were, and wanted to hear him sing them, he’d oblige them.

I eagerly went to share my discovery with a fellow graduate student and folk music enthusiast. I played Suzanne for him. From the first bars he said, “That’s Leonard Cohen. He’s Canadian.” My friend was Canadian. I had no idea that there was such a gap between US and Canadian pop culture experience. I’ve since learned that Cohen has been hugely famous all over Canada and Europe, particularly the UK, since the 1970s.

Leonard Cohen’s words and music have accompanied my life ever since. With my partner of many years we bonded, early on, over noticing that we were sharing a snack of tea and oranges. A few years ago I was amazed that he had started producing albums and performing again. Beautiful new songs — the lyrics all his, the melodies mostly his collaborators, something he’s been doing since the 1980s. An unflinching openhearted reckoning with life and death, with the 20th century in all its horror and beauty. Religion, psychology, and eroticism. Jewish and Buddhist and Christian. Texts like

Show me the place, help me move away this stone.
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone.
Show me the place where the word became a man.
Show me the place where the suffering began.

and

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen,
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their story
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring,
It was almost like the blues.

But I always come back to the Leonard Cohen lines I first heard:

Everybody knows the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows that he fight was fixed
The poor stay poor and the rich get rich
That’s how it goes.
Everybody knows.

Everybody knows the boat is leaking
Everybody knows the captain lied
Everybody’s got this sinking feeling
like their father or their dog just died.
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
and a long-stemmed rose.
Everybody knows.

The NY Times has posted a link to a 1995 profile that includes this quote

I’ve always found theology a certain kind of delightful titillation. Theology or religious speculation bears the same relationship to real experience as pornography does to lovemaking. They’re not entirely unconnected. I mean, you can get turned on. One of the reasons that they’re both powerful is that they ignore a lot of other material and they focus in on something very specific. In these days of overload, it’s very restful to know, at last, what you’re talking about.

And maybe just one more verse of Everybody Knows:

Everybody knows that you love me, baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows that you’ve been discreet
but there’s so many people you just had to meet
without your clothes.
Everybody knows.

And from Closing time:

It’s partner found and it’s partner lost
There’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops
It’s closing time…

I swear it happened just like this
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can’t say much has happened since
But closing time.

Politicians debate statisticians and philosophers

I should have known the writing was on the wall for my career in Canada when, at the first federal election debate in 2006, the Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe said

We don’t need inspectors. We don’t need statisticians. We need doctors and nurses.

The rest of academia kept their heads down, hoping the storm would blow over. But now, not even a decade later, just south of the border, presidential candidates have another academic discipline in their sights. In yesterday’s Republican presidential debate Marco Rubio said

Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

As is pointed out here, the first statement isn’t actually true. Whether it should be true is another question. We might say, a philosophical question; although, in a serious dispute over the issue between a philosopher and a welder, I would not be surprised if the latter came out the better for it.

First they came for the statisticians…

Baby, it’s cold outside

I was just reading an article in Die Zeit (not available online, for some reason) about a divorced mother in Bavaria who abruptly had custody of her six-year-old son removed, and given to her ex-husband and his new wife, on the basis of vague complaints that anonymous neighbours communicated to social services. They said the boy had injured himself playing outside with a lawnmower, though there is no evidence that such an injury ever occurred. She yells at him. The boy sits outside and waits for his father to pick him up, showing that he doesn’t like being there. But one detail — from the testimony of the new wife — stood out for me:

She doesn’t pay any attention to her son. She lets him play outside in the winter for hours when it’s minus 12 degrees Celsius.

If that were child neglect, you’d have to prosecute most of the parents in Canada. As I recall, when we lived in Kingston, my daughter’s kindergarten would have them playing outside during breaks unless the temperature went below -30°C.

Are you “cultural”?

A while back I remarked on a tic shared by politicians and political journalists, of designating certain people and their voting choices as “demographic”. Now the RCMP have disrupted a planned mass shooting at a Halifax mall.

wouldn’t characterize it as a terrorist event. I would classify it as a group of individuals that had some beliefs and were willing to carry out violent acts against citizens,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commanding Officer Brian Brennan said.

Now, you may be wondering, how do “violent acts against citizens” carried out by “individuals that had some beliefs” — I’m guessing he means to imply that the acts were supposed to be promoting those beliefs somehow — differ from what you or I would call “terrorism”?

He would not specify what those beliefs were, saying simply that “they were not culturally based.”

Got that? “Terrorists” carry out their violent acts in furtherance of beliefs that are “culturally based”. Wanton violence to promote non-culturally-based beliefs are lamentable, but not terrorism.

I wonder if he has any particular cultures in mind?

Leonard the Priest

I’m just listening to the newest Leonard Cohen album, Popular Problems. I’m fascinated by the idiosyncratic Jewish imagery that runs through his career, but increasing in recent years. For instance, in this new song “Almost Like the Blues”:

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen.
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their stories
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring.
It was almost like the blues.

One thing that immediately stood out for me was this (I think) entirely original poetic trick of using “the Gypsies and the Jews” to signify the Holocaust. It works, because what else do Gypsies and Jews have in common, but it’s also an intriguingly oblique way of referencing it. And that leads into what feels like an allusion to the function of Holocaust stories to arouse feelings of pathos and high seriousness, but fundamentally serving as a kind of perverse entertainment. (To get the full impact you need to hear the leer that creeps into his voice on “It was good”; a good example of how performed poetry can go beyond the written word. And given the limited range of Cohen’s voice, never very flexible even in his salad days, this really is performed poetry more than singing.)

Frege and sexual abuse

Slate’s Amanda Hess has written about the case of Retaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia girl who committed suicide last year, four years after being the victim of bullying over a photograph of her being sexually assaulted. She became famous across Canada after the police originally refused to prosecute those who assaulted her. The national, and then international, outcry, inspired some creativity among the reluctant police, who have now successfully prosecuted one of the perpetrators for child pornography.

The main point of the article was to comment on how

the judge in the case has barred Canadian journalists and everyday citizens from repeating the girl’s name in newspapers, on television, over the radio, and on social media. He cited a portion of Canadian criminal code that bans the publication of a child pornography victim’s name in connection to any legal proceeding connected to that alleged crime.

She quotes a Halifax reporter Ryan Van Horne on the perverse effect:

If you say the name “Rehtaeh” in Nova Scotia… you’ll be met with “instant recognition” of the case and all of the issues it represents. But when Van Horne asks locals, “You know that victim in that high-profile child pornography case?” he draws blanks. The famous circumstances surrounding Rehtaeh Parsons’ bullying and death don’t fit the traditional conception of a child pornography case, which makes linking the two difficult if reporters aren’t allowed to use her name and photograph.

This sounds like a horrible version of Frege’s Morning-Star/Evening-Star puzzle: News media (including social media) are allowed to talk about Retaeh Parsons (the famous child victim of sexual abuse and online harassment); and they are allowed to talk about the victim in that high-profile child pornography case. But they are barred from talking about Retaeh Parsons as the victim in that child pornography case. In Fregian terms, it’s as though we banned any reference to the “morning star”, but were still allowed to talk about the evening star.

Of course, there’s nothing terribly unusual here: Often important privacy concerns turn on concealing the identity of what appear to be two different individuals. It only seems so perverse here because the person whose privacy would implicitly be protected is 1) famous for her role in this case; and 2) deceased, which means that the only people whose privacy is being protected are the police officials who screwed up so badly in the first place.

The 25th state?

Canadians used to accuse Americans of plotting to make them the 51st state — indeed, if all of Canada were to be a single US state it would only be the second largest by population. (I remember an article a decade ago or so that suggested that they talk so much about it, it must be their secret desire.)

In the book Investing in Life, about life insurance in 19th century US, there is a reference to the caution of William Bard, first president of New York Life Insurance and Trust Company, in insuring lives lived in climates potentially less salubrious than that of New York City.

For example, while Bard believed the climate of Halifax, Nova Scotia to be “as favorable to life as that of any other state” and consequently appointed an agent there in 1833, he was much more cautious about risks in western New York or the midwestern states.

New frontiers in cost-benefit analysis

Headline in the online edition of the Toronto Star

Finding the ‘sweet spot’ on transit taxes: where benefit and cost match up.

I’m no expert on the subject, but I think that when the costs and benefits “match up”, you’ve gone too far…

More seriously, the article is based on weird analysis like this:

“It’s unfair to tax people for parking their cars when there is no real alternative (to driving),” he said.

That sounds superficially fair, but does it correspond to any principle that is more generally followed? How about: It’s unfair to tax people (i.e., charge them) for riding a bus when there is no real alternative. Or, it’s unfair to tax people for getting a passport when there is no real alternative. Why is it that services provided by the government ought to be free by default? Conversely, if “fairness” (defined as not charging people for necessities) is an important principle for the public sector, then why not for the private sector?

Impact à la canadienne

I’ve mocked the sometimes risible implications of the British obsession with tying academic research one-for-one with “impact” on industry or society. It’s not absurd to want to ask the question, I would argue, but expecting to be able to get answers about impact on the fine grain that is needed for steering funding decisions leads, I suggest, is a fool’s errand. There is also a (not very) hidden political agenda behind impact: Research that elucidates the origin of the Himalayas or the inner workings of modern religious movements, let us say, has no impact unless the BBC makes a documentary about it. Research that helps one bank increase its market share over another bank by better confusing its customers is rewarded for its impact, because definable (and potentially grateful) people have made money from it.

Nonetheless, the British establishment is not so crass as to suppose that helping to make money is the only possible utility of research. The UK research councils are at pains to point to the multiple “pathways to impact”, through changing public understanding, government policy, health benefits, education. For some purposes, even something as useless as influencing the progress of science can be counted as impact, though it fail to swell the bank account of even the smallest party donor.

To see the full unfolding of impact’s crassness potential, we need to look to Canada. John MacDougal, director of Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), announced his agency’s new focus on impact by saying,

Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.

No hedging there about social impact, contributing to public understanding, government policy, etc. Science minister Gary Goodyear  said that

We want business-driven, industry-relevant research and development.

This is not quite as outrageous as astronomer Phil Plait makes it seem, when he contends that “the Canadian government and the NRC have literally sold out science”. And he goes on to say that NRC “will only perform research that has ‘social or economic gain’.” An article quotes Goodyear saying

the government isn’t abandoning basic science, just shifting its focus to commercializing discoveries. “The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he said. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain.”

(more…)

Missing Canada

I was recently in Montreal for a conference, and briefly in Kingston and Toronto. Registering at the conference (actually, filling out a receipt when buying a Canadian Mathematical Society t-shirt) a secretary wanted basic address information. She looked at my conference name-badge, and asked, “Oxford… Is that in Ontario?” (To be fair, it was the France-Canada Mathematical Congress, so it was not unreasonable for her to assume that anyone apparently not French was probably Canadian, and the best guess for an English-sounding place-name is Ontario. In fact, there is an Oxford, Ontario, though it is actually a county — or, more precisely, a regional municipality — and does not, to my knowledge, have a university.) What followed, though, was typically Canadian. “No, UK.” “Oh, you came all the way from the UK? Welcome to Canada!” The greeting seemed touchingly enthusiastic and heartfelt. It was like someone saying, “So glad you could drop by. Sorry, the place is a mess, but make yourself at home.” It’s a sense I’ve often had in Canada, of an unpretentious pride in their humble home; it’s really not much, but we hope you’ll enjoy it. I really enjoyed the three Canada Day celebrations (July 1, naturally — British imperial order ensured that any important events would happen January 1 or July 1, and you’d be crazy trying to make anything happen in Canada in January) that I attended — in Vancouver, Kingston, and Ottawa. The tone was remarkably inclusive and I felt none of the crazy world-dominating fervor of US patriotism, or the weirdly forced exceptionalism of British national pride, expressing itself in such atavistic ideas as the recent government report on citizenship, which proposed encouraging school children to swear a formal loyalty oath to the Queen. (What is this monarchy thing about, anyway? I’ve never seen people more touchy than the British about someone putting on airs, or acting like he’s better than someone else; and yet, they’re content to let their country be formally ruled by someone whose qualification for the post is that her great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Elector of Hanover (or something like that). Of course, the Canadians also have Queen Elizabeth on their money and stamps, but they keep her at arm’s length through the Governor General.) It is perfectly possible to be proud of being Canadian, without hating other people for being something else. The US finds its existence threatened by the mere existence of people in the world who neither are nor aspire to be American, and in this struggle the UK sees its proper role to be the valet de bourreau.

Last fall I received a letter from our Toronto lawyer, informing me that our permanent residency application in Canada had been approved. It was not only the accompanying bill for $4000 that left me feeling slightly sad, but also the sense of a missed opportunity. Of course (!) I miss the Kingston winter, the bracing -20°C mornings, tramping through the snow, and skating with Chaya in the park, or the Market Square. (I noticed here a day care mentioning in its brochure that the children would go outside every day, unless the temperature were below 0°C. You’d never leave the building for months with that policy in Kingston!) I loved Chaya’s Waldorf school in Kingston, and am struggling to come to terms with the state church here. But there was something more fundamentally attractive about Canada and the idea of Canadianness. I have always cherished my status as an outsider to any group I may be suspected of belonging to, but I think I could have enjoyed getting to be a Canadian. What’s more, it seemed even vaguely possible, whereas regardless of good intentions, oaths sweared and formal conferral of citizenship it seems absurd to imagine becoming British. I don’t think there is any country more welcoming of foreigners than Canada. (Well-off and well-educated foreigners, to be sure, but then that is my experience.) Just compare the immigration authority home pages: Immigration and Citizenship Canada is full of smiling faces and links to promotional information like “Coming to Canada as an immigrant is an exciting opportunity” and “Canadians are proud to hold one of the most prized citizenships in the world. Every year about 150,000 people become new citizens of Canada.”  The grim UK Border Agency page, on the other hand, leads with the declaration “The UK Border Agency is responsible for securing the United Kingdom borders and controlling migration in the United Kingdom.” On this particular day (15 July) it prominently features the news flash that “Foreign nationals wishing to become British citizens will have to earn the right to stay, the Government announced today. The tough new approach will require all migrants to speak English and obey the law if they want to gain citizenship and stay permanently in Britain.” The presumption being, of course, that migrants are unlikely either to learn English or to obey the law. (This is followed by somewhat defensive sounding citations of public opinion polls which supposedly show the populace supporting this “tough” approach — or some tough approach, anyway.) The underlying legal regimes may be quite similar, but there’s no mistaking the difference in attitude, between the Canadian “Please consider joining us. I hope we can use your skills” and the British “We may desperately need your skills, so please come, but fuck you anyway.” (For specifics, see my comments on Polish nurses and maternity ward overcrowding here.)

canada-map UK map

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